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Prophecy

By Jadestar

 

It was the coldest winter in Remaica's history. A new record low was set almost daily, and since it was too cold for the snow to even start to think about melting, every new storm added another foot or two of snow to the piles, compressing the lower sections of the drifts to solid ice. The snow mounds were one or two stories high in some cities, and packed so hard that not even snowplows could make a dent in them. All over Remaica, smaller towns were completely shut down, and even large cities like Keltor were slowed almost to a standstill.

Of course, for the Brotherhood, which had stockpiled for occasions like this and had its own generators, the whole thing was like an extended vacation. They didn't have to go outside, so once the novelty of snowball fights wore off, they just didn't.

That made the lounge a very popular place to be.

Rio was sitting toward the back of the lounge, sipping at some coffee and watching the party, trying to pretend she wasn't lonely. She didn't particularly want to be there, watching people having fun but not joining in, but she figured it was better than holing up in her room and fretting herself to pieces. At least this way she was around people without having to actually interact with them. None of her close friends were there that night; the group in the lounge was mostly singles who had nowhere better to be and were trying to find something who was equally lonely to keep warm with for a night or two. Most of the couples were taking advantage of their enforced sabbatical to keep themselves otherwise occupied.

Which was why Rio was surprised when Gina came over and sat down across from her. "I thought I'd find you here."

Rio blinked at her, startled out of her thoughts. "Hey, what are ya doin' here? I thought ya'd be off breakin' furniture wit' Dalin."

"I was, but we decided to take a break to recuperate before locking ourselves in our room for another forty-eight hours." She paused, studying Rio's face, then asked with a faint smile, "Down here brooding over Hunter?"

"I don't brood," Rio replied with the same dry smile. "But I am worried. We were 'sposed ta meet two nights ago, but wit' the road between here an' the Metro closed...I was willin' ta risk it anyway, an' hope we got snowed in tagether, but he called an' told me not ta dare. I know he's right, but damn, I miss him."

"I know. These past couple of years have been hell on you two. I don't know how you stand it."

"We don' have a choice, that's how we stand it." Rio sighed. "Gina, do ya believe in fate?"

"I...guess that depends on what you mean by 'fate,'" she replied cautiously. "If you're asking if I think that someone's controlling what I do and when I do it, and everything in my life is all planned out and I don't have any choice in what happens to me, then no, I don't believe in fate."

"I didn't think that I did, either, but I don' know, now... I almost want ta believe in fate an' destiny now, ya know? Because if I can't hang on ta believin' that Cal--Hunter an' I are 'sposed ta be tagether, I think I'd go insane."

"I see." Gina was quiet for a moment, then said softly, "I do believe that there couldn't have been anyone else for me but Dalin, if you can call that fate. He knows I think that, too. And if you ever tell anyone else I said that, I'll kill you."

"I don' doubt it." They sat in silence for a moment, nursing their own thoughts and ignoring the chaos going on around them. "Listen, I want some coffee. Ya want some coffee?"

"Not if you're making it, you'll poison us both."

"Very funny."

"I thought so. Here, I'll help you make it."

"Sure." They got up and threaded their way over to the bar, trying to avoid a few men who'd had a little too much party. "Damn, I wish the weather would break. Some a' these hotheads have been stuck in here too long, they need ta get out before they snap."

"They're not the only ones. Rio, you need to get, too, before you go crazy worrying over Hunter."

"I'd love ta get out, but do ya know what it's like out there? It's an iceland! No one's goin' out in that."

"Then no one will be expecting to be hit. Listen, I got a contract for a job right before that last big storm hit. I was going to put it off for awhile and wait to see what the weather did, but I'm going to lose some of my commission if I put it off much longer. Why don't you come along with me?"

"Even before the last big storm, there was still about six feet a' snow on the ground. It musta be pretty damn special fer someone ta offer a job in this weather, an' fer ya ta take it."

"The price was right, and I was looking for a challenge. The client seemed to think it was worth paying any price, his opening offer was so high my eyes almost bugged out of my head. It's some apparently priceless book called 'the Scrolls of Boragottchio,' some ancient--what's wrong?"

Rio had abruptly choked on her coffee, and was coughing violently. Gina pounded her on the back until she could breathe again, waving her help away. "Hot--holy--damn! Somebody's actually found the Scrolls?"

"According to theory, anyway. I've never even heard of this guy, who the hell is he?"

"He was a Taliano writer from almost two thousand years ago. He wrote dozens a' books, dozens that we know about, some people think he wrote hundreds an' he just hid 'em so well that no one's been able ta find 'em yet. The man was a genius, Gina, he was incredible. He had diagrams a', a' space craft, an' skyscrapers, an' computers, an' about a thousand other things that didn't exist until hundreds a' years after he was dead. An' the things he described in his books, it was like he was tellin' the future, and he was amazin'ly accurate. There's a million different theories on how he knew all the stuff he did--some people say he was crazy an' making stuff up, 'r describin' a bad drug trip, some people say he was physic, 'r Drake duCaine reincarnated, 'r even an alien, if ya believe that. I don' know what he was, but whatever he was, he knew things, things there were no way he coulda known. There are only bits an' pieces a' some a' his works, scattered all over the world, an' what we can translate indicates that most of his main prophecies were in somethin' he called the Scrolls, but no one's been able ta find 'em, ever. If this is really them...hot damn, Gina, do ya know what kinda find we're lookin' at?"

"I'm getting an inkling." Gina had been silent throughout this unusual display of erudition, but now she couldn't help herself. "And where the hell did you pick up all of that?"

"What? Oh--" Rio looked away and coughed. "I, uh, read an article on 'im once."

"One article, once. Well, then your memory is better than mine, because I wouldn't have remembered half of that from one article, once."

"Shut up. So, where did yer client say that the Scrolls are? I'd give a hell've a lot ta know how he found that out, if it's true."

"I don't know how he found out--I don't want to know, and I don't think you do either. He says it's in the private collection of Daniel Guéro, a Maradhese drug lord."

"Never heard a' him."

"Oh, he's a really nice guy. He once torched an entire village and had his guards gun down people as they were running out because they'd refused to make his shipments anymore."

"Huh. Sounds like ya'd get along great wit' him."

"Actually he's one of my old clients. I used to train his bodyguards for him."

Rio stopped and blinked. "...Oh."

"Hey, how do you think I knew about his habits? But that's not really a bad thing; last time I was down at his estate I left myself a nice little back door in the security system, in case I ever wanted to make an unauthorized visit. We'll be in and gone in five minutes."

"Ye're sure?"

"I'd bet your life on it."

"That's comfortin'."

*****

"Are ya insane?!"

"Hell yeah, and you knew that, so don't act like this is big shock."

"Gettin' yer amateur pilot 'friend' ta haul us outta Keltor in this one-engine puddle-jumper that shouldn'ta been able ta get us ta the Metro, much less all the way here ta Maradhi, in the middle a' an ice storm half the way, makin' me spend the whole time sure I was about ta die, that was insane. An' then settin' down in the middle a' another storm ta switch ta a helicopter ta go out in the middle a' the country like a bug askin' ta be squished, that was certifiable. But there is no way in hell I'm gonna jump outta this chopper 'cause we 'can't risk settin' down' an' try ta land on the ground wit'out gettin' shot full a' holes. Ferget it!"

"You're the one who was in such an all-fired hurry to get the Scrolls that you said it couldn't wait until after the weather cleared."

"As I recall, ya were the one who said that. Ye're the one who wants ta get back as fast as possible so ya can--"

"All right," Gina interrupted. "I get the point. But I thought you wanted to see these precious Scrolls that practically sent you into hysterics."

"They did not. An' yeah, I wanna see the Scrolls, but I don' wanna die fer the Scrolls!"

"Shut up and get your parachute on, we're almost there."

"This is nuts."

"Fine, then I'll jump, and you can wait here and I'll call you if I need backup."

That decided it. Sighing, Rio picked up one of the parachutes and started strapping it on. "There's no way I can let ya go down there alone, an' ya know it."

"I know." It's possible Gina smiled briefly before walking over to the side of the helicopter and pulling open the door, holding on with one hand while she leaned out, searching the rain forest below for something that would tell her where they were supposed to jump. "We won't be able to jump while we're right over the compound," she explained, yelling to be heard over the wind, "we'll have to land a little outside of it. As soon as the guards here the chopper coming, they'll try to spotlight it, so we'll have to jump before then. I don't want us floating down in a search light and providing them with a shooting gallery."

"That would be a problem, yeah." Rio edged over to the other side of the door, hanging onto one of the security straps for dear life. She risked a look down, then pulled back quickly and closed her eyes. "Oh, Drake...ya wanna know somethin'?"

"What?" Gina leaned a little further out, trying to get a better view.

"I really, really hate hei--" And then she had to clench her teeth to keep from screaming, as Gina abruptly grabbed her arm and jumped, dragging Rio along after her.

Luckily the shock of the wind took Rio's breath away, so she was so occupied with trying to suck in air that she didn't have time to think about how terrified she was. She just barely remembered to pull the ripcord in time, feeling the slight jolt as the chute opened and slowed her free fall. She felt horribly vulnerable just floating slowly downward, completely defenseless if someone decided to use her for marksmanship practice, but no one in compound was paying any attention to her. As Gina had predicted, right after they'd jumped someone had heard the helicopter, which was now lit up by a spot light, with every gun in the compound aiming at it. For a moment, Rio thought she was going to have to watch their only way home go down in flames, but the pilot was every bit as good as Gina had given him credit for. The chopper evaded all the ammunition coming at it, circled the complex, then roared off into the distance.

Rio had been watching the helicopter, but her mind was quickly brought back to her own problems as she hit the canopy, getting scratched, whacked, and hammered by the dense foliage of the rain forest before her parachute wrapped around a tree and brought her to a bone-rattling stop. Cursing under her breath about the bruises and cuts she'd just received, but still thankful that at least the fall was over and she hadn't been seriously injured, Rio pulled a knife out of her backpack and cut the straps trapping her in the harness, dropping lightly to the ground. She remained crouched for a moment, just to make sure that none of the guards had by some chance seen them dropping. When she was satisfied that she'd escaped detection, she straightened up, sheathing her knife, and hissed into the darkness, "Gina? Gina! Where the hell are ya?"

No answer, at least from Gina. There were plenty of other night noises, but none of them sounded anything like Rio's friend and co-conspirator making her way over. Sighing, Rio pulled out her night vision glasses and slipped them on, relieved to be able to see a little better, but at the same time almost wishing she couldn't. The greenery moved around her with more activity than the light breeze warranted, and the sounds of insects chirping and animals calling made more racket than some of Keltor's streets. Rio shuddered; as an avowed city girl who considered any place that took less than an hour to drive across to be an uncivilized hick town, she didn't much appreciate being out in the middle of nature, especially at night when things were active.

Well, that was enough standing around. They had agree that, since Rio wasn't familiar with the area, when she landed she should wait five minutes for Gina to find her, and then continue the job on her own if Gina hadn't joined her by then. I wonder where she is. We jumped at the same time, she can't be too far away. Damn, I hope she's okay...

But if anyone could be trusted to take care of herself, that was Gina, and they'd planned for this contingency. They'd doubled up on everything they needed for the heist, just in case. It would have been easier to do this with Gina, but... Eh, she prob'ly decided ta go ahead an' meet me there. Drawing her sidearm, just in case she ran into any unexpected company, Rio started creeping through the jungle.

Going unnoticed wasn't quite as easy as she'd thought it would be. Moving silently in Keltor, that she could do. But moving silently through dense undergrowth with no clear path and lots of branches and vines trying to take her eyes out was another matter entirely.

In that foliage, Rio had quickly lost all sense of direction. But it wasn't too hard to figure out which way the compound was--all she had to do was follow the yelling. The soldiers were making so much noise, shouting back and forth to each and running around trying to figure out what was going on that Rio probably could have marched around blowing a trumpet and not been noticed.

Bad fer 'em, good fer me. But I'm findin' it hard ta believe that Gina actually trained these morons. Crouching low and trying to keep behind the cover of bushes and shadows, Rio circled the compound, trying to find the back gate Gina had told her about. It was supposed to be a secret, last-ditch way to escape, in case the main gate was attacked. So it's probably right...there!

It was nearly impossible to pick out from the rest of the fence. It fit in almost seamlessly, but Rio's practiced eye picked out the disguised hinges and the concealed lock. After checking around her, Rio dropped down and crawled over to the fence, then hesitated. The fence was probably electrified; it hadn't been when Gina had worked there, but that had been years ago and she hadn't been sure how much they'd changed in her absence. It was better to take a few seconds to check than to end up fried. She picked up a large, dew-laden leaf and flicked some droplets at the gate.

A crackling field of blue briefly encased the gate as the electricity reacted. Damn. She'd expected that, but she still begrudged taking even a few seconds to disarm it. Tugging on some rubber gloves, she fished around in her bag for a few minutes, pulling out a little dampening field generator, hooking it to the gate carefully. She typed in a command on the appliance, then shielded her eyes as the electric field, not only on the gate but all around the perimeter, went down with a brilliant flash. It would be down for fifteen minutes--fifteen minutes to get in, get the Scrolls, and get out without getting shot. Fifteen minutes before the helicopter would come back and get them if they were ready, and leave them behind if they weren't.

Hey, I've always worked better under pressure... Rio dug a descrambler out of her bag and put it over the electronic lock, waiting impatiently for it to finish decoding. With a quiet beep, it signaled her that her way was open, and she carefully reached up to push the gate open.

And then hands grabbed her from behind, dragging her into the jungle. One hand closed around her beak, holding it shut, and the other clutched her shoulder and yanked her back.

Rio swallowed a scream, saving what air she had left in her lungs to struggle. One leg lashed out, catching her attacker off guard and flipping them both over backwards. Rio scrambled free first, grabbing her assailant by the collar and slamming them to the ground, pinning their legs and bringing back a fist to take care of threat.

"For the love of Drake, deJeneiro, don't you dare!"

Startled, Rio checked herself and scrambled backward. "Gina? Holy Drake, ya about gave me a heart attack!"

"The feeling is mutual," Gina grunted, trying to get her breath back. "I probably should have let you know it was me before I grabbed you."

"Damn straight. Where the hell ya been? No," Rio interrupted, glancing at her watch, "don' answer that. We jus' lost almost a minute outta our fifteen minute window."

"What, already?! I thought--never mind, let's go." She jumped to her feet, ignoring the hand up that Rio had offered her, and they scrambled through the undergrowth back to the fence.

The gate's electricity going off had only whipped the guards into a further frenzy. They knew that their security had been compromised, but they had no idea where, so they ran back and forth across the compound, trying to find someone who knew what was going on. Most had clustered by the front gate, the most probable spot for an attack, at the guard towers, or at the main house to protect their master. Only a few thought to check the back way, and those few were quickly and quietly knocked unconscious, locked in a tool shed less their jackets, hats, and guns.

"No one is gonna believe we're some a' this guy's henchmen," Rio muttered, tugging her cap lower over her eyes as they waited in the shadow of the shed for the court yard to clear up.

"Hush up. They're so panicked they won't stop to look twice if we act like we know where we're going. All right, the coast is clear, let's go. Look straight ahead and don't run."

"Ya don't have ta tell me that."

Hands resting lightly on their newly acquired submachine guns, they walked across the courtyard, eyes focused on the art building straight ahead of them. Since they looked like they knew what they were doing, no one challenged them until they were over half-way to the museum.

"¡Hey! ¿Adónde usteds van?"

They both stopped and turned around. The man did a double take when he saw the insignias on their jackets--the guards they'd "borrowed" the equipment from had been highly ranked--and snapped to a salute.

"¡Señoras! Estoy apesadumbrado--"

Since Gina was wearing the higher-ranked uniform, she answered. Rio just stood beside her, looking stern and hoping that the soldier wouldn't notice that their jackets had been hastily thrown over outfits that definitely weren't uniforms.

"En la facilidad. Vanamos a controlar el museo. Necesitamos cerciorarnos de que esto no sea una diversión mientras que alguien roba los premios del Viejo Hombre. "

"Buena idea. ¿Usted necesita la salvaguardia?"

"No, mejora no. No deseamos dejamos cualquier persona conocernos estamos viniendo, y si es un alarmar falso, yo no deseamos tomar la mano de obra lejos de en alguna parte. Vaya de nuevo delantera a la puerta."

"¡Si, señora!" He saluted and ran off. They waited until he was safely out of earshot, then cursed under their breath and doubled their pace to cover the last few yards to the museum.

"Damn! That cost us--" Gina checked her watch. "Over a minute."

"A minute we couldn't afford ta lose," Rio agreed grimly, standing guard while Gina knelt to take a look at the lock on the museum door. It was electronic, and complicated. Gina started working on it, her fingers flying as she tried to crack the numeric password. "Good job back there, by the way, but I can't believe he really bought that."

"I used to work here, remember?" Gina huffed a piece of hair out of her eyes. "I knew what they'd respond to."

"I don' believe ya actually trained these guards." Rio fingered the trigger on her gun, switching the safety off. They should have been challenged by now; she couldn't believe that one guard had been the extent of the opposition they'd have to face. "I thought ya'd do a better job 'an that."

"Don't complain, we might be dead otherwise. But these aren't the men I trained, they would have known better than this. I don't know where my men are--either guarding the hacienda itself, or dead."

"Which would be better fer us?"

"Both would be bad." The lock finally beeped, clicked, and opened. "There. Let's go." They slipped inside, easing the door shut behind them.

Luckily, the massive building was equipped with skylights--too heavily barred and reinforced to be viable points of entry, but they let in enough light for the thieves to see their surroundings. "Do we know what we're lookin' fer?" Rio asked in a whisper as she wandered around, looking at various priceless artifacts. Man, jus' one a' these pieces could be fenced fer millions...if I could jus' bring one a' 'em back wit' me...

"Roughly," Gina answered, cutting into Rio's thoughts. "Apparently the Scrolls aren't scrolls at all, but a huge book. The descriptions I was given say it's about four inches thick, red leather bound, with a strap holding it locked." Gina had passed by the rows of statues and paintings, and was instead searching through stacks and cases of ancient books.

"That's helpful." Rio glanced at her watch. "Seven minutes left."

"Damn. Wait, here it is, I think I've got it." After everything else they'd gone through, the rather perfunctory lock on the glass-encased bookshelf was easy as breathing to pick. Gina eased the glass back, taking the book carefully down and running her fingers gently across the cover. "Yes, this is it."

"Ye're sure? 'Cause we ain't gonna get a second chance if this is the wrong book."

"I'm sure."

Rio came over to stand at Gina's other side, then stopped and stared as she noticed for the first time the dark stain spreading across the shoulder of Gina's uniform. "What the--Damn! Ye're hurt? What happened?"

"Don't panic. When I hit the canopy I ended up introducing my shoulder to a sharp branch. It wasn't serious, until a psychopathic bitch who I occasionally call my friend decided to attack me."

"Well I only did that when another psycho bitch grabbed me an' scared the hell outta me. C'mon, we gotta get ya outta here. We're almost outta time anyway."

"I know." Gina dropped the book in the special carrying bag she'd made for it, hooking it across her back. "All right, let's get going."

"Four minutes."

"Right."

They eased the door open, checking around carefully before slipping out and easing the door shut behind them. They were alone for the moment, but shouts steadily increasing in volume indicated that it wouldn't be that way for long. They were out of time to be subtle. They broke cover and ran.

The shouts behind them doubled in volume and bullets started flying past them. The fence seemed impossibly far away. "We ain't gonna make it," Rio panted, glancing back over her shoulder at the pursuing soldiers. There were still obstacles between them, but any second now the guards would have a clear line of fire, and that would be the end.

"We have to," Gina managed through gritted teeth. "I am not going out like this."

They hit the gate without pausing. It clanged open, then slammed itself shut behind them. Rio paused just long enough to rip off the field generator, and the security field snapped back into place with a quick blue flash. Serve the bastards right if they hit it wit'out stoppin'.

Gina had run on ahead, and Rio had to sprint to catch up her, holding one arm up in front of her face to protect her eyes from lashing branches. Spotlights were slicing through the night, searching for them, but at least the jungle was on their side for once. The thick growth kept the lights from locking onto them, but bullets were flying anyway as the soldiers fired indiscriminately, trying to get lucky. Then howling started up as the guards unleashed the canid packs.

Ah, hell.

The whirring sound of a helicopter's propellors chopping the air was coming faintly toward them, and was getting louder. The dense growth muffled and distorted sound, making it difficult for them to figure out where the chopper actually was.

Then the canopy broke above them, revealing that the chopper was hovering right about them, and the ladder that was tossed down nearly hit Rio in the head. "Damn bad aim," she muttered, grabbing the ladder and steadying it. "Gina, get up, I'll guard."

"No, you go, I'll be all right."

"Damn it, Gina, ye're hurt an' we don' have time fer ya ta be stubborn an' pretend ye're superwoman! Now go!"

Gina started to protest, then grimaced and clutching her bleeding shoulder as a pain spasm hit. "Fine, I'll get the book up. But if you get hurt--"

"You'll kill me yerself, I know, jus' go!"

Gina hesitated just a split-second more, then grabbed onto the ladder and started pulling herself up. The helicopter couldn't hover perfectly still for more than a few seconds and changed position constantly, so the ladder kept jerking around, making climbing difficult. Rio watched her painfully slow progress nervously, then turned back to face the way they'd come, getting her borrowed gun ready and fingering the trigger, hoping fervently that she wouldn't have to pull it.

Just as she was thinking that, the first wave of canids hit the clearing. She jumping, firing a round automatically. The canids yowled and collapsed. But that was the only the first group, and they were being followed by their masters, who were also armed with submachines. Rio had no illusions about her ability to hold off twenty armed guards by herself.

"Rio!"

She looked up, and saw Gina safely in the helicopter, waving to her. "Get up here!" she yelled down, screaming to be heard over the noise. "I'll cover you!"

"Ya'd better," Rio muttered. Slinging her gun over her shoulder, she started climbing, hauling herself up the ladder so fast her hands kept slipping and getting scraped against the metal rungs and the rough wire cord. The ladder jolted and lurched sickeningly, and the bullets flying both ways--the guards on the ground firing up at her and Gina firing down at them to give her cover--weren't helping either. Trying not to think about it and resisting the urge to just close her eyes and hang on, Rio kept scrambling up, with no idea of how far up she was until a hand reached out and grabbed her by the back of the jacket, yanking her up and in. Rio found herself sprawled on the floor of the chopper as the wind created by the whirling blades was abruptly cut off as the hatch was slammed shut.

"Are you okay?" Gina helped her roll over on her back and sit up, leaning her back against the wall.

"Ugh...damn..." Rio shook her head, waiting for the room to stop spinning. Once her vision cleared, her eyes went straight to the red blotch that now covered almost all of one side of Gina's uniform. "Damn!" she repeated, rolling to her feet and grabbing a first aid kit. "Lean back, we gotta take care a' that."

"It's not--"

"Don't ya dare say it ain't bad, I ain't blind. Now hold still." Rio pulled back her blood-soaked jacket, grimacing at the sucking sound it made as her coat was peeled away from her shirt. By that time Gina's shirt was so saturated that it was glued to the wound. Gina gritted her teeth and looked away as Rio wiped some scissors down with some antiseptic and then started cutting away the cloth. "Ugh, this looks nasty...Drake, ya got some slivers stuck in here, I'm gonna have ta dig 'em out."

"Slivers? It feels like there's half a tree in there...ow. Damn. All right, all right, just make it fast."

"I'll try, but ya know I ain't a doctor." She sterilized a couple of instruments that she didn't recognize, but looked like they would do the job.

"Rio, your hands are shaking. I don't want you cutting into me until you can control yourself."

"I'm fine."

"Don't you dare cut a nerve."

"Dammit, Gina, shut up so I can concentrate." Steeling herself, Rio carefully inserted a long pair of tweezers in the open wound, trying to fish some of the larger chunks out. By the time Rio had gotten out as much as she could, she had blood splattered across her own face and coating her hands past the wrist. Her tools were getting dangerously slippery, but she just kept tightening her grip tenaciously and kept going. "Okay, I think that's it."

Gina relaxed, finally able to breathe again. "Thank Drake, that hurt."

"I know. Sorry. We're still gonna have ta have Kerry take a look at this when we get back." She grinned briefly. "An' then I'm sure ya'll be able ta get Dal ta kiss it better." When Gina didn't respond, Rio frowned and shook her carefully, by her good shoulder. "Unless ya pass out from bloodloss first. Stay focused an' let's get ya cleaned up. It's gonna be a long ride back."

It was.

*****

"Look, I don' care who yer client is, 'r how much he's payin' ya, I ain't lettin' the Scrolls go wit'out makin' copies first!"

Gina sighed, just about ready to give up. They'd been having this same argument all the way back from the compound--for as much of it as she'd been conscious and alert for, anyway--and ever since. They'd argued in the helicopter, they'd argued while they'd been negotiating the iced-over streets of Keltor on their way back to the Lair, they'd argued while the doctors had been checking them over. They'd taken a break for a good night's sleep, and now they were at it again. They'd gone over the same objections and counter-objections so many times that each knew the other's points off by heart, and probably could have made each other's cases for them.

So Gina made the same response she'd been making, even though she knew it got weaker each time around. "You're the Honor Blade here, you know as well as I do what happens when you break faith with a client by opening their merchandise."

To underscore the fact that their disagreement was pretty much moot anyway, they were carrying on their current round of debates while Rio was working at the lock binding the Scrolls shut, trying to open it without scratching or breaking the ancient leather. "Yeah, but this is bigger'an smuggler-client confidentiality, Gina. This is the Scrolls, an' I ain't givin' 'em up 'til I've taken a look at 'em. We'll never get another chance like this, unless we go back an' steal 'em from yer client later, an' crossin' like that ain't never a good idea."

"You don't have to tell me that."

"Don' go all ethical on me now, Gina, not wit' somethin' as big as this. All I need ta do is snap some quick shots a' the pages, an' then close the book an' deliver it ta him intact. He'll never even--ah, got it!" The lock quivered suddenly, then snapped open, and the strap holding the book fell away. "Perfect." She carefully brushed some dust off the cover, then opened the book and ran her gloved fingers almost reverently down the opening leaf. "Hot damn...I can't believe I'm actually holdin' Boragottchio's Scrolls." She started paging through it slowly, occasionally stopping to look at a page or diagram more closely. Gina leaned over her shoulder, watching, and snorted skeptically.

"I don't see what good it does you. That's ancient Taliano script, Rio, you have no idea what it says."

"Mm." Rio kept skimming through the pages.

"Maybe the Loremasters could translate some of it for us, but judging by the way you reacted, they'd go rabid if they found out we have the Scrolls of Boragottchio and we're selling it." Rio just grunted in response and kept looking. Gina gave her a sharp look. "And we are selling it, remember, no matter what you find in there."

"Uh-huh." Rio stopped suddenly, staring more closely at one of the pages. "Hot holy--Gina, c'me look at this!"

"Look at what?" Gina had wandered to the other side of the room, but came back to look at the page Rio was staring at. Rio pointed wordlessly at a sharply detailed drawing in the center of the page.

A portrait of Gina stared out at them from a page two thousand years old.

*****

"For the last time, that is not me." Gina burst out of the room, stomping down the hall. Rio ran after her, grabbing her arm and stopping her.

"Look at the damn thing, Gina! It's you! It coulda been a photograph a' ya!"

"Don't be ridiculous." Gina pulled her arm free and turned to face her. "So the painting looks a little like me. That book is two thousand years old, do you know how many women have looked like that since then? He probably did that for his wife, or lover, or sister, or something."

"Maybe, but ya don' know that fer sure. Can we at least see what the writin' around it says? Probably, probably ye're right, an' it's just a poem ta his wife 'r somethin'. But we have ta at least check it." Seeing that Gina still looked highly skeptical, Rio added, "Do ya really want ta turn this over ta yer client wit'out findin' out what it says? Ya really want some personal information floatin' around ta be sold ta the highest bidder?" Gina blanched. "Exactly. How much longer do we have before he expects delivery?"

"Three days."

"Great. We'll translate an' the page, an' if there's nothin' here 'bout ya, fine, we give the book ta him, take the money, and work off copies a' the rest a' the pages in our own time. But if it is about ya..."

"It won't be." But suddenly Gina didn't sound quite so sure. "And how exactly do you plan on translating this? We can't take it to the Loremasters, and I'd love to see you try to learn how to read archaic Taliano in three days."

"Don' have ta. I already know how." Rio turned back to her room, leaving Gina standing dumbfounded in the hallway. After a moment, she shook herself out of her shock and hurried to catch up with Rio.

"Wait, what? What do you mean you already know?"

"Call it one a' the benefits a' havin' a 'classical education.' My parents didn't want me bein' 'debased' by goin' ta college wit' the 'common people', so they jus' kept bringin' tutors ta the house. An' they expected me ta learn ta read all the classical texts--in their original languages. Hell, why do ya think I'm so good wit' accents?"

"Hot damn. And you talk like this?"

"I think I'd stand out a little if I went around speakin' ancient Aechian."

"Point. So can you really read that?"

"I can try. It's been a few years." Sighing, Rio looked at her watch. "Listen, it's late. Why don't ya go break some more furniture wit' Dalin, an' I'm gonna get some sleep. We'll get started in the mornin'."

*****

"It's been a lotta years since I did this."

"I can tell."

They'd been working steadily for four hours, and Rio only had about a quarter of a page of disjointed ramblings translated. All that had come through clearly to show that they weren't on the complete wrong track was a single title page, giving only his name, the date, and a brief introduction saying that he wanted whoever was reading his work to take it and "profit from his knowledge," though what that meant was anyone's guess. "Rio, this doesn't make any sense. Either the man was a raving lunatic, or you're not translating that correctly."

"Shut up," Rio growled. "It just takes awhile. Ya wanna be helpful, go get us some sandwiches, I'm starvin'."

"Yeah, yeah, I'll go see what kind of slop they have left in the mess hall. No, actually, I think I'll run down to that deli down the street, what do you want?"

"Whatever's fine. If it ain't movin' when I bite it, it's still better'an what's in the mess hall."

"I hear that." Gina paused long enough to memorize the first translated section, deciding to mull it over while she was gone and see if she came up with anything, then waved and left, leaving Rio alone with the scrolls.

"Dammit," she muttered, massaging her aching temple. "Dammit, dammit, dammit. Why don't this make sense?"

The Scrolls stared back up at her and, frustratingly enough, didn't answer.

*****

If I had known it was going to take this damn long to get a couple of sandwiches, maybe I would have just gone to the mess hall. The line was ridiculous, especially for that time in the afternoon, and the clerks were so slow Gina could practically count the years she was losing off her life just standing in line. Maybe brandishing a gun would get better service...

Of course, this was Keltor. If she waved a gun around, the clerks might just all wave bigger ones.

Finally, it was her turn. The woman behind the counter, who looked like she'd rather be in a Saurian labor camp than that deli, grunted "Whadya want?"

Nothing like customer service in Keltor... She'd been studying the menu during her wait and had seen several listings that she'd never heard of, and had figured what the hell, might as well try something different. "A franzian salad and a tuna dip to go, and hurry up about it."

The clerk stared at her like she was crazy. "A what?"

Ah, gods damn, why do I always get the stupid ones? Gina repeated her order slowly and clearly, then pointed up to the menu to prove her point. "They're right up there."

The clerk turned around, looked, then laughed shortly. "Oh, that. We gotta change that. The idiot who put the menu up mixed up the words, but that's really a franzian dip and a tuna salad."

"A fran..." She'd put the translation problem on the back burner, letting her mind work on it in the background while she was waiting in line, and now it suddenly came rushing to the fore as everything clicked together. The words were mixed up...the words were mixed up!

"So, whadya want, really?" Gina didn't answer, still stunned by what she'd just realized. "Hey, excuse me?"

"Never mind," she gasped, a dazed look on her face, turning and shoving her way past the people still waiting for their orders to be filled. "Forget it!"

The clerk watched her go, wondering how anyone could have gotten that drunk by lunch time.

*****

"I've got it!"

Rio looked up, startled, as Gina came bursting in the door. "Ya got what? Lunch?"

"No, idiot, I've got the code."

"Slow down, Gina, ya lost me. What code?"

Gina gave her an impatient look, hustling Rio out of the way so she could look at the sheets of translation work Rio had been pouring over. "The code Boragottchio was using in the Scrolls! He didn't want just anyone to be able to read his prophecies, and back then they didn't have the translation barrier slowing them down, right?"

"Right..."

"So, he must have encoded them, right? But it couldn't be too impossible to break, because he said right on the cover page that he wanted someone, someday to profit from what he knew, right?"

"Gina, I swear ta Drake if ya say 'right' one more time, I'm gonna punch ya. Now cut the crap an' just tell me what ya found out!"

"Fine, fine. I thought you of all people would appreciate a flair for the dramatic."

"Hey, what's that supposed to--"

"Now, look here," she continued, rolling right over Rio's protest and pointing to the first two translated lines. "'In the ninety-second generation a Woman who carries great anger...There will come unto the Brethren after the Hell-demons are banished.' Now, look. You take the first clause of the first line, 'In the ninety-second generation,' and the second half of the second line, 'after the Hell-demons are banished,' and you put them together...and then you take the second half of the first line and the first half of the second line and put those together, and you get 'In the ninety-second generation after the Hell-demons are banished; There will come unto the Brethren a Woman who carries great anger.' And that actually makes sense."

Rio just sat there for a minute, running her eyes over the lines of text again and again. "So...so it was there all the time, an' it was jus' that simple... No complicated numerical pattern, no hints 'r keys, jus' separatin' the clauses an' flip-floppin' 'em... Hot damn, I can't believe I didn't see that. I musta been an idiot."

"No argument from me. But you know what they always say about hiding things in plain sight... And it's not as simple as it looks, it's going to take some time to figure out where the clauses break, because I don't think there's any definite pattern to that. But now you've actually got me interested in what these damn Scrolls say. So you take this section and I'll take this section, and we'll see what we come up with."

In spite of herself, Rio grinned. "I knew ya'd see it my way eventually."

*****

Two hours later, they weren't feeling quite so encouraged. Gina was pacing the room like a caged animal, struggling to control her temper against a rising tide of shock and disbelief. "I don't believe it, I don't believe any of it!"

Rio sat through her tirade with as much patient as she was capable of, but after the third round of denials, this was starting to get a little old. "Gina, it's right there, it's all right there, an' as far as I can see it's bang-on accurate. How can ya not believe it?"

"Because--because--" Gina was spluttering. Gina never, ever spluttered. "Because it's ridiculous!"

"Why? Jus' what makes it so ridiculous? I mean, maybe it's a little hard ta handle that some guy two thousand years ago foresaw you an' everythin' about yer life, but the evidence is right here..."

"Hard to handle? If it was your life laid right out in front of you, you wouldn't just say it was 'hard to handle'! What if, what if that was you, and your parents, and Jayter Nerys, and your relationship with Hunter all written neatly out there?"

Rio had gone a little pale at both this last attack and the actual thought of her private history written all down for whoever stumbled upon it to read, but she struggled to, for once, be the objective one. "I'd skip ta the last page an' see how it turns out," she managed with forced levity, trying not to show how that had stung. "Now, calm down an' let's go over this again, point by point, an' we'll see how everythin' lines up, an' figure out what ta do wit' what he says happens next."

"We've already been over it," Gina objected, clearly not willing to go through that again. "It hasn't changed."

"Humor me," she said firmly, picking up the final draft of their decoding and translation of the page surrounding Gina's apparent portrait and reading the first part of the prophecy again.

In the ninety-third generation after the Hell-demons are banished
There will come unto the Brethren a Woman who carries great anger
A slave to hate, who knows not her ancestors.
She will be a bringer of death to all who cross her, but
She will protect those lives that she deems innocent
She will be bound by the Circles, where she will be broken
But she will flee, and after a quarter of a Time be brought to the Caves
Where, after being tamed by one whose love is stronger than her hate,
Their fates will be joined together, and they will become one, though
She will not be able to bear his child, because the Circle's chain still binds her

"'In the ninety-third generation after the Hell-demons are banished'--okay, that's gotta be the Saurians, an' if ya assume twenty-five years per generation...hand me a calculator, will ya?" Gina did, and Rio tapped a few numbers in. "That would make ninety-three generations around...2325. An' ya joined, what, eight years after that? So the timeline fits. Uh, what next... Aha. 'There will come unto the Brethren'--that's gotta be the Brotherhood--'a Woman who carries great anger/A slave to hate, who knows not her ancestors.' An' that's true, right. Ya don't know yer mom 'r anyone else in yer family."

"Thanks for reminding me."

Rio decided it was safer to continue reading than to reply. "'She will be a bringer of death to all who cross her'--an' that fits wit' the assassin business--'but/She will protect those lives that she deems innocent'--an' ya told me ya never killed anyone ya really believed didn't deserve it. 'She will be bound by the Circles'--I'm thinkin' that's gotta be the Rings---'where she will be broken/But she will flee, and after a quarter of a Time be brought to the Caves...' Okay, I know this one, I know this one...oh, right, I remember now. Back in those days a Time was a year, so a quarter a' a Time would be three months, an' that's how long ya were on yer own after ya escaped the Rings before we brought ya ta the 'Hood, right?"

"Right," Gina agreed reluctantly. "Keep going."

"An' the Caves, I bet that's another name fer the Lair. 'Where, after being tamed by one whose love is stronger than her hate,/Their fates will be joined together, and they will become one, though/She will not be able to bear his child, because the Circle's chain still binds her'." Rio stopped reading and looked up. "So it looks like that conversation we had a couple a' days ago about fate still fits. Ya were meant ta be wit' Dalin, 'cause this can't be talkin' about anyone else. An' the Circle's chain, that's gotta be the..." She hesitated. "The, ya know..."

"The vanSmythe's procedure," Gina finished for her bluntly. "I know what happened to me, Rio, you can say the words. I'm not going to go berserk and strangle you for bringing it up."

"Yeah, well...I jus' didn't want ta remind ya..."

"You think I don't think about it every day?" she asked softly, staring down at the table for a moment to gather her strength. But when Rio reached a tentative hand toward her, her head snapped up again, completely in control. "All right, all right, I see your point. The prophecy has been very...persuasive so far. And--I admit, I can see the parallels." She folded her arms firmly, obviously not happy to be admitting even that much. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to swallow whatever else it says."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." Rio hesitated for a moment, looking down at the translation in her hand. She was the only one who'd looked at it so far; Gina had been working on decoding the first half of the translated text while Rio had been translating the second half. Then they'd gotten off-track arguing about the authenticity and accuracy of just the part of the prophecy that possibly referenced Gina's past; they hadn't even brought up what Boragottchio had to say about her future. An' she is not gonna like this... But Gina was giving her an impatient look, and ignoring what they'd found wouldn't make it go away. Taking a deep breath, Rio read the next paragraph straight through, not stopping to add any explanation or commentary. This part spoke for itself.

For five Times, the Woman will be at peace
And she will remain in the Caves, finding happiness with the Brethren
After removing the last piece of her time before the Circles
And protecting the Caves from those who would seek to destroy all
Who dwell within
She will find this book of the Prophecies
And the time of her greatest decision will have come
Though all within her will fight it, she must leave behind all she knows
And go to another place without delay
Or great destruction will come upon all those she loves

They were silent for a moment after she'd finished reading, each trying to absorb what they'd just heard. The minutes dragged on as Gina mulled over what she'd learned, then she abruptly stood up from the table where she'd temporarily perched on a chair. "I don't believe it," she announced flatly. "I don't believe it. I won't. I can't."

"I don' like it either..." Drake only knew how much she didn't like it. "But I think we need ta at least try ta look at this. Gina, everythin' he said about yer past was true, right down ta the smallest detail. An' this part...ya've been here five years. Ya killed yer last mentor, an' ya told me he was the last link ta yer time before ya were dragged inta the Rings. Ya were here when the Enforcers tried ta take over. An', an' he even knew ya were gonna find the book an' not believe it. Look, I don' like it, an' I don't want ya ta have ta pack up an' leave, but I think we need ta consider this seriously."

"Rio, will you listen to yourself? The only way to 'consider this seriously' is to take it literally at its word and weigh every part of it equally, and if we do that then I have no choice. I have to go, now, and leave behind the Blade and everyone in it. There's nothing there to even indicate that anyone can come with me, so I'd be leaving Dal...and I can't do that. It would kill me. He'd never understand, and I'd never forgive myself."

"I know, but...but maybe there's another way..."

"What other way? Show me another way, and I'll take it, but look at the text, Rio! There is no other way! If you believe Boragottchio knew what he was talking about, there's absolutely no other option. I can either leave and never see the man I love ever again, or I can stay and risk not only destroying him, but you and everyone else in the Brotherhood as well."

Gina was right, Rio had to admit it. There wasn't any room for ambiguity or interpretation; they couldn't have asked for a more specific directive. Leave 'r kill everyone ya care about...what kinda choice is that? They were silent for a few minutes again, then Rio asked tentatively, "Have ya told Dalin about any a' this yet?"

Gina shook her head vigorously. "No, of course not. Until now, what was there to tell him? I said I had an out-of-town heist I had to do that would have me gone for a night, and he was unhappy enough about that. I didn't tell him how dangerous it would be because then he would have just worried the whole time, and then all we had to go on was some guesses and suspicions that I didn't want to worry him about until we had something more concrete. He knows I'm working on some kind of big project with you, but I told him I'd give him details as soon as I had any details to give, and he believed me." She sighed, rubbing her forehead. "No, he doesn't know anything. So now I'll have to tell him everything from the beginning, and finish up by telling him that I'll probably have to leave him... He's going to think I've lost my mind."

"Yeah, well...ya should talk ta him about it, see what he thinks, before ya make any kind a' decision. An'..." She hesitated, knowing how what she was about to say would be received. "Maybe we should consider goin' ta the Loremasters an' Leila about this. It's gettin' too deep fer just us ta deal wit'."

Gina stared at her, shocked. "Are you nuts?"

"Yeah, but not this time. The Loremasters probably know more about the Scrolls an' Boragottchio 'an I do, maybe they can help us. An' if they can't, an'...an' ya do have ta leave, we want 'em ta know it was fer a legitimate reason, so they don't send anyone after ya."

"Fine, maybe you're right. But I still have to talk to Dalin first. I should have done that from the beginning."

"Good luck."

Gina paused at the door and smiled grimly. "Thanks, I'll need it. Because if he tells me not to go, I don't know if I'll be able to. I don't know if I'll be able to say goodbye to him. I really don't..." She stopped and shook her head, snapping herself out of it and changing the subject. "But you have to understand, Rio, that until I make a decision you can't tell anyone about this. Not Querida, not your boyfriend, and definitely not Jedar. I know this will be hard for you, since you usually can't keep anything from him for five minutes, but you have to at least make an effort to keep your damn mouth shut about this one."

"I know, I know..."

"How long did you even manage to keep your 'secret' romance secret from him, anyway? One month?"

"Two," Rio admitted, "an' that was just about the hardest thing I've ever done. Look, I won't bring it up, an' I'll try ta avoid the topic, but if he asks me any point-blank questions about what we've been doin' I'm gonna have ta tell him the truth. I promised myself a long time ago I'd never lie ta him, an' I ain't about to start now, not even over this."

"I figured you say that. Sometimes you're more trouble than you're worth."

"What, only sometimes?"

*****

When neither Gina nor Dalin appeared for breakfast the next morning, Rio wasn't particularly surprised. Either they'd stayed up all night arguing, or, more likely, they'd reached an agreement and then spent all night doing--something else. Rio smirked into her coffee cup. They have got ta be tired a' havin' ta replace furniture by now. But I hope they get up eventually, I'd like ta back ta work on the Scrolls, but Gina'll kill me if I keep goin' wit'out her. She hung around the mess hall for as long as she could, then gave up on both of them and headed back to her room. She'd been neglecting everything else to focus on the Scrolls, there was plenty of other work she could catch up on while she was waiting.

Gina and Dalin missing breakfast wasn't so unusual as to cause comment, but when they hadn't shown up by lunch time, Rio was starting to worry. They wouldn't have...they wouldn't have jus' run off like that, they know better. It would be damn stupid ta just take off, an' they know that. They would never... But somehow, she wasn't so sure about that.

Finally giving up on them, Rio left for the cafeteria and her own belated lunch, and as she was heading toward the stair case she spotted Dalin ahead of her. About damn time. "Hey! Hey, Dalin, wait up." He stopped and turned back toward her, looking a little puzzled as she hurried to catch up with him.

"What is it, Mi--Rio?"

Rio rolled her eyes; it had taken her time and repeated threats to dissuade Dalin from calling her Miss deJenerio, and sometimes he still tried to revert. "Good catch. Anyway, where the hell is Gina? I thought we were 'sposed ta meet this mornin'."

Now he just looked blank, which was not a good sign. "N-no, Rio, I didn' know 'bout any meeting...an' I haven't seen Gina all day."

Rio's heart stopped. "What do ya mean ya ain't seen her? Ya mean ya have no idea where she is?"

"Uh--well, no... She was gone when I woke up this mor--" He cut off abruptly as Rio grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

"What the hell do ya mean she was gone when ya woke up? How could she be--she ever done ta ya before?"

"Well, no, but..." He was clearly terrified, but she wasn't in the mood to be gentle. "She left a note--"

"What note? What'd it say?"

"Erm, I think I have it still..." He fished around in his pocket, then pulled out a crumbled piece of paper and handed it to her. Rio was too concerned to even make a comment about how he was carrying the note with him, she just snatched it out of his hands and pulled it open so violently she almost tore it in half. Her eyes skimmed over the writing: "I'm sorry I have to leave you this way, but I have to go." Below that, like it had been an afterthought, was another hurried scrawl. "Last night was incredible. I love you."

"Damn it!" Rio crumbled the note in one hand and hurled it to the floor. "Damn it, damn it, damn it--" She took off running for the garage, dimly aware that Dalin was following her, although it was probably more out of morbid curiosity than worry at that point. She wouldn't have...she wouldn't have, she wouldn't have, she wouldn't have...

Gina's car was gone.

"Shit! Shit, shit, shit, she did it, she left! Son of a bitch--" She aimed a vicious kick at the wheels of the nearest car. "How could she do this?! Drake damn it..."

Dalin got there just in time to see the tail end of this display, and he stopped, giving her a bemused look. "Erm, Rio? What's wrong?"

"Gina packed up an' left, that's what's wrong...hell. What'd she tell ya last night?"

"Tell me? Nothin'..."

"Nothing? So she didn't bring up Boragottchio, 'r the Scrolls, 'r anythin' like that?"

"Who?"

Rio cursed viciously, ignoring it when Dalin blanched, as something Gina had said came back to her. 'Because if he tells me not to go, I don't know if I'll be able to. I don't know if I'll be able to say goodbye to him.' She couldn't say goodbye ta him, so she decided it was easier ta just leave when he couldn't stop her...ah, hell. "C'me wit' me, Dal. We need ta have a long talk."

Looking uneasy, he followed.

*****

There'd been no real way to cushion the blow. Rio had shown him the Scrolls and their translation, and let him drawn his own conclusions from there. There hadn't been any way to make it better, so she hadn't tried. At first he hadn't been able to accept that yes, Gina had really left, probably for good, and Rio hadn't had the energy to try and talk him out of his denial. She'd let him leave to work things out on his own, then bolted her door shut and staggered over to her bed, slumping down on the edge of it and putting her head in her hands.

Why, Gina, why, why, why... She didn't really need to ask the question. Gina had done what she thought was best, to protect the Blade and everyone she cared about. But ya didn't have ta leave like that...ya didn't even tell him. An' ya promised me ya wouldn't leave. We were gonna work through this tagether, an' ya just packed up an' left 'cause ya didn't know if ya'd have the nerve ta do it later... And now she didn't know what to do. Sooner or later--probably sooner--someone was going to notice that Gina had left the Blade, and if Rio didn't speak up, Leila was going to have no choice but to send a team after her. An' even if I show her the Scrolls, even if the Loremasters back me up, she might still have ta go after her. The Law's the Law, an' I don' know if she could make an exception fer this, even if Gina was just followin' a two thousand year old prophecy...okay, I can see where she'd be skeptical. I'd think the whole thing was jus' a load a' crap if I hadn't been here from the start...

"I'm sorry," she'd said to Dalin as he'd been leaving, and she was sorry, but she wasn't sure what she should be sorry about. Sorry for pushing Gina to retrieve the Scrolls? They'd been Gina's idea to begin with. Sorry for insisting that they open and read the Scrolls? She'd had no way of knowing what she'd fine. Sorry for translating them? Hell, it looked like it didn't matter what she did or didn't do, Gina was apparently destined to read the damn Scrolls no matter what. Rio glared at the book and papers scattered all over her desk, like the whole thing was their fault. Did ya see this one comin', Boragottchio? Did ya know ya'd destroy her life when she'd jus' started settlin' in somewhere? Did ya know she'd leave him like that even though it musta damn near killed her, but she did it 'cause a' somethin' you said?

It probably wasn't fair to put all of this at Boragottchio's feet, he'd just been writing down what he saw. But it made her feel better to have someone to blame. An' if he hadn't felt so compelled ta write down every little thing, none a' this woulda happened...

She paused as a thought occurred to her. We never saw what the rest a' the prophecy said. We never looked any further 'an the second paragraph, an' it didn't give any indication that it was the last paragraph... The previous night they'd stopped at all the doom and gloom, figuring it would be a good idea to bring Dalin up to speed before going on. Besides, they couldn't have handled any more bad news right then. But maybe there was something else...

At least it was something she could do. Rio pushed herself up and went back to the desk she'd been spending so much time at lately, shoving some spare papers out of her way and settling down with the next section of text.

When she finished translating the first two lines, she sat and stared for a moment. Hot...holy...damn...I don' believe it! I don' believe-- She went back to work, doubling her pace and translating feverishly, forgoing any attempt at aesthetics to desperately trying to finish that section.

When she finally finished, the translation was rough at best, but it got the main idea across, and that was all she cared about at the moment.

For the guardians of this book are hunting her
And are intent on punishing her for her betrayal
They would track her even to the Caves and betray those of the Brethren
To those who would seek their devastation
By leaving the Caves, the Woman will save the Brethren
But if those who care for her do not follow her
She will perish at the hands of those who stalk her
Only if the others who have seen the Prophecy seek after her
Will she survive to return to the Caves
And complete the final step in her destiny

Final step? What final step? At the moment, that was irrelevant--Gina had to survive in order to come back and deal with whatever that "final step" was, and the Scrolls didn't seem to give any indication that that was a given. Rio had no idea how a step in Gina's "destiny" might not happen, she figured it might have had something to do with divergant timelines... But that don't help me right now. I gotta find her first... But Keltor was huge, and if those goons of Guéro's were as close as the Scrolls seemed to indicate that they were, they might find Gina before Rio could manage to. I have no idea where ta start searchin', an' she might not even be in Keltor anymore. I have no way a' knowin' when she left, 'r where she was headin'...she might not even be in her car anymore, she might've hopped a plane, an' then she could be halfway around the world by now. There's no way in hell I can find her...

"An' damn it, Boragottchio, ya know I can't find her wit'out some kinda clue. So help me, ya know-it-all bastard, help me." She skimmed the next lines rapidly, not bothering to fully translate, just hunting for a key word to let her know where to look. Where, where, where...

She turned the page, and stopped as she saw the picture of a building drawn in the center of the page. Of course. She grabbed her saber and sprinted out the door, heading down for the garage.

"Dalin!"

*****

She shouldn't have come here. She should have just left and not looked back, and kept going no matter what. She should not, under any circumstances, have stayed in Keltor.

But on her way out of town, Gina had driven past the wreckage of what had once been an all-too-familiar building, and she'd had to stop.

This pile of rubble had been her home and headquarters for years, from the time she'd left her mentors for dead to the day she'd destroyed it when she'd left for the Blade. I put so much time and effort in that place, I spent nearly six years here--and I blew it up without a second thought. Because I can walk away from anyone or anything.

Even if it kills me.

There was a faint crunch of gravel behind her. Gina winced. I should have known they'd find me...I should have kept going when I had the chance. She hopped down from the beam she'd been perched on and turned to face her trackers. "Rio, you shouldn't have--oh, you didn't."

She'd definitely been followed, but not by people who were interested in persuading her to come back to the Blade. There were three men standing there, each easily twice her size, and each holding at least a couple of nasty-looking weapons. Gina ran a brief mental checklist of who they might be, then sighed as she realized. "Guéro send you?"

The men blinked, but didn't seem too impressed. "Too bad you weren't that smart before," one of them said. "Then you wouldn't have stolen from him. You should have known he wouldn't let you get away."

"I had my hopes," she deadpanned, then looked closer. "I think I recognize you three...I trained you, didn't I?" They nodded. "Ah, so that's how you found me. You should talk to Guéro about those idiotic perimeter guards he has. They might as well not have been there for all the trouble they gave me."

"I'll be sure to bring it up at the next board meeting." The first one--her mind shuffled around for a name, and finally came up with Valdez--hefted a rather impressive gun and pointed it at her. "So, you have three choices. I can shoot you right now, or you can come back with us to face Guéro and see if you can plead your case and work out some sort of an arrangement...or you can try to fight, in which case you'll either die or wish you had."

"I don't like those options. Sorry." She hit the ground and was rolling as they fired at the place she'd just been standing, grabbing a gun from one of her concealed holsters and coming up firing. One of the men went down, clutching his throat as a red geyser suddenly spouted from it. That was her one lucky shot, though; the others either went wide or hit the remaining two men in unimportant places. And they'd ignore anything short of a fatal wound--she'd taught them how.

Damn me for being so thorough. She reeled back, clenched her teeth to keep from crying out in pain as they returned fire and a bullet went through her leg. Her leg folded under her, but she forced herself back up, stumbling as she scrambled for some kind of cover. Damn it, no, I'm not going out like this, this is way too symbolic. But on the other hand, if she died here, at least she wouldn't be endangering the Blade, and she'd never be able to hurt anyone again. And who knew if maybe Boragottchio hadn't predicted this anyway... I am not dying on someone else's say-so!

They were keeping her pinned down; she barely managed to get off one shot for every ten of theirs, and she could never get her head up long enough to properly aim. They were closing in on her, and the little pocket she'd scrambled into had only one way out. The walls behind her were high and unstable, so even if she could have tried to climb them, her back would have been a perfect target. There was really nothing she could do--she clutched her arm as a bullet grazed it, and in that second when she was distracted, one of them came over her wall.

Gina quickly switched her gun to her other hand and shot his knees out from under him. He screamed and dropped, but unfortunately, he dropped forward into her nest and not backward out of it. And, even more unfortunately, he was in pain but he wasn't out of the fight yet. He'd lost his gun when he fell, but he still had his knife, and he slashed out with it. Gina jumped back automatically, grimacing as she had to pivot on her bad leg, and found herself shoved back in a corner. There simply wasn't enough room to maneuver, especially if she had to dodge him while she was trying to duck fire from his partner. "Die, damn it!" She dodged his next wild swing, ducking beneath it and grabbing his arm, wrenching it back until he dropped the knife. Shifting her own dagger back to her injured arm, she rammed her knife up into the back of his neck, driving it up through the brain until the tip broke out of the top of his skull. Even though by that point doing anything else was academic, she gave the hilt a vicious twist, then yanked her knife back out and spun to meet the attack of the last man standing.

And quickly realized that she wasn't safe yet.

He brought a long knife down toward her, and her injured arm didn't have enough strength left to parry the blow. She managed to force the blow to the side, so it just nicked her shoulder instead of slicing her jugular, but the force of the thrust ripped the knife out of her hand and sent her to the ground, twisting her hurt leg under her and leaving her unable to move. Her knife and gun were out of her reach, and she was out of clever tricks.

Oh, Drake, I'm really going to die this time...

"Gina!"

Valdez jerked and started to turn, then groaned as something heavy hit the back of his head. He stumbled, going down on one knee, and Gina didn't wait around for him to recover. Yanking a twisted piece of metal free of the rubble, she swung it around with all her remaining strength, and it connected with Valdez's skull with a satisfyingly disgusting wet sound. She paused for a moment, staring at her handiwork, then dropped the beam and collapsed back on the ground. She should get out of there, distance herself from the bodies, because she didn't want Dalin to see what she'd done...

But apparently, she wasn't going anywhere. Her body wasn't speaking to her--or maybe it was speaking, just not using any kind of polite language. Her injuries weren't that serious, but now that her adrenaline was gone, she was just exhausted...

"Gina! Gina!" Dalin came scrambling over the barricade, and for a few minutes, she was so glad to see him that she forgot why she'd had to leave him in the first place. Some part of her mind noticed that he had to drop a rock he'd been holding to get his arms around her, and she smiled. Guess I know what happened to Valdez just then... Then she stopped thinking about that completely.

Eventually, though, she got back under control and pushed him back as gently as possible. "No, Dal...No. I'm sorry, but I can't--"

"Yeah, ya can." Rio had discretely given them a few minutes before climbing over to join them. "I finished the prophecy, Gina, and they were it." She waved a hand toward the bodies, carefully not looking at them. "They were the great destruction."

"Them? Just them? Be serious."

"Yeah. Evidently they were trackin' ya, an' woulda followed ya ta the Blade if ya'd still been there. Then they woulda either given our location ta the Enforcers, 'r sold it ta the highest bidder, 'r somethin'. I ain't too sure what... but since ya weren't there, they didn't get that, an' so it's safe. Ya can come back. Oh, an' there's somethin' else about a final step ta yer destiny, but I wouldn't worry too much about that..."

"What?"

"Never mind."

"And you're not just making this up? Because I wouldn't put it past you. Either of you." She gave Dalin a pointed look, then softened it by letting him hold her again.

"Swear ta Drake. I didn't like it, but I wasn't gonna stop ya because I know ya had ta do it. Dalin might've tried ta keep ya, but since he didn't know anythin' about it 'til this mornin'...it's not like he had the time. We didn't even know where ya might be headin'."

"How did you know where I was, anyway? I didn't even plan to come here, I just drove by and felt like I had to stop for some reason."

Rio shrugged. "It was in the text. I about went nuts after readin' the part about us needin' ta find ya 'r ya'd die, an' I was searchin' fer where we could find ya, and when I turned the page there was a picture a' this place from before ya blew it up."

"Huh. Well, at this point, I'm not prepared to question anything, no matter how weird it sounds. I'm...just glad you found me." She sighed. "In that case, I'm ready to go back."

"Good." Rio glanced between them warily, then coughed. "I think I'll just, ah, take my car an' meet ya there. We can figure the rest a' this out...later."

"That's a good idea. We'll see you tomorrow."

"Tom--right, right. Fine."

*****

"Are ya sure about this?"

"Yes, Rio, I'm sure."

"Are ya really sure?"

"Yes, I'm really sure."

"Are ya really, really, really sure?"

"Rio, you don't have to watch, you know."

"No, I need ta be here for this. It just...damn, it's killin' me."

"Trust me, if it had been you that he was writing about, it wouldn't be hard at all."

They were out behind the building that housed the Brotherhood, and Boragottchio's Scrolls had been laid open in an empty garbage can, and now Gina was getting ready to drop a lighter in on top of it. Rio fidgeted unhappily. "I know, but when I think about all the stuff we could find out if we read it...I mean, the guy knew so much, think about what we could learn..."

"Rio, there are some things I'd rather not know."

"Yeah...yeah...I guess. Drake, I can't look."

The turned her head away as Gina dropped the lighter. There was a pause, then they went to check that it was burning. The lighter had landed in the middle of the page and the fire was already spreading across the parchment, curling the edges of the pages and turning them brown. Rio couldn't stop herself from wincing as she watched the paper crumbling at the edges. "I wonder if that's what the final step a' yer 'destiny' was, ta destroy the Scrolls..."

"Shut up about this destiny thing. I don't even want to hear about it."

"Okay, okay." They stood in silence for a few minutes. "So, ya ain't worried that Guéro will send more guys after ya?"

Gina shrugged. "Maybe. But he won't know what happened to his guys--it'll be months before he figures out if I killed them, or if they're still hunting for me, or if they turned on him. And by the time he figures out to send anyone new, the trail will be long cold. Trust me, I know how he works. I should have realized he'd send the first team out, but I had a few other things on my mind at the time."

"Huh. If you say so."

"I do. And don't worry about that client, by the way. I told him that the Scrolls were lost in the fight. He about popped a vein, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. And I charged him for expenses and damanges, so I still came out ahead."

"You came out ahead?"

"Right. We did."

"Better. By the way, if I said that I made copies a' the text as a precaution..."

"I'd break your neck."

"I figured."

"Well, did you?"

"No."

"Good."

They stood and watched the book burn until it was just a pile of ashes.

 

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