With a single sharp gasp I was back. And this time there was no lingering confusion like after my first death back at Sarondi's apartment. No, this time it was more like a light switch had briefly been thrown and I had been turned off and then back on. All my memories snapped instantly into place.
And then the light switch metaphor struck me as so appropriate, I almost laughed. Or perhaps the urge to laugh was merely the result of still being very much alive. Either way, I was now lying in total darkness; my last second blow with the sword to kill the lights had obviously been successful.
Those thoughts seemed to flash through my mind in the two seconds it took to register that I wasn't lying in the position in which I had fallen after the impact of the string of bullets from the large caliber automatic weapon. I had been falling face-first towards the floor when my personal lights had gone out. But now I was on my back, definitely cradled in someone's arms.
"Auggie?" I whispered.
"Annie?" he echoed back uncertainly.
Before he got any more words out, I felt something wet land on my cheek. It had to be a tear, I realized, as a second one silently splattered down.
Of course, Auggie would have thought I was dead. Hell, I had been dead when he must have reached me and found my lifeless body. His enhanced sense of touch would have immediately found the row of bullet holes and the complete lack of any signs of life – no rising and falling of the chest, no beating of the heart.
And I had never had an opportunity to warn him of my special abilities. Oh, I could have whispered something during our mad rush to escape, but who would believe such a crazy story without a shred of proof? No, Auggie, at best, would have thought it was just a case of false bravado on my part to convince him to hang back if I needed to do something suicidal to save him.
Of course, another reason I hadn't blurted it out to Auggie had been what Duncan had said back at the barge. It was dangerous for mortals to know of our existence. But that was only part of it. I would trust Auggie with my life and, I think, my new secret, but deep inside I had been worried about how he would take it. Would he go running and screaming for the hills? Or even worse, would he appear to accept it on the surface, but ultimately come to resent me, as he slowly aged and I remained forever 28? Would I lose my best friend over this?
But there was nothing for it but to push forward now. Auggie had seen me come back from the dead and there was no going back.
Slowly I lifted my head from where he had been cradling it in his lap and sat up. Then quickly I ran my left hand up his body until it reached his head and I could locate his face in the total darkness. As I leaned close, I wondered if this darkness was what life was like for him all day, every day. He had so much more inner strength than me to cope with, hell, to thrive with this unimaginable disability.
My lips first touched what had to be his nose before I slid them lower and found the right angle to reach his mouth. Then I kissed him hungrily and with far more passion than either of our two earlier short kisses.
It took him several seconds to react, as I'm sure the shock of my impossible return was still overwhelming. But then he was returning my kiss with equal fervor.
I wanted the kiss to last forever, but after no more than a minute, okay, five minutes tops, Auggie pulled his head ever so slightly back.
"How?" he breathed.
A shit-eating grin spread across my face. And with Auggie's strong hands cradling my face in the same way mine continued to touch his, he couldn't have missed it either.
"Apparently, I'm Immortal. Or at least things like guns can't permanently kill me," I whispered back before I leaned in for another quick kiss.
"How?" Auggie breathed again when we came up for air.
I forced myself to pull back more than the fraction of an inch which had separated us the last time I had spoken. I was alive and Auggie was alive. But the nukes and nerve gas were still out there, too. There would be time for kissing, and maybe more, after we completed the mission.
"There has always been a small scattering of people down through the ages who become Immortal after their first death. And after their first death they stop aging and their bodies have incredible rejuvenative powers like being able to heal from gunshot wounds in a matter of minutes."
I paused to stand up and then pulled Auggie to his feet before continuing.
"I didn't learn I was Immortal until I was shot and killed back at Sarondi's apartment."
I paused and waited for Auggie's reaction. And as I stood there in the total darkness, I think I began to get an inkling of Auggie's world. He had to be thinking about what I had said, but without the normal visual cues I felt almost completely lost.
And then he responded with a totally unexpected question and a trace of humor restored to his voice.
"So what's with the sword? I damn near cut myself on it when I reached you and even dead, you managed to maintain a literal 'death grip' on it."
It wasn't until he spoke that I realized 'Little Dragon' was still clutched firmly in my right hand. It had barely been six hours since I had selected it, or perhaps it had selected me, but already it almost felt as much a part of me as my arms or legs.
"It's a long story," I said with a laugh before continuing. "But the nukes and the nerve gas are still out there and we need to deal with them first. Now, are any of the opposition in the immediate area?"
"No, after the burst of gunfire, they appeared to fade away. As I crept over to where you had to be, I kept expecting them to walk up and grab me or simply shoot me. And once I found your . . . ah . . . body, I didn't really care for awhile. But they disappeared."
It wasn't until then that I realized Auggie didn't know the lights were out. "Auggie, when they were busy shooting at me, I was trying to knock out the lights. I succeeded just as I was killed. It is pitch black in here. If they saw me fall before the lights went out, they may have decided it wasn't urgent to capture or kill you, too."
"Oh," was all Auggie said in reply.
"So, for the present, I am as blind as you. Do you want to lead while we try to find our way out and I'll explain a little about the sword?"
We had been moving through the seemingly endless darkness for almost twenty minutes when I first felt 'the buzz' of other nearby immortals. Experiencing the world as it must now always appear to Auggie for such a long period of time had been scary and frightening. In the end, I think Auggie truly was doing more leading than me.
But now with the return of 'the buzz', it was my turn to take the lead. For a moment I contemplated changing directions, but then I realized I was sensing three or four Immortals rather than one or two. It had to mean Duncan and Amanda were somewhere ahead and not just the opposition, or at least so I hoped. And I had no idea what situation I might find, they might need my help, although after having seen Duncan and Amanda in previous fights against mortals, I knew I would be of little help against other immortals.
Still, the clock was ticking and we needed to reach help before the weapons all disappeared on their way to their final targets. So I alerted Auggie and took the lead.
I knew from what Amanda had said earlier that 'the buzz' had a very limited range, perhaps as little as fifty feet. Standing stock still and staring around, I finally spotted the faintest hint of light from a cross-aisle about fifteen feet to our left. Carefully making my way forward, I reached the corner and peeked around.
Someone had come better prepared than me, as the cleared area I saw opening up about two rows of stacks further ahead of me was lit by several battery-powered lanterns. And in the cleared area I could see four people standing well apart and they all were holding swords aloft.
Since they had to have sensed my presence at the same time I had sensed theirs, there didn't seem to be any point in hanging back. Grabbing Auggie's hand, I walked forward into the dim light.
When I reached the edge of the cleared area, it became obvious the Immortals were in a Mexican standoff. Duncan was facing a man I didn't recognize, but who had to be Tarasov. Amanda was facing Sarondi, who was standing near a table supporting a small aluminum case similar to some of the ones I had seen back at the weapons cache. However this one had been opened and a silvery flask slightly smaller than a coffee thermos rested atop the case. It only took one guess to understand this was one of the nerve gas containers. And it was impossible not to notice how Sarondi's sword was aimed more at the flask than at Amanda.
"MacLeod, you need to walk away and take Amanda with you," Sarondi was saying in Russian. "Or I will break the flask and the deaths of thousands of people will be on your head."
"This is not how we play the game," Duncan responded also speaking in Russian, which must have been the only common language of these four immortals. "Fight us and if you win, you get to walk away."
As I watched, I saw the way the tip of Duncan's sword wavered ever so slightly. After a couple of hours talking with him, I knew Duncan would never risk the lives of thousands of people. He would let Sarondi go and hope for another shot at him before the weapons were actually used.
And from what little I knew about the situation, Sarondi had crossed paths with Duncan several times before and had held Amanda more-or-less prisoner for eight years in his harem. He probably knew exactly how Duncan and Amanda would respond in this situation.
But I think I could read a little into Sarondi's actions, too. He was not threatening to use a nuke, which would have killed him also. No, nerve gas might temporarily kill the four immortals standing face to face, but its effects wouldn't be permanent. Then it would be just a question of which immortal revived first. So, Sarondi had no intentions of suffering a permanent death, if he could avoid it. And that gave me an angle I could work.
Situating Auggie near the shelves at the entry to this space, I took two steps forward.
"You don't want to break that flask, Sarondi," I said. Fortunately, the guttural nature of Russian made even my voice sound commanding.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded without ever taking his eyes off Amanda, who stood barely ten feet in front of him. If his attention wavered for more than a moment, Amanda could probably take him from that distance.
"I'm Walker," I said. After the last utterly crazy twelve hours, I had almost said 'Walker, Texas Ranger', but this was probably not the time for levity with thousands of lives at stake and it would probably have lost something in the translation to Russian anyway. "I work for the C.I.A. After seeing the shopping list at your apartment last night, we procured the counter agent for the Novichok A232. My whole team, including me, was inoculated two hours ago. Have you been inoculated? I'm thinking not. So if you bust that flask, I WILL take your head before you revive. You break the flask and I guarantee you will suffer a permanent death just like all the mortals in the area."
I wasn't certain I could really do it, if he was already dead from the gas, but it was the only approach I could see to get him to back down.
For the first time he took his eyes off Amanda and glanced in my direction. He immediately took a half step back although it still left him within reach of the flask.
I followed his eyes and glanced down at myself. In the dim light, it looked like I had been dunked in a 55 gallon barrel filled with blood. I didn't see a single spot of white remaining on either my bra or my pirate pants. Almost all of the blood was my own, but Sarondi had no way of knowing that. No, perhaps from his perspective, it looked like I had personally waded through half of his followers on my way here, as certainly would be in the range of possibility for an experienced Immortal based on what little I had seen.
And I realized he probably wouldn't even recognize me from the one time our paths had briefly passed back at the party at the Swiss Embassy. Then I had merely been a pre-Immortal who had been clean, elegantly dressed, and a blonde. But now I looked totally different and was putting out the same 'buzz' as the others in the room. I didn't think 'the buzz' gave away how long anyone had been an Immortal, so no point mentioning I had been Immortal for less than half a day and had never taken a head.
"Well, youngster," I added, trying to put a hint of a snarl in my voice. "Do you want certain death or are you going to play 'The Game' by the rules like a man?"
"Pussy!" interjected Amanda in an undertone. And in Russian it was even more of a slur than in English.
"Fine," said Sarondi taking a half step away from the flask and raising his sword so that it pointed more directly in Amanda's direction. "But Amanda issued the challenge. If I win, you have to let me walk."
I took a half step back and lowered the tip of my sword. I hated to leave the responsibility on Amanda's shoulders, but I had done the best I could to stop the gas from being released without letting Sarondi and Tarasov walk away scot-free with the weapons.
Duncan took a half step towards Tarasov and raised his sword higher.
Tarasov raised his sword to a defensive position, but said. "What are you doing, my old comrade? The woman issued her challenge to Sarondi. It is not your place to interfere."
"I am not interfering, comrade," responded Duncan. "I am challenging you. You stepped over the line selling nukes. This has to end now."
The Russian nodded slowly and then rearranged his stance to something that looked more offensive than defensive. Or at least that is how it looked to my untrained eye.
I don't know what I was expecting, perhaps something like the fight scene between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in the classic 'Robin Hood' from the 1930s. You know, the one where the swordfight seemed to go on for ten minutes while they chased each other all over the castle jumping over furniture and the like. But that wasn't what I saw.
No, this battle was much more akin to the fight Duncan and I had with Sarondi's men beside my car. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. I'm not sure the fight lasted for three exchanges, maybe not even two. Everything happened so fast, I only saw the four swords blur for what seemed like two seconds and then Sarondi's and Tarasov's heads were dropping to the floor, quickly followed by their lifeless bodies. I could see why Duncan said I wouldn't survive without training. Hell, I wondered if I would survive even with training.
And then the lightshow began.
Amanda had tried to explain about 'The Quickening', but it is something impossible to grasp until you see it and you probably can't fully grasp it until you experience it firsthand. She had said the essence of the loser, not exactly the same thing as a soul, and the essence of everyone he had ever defeated passed on to the victor. It wasn't quite like you inherited his every fighting skill, but she said at first it felt like that until it slowly receded into the background.
And just standing on the periphery of this double quickening, it felt like I was experiencing the smallest taste. Bolts of blue lightning rocketed from the exposed necks of the dead bodies looking like the blue bolts I had experienced when my body was healing from gunshot wounds – only scaled up a million times. Most of the bolts were passing straight from the defeated to the victor, but a few raced forth to collide with the nearest metal object in an attempt to ground itself almost like normal lightning.
Quickly, I grabbed Auggie's arm and tugged him away from the metal shelving and then I threw both of us to the ground. As it was, several of the bolts passed so near me, I could feel my Immortal body sing in response. And just for a second it felt like I was someone else entirely – a towering Nubian prince battling another immortal with a giant trident whose outer tangs were sharp enough to remove a head. It had to have been the essence of one of Sarondi's or Tarasov's prior victims I had experienced. The sensation had been unbelievably intense and I hadn't even been the essence's ultimate destination.
The lightshow went on for at least twenty seconds and my Immortal body was kissed by these essences at least a couple more times before it was over.
Slowly I raised my head from where I was crouched next to Auggie. Both Duncan and Amanda had been driven to their knees by the experience and the tips of their swords were jammed into the floor in front of them for added support.
It was nearly a minute before Duncan and Amanda climbed back to their feet still breathing hard. Slowly, I followed suit and then helped Auggie up, too.
Duncan stared at me for nearly a minute before nodding his head. "You are one of the most fearless . . . ah . . ." Duncan glanced at Auggie apparently not knowing how much the blind man knew about what was going on and not wanting to say the wrong thing, and therefore paused for a moment to select the right word before continuing. "Young warriors I have ever met. Without your help, I think I might have let Sarondi walk away with all the weapons."
No one had ever called me a warrior before. I suddenly felt this glow of pride inside as I realized this was probably the highest compliment Duncan, the son of a long forgotten Scottish clan chief, could bestow. And I finally understood, in at least some limited sense, that is what my job in the C.I.A. ultimately came down to. Without really thinking about it, I had been fighting the good fight to protect people. Now I just had some additional tools at my disposal, or would if I survived long enough to use them.
"Thanks," I answered. I could feel a slight blush spreading across my face, but in the dim light and with all the blood smeared on my face, it, thankfully, probably wasn't visible. "But I see what you mean about needing training if I am to survive. I would like to take you up on your offer."
As Duncan was nodding, Amanda walked up with the aluminum case held in her free hand, the flask safely restored to its padded interior niche.
"Hmm," she began as she took a closer look at me. "I think I might go with 'reckless' warrior rather than 'fearless' warrior. Most of that blood IS yours, right?"
I nodded slowly, not certain if Amanda was disappointed in me or not.
With relief I saw a grin spread across her beautiful face. "I see a lot of the younger me in you. If you survive long enough, I think you have the makings to become great someday."
Then her expression sobered.
"Let's get out of here," Amanda said. "We have some other weapons to secure and then some of us are going to need a nice long bath."
Duncan grabbed one of the lanterns and led the way out of the room. I put away 'Little Dragon', grabbed the other lantern in my left hand, and then wrapped my other arm around Auggie's waist before following the two older Immortals up out of the darkness.
Auggie and I walked out of one of the Louvre's side entrances into the bright afternoon Paris sunlight. It felt good after nearly three hours in the building.
Once we had come within radio range of our team, the two older Immortals had faded away into the shadows. And then after scrounging up my old clothes and cleaning up a little, we had spent an hour debriefing with Jai, who was leading the op team since Joan had been taken to the hospital. The story we had told had required a lot of half-truths and lies to avoid revealing the existence of Immortals or explaining exactly how the two chief villains had died. I could only hope this mission never became the topic for a polygraph session.
And the worst part was that the operation had to be considered a bust by most standards. Oh, the two main players were both dead, but except for the flask of nerve gas Sarondi had been personally carrying, the other weapons were long gone by the time a team had gotten to the spot where I had last seen them. We had no hard proof nukes had ever been involved, but the one flask of nerve gas we had recovered made the existence of the other five highly likely. And they were still out there somewhere.
"Still thinking about quitting?" Auggie asked quietly, slipping his hand from my elbow to around my waist as I led the way down the broad steps.
I thought about it and then shook my head before remembering Auggie couldn't see the motion.
"No, I have to see it through, at least until these weapons are accounted for." I paused for a moment to reflect on what had been going through my mind ever since witnessing the big fight between the four old Immortals and then hearing Duncan's 'warrior' remark. "And, suddenly, I have these gifts and I feel like I need to use them for some purpose. Perhaps I can help more people from within the Firm than from some spot on the sidelines." A few hours around Duncan and his old-school chivalrous attitudes seemed to be having an effect on me.
"So what do you want to do now?" I asked turning my attention from the big long-term picture to the more immediate. "We can't do anything on the case until someone turns up a lead. And it's a beautiful day; shall we explore the city for awhile?"
Auggie paused and seemed to take a deep breath to taste the fresh Parisian air after all the time we had spent in the dust-choked basement. Then a big smile, which I would almost classify as an 'evil grin', spread across his handsome face.
"We'll always have Paris. Let's go back to the hotel."
I felt a matching grin spread across my face as I wrapped my own arm tightly around his waist before leading the way out to the street in search of a taxi.
While we waited, I couldn't help thinking of how radically my life had changed in the last twelve hours. Suddenly, I was Immortal with a body that would never age and which could heal almost instantly from any injury. But at the moment, even more important than the immortality was my new relationship with Auggie. I think without his help and support I might go crazy in the coming days, weeks, and months, but together I might just survive the Immortals' Game. And if I was going to play that game, I might as well play the C.I.A.'s game, too. The C.I.A.'s game occasionally got rough and dirty, but rarely was the opposition, from inside or outside of the Firm, trying to literally take your head.
As Auggie climbed into the cab, I let my eyes sweep around the area one last time - from Pei's glass pyramid which formed the Louvre's main entrance to the Eiffel Tower standing majestically in the distance. Yes, I thought, we'll always have Paris.
This felt like a natural place to end this story. I think the first 12 hours of Annie's new life works nicely as a complete little 'origin' story.
So, what do you think? Was it an enjoyable read? What aspects did you particularly like or dislike?
And the bigger question – how many readers would be interested in a sequel? I can see plenty of interesting things to explore in another story, but a story like this takes a lot of time and energy to write. If there isn't much enthusiasm for one, I will just move on to something else, as I always seem to have more story ideas than I ever have time to write. So anyway, if you would like to see a sequel, drop me a review. And if you have any particular thoughts on things you would like to see or not see in a sequel, be sure to include them.
Have a great day,
P.S. – If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out some of my other stories. I believe you will find many of them to be just as much fun.