“Can anyone tell me why snakes shed their skin?”
The woman who was speaking had long, dark hair that fell to the middle of her back, along with deeply tanned skin, anda a pair of wire-rim glasses. She wore a dark red suit over a black shirt and tie, with crimson boots. Her gaze passed over the classroom full of bored high school students who were desperate to be done with class so they could start their weekend break.
“Oh come on, guys. We’ve still got a few minutes to learn things, can anybody tell me?”
One of the students raised his hand and pointed out, “Uh, Miss Ourania, this is English Lit, not science. What do snakes have to do with literature?”
His question drew a handful of groans from other students for giving their teacher an opening. She silenced them with a smile and raised eyebrow before answering. “If you believe the story of Gilgamesh, snakes shed their skin because one of them stole the flower of immortality while he was swimming in a lake.”
Another student rolled his eyes. “So a bunch of old morons from thousands of years ago thought that snakes shedding their skin meant they were reincarnating or something?”
“Wait, why would Gilgamesh leave something as important as a plant that could make him immortal sitting around while he went swimming?” a girl asked.
“Well,” Miss Ourania replied, “If you’re expecting people in these old epics to make good decisions, you’re going to be in for a bad time. People in these stories make mistakes. They’re fallible. Sometimes they’re not even very likable. Especially early on. Take Gilgamesh himself for instance. When his story started, he was a pretty horrible guy. I…”
She trailed off, taking in their expressions for a moment before considering her words. In the end, the woman smiled faintly. “Okay, let’s forget about that old story for a minute. Instead, let’s say you have this guy named Gil. Now Gil’s a senior in high school. Not only that, he’s the richest boy in school, the best athlete, the biggest and strongest guy around. Not only that, he’s really smart too. Money, brains, skill, strength, this guy’s got it all. But he’s also a huge jerk. You know, he picks on everyone, makes people do his homework, dumps smaller guys in the trash or just shoves them around to show how tough he is. And he keeps taking people’s girlfriends too. I don’t mean out for a date either. This Gil guy is sleeping his way through half the school’s female population, boyfriends or no boyfriends. Or girlfriends. And if any of them give him crap about it, well, he just pays them off or beats them up. Or worse.”
“And he’s supposed to be a hero?” a girl near the back of the class put in, the sentiment echoed by a couple others, while a few of the guys insisted that he sounded pretty badass to them.
Miss Ourania chuckled. “Like I said, heroes in these old stories are flawed. But he does change, somewhat. Eventually, a new boy shows up at school. We’ll call him En. Now the first thing En does when he shows up is challenge Gil to a fight. He’s heard all about all the terrible things Gil does, so he wants to kick his ass. They fight, and it goes on for a long time. No one’s ever challenged Gil like En does. In the end, Gil wins, but he’s got so much respect for the way En challenged him and how tough the other guy is, that they actually become friends. And these friends, they spend all their time together. They have adventures and learn a bunch of stuff, and they grow as people. And they both become even stronger after bathing in the blood of a giant.”
That prompted a mixture of eye rolling and murmurs of appreciation, with one student blurting, “Bathing in the blood of a giant? Why would that make them stronger?”
“You’d be surprised,” was the woman’s only answer. “Anyway, they get to be so famous and so important through their adventures that the queen of the school, the richest and most beautiful girl, comes to Gil and tells him she wants him to be her boyfriend. But Gil has heard some bad things about how the girl… we’ll call her Ina, treated her last boyfriend. So he blows her off, tells her no way. Ina doesn’t take kindly to this, so she sends her pet bull…. dog. Her pet bulldog to attack Gil and En. Now this is a huge bull…dog. But the two guys win. They beat her pet and kill it.”
One of the other students winced, raising her hand. “Um, Miss, can it just be a bull still, please? I don’t wanna hear about a dog dying.”
“Of course, Trixie,” the woman agreed. “So Ina has a pet bull. Or did. The two boys kill the bull because it’s trying to kill them. But Ina gets so pissed about this that she poisons their lunch.”
“This went off the rails, Miss Ourania,” another student pointed out. “I think the whole high school analogy kind of fell apart.”
With a chuckle, the teacher accepted that with a nod. “Perhaps. But the point is, only En was poisoned. Gil did his best to save him, but he died, even with his giant blood bond. Which made Gil so upset that he set out on a long journey trying to find a way to become immortal. He had several adventures, made some more mistakes, but in the end he found a man who was immortal. When asked, the man told Gil that the gods made him and his wife immortal after they used an ark full of animals to survive a great flood.” Seeing the raised hands, she shook her head. “No, his name was not Noah. It’s just a very similar story. But, in any case, the man challenges Gil to stay awake, to conquer sleep before conquering death. Gil can’t do it, he eventually falls asleep and stays asleep for a week. Which is something I’m sure none of you have ever thought of doing.”
As the students reacted to that, she continued. “But the immortal man’s wife convinces her husband to tell Gil about a plant on the bottom of the sea that can make him young again. He goes and gets it, but he doesn’t use it right then. He wants to test it on an old man back home first. So he… well, stops to bathe, leaves the plant sitting by the shore, and as I said, a snake makes off with it. And that’s why snakes shed their skin. You know, supposedly.”
“So he completely failed?” a girl demanded. “In the end, he lost?”
“Did he fail?” Miss Ourania asked curiously. “You see, Gilgamesh is the oldest known story we have. It takes place around 2500 BC. And we’re still talking about it. Even if you don’t know the story, you’ve heard of Gilgamesh. In the end, I’d say he really did become immortal.”
At that point, the bell rang, and students all bolted for the door, with varying amounts of goodbyes and gratitude sent her way. Stepping back, the woman watched them leave, until the last had disappeared and let the door fall shut behind them. Only for it to reopen a second later as one of the girls poked her head back in. “Miss Ourania, please no more snake-adjacent stories for awhile? They’re creepy.”
Once she had withdrawn and all the students were gone, the woman murmured, “Oh, I don’t know, snakes can be very helpful if you know how to talk to them. They’ve certainly done me a favor or two.” With those words, her hand dipped into her pocket, before coming out with a piece of a plant with deep green leaves and three small berries at the end. Studying it for a moment, she smiled very faintly. “What can I say, Gil?
“You really should have agreed to be my boyfriend.”
August 17th, 1585
“Now are you quite certain you wish to be left in this… place, sir?”
The man asking the question was a tall sailor with a thick beard and very red face, standing next to a rowboat that was waiting to take him and the others who were already waiting back to the nearby ship so they could leave and be done with the entire excursion. He sounded quite eager for the subject of the question to join them in that departure. “You should return with us.”
As for the subject himself, that man stood several inches shy of six feet, his advanced age readily noticeable at a glance. Yet despite his shockingly white hair (what there was of it), his deeply-wrinkled (and heavily-tanned) skin, and the fact that he leaned heavily on a sturdy cane the man still shook his head. “No, I don’t think I’ll be making the trip back at all, Herbert. I told myself a long time ago I wouldn’t die on a ship in the middle of the ocean. And I think you and I both know that the odds of me making it all the way back, after the trip we had getting here, are pretty much nonexistent.” His voice shook a little, betraying just how much effort it was taking to stand there. Still, he raised one hand from its death grip on the cane, reaching out to clap it against the other man’s arm. “You’ve been a good friend. I won’t say the best I’ve ever had, mostly because my best friends tend to die, and I want better for you. Go on. Get back on the ship, go home. I’ll be fine here with these… good people.” His hand rose, gesturing toward the assortment of colonists who were already spreading out to carry landing supplies up and find a good place to set their camp.
Herbert spent the next few minutes attempting to change his employer’s mind, but the man would not be dissuaded from staying. Not that Herbert knew that much about the man in question. He had only been hired shortly before the voyage here to the new world to ensure that the old man made it. But over the course of that journey, he had grown fond of the man, who only gave his name as Odd. Or rather, Old Odd.
“You’re staying without proper food and other supplies, sir,” Herbert insisted. “That Ralph Lane fellow–” He shot a quick, annoyed look toward the commander of this expedition, who was directing people on where to move the crates and sacks that had survived. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. He’s too quick to temper.”
Old Odd gave an audible chuckle. “You are too kind for worrying about me. But I promise, I’ve dealt with men who have worse tempers than his. Now you take this.” From seemingly nowhere, he produced a small bag that jingled as he handed it over. “You put that away and you don’t look in it until you’re back on that ship.”
Listening to no more protests, the elderly man turned and began to limp away on the cane. He went not toward the spot where Ralph Lane and his people were setting up the colony, but away, toward the woods. He had no intention of sticking around to help work on establishing this Roanoke Colony, and highly doubted it would last. Not with the temperament Lane himself possessed. He’d be lucky if he didn’t start a war with the nearby natives.
The going was quite slow, limping as he did. He could hear the rowboat set out behind him, and felt a moment of amusement at the thought of how Herbert would react when he opened that bag and found the gold coins within. It was a lot of money. But then, you couldn’t really take it with you, could you? Not where he was going, at least. Let the young enjoy the wealth. He’d had his time.
More than his time, considering how long he had lived. But even extended lives ended eventually. He was just glad he’d managed to make it long enough to set foot on this new world. Well, an island off the coast of it, but that was close enough.
It was just as well that a man whose name had become synonymous with a long journey would make one last of those. He wouldn’t last much longer in this life. That much he knew without any doubt. There had been times during the voyage that he had been afraid that he wouldn’t even make it this far. Yet now that he was here, he was going to take a walk. His old body had lasted this long, it could damn well allow him this much.
He should have died over two millennia earlier, of course. He’d had more than his fair share of years, thanks to the blood of Calypso. It was his connection to her, his link, his bonding to that woman that had allowed him to survive for this long, to see… all the wondrous and terrible things he had seen. He’d witnessed the end of the world when humanity was somehow separated from the god-touched creatures they had once lived alongside, and had seen entire civilizations fall as humans became more and more distant from the magic that had once defined them.
For many years, he had sought to find an answer to what had caused such an event. Yet by that point, he was already well-over a millennium old, and had spent most of that keeping to himself. After a youth spent traveling, fighting wars for other people, and in general solving everyone’s problems, he had decided to spend several centuries after his wife had passed away simply living a quiet life in the middle of nowhere. Which meant that he had little in the way of contacts when he finally did start to branch out once more. The people he had known were gone. His attempts to discover the source of what he called the Magical Divide were for naught.
So, he had gone back to living his life. But not as a hermit any longer. For these past centuries, he had built quite the business empire for his descendants. They were all back in the old country, and would be well-off for many years to come, assuming they didn’t squander it. And that was their business.
Reaching the top of the small hill he had been climbing for the past few minutes, the man found a boulder and settled himself against it, watching the sun as it continued to rise over the water in the distance. He had been on too many ships in his day. No more. He almost hadn’t made this journey, out of a resistance to traveling by water yet again. But in the end, he’d had to. One more time. Because this was the end. Even the blood of Calypso could only keep him going for so long. This… reaching this new world, that was enough. It would have to be.
He had done enough. His family would live on, back in England and eventually on this new continent, he was sure. He’d had an abundance of children throughout the years, and they knew to take care of one another. Even if they didn’t realize just who he was or that he was the father of all of them. His children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on intermingled. They would be safe. They would be prosperous.
Sliding his way off the boulder to the ground, he set the cane aside, breathing in deeply before letting it out. He watched the sun rise. That was important. He didn’t want to go as the sun set. That would be too sad, too… final. He wanted to go as it rose, a sign that the world would continue without him. He had fought so hard these past months to keep going, to make his traitorous, failing body continue just a bit longer. Now he was done fighting. Now, he could lie here on the ground, head against the rock, and watch the sun lift higher by the moment. He could close his eyes, and imagine the world his family would inherit.
Though some part of him wished he had found an answer to what caused the Divide, or that he had managed to become even more than he had, in that moment, as his eyes closed with the light of the rising sun upon his face, the man knew that he would never be happier. This was his life, and it had been a good one.
And in the time between the sun’s steady rise and when the other men of what would be the first of two doomed Roanoke colonies found him, his eyes never opened again.
The odyssey was finally complete.
“Fucking Saints, am I right? Always letting you down.”
With those angry words accompanying the chorus of annoyed boos, the bartender pointed his remote at the television broadcasting the end of the New Orleans Saints football game and changed the channel. The remote was tossed aside before he focused on the man in front of him. “You don’t seem as bothered as these other folks though.”
At one time, so many years ago, the man he was addressing would have had a very different response. Quite different indeed, even if one didn’t consider how different his response would have been simply given the change between when he was young and the present day. He had less control then, and was certainly far more of a zealot in his beliefs.
Yet those days had long-passed. The times had changed, as had he. Granted, a major source of that change was the choice he had made in far-away days. A choice brought about not by the offer of silver as so many believed, but simply by staying too long at an inn after his fellows, and their leader, had departed.
Meeting the curious stare of the heavily-bearded bartender, Judas Iscariot rubbed his own clean-shaven face. His dark hair was also cut short, and styled upward in short gel-assisted spikes. He wore an expensive, yet fashionable outfit including a dark turtleneck and sports jacket, and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses covered his eyes. When he spoke, it was in a soft, mild-mannered voice that the bartender had to lean forward a bit to hear over the sound of all the complaining throughout the rest of the room over their favorite football team’s failure.
“I’ve had my fair share of problems with saints.” With those simple words, he put two hundred dollar bills on the bar before pushing himself up. “To cover me and the rest of my friends over there whose luck has not been as good as they hoped.” Tapping the two bills twice, he turned to head out, ignoring everyone else. Despite his words, they were not his friends. He seldom stayed in one place long enough to make anything resembling that. Well, aside from one companion who had stuck by him for awhile.
Stepping out into the cold evening air, not that he felt it, Judas looked up and down the busy New Orleans street. Abruptly, he pivoted and pulled open the door he had just come through. The man who had been about to push it open from that side blinked in surprise, then mumbled a thanks and moved past, giving him a curious glance on the way as though wondering how he had known there was someone coming up behind him through the closed door.
Judas was far more perceptive than he had been in the old days. Some might say paranoid, but paranoia was not always without merit. He tended to be hyper-aware of his surroundings, ever since… well, ever since that night at the inn. The glorious, incredible man he and his companions had followed left to take a walk through the town. Peter and the others had accompanied him, but Judas had stayed behind because he had not yet finished his meal.
It was while he had been sitting there, scraping the last bit off his newly-bare plate, that the man had been joined at the table by… her.
The woman who would become the face of evil in his mind stood out for her dark skin. Darker even than others of what was now-known as the Middle East. Her clothing had blended in, at least in style and make, though it had been entirely too clean and new. His immediate thought when he saw her was that it looked as though she had plucked the clothes out of a sealed box, or used some sort of cleaning spell just before entering the inn, which had seemed an odd use of magic given how quickly they would get dirty again.
If only he could go back and tell his younger self to pay attention to that oddity, and the rest. Of course, if he could go back, he would have told himself to leave when his leader and the rest of their group did, not to dawdle in finishing his simple, unimportant meal.
But dawdle he had, and the woman had joined him at the table. Her honeyed words convinced him to step outside with her, to an alley where they might… well, nothing of that sort had happened. Instead, the moment they were out of sight of any onlookers, the woman put her hand to his chest and vanished.
No, she hadn’t vanished. She had possessed him. And introduced herself as a Seosten. She informed Judas that she had no business with him directly. Her job was to take his master by forcing Judas to betray the man and toss him to the local authorities so that he could be… punished.
She called his master a lie, but Judas knew he was not. At the time, he had not understood the term she was using. All he knew, all he cared about, was that the man she wanted to silence was the most beautiful soul he had ever known. The details were unimportant. He loved all and preached acceptance and mercy. Yet these Seosten wanted him removed. Whether it was for the specific things he said or because he had thoughts above what they considered his station, he had no idea.
What mattered, in the end, was that the Seosten got what she wanted. Her target was… was gone, and she abandoned Judas to his fate as the traitor. Or at least, she intended to abandon him. But Judas regained his feet faster than she had thought as she walked away, and he threw himself after her with murderous intent.
Of course, his intent was meaningless against someone of her skill. As was his anger. Yet in the ensuing struggle, before she snapped his arm in three places and drove his own knife into his stomach, Judas managed to wound her. Granted, it wasn’t much of a wound, given he’d only cut that same knife across her hand moments before she snatched it away from him. But it was still something. She didn’t escape from their battle unscathed.
The same knife that had cut her hand had been driven into his stomach, and he was left on the ground to bleed out, alone and seen as a traitor by all. But he had survived long enough for someone to find him. As that man knelt at his side, Judas’s grasping, desperate hand found his arm. And in his delirious desperation, he used the same power the Seosten woman had when she took him over. When she had stabbed him with the same knife that had her blood on it, blood from her hand, the Seosten had given her bond to him. She had given him her gifts, including possession. And it was that possession that Judas unthinkingly used in that moment, taking over the man who came to check on him.
Much had happened since those days. He had to come to learn more of the Seosten in his long travels these past two thousand years. When she had learned of his survival, and the source of it, the woman herself had been disgusted. She sent others to kill him, sometimes accompanying them herself and sometimes not. Regardless, she made it clear that she saw the man as a vile, disgusting thing that needed to be erased.
So, Judas bore hatred from all sides. Standing there now on the busy sidewalk, he stepped aside as a crowd pushed past him on their way to beat the nearby traffic light. But he was in no hurry. There was little for him to do, little for him to gain by rushing to get anywhere.
Someday, he would be ready to find her again. And they would fight on his own terms. But for now, he was not ready. He had learned much, yet not enough to kill the snake who had stolen his… everything. But he was learning. He was getting stronger, faster, better with each passing year.
And someday, he would finish what he had started two thousand years earlier with Charmeine’s hand.
England – 1190
Laughing spiritedly as she raced through the dense forest, the young woman ignored the calls of her minders and escorts to return to the wagon until the convoy was ready to move on. Her chestnut-colored hair was covered by the dark green hooded cloak she wore over her riding clothes. She was of an age that was considered too old to be frolicking the way she was, yet still young enough to be called out on it. Not that she would have listened were she any older or younger anyway. The girl was far too free-spirited to allow herself to be fastened to the ground like common livestock. There were far too many things to see and experience in the world to simply sit with the wagons and wait patiently.
Besides, after the way the ground had violently shaken that morning, causing landslides across the countryside, tipped over trees, and even a caved-in ravine just north of the caravan’s path, she wanted to see what else had happened. Maybe the shaking had uncovered buried treasure, or a secret tunnel. Oh, she really hoped there was a secret tunnel. That would be the best.
Looking over her shoulder to shout back that she was fine and wouldn’t go far, the girl tripped over something hard enough to bruise her ankle, and went sprawling with a yelp. Scrambling to turn around, she found herself facing what looked like a pile of dirt and rocks that had emerged from the nearby hillside, likely due to all that shaking. But something else was sticking out of the dirt. It was a… a leg. Seeing that, the girl’s first impulse was to jerk backward and start to scream, thinking she had found a dead body. But something made her stop. The scream died in her throat, as she slowly leaned forward. Reaching out with a shaking hand, she brushed off the leg, only to see gleaming metal, like a sword. The leg wasn’t normal, it was all made out of that sword-metal.
Confused and intrigued, the girl moved closer and continued brushing more dirt off, moving all the way up the leg and over to the other one. Soon, she had uncovered both of them entirely, and worked her way to the waist. Seeing the flat, smooth pelvic region, she tilted her head curiously and raised her gaze further. The rest of the… whatever it was couldn’t be seen just yet, as it was still buried under the mound of dirt.
So, the young woman straightened up a little and put both hands on the legs. Heaving several times, she barely managed to pull the body out from the dirt. It took multiple tries, and she felt as though she might strain something, but finally managed it. Nearly falling over once the body came free, she stumbled backward a couple steps before catching herself.
And then she saw it. A silver metal person, lying there in the dirt. It looked… it looked just like a person, save for being all naked and made of metal. Whether it was a boy person or a girl person, she couldn’t be certain. The pelvis was flat, though there were two slightly raised bump areas in the upper torso that could have been a hint of feminine curves. Still, she wasn’t sure.
“A doll?” the girl asked aloud, leaning up over the thing. “This is a very big– ahh!” The cry came because the thing’s eyes had abruptly popped open. Eyes that appeared to be made of stained glass, like in the churches.
“Hello,” the doll spoke. “Please do not be frightened, I am error.” The last word came a bit louder than the others, as the doll’s head snapped sideways before resuming its gaze at the girl. It smiled a bit. “I am sorry, I appear to have been damaged. I intended to introduce myself, but my name is error. Apologies.”
“Your name is error?” The girl, confused, shook her head. “I… I’m Marian. Who–what are you?” She looked the thing up and down slowly.
“I have… been damaged,” came the response. “I have… forgotten my name. I do not have a name. I was… under the ground for a long time. Many–hold.” Its head tilted, looking to the sky, then back to the ground before speaking again. “Many centuries. Many lifetimes. I have been buried. Asleep. Lost. Damaged. I was damaged in battle. Above.” Its head tilted to look upward, before a dirt-covered silver hand rose to point that way. “I was damaged above. And then I fell. I fell here, where I was buried for a long time.”
“You are… a creature of the sky people,” Marian gasped.
“I am called a Mevari,” the doll-creature informed her. “That is what our people were named by our creators. I have my own name, but it is gone. Many things are gone. My damage has been substantial.”
“Well, you need a name,” Marian pointed out. “I had a friend once, his name was Robert. But he died. Some of the other children called him Robin. He hated that. But perhaps… you would not hate it?”
Slowly rising to a sitting position, the figure shook itself to knock some of the extra dirt off. Then it smiled again. “Robin. This is acceptable, Marian. I am sorry to have frightened you when I woke.”
“It’s… it’s alright,” Marian assured the doll–Robin. “But are you… are you a boy or a girl?”
Robin’s head tilted. “Boy or girl? I am neither. I am both. I am what I need to be, what I feel to be. At times I am masculine. At times, I am feminine. It need not be defined further.”
“Well, whether a boy or a girl, you need clothes.” Pausing to consider, she shrugged out of the dark green cloak she wore, wrapping it around the other figure. Then she reached out and tugged the hood up and over the gleaming silver head, smiling a bit. “See? Well, it’s not perfect, but there we go. It looks good on you.” Her hand tugged the hood down a bit playfully. “Robin the Hood. Perfect.”
Before the newly-dubbed Robin could say anything else in response to that, the sound of people coming through the trees made her turn, expecting to see the guards from her own caravan. Instead, a small army-worth of armored soldiers appeared, led by a man wielding a heavy sword.
“Sheriff Wendenal,” Marian blurted, rising to her feet.
“There you are, young Marian,” came the sharp retort. “You need to come with us.”
“My escorts–” the girl started.
“Are being told to return home and inform your father that until he pays the taxes that are owed to the prince, his daughter–that would be you, dear– will be my guest. Now if you–” The sheriff stopped in mid-sentence as his gaze found the metal figure, partially shrouded by the cloak, standing nearby. “What in… God’s name is that?!”
“Hello!” The Mevari waved a silver hand. “I am Robin the Hood. Marian does not wish to go with you.”
Recovering from his surprise, the sheriff waved a hand for two of his men to go that way. “Pick that… thing up and bring it with us. Let’s go, Marian.”
One of the heavily-armored figures reached out to grab Robin’s arm, but they abruptly jerked away. Marian couldn’t see what happened then. It was all a blur of motion. Yet when it was over, the two soldiers were on the ground, and Robin had taken one of their swords, hurling it so fast that the sheriff was crying out in pain before Marian had even processed that the weapon was being thrown.
Clutching the side of his ear, where the thrown sword had passed through one side of, the sheriff howled in pain.
“That was a warning, Sir Sheriff,” Robin informed him. “I said, Marian does not wish to go with you. Nor do I.”
“What are you fools waiting for?!” Sheriff Wendenal demanded, giving a dark gaze to the assorted men around him. There were ten, all highly trained and armed. “Kill that thing!”
The men made as though to follow orders. But Robin had already snapped their hand down to catch hold of a bow that had fallen from the shoulder of one of the first two soldiers who had tried. Their other hand caught a bundle of arrows from a discarded quiver, and they brought both together in the same motion. Gaze passing over each of the suddenly-charging figures, Robin spaced the arrows apart on the bow and snapped it sideways while drawing back the string and releasing.
Ten arrows, each loosed at the same time, found their marks. Each arrow cut straight through a tiny opening here or there within each of the ten charging soldiers’ armor. One went through a small slot between the arm plates and into the shoulder, another through an opening between the chest and helmet where the throat was slightly exposed, one through an almost imperceptible hole in the lower chest.
Ten shots, ten armored soldiers, ten hits, and all ten men were on the ground. All in a single volley from the same bow.
The sheriff was staggering backward, his wide eyes taking in the sight of all his downed men as he sputtered in disbelief.
Pivoting then, the metal figure held a hand out toward Marian. “There will be more soon. We should leave. I am too damaged to proceed in direct combat.”
Gaze snapping up at those words, Sheriff Wendenal started to scramble forward. “Stop! Do not go with that criminal, Marian!”
Marian, however, was already lunging to grab her new silver companion’s hand. Together, they began to race out of the small clearing, disappearing into the trees.
“Stop!” the sheriff shouted ineffectually after them. “Marian, your family will pay for this! Creature! Robin! You will be hunted to the end of your days! You are a criminal! A bandit! Robin… Robin the Hood!
“You will pay for this, Robin Hood!”
“Oy! You even old enough to be in here?” The snapped question came from a heavyset bartender as he pointed at a slim figure with dark blonde hair who had been walking past. She wore dark green jeans with a black silk shirt and a green leather jacket. Her hair was pulled into a tight braid, and a pair of dark sunglasses covered her eyes despite the fact it was late at night and they were inside. “I don’t need any fines for serving any underaged chicks looking for a thrill, you hear?”
The young woman turned her head to look at him, but before any words could come out, one of the regulars rose and pivoted to put his hand on her shoulder. “Aww, don’t you worry none, Frank. I’m sure this one’s perfectly legal and all. Ain’t you, sweetie?” The hand that wasn’t holding the girl’s shoulder grasped her backside and squeezed. “How about we get a name in exchange for a drink, hmm?”
There was a brief pause before she spoke in a distinctly Russian accent. “My name is Stasia. I am looking for a man.”
“Well hell, sweet thing,” the guy who was still groping her crowed, “if you’re looking for a man, I’d say you’ve found one.”
Head turning slightly to look over her shoulder at him, Stasia studied the man through the sunglasses. Her accented voice was flat. “You are not the man I seek. And were you he, you would have more than a broken finger to show for it.”
“Broken finger?” Echoing the words in clear confusion, the man started to shake his head. “What bro–aahhhh!”
The girl’s hand had moved quickly to grab his as it cupped her rear before twisting one of his fingers the wrong way around abruptly, snapping it. As he was still yelping and cursing, she pushed him aside and strode away. Her gaze passed over the crowded bar, seeking her quarry. Several possibilities caught her attention, but none panned out. None were the right man. She was starting to doubt that he was here after all. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, given how long she had been fruitlessly searching for him.
Then she saw it. Not the man himself, but a photograph pinned to the wall above one of the tables. Stepping that way, she murmured an apology to the people sitting there and reached over to pluck the picture off the wall. A closer look confirmed that it was a picture of a man in a dark suit, his brown hair and matching beard both long and a bit wild. His eyes were intense, glaring in what appeared to be barely suppressed rage. He seemed to be staring through the camera and straight into the soul of whoever was looking at the picture. Staring right through her.
A shudder had just run through the girl as the man who had been accosting her before found her once more. “Hey, bitch! I’ve got a–”
She pushed him idly with one hand, sending the man flying a good seven or eight feet before he crashed down between two billiards tables. Putting him out of her mind with even more ease than she had put his physical body away from her, Stasia pivoted to walk back the way she had come moments earlier. The picture went down on it in front of the bartender. “This man,” she announced. “I am looking for him.”
“What–hey you, I don’t want any trouble in here,” Frank started before looking down. “If you don’t–huh? Greg? The hell do you want with Greg?”
“Greg is what he is going by?” Stasia lifted her chin. “Tell me when he was last here.”
“Ain’t been around since…” Pausing to consider for a brief moment, the bartender grimaced. “Four months? Nah, five. Had to be five. Anyway, he comes and goes. He’ll come in three, four, even five nights a week for a few weeks, then disappear for months. Ain’t got nothing tying him down, I guess.” He looked her up and down again. “Unless he does. You his kid or something? Tell me you ain’t–”
“No,” she interrupted flatly. “I am not his lover. I am here to kill him.”
Looking down at the glass he had been wiping clean, the bartender reflexively started to nod. “Ah, well goo–wait, what?” He blinked upward, but there was no sign of the girl or the photograph. Both had vanished.
“Okay you little cunt, I’ve got the cops right–” Coming into view with his phone held high, the man who had accosted her stopped short, looking around in confusion. “The fuck? She was right–what the… how… what?”
Meanwhile, Stasia had stepped out of the bar. Too late, again. The man–creature who had helped destroy her family, who had– who had turned her into what she was, had already moved on. She could wait in the area for his roaming path to gradually lead him back to this place, since he apparently liked it enough to return repeatedly. But there was no guarantee that he would come back this time. Sitting around might simply allow his trail to get even colder. Besides, he could also hear about her waiting for him. And the last thing she wanted was for the man who called himself Grigori Rasputin to know that she was so close. After so many decades of searching, after training under every expert she could find in how to kill the man who was responsible for her family’s deaths, she would not allow herself to lose his trail now. Several months might seem an impossibly-long time for him to have been gone from this place, but this was the closest she had gotten since that time on the train mere months after she first escaped his clutches.
She had been little more than a helpless child then. A monster, yes. The monster he turned her into, after she survived the deaths of all her family. He had taken the young Anastasia Nikolaevna and created what he called a companion for himself. He had thought to put her under his heel. Yet she had escaped. She had broken the bonds he placed on her and fled, leaping from the train they were on as it passed over a rocky ravine.
She had no idea if he knew she survived. But he would learn the truth soon enough.
“Nikolaevna?” A voice spoke up from the nearby alley as she was striding past. Her gaze snapped that way, in time to see two figures in the dark shadows. One stepped forward, revealing a clean-shaven olive-skinned man with dark clothes and fancy hair. “Anastasia Nikolaevna?”
On her guard, Stasia’s gaze passed from the man to his still-deeply shadowed companion. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Apologies for the rudeness,” the man replied, giving a slight bow. “We hear that you’re looking for the one who calls himself Grigori Rasputin, the Akharu who turned you into a vampire. We would like to have some words with him as well. We believe the three of us can help one another. I am Judas.” He turned slightly, raising a hand to usher the other figure forward. “And this is my… companion.”
“Robin,” the silvery-metallic figure announced while coming into view, lowering the hood of their coat. “Call us Robin.”
“Robin and Judas.” Stasia’s gaze flicked between them. “What is your business with Rasputin, and what do you know of how to find him?”
Judas replied, “He knows something of a woman I seek. She has done business with him. And Robin here believes he knows what happened to their old friend. As for how to find him, we don’t know exactly. But we know who does know. She goes by Shala Ourania. But her real name is Inanna. She can tell us where to find Grigori Rasputin. We just have to do a favor for her first.
“Find Odysseus’s body.”