The Cycle of Axer Carrick
Part IV -- Reading the Endtrails
The Revised Version
by Henry Wyckoff
December 1995

Chapter 27

Powys put the cat figurine back in the bag, and walked the ceiling beams back to the pillar that he had climbed to get there. When he'd almost reached it, a single figure emerged from the shadows.

It was Heimdall, and he didn't seem pleased at all, but he looked like he was in a talkative mood. "Would you mind telling me what's going on here? And what you did back at the Raven? I was there, you know."

"I know," he smiled. "Do you really need to ask what I'm doing here?" He produced the cat.

Heimdall frowned, a little mollified, "You're walking a fine line, boy. I don't like this."

"You don't have to like this -- you just have to like the popcorn." He brought out a prepackaged bag of popcorn from his side-pack. "Enjoy the show -- it's about all you can do."

Heimdall nodded glumly, grabbing for the bag. "I still don't have to like it."

"Don't look at it that way -- just think of it as stirring the pot. That way, you can be sure you've got a full mix of potential. Can't have any residuals hanging around, can we? You know about the dangers of hidden powder kegs as much as I do."

Heimdall nodded again. They both sat on the beams, watching the show that was taking place below.

Nick looked up from the dead body of LaCroix. He was dead for sure this time, or dead as far as he could see.

Janette was shaking him, trying to bring him back to reality, while the two FBI agents made sure their guns were loaded. They already were, but it never hurt to check.

The man in the loudspeaker hadn't said anything more -- that had been thirty seconds ago. The faint echoes of his last word had finally died. The sounds of doors opening up all over the warehouse was deafening. Then, they shut, one by one. And then they came -- the men with black boxes.

Heimdall almost threw up his popcorn. "I can't bear to watch this."

Powys almost laughed in glee. "Just wait. Here comes the best part!"

* * *

Kermit walked through the front door, mist coming through the door with him. "Joe? What the hell is so urgent?"

Joe waved him over to the table. "It's all here! I was afraid to touch anything, but I figured you'd be able to get a look at it and work it out."

Kermit raised his ever-present sunglasses, so he looked at Joe from underneath them, "So you want me to be the guinea pig? How considerate of you."

"Stop your bitching and check this out!"

Kermit sat down and examined the black box. "I've never seen this material before," he whistled. "This stuff is better than Teflon -- nothing'll stick to it -- ever." He examined all the controls carefully. "No markers... No seams... No screws... I don't like this, Joe."

"Can you do anything with it?"

"How much of a gambler are you?"

"Hmm... You have a point." They sat there, staring at the box.

* * *

Just as the twenty blackbox men began to turn their dials, Mulder started firing his shotgun, which turned out to be semi-automatic. Even though the barrel was extended, the spray was wide enough to cause some considerable damage in the ranks.

As men began to fly back or grab themselves, howling in pain (the latter were the ones caught at the fringes of the shot spray), they became less concerned about switching dials on the boxes. Those who weren't hit by the shot spray didn't have the luxury of using their weapons either, because the folks in front were flying or stumbling back into them, distracting them at the very least. The boxes that hit the ground were also making matters worse, because each would spray sparks like a downed power line.

Scully was using her handgun to shoot the people that Mulder didn't hit so much with his shotgun -- it's pretty hard to miss someone with a shotgun spray. She fired just as fast, her adrenaline pumping so quickly she didn't care about the fact that she was shooting to kill. Every few shots, she would pop out a clip and have another one replaced so fast that she didn't miss a beat.

The overall effect was pretty spectacular; Mulder fired, and five of them would fall back, except for one person right in the center of the two spreads, and he would get hit by Scully.

By now, the firing had jolted Nick out of his catatonic state. Rage had instantly filled his whole being, and he charged the crowd in a blurry rush -- not caring that some of the bullets were now hitting him. Even Scully accidentally hit him once or twice, but he didn't care -- and once he reached the middle of the crowd of black-box men, it didn't matter anymore.

It was a good thing too that he'd done that, because one of them in the back had almost managed to ready and fire up his box -- but now the chaos spread back there as well, and they became too occupied to adjust knobs and dials.

High above, Powys had just swallowed a mouthful of popcorn. "You see?" he asked in silent triumph. "They might have seemed to be outmatched, but as I hoped, it's a true dice roll."

"It's going to be close," said Heimdall

"But that's part of the fun, just like gambling."

The floor was a total madhouse. What had looked like the beginning of an orderly little slaughter on the part of the black-box men had become nothing short of utter pandemonium. Somebody making commands must have become impatient, because thirty more men in riot gear carrying shotguns and clubs emerged from the stairways. Their appearance only added more confusion, as friend hit friend as well as foe. To make matters worse, some stray shots -- aimed upwards for one reason or another -- hit the lights and plunged the area in near-darkness.

Mulder and Scully had used up all their ammo, and were now using their firearms as effective clubbing implements, as well as kicking and punching their way through the mob.

Janette and Nick did an efficient job of tearing their way through, picking at the individuals that the others were missing. They also kept an eye out for new arrivals.

In the middle of all this, a tension was rising -- a tension that nobody seemed to feel. Its epicenter was LaCroix, who suddenly began to breathe once more, a single wood splinter resting inexplicably on his chest, next to the now-healed heart wound. Weakly, he opened his eyes and sat up, observing the pandemonium.

He felt a presence, much like Axer's and Coleen's, but it was much weaker.

"What-?" he asked aloud weakly, in confusion. This had happened once before, but this time, there was no mystic experience or vision. There had been only pain, then blackness, only to be followed by confusion.

The presence pulled at him much more strongly, and he took to the air, leaving the battle behind him. For all the centuries that had passed, he was still a General at heart - - and it was the General who decided how a battle would turn. His gut told him that the true battle was not taking place here, but rather at the source of the presence.

Powys chuckled, "Look at so many possibilities taking place at once! So many potentials made real."

"There is such a thing as critical mass."

"This isn't a nuclear reactor."

"No, but the principle is the same. You can't play with the laws of probability and not pay the price."

Powys' look was more sober, "I know, and I've accounted for that."

LaCroix flew down the empty corridor, following his nerves, until he reached a solid German door. He slammed the door above the handle, and it burst open, squeaking a little.

Halscombe remained bound and gagged as he was in the Raven, but at least he was doing it in the relative comfort of a Quaker-style chair this time.

Another man sat in the room, behind a large desk where two swords lay. He had the appearance of a high-powered executive -- and a proper French gentleman in the old sense. "You're stronger than you look," smiled the old man lightly. He spoke in genuine Provencal.

It startled LaCroix -- he understood it in a fashion -- but it had been such a long time that he'd spoken it that he was rusty. He answered in the northern French, "It's in the blood."

"No pun intended? I take it you're here to 'rescue' Halscombe."

"No. He could live or die and I wouldn't care."

"Then why are you here?" the old man was confused.

"Why don't you tell me?"

He nodded, "You want understanding..." He stood up and stretched his legs. "I'm afraid you won't get it here." He drew a sword, "There can be only one."

Confusion flooded through LaCroix until realization came. //He thinks I'm an immortal?!// He reflexively grabbed for one of the swords on the table, and blocked the sword thrust that almost skewered him.

Anyone who has the idea that vampires are immune to anything other than the dreaded three surefire ways to kill a vampire... is sadly mistaken. Vampires can be immobilized if their muscles are sliced away, which is a good way of making sure that they won't resist when that stake of wood is slammed through their heart.

LaCroix understood this, which was why he wasn't taking the superhero's approach. He did a Roman Surprise and head-butted the Provencian, knocking him back against the wall, stunned for a moment. The Provencian recovered and stayed a few steps away, a slow smile creeping on his face, "I know you now."

He spoke in a soldier's Lingua Latina, and LaCroix began to realize that this man might be a true Provencianus.

The floor a little more even now, they faced one another. LaCroix broke the stillness by charging in with his enhanced speed, only to find out that he was countered with the Provencian's enhanced skill. His movements weren't nearly as fast as LaCroix' -- in fact, they were much slower. It was more a matter of footwork and being in the right place. It was a truly even match: both fought with the same style, and no matter how fast LaCroix moved, he never seemed to land a blow. He was also tagged with slight cuts and stabs -- only enough to annoy and pester him... or to prove a point.

The Provencian smiled, "You're very good, General, but you've been out of the game for too long."

"I've never been in it," said LaCroix, instinctively straight-throwing the sword at the Provencian. It slammed through his chest, and he fell to his knees.

Such a simple move for such a fight, but sometimes fights are won by simple moves and tricks.

LaCroix pulled out the sword, taking the other one as well. He used his foot to pin him to the table, and rested the sword on his neck, ^^I'll give you once chance to enlighten me.^^

"There can be only one," was all the man said. Apparently he had a strong will. His mind didn't bend a bit.

LaCroix nodded and took off his head. It was more reflexive than anything else -- and in retrospect seemed to be the best choice. This wasn't a man who would bend to torture or drugs, just as he hadn't bent to the suggestion. He would be much worse alive than dead.

He was totally shocked to see the body glow blue, and even more shocked when the lightning struck him.

"But I'm not immortal!" he screamed.

But as he rode the lightning, he discovered something in an odd corner of his mind. Long before his death as a vampire, he *had* died as a man. In the sensation, all of his lies were stripped away. Even over the spaces of weeks, lies can cloud the memory -- these lies clouded the memory for centuries.

He did die as a mortal, he realized. Being cut from shoulder to wrist so deeply that the bone was exposed, and lying in unconsciousness for hours on end while the blood flowed could only be fatal. It wasn't so much a memory as an acknowledgment of what conclusions the known facts must present.

Even if he had somehow survived as a mortal, the infection would have taken him. He remembered that he'd had no infections. And by the time he had returned home, the wound *had* gone. And how else could he retain full use of his arm and hand? Such a severe lengthwise cut should have left *some* noticeable damage.

...And then he'd accepted the damning bite of his damned daughter.

Then came the hard facts: he had been staked through the heart several times and lived to tell about it. Pure and simple -- he should be dead by now by any measure -- except an immortal's. But something was missing -- why was it that the hints hadn't surfacde until Axer came along? Why had he not sensed immortals before? And how could he be a vampire if he was an immortal?

The answer hit him then: perhaps he'd never known any immortals until recently. He had lived his life in the shadows and dark corners, whereas most immortals -- except for those like Axer -- lived in the sun and the open places. Perhaps it took an exposure to immortals to bring out that aspect to himself?

But something was still wrong... while he could sense Axer and Coleen, and vice versa -- the other three immortals could not sense him, and he could not sense them.

Even with that unanswered question, LaCroix believed that he had just answered Axer's rhetorical question to Coleen so long ago quite admirably: what happens when an immortal is made a vampire?

* * *

Halscombe looked at LaCroix with utter horror and confusion. After what Axer had told him -- albeit a very little -- he knew that what he was seeing was a total impossibility: only immortals can take the Quickening of another immortal -- and this was a vampire.

LaCroix was shaken and trembling, his eyes closed, but he was not on his knees. He was, however, breathing heavily and leaning on the table for support. He had dropped the sword he used like it was unclean, and looked around.

When he opened up his eyes, he looked around in a daze that soon left him. LaCroix then turned his eyes to Halscombe, "I could kill you right now and solve a great deal of trouble for everyone."

If Halscombe could only talk... The gag was still firmly bound to his face. LaCroix ripped it off quite easily, nearly yanking Halscombe's head off with the powerful movement. Halscombe jolted in shock and pain, twisting his head around a little to remove the painful kinks.

"What are you?" whispered Halscombe. He had always been a confident and poker-faced man, but his uncertainty and fear were certainly showing now. "It's impossible."

"That, coming from you?" smiled LaCroix. His was a good, blank poker face, so no emotion could be read. "But I suppose you really want to know. Why? So you can launch some black-box men in my direction? But wait -- don't tell me -- you were just a middle-level manager!"

Some of Halscombe's classic character came back, and it showed on his face as well, "The question is, what *are* you going to do with me?"

LaCroix was honestly at a loss, but he tried not to show it. Instead, he lazily paced back and forth, "You know, I think I'll keep you here for now. I'll let the others, ah... question you. I'm sure Axer knows how to handle people like you.

"It's quite fitting, in fact. You, a professional puppet master; Axer, a professional string slicer. You two make quite a team, you know? I wonder if you two are twins... or soul brothers sharing two sides of the same coin."

* * * *

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