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Time Raiders: The Avenger, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  It was spectacularly beautiful in Alex’s dream. The land around her was lush and so green it almost made her eyes ache. She’d never known there were so many variations of the color green! And the trees! Alex had never imagined trees could be so big and thick and dense. Sure, her dream self had found a path through the incredible woods, but damn! It was like she’d conjured up a version of the Lord of the Rings movie set and plopped herself down in the middle of Rivendell. She recognized chestnuts and oaks and even something one of her professors would call a witches’ beech. They were all massive and had a look of untamed health—as if a contractor would never even consider cutting them down to build a highway or, worse, a development of suburban double-income-all-basically-the-same houses.

  Yeah, she’d definitely dreamed up her version of Rivendell. Now all she needed was to conjure Aragorn and she’d be all set. So while she waited for Aragorn to show up, Alex strolled through the lush woods.

  Obviously, it was early morning—just barely dawn. The soft young daylight complimented the deep and varied green of the woods, making everything around Alex magical. She was following a small, winding path. On either side of it the forest floor was spongy, carpeted with thick moss that looked so soft she started to have thoughts about pulling the tardy dream version of Aragorn off the path and having a roll in the moss with him. Or at least she’d do that when he finally showed.

  It was then that she heard a voice speaking. At first it was just a faint sound coming from somewhere in front of her. Alex paused, listening hard, and sure enough, the sound came again. This time it was recognizable as a voice, a deep, strong, male voice.

  She practically skipped down the path in glee. Back in the waking world she might be working on a raging hangover, but here in this gorgeous dreamland she was going to play Arwen to a handsome Aragorn. And in this world she was actually going to have sex.

  “Come back….”

  The words finally became understandable, and they jolted Alex to a halt.

  “Come back?” she said aloud, more to herself than to a randy, but invisible Aragorn. “But I haven’t found you yet.” The voice still came from somewhere in front of her, so she kept walking.

  “Come back to me….”

  Again the compelling voice pulled her forward.

  “I haven’t gone anywhere!” Alex shouted, annoyed at her dream self. She got more annoyed as mist started to pour in from the woods, creeping over the moss and washing across the deer path like unsubstantial fingers.

  Alex usually liked fog. It had a romantic, mystical quality that appealed to her. Plus, it wasn’t like she was scared of any boogey men it might be hiding. She was way too familiar with ghosts to be freaked by them.

  But there was something weird about this mist. It moved oddly, swirling around her body, with tendrils of gray licking against her skin. It was almost liquid in its touch.

  “Come back to me! I need you!”

  He sounded as if he was standing right in front of her, but by this time the fog was so dense she couldn’t see through it.

  “Where are you?” she called.

  “I’m waiting for you! Come back to me….”

  “I’m trying to find you! Where the hell—” Alex bumbled off the path and fell, facefirst, into the mossy ground.

  “What the hell!” Gasping, Alex tried to sit up, but was totally entangled in her comforter. For an instant she was still in the dream, and she flailed around, thinking that the moss was clinging to her. And where was he? Where was the Aragorn guy with the incredible voice who kept calling for her?

  Then a spike pierced her temple and she realized her mouth was dry and disgusting, which meant she had a hangover headache and a cottony mouth.

  She wasn’t in an amazing, misty dream forest. She was in her room in the bunkhouse on the tallgrass prairie. Alex freed her arms and shoved off the comforter, rubbing her eyes and glancing blearily at her alarm clock. The luminous dial read 5:10 A.M., exactly five minutes before her alarm was set to go off. She sighed and, with a groan that sounded as if she were almost eighty-five rather than almost thirty-five, hobbled into her bathroom, going through her mental to-do list. She’d shower. Hydrate. Take aspirin. Eat breakfast—a light nongreasy one. Lead the city folks to Buffalo Ridge. She would not let her hangover kill her. She would forget about the weird dream.

  Later that day Alex would try to convince herself that accomplishing six to-dos out of seven wasn’t all that bad.

  Chapter 3

  A lex figured she should be grateful it wasn’t August, one hundred five degrees and perfect tick-swarming weather. Okay, she admitted to herself as she resettled her back against the convenient hump in the ground behind her, today’s assignment has been one of the cushy ones. They’d eaten breakfast in the bunkhouse, and then started the trek to Buffalo Ridge. Alex could have hiked it in less than an hour, but the city folks were chatty and wanted to loiter, so she’d adjusted her pace to theirs, which didn’t really bother her since she was decidedly sleep deprived and hungover. After two hours of a leisurely stroll they were on the ridge, which was when her charges broke out their easels, watercolors, sketch pads and mimosas. They’d asked her if it was okay if they just stayed there on the ridge for the rest of the morning, sketching and drinking, instead of finishing the hike.

  Alex had said no problemo.

  Since she was responsible for them—and no way could they find their way back to the bunkhouse by themselves sober, let alone after ingesting the half-dozen or so bottles of bubbly they’d brought in their provision packs, Alex settled in to let them sketch the morning away while she caught up on some much needed sleep.

  The dream started like the other one. She was in the middle of a dense, gorgeous forest, surrounded by layers of verdant green that could have very easily mesmerized her—had she not already been expecting some weirdness. This time she wasn’t a tourist. She was wary and ready for whatever her obviously stressed-out psyche could throw at her.

  She walked down the same path as before, only now she wasn’t gawking at the nature surrounding her. Alex was paying attention to the fact that there were no damn birds.

  Okay, a little detail like that might have escaped most people’s radar, especially most dreaming people, but Alex was an experienced hiker and was used to birds chirping away as she hiked. In her dream world, there were no sounds at all, not even the sloughing of wind through the thick green leaves of the ancient trees that formed a living canopy over her head.

  “Same place, but it’s like someone pressed the mute button,” Alex said. “Well, at least in my dream I’m not hungover.” She had just decided her previous experience must have been wine-induced craziness when his voice drifted down the path to her.

  “Come back to me….”

  Had Alex reasoned out what she planned to do on her next visit to this made-up dream world, she would have said that she was going to be logical. She’d demand the man materialize, and if he didn’t, then she’d simply ignore him and go on about her dreaming, still hoping her subconscious would come up with a tryst with Aragorn.

  But the dream wasn’t reasonable. It defied logic. The man’s voice had Alex reacting on a visceral level.

  “I’m here! I came back! Where the hell are you?”

  “Come back to me…I need you!”

  “This is just ridiculous!” But even as Alex grumbled, she increased her pace. His voice was coming from down the path in front of her. This time she wasn’t going to wake up until she found out what the hell was going on in this dream.

  The fog began to slither across the path.

  “Damn it, no! This happened last time and I’m not putting up with it again! Hello! Where are you? Hello!” Alex was jogging now, shifting her gaze from the path to the misty space ahead of her, all the while straining to see through the soupy grayness.

  The mist enveloped her. This wasn’t the romantic, cozy fog she liked to dream about lifting from low spots of the prairie on cool fall mornings. Thi
s mist was almost sentient. It was grasping, touching her with frigid fingers that crept into her clothes and down her spine, surrounding her body and soul until, panting, she stumbled to a halt.

  “Where are you and what’s happening to me?” she whispered as she gasped for air, trying to catch her breath and regain her composure.

  “I need your help. You must have the courage to come back to me.”

  “Well, tell me who you are and where you are, and I will!” Alex blurted, utterly frustrated by this dream version of cat and mouse.

  Ahead of her the mist cleared for just an instant and an image materialized. It was a symbol in the shape of an S, with both ends of the letter curling in and around to form a thick spiral. Its color was a deep sapphire-blue and she knew that this image held answers for her—somehow the S was his.

  Automatically, Alex reached up, wanting to touch the pattern she glimpsed within the mist, wondering if the thing could be a part of a ghost. She’d never had a spirit get into her dreams before, but after almost three decades of seeing the dead, she figured nothing would surprise her.

  Out of the mist someone grabbed her hand! Alex yipped a surprised “Yikes!” and tried to pull away, but the disembodied whatever kept a firm hold on her.

  “Just do not say no. You must come back to me.”

  And then Alex’s hand was lifted up into the mist, and she could swear that she felt lips—warm, firm, intimate lips—brush her skin. The touch somehow grounded her, settling her nerves and making her feel calmer, and surer that she was where she was supposed to be. Everything would be okay. This wasn’t a ghost—they couldn’t touch her. This was a man—a sexy dream man she’d conjured to entertain her sleeping mind. Through his strong grip he telegraphed need.

  Alex grinned.

  Of course he needed her. Of course he was calling for her. She’d dreamed him up. Now all she needed to do was relax. No doubt the mist would be whisked away—probably to the tune of the theme song from the cool old Lerner and Lowe version of Camelot. Oooh! Maybe that was who she’d dreamed up—King Arthur! Yep! He was definitely King Arthur. This dream world was a perfect pretend ancient England. No wonder he’d kept disappearing when she’d been imagining him as Aragorn—silly her! She was having a dorky historical fantasy, not a dorky sci fi/fantasy fantasy!

  “All righty then,” Alex said happily, squeezing the hand that still held hers, “I’m ready. I’ve come back to you.” Still grinning, she braced herself, sure she’d figured out her dream version of the Gordian Knot, and everything would clear right up in an instant.

  “It won’t be that easy, daughter of man!”

  The new voice blasted Alex. Whoever had her hand dropped it, and, thrown off balance by the force of the voice and by the absence of the comforting presence that had anchored her in the dream world, Alex stumbled backward. And there was nothing behind her. Her arms windmilled, but she couldn’t stop herself from falling…falling…falling….

  “Hey there, Ms. Patton! You’re awake now—everything’s okay.”

  Alex jerked away from the old guy whose big, beefy hand was resting on her shoulder.

  “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just that you were making some real strange noises and I thought you might be having a doozy of a nightmare.”

  Alex blinked up at the man—thinning gray hair, silver unibrow, lots of nose hair—and reality rushed back into her frazzled brain.

  “Oh, Mr. Thompson, you startled me.”

  “Were you having a bad dream, dear?” Mrs. Thompson, a plump woman who looked as if she’d be the perfect grandma, peered down at Alex over her husband’s shoulder.

  “I—I guess I was. I don’t really remember.” She stood abruptly, brushing nonexistent dirt and grass from her khaki work pants. “I can’t believe I fell asleep,” she said, trying not to sound as disconcerted as she felt—especially when she realized she was the center the half dozen city folks’ attention.

  “Sweetheart, you’ve been out like a light for the better part of two hours!” boomed Mr. Meyers, a retired butcher from Tulsa.

  “Oh, Frank, leave the girl alone. I was just thinkin’ how tired she looked while we was hiking up here.” Mrs. Meyers, who insisted Alex call her Trixi, patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. We all need our beauty sleep.”

  “Okay, well, are we ready to head back?” Alex said, wishing she could crawl under the nearest rock.

  “Yep, sure are! And I’ll bet you can set a quicker pace than you did on the way here, after that nap you took!” Mr. Meyers chuckled and slapped Alex on the back.

  Thankfully, none of the tourists were staying the night, so Alex’s duties were done after she deposited the group in the prairie gift shop. Still feeling out of sorts after the weird repeated dream, she decided to indulge herself in one of her favorite pastimes—watching old BBC Masterpiece Theatre specials on her widescreen iMac. She’d popped some extra-buttery popcorn, poured a huge glass of iced tea—no wine today!—opened her new Netflix envelope and was just getting ready to pop disc one of The House of Elliott into her computer when the screen bleeped, telling her she had a new e-mail. Without really thinking about it, Alex clicked on the logo and saw that the new mail was from [email protected]

  “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding,” she muttered at the screen. With an annoyed jab, she clicked on the e-mail.

  There was one line, which read: If you want to find out more about this, come to Flagstaff. It was signed A. C.

  Alex glanced up at the address block and saw that there was an attachment. She almost didn’t click into it. What could Carswell possibly send her that she’d want to learn more about? But, grudgingly, Alex had to admit she was curious. She clinked into the attachment.

  The symbol that filled the screen had her breath catching in her throat.

  It was the sapphire S design from her dream.

  Chapter 4

  I t took her too damn long to dig around in her address book and find the number to the Project Anasazi headquarters Tessa had given her months ago, when she’d first tried to talk her into joining Carswell’s team. Alex wasn’t at all surprised when the professor answered the phone herself.

  “Where did you get that design?” Alex asked without any preamble.

  “Alex, it’s good of you to call,” said the professor smoothly.

  “Where did you get that design?” she stubbornly repeated.

  “As I explained in the e-mail, if you want to know more about the symbol you’ll have to come to Flagstaff.”

  “That’s bullshit!”

  “Nevertheless, that is the deal.”

  Alex drew a deep breath and got a handle on her temper before she spoke again. Then, in short clipped sentences, she said, “I do not know why you’re doing this. I will not join the project. My answer there will be the same as my answer here.”

  “I’m doing this because we need you. The world needs you, Alex.”

  “That’s just more bullshit! The world? I can’t save the world. Find someone else—someone who’s more like Tessa.”

  “It’s you we need for this particular mission.” When Alex didn’t respond, Professor Carswell continued softly, “The symbol is important to you. I can tell you that.”

  “How can you be so sure?”

  Alex could hear the smile in her voice. “Because you’re not the only freak around.”

  Alex snorted.

  “Come to Flagstaff. It’ll change your life,” said Professor Carswell.

  “I don’t want my life changed,” Alex insisted.

  “Don’t you?”

  There was a long silence on the line and then Alex heard herself saying, “Is that ticket still at Tulsa International?”

  “What’s woad?” Alex asked Professor Carswell. She was sitting across from the professor in her office at the Time Raiders headquarters in Flagstaff, staring at a beautiful sketch of the S design the professor had scanned into the computer and sent to her. Only this original had been drawn on the out
line of a human face. The face didn’t have any detail—it was just a frame for the swirling S pattern that spread from the man’s forehead and cheekbones, down to the side of his neck and even onto his torso.

  Alex thought she’d never seen anything so exotic, beautiful or compelling.

  “Woad is a powerful tattoo that ancient Celtic warriors used to adorn their bodies.”

  “That’s an ancient tattoo?” Alex continued to stare at the design as if she was trying to see the man behind it.

  “Well, there is a rather boring academic debate about whether the Celts actually tattooed the images on their bodies, or whether they were painted on. This particular image once adorned the body of a Celt who was a druid and a warrior. He lived about AD 60 in Briton. I’m sure about all of that, but I’m not certain if these designs were painted or tattooed on his body.”

  “I don’t understand. How do you know all of this, and what does it have to do with me?”

  “What does this have to do with you?” asked General Ashton, who’d chosen that moment to join them in Carswell’s office.

  “You tell me. I thought that’s why I flew down here.”

  “Why does this particular carrot dangle so enticingly for you that it did get you down here?” the general asked.

  “Alex, I know this design is connected to you,” Professor Carswell said gently.

  Ignoring the general, Alex spoke to the professor. “I’ve seen it in my dreams. I think the man who’s wearing this design is calling to me.”

  “He’s asking you to come to him?” Professor Carswell leaned forward, literally on the edge of her seat, waiting for Alex’s answer.

  “Yes,” she admitted reluctantly.

  The professor nodded slowly. “Then it is you who must go on this mission. Alex, I’ve located the next piece of the medallion. I can tell that it is hidden in AD 60 Briton. I can also tell that it is tied to the Celtic warrior queen Boudica. The only other detail I know for sure about the placement of the medallion is that this particular piece in our puzzle is surrounded by death. It’s almost as if the dead have paved a path to the hidden piece. They know where it is. I do not.”