"Hiya sexy warrior chick," someone said laughingly, interrupting her thoughts.
Harmonn looked up, surprised to see Jez still set up in front of her apartment building. She glanced at her watch. It was almost ten o’clock.
"Better be careful, sweet-cheeks, deep thoughts suit you, but they’ll also take you unexpected places."
Harmonn scowled. "A bit late for you to be out, isn’t it?" she asked sourly.
"I was waiting for you," the fortuneteller smiled.
"I’m not interested in anything you have to offer," Harmonn said, turning at the entrance to her building.
"Aphrodite asked me to give you a message."
Harmonn froze. What in gods’ names? She turned around slowly. Jez was watching her with an inscrutable expression on her face. "Well?" she demanded irritably.
The fortuneteller cocked her head to one side. "She said, ‘Tell Harmonn not to fall into my brother’s trap.’"
Trap? "Her brother? You mean Ares?"
Jez shrugged. "I’m just the messenger girl, not the interpreter."
"Why on earth would Aphrodite give a shit about me?"
Jez rubbed the side of her nose thoughtfully. "Actually, I asked myself the same thing." She tapped a deck of cards on her table. "It’s not my place really," she said hesitantly, "but I did a reading on you. The results were…. interesting."
Harmonn rolled her eyes. "I don’t believe in that crap, Jez, and you know it." Normally, that would have been her cue to leave. But, though she was loath to admit it, her conversation with Kincaid had been unsettling, and she was feeling a bit like a stranger to herself. Ungrounded. Upended. She waited for the fortuneteller to continue, almost dreading what she had to say.
Jez must have seen it, somehow, because her face softened. "You wanna sit down, honey?" she asked, gesturing to the chair on the other side of the table.
Harmonn looked around, worried that someone she knew might see her. If anyone from the temple saw her sitting at a gypsy’s table getting her fortune told, she’d be a laughing stock. But the street was empty. Unnaturally so. Telegraph Avenue was never deserted, but there was nobody near for blocks.
"It’s a sign," Jez said quietly. "No one's going to see you. Besides, I’ve already done the reading. We’re just having a chat."
Harmonn walked around the table and sank into the chair wearily. "You’re the one talking. Make it fast."
"The cards told me you’re standing at a crossroads. A choice of paths."
"Every action is a choice of paths."
Jez smiled, and nodded. "True. Very wise of you. Most people don’t understand that. But, for some reason, the universe appears to think this is a very important choice. Not just for you, but for many, many people."
"The universe, huh? Not Aphrodite?"
"Aphrodite can’t predict the future, Harmonn. Few gods can with great accuracy. Only some, like the Fates, can tap that knowledge. These cards were blessed by the Fates, and while most of the time they’re still difficult to interpret, this reading was unusually clear."
Harmonn snorted. What a crock. "Yeah, yeah, so what did your stupid cards say about me?"
"Two paths. Down one you’ll find power, wealth, and influence. Blood. Upheaval. Domination. The overthrow of governments."
Harmonn smiled. "Sounds good to me!" Particularly if that would be the US government. "And the other?"
"Love?" she asked, incredulous. "Love? That’s all? What kind of a choice is that?"
Jez gave her a disgusted look. "Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it, warrior."
"You’re as bad as those damned Elijians," Harmonn said, standing up abruptly. "Been there, done that, didn’t like it. Thanks for nothing."
Jez stood as well, and caught her arm as she passed. "Wait," she said, and Harmonn was startled by the note of desperation in her voice.
The fortuneteller released her arm apologetically. "Sorry, I know you don’t like being touched. But let me put it to you in a different way, Harmonn. It’s a choice of misery versus a choice of happiness. That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?"
"I don’t see how power, wealth, and influence could possibly give me anything but happiness...so maybe you’ve got your interpretation of my paths down all wrong."
"Don’t play the fool with me," Jez said, using the harshest tone of voice Harmonn had ever heard her use. "I don’t believe that for a second, and neither do you. Not many people are given signposts written in GREAT BIG CAPITAL LETTERS when they reach the important crossroads in their lives. Most of us have to muck through with our eyes closed, hoping we make the right decisions at the right time. You’re lucky, warrior. Somebody upstairs obviously cares for you. Don’t waste the warning."
"Ares cares for me," Harmonn spat angrily. "And he’ll help me get what I want."
"Ares is a trap. Don’t waste your life."
That pissed Harmonn off. She wasn’t wasting her life. She was trying to make her life worthwhile. She shoved Jez backwards with both hands, and the fortuneteller went sprawling on her table, knocking cards and glass vials onto the sidewalk. Harmonn turned away and unlocked the door to her building.
"Did that make you feel better, Harmonn?" the fortuneteller asked before she could get inside. "’Cause whatever it is you’re feeling now, you’d better get used to it."
Harmonn stepped into the hall without looking back and slammed the door behind her. Rage. That was what she was feeling now. Rage and hatred for everyone and everything. She punched the sheet rock wall beside her and watched as her hand disappeared into it up to her wrist. She pulled it out, covered in chalky white dust, a fist sized-hole left behind. Her knuckles didn’t even hurt.
At the top of the stairs she pulled out her keys and began unlocking the many deadbolts to her door. She wondered briefly if Kincaid even bothered to lock her door. "Please come right in. Take my money. Take my things. Take my love. Take my life." When she finally opened the door, she quickly turned off the alarm by typing in her password on the keypad. Stupid Elijian. Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could anyone live like that?
She recalled Erin’s smiling, untroubled face during the prayer circle that morning. She certainly seemed happy enough.
Just like Anne. Happy. Until I came along.
Harmonn kicked an old pizza box off the sofa and collapsed on the threadbare cushions, propping her feet up on the armrest. Anne. She closed her eyes and pictured her dead lover’s smiling face. Anne had been Harmonn’s ideal woman, tall, redhead, athletic, ambitious. She looked damned good in a uniform, and she was the only woman who had ever kicked her butt in hand-to-hand combat. She’d been a paradox - tough, yet gentle; fiery, yet kind. Two years Harmonn’s senior, she had taught Harmonn much about life and leadership in the military. She’d shared more than just an office with Anne. She’d shared her heart and soul.
Harmonn didn’t believe in love at first site, but she and Anne had hit it off immediately. They’d both laughed at the military’s "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. They didn’t have to ask to know that they were attracted to each other. They didn’t have to tell. The connection was electric, the sex was great. They’d both been officers, making it somewhat easier to sustain a relationship, but all that had ended after an off-base car accident one snowy Saturday night.
Harmonn had been driving. Anne had been killed. Harmonn had fallen to pieces afterwards, and, when her father refused to understand the level of guilt and grief she’d felt at the loss, she’d confessed to him that they’d been lovers. She’d been summarily discharged from the Army - and her father’s life - all in one fell swoop. She hadn't even gone to his funeral after he'd been killed in action a year later.
She’d lost everything when Anne died; she’d been betrayed by Fate, by family, and by her country. Only Ares had given her reason to continue living. The temple had literally taken her in off the streets. They’d given her an outlet for her bitter anger, promising her the possibility of revenge and giving her another place to belong. As an Arms Master, she would have Ares’ protection and guidance in tearing down the establishment that had rejected her and punished her for being who and what she was. For loving Anne. For mourning her. For missing her.
Harmonn felt hot tears running down her face for the first time since she’d received her discharge papers.
"I’m sorry I killed you, Anne," she whispered to the darkness for the first time in years, hoping again that somehow, somewhere, her lover’s ghost would hear her and forgive.
It was raining in the morning when Harmonn woke after a restless night. She peered out her small kitchen window at the gloomy gray sky as she poured the milk into her cereal bowl. She had expected to feel a sense of destiny on this day, perhaps even euphoria. This was her day to prove herself to Ares and the other members of the temple. Tonight she would be an Arms Master. It was to be a day of triumph and success.
But all she really felt was… numbness. There was no excitement, no hint of butterflies in her stomach. Perhaps it was the lack of challenge of it all. Hammering a few nails into a passive victim didn’t seem like a test worthy of Ares’ notice. The whole thing was just a letdown.
She snorted to herself and munched her cereal quietly, watching the water drip from the eaves of the roof. Yet who was she to question Ares’ will? Maybe she was too soft deep down inside, and this was Ares’ way to test her resolve and toughness. She’d cried about Anne the night before. That was a sign of weakness. It was a sign of insecurity. Life was hard. She knew that. She understood it first hand. Only the strong would survive and succeed.
She would just have to be strong today and do what she had to do. Her path was with Ares, of that she was certain. If she started to doubt that now, what would she have left?
She looked around her small, neat apartment; at the worn, practical furniture and the bare walls. It was bereft of decoration or personality save for the pizza box still lying abandoned on the floor. She’d left the military with all of her belongings in two duffle bags, and she hadn’t bothered to collect many since, throwing herself into the pursuit of power and success in the temple rather than immediate monetary luxuries. She knew instinctively that those would follow soon enough. I don’t even have anything here worth stealing, she realized belatedly.
The answer to her question was surrounding her. Without Ares’ temple, she had nothing.
Nothing at all.
The rain kept many of the street vendors away, and Jez was nowhere to be seen when Harmonn stepped out into the dull, damp day. She stopped at liquor store to get some champagne for the celebration afterwards – just enough for a small, private party, rather than the entire temple - and went by a hardware store to get a handful of spikes and a heavy mallet. She knew that Jake and the other Arms Masters would want her to choose her own weapons to use for this particular occasion.
It was almost noon when she finally arrived at the temple, and the parking lot in back was nearly full. Word was out, and the warriors of Ares were here to watch the crucifixion in force.
Harmonn was greeted cheerfully by several of her students when she entered the main hall, and Arms Master Hershel showed her the t-shaped cross that had been made yesterday out of landscaping timbers. She grunted in satisfaction, pleased by the solid construction. The cross itself would be hung from a temporary scaffold erected beside Ares’ throne on the dais.
After completing her inspection, she headed for Mellor’s office. She met the big man himself in the hallway.
"How is she?" Harmonn asked, nodding her chin in the direction of his office door.
"Well, I let her go to the bathroom a few hours ago, but she didn’t seem inclined to talk," he grinned. "I think you broke her nose yesterday. Nice punch."
"Thanks!" Harmonn smiled. "I was just going to check on her. When do you want this to happen?"
"Sure." She held up the brown sack with the mallet and nails. "Got everything I need."
Jake took the bag from her and peeked inside. He took out one of the nails and looked at it. "A bit thin. We’ll have to tie her to the beams in advance. These’ll tear through her hands."
"I looked for spikes, but they didn’t have any. These were the biggest I could find."
"They’ll do. The Romans used to tie their sacrifices to the cross anyway," the Arms Master shrugged. "I’ll go get things ready in the hall and come get you when it’s time to go. I haven’t seen Jackson yet." Jackson was the third Arms Master associated with the Berkeley temple. "He shouldn’t be long, though."
Harmonn nodded, then headed for the office. "Good afternoon," she said, opening the door with a smile.
Kincaid looked up listlessly. "Is it?" she asked softly.
"For me," Harmonn grinned.
"My death means that much to you?"
"Yup. See, I kill you, and Ares makes me an Arms Master. One of the temple elite. I’ve spent the past five years working towards this day."
"Ah. I must have been doing something right for Ares to take special notice of me. Or was I just a random choice?"
Harmonn’s initial reaction was to lie, to dismiss her importance by saying it was all just random choice. But, if nothing else, Kincaid’s death was a sacred moment for the temple of Ares, and, one hoped, an important point in the conflict between the temple and the cult of Eli. By calling it a random choice, she would be belittling the significance of the event. "No, you were chosen to die by Ares earlier in the week." She chuckled. "And apparently by Eli, too."
Kincaid was silent.
"You know, I am curious. Why do you think Eli sent you here? I know what I think…"
"Eli has his reasons."
"I have faith."
Harmonn grinned, sensing the potential for some fun. "Let’s test that, shall we?" She pulled her switchblade out of her boot and cut the tape binding the girl’s feet. "Get up," she said, pulling Kincaid to her feet. She then cut the tape around the Elijian’s hands, freeing her completely.
After positioning herself in front of the door, Harmonn held the knife out to her handle first. "Tell you what, I’ll let you go if you can get past me. Fight for your freedom, Elijian."
Kincaid covered her face with her hands, shaking her head. "I… I can’t."
"I’ll be happy to walk out that door," she said slowly, letting her hands drop to her sides, "but I won’t fight you to get there."
"You’re fucking crazy, you know that? You’re going to die. I’m going to kill you. And you won’t even fight me for your own life?" Harmonn simply couldn’t comprehend it. It went against everything, everything she knew and understood. Harmonn slapped the girl’s face, hoping to knock some sense into her… to get a reaction of some sort, any sort.
Kincaid staggered, then straightened, blinking tears from her eyes. Harmonn could see the red outline of her hand on the girl’s cheek. With deliberate slowness, the Elijian turned her other cheek to the warrior.
"What are you doing?" Harmonn breathed.
"Offering you the other ch-cheek."
Harmonn could tell from her voice that she was trying hard not to cry. "You won’t defend yourself, will you?"
"Not with weapons. Not with violence."
"Not even in self defense? You wouldn’t kill me in self defense? Gods above, even the law says you can kill in self defense!"
"Eli says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt not kill, except in self defense.’ Killing is wrong. Violence is not the answer."
"That depends entirely on what the question is," Harmonn snorted in disbelief. "If you’re not willing to kill to defend yourself, what’s to stop the bad guys from taking over?"
A single tear ran down Kincaid’s face. "The bad guys like you?" She tried to smile. "Like Ares? Hatred will never cease by hatred. It can only be healed by love. If more people understood that, we wouldn’t have to fight. I…I... how do I make you understand that?"
Harmonn fought the urge to punch her again. Instead, she grabbed Erin by the neck. "You’re full of crap, Elijian." She forced the girl down to her knees before releasing her. "Fight for your life."
Kincaid gasped for breath before looking up again. "You don’t get it… so few people get it…" she smiled crookedly, "we’re all connected, we’re all… the same… I’m you… you’re me… we’re two fingers on the same hand. Your motto… divide and conquer… anything that separates us, draws lines between us, keeps us apart… hatred, bigotry, prejudice…even religions that preach ‘we’re right, and you’re wrong…’ all of these things keep us from knowing the truth of our connection and trap us in misery and the cycle of violence. I’m not going there. Not to save my life. Not for anything. I have faith. Faith in Eli, faith in Love. Eli died to deliver his message, and so will I."
Harmonn leaned forward. "And what is your message, Kincaid?"
The girl didn’t answer for a moment, obviously searching for the right response. Suddenly, she smiled. "That I love you."
Harmonn’s mind boggled. She couldn’t be serious. She couldn’t. But she could see the truth shining brightly in the girl’s eyes.
No more games, she told herself, swallowing. Without lifting a hand, Kincaid had just assaulted her with a weapon more dangerous than any gun, and she knew it. That crossroads that Jez had spoken of last night, here it was again. "You don’t even know me. How could you possibly love me?"
"The same way Eli loved all people… It doesn’t have anything to do with knowing or not knowing. It’s just a way of being… it’s… it’s like… it’s like this temple… this temple is full of hatred and anger. I could feel it the moment I stepped in the door. And… and your body is like a temple. What is it full of? Mine is full of love… for you, for my cats, my next-door neighbor, for everyone and everything."
"It’s full of shit. And it damned well ought to be full of fear," Harmonn snarled.
Erin swallowed. "Oh, there’s that, too. If it makes you feel better, I’m truly terrified." The next sentence came out a whisper, almost a plea. "I don’t want to die."
Harmonn stared at her, shocked by the confession. The girl admitted she was afraid to die, and yet she was still willing to do so… for her beliefs, for her ideals.
That took courage even Harmonn had to respect.
This Elijian, this young woman before her was an open book. She was genuine… a genuinely nice person. And though she hadn’t said it, Harmonn sensed that she loved life perhaps above all else on that list of things she’d mentioned.
In contrast, Harmonn hated her life. She also recognized that she kept everything locked up and hidden behind a myriad of walls, both metaphorical and real. Memories, pain, emotions. Did she even have any idea who she really was? What she really wanted? What she even felt? Rage, yes. That was perhaps the only real thing she acknowledged. Anger enabled her to go on… to not give in to despair… it gave her purpose and a reason to live.
She wondered, briefly, what and who she might find if she ever let those walls and barriers down again. What would happen if she opened up? Could she ever be like Erin Kincaid and love her life? Love… anything… again?
I love pizza, she thought. If I love pizza, I can love other things.
I could love Erin Kincaid. It was true, she realized, staring at the open, heartbreakingly beautiful face looking up at her with despairing sea-green eyes. How could you not? She looked like a lost puppy. "I’m sorry," she said slowly, and was surprised to find she meant it. "But this is something I have to do."
As if on cue, there came a knock on the door.
"Come in," Harmonn said.
Arms Master Mellor poked his head in the door. "We’re all set."
Harmonn tucked the knife into her boot and grabbed Erin’s arm. "Time’s up," she said.
Erin’s face paled by several shades, and Harmonn reflected that the saying, "white as a sheet," was surprisingly accurate. The girl was also apparently either unable or unwilling to stand, even with Harmonn’s assistance, so she glanced at Jake. "She’s not going anywhere on her own."
The big man snorted, and grabbed the Elijian’s other arm. Together they pulled her to her feet and hauled her, stumbling, to the door.
"P-Please," the girl stuttered, "You don’t have to do this…" She resisted weakly as they dragged her along the corridor leading to the inner sanctum.
Harmonn could feel eyes on her face, pleading, but she refused to look. She said nothing, concentrating on the task at hand.
"Please… I haven’t done anything to you…"
"Shut up, Elijian," Jake warned, and Kincaid gasped as he squeezed her arm painfully. "I’d be more than happy to cut your tongue out if you keep blubbering."
The girl remained silent until they pulled her into the inner sanctum. The Elijian’s knees gave out when she saw the cross laid out in front of Ares’ empty throne "Eli help me," she whispered.
"Eli ain’t gunna do shit in this temple," Jake said, dragging her forward.
The temple loyal were gathered on either side of the hall, leaving the center space in front of the throne free. Their eagerness to witness the event to come was clear, and the air buzzed with excited energy. Someone began to beat a drum as Harmonn helped haul the terrified girl towards the cross. The warrior’s heartbeat picked up, and she felt a familiar surge of adrenaline when the other followers began to stamp their feet in rhythm to the drum.
Arms Masters Jackson and Hershel stepped forward when they reached the cross. Hershel held the mallet and three nails. Jackson held lengths of coiled rope.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god," Kincaid stammered, and Harmonn could feel her start to tremble.
"Strip her naked," Jake suggested. "Let’s watch her blush."
"No," Harmonn said firmly, wondering why she didn’t want the Elijian humiliated before she died. What difference did it make?
The Arms Master raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. "Your show."
Harmonn nodded at Jackson, and they traded places. She took the mallet and nails from Hershel, then took her place at the head of the cross. She lifted her hand for silence.
The drums stopped, and the hall fell quiet. Harmonn turned to face the throne. "Mighty Ares, hear my call!"
With a roll of thunder and a flash of light, the god appeared in front of Harmonn, standing. "Yes?" he drawled.
Harmonn sank to her knees. "I come before you today to prove my worth by sacrificing your enemy as you have commanded."
Ares grinned, and looked past Harmonn to the Elijian. He hopped down off the platform and approached the girl. "Well, well, well. Look who we have here!" He tried to run his finger down the side of her face, but she shrank from his touch despite the Arms Masters' tight grip on her arms. Ares laughed. "Scared?"
"Not of you," Kincaid said with a surprising degree of defiance.
"Then why are you shaking?" Ares chuckled.
"Because I’m…I'm afraid of pain. But I guess that’s not something you’d understand, is it?"
"You’re wrong," Ares said quietly in her face, then turned away. For an instant, Harmonn swore the god of war looked regretful, but then he stepped back up on the dais and turned to face his followers, raising his arms towards the ceiling. "Two thousand years ago, a bumbling charlatan by the name of Eli had the audacity to defy me by preaching to the common people about embracing the path of peace. I killed him. Two thousand years later, his followers have started a campaign against me again. I think they need to be taught a lesson they apparently failed to learn two thousand years ago: to defy me is to die. It’s time to remind the complacent masses of this fact.
"Yes, indeed. The god of war is back! It’s time for warriors to rule the world again, not fat, lazy politicians who are given their power by cowardly sheep who are too weak to lead themselves. Today begins with the death of a single - weak - enemy. Tomorrow will see the downfall of the so-called democratic governments of world so that the strong may rule again. Divide and conquer!"
He sat back down on his throne and pointed at Harmonn. "Let the fun begin!"
A ragged cheer went up as the three Arms Masters unceremoniously dropped the Elijian onto the cross. She didn’t struggle against them, but Harmonn could see the tension in her body as they began securing her ankles and wrists to the wooden beams. She almost seemed resigned to her fate except for one tear that ran down the side of her face as she stared up blankly at the high ceiling. Her lips moved as if she were whispering to herself, and it occurred to Harmonn that she must be praying.
"Well, lookie here," Jake chuckled as they pulled off the girl’s shoes and socks. "She came prepared… already got a bull’s-eye on her foot for you, Harmonn - perfect for putting a nail through."
Harmonn leaned forward to see what the big man was talking about and saw a decorative circle tattooed on the top of Kincaid’s bare right foot. Below it was a small cross making it look like a distorted symbol for woman. For some reason the image disturbed her, and she looked away after forcing an appropriate smirk at Jake. "I never have trouble hitting the hole," she said smoothly, and the three men laughed.
The Arms Masters stood up and moved to one side when they finished positioning and securing the girl’s feet. Harmonn stepped forward, nail and mallet in hand. She knelt beside Kincaid’s left hand and pushed the point of the nail against the pale skin of her palm. The Elijian closed her eyes and turned her head away.
"Any last words?" Harmonn asked.
"He’ll betray you," Kincaid said softly, turning her green eyes to meet hers.
"Ares. He’ll betray you. I don’t know how or why, but somehow I do know he will."
"Fuck you," Harmonn snarled, and raised the mallet.
"Oh yeah!" Ares said. "Do it, baby!"
Harmonn swung. She felt the hammer connect with the head of the nail, driving it downward. She felt the difference in resistance as the nail drove first through flesh and then into the harder wood beneath it. She watched the shudder run through Erin Kincaid’s body, saw the girl writhe against the bonds holding her in place as her blonde head flew back in agony. She heard the gut-wrenching cry of pain pierce the silence of the temple and the carefully constructed walls surrounding her soul.
She raised the hammer for a second blow. She saw her hand shaking, knuckles white as she grasped the wooden handle. She heard the God of War laughing. And in that instant - in the sound of that laughter - Harmonn Sharpe realized with startling clarity that what she was doing was wrong.
She froze, conflicting desires and thoughts warring for domination in her consciousness.
"Finish the job, Harmonn," Ares purred. "I promise you my favor."
"What the blazes does that mean?" Harmonn wondered briefly in confusion.
Conquest. Glory. The overthrow of governments. Jez’s words came back to her.
Misery. Anger. Emptiness. Another voice spoke in her mind. Betrayal.
She looked at Erin, wondering what Eli would have to say about this, but the girl’s eyes were tightly closed, and the tears were now streaming down her face. Her chest heaved as she panted for breath.
Harmonn recognized that Kincaid was going into shock. The girl hadn’t eaten in over a day, and she’d been knocked unconscious, beaten, and now had a nail driven through her hand. It was hardly any wonder her body was shutting down. It was doubtful she’d survive the night on the cross, much less another day or two.
Harmonn tried to imagine pulling Kincaid’s lifeless body from the cross tomorrow morning and failed entirely. All she could see was Anne’s mostly decapitated corpse lying beside the tree in the snow, surrounded by the glittering glass of a shattered windshield.
Her first kill had ruined her life. Did she really expect her second kill to fix it? No, she knew in no uncertain terms that Erin Kincaid’s death would haunt her to her dying day, just like Anne’s.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I can’t do this," she said quietly, then looked up to meet Ares’ gaze.
She was surprised to find no anger there, only deep, bitter disappointment. She stood slowly, gripping the hammer tightly, aware that Jake Mellor was moving towards her, pulling a switchblade from his boot. She tensed, preparing to defend herself.
"I’ll finish them both, Lord Ares," the big man growled.
The god raised his hand. "No. Let them go."
"Trust me, Mellor. If you try to kill her right now, I’ll lose you and half the people in this temple before it’s all over. And frankly, I don’t want to have to start recruiting again in this region."
"Nobody insults you and walks away from this temple unpunished!" the Arms Master protested, clearly furious at being held back from doing what he perceived as his duty.
"Nobody except for them," the god said evenly. He met Harmonn’s eyes and shrugged, lips quirking into a half smile. "Hey, I had to try." He shook his head ruefully. "I almost had you this time, but I can wait. If not this lifetime, then the next. Or maybe I’ll try to get her instead. But I’ll get one of you...someday." He smiled, then disappeared in a flash of light.
Harmonn didn’t understand what he meant by any of it, but she was smart enough to know that it was time to get her butt out of there. And Erin’s too.
She knelt beside the cross and pulled her own switchblade out, quickly sawing through the ropes securing Erin’s arms and feet.
The Elijian opened pain-clouded eyes and watched her, uncomprehending. "What… what are you d-d-doing?"
"Getting you out of here," Harmonn said, trying to keep her voice calm. She grabbed the top of the nail in her fist. "Hold on, this is going to hurt."
Erin cried out again as Harmonn pulled the nail out, and the warrior watched in fascination as blood came gushing out of the wound as the metal exited. It spilled over the girl’s palm and dribbled down the side of the wooden cross. Erin’s hand convulsed, then went limp. The Elijian had fainted.
This is soooo not good. Harmonn tossed the bloody nail away distastefully, and it hit the floor with an audible clang, rolling several feet before coming to a stop in front of one of Jake Mellor’s booted feet. The big man leaned over and picked it up silently, flanked by the other two Arms Masters. Their faces held the looks of anger she’d expected to see on her god, and she shuddered, knowing that she’d just made three very dangerous enemies.
She turned back to Erin and patted her cheek lightly. "C’mon, Erin, wake up. I need you to help me out, here." She shook the girl’s shoulders. She knew she should bandage the Elijian’s wounded hand to stop the bleeding, but that would have to wait until they were out of the temple. "Wake up, dammit!"
When Erin didn't stir, Harmonn used her adrenaline enhanced strength to pick the girl up. Gods be damned, she weighs a ton for such a little thing. Cursing to herself, she carried Kincaid’s limp body past the hostile stares of her former companions and students to the closest exit. Somehow she got the door open and staggered up the stairs to the street where she pushed open the door to the outside world. Oddly, her first thought was to be thankful it wasn't still raining outside.
She hesitated before stepping out, knowing that once she did, she would never be able to come back. Erin's bleeding hand had left a trail of blood going up the stairs, and her eyes followed it down again, stopping when she saw Arms Master Hershal step through the doorway below.
Harmonn closed her eyes against the cold fury in his expression. It was already too late to go back. She'd made her choice when she refused to crucify Kincaid.
She stepped out onto the gray, wet sidewalk in front of the temple.
"Don’t come back, Harmonn, and don’t call us to post your bail," Arms Master Hershel said behind her from the doorway. "You’ve failed your god and your fellow warriors. You’re finished with the temple. And you’d better watch your step from now on."
"Fuck you!" Harmonn spat before he closed the door. She closed her eyes again, wondering just what in the name of all gods she was going to do now. Suddenly she felt exhausted. She sank to her knees on the cold cement, carefully lowering Erin with her.
The Elijian moaned, and her eyes flickered but didn’t open.
Harmonn pulled out her knife and cut a strip of cloth from Erin’s t-shirt, using it to bind the girl’s bleeding hand. She needs to get to a hospital. Her eyes came to rest on the Elijian’s bare foot and the odd tattoo there. Fascinated, she shifted her position and traced the circle with her finger. For some reason, it looked familiar.
"It’s a chakram," a weak voice said, and Harmonn looked down to see Erin’s eyes open, watching her.
Ahhhh. Harmonn remembered where she’d seen it before. Ares had a chakram of similar design etched into the back of his throne. Of course, she hadn’t known it was a chakram before. "What’s with the cross?"
"It was in the picture…" Erin said, struggling to sit up.
"Take it easy," Harmonn said, gently pushing her back down. "You’ve lost a lot of blood. What picture?"
"Um…on the Xena Blue Scroll… Not much of the scroll survived, but the picture remained. Some scholars think the cross is just an accidental ink blotch."
"But you don’t?" Harmonn asked, wondering idly if the Elijian had other weird designs of ancient artifacts tattooed on hidden body parts. Somehow, she hadn’t thought of Kincaid as the tattooing type.
"No, it just seemed to fit. I couldn’t get it out of my head…"
"So you had it permanently stamped on your foot instead?" Harmonn rolled her eyes.
Kincaid took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes. "I thought you were going to kill me. Or is this just more psychological torture before the real thing?"
Harmonn looked away. She hugged her legs to her chest and rested her chin on her knees. "Naw. I copped out. Couldn’t do it." She risked a glance at the Elijian and found her green eyes open, staring. "You’re free to go. Call the police. Doesn’t matter to me."
Erin awkwardly pushed herself up into a sitting position with her good hand. She swallowed, cradling her wounded hand. "Um… you know… I don’t really remember all of what happened down there, but I think I understand enough to know that… uh… one way or another… I owe you my life. Thank you."
Harmonn was tempted to be pissed at the stupidity of this statement but decided it would take too much effort. "Sure, whatever." She stood up. "Have a nice life."
"I won’t call the cops," the Elijian said quietly.
Harmonn turned and looked at her. "Afraid I’ll hurt you?"
"No… it… it just wouldn’t be right to reward mercy with punishment."
"I hammered a hole in your hand."
"You spared my life."
Harmonn shook her head in disgust. "I will never in a million years understand you, Elijian."
"I’m sorry," Erin said earnestly.
Harmonn’s eyes slipped back to the tattoo. "Ares has a chakram like that carved into the back of his throne," she said, almost to herself. It seemed significant, somehow, but she couldn’t put her finger on why.
Erin frowned, looking at her foot. She wiggled her toes. "I guess that makes sense. He was in love with Xena, after all."
Harmonn hadn’t known that, but she carefully hid her surprise. "You think it’s supposed to be Xena’s chakram?"
The Elijian shrugged. "M. Pappas insisted that the drawing on the scroll was Xena’s chakram. Her analyses and arguments were quite convincing."
"And you believe her?"
"Sure. Her scholarly translations of the Xena scrolls are still accepted as the best out there."
"Maybe I’ll have to read them sometime."
Kincaid’s battered face lit up. "I have copies you can borrow. Or they’re available in the university library… It’s so cool to read about Xena from a first-hand source! She really was amazing."
Harmonn frowned. Funny, that they shared a similar opinion of the long-dead warrior princess. Apparently, they did have something in common after all. "Do you like pizza?" she asked after a moment. Maybe Kincaid could help her unwind the mystery of Ares’ strange comments. The Elijian seemed to know a lot about the war god’s past history.
Kincaid seemed to follow this abrupt change in topic without missing a beat. Bruised, beaten, with blood already starting to seep through the makeshift bandage around her hand, the girl looked decidedly happy to be alive, and her natural charisma shined through in the form of unabated enthusiasm. "I love pizza," she said. Her face fell. "But if I have any now, I think I’ll be sick. I don’t feel very well. I don’t suppose you’d call an ambulance for me? I… I’m not sure I could make it to a phone…"
Harmonn sighed. Definitely a pain in the butt. "Well, I suppose if I leave you to bleed to death on the sidewalk, the cops will eventually hunt me down…" She held out her hand. "Come on, I’ll take you myself."
Kincaid hesitated, staring uncertainly at Harmonn’s outstretched hand.
Harmonn scowled and grabbed Erin's uninjured wrist. "Let’s get going before you pass out again." She pulled Kincaid to her feet, wrapping the Elijian’s arm over her shoulder so she could support most of her weight. "My car is in the back lot."
Kincaid tucked her wounded hand into the waistband of her jeans. "But I’m bleeding…I don’t want to mess it up…"
"I like decorating in blood," Harmonn smirked.
Erin turned her head to look up at her. "Really?"
Harmonn smiled inwardly. "Naw. But the interior does happen to be dark red." She helped Kincaid navigate through the alley and around a set of dumpsters at the side of the parking lot. "Hold on, there’s some broken glass here."
Without asking for permission, Harmonn swept the Elijian off her bare feet and carried her across the parking lot. "Almost there," she said, nodding towards her car. Kincaid was resting her tousled blonde head against Harmonn’s shoulder, eyes closed, and the warrior noticed that her lips had lost most of their color again.
It was awkward unlocking the door while holding up another person, but eventually she got the Elijian settled on the front seat, and she slid in behind the wheel, turning the key to the ignition.
"Um, can I ask you something?" Kincaid asked softly when Harmonn turned onto the street, heading for the nearest hospital.
"Can I stop you?" Harmonn grumbled.
"Well, sure… I mean, just say so. You don’t have to punch me in the face or anything." Kincaid sighed tiredly. "Under normal circumstances I respond fairly well to verbal instructions."
Harmonn rolled her eyes. "What is it?"
"I just wanted to know your name…"
"My name?" Harmonn repeated, glancing down at the Elijian in surprise.
"Most people have one."
Cheeky. Harmonn liked that. She grinned despite herself. "Harmonn. Harmonn Sharpe."
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