Author: Tim Knight

Title: Soul Searching

Copyright: December 2002
Rating: PG-13/R (fight scenes, language, description of less than pleasant events)

Spoilers: 
Buffy: Season 2 until Phases.
Highlander: Season 5 until Season finale. Richie Ryan lives.
Xena: Nothing specific.

Keywords: Buffy/ Highlander/ Xena/ and a few I'm not giving away before you read them.

Summary: After an ass kicking and near loss makes them want to know more about the strange bond they share, the Soul Sisters end up finding out just why that nickname is so appropriate.

Legalese:
All characters except those noted below with their respective rights, properties, and copyrights are the property of the respective creators, authors, owners, producers and agencies. These characters are used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended or meant, and no money will be made from this story. This story may be copied in its entirety, and may be distributed as long as all copyright information remains.
The characters Shaw Hunter and Marion Pryce are mine. Anyone wishing to use them may contact me at doobytim@aol.com.
The characters Steven St. Wolf, Brian Jessup, and Randi Jessup, are the property of Steve Pantovich, as is the universe in which this story takes place. Steve can be contacted at steve711@concentric.net.
The character of Edwin Giles is the property of NorJC. He may be contacted at NorJC@aol.com.
The characters Robin Goodfellow and Liam Danahure are owned by Mike Weyer. Mike can be contacted at SWERJ321@msn.com.

Author's Notes: Something that came to mind and was enthusiastically endorsed by Steve, Jack, and Tenhawk.

I found information on the Goddess Scathach at the following link: http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/Celtic/deitiesr-s.html

Dedications:
To Steve, for letting me have fun in the Wandererverse.
To Jack, for editing this little tale and offering a suggestion or two regarding the shared history of the Soul Sisters.
To Tenhawk, aka Grand High Poobah-J (for Journeyverse), who offered his own suggestions, one or two of which I'm following here.
To Mike, who doesn't know he helped inspire this fic in a small way and led me to combine two story ideas into one tale.

Here are the changes from your regular shows:

Buffy:
1. Buffy is an Immortal in the Highlander style. Her Immortality was triggered by her drowning in Prophecy Girl. She continued Slaying but didn't find out she was an Immortal until February of 1998, shortly after the time the episode Phases takes place. Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered and Passions never take place.
2. Although this is the equivalent of one and a half seasons before the issue comes up, Joyce's tumor started forming in February of 1999. She was rushed to a hospital run by the Order of the Grail and drank from the Grail, curing her and extending her life span to three or four centuries.
3. Kendra and Jenny didn't die in the Wandererverse, as the series broke off two weeks after Phases. Jenny became engaged to Giles and the two live together. Kendra was critically injured facing a Sixth Circle demon but was brought back during surgery in Calling Out The Clan. After going through several weeks of physical therapy, she moved into Joyce's home and resumed her duties in November of 1998.
4. Faith was summoned a month later than in the Buffyverse. The Council's attempt to keep Faith (and her Watcher) from knowing the truth about Buffy and Kendra led to Faith's Watcher living a few months more, but she died in Atlanta. Faith was saved by members of Section Seven and after the fight, elected to move to Sunnydale to live in Joyce's home, renamed Slayer House by herself.
5. Although I've never heard it officially acknowledged or denied in the Buffyverse, in the Wandererverse Giles' father is alive. Also, father and son overcame their differences and have rebuilt their relationship.

Highlander:
1. Connor didn't go into the Sanctuary in 1990 after Rachel's death. He was convinced to go on by a probationary angel and his partner, an ex-cop from Oakland (which answers some questions readers have asked before…). He decided to deal with his grief rather than get locked into a recurring dream sequence. Because of this, he was there when Steve St. Wolf called him to help some little girls in Libya.
2. Highlanders 2 and 3 did NOT take place. Don't go any further.
3. The series breaks off at the fifth season finale. Richie is alive. Nuff said.
4. Connor is dating his student but they're not boinking each other at this point. Sorry Jack.
5. Duncan is still dating Amanda and is boinking her as usual.

Xena:
1. The series breaks off at an unknown point. Xena and Gabrielle were separated during a war against the Romans. Xena, thinking Gabrielle dead, accepted Ares' offer of Godhood. She became a Demigoddess and eventually fell in love with Tyr and left Earth to explore other worlds and planes. For those who don't already know, besides being the Norse God of War, Tyr is also the Forgotten Realms God of Justice. If it matters and explains part of where Xena went, I'll let you decide <G>.
2. Gabrielle did die, but turned out to be an Immortal. She was found by Red Sonja and became Sonja's student. Eventually, Gabrielle stopped being the Robin to another hero's Batman and became a leader in her own right. Gabrielle has resumed her role as the Queen of the Amazons, and is also known to be one of the Nine, carrying the Sword of Destiny known as Purity.


Soul Searching
(Or, How Many Lives Does It Take To Get To The True Essence Of A Soul Sister Bond?)

Willy's Alibi Room
Sunnydale, California
1 August 1999

Willy moaned and shook his head in disgust. The clock hadn't even struck eight and his night had already gone to Hell in a hand basket. The greasy bartender painted his smarmiest look on his face and reluctantly asked his new arrivals, "What can I do for you ladies?"

The two hot little numbers scooted up to the bar and gave him dark looks. The human one crossed her arms and leaned over the bar, giving Willy a glimpse of her cleavage and he sighed in spite of himself. Oh well, a guy had to grab all the perks he could whenever the opportunity presented itself, he mused.

"Want some info, Ratbert. You got anything for us?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said uneasily. He picked up a glass and started wiping it down, even though it was already clean. "What are you looking for info for? And it won't come free, whatever it is."

The black haired member of the duo reached up and pulled her shades down, the low lighting making the slightest of a red shine leak into her eyes. God he hated Seelie Court do-gooders. "I do believe we have an arrangement, William," she reminded him.

"Yeah, but still…" When both girls frowned, that was a bad thing. "Hey, if it's one of my customers, I gotta keep it low key, dammit! The locals still think you're bashing me for info, not…" He looked around but the bar was empty except for human customers and one Sszito demon, and those were deafer than Marlie Matlin. "Look. First you tell me what you want info on, and I'll give you what I can if it keeps you two from trashing my joint." A meaningful look at Hunter, who still gave him the creeps despite that whole Ares thing, led him to say, "Again."

To his surprise, Hunter nodded respectfully, like she cared. Maybe she did. But Pryce was the one who loved a good tussle and was ready, willing, and able to start throwing punches at the drop of a hat. Not that that was a bad thing; she had saved his ass a time or two on occasion.

"Okay, what are you looking for?" he asked, hoping to get the Danger Duo out before his regulars of the fangy persuasion showed up.

Hunter turned around and started scanning the crowd for danger while Pryce's green-brown eyes locked onto him. If it weren't for the fact she were a Slayer and a kid, he might have tried to come on to her. She was definitely a major league babe. But even he had some limits, and banging jailbait was at the top of his ‘not-to-do' list. "Six girls," Faith said, "found dead. Lost their heads, cut off at the neck. But not to cover up any hickie marks, if you catch my drift."

He'd heard about it. What he liked was, he knew he'd be spared any unwanted redecorating of his place. "I know what you're talking about. Rumors going around about it. Keeping some of my regulars away, ‘cause they're worried you and your teenybopper playmates are gonna take it out on them. So they've been looking into it and they're running scared. Anytime someone makes waves like this, it brings you here first."

Pryce seemed stunned by that, never mind that he felt the same way. His boys weren't known for their Boy Scout manners. But like he said, they didn't like it when someone rocked the boat and disrupted their lives. All some vamps and demons wanted was to make a quick buck, live the easy life, and drink a few brews.

"Look, I know you leave the quiet ones alone and have some of them helping you out. But when something like this goes on… it draws attention to the place. And they want it peaceful again. So they've been snoopin' and talkin' to me, sort of using me to remain anonymous."

When Pryce cocked an eyebrow, he rolled his eyes. "Hey, I'm not a pretty face, but I did graduate high school, Pryce. So let's just get on with it."

"Fine. Whaddya know, Willy?"

He looked around one more time, just to be sure. "Okay. Rumors going around that some demon got put on the outs with the Lower Downs," he started out, referring to the demony version of the Higher Ups. "He's keeping a low profile, least as far as demons think of low profile, to get something started up that'll give ‘em an edge. Got a name and for some reason, I never heard of this guy before now. He doesn't even have a rep among the demons I hang with."

"Hiding in plain sight or working behind the scenes?" Hunter asked without turning around.

She was too quick for her own good. "Behind the scenes from what I hear. Supposedly started some big to-do a long time ago, trying to make a splash again. Got a name and possible hangouts. Don't know why he's offing girls, but for once we all want this dick off the streets."

Hunter turned around and she and her partner gave him dirty looks. "Oh come on," he whined, hoping to avoid a punch or two. "Don't give me the lecture on language. Please don't! You're the big city girl and the young old fart. You two can outcuss anyone this side of a sailor at the docks."

"Nice to see someone remembers that," Pryce said with a chuckle. "Okay, Willy, standard deal. You deliver, you get paid. Tip turns out, you get paid double."

Willy nodded. He leaned in and gave them the info he had. He jumped when Hunter cursed in what he figured was her pointy-eared lingo. She spun around and jumped off the stool, striding toward the door.

He and Pryce shared a look before her face turned dark. "Pray this tip is good, Willy. Or we'll be back."

She got up and stormed off, tailing her pony-tailed friend. "Like you ever don't come back," he sighed. Still, he liked that the kids at least didn't trash the place all the time anymore--something to be said for that.

*****

Shaw ignored Faith's calls to stop. Her mind was whirling too much. <HE is here? NOW?!?> Old fears rose within her and she had to settle herself down. It was the only way Faith could catch up to her.

"Hunter, what the effin Hell is going on?!?" she asked, obviously worried about her reaction. "Redeye, you look like you've seen a frickin' ghost! And I don't mean in a good way!"

She looked at the Slayer who was her spiritual sister and pondered one of the few secrets she didn't share with Faith, something that no one but a select few had known.

So, to her sorrow, she had to lie to the one person she loved as much as Amy or Liam.

"I have heard of this demon, Faith. He is too dangerous to leave loose any longer." She shuddered. "He is responsible for more deaths than you can possibly imagine." <More than I can possibly imagine.>

"You know who he is? Then we can track him down and stop him. Let's call in the guys and kick his candy ass!" Faith said, clenching her fists in her eagerness to track this killer down.

"We cannot do that," she said, shaking her head. <Lady forgive me for what I am about to do.> She looked around, as if worried someone might overhear. She started walking, allowing Faith to stay at her side. "You have to remember, part of my religious education was a history of certain types of demons and devils. Some of which I know by name, like Errtu and Tanetal."

Faith's face became worried. "Is this guy like one of those pit fiends types you did the Ginsu act on in Japan?"

"No, this one is more subtle. Faith, this one operates like a Harper."

That got the point across to her friend. Having heard Shaw's stories about Harper missions and traipsed across half of Faerun with others a few months ago, the Chosen One knew what she was hinting at.

The pieces fell into place as quickly as they had for Shaw. "Oh Gawd. You're telling me he's trying to get our forever lovin' friends in trouble?"

<Killing the girls in the way used by Immortals, hoping to draw the authorities' attention to them.> Shaw nodded; it was clever and, however much she hated to admit it, worthy of a Harper or Machiavelli. "If we summon the whole team, he will just vanish and leave some kind of evidence that might implicate us or others. We need to strike quick, hard, and now."

"My kind of striking," she noted cheerfully.

Having some idea of the suspect's abilities, Shaw knew that she needed backup. Luckily for her, there was someone with just as much incentive to stop this evil monster as she. The Forestarm glanced at Faith. "Faith, I shall call the house and tell Ulric to send Sharillon. Go retrieve the weapons we are going to need from your car."

"Why are we using Shari?" Faith asked, confused.

<Oh Goddess…> "Because she can reach half the speed of sound if need be." Faith grinned; she liked going for speed trips, and that reason at least was entirely true and viable. She moved to get the weapons out of the car they'd borrowed from Joyce. Shaw made her call and told Ulric to send her elvensteed. After taking a quick glance, she made her second call. When the person answered, she tersely said, "Where are you?"

She sighed in relief. "I need your help. We have a name and location of the killer we have been tracking." She waited. She growled, "NO." Her voice became tight as she hissed, "Because we cannot let the others find out, that is why! We have to handle this ourselves, and I have already lied to Faith about it!" Guilt welled up in her heart for the admission and lie, but she knew that sometimes, she had to go against what she wanted. "Because if the truth comes out, things may begin to fall apart." She waited for the person to ask why. She gave the name of the killer and was answered with several seconds of silence.

"We need to do this, you know that." The person agreed and asked her where she was needed. Shaw gave the location and told her she and Faith were on her way. "Hurry. We have to end this here. We have to end this tonight."

Closing up her phone, Shaw absently reached down and fingered the hilt of her sword, Feasellityar. She thought about the sword's name, which meant "Spiritual Sister To The Cause." The cause she had devoted her life to. A cause that might be placed in some form of jeopardy if what she knew about this demon came out, especially from his mouth.

<Never,> she snarled. She heard Faith's approach and turned to her fellow Twin Tower of Tactlessness. "Are we ready?"

Hearing the sound of a fast approaching Lamborghini Diablo in the distance, Faith flashed Shaw her devil-may-care grin. "KATN, Sis."

"Kick ass," Shaw started, smiling in spite of the gravity of their situation.

"Take names," Faith finished.

*****

Abandoned Mansion
Sunnydale, California
1 August 1999

He checked himself again in the mirror. ## Yes, perfect. Not a single hair out of place. ##

The demon nodded its approval. His appearance for tonight mimicked the same one of the last few nights. Nondescript human male, not too attractive as mortals considered such things; dirty brown hair, cut short but not too stylish, five o'clock shadow, and medium brown eyes. And his clothes were typical; collared shirt, blue jeans, and an old, cheap leather jacket. Or that's what his skin looked like right now.

## Yes, John Q. Public, as these Americans would say, ## he chuckled.

Then again, John Q. Public would never take six heads in half that many days, would he? The shape-shifting demon walked over to the closet where he kept the things he couldn't reproduce on his own.

Throwing it open and once again smelling the faint traces of soulless vampire and Cenobite in it, the Infernal reached in and let his fingers walk through the sheathed blades like they were outfits on hangers.

Finally, he grunted in satisfaction and pulled out an old, standard longsword, 13th century issue. ## Yes, this will do nicely for tonight. ## The last three nights he'd been mixing the blade types to throw off any investigations, authority or Immortal wise.

## A few more nights, and the Immortals I was told are on the Hellmouth will hopefully be drawn out, looking for the one causing the disruption in their little lives. They cross each other's paths, and then things get interesting again. ##

"So," he mused while switching to English, running a finger along the sword's crossguard, "what kind of pretty girl should I introduce you to tonight?"

~Oh, that sword would never impress a woman,~ an alto voice called from the doorway, startling the demon and making him whirl around in a fright. His eyes widened at the slim, raven-haired girl standing at his bedroom door, eyeing him with barely suppressed rage. ~Take me for example. I prefer katanas, scimitars or, if you really wish to impress me, something in early Cormanthor.~

He couldn't believe this! How in the Nine Hells had a moon elf shown up on Earth?!? His shock and uncertainty vanished in an instant, replaced by cool, icy anger that he'd been discovered. He pulled the sword out and growled, "How did you come to be on this world, half-breed!" He tried to shake off the feeling that perhaps he'd met this creature before. There was something achingly familiar about her aura.

"That is a question you will just have to live without going answered," came the reply, an ice-cold hiss. "Suffice it to say, if you want to get out of this building alive, you are going to have to get by me, first."

Before he could reply, the half-elf started chanting and the demonic shape shifter could feel the building of divine spell energy. He also recognized the pattern. < Mielikkian? Who in the Abyss is this woman?!?>

He wasn't going to wait to find out or to allow her to complete her spell. With his luck, it'd be a banishment spell. He extended a hand and a bolt of mystical force shot out, striking the faltering woman and blasting her out of his way. He heard her land with a crash and with amazing swiftness, ran out of the bedroom to gain room to maneuver.

He started twirling his sword and saw the priestess trying to regain her senses. ## Good, ## he chuckled, ## you go ahead and take your time getting yourself together. I'll be finished in just a moment. Or that is, you will be. ##

He walked up and kicked her in the side, hearing ribs crack under the power of his frame. She rolled away, futilely trying to gain space to recover. Normally, he'd play with the food, but not tonight. She wasn't that powerful, but still, it didn't pay to take chances. He bent down, grabbed her by the throat with one arm, and lifted her up, slowly squeezing her airways shut.

"Before I slice you from gizzard to nether regions, little girl," he spat derisively, "or decide to keep you alive for a while as my private plaything, pray tell me just who do you think you are, strutting in here like some arrogant Earth woman and trying to kill me?"

Her voice cracking, the half-woman's eyes became sly. "I-in English…" she began, "I-I b-believe… t-the term is… decoy."

His eyes widened but the time it took him to process her answer was enough for agony to explode in his back as his spine was sliced with a sharp edge. He screamed and felt warm moisture on his back, the telltale sign of red-black blood spurting from his body.

He turned around but in the process, flung the priestess with all his might, not bothering to hide his demonic abilities. The look of horror on the new arrival's face was a rich reward for the wound she'd dealt him. Again, he felt a keen sense of déjà vu, as if he'd known this human in another lifetime.

"Ohhh, you're so going to pay for that, you SON OF A BITCH!" she screamed, her hands wringing around the French rapier she wielded.

It wasn't magical, but he could detect the hints of multiple blessings on it. Well, that would only hurt him so much. "Really. And just what makes you think you'll succeed where she failed?" he asked with a rich, mocking laugh. "A little American girl like you?"

Her eyes narrowed and he felt a sudden disruption of magical energies fall away from the American. <An obscuring spell?!?> Once the effect totally faded, he realized that he was in deep glibzrob. "Oh Satan no…" he moaned. He'd come here to start those idiot Immortals fighting. Not to face her.

Seeing his recognition, the beautiful (for a human) girl gave him a saucy smile followed by a pout. "What's the matter, Fuckyou? Don't got the stones to play with a Slayer?"

*****

The demon growled under his breath and Faith wondered if it was from her appearance or dissing his name. Tough shit. She had better things to do.

Like wasting this asshole.

Faith moved in and the demon brought his sword up and around. She fought down her first instinct to help out Redeye and focused on the job. Madison Twin Number 2 had given her the skinny on the dork's powers, so she was ready for just about anything.

He led with the sword but the Boston Bad Girl's eyes caught the spark of mystical energy leaping from his free hand. So instead of blocking his blow, Faith channeled Mary Lou Retton and vaulted over the lunging demon boy, somersaulting in midair and twisting halfway to land on her feet. She slashed out with the sword with a maneuver she'd perfected at Big Daddy G's expense.

She sliced across his tush and the sharp pain made the demon jerk his body straight. Faith didn't hesitate; she brought her Musketeer blade across neck-level with all her Slayer strength, enhanced by one of Hunter's spells.

This wasn't the first time they'd used this tactic. But it was the first time it had failed. The demon's neck shimmered and her blade clanged off his neck, which was now solid metal!

"No fair!" she shouted, backing up to drive the weapon through his heart. He didn't react except to turn around and start changing, his eyes glowing demon red.

"I'm going to rip you apart slowly, Slayer!" the killer shouted, swinging his blade around with no skill but enough power to transform her from Slayer Supreme into Slayerkebobs.

Faith used all the skills she had to try and break past his D, but again she'd been told right; thousands of years old and he was better than she was. The problem was, they both knew it. She started giving ground and trying to put space between them.

He didn't oblige, chasing her down and pounding at her defenses with his pigsticker. Faith was careful to keep her footing, remembering one of Shaw's tips; the feet kept you upright and let you maneuver. If you misstep, it leads to you letting your guard down. Which explained a whole lot when she studied the way Redeye, B, Cordy, and she walked; like predators.

Faith backed her way past an open window door, her sharp sense of smell picking up the scent of plants. "You keep flowers? You must really be in touch with your feminine side!" she asked innocently, trying to distract him with witty banter. <Hey, it always works for B and X-Man!>

"It helps drown out the smell of vampire and dust bunnies," he retorted back. "And in time, I won't even notice the smell of Slayer blood and body parts."

She grinned and suddenly changed tactics. She charged into him and brought his sword out wide. Demon Dork wasn't expecting that! She crashed into him and bounced off. He was sent sprawling on his ass while she managed to stay on her feet. He scrambled to recover, but he stopped and turned on his booty when they both heard Shaw's praying kick in.

Faith grinned devilishly until she laid eyes on her Sis. Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bugged out when she eyeballed Shaw holding her side and spitting up blood. <Oh Gawd no!> Her protests to the plan came back full force; her ideal idea had been to blow up the joint and make sure he was dead. But no, they had to do it her way.

Remembering that this prick had killed six girls her own age, Faith decided to let the plan play out. Shaw finished talking and her mojo kicked in. Demon boy screamed, throwing a hissy fit when his pretty flowers and bushes came alive and did the Triffid thing on him, tangling him up and making him try to break out instead of breaking her.

She wasn't happy when he started ripping the stuff apart, knowing from the look in Shaw's eyes that she couldn't cast another spell without really knocking herself for a loop. She started to move forward, intent on ending this.

Before Shaw could scream at her, probably to tell her to stay back, the reason became so obvious. A blast of chilly air and snow shot in through the doorway, pelting the jerk with enough ice to cover South Boston in six inches of the white stuff. And while Faith was all for White Christmases, one thing she didn't miss about the streets was below freezing temps.

She recognized the fingerprints too; it was Sabrina. Sure enough, the other Madison Twin stormed in, gliding several inches above the floor wearing the same pissed off look Shaw had in her eyes when Willy'd given them the name. <Uh, oh…> Faith thought, <this guy is in deep kimchee>.

Amy drew her sword and drove it into Frosty the Snow Demon's gut, making him squeal like a pig. She drove him back against the wall. Faith could see the despair in Amy's eyes once she had the chance to look at Shaw, who was barely standing.

"You son of a bitch…" Amy snarled before pulling her sword out, spilling demon guts all over the floor. She reared back and punched him in the gut, making him howl again.

Faith started to feel really Wiggy about this. Sabrina was acting like she knew this guy! And Shaw's act… She shook it off. She would've known if they had a history. She slowly walked up to Witchy and said, "Uh Sabrina, what's going on here? You two look like you want to hurt this guy real bad!"

Amy just kept staring at the demon, which wasn't acting like such a tough guy now. He was whimpering like a little baby. Her lip curled back as she snarled, "As much as I want to, as much as he deserves endless torment, we're going to end it here and now."

"Dammit, you two are really Wigging me!" she snapped, walking over to support Shaw. Shaw slumped over in her arms and Faith's temper broke. "Do it, then! Shaw's in a bad way here!"

"Get her to Sharillon and I'll be right out," AM told her.

"Be careful, he's tricky," Faith reminded her. "That's why we bumrushed him."

"Oh, believe me, I know how dangerous he is." She didn't explain how she knew, but Faith wasn't going to argue.

She hoisted Shaw up and got Elfie to cough up some blood for her troubles. "Oh Gawd. It's gonna be okay, Sis. We'll get you some help."

Horror filled her heart at the thought of losing her. <Oh Gawd… Oh Gawd…> "I'm not losing you," she whispered, tears starting to run down her face. "Not you too," she bawled. She picked Shaw up in her arms and hurried out, hoping they could get to Calendar Girl before Shaw croaked.

*****

Amy reared back and threw a right with all her Amazon strength, cracking Farku's jaw. She felt her eyes going black. She growled, "You picked the wrong town to kill people in, you son of a bitch!"

"W-why are you d-doing this?" he whimpered, feeling truly frightened. Amy resisted the temptation to enjoy his fear; that led in the so wrong direction. "I-I wasn't trying to attack the Slayer's army. I was…"

"I KNOW what you were trying to do!" Amy screamed. "I put it together, you bastard! You child-killing bastard!"

She raised her sword and used her powers to telekinetically force the demon, weakened by his wounds and Amy's ice storm spell, to his knees.

Again, he asked her with begging eyes, "Why? What is this for?"

Letting her anger die so she wouldn't risk treading the gray areas between justice and vengeance, she knew that this was necessary to protect her friends.

She brought her sword back for her swing, knowing that by killing Farku, she was protecting her loved ones. But still, she answered his question. He deserved that much at least.

"I'll tell you why, demon. This is for the six girls you killed trying to start this shit again. This is for my cousin who might be dying out there. And this…"

Her eyes narrowed and she couldn't help but give him one taunt that would haunt whatever passed for his soul for all eternity.

"And this is for the reason you came up with," she hinted mysteriously. The demon's eyes searched hers, totally clueless as to why she felt the need to kill him. She felt nothing but contempt for him for the lives he'd destroyed. "The reason you came up with asshole. Like you said back in the day…"

She paused and just before she swung, she mocked him with the very phrase he'd coined so long ago, as part of a plan that had killed hundreds, if not thousands, of good people.

"There can be only one."

She swung with all her might, cleaving Farku's neck in half and sending his head flying across the floor. She stepped back and wondered if that flash in his eyes, the final look he'd had as a living being, was one of realization of why he'd been tracked down and killed with extreme prejudice.

She decided she didn't care. The secret was safe, and so was the world. The Game was over and she, Shaw, and Faith had made sure it would not have a chance in Hades of ever starting again.

She slowly turned and walked out, chanting softly under her breath. She felt and heard a "whoosh" of flames burst into existence, engulfing the demon's body in a miniature inferno meant to destroy all evidence that he'd ever existed.

*****

Amy was just reaching the front door when a wail of anguish froze her in her tracks. A cold, heart-stopping dread washed over her as she could only feel like that cry heralded the shredding of someone's soul.

She raced outside and stopped at the sight before her. She began shaking and fell to her knees, unable to break her eyes away from the still body lying before her.

Faith wailed like a banshee, trying to speak but unable to bring forth the words. The Slayer hugged Shaw to her breasts, holding her like Amy imagined Faith had been found mourning Linda's body months earlier. Shaw's hands dangled limply, her pale face smeared around the lips with her own blood. It took only a second for Amy to guess what'd happened; in her part of the diversion, Shaw must have had a rib broken, which led to a punctured lung.

She fought the overbearing urge to join in Faith's grief for her beloved cousin. She felt her lower lip tremble but fought with every vestige of self-control. She lowered her eyes, praying she'd see what she needed to see.

The Witch Princess of the Amazon Nation slumped over in blessed relief and took Shaw's right hand, the one bearing her ring of regeneration, in her own. She began to cry now, but she shed tears of joy.

When Faith looked up and saw Amy's relieved expression, the Dark Slayer's face clouded over with increased grief and the beginnings of rage. "HOW CAN YOU LAUGH ABOUT THIS YOU JACKASS?!?" she screamed at the top of her lungs. "She's…"

Faith broke out in another wave of tears, burying her face in the crook of Shaw's neck. Amy then realized that she didn't understand.

"Faith? FAITH!" she snapped, trying to get through. She knew that the two shared something she couldn't understand, something as deep as Amy's and Shaw's feelings for each other. Not for the first time, she wondered just how it had happened. "Faith, she's wearing her ring."

Faith slowly glanced up at her, looking lost and uncomprehending. She continued to cry, but said, "W-what?"

Amy scooted closer to them and held Shaw's hand up. "She's wearing her ring. The one that brought her back once before?"

The slimmest glimmer of hope dawned in the Slayer's eyes. She didn't want to believe that Shaw was dead, she was afraid to believe that she'd never come back. "But… how do you know…"

"Believe me, it's happened. She'll be back when she heals enough," she said softly. She still got the biggest of Wiggins when she thought about last September. "But it'll speed things up if we get her to Jenny. Quicker she heals, quicker she's back with us."

*****

Faith's heart leaped for joy. Shaw wasn't dead! She wasn't… well, she was, but not for long. <Gawd, morbid much?>

She decided no, she wasn't morbid. She was too drained from the fight and the thought of going on without her sis. She started crying again, she couldn't help it. She held Shaw in her arms and hoped Sabrina knew she wasn't letting go of her.

<Yeah, you're cousins. I don't give a shit. She's my SISTER!>

Instead, Amy just leaned in close and hugged her, letting her hold Shaw and cry all over them both. She knew that Amy accepted how they felt and didn't have a problem with it. But she still couldn't shake that teeniest bit of doubt.

"Y-you're sure…" she asked, sobbing too hard to make herself heard better.

"I'm sure," she said back.

"Good. Then I have two reasons to kick her ass."

"WHAT?!?"

"Getting us into this cockamamie fight, and for not telling me this ring did the Lazarus bit on her!"

*****

VAN Ltd. Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
Late hours
1 August 1999

"Amy?"

The rich, older version of Faith's voice made her jump. She blinked and looked around, taking in her surroundings. <Great. If we'd been attacked, I'd be a really big help right now.> She looked down at her cup of coffee, steam curling up from the java and wafting up into her nose.

"Yeah, Mrs. Pryce?" she asked dully. She was still shaken over what had happened tonight, but she had other things on her mind right now.

Marion Pryce sat down across the small table from her, a cup of her own encased in her hands. She and Giles' dad hadn't been able to get here on time for Jenny's birthday "celebration" because of Council business, but they'd come for a short visit to make up for it and to check on the Slayers. <In her case, Faith especially.>

"You're frightened about what happened to Shaw, aren't you?" she asked. "Dear, Faith's the same. But I don't understand why you aren't reacting like she is."

"Well…" She hesitated before going on, taking a sip of the coffee. "It's not just that, even with that freaky ring bringing her back before. It was the demon, the deaths he's responsible for, and…" She shook herself, shaken by Faith's reaction after the fight. "Goddess, Mrs. Pryce, I can still hear Faith's screams…"

Faith's aunt and executrix reached out and placed a hand over Amy's, trying to relax her. "I understand, Amy. It's how she was with Linda. From what she's told me, Faith is a lot like Shaw in that she doesn't hold her heart back. And it's obvious that there's something between them."

Amy nodded. "Maybe that's it. I knew about this demon and what he was responsible for. I just can't stop thinking about how lucky we really were to stop him here and now." Her head came up, hair flinging back over her shoulder. "Faith was focusing on Shaw, I focused on getting the bad guy. But I was just as devastated until I saw her ring. But… I think part of it is how she's lost people before."

"That's definitely part of it," the older woman said, nodding thoughtfully. "That's why I spent so much time and effort looking for her when Linda died. I was so scared I'd lost both of them."

"I just don't understand this thing they share," Amy went on, getting to what was bugging her. "I know they've got this ‘Soul Sister' thing, but when I saw them lying there… I just realized that they're just as close to each other as Shaw and I are. But it's different and I wish I could figure it out."

"Well Amy," the other woman in the kitchenette said, breaking her silence, "speaking as someone who's been part of a soulmate bond in her time, I have an idea of what they share. Although I don't know how those two are connected, it's obvious to those who've experienced such a bond before. I saw it the first time they were together." Gabrielle sighed and gave her a warm smile. "I was more surprised that it took them so long to figure it out."

Amy thought about it and took another sip. "I guess part of it is that Shaw and I usually share everything. Maybe… maybe I'm just jealous and want to be part of what they have."

"There's nothing wrong with that, Amy," Gabrielle told her. "There are three regular types of soul bonds. Those that form instantly, those that form over time, like mine and Xena's, and those that go from one life to another. Like Connor and Duncan, based on what Xander told us last winter. But don't think you aren't just as important to Shaw as Faith is. Believe me, you are. Blood counts just as much as anything, sister."

Amy considered it and nodded. "I know, but everything happened so fast… it scared me to think of that demon being here."

"Why was that demon so important, Amy?" Marion asked her, truly concerned. "If he was that powerful, why didn't you call in the rest of the team?"

"Because he would've found a way to escape, like before," Gabrielle answered for her. Amy looked at her Queen, wondering if she had her suspicions. "Unlike some people, I've come across all kinds of demons before. I just wish you'd called me with the name, Amy. I would've taken him out myself."

Amy forced a wan smile at her. "And leave Faith out of the action? Right."

The three women shared a laugh and Marion stood up, stretching herself. "Well, I'm off to check on the girls and Edwin. I want to make sure he's certain that the girls are all right. That should be his priority right now."

"I'll check on them with you in a minute," Gabrielle told her with a smile. Marion formally set her cup in the sink after rinsing it out and left the room. Amy waited for the Immortal Amazon to turn back to her and start popping questions. She was surprised when Gabrielle gave her a smile. "I know about Farku, Amy. That bastard's been responsible for more twisted plots than Days of Our Lives. It's good to know one of my Amazons ended his crap, especially with the plan you think he was enacting."

"Then you're not mad we went in solo?" she asked, thinking it couldn't possibly be that easy.

"Of course not. Like I said, I knew about Farku." But Amy winced because the bomb was about to drop. "But you, Shaw, and Faith are going to be the ones to explain to Steve and Buffy why you let Shaw come up with a diversion that literally got her killed, explain to Giles how one of his Slayers went up against an opponent she couldn't possibly defeat without magical assistance, and explain to Joyce why her Cherokee Sport got towed."

"I'll let Faith handle that one," she giggled, unable to stop herself. When she looked at Gabrielle carefully, it was obvious that had been the Queen's intent. She felt herself beginning to calm down a bit. "Gabrielle, thanks. For letting us stay here."

"No problem. I know you three didn't want to have to answer a lot of questions about failing to call in backup." Gabrielle took her cup and set both of them in the sink. "But sometimes, Steve fails to remember that you kids have good instincts. You knew enough to realize that time was of the essence, Shaw knew his tactics based on her own career as a meddling kid in Faerun, and Faith was the perfect person to team up with you two. You did well, except for Shaw getting a flat lung."

"Don't bring that up!" Amy moaned.

She stood up stretched herself; she'd been sitting there for an hour and a half and four cups of coffee. She figured Shaw had to be back by now. "Can we check on them?" she asked, also worried about Faith's state of mind.

"Yes, let's go," Gabrielle said cheerfully. She walked Amy out, putting a hand around her shoulder, probably to make her feel more comfortable.

<Thanks, Queen G,> she thought gratefully.

*****

Gabrielle knocked on the door and heard the Earl of Leicester answer in a kind voice. She walked in and held the door open for Amy, who gingerly tiptoed in, worry plain on her face.

Her Princess swallowed but she needn't have worried, if the scene before her was any indication of how things were going.

Edwin was finishing packing up some first aid supplies, while Marion was standing out of the way, fighting a breakout of laughter. Gabrielle was tempted to join her.

The reason was that Faith, Little Miss Hard Ass Herself, was fidgeting and working with Shaw's covers, doing a perfect impression of a mother hen fussing over her chick. Shaw was trying to get a word in edgewise that she was going to be fine (although Gabrielle could tell she still was a little weak from the injury and healing magic needed to take care of it).

Finally, Faith got fed up with Shaw's antics and spelled it out as she saw it. "Look, Hunter! You up and died on me tonight! If you think I'm going to just let you out of my sight then you're nutzoid!" She paused and folded her arms over her chest. "Then again, if you weren't nutzoid you wouldn't have pulled this hair-brained scheme of yours! Goddamnit, Hunter, I thought I'd lost you tonight!"

Her anger started to fade and she was about to start blubbering again when Marion, finally taking pity on both girls, walked over and took over the "duties" of tucking Shaw in, which was hilarious in itself, given her age.

Shaw sighed, giving Gabrielle the impression that this wasn't the first time she'd tried to calm Faith down. "Faith," she said, taking a deep breath as if getting used to having two good lungs again, "I am going to be all right. As much as you seem to insist, I do not rely on my ring to, as you said, ‘resurrect my pointy-eared carcass' every time I go into battle. I…" She shook her head. "I underestimated his powers. I should have anticipated that his powers might have grown since the last recorded passages about him."

"Well, nooooooo shit, Sherlooooooooock," Faith said testily.

"Faith, honey," Marion said, arranging Shaw's covers into as best a position as she could given the half-elf sitting up at the moment, "Gabrielle herself said that you children did the right thing. And you know as well as anyone that there's always a risk in doing what you do. And as for Shaw, she knows about her own mortality. She might not fear death, but she certainly does not go out of her way to find it. You should not be acting as if she does."

Faith looked suitably contrite but Marion arched an eyebrow and turned to their not-so-patient patient. "And for someone who resents coddling and mother henning, young lady, I seem to recall you doing the very same thing back in May. I think it involved a less than gentlemanly person named Solomon?"

Now Gabrielle did let herself laugh; the image of Shaw playing Mommy to Faith, bathing her and tending her wounds with such fright over her condition, did give Marion a point.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," she said impishly, not fearing the dark looks both girls gave her. "Don't look at me like that. I've been around… what, twelve times you lot put together? I've seen it before. You were worried about losing each other and your reactions were normal. They were also right. You two are so ‘tight' that it hurts. I was just telling Amy the same thing."

The girls looked at each other and Gabrielle realized something then and there; they'd been questioning that bond as well. Not in the sense of questioning the strength of it, but its origins. <Although sometimes some things are best left unsaid, this isn't one of them.>

"Girls, is everything all right?" she asked, having a suspicion about this.

"Well…" Faith began, blushing a bit. She brushed some of her dark hair out of her eyes. "I told the Pointy Eared Kamikaze here that if we weren't so tight, I'd be pretty tempted to kill her all over again for pulling this stunt."

Amy broke out in laughter and Gabrielle joined her. "Yeah," the witch wheezed after a good forty seconds of laughter at their expense, "they're going to be fine."

Gabrielle noted that unlike her, the Twin Towers of Tactlessness didn't glare at Amy so much. She gripped Amy's shoulder and said, "Amy, do you want to stay here tonight? Keep an eye on these two and make sure they don't kill each other?"

*****

Amy looked at her friends and considered making a smart remark, but some residual fears over Shaw's injuries and Faith's reaction to them made her hesitate. She looked them over and saw that they were both still a bit uptight. <Faith from Shaw being dead and Shaw worrying about Faith's reaction,> she thought. She decided that maybe it'd be good for her to stay the night at the offices, but she needed to call some people.

"Is it all right if I call Robin?" she asked, drawing a sly look from Gabrielle. Amy moaned in exasperation. "I need to tell him I'm all right! I was supposed to meet him. I just want to tell him what happened." <And Shaw knows why.> When Shaw nodded in support of her request, she decided she could get a shot in at Shaw. "And I'll call Liam too. Let him know what Ladyhawke here pulled."

She got the reaction she'd hoped for; she turned bluer in the face and Faith smirked at her. "So much for peace and quiet, Sis."

"I'll set up in Room 8, okay Gabrielle?" The head of VAN nodded; all the Princesses had separate rooms there for "Board Meetings," and she was no exception. Of course, the healthy salary the job paid gave her some peace of mind regarding her family if anything should happen to her (even if she couldn't touch the money herself until she was 21). "I'll talk to Robin and be back in a while. I think he'll be too busy whining about not getting in on the fun of taking out Farku."

"Knowing him," Gabrielle noted with an arched eyebrow, "he'll find a way to make it up on you."

Amy sighed. She'd forgotten that. "No kidding."

*****

As Amy left the room, Faith chewed on her getting a shot in on Shaw. She was still pretty freaked out by the fight, but more so by her reaction. It was even worse than what she'd felt when her Mom had died years ago.

She looked at Shaw, who seemed okay but she wasn't fooling her. She knew Shaw was all tuckered out from the healing and other mojo she'd done tonight. She sat on the edge of the bed and put a hand on Shaw's shoulder. "You sure you're okay, Shaw?"

This time, Shaw didn't sigh, roll her eyes, or look upward for holy type help. She just looked at her and carefully said, "My spells took care of the worst of the damage. I still have some of the shock to my system, so I am willing to spend the night, once Ulric is contacted."

"Already done, dearie," Marion said warmly. "The good Father knows that you were injured, but not the… dreary details."

"Thank you!" Redeye said too quickly. She looked down and gripped the sheets nervously. "I was not looking forward to giving him the particulars."

"Like I wanted to see them," she dryly added. She looked at Aunt Marion and G-Senior. "Sorry for the ruckus tonight. But we…" She couldn't bring herself to say it.

Auntie moved around the bed and hugged her close. Once again, she felt like it was Linda, making her feel safe. "It's okay, Faith," she whispered. "It's over and you're both safe."

She wondered if Auntie M was giving Soul Sis "the look" for scaring her. She can be overprotective at times. She sighed and backed up. "I'm okay, Marion. I just… Gawd, I was scared."

"Now you know how Miss Hunter felt a few months ago," Lord G-Man said. She looked at him and saw his green eyes glittering with humor. "Although personally, I would think you would now appreciate more the depths of her feelings for you, now that you see what she went through after your battle with Grundy."

"Yeah, yeah…" she grumbled, but she couldn't argue the point. <Was this what I put her through in April, too? Was this how she felt about me wasting those pricks?>

Gabs joined the conversation by agreeing with the old folks. "Marion and Edwin have a point, girls. You two have been so close since what happened in April, that it's natural for you to react even more extremely than is normal when one of you has a near death experience." She looked back at the door and idly noted, "And you two aren't the only ones who've been wondering about the bond you share. Amy wishes she could be a part of it."

"I just wish we could find out how it happened," Faith said, looking at Shaw. They'd talked about it more than once. For some reason, they didn't think having the bond was enough. They wanted to know why they had it. <Like Redeye said, if someone made us this way, we'd want to give him or her the kudos for letting us have each other.>

"Actually, there is a way, and it's really quite simple," Old Giles said with a twinkle in his eyes. For some reason, that didn't make her feel better.

"Are you thinking about what I think you're thinking about?" Queenie asked him. "Past life regression?"

Faith blinked. She'd heard about those Shirley MacLaine things but she'd never taken them seriously. <Heck, vampires, demons, and aliens were enough.> Then again, for someone who'd done a road trip on a Dungeons and Dragons world, Shirley MacLaine wasn't so out there.

"And just how would they go about the regression?"

"Great, jump on the bandwagon, Auntie!" Faith groaned.

Marion gave her a sweet smile that didn't fool her for a second. "Now dear, the looks on both your faces suggests that you've been asking yourselves the same thing. You want this, why are you so hesitant?"

"Perhaps because we are afraid of what me might learn," Shaw said, having been way too quiet so far. "As you know, we both have our less than pleasant sides."

"Who doesn't?" Gabbie countered. Well, so much for that argument. She moved up and looked them both over. "Faith, Shaw, the connection you two have is so obvious, and so personal, it's only natural that you'd want to find out how it came about. And being someone who's been around for twenty-five centuries, I think I can say that past lives are the most common way these things happen. They say families tend to reincarnate together. So maybe this is what happened with you. Maybe Faith was related to Amy in a past life. But it's up to you."

"And it would be truly simple, girls. A little hypnosis and you'd be going back in time."

"You can't be serious," she said uncertainly. Hey, doing the meditation bit was one thing. Letting someone put her under, uh uh. "You wanna put us under. If that's so easy, why didn't your kid ever do that?"

"Poor Rupert never could get the hang of it," Eddie said with a British-type dignified chuckle. "I could talk someone to sleep with my voice in under a minute, but Rupert… he always needed a focus or some other aid."

"You could talk people to sleep? That from hypno-stuff or being boring?" Faith couldn't help but tease. <Hey, he's dating Auntie M, I gotta watch out for her.>

"Oh believe me, he's anything but boring," Auntie said with a smile that made Faith gag.

"Okay, now that's too much info, even for me!" she protested. She pointed at the oldest fart and snapped, "And don't you ask for details either, Gabs!"

She just got an innocent, "Who, moi?" look from the Queen of the Sisterhood.

"Faith… I think this might be a good idea," Shaw said from her bed. Faith looked at her and saw some more bluey type color had come back to Ol' Paleface. "We have been talking about this. With the things that we have shared since April… I would like to know how this special bond we share came about. I… I want to know who might deserve our gratitude."

Faith knew part of what she was gabbing about and didn't want that to come out, since it had really settled some issues for Soul Sis. "Well, me too, but…" She stopped and racked her brain. It wasn't that she didn't think about it. It was getting put under. <Well, at least G-Senior knows how to do it, or so he says. Guess I should be happy it's not Alfred trying to find out my tawdry little secrets. Ha ha.>

"It seems to me you're halfway convinced already," Gabrielle said with a shit-eating grin Faith didn't like.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Gabs. Not all of us get to live one life." She gritted her teeth and looked at Shaw. She so wasn't going to do this alone. Shaw seemed like she was game. <Of course, she does this praying meditation thing every day, doesn't she? It's easy for her.> "You promise not to tell anyone?"

"Why?" Marion asked, looking lost. "You don't think they'd like to know about this?"

"Hey, knowing them, I'd never hear the end of it."

Hunter groaned. "She has a very good point."

*****

"Now Faith, it's not going to be anything like you've seen in those dreadful Hollywood recreations," Edwin assured her. Faith was lying on the bed that Shaw'd been in until a few minutes before.

The Dark Slayer glanced at Shaw, who was standing off to the side and still wearing only her tank top and sweat pants. Faith wondered how she could only wear that in front of G-Man's Dad and her Auntie. <She doesn't even care about showing them… okay, new topic.>

"So just how does this go down, Boss Guy?" she asked. <Can't wait to hear this one.>

"I'll put you into a hypnotic state and have you go into your subconscious. You'll go back to your past life or lives and tell us who you are, where you live, and if we're lucky, the timeframe you lived in."

"This Is Your Life," she said. It made sense and sounded too easy to be true.

"You'll be fine," Marion told her, sitting closest to her. <Easy for her to say.> "Now relax dear. Let Edwin do his part and maybe we can find the reason for your bond."

Letting out a deep breath, the Slayer laid back and shot her eyes over to Shaw, whose light green eyes showed she did have some concerns about this. <Worried about me or what we might find out. Who cares? I wanna know more about us.> She closed her eyes and said, "Okay, let's get this over with."

Edwin started talking and she focused on that Upper Crust voice of his, hoping that this wouldn't be hard. She didn't feel any different at first and figured that maybe she was trying too hard. She let herself relax and began losing all track of time. Finally, she felt something happen.

*****

Edwin sighed and sat back in the chair, staring at the young girl in front of him.

"Edwin, is everything all right?" Marion asked him.

He looked at her and the other women in the room, especially the tense young woman who'd been lying comatose in the bed not two hours before. "It's quite all right. It's just that our dear Faith is somewhat harder to put under than someone her age would normally be."

Shaw relaxed a bit and Edwin considered that she was more worried about Faith than her own turn coming up. <Then again, she grew up and lived with the mystical. She lives and breathes it.>

"She's fine, Shaw. But I'll ask you and Marion if you want to proceed. I won't do anything unless you're certain."

Shaw deferred to his sweet Marion, who smiled back at her with compassion. Those two were so close and yet from such different circumstances… "Marion?"

"Go ahead, Edwin. I think they both want this."

"All right, then." He leaned forward and started giving commands. Unlike most past life regressions, which started at the previous life and moved back, the things the girls wanted to learn necessitated starting at the beginning. "Faith, I want you to go back to your first life. The first time you ever existed as a living, breathing woman. Tell me who you are, where you are, and what's going on around you. Tell me when you are, so we can know as much as possible."

He'd already given the dear girl the post-hypnotic suggestion that she speak in English, so that they could all understand what came out. The last thing he wanted was Miss Hunter getting a case of the nerves because her sister started speaking in tongues.

Faith started talking and suddenly there was nothing more important to everyone present.

*****

Northern England
What is part of modern day Scotland
27 September 170 AD

Kerri silently scanned the area, guarding her younger sister. The Kaaveti warrior, sensing that they were alone, turned to gaze at her sibling.

Edana had hair the color of fire, tied tightly in a braid that fell past her rump. She was lithe in the way that wolves were, ready to spring upon their prey at a moment's notice. While Kerri loved her sister more than anything else on this Earth, she still sometimes wondered why she'd chosen to take that route.

Throwing one of her multiple deep brown braids back over her shoulder, Kerri hefted her axe and impatiently waited for the shamaness to finish beseeching She Who Strikes Fear. It was better than another common name for Scathach; the Dark Goddess.

<But then, how can a Goddess whose purview includes healing, magic, and prophecy be ‘dark?'> she wondered. She didn't do well considering mystical matters. Although she paid homage to the Goddess of Martial Arts, she just didn't have that kind of connection as Edana, the Tiny Flame, did.

The girl, who at twenty-two was three years Kerri's junior, stopped praying and staring off into space, looking toward the region the Celts named Albion. She turned around and a slightly troubled look crossed her face before she became calm and serene.

"Well, sister?" Kerri asked, fingers clutching around her axe. She hated that look sometimes. It made her certain that Edana was hiding something from her. "What did She say?"

Her beloved family, the only one she had left thanks to the invaders, sent a final glance toward the Goddess' earthly domain. She faced her and said, "I am not sure what to make of it, save that the Dark Goddess has said that one of us shall find the beginnings of a new role in life, very soon."

Kerri didn't know what to make of that. She sighed and sent her own glance toward the islands she couldn't see from here. "What good is it being an all-knowing priestess if you cannot unravel the Goddess' riddles?"

A frown of impatience was just what she wanted. Say what you would about serenity, there were times Edana let the impulsive tendencies of youth show through that serene mask of hers.

The flame-haired member of the family reached down and picked up her mace. "We find battle in two days, Dark Lady," she said evenly, using the meaning of Kerri's name to emphasize how close it was to the Goddess' titles. "The Romans are coming."

Conflicting emotions filled Kerri's heart; the thrill of impending battle with the dread that she would lose more friends or family today. But such was the risk warriors lived with, day-by-day. "Then we will repulse them as we have these four months. Will you have your magic ready, sister?"

"What there is of it," she said, feeling less confident in her ability to repel the Romans with spells than steel and stone. Usually, her spells were limited to the spheres of healing, divinations, and fighting magic. The mighty castings of wizards were simply beyond her. "I do not have energy to waste, sister. I must make do with what I have."

"Very well. Shall we inform the elders that the Romans do not learn from bitter experience?"

She nodded and the two fur-clad warriors sprinted off into the woods, leaping and running like they'd been born to it.

*****

29 September 170 AD

Kerri stood guard over her troops, awaiting the arrival of two important messengers. She checked her weapons one last time to make sure she was properly prepared for combat. Her bow sat at her side, ready to be used at a moment's notice. Her axe was on her back, the weight reassuring to her. The short sword at her side, purloined from a centurion who no longer needed it, added a weapon and bespoke of her prowess as a warrior. It was more than a trophy; it was a status symbol.

She heard an animal call that wasn't perfect. Her fellow warriors, ten Kaaveti, tensed in response. She gave the return call and picked up her bow. Eckaria came into view, holding her hands up in a gesture meant to avoid being Kerri's target.

Kerri gratefully dropped her bow. "Well?"

The older hunter shook her head, a harbinger of bad news. "They are coming, as the child reported. But there are more than we have gone to battle with before. I think they intend to wipe us out, Kerri."

Her breath caught for a second. Somehow, she knew in her soul what her answer was going to be, but she had to voice the question anyway. "Who leads them?"

Eckaria's face fell. "Their leader is seeing to this battle personally."

This was the news she dreaded. Kerri's mind furiously tried to think of a way to avoid what would surely be the massacre of her tribe. She felt her heart breaking in the knowledge that he was coming. She thought about a way to keep her people free but could not think of anything that would not bring the Kaaveti into conflict with the other Celtic tribes or to extinction at the hands of the Romans.

Somehow, she didn't think they would accept their surrender. <Truth be told, we would not give it. We are Celts, not Roman lackeys.> She held out one ray of hope, that Edana would find allies in the other tribes. The other sister had said the Shadowy One had given her the location of possible allies. She wished Edana had not said "allies," but "saviors."

"By the Gods, I do not see a way out of this," she murmured, hoping that someone might offer a strategy to keep her people alive. She considered the possibility of a delaying action, allowing the elders, mothers, and children to flee the coming invaders. She shook her head in despair; sacrificing themselves would leave the tribe undefended. "Eckaria," she ordered, trying to buy time to think of a plan, "how long before they arrive?"

"Four, perhaps five hours," the scout reported promptly.

"Edana," she whispered in fear for her sister and her people, "where in Scathach's name are you and your allies?"

"We are here, child of the Kaaveti," a melodic, male voice sounded.

As one, Kerri and her detachment of warriors turned, drawing their close quarters weapons. She froze when they saw the warriors standing there, flanking her sister. The seven too beautiful beings, five males and two females, wore gleaming metal armor and had long blades belted at their sides. The gleaming yellow hair, almond-shaped eyes, and pointed ears betrayed their heritage and formed a single word in Kerri's mind.

"Sidhe," she whispered dryly. She simply couldn't believe it. Gathering herself and waving her fellows to put their weapons down, she felt a sigh of relief form. "Greetings, children of Danu."

"Greetings," the apparent leader said, eyes glittering with caution at the knowledge of the approaching Romans. "Your sister has asked for our aid against the Romans." Kerri glanced at Edana, who nodded once, still wearing that even look of hers. Any hopes she had of them using their Fey magic against the Romans was dashed when the Sidhe read her thoughts and shook his head. "We cannot fight so many, especially when they are armed with Death Metal."

The final feeling of despair started to form and in her feelings, she turned on her sister. "Then why did you go to them?!?" she demanded.

Edana walked over and picked up the steel-headed mace she'd left behind. Kerri belatedly understood why with the appearance of the elven folk. She faced her fellows and said, "I did not ask them to wage war for us. I asked them to do what we cannot."

"The Romans' approach leaves us little time for riddles, Edana!" Kerri snapped, frustration making her fearful.

One of the female Sidhe stepped forward. "There is no riddle, daughter of the Celts. Your sister asked us to do what you cannot; guard your people while you fight to prevent their slaughter."

The hints dropped despite not being spoken hit her and the others, save Edana, like Roman arrows. She'd just been handed the salvation of the Kaaveti, but at what cost?!?

It was Edana who spoke up next, sounding for all the world more like an elfwoman than a proper Celt. "They will not go to the Otherworld, my sister. They will go somewhere even the Dark Sidhe would dare not tread."

That didn't reassure her any. "Where is that?" she asked suspiciously. It was well known that if one spent too long Underhill, one could never return without dying instantly. "Where is this haven for our people?"

In response, the female who'd spoken stared at her and her catlike eyes shifted from the color of vibrant leaves to the yellow color one often found in snakes. The thought of reptiles brought her to the proper conclusion and she had to fight to keep from falling to her knees.

This Sidhe was nothing of the sort.

"I will guide your people to a safe place, where the Kaaveti will live on, even if not in the mortal realms. More importantly, they will be free, Kerri du Kaaveti. Reading your thoughts, we know this is what matters to you and your sister. So we shall guarantee their freedom and lives, but we cannot do it alone."

Kerri, feeling hope again and feeling pride in the trust that the Others were putting in her and her warriors, let tears fall down her face. She turned to Eckaria, who was similarly crying. "Eckaria, spread the word. Tell the warriors what we must do. And take heart, my friends; we may die this day, but in time we shall return to this world, in new lives to be shared with our loved ones."

As the hunter ran off into the woods, Kerri sought out her sister's face. She knew now, or so she thought, what her Tiny Flame had meant by destiny. <It is our destiny to ensure the survival of our people.> And she also knew that, as she and her fellow warriors would freely give their lives for such a glorious cause, that the Romans would rue the day they ever came to their lands.

She and Edana shared looks of love and acceptance before she turned back to the people who would save their way of life. She asked the dragon in elven form, "How can we repay you, Lady?"

"You need not repay us, child," the woman said warmly. "We are doing this for the people that you give your hearts to. You will be remembered by them, Kerri du Kaaveti. I will make sure of it."

Kerri bowed, followed by the rest of her group. When she looked up again, the Fey had disappeared just as quietly as they'd appeared. She looked at the spot Edana had been standing, amusingly thinking she might not be there either. But instead, Edana was waiting for her orders.

"You should go with them," Kerri insisted, despite knowing the child would refuse. "If you stay, our people have no one to talk to the Gods for them."

Instead of just saying something like her place being here, Edana gave her that irritating, mysterious smile she was known across the village for and replied, "We all talk to the Gods, Kerri. In our own way."

<Gods save me from mystical, priestly sisters in the next life,> she thought wearily. She glanced at her eleven fellows. "Ready your weapons. We do not fight to repel the Romans this day." She looked to the horizon, which would soon be filled with armored invaders from the south. "Today, my friends, we fight to save our people."

A cheer rose up, filling her heart with pride.

*****

"This makes no sense," the Roman soldier said, peering off into the distance. "I'd expect them to be waiting for us, but from inside the woods where they could pick at us with their arrows."

The commander of the Roman forces didn't like this situation. The Kaaveti had proven one of the more resistant tribes to Roman expansion and he'd decided the time had come to directly oversee their assimilation into the Empire. Now he found nearly eighty Celts of fighting age awaiting his arrival. <As if they'd been forewarned. Either they know things we do not, or their scouts are truly to be admired.>

Still, he couldn't help but feel that this was a trap of some sort. "What are they doing?" he asked, deciding to ride closer and get a better look at their opponents. With over two thousand warriors under his command, one in every ten being archers, a "pitched" battle would be over in mere minutes.

The soldier looked uneasy under the General's eye but answered anyway. "Two of them come forward, my Lord." A look of distaste crossed his face. "They are women."

The man sighed in frustration. "They are women." The runner nodded in disgust. "I seem to recall the same being said about the Amazons five hundred years ago, Centurion. Those ‘mere' women sent a thousand of our ancestors to the underworld then, am I right?"

The soldier remembered his military history, there was no doubt about that. He winced at the thought of how the last Amazon tribe, only two hundred strong, had taken so many of Rome's best and brightest in only two hours of combat. The general also knew the man was thinking the same thing; were these few dozen Celts in the same frame of mind?

"They are not Amazons," he finally said. The general didn't comment that when it came to fighting for one's freedom, such things didn't matter.

"I will meet their envoys," he decided, much to the astonishment of his staff. Before they could even protest, he raised his hand to quiet his junior officers. "There are precedents in the past, however few. The fact is, they exist. And if these women are confident enough to brave our archers, then perhaps we need not shed blood this day." He saw the sour looks on several faces, given the resistance the Kaaveti in particular had given them. "My brothers, our purpose is to bring these people into the Empire. What good does it do to give them the benefits of being Romans if they are dead?"

"They are savages," Julian complained. It was his troops who'd suffered more than their share of deaths trying to corner the Celtic warriors.

"Much the same was said about us by the Greeks," the general countered with a wry smile, "and Rome said the same about the Gauls and Spaniards."

That brought a few strained chuckles, but no further protests to his decision. "Send out a runner under a flag of truce. Hopefully these ‘mere' women will be willing to spare the lives of their warriors."

He didn't hold out much hope of that, but it was better than nothing.

*****

A half-hour was much quicker than Kerri thought it would take the invaders to respond. She glanced at Edana, who kept the same look of serenity and peaceful acceptance of the inevitable.

<If it is my or her destiny to die to keep our people alive, so be it.> She was willing to die for her tribe, but a small part of her still wished her sister was not here. Still, she was happier to have the woman who shared her blood and soul by her side rather than face the enemy alone.

She was caught off guard when the man described as the leader of the Roman troops rode out on a fine looking horse to meet them, flanked only by two lesser decorated soldiers. Kerri somehow thought that while not the leaders themselves, they still led troops into battle. As they came within the distance that her sharp brown eyes could make them out, she saw that one of them was the man who'd been in command up until now. She regretted that she would not continue to punish his temerity.

The horses slowed and came to a soft, easy trot. Kerri looked to Edana, who nodded, tensing up at the sight of their ultimate and immediate nemeses. They walked forward to meet the Romans halfway so that they might talk.

The general dismounted, but his warriors remained mounted. Kerri decided to take it as a compliment of their caution of her people's skills. The short, stocky man, wearing decorated yet functional armor and a blue cape, examined her and Edana for several seconds, taking their measure.

The man nodded in greeting. "You are Kaaveti," he said in his tongue, which she understood thanks to a judicious spell on Edana's part.

"We are," she said. The man arched an eyebrow at being able to understand her speech, to which she just smiled. "Let us skip over explanations not needed here. You are violating our lands. You are not welcome here."

"I have my orders," the leader, a true leader from what Kerri could see, spoke to her. His eyes darted past them to her fellow warriors. "You do not send many warriors against us, daughter of the Celts."

"We are all that remain, Roman," Kerri replied, forcing down her anger at his casual statement. <He does not mean insult, he merely states the facts.> The Roman seemed surprised, so she elaborated. "We tire of losing our brothers and sisters to you invaders. You are not welcome here, so we ask you one time to leave us and our lands in peace."

The man seemed as if he would consider her request if such were in his power. Instead, he merely stated, "Our intention was to join your peoples to our Empire."

"Your Empire," Edana said, opening her mouth for the first time. "Not a Republic. Not any longer."

Kerri had no idea what she was talking about, but it had an impact on the Roman general. His jaw tightened and he said, "You know more about Rome than others we have met in Britannia. Either you have been abroad, spying on us and learning about our peoples, or you are a Seer."

"Or the Goddess provides the knowledge she deems fit to give her mortal servants," Edana countered, making Kerri wonder why she was giving this knowledge away.

The general considered her younger sister, but not in the way she thought an outland barbarian would scrutinize her. He seemed to be sizing her up as an opponent or an equal. "What Goddess do you serve, if I may ask?"

Kerri answered for her. "My sister is a priestess of Scathach."

She was surprised when he nodded thoughtfully. "A Goddess who teaches your ancient heroes, and the Goddess of knowing what is to come." He must have seen her surprise, because he said, "An old saying goes; know your enemy and in a hundred battles, you will never fail."

"We did not choose to be your enemies," Kerri spat, losing her composure. She saw her former nemesis looking at her hatefully. "You have come here without our permission, killed our brothers and sisters, and tried to erase our way of life."

"We would not do that if you joined the Empire," the commander said formally. "I give you my word on that. We would seek to bring you into our way of life so that your lives would be improved."

"Our lives might have been improved by this," Edana said far too calmly, "but we do not want improved lives, if they are not free lives."

There it was, the ultimatum. She knew it was futile, but every second they deliberated was another second the Sidhe had to get their people to safety. The general seemed to know that they had no hope of any solution that would prevent their deaths, but he was willing to stall for time, should any hope of another resolution present itself.

"You cannot win, yet I cannot grant your request," he said finally. Kerri wondered if the sadness in his voice was typical of Roman commanders or an exception to the rule. "We will not retreat, daughters of the Kaaveti. We will see battle this day, but I wish you would reconsider giving your lives if they could be spared."

"If we die," Kerri said, peace settling within her soul, "we will return to this life as newborns. Perhaps not as Kaaveti, but certainly as people with the chance to avoid such bloodshed."

He seemed to stare into her eyes for a second. "Perhaps as Roman generals-to-be?" he asked.

Kerri knew in her heart that he was quite serious about that. "Perhaps. Or perhaps you would be reborn as one of my sons or grandsons."

A shared sad smile, one borne of knowing that death would receive many guests in her home today, passed between them. The general turned and mounted his horse, barked orders in his tongue for his fellows to depart, and rode off, heading for the Roman lines.

Kerri didn't like the last spiteful glance the one officer whose face she'd come to know far too well these past months sent in their direction. She turned around and started walking. "Edana, what happens next? Can you tell me that much?"

"This Maximus holds honor above all else. While not a Celt, I somehow sense that he holds a reverence for the Earth that few can achieve. He would see us treated well."

Kerri sensed again that her sister was holding something back but didn't reply. She had too much to worry about at this point.

*****

Somehow, she wasn't surprised that the warriors led by their personal foe were sent out to meet them. She wondered if this was because the man named by Edana as "Maximus" was allowing those warriors and hers to finish their personal battle, or because the man had demanded vengeance for his four months of humiliation.

"Remember the plan," she told her contingent. "We do not fight to kill. We fight to give our loved ones time to depart."

Her friends and comrades nodded, save for Edana, who just looked on peacefully. <Trust the youngest of us to show the most composure.> Kerri gave the little one a squeeze of her shoulder, and Edana smiled. "Remember what I told you. One of us begins a destiny this day."

Kerri nodded in affirmation. "Then let it unfold." She looked at her warriors and, on some given signal of agreement, shouted, "For the Kaaveti!"

She turned, drew her axe, and led the charge. Fueled on by the knowledge that even though they would die this day, the Kaaveti would live on. That was more important. As their father had told them more than once, the way of life was greater than the single lives that made it up.

She was aware of her tiny sister keeping up with her longer strides and wondered if it was magic or protective feelings spurring her speed. She decided it didn't matter as she crashed into the Roman line, swinging her axe with wild abandon.

She connected with one Roman's arm and was rewarded with a scream. A quick once over showed her he was out of the fight for a second and turned to another opponent. Her first choice was taken away by a small, orange-haired blur jumping in front and blocking his sword with her small shield. Edana swung her mace around and under the Roman's own shield and connected with his ribcage. Although she was too small to break any of his ribs, the man did double over, allowing the priestess to bash him in the face with her own shield, knocking him to the ground in a heap.

The chaos inherent to battle raged around them as the two opposing forces blurred amongst each other. A tiny grain of fear for her sister rising, Kerri shouted, "Back to back!"

She turned around and was rewarded by the warm presence of her sister's back against hers. They'd practiced this type of warfare many times and could react almost on instinct, as if they could read each other's minds. She spotted a Roman moving in and swung her axe, battering his shield with her weapon. Behind her, Edana began chanting.

Without warning, they spun around before the invader could swing in retaliation. Expecting someone six inches taller, he was unprepared for Edana to swing her mace up under his outstretched arm and crush his elbow with one well-placed strike. As he screamed, Edana waited for him to clutch at the arm. When he did, she cast her first spell.

Kerri knew this one; it lent her smaller sister greater strength for a short time. She swung the mace at the shield and crumpled it with one blow. It also broke the arm it was strapped to. Thus having set one opponent aside, the sisters looked for their next foe.

To Kerri's slight dismay, the leader of the troops and three more of his soldiers started surrounding them. The quartet of invaders maneuvered, trying to cut the sisters off and surround them to get through their defenses.

One of them mockingly said, "You stole that blade from one of us!"

Knowing he was referring to her short sword, Kerri raised her chin. "I might be a savage to you, but even I appreciate a well-forged blade. Besides, your friend had no further need of it."

Her taunt got to the man, who lunged before his comrades were ready. She let him inside her defenses before springing to the side, opening a gap between her and Edana. Edana swung around and her mace connected with the man's face, crumpling bone and sending him to the ground in spasms. The girls knew they had to fight their way out if they were going to rejoin their tribesmen, so they fought for all they were worth.

Kerri took on the other man who'd been to her front, swinging her axe with deadly abandon. Edana began chanting again and Kerri knew what spell was coming up. She felt sorry for the man who injured her first, as whatever pain was inflicted upon her would instead be transferred to him. It wouldn't keep the wound from bleeding, but without the pain to distract her, she could fight on.

Sometimes, her sister's tactics scared her, as well. She continued trading blows but could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. The man wasn't trying to take his revenge for four months of comrades dying. Putting that idiotic thought aside, she redoubled her efforts to breach his armor and shield. <After all, one of us does not have Goddess granted abilities to even the odds,> she thought sarcastically.

She heard Edana grunt but forced herself not to look; that would only prove a fatal distraction. A male gasp told her the spell had worked to perfection. She began moving back and forth, trading blows with her Roman enemy and tuning out the sounds of weapons and dying screams. THERE! She spotted an opening when she avoided a sword thrust. She brought her axe across with a two-handed swing and cut deeply into his neck. As he started reaching up to stem the blood that started flowing, she turned back to help her sister before the Romans' sheer numbers overtook them.

Edana had dropped her mace and shield somewhere. That didn't leave her unarmed, however; she now held the two stone-bladed hand axes she used in shamanic rituals. The blades were lit with deep blue, arcane flames that betrayed her powers and standing as a servant of the Gods. While she'd hidden her powers in battles before, Kerri knew that none of them planned on leaving the battlefield alive. <She is using what there is of her magic.> That meant she had no plans on needing her energy for healing. There was only one reason for that.

<So be it. We are fighting for our loved ones and our way of life. No matter what happens this day, we win.>

Edana engaged the Roman leader, whose face twisted in disgust. Kerri knew there was no way he could miss the clan resemblance between them. She tried to intercept the two combatants but was cut off by his partner. Growling in frustration and fear for her sister, she swung with all her might, only to be denied a clean strike by the Roman shield.

How she hated that insignia.

Kerri kept half an eye on her shaman sister, who was holding her own against the Roman. He probably expected her to stand and fight, not dart around like a mouse evading a cat. But that was exactly what she did. The difference was, this mouse had a nasty bite to give the cat.

Kerri tried another blow at the man's thigh but was blocked again. Before he could return the favor, the Dark Lady spun around, switching her grip on her favorite weapon and attacking his unshielded side. The axe bit deeply into his ribcage, breaking several bones and easily puncturing his lung. The downside to this was that when he fell, she was pulled forward by her stuck axe.

Lacking time to pull it out and avoid being struck down from behind, Kerri did the only other thing she could do; she pulled the man's sword out of his hand and pulled her own. Thus armed as Edana was, in a style that she was good at, Kerri moved to aid her sister, who was being hard pressed by the Roman commander.

A shadow fell over her and something closed over her body before she could react. A series of heavy strands crisscrossed her vision and the Kaaveti realized a Roman had netted her. Screaming in defiance, she tried to swing her swords to cut her way out, but the heavy weight prevented her from doing so. Her shout drew the attention of her sister, who whirled about, forgetting her opponent. Without hesitation, she drew her left arm back and tossed one of her enchanted axes, which flew by her and by the sound of it, scored a deadly hit on whomever had tossed the net over her.

However, Edana's rescue attempt was doomed to failure because Kerri saw the triumph in the commander's eyes. She shouted at the top of her lungs to her sister, but not before the man who'd taken their father from them swung his sword down, hitting her sibling on the head and sending her downward, crashing to the earth, knocked senseless.

Fresh rage and power surged through Kerri's frame, and she fought furiously, determined above all else to free herself and stop her sister from being killed. But someone, unseen by the desperate Celt, came up behind her and clubbed her on the back of the head, just as Edana had been. Stars exploded in her vision, despite it being a beautiful, sunny day.

The last thing Kerri saw before blackness claimed her was the image of Edana, lying on the ground, staring at her with empty, lifeless eyes.

*****

Maximus Decimus Meridias stared across the battlefield and sighed at the senselessness of it all. How he wished he could go home. <There comes a time when one sees enough of death and wants to create life instead.>

That was one of the main reasons he was a farmer.

Julian came up to his side, his left arm in a sling from one of the remaining Kaaveti warriors who'd sacrificed themselves. Sacrificed themselves to allow their noncombatants to flee.

"Is there no sign of them?" Julian said disgustedly.

"Our scouts can find no trail, no sign of what direction they went in." Maximus admired these Celts all the more, knowing now that they had seen only one choice to preserve their way of life, and they had taken it. "They are to be admired, Julian."

"My Lord?" he asked in shock. Having spent the last four months fighting and losing to this tribe, his doubts were understandable. "My Lord, they committed suicide."

"Tell me, Julian," the general said, walking through the battlefield, "if you had the choice between winning glory in battle or sacrificing your life to save Rome itself, what choice would you make?"

To his joy, Julian appeared offended. "I serve Rome, General."

"As these men and women served their tribe," he said, hoping the man would get the comparison. <And give me hope for Rome's future when I retire.>

Julian scanned the battlefield again and Maximus could see the cold, calculating look take on another tone. Now he understood their battle today. "They were as we would be if Rome were threatened."

"Yes." Maximus sighed and thought about the insanity of it all. Perhaps it was the doubts he found in his mind caused by the little fire-haired girl who had said something about Rome. <An Empire,> that young but too wise voice reminded him. <Not a Republic. Not any longer.> In a soft, resigned voice, he asked, "How many remain, Julian?"

Julian hesitated but seemed to do the tally quickly enough. He uncertainly said, "Six survive, my Lord."

Maximus understood why his soldier hesitated. "How many are likely to survive their wounds?"

"Four, perhaps five. One has apparently made peace with whatever Gods these Celts worship and asked for a dagger to end his suffering."

"You granted him this?" When Julian nodded, he approved of the choice. "Mercy is a quality few of us have, Julian." He hesitated and then asked, "The sisters? Those we met? How did they fare?"

Julian's look became one of icy hate. "In how many of my men they struck down or their health?" For some reason, Maximus found he wanted both versions of the answer. He said so. The man who'd lost many good men snarled, "Between themselves, those women killed three of my men and four suffered injuries of varying severity. They were felled by blows to the head, both of them."

The Roman from Spain sighed sadly. How he wished things could have been different. But he admired their sacrifice all the more. He decided to honor that sacrifice. "Julian, you say five survive?"

"Yes, my Lord."

He gave the commander a stern look to show he would brook no disagreement with his next order. "Release them." Julian's eyes became wide and the man's jaw opened to protest. "Julian, if they know where their tribesmen are, they will follow. Perhaps by showing them honor for the sacrifice they made this day, perhaps we can yet bring them and other tribes into the Empire without you losing more men."

Still, Julian choked on the order. "Y-you want me to release… all of them?"

"The five who survived, yes. I'm not asking you to arm them, but give them provisions, food and water, for three days per person. Better yet, send them under guard to my quarters. I will see to it personally. If any of your troops come to harm, I will bear responsibility for it."

That didn't seem to mollify Julian, but he knew that the man would follow his orders to the letter like a true Roman.

"Julian, aren't you sick of death?" The question caught the younger soldier by surprise, but in the end he nodded. "I am, too. The sooner we end this war, the sooner we stop becoming sicker."

Maximus turned around and left, hoping that this might make up for those Kaaveti who would never see their loved ones again. He slowed in his step as he remembered the woman's words about being reborn. <Perhaps they would see their loved ones again.> The dim hope gave him something. Not much, but better than the alternative.

*****

Julian waited for the General to leave before fulfilling his orders as he'd been given them. He waited for a detachment of his soldiers to take the confused Kaaveti prisoners away before turning to his immediate juniors. "We are going to camp here for the next week. Send out patrols to search for traces of the Celts that did not fight. If the General wishes to reunite those who survived with their families, we will not stop him."

"Sir, what about those two bodies…"

"I told the General they were felled by blows to the head. If he chooses not to free them as well, that is his prerogative." Those two had been directly responsible for Jupiter knew how many of his men dying on this Gods forsaken island. "I am taking it to understand that their disposal, whether death or slavery, is in my hands. Dismissed."

The Centurion could see that his men didn't like it, but they wouldn't violate orders. Their dislike of his decision was countered by their desire for revenge, however futile such actions would be. <But it will happen,> he vowed.

He turned and headed for his tent. He'd wait until the General had performed an act of mercy, which he didn't agree with but in the long run, he agreed that it might make bringing these savages under the banner of Rome easier. But that didn't mean he couldn't take his own satisfaction out on those who'd killed his soldiers.

In this instance, it seemed that that holy book of the Hebrews had a fitting saying. <An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.>

*****

Kerri struggled again, trying desperately to respond to the horrifying screams emanating from her sister's throat. She knew what had happened; the Romans had drugged her enough so that she could not summon her magical powers or struggle to prevent what was happening, but not so much that she couldn't understand what was being done to her.

The warrior screamed despite the leather knot shoved and tied into her mouth, but her cries fell upon deaf ears. The desperation of her desire to save her family overcame her own dizziness caused by the combination of drugs forced into her mouth by the invaders and the blow that had rendered her their prisoner.

Kerri struggled again against the ropes that bound her, arms spread like a bird's wings and legs lashed tightly together, to this thing the Romans called a "cross." Even her head was lashed against the wooden construct, keeping her from looking toward the tent where Julian, the man personally responsible for the destruction of her family and most of her tribe, was performing the ultimate sacrilege.

The Kaaveti thrashed as much as the bindings allowed, ignoring the raw chafing wounds it caused her bare body. She swore they would get vengeance. Somehow, when she came back from the afterlife in her own time, she would hunt this man down and exact revenge for her entire family.

But for Edana especially.

The screams mercifully faded and Kerri held out some hope that Edana's torment might be over. Those dawning rays of elation faded when the bastard Julian stepped out of his tent and came into her field of vision, donning a robe. He barked orders to two of his lackeys and they went in. Seconds later, they brought out Edana and Kerri's tears started falling again.

He spied her and he started talking in his tongue. Although she could not understand what he was saying, she had a pretty fair idea as to the content. His humiliation, the deaths of his soldiers, and of course, the escape of the tribe. So of course, it was her fault and he was taking his failures out on her.

He called for something and one of his men handed him a sword. Her eyes widened as she realized what he was about to do. She screamed through her gag again as Julian drew the sword across Edana's stomach, spilling her internal organs across the ground. He then slit her throat and had his men drop the body there, giving her a triumphant glare. He moved up to her and she tried once more to win herself free, but it was futile.

However, she refused to give in to hopelessness, because of the one thing she'd been given by her dying sister. A triumphant look of the eyes that said, "Our people still live. No matter what happens now, we won."

The Roman officer started speaking to her and rubbing her body in areas not meant to be touched by anyone but one's mate. She struggled but that only seemed to make him happy. She fought against the feelings rising inside of her and instead focused on the fate of her sister, lying only feet away, her lifeblood spilling onto the ground.

He stopped his fondling of her privates and walked away for a second. She vainly tried to turn her head but he returned far too soon for her liking. Although she couldn't understand what he was saying, his visual and touch aids, the tip of a spike hitting her wrists and ankles, suggested what he planned to do to her next.

No, he wasn't going to give her the release of a warrior's death any more than he had her poor sister. Only her vows to come back and wipe that look off of his treacherous face kept her from giving up. However, she was wrong about one thing. She wasn't going to have those spikes driven through her. He moved up and removed the leather strap pinning her head back and backed up. As she tried to move her head, he retied it, strapping her at the neck this time. Unfortunately for her, it didn't restrict her airflow, giving her a quicker way out.

He backed up and barked orders to his warriors. With a startling shake, Kerri felt the wood to which she was secured being hoisted by unknown means. It quickly rose to a standing position and she found herself hanging there, unable to break free. She was able to look down, barely, to see the Romans preparing to break camp.

Julian was in her limited view, as were the two soldiers who dumped Edana's lifeless body on the ground, directly in front of this "cross" serving as her cage.

She realized the agony that he had planned for her; she wasn't going to die or even be violated. No, that had been her sibling's fate. Hers was to be reminded of her failure to protect her younger sister every time her head fell forward while she died of exposure or thirst, whichever claimed her first. Seeing that she realized what her torture would be, the Roman who'd destroyed her family turned around and left, ignoring her curses and tears.

*****

12 October 171 AD

Awareness returned with a vengeance. Sights, sounds, touch, and smells assaulted her long dormant senses. The woman, operating on pure instinct, fought her way to her feet and looked around, brown hair flying about wildly.

The first thing she noticed was a strange tree or something of wood in her presence. She looked up and unwanted memories flooded her consciousness. Father. The Romans. Maximus, the honorable general. The battle. Their fall. Julian…

"EDANA!!!" she screamed, falling to the ground and wailing as she remembered. She sobbed for many minutes before gathering her wits enough to remember her name and purpose. She stood up, still sobbing uncontrollably but now focused on her vow. The last thing she'd vowed before she died.

<Julian, I am coming for you.> She was confused about one thing; this wasn't reincarnation as she expected it. What had happened? Had she somehow been spared? Or was this the work of the Gods? She walked over to the cross that had been her tomb and looked up. The ropes had rotted and wind and rain had beaten at the smooth surface. Given her knowledge of woodcraft and time, she estimated that at least several months, perhaps more than a year, had passed since…

Since she had died on this cross. The last delusional memories came back to her as she remembered Edana's vision. "One of us will begin a destiny," she whispered bitterly. "She knew. She knew she was going to…"

She also knew why she was the one now standing here. Edana, despite the fierceness she showed in battle, was too gentle and forgiving a soul to take vengeance on someone. Yet she, Kerri…

"She knew I would never know peace, in any lifetime, until I had sought such peace on my own." As she realized that this was what she had to do, anger began filling her again. But it did not rule her; she channeled it like she did all her emotions, into a direction.

"But how do I know where to find the Roman who did this?" she asked, looking up at the starry sky. Her voice rising, she pleaded to her Goddess, "She Who Strikes Fear, how do I gain our revenge?!?"

The call of a bird was her answer. She spun around and looked up at the source of the call. It was a bird, feathers black as night, eyes the same color, watching her closely. It cawed at her again.

Suddenly, she understood.

*****

Roman Command Post
Hadrian's Wall
21 March 172 AD

Julian sighed and rolled up the map of Britannia he'd been studying. In the last year and a half, the Britons, Celts, and other savages of his island had made things harder, not easier. Especially the cohort sent to explore the islands off the northern coast. Half of the unit had been killed on the island the natives called "Skye."

He wondered to this day what natives had been able to eliminate so many soldiers and not suffer a single casualty. Of course, since every last survivor had had his memories of the expedition erased, it fell under the category of one of life's great mysteries.

<I hate mysteries.>

His attention was regained by the runner clearing his throat. He looked at the boy and thought how they were getting younger every year. Or was it that he was just getting older. <No matter.> "What is it, son?"

"The General has called for you. He says it's urgent."

"More attacks?" he asked with a sigh. Rather than accept that Rome was here to stay and give them a better life, many of the savages continued to fight. Only nowadays they were on the attack for Roman weapons and armor. Still, the attacks weren't as bad as they could've been, since the Romans had found a new way to bring civilization to these people.

It just galled him that where soldiering had failed, what succeeded was…

<Commerce,> he groaned. "Is it an attack?" he asked again, to which the boy shook his head. "Very well. I'll be there within the quarter hour."

He didn't dawdle but he also didn't feel the need to rush. He dressed in his armor and sheathed his sword. He strode over to the command tent and asked to be announced.

He was given prompt clearance to enter. Julian walked in and saw General Maximus sitting at his field desk, looking over field reports. He stood at attention but Rome's finest did not force him to wait.

"At ease, Julian," he said, acting informally in private.

"You asked to see me, sir?" Julian asked.

"I did. I need your extracurricular expertise on something." Maximus stood up and walked over to a map of the Empire, which covered most of the known world. "If I recall correctly, you have an interest in the stories of the Age of Heroes, don't you?"

Julian nodded. "Yes, sir. I studied such things with relish when I was a lad. I dreamt of being Hercules or Odysseus. Why do you ask?"

"A particular legend was brought to my attention, and I wanted to hear your opinion on it." The General looked at him, and Julian had to admit his curiosity was aroused. "Have you ever heard tales about people who die and come back to life?"

"Do you mean stories of heroes returning from the underworld?" Julian asked. Roman myths had such tales. There were others about beings that traveled the world playing some strange Game, but he'd never put much stock in them, so he didn't mention those.

"No, Julian. This involves a soul being unable to even go to the afterlife because of some great tragedy, leaving them unable to rest."

"Ah, that one. It is strange, but I have heard it mentioned in texts from around the Empire," he noted with the air of a scholar. "I think it has to do with avenging a great crime, and involves the use of an animal or spirit guide. I've heard some of the tales, most of them involving birds like crows or ravens."

"That's the one, thank you." He pointed at the spot Britannia took on the Empire map. "What would you think if I told you I know of such a case here in Britannia, from a spot where we once fought? Such an occurrence right under our very noses?"

"What?" Julian asked. "The Britons have the same tales?"

"No, Julian, not a Briton. A Celt." His face suddenly became cold and he barked, "Enter!"

The officer, stunned by the sudden shift in the General's mood, turned to see who was coming in. When the woman entered the tent, a dark feathered bird on her shoulder, his heart skipped a beat.

It was the Kaaveti woman, Kerri.

The woman he'd crucified a year and a half ago.

The woman glared spitefully at him and suddenly, without warning, her face turned white, with black streaks surrounding her eyes and trailing from the corners of her mouth. Julian tried to back away from this horror but was stopped by the powerful arms of his own General.

"General, that THING!!!"

"SILENCE!!!" Maximus bellowed, stunning him into silence. He roughhoused Julian into his chair and backed away, pulling out his sword and putting it between this monster and himself. Julian, under the order from his leader, couldn't find the words to ask for his aid.

*****

Maximus thought about what was happening here. He'd listened to Julian's reports about the final battle against the Kaaveti, and then listened to the tale from Kerri, who he'd thought dead. Despite not wanting to believe her, the fact of her powers and the crow that served as her guide only served to tip the scales in her favor. <For the moment.>

"Julian, you know what this woman wants from you, given what you already know about this legend," he said coldly. "But I refused to just hand you over to her, because as a Roman, I still believe there is justice to be found in the world. You have one chance, and one chance only, to save yourself. If you can possibly defend yourself and whatever you did that day, you had best do it now."

The frightened Centurion looked like a trapped rabbit caught in his garden back in Spain. His wide, terrified eyes flicked between Maximus and the supernatural Celtic woman standing before him. He waited for Julian to craft a defense against violating his orders and doing what he had done to the women who'd sacrificed their freedom, and in the end their very lives, to keep their people free.

When Julian didn't speak, he barked, "Say something, Julian!"

"They killed hundreds of my men!" he shouted, pounding the desk like a petulant child. "They were savages who kept my men from ever seeing their families again!"

"I ordered you to release the Kaaveti who survived the battle!" he snarled, barely aware of the way Kerri's head snapped in his direction, shock showing on that unearthly face.

She spoke for the first time since reentering the tent. "Y-you… you set them free?"

"The five who survived the battle, yes. I thought it fitting to honor them for their… for your sacrifice. I hoped they would rejoin their families. I still don't know if they did."

She didn't seem to have an answer, but it only served to fuel the fires that had sent her back to this world. She started to move forward, but Maximus brought his sword back up between the predator and her prey. She growled in response but his hard eyes stayed her hand.

"Julian, you told me they had died," he reiterated.

"I told you how they were felled. I never said they died." His lips curled into a sneer despite his fear of the woman seeking vengeance against him. "You said to release those five. Nothing was said about these whores."

Maximus reacted before the Celt could. He turned and prepared to drive his own sword through one of his men. "So you gutted one and crucified the other?!? I told you to free the Kaaveti, Julian!!!"

"You said the five were your responsibility. Those two were mine."

Maximus couldn't believe what he'd just heard. Julian had committed…he couldn't bring himself to say it. He backed away and sheathed his sword. He glanced at the trembling woman, who had to be replaying the agonizing memories in her head. "Kerri?" She looked at him, her face bleeding back to her normal appearance at his soft voice. "Did he do what the others say he did? To Edana?"

She nodded, her face beginning to change again. Maximus didn't need to hear any more. He turned to Julian and asked, "Why?"

"To avenge my men!" he barked defiantly.

"So be it." He turned to the Celtic woman and nodded. "Do as you will."

*****

VAN Ltd Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
Late hours
1 August 1999

"Faith, please, for heaven's sakes, wake up!" a distant voice shouted, piercing the foggy, sleep filled thoughts.

<But I…>

She suddenly bolted awake, realizing that Daddy G had spared her from reliving what she'd done to that son of a bitch. She started to shiver and warmed her arms by rubbing them with her hands. Marion sat on the bed and hugged her, holding her close and settling her down.

Faith glanced at Shaw, wondering how she was gonna feel. Then again, what Shaw had gone through wasn't anything Faith hadn't had happen to her in this lifetime. <And if that doesn't blow mondo chunks, I don't know what does.>

Strangely, the only things she could read in Shaw's eyes were understanding…and pride. Faith's mind flashed through everything and realized…

<We were supposed to lose. We weren't trying to win, we were trying to save our people.> She amended her thoughts. <We… they did win. Kerri and Edana. They did what they were supposed to do.>

She didn't know whether to be prouder of Shaw or herself, since they'd both done their parts. "Shaw, you… I mean, she…"

"I think it says something that you got the easier name in that life," she replied with a light in her eyes. She folded her arms and said, "But imagining you with Mime Face is very amusing."

"Oh, laugh it up!" she moaned as the others joined Redeye. "At least I wasn't playing Pope to She Who Can't Choose What She Wants To Be In Charge Of!" She shook her head in confusion. "Gabs, whatever happened to the days when a God or Goddess was the God or Goddess of one thing and stuck to it?"

"Perhaps that is why we should be happy that there are no ‘modern mythologies,'" Marion said kindly, stroking her hair. "I would hate to see what kind of Pantheon would exist in today's world."

Faith could see where she was coming from. "Yeah, no kidding. Will would be praying to the God of Hacking, Wolfboy to the God of Electric Guitars," she started, sharing a look with Redeye, who was now laughing at her monologue. "Next we'd have the Goddess of Fast Food, the God of Extreme Sports…"

"Or worst of all," Shaw said way too wickedly, "the Goddess of Afternoon Talk Shows."

Faith broke down and silently laughed at that one. She tried to regain control of herself and looked at Shaw, who shared the gaze. "So if that was our first life…"

"Then you didn't exist until around the second century AD. That's a somewhat late start," Edwin offered. "I could look up the historical references to narrow it down some." He seemed to be considering something. "But I can say this, being Celts in your first lifetime, it makes perfect sense that you would eventually be reincarnated into new lives. They didn't believe in Heaven or Hell in such terms. Everyone eventually came back."

"Well, I can't understand how I wasn't Irish in that first life. That sucks!"

"FAITH!"

*****

Shaw decided to nip that shout in the proverbial bud. "Edwin, shall I go next?"

"Are you sure you don't mind? That…" He paused and Shaw saw how he and Marion had come to care for each other. "Girls, what happened in the very first life you shared was very unsettling for me."

"But it might explain something, Lord G." She looked and saw that Faith understood. "We know those Crows got this whole vengeance temper thing going, right? Maybe… maybe something that big doesn't breed out for a while."

Shaw saw where her sister was going and for some reason, she couldn't help but agree to a point. A First Soul manifestation as a Crow, and one who avenged a brutal rape in particular, might explain Faith's actions back in April. <Genetic or psychic memories.> She'd felt the same thing when Tanetal, one of the devils responsible for the destruction of Myth Drannor, had announced his name. She'd immediately dropped everything and attacked him.

She shook it off and saw Faith climbing off of the bed. <My turn,> she thought. She was more eager than she'd thought she would be. She laid down, her sweats and tank top wrinkling and causing her some discomfort. She belatedly realized that perhaps revealing her scars like this wasn't kind to Marion and Edwin, but they hadn't said anything. If either said something, she would of course take measures to cease their discomfort.

But for now, she wanted to know more about her and Faith. She laid back and glanced at Edwin. "From what I understand, your hypnosis will not be affected by my psi-barriers. Please, go ahead, Edwin."

He smiled at her and she closed her eyes, folding her hands together on her flat stomach and allowing herself to begin the relaxation techniques she normally used at the start of meditation or praying. Only this time, it wasn't to look for the Lady for spells or comfort.

No, this time… she was searching for…herself.

*****

Royal Palace of King Louis XIII
Paris, France
11 June 1640

"My dear Selene," the older woman said carefully, "it is more than a case of one of my personal servants, and an unmarried one at that, having a dalliance with someone who may well be beneath her station as one of my Guards."

The thirty-eight year old woman, Her Royal Majesty, Queen Anne of France, turned in her pacing to look at her. Her eyes became careful as she revealed what had troubled her. "My main concern is that during these troubling times, any affair by a member of the court with someone from outside our borders could be construed the wrong way."

Selene Faye du Lourdes simply allowed her liege lady to air her concerns. Despite the "official" relationship of mistress and servant, both knew that the social lines blurred a bit when it came to safeguarding the Queen. When it came to her protection, she and her partner brooked no opposition to how seriously they took their duties.

However, the self-styled "Femme Musketeer" thought, verily thought in fact, that Her Highness was being somewhat paranoid about her recent… association with a friend of a fellow servant of the royal family.

"Your Majesty," she said humbly, in the accent common to Lourdes, "I can assure you, as to the first concern, the Seuir Arvindel is most definitely not below my station. I have it on good authority that he is currently a moderately ranking Lord, with the destiny of becoming a Prince amongst his people."

The assurance, while delivered with the honesty Selene always showed her Queen, did little to calm her concerns. Anne of Austria, wife of King Louis XIII, mother of the Dauphin Louis, and sister to King Philip III of Spain, arched her royal left eyebrow and asked, "But what about his national loyalties?"

"If I may beg Her Majesty's pardon," Corina said from the side, her husky voice unmistakable, "I know from Musketeer Porthos that the Lord Arvindel's loyalties are not to the French, Spanish, or Italians. In fact, I daresay that he is more loyal to individual human beings rather than nations. And for now at least, Selene might rate his loyalty more than any other."

Selene, having her head bowed respectfully, hoped the Queen would not see her wince at Corina's teasing use of the word "human." However, the Queen's talent for reading her servants, even those who practiced keeping blank faces around their foes at Court, won out.

"Selene?" When Selene sighed, the Queen's face became dark. "Is Corina Jacqueline attempting to tell me in a roundabout way that a child is involved?"

Selene started coughing at the insinuation. <That is the last thing I need to worry about!> Not proverbially, but rather literally. "Y-your Majesty…" she stammered while regaining her control, "the Lord Arvindel is… not capable of having children by a human woman. To do so would require… Dark Court magics."

To her credit, Anne recovered quickly. "This Arvindel is a fey?" Selene nodded helplessly, just knowing that Corina was enjoying her predicament. "Well." The Queen Mother paced again, albeit slower than before. "I know that in the norm, the two of you show very good discretion in most of your activities. However, someone managed to find out about your liaison with this elf Lord of yours. After what happened two months ago in that tavern, with Kyra embarrassing several of the Cardinal's men and sleeping with that Scotsman…" She glanced at them both and gave them warning looks. "Ladies, please be careful. Not only on my behalf and my family's, but also for yourselves."

Anne turned and walked out of their private working quarters, having given them the warning about someone watching them and reporting back to those who sought to sully the Queen's reputation.

Waiting until she was sure her Majesty was out of earshot, Selene turned on her supposed closest friend. "And merci beau coup for your ‘help,' Corina!"

"You are quite welcome, conqueror of the Seelie Court," her fellow fighter sweetly noted. "Seriously, Selene, I had my eye on our dear Seelie Lord and was forming my own plan of attack until you walked into his sights."

"So sorry to steal your conquest," she said with false modesty.

"So now that we're alone, tell me; how was he?" Corina Jacqueline Beaubier asked, a glimmer of anticipation in her blue eyes. "Was he as good as Porthos?"

"I have never spent a night with that pirate," she said, rolling her eyes. "But Arvindel was quite… I daresay the only word that fits is, ‘inventive.'"

"Are you willing to share?" she asked teasingly.

Despite the fact that she was willing to share a night with a man she'd just met, she was not willing to inflict her partner on him. "Sorry, mon ami. That would be cruel and unusual punishment."

"I thought that was what you were best at," the light-brown haired swordswoman smirked, "oh holy one."

Selene just shook her head, ignoring her partner. "Who do you think it was that was following me?"

As she started binding her long strawberry blonde hair into a ponytail, her fellow Guard and Crown-sponsored demon hunter snorted in a somewhat unladylike manner. "Three guesses and they all start with a goateed, red-capped and robed manipulator who deems France his own personal playground and thinks he has a warped sense of humor."

"Quite," the older woman sighed. She was getting tired of Richelieu's schemes to discredit the Queen. <It was bad enough that he could not be executed for trying to sign an illegal treaty with England. No, he did not learn from that experience.> Selene fingered the crucifix she wore under her clothes, she thought about how she'd been brought up by members of the Church. Although she never suffered Aramis' problems with being a former student of the Cardinal, she still felt a slight conflict between her duties to the Crown and going against the most powerful holy man in France.

That was why she vastly preferred her battles against foes of the inhuman variety. The line between black and white was much more defined in most cases. She glanced over at her weapons and wondered if it came down to it, would she be able to do what was needed against him. She hoped never to have that choice on her hands.

"Selene? Stop thinking about it. The problem will go away in time. Whether when he dies or the King finally removes the bastard from office." Corina started donning her weapons, obvious or not. Her reflection smiled at her and showed teeth. "Now we're supposed to meet your ‘inventive' lover and my pirate. You just know they shall make us pay their share if we are late."

<No doubt about that whatsoever,> Selene sighed to herself. Finishing the arrangement of her hair, the Frenchwoman buckled her weapons in place; rapier, dagger, other hand weapons, and finally her pistol. Making sure she had plenty of powder for an extended conflict, <Which always happens at the worst of times in our line of work>, Selene walked over and donned her cape and hat. Thus ready to face whatever perils raised their ugly heads this day, demonic or no, the duo left their quarters to meet with their respective male conquests.

*****

Selene broke into a smile once she caught sight of Porthos and Arvindel sitting at a table. She strutted forward, boots clacking on the cobblestones. Her battle sister soon matched her rhythm.

As always, Porthos had decided to "accent" his Musketeer tabard and cape with some form of bandana tied around his forehead, a nod to his buccaneer heritage. Next to him, Arvindel cut quite the image of a human nobleman, albeit without any accents that might hint at his national origins. Selene took in the golden hair shining like the sun, green eyes glittering with a combination of amusement, camaraderie, and desire that sent shivers running through Selene's body, and a smile that at once was friendly, inviting, and suggested that he was enjoying some private joke.

She graced him with a smile of her own, filtering through the fond memories of their lovemaking last night. <Of course, thinking of the nights to come…>

She knew neither of them expected the affair to last long, let alone become permanent. But she and Corina had always been the ones to take chances for fun and happiness where they found them. After all, they were only demon hunters, not Vampire Slayers.

She sat in one of the empty seats and Arvindel took her hand. Lifting her slender fingers to his lips, he gave her a kiss that sent a tingly warmth running all the way to the top of her scalp. She wondered if he was using Seelie magic to enhance the kiss.

<He doesn't need to,> she thought with an accompanying blush.

// Nor would I. It would only cheapen your genuine, lovely emotions, // came his telepathic response.

She retracted her hand, lest he get too accustomed to it. The royal Guard and demon hunter laced her fingers together and rested her chin on them, only having eyes for the Seelie Knight.

She didn't even notice how Corina and Porthos were skipping past formal greetings or negotiations and going straight to the results usually gained by such, Corina eschewing the empty chair for the Musketeer's lap.

"So how did your talk with Her Majesty go?" Arvindel asked her, letting her drown in those evergreen eyes.

In a somewhat dazed voice, the twenty-seven year old replied, "Someone noticed our rendezvous and started rumors spreading like wildfire. We told Her Majesty the truth and she asked us to be more careful."

"And a public meeting like this is careful?" Arvindel asked easily, searching the features of her sculpted face.

Selene reached forward and held his warm hand. "One cannot catch fish if the hook has no bait."

His eyes gleamed as he caught onto her and Corina's plan. // So you seek to flush out those who try to discredit yourselves and the Queen? //

<Not to mention Porthos and his comrades, or your own noble self,> she cooed seductively. <Can your telepathy find anyone with less than honorable thoughts about us?>

// My dear demon hunting beauty, if I used that search criteria, it would include nearly every male in this tavern, myself and the good Musketeer included. // Before she could frown despite the teasing, he smiled charmingly and said, // But I shall instead search out the minds that seek to bear you, the fair Corina, or the Queen any ill will. //

<Good enough.> Selene and Corina received glasses of wine from the barmaid and ordered their lunches. "So how was your morning, gentlemen?"

"The usual," the large Musketeer said jovially. "The Cardinal plots, we try to stop it, the King is endangered, and we save the day and celebrate by wenching."

"As opposed to the classier, proper, traditional seduction," Arvindel chuckled, although he only had eyes for her.

"I hate to disappoint you, mon amour Arvindel du Fay," Selene said sweetly, leaning close until their noses touched, "but it cannot be considered seduction if the subject is all too willing. And I do seem to recall giving as much pleasure as I received, my Lord."

"Beauty, grace, and wisdom. A deadly combination," he told Porthos admiringly. "Truly my friend, I owe you for introducing us."

"I plan to repay that debt for you," Corina said playfully, toying with Portho's curly hair. However, she slid off her man's lap and purred, "Provided our dear sea dog behaves himself."

"I think someone will be sleeping alone tonight," Selene laughed, prompting a wounded look from Porthos.

"I have been known to contain my joi de vivre on occasion."

Corina moved her hand under the table and smiled. "Well, I wouldn't want that tonight, would I?"

The four continued flirting, discussing their days, and eating lunch while Arvindel performed his scan of the nearby crowds. It took several minutes before he succeeded.

// I have them, // he announced to them as he took a bite of his roast. // Six men in the employ of the good Cardinal Richelieu, lying in wait for us. //

<Us?> Selene asked, perking up. "You and Porthos are targets as well?"

"The Cardinal apparently wants us detained and questioned about the nature of our association and activities. Our would-be kidnappers think he intends to use whatever information he gleans from us to proclaim us sinners and embarrass the Queen."

"Business as usual," Selene, Corina, and Porthos sighed together.

<Me, a sinner?> du Lourdes thought angrily. <I think not!>

// Calm yourself, cherie, // her current lover chided in her mind. // Anger is a weakness in political situations such as this. You need to keep a clear head. //

Without looking away from her plate, Selene agreed. <Oui, Arvindel. You are correct.> She chewed her last piece of veal and washed it down with a sip of wine. "How should we proceed?"

"Perhaps a lover's quarrel?" Porthos suggested with a sadistic gleam of mischief in his eyes. "Perhaps you could claim that Seuir Arvindel did not perform satisfactorily for you?"

"Oh, mais non! I could never do that!" she hissed with an innocent frown. She leaned toward Arvindel, brown eyes gleaming. "How do we start, cherie?"

*****

Selene stormed out of the tavern, ignoring the fading ache in her wrist. <Perhaps I should not have followed his suggestion and punched him. A hard slap still would have hurt less.>

The servant of the Queen walked briskly, muttering under her breath in the guise of having just assaulted her lover. The servants of Richelieu should be certain enough of her performance that they would follow her long enough to ensure their privacy before attempting to abduct her, giving her friends ample time to follow them. But just in case, Selene was heading toward a spot she knew would offer safe haven in the unlikely event she needed it.

As she wove her way through the crowds, the hunter felt the hairs at the nape of her neck rising. <I'm not going to make it,> she dismally realized. Things were going to come to a head before she could reach her destination. <Pardon moi, Brother Darius, but I will have to give you my confession another day. >

As soon as she had the tiniest bit of privacy from watching eyes, Selene ducked down a side street and began sprinting to put some distance between her and any possible bystanders. She rounded two different corners and stopped, leaning against a wall to catch her breath.

She took mental stock of her equipment, patting the appropriate parts of her body as she counted off her items. Satisfied that she'd not lost anything during her run, the woman drew her pistol and a double-bladed throwing knife given to her by Corina for Easter.

<Holy Father, my dear friend is as bad as Seuir Musketeer when it comes to new playthings.>

Selene strained her hearing to the limits to pick up the stray sounds of her pursuers. The Frenchwoman waited until she heard the soft curses of a tracker who'd lost her quarry to make her move. As soon as she judged the closest voice to be within fifteen feet, Selene stepped out into the open.

Her first thought was one of triumph; in their desire for subtlety, the fools hadn't even pulled out any weapons! She tossed Corina's gift at the closest man, taking him in the right hand. As he yelped in pain, Selene turned her body sideways; attempting to minimize the silhouette she provided them.

"Halt!" she barked at them, eyes glinting with open threat. "In the name of Queen Anne, I order you to raise your hands!" She knew what was coming next, but Richelieu was not known for hiring the best and brightest lackeys.

The apparent head of the mercenaries grinned at her. "You only have one shot, cherie."

"True, monsieur." Selene methodically cocked the hammer of her pistol. With a decidedly frosty voice, she said, "I will grant you thirty seconds to decide which of you receives that shot."

Those accosting her actually seemed to be thinking that over. She was less than ten seconds away from shooting the leader in the leg when her comrades finally deemed it a dramatically appropriate moment to make their entrance. "How nice of you to join us!" she called out with false cheerfulness. "We were just discussing who would be the fist person to receive a wound from me!"

Corina and Porthos drew their blades while Arvindel simply leaned against a nearby wall and folded his arms, finding the entire thing to be quite amusing.

"Well do not let us interrupt you," Porthos said, bowing grandly to her, "please, continue your discussion."

Selene returned his bow with a wide smile. "Thank you, Seuir Musketeer. Now, gentlemen, have you decided who shall meet Saint Peter first?" The Cardinal's hired swords seemed to be suddenly less confident of themselves, faced with three new opponents. <I suppose it will be too much to ask the Lord that they will see common sense and surrender?>

The six opponents trying to take her against her will drew their swords.

Selene sighed and felt a part of her heart ache. <Of course it is.>

She adjusted her aim and fired her pistol. Through the resulting cloud of smoke, Selene's brown eyes spotted the man she believed to be the leader clutching his leg. His blade clattered to the street. The other five faltered a bit upon seeing their leader neutralized, giving her ample time to draw her sword.

A terse nod and minimal eye contact was that was needed for she and Corina to "name" their opponents, a benefit of four years of partnership. Leaving the one she'd hit in the hand alone, Selene chose the healthy one closest to her.

She took up a predatory position and said, "Monsieur, it does not have to be this way."

"Yes it does, you bitch!" he shouted, lunging at her and assuming, as most men did, that she didn't have the skill to match a man.

He performed a standard epee technique that she parried quite easily. She decided to go with her saber training and began slashing at her foe, hoping to disarm or wound him. She wanted information and there was the matter of a private vow she'd made a long time ago.

She took the offensive, using the skills taught her by a sister at the convent that doubled as the orphanage she'd been raised in. While she never solved the mystery of how Catholic nuns had known sword craft and methods for hunting demons, she was glad they'd seen something in her to grant her the knowledge she used nowadays.

Selene alternated her targeting, never allowing the Cardinal's man to regain an offensive mindset. She finally slashed his leg, making him stumble, and followed up with a slice of his fingers. Not deep enough to maim him, but sufficient for his sword to fall to the cobblestones. She lifted her sword up under his chin, making him look at her. She let her eyes go hard. "Monsieur, I give you one chance to surrender."

He gulped and seemed to be convinced that she was ready to kill him. Giving a few seconds to become even more convinced, Selene gazed around and saw that the fight was already over. Porthos' opponent lie on the ground, out cold, while Corina's foe was clutching as his gut. Selene's heart chilled at the blood coating the man's shirt and hands, but he was still alive at least. She glanced at Arvindel, who just bowed to her. When she saw what he had done to aid in the fight, she groaned in exasperation.

He'd used some form of charming enchantment to make one of the mercenaries fight his fellow. He'd emerged victorious quite soon and was now standing over the unconscious opponent and the leader she'd shot in the leg. He was glaring hatefully at her.

Turning back to business, Selene asked her fencing partner du jour, "Well, my good sir? What is your decision? As you might have noticed from spying on me, I have prior engagements tonight."

Ignoring the wanton smile and kiss Arvindel blew in her direction, she waited for the man to try bargaining for his life. "I'll tell you what you want to know."

"You do not have to." She stuck to her role and smirked, making his face pallid. "I know you were hired by Cardinal Richelieu, paid to abduct any or all of us that you could get your grimy hands upon, and deliver us to his private dungeons. And while I may not have any inhibitions about spending a night of romance with a man, I do have my limits as to what I am willing to do with a man."

"Although I'm constantly working on overcoming that little problem," Corina added with a dazzling smile.

<Almighty Father…> she sighed. She dug the tip of her rapier into his neck, drawing a tiny speck of blood. "What is your choice, mercenary?"

"T-the Cardinal told us you were betraying the secrets of France to that foreigner!" he shouted, showing surprising anger for someone facing death. "He told us you and certain of the Musketeers were plotting treason!"

Selene's face became tight with anger, as did Corina's. Not only for the lies spun by Richelieu, but for the reasons that showed the Cardinal was making contingencies. <If we had killed any of them…> The double-layered plot made perfect sense, unfortunately. Either they were abducted and unable to defend themselves against the Cardinal's charges, or… <We kill them and the Cardinal accuses us of multiple crimes, including men working for the Church. MERDE!> She backed up and saluted the man before sheathing her sword.

"What are you doing?" he asked doubtfully.

"Seeing through our dear holy man's plots. I can determine by your tone, sir, that you are a patriot of France. But allow me to assure you, we are not traitors, nor do we appreciate such accusations."

The man seemed to be thrown by this turn of events. <As if I like the turn things are taking.> He glanced at his people and then back at her. "You shot our commander, woman."

"I wounded him, yes. It beats the alternative," she said tightly.

Corina came up to her side and sighed. "Selene, I love you as a sister, but sometimes I truly believe that this business of vowing never to take a human life will be the death of me."

"That is why I like being a demon hunter," she reminded her partner. It was during one of her first missions that she'd rescued Corina from being a sacrifice to a particularly nasty servant of Hell. "Unlike some examples of humanity who are less stellar than ourselves, I hold the human life to be sacrosanct."

"Yes, but still…" Corina nodded to the man who'd seemingly been duped into working for Richelieu. "If this man were about to kill me or, Heaven forbid, an innocent child, and the only way you could stop him was to drive your sword through his heart, what would you do?"

Selene refused to answer, gritting her teeth. However, her partner and closest friend walked up and gently said, "Mon ami, that is one lesson you have yet to learn; codes and philosophies can be perfect. But we mere mortals… perfection is beyond our capabilities."

Selene knew that Corina spoke the truth, but she had a hard time accepting it. So she put the issue aside for now and glanced at the mercenary leader, who was receiving aid from Porthos. "Monsieur, you have been told a lie that led to you and your men being injured for no good reason. What do you intend to do about it?"

The man's eyes gleamed dangerously. "I intend to find out if you are actually telling the truth or merely trying to cover up your activities."

Despite that insinuation, Selene's heart swelled with pride at the hiresword's loyalty to the nation. But she was at a loss as to how to prove their innocence.

// He knows about your fun jaunts into demon hunting, // Arvindel supplied. Selene glanced at him, but he just waggled his eyebrows at her. She knew what he was thinking. <Humans.>

Well, this human was not going to allow someone, no matter how high his rank amongst God's servants, to besmirch her, her friend, or their lieges. She said, "Gentlemen, I think I might have an idea as to how to prove our innocence. That is, if you are willing to trust a pair of demon hunting women, a pirate-turned-Musketeer, and a fairy who might be a Prince someday, but for now is a mere nobleman."

She loved how Arvindel's smile vanished at her jibe.

*****

Private Residence of Cardinal Richelieu
Paris, France
11 June 1640

The man in charge of the Catholic Church in France was not a happy person; Richelieu paced his quarters in agitation. Those mercenaries shouldn't be taking this long! Not only were they actually competent, skilled with weapons, and fairly pliable, they were loyal to France! They'd taken this contract with fervor! Surely they could kidnap one of those humans.

He shuddered at the thought of decades of careful planning coming to ruin because of a pathetic demon hunting girl's choice of sleeping partners. Shaking his head, he considered the possible dangers. Not that the girls could threaten him, for he was the ultimate authority once one got past the King, but because if she acted like a woman, chattering on about this or that with a lover, that damnable elven Prince-to-be might actually divine the truth.

So it was better to get them out of sight or, barring that, under his control, like when he'd gotten De Winter into his circle. Now that was a woman who knew how to be fun and wicked. Still, the Cardinal knew that all good things come to an end eventually. And while he still lamented de Winter's loss, especially her beauty, he knew that he had standards to maintain. Even if vows of celibacy were for lesser beings…

He considered his reflection, imagining himself wearing another shape or face. Stroking his goatee, he thought, <And while being a holy man has been amusing and effective, maybe it's time I considered moving onto bigger and better things.> He arched an eyebrow. <I've always wanted to be a nobleman. Maybe a Marquis…>

Any further daydreams were placed on hold when a knock came at the door. Sighing, Richelieu stalked over, his red robes rustling. He stopped and barked, "Who is it?"

"Your Grace, the mercenaries have returned," his aide, a young irritating acolyte, reported through the door. "And one of the women is with them."

With a flourish, Richelieu threw the door open and pasted a false smile of cheerfulness upon his goateed face. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, walking out. "Tell me, which one is it? The repented prostitute or the child raised by our dear sisters in Lourdes?"

"T-the latter, sir. In fact, she seemed to be quite taken with the grounds and holy art."

Richelieu's smile faded and he muttered, "Oh." Just as quickly, he smiled again. "Well then, shall we see just what our dear Guard has been doing with a foreigner?" <Perhaps her respect for the Church will put her in her place.>

The acolyte, stupid yet loyal, nodded in agreement. "Y-yes, Your Grace."

"Good man. Now, let's not keep our ‘guest' waiting."

He took the lead and walked down to the first floor, greeting his servants and guests of the house with a smile stuck on his face. As soon as his manservant told him that the mercenary had taken Selene du Lourdes to his greeting room, he loved the irony of it. Perhaps the girl didn't even know she was never leaving his custody if he had anything to say about it.

<It's just too bad I couldn't get that Musketeer in the bargain.>

He stopped at the greeting room and the two hirelings standing guard saluted him. He just waved a hand at them and they let him pass. Taking a deep breath and once again pasting that cheerful grin on his lips, Richelieu walked in.

He was slightly off guard to see the mercenary leader favoring one of his legs, but he seemed to be healthy otherwise. Despite his lack of love for lucre warriors, he was pleased with this one's reputation; it was well deserved. And good help was hard to find. <Mental note to self; keep this one's name for future reference.>

"Ah, my good Captain," he said, greeting the retired soldier and going through the small talk. "I see you succeeded, but what about you and your men? I do hope nothing bad happened."

"I suffered the worst of it, Your Grace. After our initial… ‘misunderstanding,' Mademoiselle du Lourdes was willing to see reason."

"Oh?" he asked with an arched eyebrow. He knew from very private sources that she had this notion that human life was not to be taken, and obviously it had played in his favor. "What about her companions?"

The leader shifted on his bad leg and winced. "They are nowhere to be seen."

"Hmmm." He could always find them later, if need be. Besides, what could they do, go to the Queen? As far as France went, he was the Church. <Plausible deniability is so helpful.> "No matter. Would you mind waiting outside, Captain?"

The mercenary clicked his heels together and bowed his head respectfully. Once the door shut, leaving them alone, he gave the woman in the room with him a pleasant smile. "Mademoiselle du Lourdes, how nice of you to accept my gracious invitation."

The demon hunter didn't seem to be too resentful, which put Richelieu on his guard. The first thing she did was look downward, as if looking for something. Before he could inquire, she fell to her knees, bowed her head, and clasped her hands together.

<Oh wonderful,> he sighed inwardly, rolling his eyes. Going through with the required ritual, he extended his hand, which was decorated with a very elaborate ring.

Selene took his hand in her own and leaned forward, planting a chaste kiss upon the ring. Once he pulled it back, the girl whispered, "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned."

He blinked twice before recovering his composure. He'd expected the woman to protest, throw a tantrum, or invoke the Queen's authority in an attempt to escape his tender mercies. But to have her immediately go to her knees, tempting as that was, and begin a confession?!? That took all the FUN out of it!

<This is really beginning to feel strange.> The Cardinal took on the air of a confessor and tenderly said, "How have you sinned, my child?" If she were serious, perhaps she would leak information that would benefit him. <Of course, she would never accuse the Cardinal of violating the sanctity of confession. >

Looking around a little, as if expecting someone to walk in and overhear her admissions, she hesitated. Grinning inside at how juicy this must be, the holy man sat down in an overstuffed chair. "My child, no one will hear your confession but you, me, and God." <Although whether HE listens is debatable.> "Now tell me, child," he said with false compassion but true interest, "what happened that you sinned?"

"I…" She hesitated but then went forward. "Today, I came to believe myself capable of taking a human life."

Richelieu looked askance at her; this was hardly information he could use. Unless… "What made you come to this belief, child?"

The girl looked at him, her brown eyes looking conflicted. "You attempting to discredit my Queen, Your Grace." The look in her eyes became dark and she stood up, defiantly. "And I am here to tell you that your plot has failed!"

The man dropped his act and stood up, glaring back at her. "Is that so, my dear?" he questioned her, placing his hands on his hips. "And just how did my plan fail, Selene du Lourdes?"

She looked very much like she wanted to draw a weapon, but Richelieu knew that she wouldn't do so; her silly beliefs ran far too deep to commit such a sacrilege. She settled for clenching her fists and lifting her chin. "It was a simple matter to convince the men your hired of our loyalty to France. I came willingly to show them my honesty."

"And walked directly into my clutches, dear girl," he countered, giving her a smile he usually reserved for a doomed being. "You cannot believe that you're going to be able to fight your way out of here. Not past my guards and personal soldiers."

"I will not have to," she said flippantly. She reached a hand down to the sword at her side and said, "You are going to let us walk out of here unimpeded."

Before he could chastise her for even thinking of drawing a weapon on a man of the cloth, he suddenly yelled, "AH!"

Pain ripped through his backside and made him jerk forward. He reached around his body and grabbed at his butt, turning to see who'd dared to strike him.

To his immense displeasure (causing a mild case of nausea), the person who had a sword out was the woman his "guest" paired up with when hunting down known demons.

Still, this was his domain and his authority was supreme here. "WHO do you think you ARE, to assault one of God's servants?!?" he shouted in genuine ire that was building towards rage over someone invading his personal home. "Explain yourselves at once!"

While he expected some hesitance in moving against his person and position from the du Lourdes woman, her partner was too practical in defending the Queen against human threats for his taste.

Corina Beaubier smirked at him in a way that made Richelieu think of the infernal Irish for some reason. "Very well, Your Grace. We are a reformed prostitute turned protector of her Majesty the Queen, a retired buccaneer turned guardian of His Royal Majesty, and a nobleman who journeyed to our fair land seeking nothing more than entertainment and the company of fun-loving French men and women." She raised her rapier from the area of his groin and poked him in his stomach. "As for explaining ourselves, perhaps you should explain what makes you believe you could possibly kidnap four people minding their own business, so you could use coercion to make them say untruthful things about themselves to be used against their sovereigns."

"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time," he confessed, giving her a tight smile. "But alas for you, my dear, you have inadvertently given me useful information. You have drawn a weapon and used it against a servant of God. What will your precious Queen say when this becomes common knowledge? Or need I remind you, that members of the Church are not subject to laws of the Realm."

"Maybe not," that damned Porthos said with a grin Richelieu dreamed of wiping away forever, "but what we can do is report your little escapade to the King and Queen, informing them of your actions against their servants. And while the King may not be willing to remove you for fear of your influence, we have other methods at our disposal."

For the first time, the Cardinal felt a slight loss of superiority. <They wouldn't dare! These fools would never harm me!> "You wouldn't dare try to kill me. There are too many witnesses; you could never hope to get them all!"

"Non, Your Grace," du Lourdes said as she came around him and joined her comrades, including the elf that could ruin his life. <Although he hasn't done so yet, he must not have that much power.> She coldly, yet still respectfully, explained to him, "While no one in France has the power or courage to remove the threat you pose, well…" Her eyes became distant as if she were daydreaming. "Well, Your Grace, I have always had a dream of eventually meeting His Holiness."

He froze at the subtle yet unmistakable threat. And he could see that these two, unlike some servants of the Crown, would follow up on their threat at the earliest convenience. He growled a bit but made no move, as that pesky weapon was still pointing at him.

"What do you want?" he snarled, figuring that there would be some blackmail involved. "Certainly you're not naïve enough to ask me to resign." He laughed but the sword poked his robes again, silencing him.

"Non, Your Eminence," Corina Beaubier said, sarcasm for his title dripping like liquor from a tap. "What we want is your head on a spit. But, barring that, we are willing to settle for… oh say, five thousand francs of your personal fortune to be donated to various worthy causes around Paris. And then, another ten thousand for renovations to various holy institutions that may have fallen into disrepair during your tenure. Consider it an apology for failing to properly keep track of the plights of your brothers and sisters." She cocked her head and winked at him! "That is something monks and nuns will believe, rather than you saying it was from the goodness of your heart."

<You have no idea…> he groaned. Fifteen thousand francs?!? <Well, so much for leaving this life anytime soon.> He growled at the demands and sneered, "And what do you want, Musketeer? I know you well enough."

Porthos smiled and started pacing around the room. "Well, Your Grace, I have most of what I want. And while I could ask for you to find exotic weapons for the Mademoiselles and me to play with, I know you would frown on a peaceful man such as yourself doing such a thing. So…" He put his hand to his mouth, tapping against his lips in thought. He seemed to think of something because his eyes lit up.

"AHA!" he shouted, bringing the hand back. Before Richelieu could protest, his nausea became all encompassing as his old nemesis hit a priceless sculpture with his hand.

It fell to the floor and with a sound that Richelieu considered a death knell, shattered into a thousand marble pieces. He let out a little mew and choked on the loss of such a heavy investment. As the Cardinal sank to his knees, cursing these young fools, Corina's voice sounded, "Oh, Your Grace, we are so sorry! Please forgive our clumsy friend, he is a sailor and thus not used to walking on land! By the way, Your Eminence, we expect to see proof of your ‘donations' by the end of the month. Adieu!"

*****

As they exited the office, Selene was aware of the stunned looks they received from the Cardinal's employees. She was just thankful none of them were stupid enough to attack them and draw attention to the good holy man.

She guessed that elven invisibility spells had their uses and she gripped Arvindel's arm, squeezing it and leaning into the tall, muscular Knight. Corina and Porthos were too busy laughing at the outcome of their meeting to engage in sweet gestures.

Selene's eyes twinkled with pleasure as she said, "You know, Corina, I am quite surprised you did not take the opportunity to use one of your toys on the Cardinal's precious art objects."

"Oh?" her partner asked, grinning eagerly. "Which one?"

"That repeating crossbow comes to mind," she laughed, drawing more chuckles from the others.

Corina seemed to think about it and stopped, looking back at the room with a disappointed pout. "Hmmm. Maybe next time."

"And something else," she said with a grin. "Why carve an ‘x' into his buttocks?"

"What else would I carve? A ‘z?'"

"I thought you would carve your initial," she offered.

Corina giggled and hugged her pirate while they walked. "A ‘c' curves. I wanted to do something simple."

"What not an ‘I' then?"

"One line?" She sounded offended! She sniffed and said, "My dear Selene, I am an artiste!"

"Agreed," she giggled. She glanced at Arvindel and asked, "Will you be waiting for us at the tavern, mi amour? We have to report to Her Majesty."

Arvindel seemed to barely hold his desire in check. "Hurry," he said in a husky, lustful voice. "Don't dawdle."

"We won't," she said, grabbing the protesting Corina by the wrist and hurrying out into the waiting sun.

*****

Private Quarters of Selene du Lourdes
The grounds of the Royal Palace
Paris, France
11 June 1640

Selene smiled when the knock came at her door. She was just finishing dressing back into her uniform after her bath and expected she knew who it was. Standing up and not making her caller wait, Selene neglected to put her boots on and traipsed across the floor to answer the second knock. With a smile of affection, she threw the door open to find…

The Queen standing there, arching an eyebrow at Selene's expression. She quickly blanked her face and took a respectful posture, averting her eyes a bit. "Your Majesty," she said softly. "I was just finishing getting ready for meeting some comrades for dinner."

"So I deduced," Anne's humor-filled voice said with warmth as well. The voice dropped to a low, "May we come in?"

<We?> she thought. Before she could think otherwise, she stepped back. After all, this was the palace grounds, and no one refused royalty something on their own property.

The Queen of France walked in, followed by an older looking man in rich red robes. Her eyes going wide, Selene reacted on years of instinct and humility, dropping to all fours and kissing the hem of his clothes.

The older man reached down and brought her up to a kneeling position, a look of kindness and wisdom in his eyes. "My child," he addressed her, confusing her because of his English accent, "I would ask you not to act in such a manner, at least not in private. This is your home, not mine."

"I-I…" Selene looked to her Queen, who smiled gently. "Your Majesty?" She knew the Queen would understand her confusion. <He is English!>

"The good Cardinal has come from Rome, to look into various activities by members of the Church. I have explained some things to him and, while I hold no doubt that our dear Richelieu will unfortunately escape untouched, I hope that others will be willing to save themselves undue punishment by exposing his roles in plots going back years."

"Or in my case, if what your wise and noble Queen says is true," the Englishman added, "I hope to remove those who might still be saved from his dark influences. I would hope that you will see that I have the best interests of humanity and the Church in mind."

For some reason, the demon-hunting girl knew that he was sincere. And despite what he might think, she held fast to the belief that Richelieu was a tumor in power and not the rule for the Church. Brother Darius helped her see that whenever she visited him.

"What brings you hear, if I may ask, Eminence?" she asked at length.

He glanced at the Queen, who smiled knowingly and graciously exited the room, giving her some privacy. Rising back to her feet, Selene looked back at the Cardinal visiting her and he said, "I have had people watching you for some months now, my dear. They tell me that you learned the skills of your sisters very well, and they remember you fondly." He smiled admiringly at her. "And you put their lessons to use in the right causes."

Her suspicions at his openness warred with her girlish delight at his praise. "Wha… what do you want of me, sir?" she shyly asked.

The man clasped his hands together and asked, "Have you ever heard of the Congregation?" Somehow, she suspected it meant something other than the normal use of the word. She shook her head, playing it safe for now. "I see. Then allow me to enlighten you, although you can never repeat these things to anyone, not even your confessor."

She hesitated. <Something I cannot mention even to Brother Darius?> The official waited several breaths while she considered that. Eventually, she decided she wanted to know more. "I swear that only Our Lord in Heaven will hear the words you speak."

He seemed pleased by that. "Good, child, good." He walked over to her and placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder. "When I am done telling you about the Congregation, I want to make you an offer, one you need not accept now. Take as long as you want to decide, even if it is for years…"

*****

Selene walked into the tavern, having gone through five minutes of scolding from Corina about her tardiness. Unable to tell her why she'd been so long in getting ready, she just weathered the storm of Corina's temper.

They walked into the tavern where the rigmarole had started that morning and saw their respective paramours waiting for them to arrive. Porthos smiled in greeting, while Arvindel got up, walked straight over to them, and picked Selene up, twirling her around like a little girl.

<God, he doesn't know his own strength!> "Hello, mi amour," she said, locking her hands around his neck and drawing him down for a long, passion-filled kiss. After flattening their lips together for what seemed like forever to the now-dazed Femme Musketeer, she drew back and tried to catch her breath in more ways than one. "So, shall we order dinner or proceed straight to dessert?"

"About that…" he muttered, sounding hesitant. Her growing passion came to a halt as she released him and looked into his eyes. He must have read her thoughts, because the look in his eyes was anything but hesitant. He wanted her. "It is not you, cherie. It… that is, Porthos…"

"What my dear friend the Magus is trying to say," the pirate said with a laugh that irritated Selene for some reason, "is that when I went to order our rooms, there was only one left."

Selene's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the Musketeer. "One. Room?"

With a pained look in his eyes, Arvindel added, "And only one bed."

"One. BED?!?" she snarled. She looked over at Corina, who seemed just as surprised; the inn wasn't usually this full! But her eyes became something speculative and Selene followed her gaze to her lover.

She turned back to Corina and the two shared a glance. Selene began shaking her head. Corina began smiling.

"Please do not tell me you are thinking what I know you are thinking!" she begged.

Instead, Corina licked her lips. "This has the potential to become a… very interesting evening."

*****

VAN Ltd. Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
Late hours
1 August 1999

Shaw woke up and looked around, regaining her sense of the present. Edwin smiled at her. "Sorry for interrupting your trance, my dear, but I felt some things should be allowed to remain private."

"No fair," Faith pouted from the side. Shaw shot a dirty look at her, despite knowing Faith was mostly teasing.

"Next time let it play out," Gabrielle seconded. The ranger knew that she, unlike Faith, was not teasing.

<Goddess…> "I want to thank you, Edwin," she said, sitting up and drawing her knees up to her chin. She was surprised to understand that she'd enjoyed the experience. "That was most enlightening."

"Oh yeah," Faith drawled, "finding out I was an ex-hooker who slept with Oliver Platt really made my day. And having to fight Tim Curry…"

Shaw gave her a hurt look. "Faith, as someone who once worked alongside prostitutes and defended them from Jack the Ripper, I think that it is not a thing to worry about. We do not know what Corina's early life was like. Perhaps if we learn all the details…" She trailed off and looked to Edwin, who smiled graciously. "You would not mind?"

"Of course not. I could make it so that you remember everything about those past lives. But we could wait a while, perhaps until tomorrow?"

"Well, I at least learned one thing. Jonathan was right." She looked up at the Heavens. "Your sense of humor is warped!"

Gabrielle started laughing, but the others seemed in the dark as to her outburst. <And I would rather leave it that way, thank you very much!>

Shaw looked at her sister, who seemed to like the idea of them going on, to an extent. Shaw found herself desperately wanting to know more about past lives. "Gabrielle, what do you think?" she asked, referring more to what they'd learned so far. "And I do not mean about my name!"

Her friend seemed to understand that and was willing to keep the joke to herself. "Sure, Moon Elf." Shaw glared at her, but Gabrielle ignored the sunray spells shooting out of her eyes. Her own eyes went between Shaw and Faith before she answered. "There does seem to be a common theme already." When neither she nor Faith could guess what she was talking about, she smiled. "In both your past lives, Faith has been the warrior born and Shaw has been the spiritual one, albeit a fighter in her own right." Shaw felt her jaw opening and Gabrielle smiled at her understanding. "First life, you were a priestess of Scathach. Second life, you're a devout Christian. Although a little naïve about that code against killing. It's nice to know you're a little more practical now." She turned to Faith and Shaw looked at her; she was grinning. "While Faith mixes stuff up a bit. First, you're the older sister trying to protect Edana, second you try every weapon you can get your hands on. You've got the heart of a warrior, we always knew that, but this was beyond what anyone else could have expected."

Shaw considered the observation and liked the idea that no matter what incarnation she experienced, she had that connection or devotion to something or Someone greater than herself, even though the thought of being a Catholic was hard to take. In a fit of impishness, she thought, <C'est la vie.>

"So is there more or do we have another life or two behind us?" Faith asked. It seemed that Shaw wasn't the only one who wanted to go on. "Whaddya think, King G? We got another ass kicking term in there or what?"

"I don't know, Faith," Edwin replied, looking slightly embarrassed by the "King" moniker. "Your first incarnation wasn't until the second century AD, your second was only… three hundred and fifty years ago, give or take. It may be that you've only lived those lives."

"Any danger in finding out for sure?" she asked confidently. It was infectious; Shaw was feeling the same.

<Because it shows that our bond is true and perhaps everlasting.> She felt a calm inside of herself and gladly accepted it. "I suppose you want to call ‘dibs' on it, Faith?'

"Hop off the bed, Hunter, it's my turn!" Shaw and Marion both chuckled as she climbed off of the bed and let Faith take her place, hopping and bouncing like a child.

"You don't have any problems with this, Marion? Gabrielle?" Edwin asked, making sure that there were no objections.

"None, Edwin. The girls needed this and they want to learn everything they can. It's clearly making them happier."

"Darn tootin!" Faith chimed with a grin.

"She's right, Edwin. It was important for me and Xena to learn the depths of our relationship. I see no reason that Shaw and Faith deserve anything less."

Edwin looked at her once more and Shaw nodded, a smile touching her lips. "As you said, we could learn everything about ourselves there is to learn. I have already found things to think about. Please, let us do this."

"All right." Giles' father turned around and took a deep breath. "All right, Faith, let's give it the old college try, shall we?"

"Let's rock and roll, Watcher Daddy."

Edwin shook his head and said, "If I thought Marion would allow it, I'd leave you a suggestion to limit the number of nicknames you come up with for a person."

"Yeah, right. You know the more nicks I give someone, the more I like ‘em. You don't wanna change that."

He laughed, caught up in her street-wise chatter. "No, you're right about that. But let us be serious. You both had a busy night and need some sleep. Shaw especially."

*****

The only reason Faith didn't make a joke about slumber parties was because Shaw did need it. She suddenly wondered a bit how she was still up, given being whacked from healing and all.

<Maybe she's getting a Slayer-type rush from finding out about us,> she reasoned. Not that she minded; she was loving this stuff. <Not that I'm going to admit it to G-Man. I'd never live it down.>

She tried relaxing again and said, "Okay, Edwin. Let's see if the Boston Bad Girl's got one more life up her sleeve."

Eddie began doing the hypno-talking and she let him do what he needed to do to get her under. It wasn't easy, mostly because she was a stubborn kid, but eventually, she felt that tug again. She let it take her and this time, rather than caution at what she might find in a past life, she dove in, wanting to find out as much as she could.

For her and Soul Sis.

<Here goes nothing…> was her last thought before everything went dark.

*****

Everything went bright. Too bright! She closed her eyes at the light. <It hurts!> was her first thought. Chaos reigned in her mind, fighting her for control of her emotions and flooding her senses with too much information for her to process and make sense of.

She felt hands around her, picking her up and holding her carefully. She flailed about helplessly, a chill running over her entire body. She was terrified, not only of the light and sounds, but also because she felt strangely… alone. She was missing something. Or someone.

All she remembered was the dark. Except for that strange, familiar presence in the darkness. She missed both. She was scared!

The hands keeping her aloft gently laid her down onto something soft. She felt something wrap around her body and she tried to fight it with all her strength. She couldn't budge it, she was too weak. Her instincts began dulling a bit as whatever she was trapped in warmed her body up and vanquished the cold. She began to feel a little safer but kept her eyes closed tightly, still crying aloud. For some reason, she didn't feel right. Something felt… strange.

She felt herself being lifted again and she finally chanced opening her eyes, no matter how much the light hurt! She was just about to close them when a face filled her field of vision. She saw a woman smiling down at her, her face lit up with love and joy. She looked exhausted but didn't seem to let it affect her. Instead, the woman with the wet silver hair plastering her face, and light green eyes beamed at her, talking to her softly so as not to frighten her.

Somehow, it made her feel less afraid. But she still felt strange and as if she were missing something. That familiar presence. In her still rampant confusion, she caught one thing that somehow made sense to her. Something spoken by that tired person holding her.

"Silmakila."

She felt herself being shifted around and suddenly something new came into view. A tinier form, staring back at her with light green eyes, a skullcap of dark hair tight on her head, and pointed ears. She didn't know how she knew this, or what it meant, because she was still trying to overcome her instincts of terror from her violent entrance into this light!

She still felt strange. But it lessened a bit when she finally felt the presence come back to her. Somehow, the thing she was looking at was what she'd felt in the darkness with her. This was the thing she had been missing!

Her instincts knew that but her rational mind was too slow to make sense of these sensations and… feelings. Where did that come from? Why did she know things she had no concept of? Why…

Why did she feel strange…

She passed out, her fear and feeling the presence and love from too many directions exhausting her and putting her under the spell of sleep.

*****

Awareness came back to her, but only partially. The light wasn't so bright now, but for some reason that strange feeling was stronger. Somehow, she knew it wasn't good.

She cried out, still unable to coordinate her limbs. She was so weak…

She opened her eyes, hoping to make sense of what was happening. Instead, she saw the woman who'd looked at her so lovingly. She wasn't smiling now.

She was crying.

How did she know these things?!? She didn't understand!

The feeling hurt! It wouldn't stop! <Make it go away!> she screamed.

The lady who loved her picked her up and held her, making the fear go away a bit. But she still felt strange. She couldn't understand. Before she could cry out again, everything started going dark. She was going to sleep again. She…

*****

"FAITH! Come out! Come back…NOW!"

She cried again. It was too loud! She flailed a bit but couldn't move! The instincts of a newborn infant and the rational intellect of a young woman were at war. Lifetimes passed in an instant. Seconds dragged on for eons.

<Help me, damnit!> Kerri du Kaaveti, Corina Jacqueline Beaubier, Faith Patricia Reilly Pryce, and… Silmakila screamed together. Four separate identities, one shared soul.

"Faith, when I count to three, you'll wake up. One… Two… Three!"

The darkness exploded into light.

*****

VAN Ltd. Headquarters
Sunnydale, California
Early hours
2 August 1999

Faith woke up in a cold sweat, shaking like a leaf. The images haunting her had vanished, forever scattered and lost. Somehow, Faith didn't care. She didn't want to know what true chaos was anymore. <Okay, now that was major Wiggsome!>

However, she regained her composure with Irish attitude. "What the HELL was that?!?" she demanded from Edwin. "You were supposed to hypnotize me, not drop me into some Timothy Leary-land!"

He had a somber look on his face, prompting her to look around and see what the Hell was wrong. Marion had a haunted look on her face, like she was remembering something really, really bad. A quick stare at Gabbie showed her face was the same. What the heck did they have in common…

She shuddered as it dawned on her. <They both lost kids. Auntie lost her baby way back when and Linda this year.> She looked at the one person left in the room, hoping she wasn't going through that bad stuff too.

Instead, Redeye was crying her heart out. Before Faith could say it was okay, it was just a screw up, her Soul Sis' face crumpled and she turned and bolted, racing from the room and slamming the door so hard it made her cringe.

"What's wrong with everyone! It was…" It hit Faith in that second. Everything that had confused her. The crying, the way an old lady looked at her like Linda and Joyce did, that funky ass word that she knew, even though she didn't speak but one word of Shaw's crazy elf lingo… she knew what it had meant, and what it had been.

<Oh Gawd…> The rest snapped into place and she felt the same urge to cry her eyes out like Shaw. Hunter'd gotten the idea and realized what she'd seen because she'd recognized that word.

<Silmakila.> Again, she didn't speak a word of Elvie, but she knew that name was important. For that one simple reason. It was a name.

It had been her name.

"Oh shit…" she whispered, looking at Auntie M for permission. <Please!>

"Go to her." Marion was really sure. "Go and tell her it doesn't matter."

It did matter, but not in the way Auntie said it didn't matter. She jumped off, Edwin clearing her way. She ran to the door and flung it open, hoping to catch Shaw before she lost her head and did something stupid, like trying to find a way to kick the Big Guy's ass.

Personally, she wanted to do it too.

*****

She didn't even have to go ten feet. Soon as she stepped outside Shaw's room, there she was, sitting against the wall. Her legs were drawn up to her chest, arms holding them there, and she was bawling for all she was worth. Okay, the first life had ended pretty badly, but this was something Shaw could've done without.

<But I wanted to know. And it's right that she knows.> She realized that Shaw hadn't known, or she would've reacted a little better. Her heart aching but still soaring with elation now that she totally understood every single thing there was to know about their sister thing, Faith crouched down next to her sister and reached out to hug her. "Hey, Sis. In more way than one, huh?"

Lady Tuvok's voice was a whisper between crying. "I-I… I never knew. They never told me…" She shivered and gasped, "Oh Goddess… I don't think they knew…"

She started shaking again but Faith just held her. "I figured it out, Hunter. I got it. But it's okay."

Shaw pushed her back and Faith saw all the stuff they'd been through, from demon ass kicking to the whole night flashback sessions, catching up to her and draining her control to nada. "Faith, you… we…" Her head just started shaking, like she couldn't find the words.

Faith knew what part of the problem was. Pointy-eared twins from Shaw's mudball had that Psychic Friends thing going, letting them see through each other's eyes. She said, "Maybe some of that twinnie thing passed through to me in this life, Shaw. Think about it; when we saw each other, we felt it. Although I hope I'm not gonna be looking through your eyes when you and Lucky Charm do the deed…that would be too Wigsome, even for me."

"FAITH!" she shouted, although she looked half embarrassed and half ready to laugh at her attempt at cheering Shaw up.

"Shaw, look." She looked around, trying to figure out how to say what was on her mind and in her heart. <I'm Irish, this should be easy for me.> Finally, she sat on her tush and leaned against the wall as Redeye looked at her. "Listen, Shaw, I'm not going to say it was a picnic, not everything. Especially our dying in Scotland and what I just went through, but…" She sighed and leaned her head on Shaw's shoulder, everything finally catching up to Slayer Supreme. "We know a lot more about ourselves than we did before. And in a good way, damnit. I got no regrets. Besides, between you and me? Personally, I like the idea that we're fated to be together, no matter what. We're true soul sisters, thanks to the Powers that Be. The Big Guy, She Who Can't Decide What She Wants To Be Goddess Of, Corey the Head Elf Type God, whoever. I don't care. We'll always be together."

Shaw continued to on cry, but she calmed a little. "But… to think that you and I… that we could have been…"

"I know. And it probably would've been great." She shrugged but smiled at nothing as she stared at the wall, thinking about their collective fates. "But I think we've done a damn fine job as it is. Kicking Roman ass, fighting demons, Slaying, you name it. Hell, if that twin thing had gone through, we might be like Buff and Dawnie, always bitching at each other with Slayer Mom caught in the middle. As it is, we're as much sisters as sisters can be."

"I thought we knew that last part in April," Shaw noted tiredly, but Faith could feel she was smiling. She could feel it.

"I was on a roll. Not often I get to do the philosophical type stuff." She took her head off Shaw's shoulder and looked at her. "You okay? With everything?"

"I would not have thought I could learn so much in one night, Faith," she said, blushing blue all over again. "At least, not about myself. And not about what we share."

"Yeah, I know." Faith reached up and moved Hunter's mop top out of the way of her face. "But I want to know something, and you're the one who'd know. What did it mean?" When Shaw looked at her, lost, she said, "Sis, I saw Mo… I saw Mommy Redstar. She…" Faith swallowed at the memory imprinted on her. She knew it'd fade like a dream in a while, but for now it really made her think of Linda's eyes whenever she dreamed about her. "I saw how much she loved us, Hunter. It makes me think we both got gypped, you know? But she was talking and stuff, but I remember one thing. What did my name mean, huh?"

She knew Shaw'd recognized it. She looked at the floor again and she was starting to bawl again. {Silmakila,} she said, using Elfie lingo. "From ‘silme' and ‘makile.'"

"What's it mean? Come on, names mean something for everyone. I wa… Let me know, huh?"

Shaw nodded and looked her in the eyes. "I know it would be a perfect name for you, the warrior half of us." Faith smiled; she liked this already. "It means…Sword of Starlight. Or Silver Sword."

"Instead of something lame like Bright of the Grove?" she teased, expressing the meaning of Shaw's given name.

"Yeah," Shaw said, using American speak for once. "Faith, I…" Then she wrapped her arms around the Dark Slayer and hugged Faith tenderly. "I love you. I always have and I always will."

She sniffed back a few tears and whispered, "Ditto, Sissy." Then Faith smiled. "And something else to think about." Shaw drew back and looked at her with a puzzled expression. Faith grinned as an evil idea popped into her head. "Hunter, I was a pointy-eared girl like you for… two days, I think." When Shaw's eyes got misty again, she hurriedly added, "Shawukay, that means for two days, I was Allie's great-grandkid, too! What's gonna happen when Sabrina finds out!"

Shaw searched her face for lots of heartbeats before that smile came back. Faith felt like cheering but waited for it. "I think she shall require a very stiff drink to find out that she is related to you."

"Bitchin! I can't wait to see the look on her face, can you?"

NOW the half elf laughed heartily. "Goddess, no!"

"Then let's motor!"

Faith pulled Shaw to her feet with her Slayer strength and the two went to hunt for Teen Witch, laughing at the mind's eye picture of Sabrina's reaction they shared via their connection.

They strolled together, an arm over each other's respective shoulders, saying, thinking, or do nothing else, but feeling. Feeling one thing.

Faith smiled. <Feel the love!> she mused to herself, sounding for all the world like some smarmy New Age guru.

End

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