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Earth Year 2285
"Why did you do it, Rakell?" Irilenn murmured, idly spinning the Earth globe that sat in the main Temple's formal office. "After all we have been through together...after what we have meant to one another, why did you choose to forget your place? In Valeria's Name, you are not some confused, new Sister gawking mindlessly at temple frescoes! You are the Enlightened One! You know my mind better than any other Sister in our Order!"
Her companion, standing stiffly behind her, did not answer immediately...not that the Mistress expected an answer. Irilenn let the silence build between them as the continents slid by underneath her fingertips. "What turned you away from me?" she finally continued, "Attachment to a poor blood relation? One whom you had never even held a conversation with until recently? Think you that I did not know you were Sister Ardenn's Va'salier?"
"I knew you were aware of it," the Enlightened One murmured as she stared at the floor, "And that you did not care. You had no intention of telling me. You left me to find out on my own."
Slapping her hand down on the slowly whirling globe, Irilenn stopped it. "For just this reason!" she barked, spinning on her recalcitrant subordinate. "And none of this would be occurring if you had curbed your damned curiosity and left well enough alone!"
"Leave well enough alone?" Rakell repeated, her voice rising. "How could I? How do you think I felt the day Delenn came to select an aide and I finally saw this...this special child you had arranged for her son...only to find myself staring at a mirror image of my brother's long dead mate? You went with me, Irilenn...do you remember? All those cycles ago at the funerary ritual for Katell and Fara...you stood at my side while Fara's mother cried because she had lost her daughter and Ier'maia. You knew my guild was searching for their child. You consoled me that night when my own tears finally came. You were everything beautiful about the Sisterhood in my eyes...and I trusted you. I trusted you implicitly! And you accepted my trust, knowing the whole time that my brother's child lived and was safe in one of our own Temples! Had I suspected your subterfuge then, I would never have taken the Oath of Selflessness!"
"Yes...your oath. Let us speak of that. Do you see where your liberal interpretation of your oath has landed us? Eight hundred cycles of work is now in jeopardy!"
"How?" Rakell retorted angrily. "Tell me how! What will happen differently now? Delenn gave you her word she would not reveal what she knows. Do you doubt that? Do you really think she will renege on her promise and tell her Ier'saia what we did to her here? What would Ardenn gain from the knowledge? Nothing! Nothing but sadness and shame. Delenn does not want that for her."
"Then why did you..." With considerable effort, Irilenn checked her own rising voice. "In Valeria's Name, Rakell, I cannot believe we are having this conversation...I care about you so much. Why did you betray me by revealing it at all? All you accomplished was to turn Delenn against me. She may say nothing, but her demeanor towards us will certainly change and that change will influence those around her, Ardenn most of all. She hangs on every piece of drivel that falls from my former daughter's lips as if it were prophecy. Before I do what must be done with you, I want to understand."
"You need to ask?" Rakell spat. "Listen to yourself. Why did I betray you? Why did I turn Delenn against you? Have you become blind? In your mind, this whole affair has become about you. The needs of our people and our Order no longer drive you. Your actions are no longer dictated by that flawed Plan you seem to love so much. I told you when this started that Ardenn would do as we wished without any interference from us. Her actions were already in keeping with our goals! Why could you not accept that? She did not need to be recalled. She did not need to be elevated. She required no oaths to bind her to us...but you did not listen to me. You have never listened."
"I did not accept your counsel because I knew your personal feelings did not coincide with the Plan, just as you say of mine. Oh, you would have Ardenn join with David. In that we agreed, but you would also have freed her of us. Let nature take its course, you say. Were we to do that, Ardenn's children would just as likely choose humans for mates as Ardenn herself did. Where would we be then? Our people would gain nothing...need I remind you that it is we who are fading, not the humans? We are the people who need a genetic infusion, not them. But I do not owe you any further explanation. It is my prerogative to keep my own counsel when I so desire. I command, you obey. Obviously, you have forgotten that."
"I have not. I will obey...but as your next command will undoubtedly be my banishment North, you will hear me out first. You did not listen to me because you wanted more, Irilenn, and when that 'more' proved harder to obtain that you thought it would, you became frustrated and angry. You started using your authority improperly, manipulating people who required no manipulation and hurting people who did not need to be hurt...simply because they displeased you." Moving closer to the silently smoldering woman, Rakell continued, "The...the death I am commanded not to speak of, and your reaction to it...that decided matters for me. At that moment, I realized that I no longer knew you...and that you had forgotten something about me."
"You are having quite a moment in the sun, as the humans would say," Irilenn quipped bitterly. "But I fear Ardbar's light will soon be nothing more than a fading memory for you. As such, your tongue is freed. Go on, please...indulge me. Tell me what I have forgotten."
Rakell seemed to deflate, her angry outburst having exhausted itself. "That zygote...that clump of cells, as you called it, would have been of your blood, Mistress. She would have been the grandchild of your child. Her destruction, the loss of Isil'zha in your family and Clan, troubled you little. But you forgot that the child would have been of my blood as well...the grandchild of my brother and his mate...and the loss of Isil'zha in my family and Guild troubles me a great deal. For the Mir Clan, loss of a child is heartbreaking...but survivable. Guild Fi'Irilmer, however, stands on the brink of extinction. For my family every child, part human or not, is infinitely precious."
"Families, clans...guilds..." Irilenn sighed. "Relationships. You foreswore such distinctions, Enlightened One."
"But I never stopped caring. We foreswear our former relationships, not our compassion. I still love my brother, and because Ardenn is his legacy, his chance at immortality, I love her even if I do not know her very well. In my dreams, my brother pleads with me to help his Ier'sa recover as much of the life she should have had as I can and give it to her. You would have ruined her in the North...crushing her love of life in an environment that one of her age has no business in. I could not allow that, even if you only meant to leave her there temporarily. And as odious and self-absorbed as she may be, I cannot allow Sister Vadenn to stay there either. Neither of them deserved what you commanded."
"My feelings exactly," another voice chimed in. Turning, both Rakell and Irilenn found themselves facing a bent old Minbari huddled in the shadows of the entranceway. "Forgive me for not announcing my presence, Mistress," High Sister Wyndan continued, amusement in her voice, "Your main entrance seems to be missing a doorknocker, so I let myself in. It is a shame about your engravings...but I always thought them overly ostentatious anyway." Rubbing her hands together briskly, she continued, "Now, as I came seeking answers about my newest pair of Veil Sisters among other things, it appears I arrived just in time. Please, continue your conversation as if I am not here. I promise not to interrupt."
"And so the predator thinks she smells blood and starts to circle..." Irilenn murmured under her breath. "How much have you heard?" she asked more loudly.
"The humans have an adage that says 'Give someone enough rope and they will hang themselves'." the old High Sister chuckled as she shuffled across the chamber. "It appears to me as if you are knotting a noose. Does that answer your question?" Reaching Rakell, she managed a bow and patted the younger Minbari's hand supportively as she rose. "Ardenn is your mal'iersa?" she asked. Rakell nodded hesitantly and she continued, "This revelation alone explains much, but not all. Now, I would like to hear more about this death you mentioned..."
"You will say nothing, Enlightened One!" Irilenn hissed, "I reinstate my command of silence!" Turning to the older woman, she schooled her features into a more professional expression and continued, "Now, Wyndan, your presence is...unexpected...but convenient nonetheless. I do not recall authorizing you to leave the North, but I am pleased you chose such an auspicious time to do so. Regretfully, it seems the Most Revered Sister Rakell is unhappy with her present duties and has expressed interest in a change of locality. I was just about to explain the benefits of service in the North to her." More darkly, she added, "She is of no more use to me. You may take her with you when you go...which I trust will be sooner rather than later."
"Benefits? Oh, Irilenn...you make service in the North sound like such a paradise," Wyndan sighed whimsically. "One might get the impression that you want to join us there yourself."
"I believe I serve more gainfully in my present capacity for now," Irilenn condescendingly replied. "But Rakell is perfect for the Veil, I assure you. In addition to her many other qualities, perhaps you heard her mention that she is simply brimming over with compassion? I would think that alone would bring honor to your temple for many cycles to come. I would never send someone unworthy to you...after all, I have the greatest respect for the service you provide."
"Of course you do," the ancient Sister noted with a smile that did not reach her eyes. "I have ample evidence of it." Turning to the object of their discussion, she said, "Well, Rakell, while your desire to serve among us pleases me, I find it curious that I am suddenly receiving so many new recruits..." Her words trailing off, she began appraising the younger woman, circling her as she continued, "Now, let us see...hmm, you are comely enough upon first glance, I suppose...you seem to be in good health...your skin is not quite as smooth and unblemished as your mal'iersa's, but you appear fit and firm in the right places. You are how old? Fifty-five, sixty cycles? You are a mature woman...still somewhat younger than I am comfortable with, but allowances can be made."
"Should I disrobe for you?" the Enlightened One huffed. "I assure you that everything is functional and in its proper place. Do you wish to check my teeth as well?"
"Oh, no...no, that will not be necessary. I am reasonably certain you are hygienically suitable. Do you have any Sa'fela experience?"
"Sa'fela experience?" Rakell repeated dumbly, surprised that her old visitor would ask for such personal information. At first she thought it a jest, but Wyndan was eyeing her expectantly. "Ah, I am...zhalen," she finally admitted. Blushing, she surreptitiously glanced over at Irilenn, who snorted and looked away. "It...it is not that I shy away from sharing comfort. When I desire intimate companionship, I render the appropriate invitation and I offer to reciprocate..." Hanging her head, she whispered, "But my invitations are accepted less frequently than they once were. Recently, I have had only the personal rituals...and they are poor substitutes."
"Poor substitutes, indeed," Wyndan agreed, looking from one woman to the other. "It is a pity. At your age, you should be getting more recreation and leaving all that solitary oth'la tickling to those who can do no better." With a resigned shake of her head, she continued, "Be that as it may, I cannot accept you right now, as much as I would like to. You would require at least some training and my hands are full enough trying to teach the other inexperienced Sisters you sent me." Chuckling as a faint smile lit the Enlightened One's features, she added, "Now, now...please try to control your disappointment. Rejection is sometimes hard to accept, but you may yet make a good Veil candidate if you find yourself a partner who is receptive to your needs as well as hers and is less...ah, what is that term the humans use?" Flicking a quick glance at Irilenn, she concluded, "Oh, yes...I know. High-strung. Practice regularly for twenty cycles or so, then contact me if you are still interested."
"That is...unacceptable," Irilenn sputtered, her own face now quickly reddening.
"No, it is quite acceptable." Turning on Irilenn, Wyndan's mirth disappeared with astonishing speed. "Respectfully, Mistress, I did not come halfway around Minbar to help you humiliate a woman who has loyally stood beside you since she was an Apprentice, and I am not here to play your word games. It is my prerogative to accept or reject those you send me and I will no longer allow you to use the Discipline of the Veil as your refuse bin. My temple is not the clearing facility for Sisters who have run afoul of you. I am here because I and the other High Sisters have grown concerned about your activities of late, and I now see it is long past time you were refocused on the proper path. You are to stop this nonsense immediately. Our Order will fracture if the Enlightened One is removed, so Rakell will remain in her position. You will also back down and leave Delenn, Su'Salier Ardenn and her Isil'mala in peace. Their part of the Plan was designed to attend to itself, and you will allow it to do so...as your predecessors intended."
"You would presume to usurp my authority?" the Mistress barked. "You cannot threaten or command me, ancient one! Understand this and understand it well...the prerogative to interpret the intent of our departed Mistresses is mine alone...I am the custodian of their shades, not you! You may have had a small measure of influence over my predecessor because she knew you would be the Sister emplacing her shade...but that means nothing to me!" Sidling closer to the old woman, she leaned in and hissed, "Because my shade will fall to your successor unless I pass beyond in the very near future...and your infernal energy blob chooses her, not you!"
"Ahem...ah, yes," Wyndan shakily noted, seeming to backpedal under the weight of Irilenn's vehemence. Looking at the polished floor, she idly picked at a flaw in the crystal with the tip of her staff. "You are correct, of course, Irilenn. How silly of me...my mind slipped. That happens so often at my age. I beg your forgiveness...I meant no threat. I am certain my successor in the Artifact will treat your shade with great reverence when the time comes." Her voice sharpening, she continued, "Particularly when she takes your gentle treatment into account. These little problems? Well, Sister Ardenn is young and uncertain now, but we both know youth and uncertainty are transitory conditions. In thirty or forty cycles she will undoubtedly be far wiser and more mature. She will long since have recognized the necessity of your manipulations and forgiven you...one would hope."
"What have you done?" Irilenn exclaimed. Her voice rising, she continued, "I forbid you from...In Valeria's Name, you already did...you tested that little fuzzcrest in the Artifact? Ra'ash Ta'al Quith, Wyndan! You placed the greatest secret of our Order in the hands of a child who refuses to acknowledge the needs of our people uppermost in her heart? You old fool! Have you totally taken leave of your senses?"
"Were I you, I would take care when calling the old foolish," the ancient woman chuckled. "While you may have far fewer cycles behind you than I, it has still been long since your cerulean paths were as soft and lustrous as a virgin's. Did you honestly think I would do our passing Sisters the disservice of having a child guide them into their next incarnations? Why, they would just as likely end up reborn as Pak'mara as they would find their way to the Place Where No Shadows Fall. Under the circumstances, testing her seemed my only logical recourse...if the Veil was truly your intent for her."
"And the device accepted her?" Rakell breathed. "Incredible..."
"You should be very proud of your niece," Wyndan replied, not taking her eyes off Irilenn. "Despite our Mistress' low opinion of her, Ardenn answered the Artifact's questions with admirable wisdom for one her age. She has a powerful old soul coupled with a flexible young mind. It is a very...human...combination, hardly what I would expect of one of our people in this day and age. The device is looking forward to a long and productive partnership with her...yet even it acknowledges that her heart lies elsewhere. Fortunately, service as the creator of shades does not require her constant presence. Once she learns the Art, she need only visit the North occasionally to practice." Furrowing her wrinkled brow ridge, Wyndan glared hard at Irilenn and concluded, "Yes...barring untimely death on either her part or yours, it seems Ardenn will be the Sister creating your shade when your time draws near, Mistress. Bear that in mind when you deal with her in the future, and understand that my peers and I are watching her...and you...very closely now."
"Now I know why Avaier never liked you, meddler," Irilenn murmured, her eyes narrowing to angry slits. "You are overblown, pretentious and you have finally overstepped yourself...but that no longer concerns me. You and your co-conspirators may watch all you wish because you are too late. I have already set into motion everything I intended, and I will bring the Plan to fruition in tens of cycles rather than hundreds despite you. It is such a pity that you will likely not live long enough to see the results." With a bitter smile, she concluded, "As you say...you may bear that in mind while you scuttle back to your little, dark corner of the world."
"Young one...you think yourself wise, yet you have long since abandoned what little wisdom you might have had," Wyndan breathed, her voice like ice. "You have mistakenly substituted petty cleverness in its place, you lack humility and your dedication has become obsession. This dysfunctional combination weakens and deludes you. As for your observation, I am indeed pretentious and overblown but that was not why your predecessor disliked me. Pray you never learn the true reason...and be thankful that I still care enough about you to spare you the knowledge."
Irilenn opened her mouth to respond but then thought better of it and held her tongue...aware that there were secrets in the Sisterhood that even she did not know. Wyndan was almost as old as Avaier would have been had she still lived, and there was no telling what ugly revelations might be locked under her gnarled, knotty crest. She glared daggers at the two other women for a long moment before spinning on her heel and stalking from the chamber in a huff.
Once Irilenn was out of earshot, Rakell released the breath she had been unconsciously holding, turned to her now brooding companion and bowed repentantly. "I apologise for what you had to endure, High Sister. You may have absorbed the brunt of it, but her anger in this instance was meant for me. She needs rest and meditation."
"Meditation?" Wyndan muttered. "Perhaps so...but had I a nice, fat meditation candle right now, I would be teaching our Mistress far more creative uses for it than centering herself." Snorting as the chamber door slammed, she observed, "My preferences are no secret, but I have to grudgingly concede that she might benefit more from a night spent with something long and hard than she would from meditation. Maybe Sister Ardenn's Isil'mala has an older human friend among the Anla'Shok?" Noting at the openmouthed confusion on Rakell's face, she patted her companion's hand affectionately. "Ah, do not trouble yourself over my brusque words, young one. One of the reasons I was sent north in the first place was my tendency to speak irreverently to the wrong people. Irilenn indeed has a temper, but I have been around for a while and I have weathered worse."
"Still, I thank you for coming to my assistance...and Ardenn's. I was not sure you would understand my message, oblique as it was, but I am gratified you did."
"Do not thank me so quickly," the older Sister grunted, dusting off a chair with the tail of her robe and slowly lowering her aged frame into it. "Although I care about you, it was not out of affection or sympathy for your plight that I came...nor am I particularly concerned about Ardenn's. Despite what I said, your mal'iersa would still be in my temple learning the intricacies of the Artifact had I a choice. To my mind, it is much safer for her there than it is to have her wandering the outside world. Should she have an accident after my passing the heart of our Order might be lost to us forever and, with that in the balance, I do not care about her youth, her relation to you or her desire to be reunited with her mala. I do care about the Order, however, and you two squabblers seem Shadow-bent on destroying it with your spat over this girl. Given that, I had no other alternative but to let her leave...and I blame you for this as much as I do Irilenn."
"Me? How am I to blame?"
"Compassion, child!" Wyndan barked. "Our Mistress was not completely mistaken when she pointed out your weakness in this area, but it works both ways! Instead of the two of you finding some sort of middle ground, she has totally suppressed her compassion and you have given yours free rein!" Glaring at her younger companion, she raised her staff and stabbed it in Rakell's direction. "Your 'compassionate' disregard of your oath and Irilenn's heavy-handed dismissal of hers has brought this upon us. Neither of you are suited for the positions you hold any longer but it is many cycles too late to correct that now, even if someone could. A rift has formed that is no longer confined behind closed doors, and those of our Order who know nothing of the Plan are becoming confused and restless. As for those who do know, you hold the sympathetic position with them...but Irilenn is the one who commands. Soon, our Sisters may have to make a choice. By helping you, I have only delayed it for a time, not dismissed it."
"I did what I had to do."
"What you had to do?" Lowering her staff back to the floor, Wyndan shook her head and disbelievingly snorted, "That is pure foodbeast offal. You did what you wanted to do, not what you had to. Both of you are making amateurish mistakes...Irilenn's ill-advised and very public confrontation with Delenn being chief among them. She would have done far better had she smiled, accepted the inevitable and quietly presented Ardenn's suppression...but her pride and stubbornness would not allow it. As it stands, all in this temple from the lowest Attendants to the highest household Sisters know you orchestrated that embarrassing encounter and were about to be banished for it. My untimely arrival did not help, only reinforcing the notion that you were done as Irilenn's second. Believe me, there was no shortage of tongues wagging as I walked here, each seeking to tell the Order's resident curmudgeon what she had seen and heard...but that is not the worst of it."
"That sounds sufficiently unpleasant," Rakell sighed, flopping down beside her companion and rubbing her temples tiredly. "What else is there?"
"Minbar has been attacked and we are at war ...or had you not noticed? Irilenn is using that as an excuse to exercise the clause in Valen's Ban that allows us to aid our people in times of need. She has already started releasing many of our junior members from cloister. They will soon be operating in areas that either already have or may suffer damage and casualties, just as they did during the war between the priests and warriors."
"I am aware of that...and despite my differences with the Mistress over Ardenn, I agree with her actions in that respect. They are perfectly proper under the circumstances."
"Yes they are...but have you looked for ulterior motives? I would wager that if we checked the rosters, we would find that the majority of those Irilenn released are under thirty cycles old and, like Ardenn before them, will be truly seeing the outside for the very first time." With a grunt, the old Sister stood and made her way over to Irilenn's globe, spinning it in much the same way her Mistress had. "Those young females will find our world a very different place from the one they thought they knew," she continued. "Among other things, they will encounter more than our own kind. Humans have come to Minbar in significant numbers only in the last ten cycles or so, and some of our siblings will meet them...human Anla'Shok certainly, and perhaps even a few warriors from the Earth Alliance itself. They will work beside them, talk to them, and gather new ideas..."
"And is that so bad?"
"Rakell, think for a moment. What is the first secret a newly elevated Sister is taught concerning the humans? What was the first thing Irilenn taught you?"
"That they are as Valen was before he came to us."
"Precisely," Wyndan confirmed, stopping the globe and turning away from it to face her companion. "Do you not think our younger siblings will be curious about the people we share Valen's legacy with? Humans are nothing if not enthusiastic...infectiously so. They will tell our Sisters their stories and, when compared to life behind temple walls, life among the humans will seem exciting and wondrous to them. Look at your mal'iersa, if you need an example. She left cloister and promptly fell in love with the first human who fondled her crest the right way." With an amused chuckle, the old Sister rubbed her hands together as Rakell's expression became dubious. "I am casting no aspersions on her, merely trying to make a point. Ardenn seems like a discerning woman, and I am sure it took more than a little discreet othla'dun exploration to claim her heart...but do you really think her situation so unique that others cannot repeat it?"
"I... I do not know." Rakell mumbled. "With all that has happened, I had not fully considered matters beyond her."
"Do not doubt for a moment that Irilenn has," Wyndan observed, "And this war could not have come at a more opportune time for her. She wants this, Rakell. The humans allowed to reside among us are the best and brightest their race has to offer...and she wants our younger Sisters to meet them. She does not intend for Ardenn to be the only one."
"Ardenn is unique, High Sister. She is kas'Valen, the only one we have found that lived."
"True," the ancient woman acknowledged. "But being kas'Valen is only part of the whole. It allows her to be the test case, but Irilenn's adjustment to the Plan is already in motion. Although they are not doublets, every female wearing our robes is a Child of Valen...a Minbari already predisposed to being attracted to humans. Do you understand now? We have no more Ardenns, but Irilenn is releasing hundreds of potential Delenns into the world...and a few of them, like Ardenn, may not want to leave their new human friends and return to cloister when this crisis ends. If our Mistress has her way, the crisis will never end."
"But the Ban..."
"She wants the Ban gone, Rakell...or at least relaxed. You know this. She wants the Sisterhood active in our society again, just as it was in the time immediately preceding Valen. Imagine it, the Sisterhood operating unrestricted on Minbar, perhaps even more...perhaps even on other worlds. I understand Roshbar has the highest concentration of our people outside the Federation, already coexisting beside a native human population friendly to us. A chapter house there, one co-located with the Anla'Shok base so our Sisters are in regular contact with humans who already know our ways...that would be a good start, do you not agree?"
Rakell slowly nodded. "Yes. From time to time, our Mistress has mentioned Mars as a place where she desires a presence."
"And all she now needs to start this process is for one person, just one very important human, to recognize how much assistance the Order can provide to this...this Interstellar Alliance organization we belong to...and agree with her. And he will."
"Why would Entil'zha Sheridan do that?"
"Any number of reasons, but primarily because it is true...we CAN be of assistance. We cannot fight directly, but we have healers, teachers, scientists, shuttle pilots, engineers, administrators and a host of other supportive specialties within our ranks. Do you not think that those skills are in demand within organizations like the Alliance? Like the Anla'Shok? Every position we fill frees up an Anla'Shok to fight."
Rakell pursed her lips in thought. "That is why Irilenn considered it so important that Susan Ivanova have a positive impression of us..."
"Absolutely. Sheridan can lift the Ban, but Anla'Shok Na will be the person deciding how much assistance her organization accepts from us...and how much access to her Minbari-friendly humans we have. Events have shown that she has an enlightened attitude regarding interspecies relationships. We can capitalize on that."
"Delenn may be an obstacle."
"How can Delenn condemn others for making the same choice she made? Is she not now in the process of accepting one of our Sisters into her own family, or have I been asleep the past few months? Her love for our people is as great as that of any Sister. It will outweigh her disgust at her mother. Irilenn no doubt told her former daughter at least a sympathetic version of the truth...and she will facilitate our goal despite her personal feelings. In that respect, let us hope the machinations of our Mistress prove successful. Our survival as an organization...and possibly our survival as a race...may depend on it."
The first indication Ardenn had that she was no longer alone was the soft hiss of the door opening.
It had to be Delenn...anyone else would have requested permission before entering. With a huff, the young Minbari rolled over on her side to face away from the sleeping chamber entrance, wrapping David's shirt more tightly about her and snuggling down in the bedclothes. She did not want to talk to her former mentor. Not yet. Perhaps if the older woman thought she was asleep, she would just take whatever she came for and be on her way.
No such luck. In the outer office, the normally serene and collected Minbari growled a curse and something crashed to the floor, causing Ardenn to wince involuntarily. Although she usually kept it controlled, Delenn indeed possessed a warrior's temper and under different circumstances the young Minbari would have bolted from the bed to find out what upset her so ...but not this time. She was no longer a subordinate, she reflected. Perhaps it was time both of them started getting used to the concept.
Ardenn listened as her for-the-moment unwelcome companion righted whatever she had upended, and Delenn spent a few more minutes puttering around the outer room and muttering her favorite human epithets under her breath before she finally fell silent. She was quiet, but Minbari hearing is nothing if not keen and Ardenn knew she had not departed. "Ier'saia?" Delenn finally ventured from the doorway, "I know you are awake...and angry at me." Ardenn grunted but did not answer, and her companion softly continued, "I apologize for disturbing you, but there are no extra quarters available for me to go to. It is much to ask under the circumstances, I know...but perhaps you have some room for me beside you?"
Ardenn still refrained from looking at her companion, but she scooted closer to the edge of the bed. Taking that as an invitation, albeit a reluctant one, Delenn padded over and slid in beside her. Spooning against the younger woman's back, she slipped her arms around her and murmured, "Please talk to me," in a small voice.
Ardenn sighed. It was so hard to maintain a good, honest slow burn when her former mentor sounded so penitant. Delenn had a beautiful voice, was skilled at applying it, and she could sop up hostility like a sponge when she desired to. After a moment, she relented and murmured, "No, I am not angry." Realizing that was obviously untrue, she amended, "Well, perhaps I am a little. I will get over it...eventually."
"I know you will," Delenn whispered, drawing her one-time protégé closer into her embrace and resting her cheek against the back of Ardenn's crest. "Even the best relationships become strained at times, but everything passes. You were not happy with my decision, and I knew you would not be. Tell me...even though it did not please you, do you truly believe me wrong? You have had a little time to consider it now."
The young woman mulled over her former mentor's question. "Whether I believe you right or wrong is not the issue," she replied. "The issue is that you made my decision for me." Rolling over to face her companion, she continued, "I love you dearly, Va'saia, but that is no longer your role in my life." Removing Delenn's arms from around her, she took her hands between her own and squeezed them lightly. "I am not one of Minbar's great intellects but I am capable of examining a situation objectively. I understand that I would contribute little to a fight, but I can search as well as anyone. And for you to arbitrarily decide I am somehow too indispensable while you go yourself...well, that is...is..."
"You may say it," Delenn acknowledged with a slight smile, knowing what was coming. "I am far from perfect and you will not be the first to identify that particular character flaw in me."
"Very well, I will. Hypocritical...hypocritical and condescending. Had you explained beforehand...had you heard me out and then asked me to remain on board rather than restricting me, I would have considered the merits of your request."
"Yes, I am certain you would have, but you would not have been...as you say...objective in your consideration," the older woman chided indulgently. Ardenn's brow ridge furrowed and, seeing that she was about to disagree, Delenn added, "Zha'aia, I am not trying to insult you. There is simply no such thing as objectivity when people you love are threatened. Instinct takes over, and we succumb to our natural inclination to shelter them from harm whether it is the right thing to do or not. Where John and David are concerned I do not even pretend to be objective, so why should I expect anything different from you? I knew that had I merely asked you, you would have sought a way around my request...and I know this because I would do the same."
"Perhaps," Ardenn acknowledged, "But at least your conscience would have been clear. You would have given me fair warning without trying to command me."
"My conscience would not have been clear," Delenn corrected, "That is where you are wrong." Slipping her hands from between Ardenn's, she cupped the younger woman's cheek affectionately as she continued, "I know the time when I could direct you has passed and were we anywhere else, I would never presume to offer you anything more than advice...but we are not anywhere else. We are aboard a warship and I am the acting Alyt. Despite what you think, that makes me responsible for everything that happens to you on this mission. This does not change our personal relationship, but you have to acknowledge my position and recognize that you are not a free agent. I do love you and I respect your independence, but I cannot allow you to challenge my authority while we are here...even if you think me hypocritical and arbitrary. Were David here and I on the surface in his place, I have no doubt that he would direct you to remain aboard as well."
"He would...I suppose," Ardenn grudgingly conceded. With rueful amusement, she added, "Although were he in your place at this particular moment, I would be employing far more persuasive arguments." Arching her brow ridge as another thought occurred to her, she continued, "Speaking of David...should we not be landing soon? While I appreciate the time you are taking to visit me, you must have more important things to do than mollify a disgruntled passenger."
"Oh...we will be arriving at the search location in a few minutes, I imagine," Delenn responded with a trace of forced nonchalance. "Nashon is an experienced Shai Shok'na. I am certain he can locate the area without my supervision."
"But should you not be assembling the search party? Briefing them? You are..." Ardenn's curious expression became suspicious. Eyeing her companion more critically, she muttered, "You are...not going either, are you?"
"Yes, well..." Delenn paused and cleared her throat, "Ah...the mark of a good crew, you understand, is that they present multiple courses of action for their Alyt to consider, and I think you will agree that David has trained a good crew. They believe I can better coordinate their search efforts from...here." Somewhat abashedly, the older woman continued, "They prevailed upon me to reconsider my intent to accompany them."
"Oh...I see," Ardenn stated, a hint of accusation in her voice. "If I am translating your statement accurately, they refused to take you...probably for the same reasons you used on me. You are too important, and the risks are too high."
"Words to that effect...ah, might have been mentioned in passing," Delenn sheepishly conceded. "Like you, I was not particularly pleased with their reasoning...but arguing against your own argument is one of the most difficult debating positions one can find herself in."
"I imagine so...my Alyt," the younger woman dryly replied. "But, because it is what I did under similar circumstances, I am certain you made the attempt anyway. David once told me that even Minbari Anla'Shok are trained to think more like humans and to question their leaders when they fear a decision might be unwise. That philosophy appears to be proving its value."
"I deserve a measure of your sarcasm, I suppose," Delenn muttered under her breath, "But the point is moot." Rising from the bed with a frustrated sigh, she began to pace back and forth in the small cabin. "Had I decided differently and agreed to allow you along, Nashon and his well-meaning but misguided companions would have done the same thing. We would both still be lying here performing verbal oth'la cha on each other rather than doing what we came here to do." Unconsciously rubbing her hands together in a washing motion, she paused in her steps. "They are making a grave mistake, Ardenn. My reasoning in having you stay was sound...but theirs in leaving me behind is not. They have no idea of what they may find, or what may find them. I do."
"I do not see how restricting you to the ship is any more of a mistake than restricting me," the young Minbari noted, sitting up and pulling her knees to her chin while watching her older companion. "There is logic in Nashon's decision. Of all our people, you are the one most easily recognizable to a non-Minbari. If Dilgar warriors are in the mine, they will have no way out once Nashon and the crew enters and they may become desperate. The further from the ship you venture the more vulnerable you become, and you would make an excellent hostage."
Delenn turned away from her former protégé. "I am not speaking of the Dilgar," she finally murmured in a soft voice. "Believe me...in this matter I am not being hypocritical. Like you, I want to help find John and David. I love them and even had I no other reason, I would want to be there for that one alone. Like you, I would contribute little if resistance is encountered...I can defend myself if necessary, but I am not a trained warrior. But there may be another force...another presence...in the mine, one that I may be more effective against." Shaking her head, she despondently concluded, "Well, effective as a warning tool, if nothing else."
Ardenn's brow ridge furrowed. "As the humans would say, you have lost me. What other...presence?"
Delenn remained silent, letting her young companion draw the conclusion on her own. It did not take her long. "You speak of the presence I felt?" Ardenn breathed, her eyes widening. "It was not a manifestation of stress?" Rolling from the bed, she faced her companion and touched her arm lightly. Hurt and accusation in her voice, she queried, "You know more about David's situation than you have told me? I...I thought we were closer than that..."
"We are close," Delenn placated. "I have not spoken to you about this because I am not sure. I did not want to trouble you about what may be nothing more than an unfounded suspicion on my part, but...yes. There once were...and may still be...creatures residing in our galaxy far more dangerous than the Dilgar." Stepping closer to Ardenn, she took the young woman's hands between hers and whispered, "Ier'saia, I fear David may have crossed paths with one of them, and you somehow sensed it."
Ardenn tried to suppress a gasp and failed. "Do you know what it is?"
"I suspect," Delenn corrected. "I know nothing for certain at this point...but I suspect it is a Shadow. I pray I am mistaken, but your description was uncannily accurate, and they prefer dark, quiet places when they are dormant. An abandoned mine would be the perfect..." Delenn trailed off. The young woman before her staggered a little, her eyes dropping to the floor. "Ardenn?" she queried, "Are you well?"
"One moment," the young Sister numbly mumbled. "I must have heard incorrectly. I thought you said a Shadow...but I know that cannot be. The Shadows are gone. You and Entil'zha John sent them away."
"I wish reality could be that easy, precious one," Delenn soothed, "I wish conclusions could be that clean, but such outcomes are rare. There are always Shadows among us in one form or another. Wherever there is Light, there is always Darkness. Wherever there is Order, there is also Chaos. In the universe, each is necessary to act as the standard for measuring the other. They are intertwined opposites."
Her former mentor's words were meant to center her companion, but they had the opposite effect. "Platitudes are no longer good enough!" Ardenn snapped, rousing and trying to pull away. "My beloved is probably in mortal danger, Va'saia...and we know even less about yours! I do not care about Light or Dark! How can you calmly prattle to me about order and chaos when at this moment, David is likely in the company of a being that can harm him...or worse! You speak of the universe? Delenn, the little piece of the universe our loved ones occupy here and now...that is all I care about!"
"Calmly prattling? Do you truly think me calm?" Delenn hissed as Ardenn tried to struggle out of her grasp, "How deep do you suppose my calm goes? I understand as much about the nature of the First Ones as a member of the Younger Races can, and I assure you that my stomach is in knots! You desire the truth about me? The truth is I am terrified! Does it comfort you any to know that? I want to collapse on the bed and weep, but my child and my husband cannot spare me that luxury! And neither can you, because if I do so...if I give in to my despair, your beloved and mine are dead!" Her greenish-hazel eyes boring into Ardenn's grey ones, she murmured, "I need you, Ardenn! I need you with me...not angry with me! Angry people make mistakes, and the First Ones do not forgive the errors of their adversaries! They exploit them! Tell me...are you strong enough to face the darkness beside me? Answer honestly!"
"I...I do not know..." the cowed younger woman stammered, her voice nearly a sob. There was something indefinable in Delenn's eyes...something that made her want to run away and hide. Calm...her former mentor was correct...if she wanted to provide any help at all, she needed to be calm. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself and continued, "To save David, I will...Va'saia, I love him without reservation and I am willing to sacrifice everything to save him, but I am not sure I can do so without fear. I will be as strong as I can be. I hope...I hope it will be enough."
Delenn glared at the young woman a moment longer. Seeing that Ardenn was recovering her composure, her eyes softened. "Sometimes that hope is all we have, zha'aia," she murmured. Relaxing her grip, she drew her companion into her embrace. "I know you are afraid...I know, for I am also," she whispered into Ardenn's ear as she held her. "We do not need to banish fear to do what must be done, we only need to resist succumbing to it. When my husband says a Sheridan fights without fear, he does not mean we must be fearless...that would be too much to ask of any mortal. He wants us to acknowledge it, channel it to our advantage. He wants you to not be afraid of...of admitting you are afraid. We must be able to do this, because I am not overstating matters. Abject fear, I am told, is the way those who come into direct contact with a Shadow in its true form react."
"You are told?" Ardenn echoed after a moment, her voice muffled by Delenn's shoulder. "But you faced them and defeated them. You have seen the Shadows, and you were not afraid. Our histories say so."
"Oh, Ier'saia," the older woman breathed, "Our histories say so many things, but most are written by those who were not there, and accuracy suffers. I have indeed faced the Shadows on several occasions...I have even spoken to them, but I have never actually seen more than a glimpse of one...and even that secondhand vision was softened by the protective influence of another First One. They appeared to me either as people I cared about or they remained unseen. Of all those living, only John has truly confronted them without protection...and that confrontation resulted in his self-sacrifice. You do not know how you will react and...Valen help me...I am not completely certain how I will, either." With a hint of embarrassment, she pulled away slightly and admitted, "I...I do know that the one time I faced an angry Vorlon in its true form, I forgot everything about setting fear aside I just told you. That is how powerful the First Ones are. I was paralyzed. I could not speak, not even to whimper. A being I always believed a pure manifestation of Light became the most malevolent creature I had ever encountered...more so because I thought them so beautiful before."
"But...but that was different. That was a Vorlon," Ardenn huskily stammered. "The texts say they never appeared as anything other than beautiful, mysterious and wise. Your shock was understandable...you did not know they could be anything else."
"Shock was not what held me," Delenn whispered. "The Vorlon...Ardenn, I was never physically touched, but it immobilized and violated me as effortlessly as you would pin a glowbug. My barriers, my training and my mental discipline might as well not have existed for all the good they did. It held me fast and picked through the most guarded corners of my mind...belittling my successes, magnifying my failures, and ridiculing my love for John. When it finished shaming me, it laughed and I realized that for all the service I had given them, I was nothing more than a toy...a small, insignificant trinket that had outlived its usefulness. In that moment, I was truly afraid. I was certain I was about to die...and had John not been at his strongest when I was at my weakest, I probably would have." Shivering involuntarily, the older woman held Ardenn at arm's length and gazed earnestly at her. "I tell you this because the Shadows see us the same way, and can exercise similar power if they so desire. They are masters of illusion...their true forms are so disconcerting that they rarely appear to us that way. Either they manipulate our perceptions so they remain obscured or they appear in forms chosen specifically to unbalance our resolve. David is strong in the Light, but if he encountered a Shadow I believe...I believe we must face the prospect that he has been seduced."
"Seduced?" the younger woman declared, "That is not possible. You already believed in the Vorlon philosophy, had already been in their company for many cycles. That gave them leverage over you, but David does not believe in the Shadows." With the conviction only a lover can command, she continued, "He would never willingly serve such a creature. I cannot imagine any form influential enough to make my beloved forget himself to that extent."
"I can," Delenn observed sadly. "I can think of only one form a Shadow could manipulate that might cause my son to stumble. Turn around, zha'aia."
Ardenn turned...and found herself gazing through the washroom doorway at her reflection in the mirror.
Placing her hands on Ardenn's shoulders, Delenn gave them a gentle squeeze. "When the Vorlons appeared outside their encounter suits, they assumed forms that evoked discipline and order...parents or even spiritual beings. A Shadow, conversely, would choose an image that evokes chaotic or seductive emotions...and there are no emotions more chaotic than those of a person in love, and there is no image more seductive than love's object."
"It would use...my image?" Ardenn incredulously whispered.
Forlornly, Delenn nodded. "A distorted image...identical to you in form, perhaps, but without your soul. They have used similar tactics before." As she was speaking, she felt the plates in the deck give slightly. Sensing that her companion was starting to reason through how a distorted, soulless image of herself might try to mislead her beloved and not wanting Ardenn to travel any farther down that road, Delenn abruptly changed the subject. "Well, we are on the ground," she noted. "The search team will be departing shortly. I need you to answer a very important question. If David has indeed been touched by a Shadow, will you still love him?"
"How...how can you even ask such a question? David is my life...nothing touches him that does not touch me."
"I was so much like you when I was your age...before I knew of the First Ones..." Delenn sadly murmured to herself, possessively tightening her hold on her companion. "I ask because the first casualty of contact with the Elder Races, precious one, is always...innocence. They offer the Forbidden Fruit, and woe be unto us who have tasted of it."
"A...a na'fak'cha? I do not understand."
"It is a rebirth in a sense...but I was alluding to a human holy book," the older woman sighed, resting her forehead on Ardenn's shoulder. "Even if the Shadow was merely curious and spared my son its influence, he may not be...he may not be quite the same as you remember. When John returned from Z'ha'dum, he was not. He was himself, but colder...more focused and less sympathetic in a way that defied explanation. He had become the leader we needed at that time. My love for him was as strong as ever, but occasionally...occasionally I found myself missing the more compassionate man he had been before. Now, we may see much the same in David." Releasing Ardenn, she quietly continued, "I pray that, like his father, he gains wisdom to compensate him for the loss and that his sense of wonder remains intact...but we will worry about the ramifications later. For now...you will think me hypocritical again but I cannot honor Nashon's wishes and remain here. I tried to obtain a thermal suit from the ship's quartermaster but he turned me away. If I must, I will tolerate the cold for as long as necessary without one."
"Now it is you who denies objectivity," Ardenn observed, turning away from the mirror to face her companion. "If the temperature on the surface is as frigid as the records indicate, the Temple of Frost would seem a tropical paradise. Even if you donned every stitch of clothing you brought, you would likely collapse from hypothermia within a few minutes of leaving the ship." Swallowing, the younger woman looked abashedly at the deck for a moment before padding back over to the bed. Looking over her shoulder at Delenn, she quietly asked, "If there is a Shadow in the mine...will your presence really make a difference?"
Delenn chewed her lip for a moment. Answering Ardenn's innocent question would require divulging something of a subject she normally avoided. Most of her friends and colleagues, her husband included, respected her privacy in the matter...even if they suspected the truth, they chose not to delve too deeply. "Not if it reaches our people before I do," she reluctantly responded, choosing her words carefully. "My perceptions are a little...different...in some respects from those of others. I will be the first to know it is there. Trust me on this."
Ardenn started to question her further, but saw the apprehensive look on Delenn's face and chose not to. Kneeling, she pulled a dun-colored bundle of fabric out from under the bed and indicated Delenn should take it. "My intent was not...ah, strictly disobedience, you understand," she abashedly mumbled as Delenn took the small bag and looked at it curiously. "I was hoping you might have...well, what the humans call a change of heart. About allowing me along, I mean."
"How did you obtain one of these when I could not?" Delenn muttered as she opened the flap and pulled out a thermal suit.
"It was not difficult," Ardenn replied, turning up her hands in a shrug. "After I left you on the bridge, I went to where they are kept and took it. As you observed, we are on a warship and there are none other than Anla'Shok aboard. I assumed there would be no reason to guard the suits...they are not weapons, after all. Nashon evidently thought to post someone after his conversation with you."
"I do not know whether to thank you or be upset," the older woman noted, tossing the garment on the bed and hastily unfastening her wrap. "So I will simply accept what is and not question your motives too deeply. You have done well, Ier'saia. I will find a way to get David back to you."
"No...we will find a way." Delenn paused, frowning, and Ardenn reached behind the table beside the bed...and pulled out another bundle. "I do not want to argue with you any further about this. Even though you may not wish it I cannot let you go alone. Without the company of the search team, you will have no protection at all."
Delenn could not help sounding both annoyed and a little bemused. "And exactly what protection can you offer me against a Shadow?"
"A hand to hold? An extra set of chattering teeth? Please, Delenn...I did get you a suit, after all."
"No, you obtained two...and I do not think I was the intended recipient of one."
"You were not," the young Sister admitted. "I, ah, suspected that either you or Nashon might doubt my understanding of your intent and check to ensure I was following it before you left. If you happened to locate one suit, you might not have thought to look for another." Delenn put her hands on her hips and glared at her, and Ardenn sheepishly added, "One thing I have learned from the humans is the value of having a backup plan."
Hesitating a moment, Delenn rubbed the back of her neck and sighed. Ardenn had a point. She had no desire to stumble around on a hostile world by herself, and while her young companion's presence would offer no additional protection from potential threats, it would be comforting. "Very well...if wearing me down was your intent, you have succeeded. Hurry up and change," she finally directed, pulling her wrap fully away and tossing it down beside the thermal suit on the bed. "We can allow the search team only a few minutes before we follow. We cannot let Nashon and his party know we are behind them, but we cannot let them get too far ahead if I am to be of any assistance."
Ardenn wasted no time, pulling her only clothing...David's shirt...off in one smooth motion and throwing it on the bed. Unfolding her thermal suit, she hesitated, eyeing it critically. The brown one-piece was so small it would not have even fit a child. "Is this garment...ah, supposed to be like this?" she ventured, holding the tiny jumpsuit up to her body. "I must have selected the wrong size."
"It is designed to stretch," Delenn explained as she kicked off her shoes and shed her undergarments. Grabbing her suit, she pulled the neck open and stepped into it, quickly tugging it up to her waist and worming her way into the skin-tight bodice. "It adheres to you and functions as a second skin...one that retains almost all body heat and radiates it back on its wearer."
Somewhat dubiously, Ardenn followed Delenn's example and clumsily hopped around as she tried to get her feet and calves into the tight leggings. "Surely this 'second skin' was tailored by a human," she grumpily muttered under her breath as she struggled to pull the suit up and stretch it over her hips. "I might as well be running around nude."
Despite the seriousness of their situation, Delenn had to smile. Ardenn was right. Were it not for the muted color of the garb, both of them would resemble Downbelow dancers entertaining at a Centauri love goddess festival. "You are correct...it is a human garment," she chuckled as the younger woman, now finally dressed, frowned and eyed her profile in the mirror. Tugging on the soft boots supplied with the suit, she continued, "But give our Earth brothers some credit. While the cut is perhaps less modest than something our people would fashion, the fabric is efficient and sturdy. Normally, looser utility clothing is worn over it, but I think we will have to make do with our cloaks. I brought nothing more rugged than shipboard clothes, and you do not have even that."
With a final smoothing of the fabric around her midriff, Ardenn turned from the mirror and shrugged into her cloak. "At this juncture, modesty is the least of my concerns. Shall we go?"
"Not yet." Rooting around in the small bag that had once contained her thermal suit, Delenn retrieved a small breather and hung it around her neck. Indicating Ardenn's bag, she continued, "I want you to wear yours also."
"Why? I am Minbari. The poison in the mine is only dangerous to humans."
"You are a Minbari Child of Valen, Ardenn...you are partially human. I do not know if you are human enough to be susceptible, so it is better to be safe than sorry."
Seeing the sense in her former mentor's caution, Ardenn retrieved her breather. "I hope none of the search team are...are like us. They would have no way of knowing."
"I pray they are all purely Minbari also...but I can do nothing about that now." Grabbing her own cloak, Delenn keyed the door and leaned out, looking up and down the corridor. "It is time. Hopefully, Nashon left the egress ramp clear. If he did not, we will have to distract any watchers he left."
Determined to meet his fate as defiantly as possible, John Sheridan belted out a war cry and swung the barrel of his weapon around even though he knew he wouldn't be fast enough. He now could hear screaming and the pounding of booted feet echoing throughout the Cathedral, as well as directed energy weapons discharges intermingling with concussion grenade explosions and PPG fire...PPG fire?
The Dilgar didn't have PPGs.
Almost in concert with this realization, the figure he was twisting to face roughly kicked John's laser rifle out of his hands. Scrambling to get his denn'bok out and shake it open, John cried out once more as a booted foot descended on his wrist, pinning it to the floor and causing the ranger weapon to tumble out of his hand. In one smooth movement, the cloaked figure above him brought his sidearm to bear on John's head and fired a burst of superheated plasma.
Behind him, a dagger-wielding Dilgar commando toppled to the ground...his blade just inches away from John's jugular.
The former Earthforce Captain, having closed his eyes in preparation for meeting his fate, hesitantly opened one of them...and heaved a huge sigh of relief when he realized he was facing a Ranger, one that he knew. "Na...Nashon? Damn, you're a sight for sore eyes."
"Greetings, Entil'zha," Nashon huffed. Leaning around the surprised human, he quickly checked the now-deceased Dilgar before kneeling down beside the object of his search. "We have come to retrieve you, 'better late than never' as Ranger Sheridan would say. I apologize for startling and disarming you...I did not want you attacking me in error. This cavern is dark, and it is difficult to tell friend from foe."
"It's okay...you can kick me around all you want at this point. Everybody else has. Your timing couldn't have been better." Still in a slight state of shock at seeing his new companion, John glanced around. The chamber was dim, with only the emergency lighting on, but it wasn't particularly dark. Then he remembered. "It's only dark to Minbari. Humans have better vision in dim lighting than you...and Dilgar do too. Tell your people to be careful."
"A valid observation," the Minbari ranger noted before muttering into his link. Glancing back down at John, he continued, "I have instructed our Anla'Shok to rely more on their other senses. Your presence here is no longer necessary. We should go now."
"No...not until you have your people together," John grunted, trying to stagger to his feet. The wound in his leg reopened from the effort and he slid unceremoniously back to the floor, biting his lip to keep from crying out. "I'll...uh, probably need a little help getting out of here anyway," he managed to add. "Just as well we not pull Rangers from the fight prematurely. So finish this up...first."
"You are wounded?" Nashon asked, noting the livid scorch mark on John's leg. "Why did you not say anything? Alyt Delenn will not be pleased to learn this."
Not pleased. That was an understatement. John could already almost hear her voice...imperiously lecturing him about risking himself needlessly as she changed his dressings...and surreptitiously nudging his sore leg to drive her point home. Oh, yeah...saying Delenn wouldn't be pleased at his wound was a lot like saying the Atlantic Ocean was a small body of water. "Uh, did you say Alyt Delenn?" John mumbled, catching the Anla'Shok's reference belatedly through his musing.
Nashon pursed his lips. "Forgive my improper use of terminology. I should have specified that she is the acting Alyt. I meant no disrespect to Ranger Sheridan...he is still the Light Wanderer's permanent commander, of course."
"No, Nashon," John sighed, an uneasy feeling already beginning in the pit of his stomach, "That's not what I meant. I meant, she came with you? Delenn's here? Never mind that she's my wife...you brought the President of the Interstellar Alliance into a hostile area? What the hell were you thinking?"
The young Ranger hung his head. "Ah...actually, honored one...she brought us. She may no longer be Anla'Shok Na but she is still a recognized commander of Anla'Shok. And we did not know this was a hostile area until...ah, until it became hostile."
"She brought you?" Sheridan echoed, his voice rising an octave. "And you went along with it?"
"Compliance seemed logical at the time."
"Dammit!" John groaned, more at himself than at his now-subdued companion, "In all your training, in all those classes on terror, delight, discipline and whacking people with a denn'bok, didn't any of your instructors teach you the awesome, wondrous power of the word...NO?"
"Respectfully, Entil'zha," Nashon quietly murmured, "If I may make an observation. You and I both understand her presence here is a risk. Making her understand it is a different proposition altogether. Have you ever succeeded in saying 'No' to your sala? If so, I request you teach me your secret because I have been shamefully failing at this simple task for several days now, and not from lack of effort. I have come to suspect she cannot hear your awesome, wondrous word when it is applied to her...although she seems to discern almost all others easily enough. Perhaps it is an unintended effect of her transformation."
"Uh...yeah, I've thought that on occasion myself," John grudgingly conceded. "Okay, never mind...I see your point. I guess running the Alliance and getting Ardenn back just went out the window, huh?"
"Out the...window?" the Minbari repeated. "Ah...if I understand the idiom correctly...no, Entil'zha. Delenn is no longer our President, so she is no longer leading the Alliance...but she did succeed in securing Ardenn's release."
"No longer President, eh?" Any other time, John would have been shocked into speechlessness at this revelation. Now, with everything else that had happened...he was tired. Bone weary. He wanted nothing more than a shower, a medic and his wife, not necessarily in that order. Nothing would faze him at this point. "Well, I guess she has more free time, eh? And it damn sure looks like she found a way to fill it." Leaning back against the section of ceiling he had used as cover, he rubbed his temples tiredly. "So let's see if I've got this straight. Delenn quit...nah, she never quits...so, she was fired as President, took command of your ship, got Ardenn back and came here. I'd say her week's been a busy one. Now what am I missing? Oh, yeah," John couldn't help chuckling weakly, "let me guess...you couldn't say no to Ardenn, either."
"She is a Sister of Valeria now, Entil'zha. Very few among our people would presume to refuse a reasonable request from her."
"A reasonable request...you mean like thumbing a ride on a ship headed for the war zone?" John quipped. "You know, back in my Earthforce days we actually exercised a little control over who we allowed aboard a warship. Nowadays, we lower the gangplank for every pretty face. Times sure have changed." Nashon started to respond and John held his hands out to forestall further explanation. "Okay, okay...yeah, I know. This isn't Earthforce and Ardenn's not just another pretty face...got it. And of course she has the same hearing problem as my wife," he concluded with forced nonchalance.
"She is understandably concerned about your welfare," Nashon agreed with a nod. "And the aural condition you speak of seems to be common among those who associate with your family." Hastening to reassure the Ranger leader, he continued, "With that said, please recognize that Delenn's and Ardenn's safety is of paramount concern to the crew. Perhaps we erred...no, I erred...in allowing them to accompany us, but they are as secure as we can make them. We did not permit them to leave the ship."
"So...I suppose you locked them up?" John hopefully asked. "Put them under constant surveillance? Manacled them to a stanchion with guards watching them? Maybe stole their clothes and cemented their feet to the floor?"
The young Ranger looked askance at John, unsure about how to answer his sarcasm. "Nothing quite so drastic. We merely informed them that for their protection they would not be allowed along. After some initial resistance, both saw the wisdom of remaining aboard and retired to their quarters to wait. Why do you ask?"
Cocking his head curiously, John looked over Nashon's shoulder towards the Cathedral's main entrance. Those Dilgar commandos who weren't casualties had fled back down side passages, and he could see small teams of brown-clad Minbari looking for holdouts. The Rangers weren't what caught his eye, however. Behind them, two diminutive, masked figures in dun-colored bodysuits had just slipped in and were slowly edging their way around the periphery of the chamber, gingerly stepping around the remains of the colonists and using debris to mask their movements from Nashon's crew. "I may not always understand my wife, but I do know her. She leads from the front...and wherever the Lone Ranger goes, Tonto won't be far behind."
"Ah...is this Lone Ranger a new Anla'Shok? I am not familiar..."
Looking back at his companion, John snorted in sad amusement. "Just some ancient Earth popular culture, Nashon. In my old age, I tend to ramble. Don't worry about it." With a nod, John indicated that Nashon should turn around. "There's who you should worry about. Remember that little hearing problem? Either you brought two really shapely cat burglars down here with you, or your passengers didn't stay retired for very long."
Nashon's brow ridge furrowed in consternation as his eyes fell on the objects of John's attention. "Ra'ash ta'al Quith!" he muttered under his breath, recognizing the two interlopers instantly. "I do not know what to say, Entil'zha...they agreed to wait..."
"Did they really?" John snorted, shaking his head. "Or did they just spout some vague doubletalk to make you think they did? Trust me...Delenn's really good at making you hear what you want to hear rather than her actual words."
Flustered, Nashon continued, "I thought they did...but I took precautions! I placed a guard at the ramp...I told the quartermaster not to provide them thermal suits...I...I..."
John sighed. "Relax, it's done...they're here. Just make sure everybody knows. I'd rather not have my wife or Ardenn on the receiving end of a friendly fire incident if we can avoid it."
"Yes...yes, of course..." Sensing he was rapidly descending into babbling, Nashon quickly whispered a centering mantra and composed himself before muttering a few quick commands into his link. "I apologize for misleading you," he stated after he received the acknowledgements. "I will have them escorted out immediately."
If his leg hadn't been hurting so badly, John would've laughed outright. "Escort Delenn out? Good luck, friend...I'd almost lay money down just to watch you make the attempt." Just then, the leading infiltrator caught sight of him and froze. Even from a distance, John could see her haunting eyes widen in recognition and his name form on her lips through her mask. Any pretense at stealth forgotten, the figure bolted excitedly towards him with such haste that she would have tripped over a body if her companion hadn't caught her. Flashing a weary thumbs-up at his beloved, John glanced back at Nashon and said, "Delenn, Ardenn and I really need to have a long talk about sneaking around nervous people with guns after this is all over. That stumble would've resulted in about ten PPG bolts flying in her direction if you hadn't warned the crew." Turning his gaze back to the two figures running across the chamber, he continued, "Tell me...do you think there's some secret ritual Minbari females go through where they're taught that common sense is an option rather than a necessity?" The Minbari Ranger looked puzzled for a moment, and John realized he was actually mentally reviewing rituals. "Don't answer," he amended quickly. "It was a rhetorical question."
"Ardenn? Where did you learn to...um...walk like that?"
Delenn put her hands on her hips and swiveled them suggestively. "Like that."
"You did not think it was appropriate? It seemed to adequately hold the ramp guard's attention...at least until you rendered him unconscious."
"You misunderstand me. Your display was quite impressive. I am not asking why you did it, I am asking where you learned it. Surely that is not something taught among the Sisters."
Ardenn could not suppress an embarrassed smile. "You truly do not know?" Turning her palms up, Delenn shook her head and the young Minbari snickered. "I learned it from watching you."
"I do not...ah, saunter...in that manner. That is not how a proper Minbari walks."
"Oh...you do not move in that fashion all the time," Ardenn innocently observed. "But you do when you desire to arouse Entil'zha John's mating urges. I think the appropriate human term is...flirt."
"I...flirt?" Delenn snorted. "I do not change my demeanor in any way when I desire intimacy. John is a good husband and like all good husbands he simply knows when the time is right."
"That may be what you think," Ardenn smugly rejoined, "but I have watched your interaction with him closely. I have not seen you behave around any other male, Minbari or human, like you do around him. I have determined that he knows when you desire to mate because you use body language to tell him. You swivel your hips more when you walk, just as I demonstrated. You position yourself in his personal space and finger his clothing suggestively. Your facial expression becomes slightly predatory. Your pupils dilate, your voice lowers and you choose words that have suggestive connotations when you speak...you also tend to, ah, fluff your hair more often and...well..." Ardenn blushed a little at the last, "If all else fails to gain his attention, you nuzzle him with your crest."
"I nuzzle my crest..."
"...against his neck. Yes. You lean against him, turn your head and rub your crest against him. Even though humans do not have crests, he seems to understand."
"You make me sound like a gok," Delenn muttered under her breath, her face reddening. "And these are the kinds of notes about me you were taking in your little book? I can see I did not assign you enough to do when you served me. You had far too much free time on your hands."
Ardenn pursed her lips, serious once more. "It was not what you think. I was not trying to deconstruct or analyze you. It was Entil'zha John and his reactions to your signals I was studying."
"You were taking notes on how to arouse my husband?" Delenn archly quipped, her brow ridge furrowing. "Oh...that makes me feel so much better. Perhaps it would be good if you ceased explaining while you are ahead?"
"I was not studying how to...ah, arouse John specifically," Ardenn mumbled in embarrassment, recognizing the not-so-thinly veiled warning in her companion's tone. "It is just that...that I was looking for insights. I had to learn about humans from somebody. I know they have rituals...surely it could not all be instinct, but trying to discern them on my own was...well, it was maddening! Even they do not know what their rituals are! The human sources available to me about mating were practically useless! They...Delenn, I read every one I could obtain and I still could not fathom how humans determined the acceptable time for mating at all!" In frustration, she started counting them off on her fingers. "How to win your man...how to keep your man...how to keep other women off your man...what turns men on...what turns men off...fifty tried and true ways to please your man. There was even one purporting that human males and females originated on different planets in their solar system. Obviously an evolutionary impossibility! It said that men liked caves. Caves! I love your son with all my heart, but I do not want to join with him in a cave!"
Delenn's annoyance faded just as quickly as it had flared, and she snorted in amusement as Ardenn vented. She had suffered through the same confusion herself and anything that kept her young companion's mind off their predicament was a good thing. Starting up the path once more, she mused, "At least you did not struggle through...ah, there was this book about a woman's aversion to aircraft..."
"Erica Jong? Fear of Flying? I read that one." Hurrying to close the distance between her and her companion, she leaned in and conspiratorially whispered, "Delenn, I regret being the one to inform you of this, but I think that book had little to do with overcoming acrophobia. The humans sometimes give their books...misleading titles."
Delenn nearly burst out laughing. With great severity, she whispered back, "Truly?"
"Oh, yes," Ardenn rejoined, nodding sagely. "As an example, some time ago I obtained an instructional periodical. The name was innocuous enough...it seemed to advocate child recreation techniques. But when I opened it, it contained absolutely nothing about children, just pictures of nude females!"
"Ah, yes...the perils of an idle male mind. Your intended is intimately familiar with that periodical. 'Uncle Mike' once gave him a subscription as a gift. I cancelled it."
"And then there was this psychiatrist who wrote a monograph about his bizarre phallic symbol fetish..."
"Well," Delenn interrupted briskly, "you seem to have researched this subject with admirable thoroughness. May I offer a small piece of advice?"
"Throw the human magazines, books and vids away. Do not look at any others. Once that is done, send all the Minbari ritual texts you have obtained except the one you have chosen to follow back to their libraries and temples. Some of them are no better than the human material, and you have every resource you need already."
"But there is still so much I need to learn..."
Delenn sighed in exasperation. "About what? How to love as humans love? Zha'aia, David loves you as a Minbari. You know this is true...why can you not accept it? If he desired a human, he would be with one."
"Yes...that is the problem."
Delenn paused in her tracks and turned to her companion. "It is good there is a quarantine facility in our medical bay, because your confusion syndrome is obviously contagious," she muttered. "Now I do not understand. Please explain."
Ardenn hesitated, searching for the right words. "I...accept that David loves me as a Minbari. I have never doubted this. But I...I know what is coming, what will eventually be required of me...and you do also."
Delenn frowned thoughtfully. She understood, and immediately regretted asking for an explanation. "Now is not the time for this."
"No...I have to say it. I have to hear myself speak the words aloud. You knew, Delenn...before I did...you knew what lay in my future the day I admitted my secret and touched the Triluminary. You saw many hard paths, hard decisions before me. I could not see them then...but I see them now, and they all lead to one destination if I am to have any hope of living the life I want for myself...and David. I needed to learn, so I studied John because...yes, I know David loves me as a Minbari. Can he love me as a human? As John loves you?"
After regarding her companion silently for a moment, Delenn turned and resumed her trek up the slope in front of her, following a narrow switchback trail towards the as yet unseen mine entrance. When she spoke again, it was a statement, not a question. "You intend to undergo the Chrysalis."
"And...you disapprove," the younger woman muttered, shaking her head. "Am I really so different from you?" she continued under her breath.
Delenn hesitated once more, carefully picking her way through a rubble-strewn section of the path, and Ardenn thought she had said all she was going to on the subject. She was wrong. "Ardenn, I neither approve nor disapprove," she stated. "As you rightly pointed out, it is not my choice to make...but the answer is yes; you are different from me. Your circumstances now are different than mine were then. My change was one of necessity whereas yours is one of desire, and I do have misgivings. People will be watching you, and do not make the mistake of thinking they will all be clad in robes like yours...or that they will even be Minbari. There will be repercussions among the humans."
"Perhaps. But you survived those repercussions."
"Again you look to me," Delenn muttered. "Were I you, I would seek a different precedent to emulate than mine. You have no idea of the cycles of condemnation, humiliation and exclusion I experienced...and I cannot describe them to you. They must be lived to be truly understood. The thought of you undergoing the process also troubles me on a personal level. You are young and healthy, but for me to say the transformation is neither safe nor pleasant is an almost criminal understatement." Glancing back as she spoke, the older woman looked into her companion's eyes...the only part of her face she could see clearly through her breather...and resignedly sighed. Ardenn had already made her decision. Any words now were an irrelevant lingual exercise. "When?"
"I do not know," was the soft reply. "I have been considering it since before you obtained my release. The Sisterhood wants this, and they have the means to make it happen. I realize that I am allowing them to manipulate me, but David and I will never be completely happy as long as they can use the Chrysalis to haunt my steps. Rather than live in uncertainty it would be best, I think, to be done with it. At the least, undergoing the process will force the Order's machinations out into the light, if not those of others."
"If the light is where you truly want them," Delenn commented, shaking her head. "I cannot tell you what will happen, but remember what I told you about life-changing decisions. You have made one. Before you put it into action, ensure you fully understand why you made it as well as the effects that may result. There will be many, and not all will be good. Understand also that you deceive David if you do not discuss this with him. There is no reversing the change once it has begun and if you honor him as much as you love him, his opinion will carry far more weight than mine." Glancing ahead as they scrambled to the crest of the rocky escarpment they were climbing, Delenn held up a hand. "We will definitely discuss this matter in more detail later," she murmured. "Now, we must speak quietly. We are close. As you were speaking of caves..." Pointing across a small plateau, she indicated a gaping arch carved into the side of the mountain. "That is the entrance. There was a protective barrier here at one time...undoubtedly, it was destroyed along with the colony site."
Glancing at the apex of the entrance, Ardenn noted what appeared to be a thin trickle of smoke snaking out and trailing off into the atmosphere. "What is that green mist?"
"The reason why we are wearing breathers even though we are outside," Delenn answered. "The inner chambers are unsealed. With the outer door gone as well, the weapon Jha'dur developed to exterminate the humans is venting into the atmosphere." Pursing her lips, she allowed herself a moment of reflection and then sadly continued, "That is our legacy...my legacy...on this world. Freed of its prison, the spore cloud will expand and be carried aloft by the wind. Eventually, the whole planet will be poisoned, if it is not already."
"Do not be so hard on yourself. This is an abandoned world. Had the Dilgar achieved their aim, perhaps millions of humans would be dead."
"Thousands of millions," the older woman corrected with a whisper. "Billions, Ardenn. And creating those casualties was our aim, not that of the Dilgar. Human losses had this weapon been used would have made all their previous suffering at our hands a footnote barely worth mention."
Reaching out, Ardenn took Delenn's gloved hand and squeezed it gently. "But that did not happen," she soothed. Hesitating a moment, she softly continued, "I have no doubt that we will find death in the place we are going...deaths that you may bear some indirect responsibility for. To acknowledge your culpability for them is proper. At the same time, you should not hold yourself responsible for events that might have occurred but did not. To do so diminishes the thousands among the humans who actually did lose their lives in this sad place."
Delenn mulled over Ardenn's words for a moment. "Perhaps you are right," she murmured. Shaking off her melancholy, she smiled wanly and placed her palm over the younger woman's heart, a gesture of unspoken gratitude. "Well...now that you have re-centered me, I believe we have given Nashon and his companions enough time. Are you ready?"
With an answering smile, Ardenn mirrored Delenn's gesture. "Are you ready?" she brightly echoed. "I have noticed that humans often use that phrase just before they do something massively unwise."
Delenn could not resist a short laugh. "Yes, Ier'saia...yes we do."
Breathing heavily, David Sheridan turned a corner in the dim, gloomy passage and found...yet another passage, one heading off in a different direction. Grunting, he fell back against the wall, rubbing his eyes as he tried to collect himself. It felt like he'd been walking for hours...but he had no way to tell. There was no way to measure time at the bottom of the mine...no night, no day, no sun or stars. If someone had been around to talk to, he couldn't have even hazarded a guess about how long it had been since he and his father had entered this forsaken place.
The Shadow had indicated there was transportation nearby...only a kilometer or two, but he hadn't found it yet. Even wheezing his way across Minbar's northern ice sheet during his training, he'd been able to cover two kilometers within thirty minutes. Thirty minutes...Hell, it seemed like thirty hours since his dubious 'benefactor' had allowed him to leave. A couple of wrong turns hadn't helped...and then there was the effect of the death cloud. He had to rest more often now, and the coughing fits...brought on either from his broken rib or the poison, he couldn't tell...were slowing him even more.
On top of everything else, he was a sight...a frightening one. He's seen his reflection in a pool of brackish water a little while ago. Hair unkempt...face looking like it had been through a meat grinder...blood down the front of the coverall over his thermal suit, lips and hands cracked and raw. One eye swollen and blackened...Hell, the list went on and on. He wasn't sure how he was even walking and he was definitely sure he didn't want Ardenn to see him like this. Ardenn...
She was depending on him and here he was...sitting and feeling sorry for himself. She didn't even realize the danger she was in. He couldn't quit...he couldn't fail her.
Heaving himself back to his feet, he staggered a little and began moving again. The creature had said his beloved was coming to search for him. She might already be nearby. Under any other circumstance, his heart would have leapt with joy at the prospect, but now...now he wanted Ardenn to be someplace else. Any place else. It would have been better if the Sisterhood had cloistered her and he'd never seen her again rather than putting her in danger on his account. The Shadow was right. If offered a choice between her life and his, her decision wouldn't be difficult. David knew Ardenn far too well to have any doubt about how she would choose. He was dying anyway...but it wouldn't make a difference to her. She'd throw her life away to give him...what? An extra week or two? She'd trade one hundred cycles or more of her future for...nothing. Nothing at all.
He had no idea of what to do, the young Ranger despairingly reflected. The creature already knew the selection Ardenn would make just as well as he did, so the so-called 'choice' she would offer his beloved wasn't really a choice at all. The real choice was his. Either he complied with her request, essentially betraying both his father and his oath as an Anla'Shok in the process, or he defied the creature, sacrificed Ardenn...and most likely anyone who happened to accompany her.
There was no way to win, no way to beat this. All that remained was mitigating the loss.
As he had done more often than he would ever admit, David fell back on the decision-making process he secretly used whenever faced with a choice between equally unappealing alternatives. He asked himself what his father would do in his place...and he could come up with only one event that even remotely resembled the predicament he was in now.
When he deemed David old enough, the elder Sheridan reluctantly admitted to his son that he had instructed Stephen Franklin to save his mother over him if complications arose from her pregnancy. With hindsight, his father considered it one of his most selfish and shameful decisions...but also, as things turned out, a necessary one. As her pregnancy developed, he and his mother had proven almost completely incompatible with one another...something about his mostly-human metabolism overpowering and draining his mother's less stable hybrid one, his father told him...and over the months, she steadily weakened to the point where, finally, she couldn't carry him any longer without both of them dying. The physicians on Minbar had concurred with his father and, over his mother's explicitly-expressed objections, extracted him as soon as there was a slender chance he could survive on his own...knowing that Delenn would certainly die if they didn't and trusting that he would be strong enough without her.
They were extremely lucky, if there was such a thing as luck. David came into this incarnation almost four months early and his survival was touch and go for a time, but with a long stay in an incubation unit and a great deal of medical assistance he gradually stabilized. Unfortunately, the extreme stress of the pregnancy on his mother rendered her unable to bear any more children afterwards...or so his parents told him on those occasions when, as a child, he pestered them to make him a brother or sister. Despite this, David suspected they had tried at least once more after him. Understandably, neither of them talked about subsequent attempts, and he didn't ask. The fact he was still an only child spoke clearly enough about what must have transpired.
His father still carried a great deal of guilt around with him over the injury his wife sustained all those cycles ago, but in the younger Sheridan's opinion he had made the best choice possible under the circumstances. It was one of the rare occasions where his father's assessment of the situation had proven more discerning than his mother's, despite his low opinion of his motives. In the absence of any other meaningful criteria, he had chosen to protect the person most important to him at the time. Both David and his mother would have died without doubt had he relented to her wishes and done nothing, while both had a chance if he acted against them. Extrapolating that scenario to the present, Ardenn had no hope at all against the Shadow were he to defy his bargain, while his father possessed at least enough knowledge about and experience with the elder creatures to have a slender chance of emerging alive if he honored it.
As much as it hurt to admit it, even to himself, even alone in the dark, Ardenn was the person most important to him right now. He loved his father...but in his heart he knew she simply was. Trying to justify his decision beyond that was equivocating. And there was something else. All logic and weighing of odds aside, the young Ranger knew that Entil'zha would want those who lived and died in his name to protect the helpless no matter what oaths they had taken...and the man who was his father would want his son to choose Ardenn over him, even if it meant his facing death once more in the process.
It was an ugly, unfair decision...but at least it was an honest one.
Caught up in his dark thoughts, David almost passed right by his destination. The inert maglev car was parked in a small side chamber, resting on twin steel rails that led into a low tunnel bored into the rock. David could've kicked himself in that moment...he had trudged by this spot at least twice before without even noticing the unobtrusive branch. Fatigue was taking its toll, he realized. His perceptions were dulled, and he still had a long way to go.
Stumbling into the chamber, David made his way over to the ore car. It had a large cargo bin, suitable for carrying bulk freight and a tiny cab on the front that could accommodate one person. The long-sought transportation only held his attention for a moment, however. A quiet rustle behind him...a sound in a place where he'd heard none other than those he created...instantly jerked his attention away, his hand going to the denn'bok at his waist. Spinning quickly, he whipped the weapon out and opened it, only to find that in his weakened condition his vision swam sickly from the movement. When he regained his equilibrium, he found that he was not alone in the chamber.
The Dilgar commander Bha'laa, loosely dressed in the remnants of her uniform, stood less than two meters from him.
Expecting an attack, David swung his denn'bok back and came within a split-second of striking her down where she stood. The expression on her face and her body language caused him to hesitate. She made no threatening moves...just continued to stand and gaze at the ore car with a faraway, longing look in her eyes. In fact, the young Ranger wasn't sure she even noticed him at all. Lowering his weapon, he peered at the Dilgar woman for a moment and then did the first illogical thing that popped into his head, dumbly waving a hand in front of her face.
That seemed to gain her attention...barely. With what appeared to be great effort, she turned her eyes to him and worked to contort her sharp features. Strangely, it seemed that she was having to consciously command her muscles to do what she wanted them to do...having to think 'frown' to make a frown. Watching the interplay across her face was an activity David found eerily disturbing. Eventually, she achieved a semblance of pleading. "Take me with you, pilot," she slowly intoned, enunciating each word carefully. To the young Ranger, her voice seemed as far away as her eyes had previously. "Do not leave me in this place. The rewards...the gratitude of the Hegemony can be of great value to you."
David frowned. Even if the words were oddly expressed, the sentiment was all Dilgar. "Take the woman who's probably killed me?" he snorted, "No...no, I don't think so." Gesturing loosely at the ore car behind him, he continued, "You've been here for a while, I gather. You had the opportunity. Why didn't you just take the car and leave me here instead?"
The Dilgar displayed no outward emotion, but David could almost hear her screaming inside. "I have...tried," she stated after a moment, not even denying the Ranger's accusatory question. Swiveling her gaze back to the ore tram, she continued, "I...I see the vehicle but I cannot make myself approach it. I try to walk...but my legs do not move. I...Anla'Shok...something is not right inside me..."
Bha'laa's voice rose frighteningly at the last and David stepped away in consternation and surprise as her body stiffened. Her hair, tousled and tangled following her ordeal with the Shadow, moved unnaturally and her forehead rippled, as if something under her skin was embedding tendrils into her skull. She gasped and squealed in pain as her forehead bulged and began to pulsate.
David stood as still as a statue, revolted but rooted to the spot by the Dilgar's agony. As he watched, Bha'laa's eyes rolled back into her head as her lids fluttered closed. After a moment, they opened...now ebony as the Void and directed at the young Ranger accusingly. 'You are spending your time...your limited time unwisely, Anla'Shok,' hissed the Shadow's voice. 'I told you this creature is bound to me. She has her purpose, and you have a task to perform.' Turning her gaze to the roughly hewn ceiling, the Bha'laa-Shadow continued, 'My time approaches. I sense the stench of the Thralls. They have come to this place...and are within my reach now. Their lives are in your hands. Her life is in your hands.'
David needed no reminders of who 'her' was...and, with Minbari in the mine, he had no doubt that a recovery ship had arrived. Wordlessly, he backed away from the possessed Dilgar and started to climb into the maglev's cab. The controls were simple. Keying the 'initiate' toggle produced a low hum underneath the vehicle and the car rocked slightly as its center of gravity adjusted. Behind his ear, a distorted, metallic voice stated, 'Destination?'
'Transit time to destination Cathedral is one hour, eleven minutes at optimal speed. Commence?'
Looking warily back over his shoulder at the female who had once been a Dilgar but was now a Shadow minion, David sighed tiredly. He needed rest...and this stolen hour might be the last rest he got. Taking care not to twist his injured midriff too quickly, he climbed through the roll bars surrounding the cab and gingerly settled in the cargo bed. Normally, he wouldn't have trusted a forty year old vehicle computer to guide him to his destination but, as he had no idea of the way in any event, he wouldn't know he was lost until...well, he mused, it didn't matter...he was already lost. Making himself as comfortable as he could, he called out, "Commence".
The car began moving.
Before the gentle acceleration wafted him off to sleep, he couldn't resist a pang of pity as he watched Bha'laa's eyes...her real eyes once more...sadly follow his progress up the tunnel. Evidently the...the thing in her head had released some of its control so whatever remained of her original personality could properly appreciate watching her last hope of escape slipping away.
After a short time, the doomed Dilgar woman faded from view as the tram rounded a corner and plunged into darkness. Trapped in the mine forever...to David, it seemed a fate worse than death. Not, he morosely noted, that his was going to be much better.
Delenn could not resist a feeling of foreboding as the yawning mouth of the mine entrance receded behind her and the passage darkened. Memories of her last visit to this place were returning the further she progressed. It had not been this dark before, for one thing...or as cluttered. The ruddy lighting made it seem more oppressive, she supposed. Debris littered the passageway; a caved-in section here, an unrecognizable piece of military hardware there...scraps of equipment and clothing scattered about. She had not been sneaking in all those cycles ago, either. She and her companions on the Council had been led by an entourage of Wind Sword Warriors...
'No...stay off that path,' she told herself. 'The past cannot be undone. Those times are what they are, and nothing can change that.'
Slowing, she startled slightly as her companion thumped into her from behind. "Uh...pardon," Ardenn muttered. "I can barely see. Can you?"
"Some...a little better than you, probably," Delenn whispered back, secretly grateful for the distraction. "This complex is on emergency power. Humans call this 'blackout lighting'. They use it to activate their night vision while maintaining day-like clarity. To a human, everything now appears to be a shade of red. To us, it is just...dark."
"I was aware that they had better night vision, but not to this extent."
"They can perceive lower light frequencies...but our hearing is far more acute. They have no crest to augment their ears. Speaking of which..." Holding up a hand, she brought them to a halt. "We are getting too close to Nashon's party. I can hear them...which means they will hear us if they turn their attention this way. We will rest a moment and let them get further ahead."
Cocking her head, Ardenn listened intently...slightly embarrassed that Delenn's less acute ears and crest had provided more forewarning than hers. As the older woman pointed out, her crest enabled her to feel sonic vibrations as well as hear. Once she concentrated, what she heard and felt were the low voices of Nashon's team whispering amongst themselves. She could not make out the words, but they were concerned. Had they not been, they would not be speaking at all. Leaning in close to Delenn's ear, she whispered, "They have found something. I cannot tell what, but they are proceeding more cautiously now."
Delenn mimicked Ardenn's gesture. "Then we should as well." Standing, she shrugged out of her cloak and placed it to one side. Indicating Ardenn should do the same, she murmured, "It is warmer here. If danger lies ahead, these will impede us if we have to move quickly. How far ahead are they?"
Once divested of her cloak, Ardenn cocked her head again. "It is difficult to tell," she finally whispered. "The nature of this place amplifies and redirects everything I hear. Half a kilometer? Less, perhaps?"
"Good enough," Delenn muttered. Motioning that they should proceed, she took up the lead once more. She had forgotten about the different characteristics of human and Minbari vision. If it darkened much further, Ardenn would perceive the gloom as total and her own slight acuity advantage would be severely tested. They had brought no night vision equipment and using their glowlamps would reveal them to others long before they could see in turn. "Ardenn," the older woman whispered, "It will grow darker in here before we reach our destination. If your vision fades to the point where you can no longer see at all, take my hand and let me guide you. I do not want you inadvertently wandering ahead of me."
Ardenn's fingers found hers and intertwined with them almost immediately...as much from tension as from need, Delenn surmised.
About five minutes later, Delenn noticed the tunnel floor becoming uneven. Behind her, there was a sickening crunch and Ardenn lurched to one side. Had she not been holding Delenn's hand, she would have fallen. "Something has me by the foot!" the younger woman hissed. "It feels...squishy!"
Delenn looked down, peering intently. Her young companion's foot was buried in the remains of a Dilgar soldier's abdomen, with ribbons of intestinal material wrapped around her ankle. Glancing about, the lumps on the tunnel floor resolved themselves into other bodies. The older woman shuddered. Could two of the figures be John and David? She did not think so...Nashon's search party would have checked, and they would still be present if they were. That momentary thought, however, heightened her nervousness.
"What is it?" Ardenn whispered, feeling her companion tense.
"Nothing," Delenn mumbled. "Just...some debris." Swallowing the bile rising in her throat, she took hold of Ardenn's calf and pulled, slipping her foot out of the corpse with a wet, sucking sound.
Both women stood silently for a moment...Ardenn completely dependent on her companion. She could see nothing, but heard Delenn's change in breathing easily enough. "Something happened here," she observed. "This is the place Nashon stopped. What do you see?"
"There was...there appears to have been a battle," Delenn answered in a low voice. "We are surrounded by...well, it is probably good that you cannot see them."
"Bodies?" Ardenn rejoined with a shiver.
"Yes," the older woman confirmed. "Enemy warriors. John and David decided to spread a little chaos down here as well, it seems."
"Then we must be getting...wait!" Instantly forgetting her previous words, Ardenn craned her neck, eyes wide as she peered sightlessly down the tunnel. "I hear...running!" she hissed.
Taking the younger woman's hand once more, Delenn drew her to the passage wall, where they knelt. Knowing that Ardenn could hear farther than she could see, Delenn whispered, "Coming towards us? Close or far?"
"Close, I think...there must be a bend in the passage nearby...but they are...they are not Anla'Shok." Clutching Delenn's hand more tightly, she continued, "Their voices...they are speaking a tongue I do not understand..."
"Dilgar," Delenn quietly breathed. She need not have. She could hear it now as well...the echo of movement wafting up the corridor, shortly followed by shouts and the sound of PPG fire mixing with the answering reports of unfamiliar weaponry. Rising, she pulled her companion up beside her and barked, "We are going, Ardenn. Either our Rangers have ambushed the enemy, or the opposite has happened. Either way, we need to get there quickly!"
Dashing forward, they rounded the bend in the tunnel Ardenn had detected and drew up short. In front of them sat a squat armored vehicle...one alien to her. For an instant, Delenn thought they were as good as dead. The machine's gun tube was pointing directly at them. When it did not immediately open fire, she realized the truth - the device was as dead as the Dilgar soldiers behind them. A solid column of rock had torn from the ceiling and crushed the crew compartment. From the other side of the vehicle, both women could hear shouts and weapons discharges.
"Ardenn!" Delenn hissed, "Boost me over this contraption!" Not unsurprisingly in response to such a request, Ardenn grabbed Delenn by the back of her thermal suit and, with relative ease, lifted her almost over her head...high enough for the older woman to gain a purchase on the vehicle's hull. Once she was situated, Delenn turned and grunted, "There are indeed some advantages I miss from my former life..." as she pulled her companion up with considerably more difficulty. Making their way gingerly around the half-crushed turret, the two women immediately noticed that the light was considerably brighter on the other side.
"Can you see?" Delenn asked. Ardenn nodded affirmatively and Delenn pointed at a large archway a little farther ahead. "If my recollection is correct, that is the mine's administrative hub." Hesitating a little, she then added, "It is also where the scenes from John's logs were recorded."
Seeing the older woman's distress, Ardenn smiled faintly. "It will be all right."
Shaking her head slightly, Delenn tried to dispel the wisp of darkness that had fallen over her. She had known she would feel at least some hesitancy when this moment came, but now that the time was upon them, it was stronger than she anticipated. "Of course it will be all right," she demurred, both to reassure her companion and herself. Looking away, she tried to concentrate on the entrance. "We should proceed. I think the firing is tapering off."
Despite steeling herself against it, Delenn's first hesitant glance into the Cathedral almost overcame her resolve. "There are...so many," she breathed as she and Ardenn surveyed the rows of bags stacked near the chamber walls. "I have always understood dying...sacrificing oneself to protect the lives of others...but I have never understood killing. This is like the Markab, only with Minbari as the Drafa."
Ardenn would not have understood what Drafa was, but it did not matter. She was barely listening. "Each of those sacks was once a living being," she murmured. Spying a smaller bag, she sucked in a shaky breath. "A...a child? I did not realize...even children?"
"Yes...even children." Striving to regain her equilibrium, Delenn forced the emotion out of her voice. "The Warriors have a brutal but efficient philosophy...an enemy child today is an enemy warrior tomorrow. The humans understood it as well. If they expected an attack, their young were the first they evacuated."
"But not here."
"The fleet...our fleet blockaded this system before they could do so. The Warriors wanted a test...and the humans we trapped here gave them that and more." Her lips tightening in distaste, the older woman added, "Animals, they discovered to their dismay, fight hardest when they are cornered."
"Animals," Ardenn stonily repeated, her brow ridge furrowing in disapproval.
"Yes...animals. That was how our people saw the humans then."
"I find that...repugnant."
"As you should," Delenn muttered, her voice clipped and angry. "As we all should have, had we truly been the enlightened race we thought ourselves to be. We called them animals and we butchered them like animals. When it was happening, when rage consumed us, we so easily cast aside our thin veneer of civilization...committed acts we would not dare contemplate any other time. Characterizing the enemy as a lower life form proved a...convenient...tool for rationalizing our lapses."
"And was that sentiment true for you?"
"Perhaps in the beginning," Delenn admitted, and with the mask over her mouth Ardenn could not tell whether her tone was one of irony or regret. "But almost immediately, I found myself failing miserably at distancing myself from the brutality of it all. Even though I felt Dukhat's loss more succinctly than any of my contemporaries, my outrage at the humans faded very quickly. It was not so with the Warriors." Nodding at the rows of bags once more, she continued, "To them, they were murderous creatures...vermin that had to be put down. This planet saw the demise of over two thousand Wind Swords at the hands of the humans. Before they were pacified, I was told, even the children fought. The occupiers of this world forgot none of this when the opportunity came to execute their final solution." Bowing her head slightly, she concluded, "When in my naiveté and haste to end the killing, I foolishly gave them their opportunity."
"You did not know what they would do," Ardenn murmured. "You were involved, but it is not the same."
"I did not know?" Delenn echoed. A fleeting vision...a dream experienced a brief lifetime ago whispered at the edge of her consciousness. "Only because I did not ask!" she hissed, suddenly understanding what her subconscious had been telling her. "I knew the minds of the Warriors! I knew about the human captives here! I knew the Wind Swords had a plan to end the war quickly! I could have stopped this before it started, had I protested! Had I done so...if I could have changed a single mind...none of this would have occurred! But I remained silent!" Her anger spent, she concluded, "It is not that I did not know. I did not want to know. Now, even my son has seen the result of my blessed ignorance."
"And he will not turn away from you."
"You think not?" the older woman morosely sighed. "Why?"
Ardenn took Delenn's hand. "Because David and I share a soul, and I have not turned away."
"Of course," Ardenn continued, her tone reassuring, "should my human half prove stubborn...as he is known to be on occasion...he will subsequently learn that the bed of an angry Minbari female is a far more frigid and lonely place than any mine he might find himself in."
Both embarrassed at herself and amused, Delenn looked away. "And not yet even formally joined," she muttered under her breath. "Well," she continued more briskly, "I suppose I should stop 'beating myself up', as John would say. I cannot unmake my failures, and I vowed long ago never to repeat them." Making a show of examining the chamber, she indicated a narrow gap between the body bags. "We are wasting time. I believe if we stay close to the wall, we can get into the chamber without being seen by Nashon's people or the enemy." Glancing around quickly to ensure no one was watching, she gave Ardenn a tug and whispered, "Now!" as she crouched and started for the first stack of bodies.
As they moved, they could see members of Nashon's crew searching, primarily on the other side of the chamber. As the lighting was dim and their garb was not substantially different in color from that of the Dilgar, Delenn was thankful none had looked their way. In this environment, the Anla'Shok might be tempted to shoot first and ask questions afterwards...not that the asking would benefit her much at that point. In addition, much of the cavern's ceiling had torn loose, forcing her to check her footing often. After a few moments, Ardenn tugged at her sleeve and motioned her down behind a broken roof support. "Except for Anla'Shok, this chamber seems deserted," she breathed, trying to keep her voice as low as possible. "It has also sustained substantial damage and might be unstable. Do you think they could have chosen to await rescue in another location?"
"Those Dilgar soldiers you heard were assaulting this place for a reason. They were not expecting David's crewmates and I doubt the departed souls of the original residents presented much of a threat. That leaves John and David."
"Still, this complex has far too many branch passages for us to properly search at the pace we are moving now. Perhaps we should make our presence known to Nashon so we do not have to sneak about."
"Were we to do that, he would simply have us removed," Delenn whispered. "Once we were back on the ship, he would take more restrictive steps to keep us from leaving again." Leaning closer, she continued, "Remember it is not just for John and David's sakes we are here. I have to be able to warn everybody."
"I...not at the moment," Delenn muttered. "When I do, you will know at almost the same instant. If there is a...a presence in here, it will have to be close for me to identify it." Placing a hand on the younger woman's shoulder, she continued, "Ardenn...listen to me carefully. If it is a Shadow, it will be able to sense me as well. By coming here, I have made myself its first target. If I tell you to leave, you must flee to the ship as quickly as possible."
"We will face it together."
"No!" Delenn hissed, remembering only at the last second to lower her voice. "No," she repeated more quietly, "Do not wait for me, do not ask questions and do not try to save me. The ship...it is partially of Vorlon design and is the only place a Shadow will not follow. You must tell the remainder of the crew not to return here as well. Trust me...they will not want to recover what is left."
Ardenn shook her head. "The Anla'Shok do not leave their dead behind. Do you expect me to do any less?"
"We will probably not be dead," Delenn countered. "At least, not as you understand the concept."
"I will not...wait," Ardenn paused and cocked her head, concentrating on something. "Entil'zha John," she murmured to herself. Looking at Delenn once more, she excitedly whispered, "Perhaps your admonition was premature! I hear his voice! He and Nashon are talking!"
Delenn would have shot to her feet had Ardenn not held her down. Squirming impatiently in the younger woman's grasp, she glanced about as if she could see her beloved if she tried hard enough. "Where?" she breathed, "Where do you hear him?"
"Ahead of us...somewhere near those transport tubes."
Rising up on her knees, Delenn spent a few seconds staring in the direction Ardenn indicated. As the younger woman had said, she could hear the faint murmur of voices coming from the area of the lifts...including one that made her heart skip a beat. 'John! He is nearby!'. Abandoning any semblance of caution she leapt to her feet, Ardenn clumsily following, and rapidly started for the voices. Ardenn hissed, "Slow down!" behind her, but she did not hear it...she only had ears for one sound, one voice. Hastily weaving her way between debris and corpses, she rounded the last bend, saw him, and froze up as if a stasis beam had caught her.
John was leaning against a boulder with Nashon beside him and a dead Dilgar at his feet. About Nashon and the Dilgar, Delenn could not have cared any less in that moment. Her eyes were locked on her soulmate to the exclusion of all else. When John's eyes caught hers she almost laughed in relief, feeling as if a great burden had been lifted from her simply from seeing him smile. Without conscious thought she dashed forward, stumbling in her haste. Ardenn caught her and both of them began running towards the two waiting figures.
Far below them, yet far closer than the two women would have found comfortable had they known, another was moving as well.
John wasn't really sure what to make of the excited brown bundle that threw herself into his arms, or of the slightly smaller form that followed immediately behind her. Minbari usually weren't so demonstrative. One moment, he'd been watching the two figures running the short distance across the Cathedral floor between their position and his, alternately urging them on and praying that no one took a shot at them, and the next moment they were on him. Expecting them to pull up as they closed, he instead found himself overborne by the combined enthusiasm of his rescuers; falling to the ground with two excited, attractive women atop him.
'Ah, Hell...if I were thirty years younger...' he amusedly thought. All he needed now was a Jovian Sunspot, a pair of sunglasses and a lounge chair, and he'd be at the beach. "So...I guess this means you missed me?" he whispered as he wrapped an arm around Delenn's shoulders and hugged her more tightly against his chest.
Saying nothing...in that moment not trusting herself to say anything...Delenn simply basked in his presence. She wanted to kiss him. Unfortunately, the breathers they both wore made that impossible, so she contented herself by slowly rubbing her cheek and the edge of her crest against her husband's heart. Perhaps she was validating Ardenn's observations about her, but she did not care. John was alive, she was with him, and all was right in the world...at least for a few stolen seconds.
It was Ardenn who managed to answer. For once a little more subdued in her enthusiasm than her companion, she had come down beside him opposite Delenn and was propped up on an elbow, mentally debating whether she was sufficiently close to John to engage in the human hugging ritual without committing a faux pas in her former mentor's eyes. "Your absence was a source of distress," she demurely acknowledged, "for both of us."
Seeing the hesitation in her eyes, John extended his free arm and wrapped it around her. "Come here," he beckoned, drawing her in. "I missed you, too...both of you."
Ardenn accepted her heart-father's embrace and held it for a few seconds...long enough, she felt, to convey her happiness without intruding. This was Delenn's moment, not hers, and while finding John alive was a source of joy to her, another reunion was uppermost in her thoughts. As she reluctantly disengaged herself, she looked down and spied the livid scorch across John's hip. "You are wounded!" she gasped.
"Wounded?" The word interrupted Delenn's reverie. She had been so caught up in renewed contact with her husband she had not even thought to check. "You have been...wounded?" she repeated, her head popping up so she could look John in the face.
"Well, not badly...ah, wounded," John sheepishly acknowledged. "I'll probably have a little trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time for a while, but...um...hey," he added with a touch too much forced brightness, "the equipment that counts is still functional."
Glancing down, Delenn's breath caught in her throat and she rolled off of him, her eyes fixed on the exposed flesh where his skin and the underlying muscle had been pierced. In all their time together, she had seen John bruised and beaten, but the only time she had seen him truly wounded was a knife slash delivered by a Narn assassin on Babylon 5. It had upset her then, and it upset her now. "John Sheridan!" she exclaimed, angered by his seeming dismissal of his injury. "The equipment that counts to me starts at the top of your head and ends at your toes! I care about more than whether or not you remain impressively hung!"
"Impressively...hung?" Nashon, who had remained silent and out of the way until this point, glanced over at Ardenn, who shrugged her own lack of understanding.
"It means he has a large penis," Delenn muttered in explanation as she rose and dusted herself off. "At least he does in my estimation. It is not as if I have inspected many others."
"Well," Ardenn chimed in, "while the ones I saw in the periodicals hung quite impressively, they did not do justice to the real..."
"We are not going down that road again, Ier'saia."
"I'm dying down here, Nashon," John moaned in mock horror. "Here I am...beaten...battered...and my last living memory is going to be two Minbari women standing over my body talking about penises. You see what I have to deal with?"
"It would seem that your conversations never lack for interesting subjects, at the least." Nashon dryly deadpanned.
"You're no help."
"First you are not badly wounded, now you are dying?" Delenn quipped.
"Of embarrassment, sweetheart," John grunted, "only of embarrassment. Men get really self-conscious when the women we love start objectively assessing our attributes." Sitting up slowly, he extended a hand. "Now, could someone please help me up?" Nashon and Delenn each took an arm, and John turned to the Ranger once he was standing. "Recall your folks and get them headed for the ship. All sorts of chaos could be breaking out in the Alliance right now, and we can't afford to waste more time here. It's going to take me a while to get to the surface anyway, and as long as you have David, everything else here will take care of itself for now."
Nashon's brow ridge rose curiously. "David?" he repeated. "We do not have him."
John's heart nearly stopped. "You mean you didn't pick him up? He didn't signal you from the air vents as you were coming in?" Glancing around, John spied Ardenn. The young woman had wandered away from them and was moving between boulders and piles of debris, looking expectantly behind each one. John then looked down at his wife, who now had worry written all over her features. "He's not in here, Delenn," he whispered. "We held the Dilgar off for as long as we could. When they finally overran us, I stuck him in a lift tube and told him to take it to the top. If he reached the surface he should have been obvious to any incoming ship."
"We saw no one, Entil'zha," Nashon murmured. "We scanned the surrounding area thoroughly as we approached. There were no higher life forms."
Their whispering was interrupted as Ardenn made her way back over. "Where is David, Entil'zha?" she asked, ignorant of their previous conversation. "I assumed he would be nearby, but I have not found him."
"Ah...he's not here, sweetheart...but we'll find him," John demurred. To Delenn and Nashon, he said, "Help me over to those lifts. I need to take a look at something." He was really hoping beyond hope that if David's lift hadn't gone to the ventilation shafts, perhaps it was still sitting on the Cathedral level.
A quick inspection of the lift's diagnostic panel confirmed what he was already starting to fear. It was redlined almost all the way across. "Jesus Christ, David..."
"John, what is it?" Delenn asked. "Do you know where our son is?"
The way she said 'our son' conveyed more than the simple meaning of the words. She wasn't thinking of David as an Anla'Shok any more. He was 'Our [MY] Son', with the unspoken 'and you had better have a good answer' affixed to the end. Well, John had an answer...but it wasn't a good one. "He went down," he mumbled. Clearing his throat, he continued, "Judging from the status indicators, his lift suffered a magnetic...um, anomaly."
"A magnetic anomaly?" Delenn repeated dubiously. Looking over John's shoulder, she could not read the diagnostic readouts but she was familiar enough with human equipment to know what the color red usually meant. "How far...down...did he go?"
"Uh, all the way. The bottom." Putting his hands up in placation, he added, "But the diagnostics also indicate that the inertial dampeners engaged, so he should've arrived...ah, in one piece."
Delenn spent a moment silently digesting this information. When she finally spoke, it was not the upset outburst she knew her husband was expecting. "Nashon," she quietly directed, "Notify the search team that we are not leaving. Prepare them to begin searching the corridors and adjacent shafts. John, I assume there are alternate ways out of those lower chambers?"
"Yeah, but none of them are quick. If he managed to find a working maglev car, it might still take him several hours to get back up here."
"Also search any nearby maglev terminals, Nashon. And where would he go if he did not find transportation?"
John shook his head. "The lowest level is four kilometers below us. That doesn't sound far, but if he's walking the corridors, it's thirty or forty...assuming he can find the way while avoiding any leftover Dilgar." Glancing over at Ardenn, he was thankful that her breather covered most of her face. The look in her eyes expressed what she was thinking more than adequately. To Delenn he said, "Uh, honey? I need to talk to you...alone."
Her expression quizzical, Delenn motioned Ardenn and Nashon away. Nashon went to confer with the search team. Sensing that David's father specifically wanted her out of earshot, Ardenn withdrew reluctantly...making a show of examining the other lifts further down the line while occasionally glancing back at the two.
John wasted no time once he and his wife were alone. "This is bad, Delenn," he began without preamble. "You're probably thinking I'm the most irresponsible father in the Alliance right now, but believe me, David would've died had he stayed here. The fact you found me still breathing is a miracle in and of itself. If Nashon hadn't shown up, I'd have my throat slit right now."
"I have not condemned you. I am sure you had good reasons for what you did. I only want to get David back and get away from this horrid place."
"Yeah, well, it gets worse." In frustration, John ran a hand through his hair. 'Damn, I could use a shower,' he thought. "You know what happened here?"
It was Delenn's turn to feel ashamed. "Yes. I viewed your logs. John...I am so sorry..."
"Not your fault," John stated flatly, reading the self-accusation in his beloved's eyes. "You're not condemning me, I'm not judging you. We can talk about it later, if you want. Right now, you should know that the bottom of this mine is a place called the Pit. It's a natural chamber that drops off even further. I'm not sure how far down it goes, but I do know that the remainder of the Wind Swords' weapons are stored there. That's a lot of nasty green gas and the Dilgar commanders knew about it, too. They sent a team down to secure the warheads shortly after David boarded the lift. I didn't think too much about it at the time...I knew I could keep them from getting the stuff off the planet and I assumed David was going up. Now, the part of the Pit accessible to people isn't all that large. There aren't many places for him to hide once he knows he's being followed."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that David probably isn't alone. He's a great fighter, but I'm not sure he's capable of holding his own against a whole squad of commandoes by himself." Taking Delenn's shoulders in his hands, he kneaded them gently. "He may be a prisoner, sweetheart. He may even be..."
"He is not," Delenn intoned harshly. "A prisoner, perhaps. Anything worse and I would know. Ardenn would certainly know."
"Okay, I believe you," John demurred. "And we'll stay as long as it takes to find out for sure. But there are kilometers of passages to search, Dilgar holdouts still running loose, and not a hell of a lot of us to do the searching."
Delenn shook her head. "John, I fear that your concerns are not all we must consider. I must add to your worry tank."
"You mean there's more? What?"
She told him.
John didn't want to believe it. When she finished, he couldn't help looking around furtively, checking dark corners he'd overlooked before. Up until now, Flynn's World and the mine had proved an almost insurmountable, complex problem...but it had been one of contending, more or less equal powers. Powers that had clearly defined goals.
With a First One possibly in the mix, it had become a true crisis.
"You have more practical experience with them than I do," Delenn shakily whispered, crossing her arms to ward off the sudden chill she imagined she felt. Even thinking about her son in close proximity to one of the Ancient Enemy made her uneasy. "What are its goals? I told Ardenn a softened version of the truth, but you and I both know our son should be dead now. Yet it seems he is not. If David still lives, what does it intend with him?"
Assuming that his wife was starting to lose her composure, John drew her in against him, slipping his fingers into her hair and comfortingly stroking the underside of her crest. "They're not like Vorlons," he murmured reassuringly into her ear. "They hide themselves, but not their intentions. They like humans...they think we're their philosophical successors. I think the only reason it would let David live is so he could be a kind of intermediary."
"Like Mr. Morden?"
"I don't think so. People like Morden served voluntarily. Either they were believers or they were bought. David's not a believer and I doubt a lone Shadow could promise him anything he would want." Sighing into her hair, he rocked her as he continued, "And it hasn't had time to integrate him into a ship, assuming there is one. That's a slow process. In a way, this works in our favor. If David is a messenger...assuming you're right and there is a Shadow...it already knows we're here and it'll want us to recover him so he can pass its message. Given the time that's passed, he may even be nearby already."
"You are not just trying to make me feel better, are you?"
"Is it working?" John asked, pulling away slightly and forcing a smile into his eyes. Delenn's crinkled sadly in response and he continued, "There is one thing I do know. No one should go anywhere alone...and our search teams shouldn't stray very far even in groups." Cupping a hand to her cheek, he added, "And you and Ardenn need to go back to the ship. I don't want either of you within a Shadow's reach."
"John, you know that I served with the Vorlons. They provided me with certain...capabilities...to use in the struggle..."
"...that will do nothing more than make you a flashing beacon for an attacking Shadow if you don't have Vorlon protection. Which you don't." John finished. Delenn's eyes widened slightly and he chuckled. "Give me some credit, huh? Kosh was teaching me to fight legends. He couldn't teach me about the Shadows and their servants without revealing a little something about the people who assisted the good guys."
"Be that as it may, I will not leave. Not until David is safely back with us. I suspect...no, I am sure...Ardenn will hold the same opinion. We will continue our search whether Nashon accepts our assistance or not."
"I figured you'd say that," John sighed. "I had to give it the old college try, at any rate." Releasing his beloved, he began limping back to the lifts. "Since I'm not going very far on this bum leg, we might as well get Ardenn back over here and find me a comfortable place to camp out. I don't want you two splitting up under any circumstances, got it? If David's close by, you shouldn't have to look...uh, Delenn? Where's Ardenn?"
He thought his wife's young companion hadn't gone far...she'd been where he was now standing just a minute ago...but there was no sign of her.
Moving away from her husband, Delenn scrambled to the top of a debris pile, praying all the while that no Dilgar remaining in the chamber were playing dead. The light was inadequate at best, but she scanned her surroundings as well as she could without seeing any sign of the young woman. Dropping back to the ground, she made her way back over. "I do not believe she is in here," she worriedly breathed. "Do you suppose she has gone to search herself?"
"With no equipment, no weapon, no company, no idea where she's going and barely able to see?" John grunted, "Not to mention Dilgar skulking around and a Shadow on the loose. Sure...why not? It makes perfect sense."
"John...we must find her."
"Yeah...yeah, I know. Don't worry, we'll get her back." Fishing around in his pocket, he pulled out a link and angrily slapped it onto the back of his hand. "Nashon," he growled into the device, "Look, I hate to put more on your plate, but you're searching for two people now..."
'We are wasting time...' Ardenn worried as she alternated between glancing anxiously at John and Delenn and feigning interest in the bank of lifts she was facing. Her excitement at finding John alive had faded quickly when she realized her own beloved was not nearby...his fate still unknown. Sparing yet another furtive look at her Va'saia, she could tell from the older woman's body language that she was recounting her suspicions about David's situation to her husband...but why were they taking so long? And why had John not wanted her to hear what he had to say?
'Because he has no faith in you?'
Ardenn startled. Why would she think such a thing? After glancing around quickly and ascertaining that no one was close enough to have said anything to her, she shook her head. Delenn was correct...she had not gotten nearly enough rest or nourishment during the journey. Now she was talking to herself. Were David present, he would be laughing and telling her that as long as she did not also answer, everything would be all right. Well, David was not here, and everything was far from all right. 'No, that cannot be. John loves me...' she mentally snorted. 'He is simply...overprotective. He and Delenn both.'
'Love is emotion. Faith is belief for which there is no proof. They are not mutually inclusive. One can exist without the other.'
'I do not believe that!' Chastising herself for controlling her inner doubts so unskillfully, the young Sister turned from the lifts and caught sight of Nashon. He had recalled the Minbari Anla'Shok and was quietly briefing them...dividing them up into small teams and pointing out the various corridors and feeder shafts they were to search. Briefly, Ardenn considered sauntering over and trying to convince the Ranger exec to attach her to a team but even as the idea surfaced he caught her gaze, read her intent and frowned. He was irritated enough that she and Delenn had disobeyed him, and the expression on his face gave her the probable answer even before she voiced the request.
'He also seems to have little confidence in you.'
Ardenn brushed the thought aside. 'Nashon respects me...' she countered. 'He is worried. Worried about our safety.'
'Safety? You are already here, are you not? Have you not eschewed personal safety as a consideration? If...Nashon...so readily discounts an available asset in his search, does that not bring his commitment to finding David into question?'
'Absolutely not!' Ardenn thought vehemently, disgusted at herself for even entertaining the notion. 'Nashon is one of David's oldest friends! He loves David like a brother!' Barely suppressing a frustrated groan, she turned back to the lifts. She was about to move on when something curious caught her eye. Stooping slightly, she peered more closely at the diagnostic panel on the lift directly in front of her. It showed the same system failure as the lift John indicated David had used. None of the others had readings even remotely similar. Had someone else gone down? Except for John, who was here, everyone else was an enemy...
An impression akin to satisfaction coursed through her. 'Is there more to this than David finding his way back? What did John not want you to know? Now you begin to see. Others may love David, but do they have his best interest in their hearts?'
'His parents love him as much as I...' What was taking Delenn so long? Her tolerance for debating internal demons exhausted, she spun on her heel...intending to discreetly hurry her companion along. The sight that met her should not have bothered her. John was rocking his wife in his arms, his fingers twined in the hair beneath her crest. Delenn had her face buried in his chest, with her arms loosely wrapped around his neck. She had seen similar behavior between them a hundred times or more since John's return. She had even jested with Delenn about it before they entered the mines. Now, Delenn was reunited with her love and...Ardenn found herself wrestling with a unfamiliar, unpleasant emotion. 'I am...jealous? Why?'
'Because they have something you want. Do you remember how it feels to be held?'
Ardenn's hands were trembling. Unbidden, the memory of her and David in the Gardens coalesced in her mind. 'Yes.'
'To have something you hold dear denied you is far worse than never having it to begin with. She has what she wanted and will go no further. Will you?'
But David...we have not found him...he is their son...'
'...but he is no longer their responsibility. What she has does not come for free. You must take what you want. You, Ardenn...not his selfish mother, not his egocentric father...you know you are the only one who has always put David first. You are the only one you can trust to find him. He is not far away.'
'I...I do not know where to go. I do not even know where to start...'
'Do not be afraid. I will guide you.'
Down a passageway near the lifts, one that the Anla'Shok had bypassed due to a lack of searchers, a faint flicker of light caught Ardenn's eye. Casting a final, uncertain glance back at John and Delenn, she made her decision and started towards it.
'You appear to be less than enthusiastic about reaching your destination, Anla'Shok,' the voice whispered in David's head. 'I thought that was one of the things you wanted.'
Looking about as he clumsily rolled out of the ore car and struggled to regain his balance, David caught sight of his shadowy companion...hanging upside down on the tram stop's rough ceiling...and shivered. "You think I want to place my father in your hands...forelimbs...whatever you call them?" he retorted. "I'm not in a huge hurry to make that happen." His brows furrowing suspiciously, he continued, "How did you get up here so fast, anyway?"
The dark creature did not visibly respond, but David sensed amusement. 'I am not as constrained by gravity as you are, as you can see. I have avenues available to me that you do not.'
"But you would still have had to travel the same distance as..." David trailed off as realization dawned. "You climbed up the lift tube I came down on, didn't you? That means you've already seen my father!"
'Yes. I had to be sure the Nexus still lived.' Her eyes glowing faintly, the Shadow continued, It was...difficult...to remain unnoticed. The Ver'lann thrall that spawned you nearly sensed my presence as I passed through the upper chambers. Fortunately for her, her attention was focused elsewhere.'
"My mother is here?"
If the creature could have shrugged, it would have. 'She is a degenerate, but she is wily in her own way and not without courage,' she conversationally noted. 'Her presence is a minor inconvenience...one that I will eliminate when it becomes necessary.'
David stood dumbly for a moment, slowly assimilating the Shadow's blithe comment about eliminating...killing...his mother. "What...what about all that philosophical crap you spouted? Choices for the younger races? You said that even Ardenn got a choice."
'You do not understand. Those who have not chosen receive an opportunity to do so. You have never chosen. Ardenn has never chosen. The Ver'lann thrall...she served our Adversaries, was the agent they used to turn the children against us. She aligned herself long ago. I need offer her...nothing.'
David considered lashing out at the creature...striking it from the ceiling with his denn'bok. It was a futile thought. The Shadow had already succinctly demonstrated to him that he was no match for her. Had she not wished it, he wouldn't even be seeing her right now. "I agreed to arrange a meeting for you with my father," he growled, "I won't let you harm my mother...or anyone else. If that's your intent, I've gone as far as I'm going. Go ahead and kill me if you want, but we're done."
Now the creature was amused. 'Passive resistance is not an option,' she condescendingly explained. 'Your debts must still be paid whether or not you desire to pay them.'
"That's not the way I see it," David countered. "The way I see it, I refuse to continue. You kill me right here. If I'm dead, you can't offer Ardenn a choice, you have no reason to harm my mother and you have no access to my father without him automatically resisting. No one gets what they want."
'So many incorrect assumptions you have made...' the creature reproved. 'You assume that I have no way of compelling you to uphold your portion of our agreement outside of threatening your life. Why would I kill one I have made such an investment in when I have others I can influence?'
"What do you mean...others?"
'Was your mind the only one I touched when I saved you?'
David was puzzled for a quick second...but only for a second. "You frightened Ardenn away," he breathed, his eyes widening. "Ardenn? You touched her as well?"
'Through you, I was able to...taste...the flavor of her mind briefly. It was not enough to impede her free will but it was sufficient to introduce a slight impulsiveness in her decision-making. Sometimes a slight influence is all that is necessary to turn prudence into...hmm...impatience?'
David leapt to his feet, a move that brought on another bout of dizziness. When his head cleared, he shouted, "What have you done to her! What did you make her do!"
'Calm, Anla'Shok...there is no need to shout. Only the two of us are here.' the Shadow placated. 'I made her do nothing...did I not say she is still of free will? I magnanimously gave her what she wanted and assisted her in finding the right direction. Unfortunately, the path she follows is a potentially dangerous one. If you hurry, you may be able to prevent her from realizing that potentiality.'
"You've led her into a trap!"
'Only if you let it become one. It is, of course, your decision to make...'
It had been a horrible idea, and Ardenn...now totally engulfed in darkness...could not fathom why she had talked herself into following it. She had conveniently and foolishly forgotten that her eyes were not human. They might be able to see in this 'blackout lighting', but she could not. Twice before, she had tried to turn back...only to find the path behind her even darker than the path ahead. Forced by circumstance to follow the faint light that beckoned her, she had made several confusing turns already.
After the last one, the light had disappeared...leaving the nervous woman to rely on hearing and touch alone.
How could she hope to locate David when she could not even discern her hand in front of her face clearly? She needed Delenn's eyes. 'Delenn...' she thought forlornly. The older woman would certainly have noticed her absence by now...but she would not know which passage she had taken. Even with her more acute vision, she would not know where to begin looking for her. Dejectedly, she noted that the older woman's assessment of her usefulness had been correct. Her presence in the mine had contributed nothing more than to double the difficulty of their search. She should have remained on the ship.
Reaching out blindly, she found the wall and slowly started forward once more, using her hands to find the way and stopping every few meters to listen. She continued moving in this manner for some time...inching her way along and silently praying that either the light would return or someone would find her before she was irrevocably lost.
It seemed she was to get her wish. Up ahead of her, she heard movement...the sound of cautious footsteps padding nearer. Stopping to concentrate on the sounds, she could soon discern breathing and the rustle of cloth. "David?" she uncertainly breathed. "David? Is that you? It is Ardenn...I have come to get you..."
The footsteps and breathing stopped. She still could not see her companion, but he was close...certainly close enough to hear and see her. "David?" she repeated, "Please...I have come so far. I know that perhaps...perhaps you have been mislead by another purporting to be me, but I am telling the truth. It is truly me. You do not have to be afraid...please answer..." Her breath catching, she added, "I...I need your help to find my way back..."
When the other presence moved again, it was not to answer her. Ardenn heard the sound of steel on steel and saw the faint spark of a blade being drawn the instant before the dagger flashed towards her throat...
To Be Continued...
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