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Of Demons, Deserts and Parasites

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This story is No. 4 in the series "A Long Sea Crossing". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Part two of 'A Long Sea Crossing.' In which we find out how Giles and Sky first met, why jumping to conclusions can harm the innocent, and how the truth can set you free.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Miscellaneous > Myths & Legends
Television > Xena-Hercules
pythiaFR181738,3181136,0301 Oct 1114 Oct 11Yes

First impressions

Disclaimer:This story has been written for love rather than profit and is not intended to violate any copyrights held by anyone - Universal, Pacific Rennaisance, or any other holders of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Buffy the Vampire slayer trademarks or copyrights.

Previously in Part One: "So – um," Angel asked, deciding that moving the conversation on was probably a good idea, "how did you two meet, anyway?"

"Oh," Sky laughed. "Well, ah – you could say it wasn’t the most auspicious way to start a relationship."

"That would be one way of putting it," Giles agreed quietly. "She arrested me."

"Arrest – " Cordelia stared at her in astonishment. "You arrested Giles? Whatever for? Overdue parking tickets?"

"Mmhuh," the policewoman denied, taking a moment to finish her current mouthful of food. "Child Molestation and Murder …"

"I was working down in Wilton Meadows at the time," Sky explained, helping herself to a second taco. "It's this - one horse sort of town. One where the horse died and no-one bothered to replace it."

Angel snorted. "Think I've been there," he said with a grin. "Well, maybe not there, but places like it."

"Tell me about it," she laughed. "Sounds wonderful, huh? Wilton Meadows. Except there are no meadows and Wilton was the name of the con-man who sold parcels of worthless land to get people to live there. It's right on the edge of the desert, next to an Indian reservation and overlooking some real badlands. Nothing much happens out there - just the usual stuff. Domestic violence, a little date rape, kids in trouble, that sort of thing. I was working for the County force, supposedly focusing on special projects. That was meant to mean I got all the abused kids, the beaten wives and the missing person cases. What it really meant was that I got to twiddle my thumbs a lot. When I wasn't being asked to help out with the Saturday night drunks or the prostitutes that took advantage of them. It was a life, but I wasn't really living it. My dad had died, about a year before; I didn't have anyone else and I didn't really know where I was going.

"Then we got this call - about two missing kids who hadn't come home when they were supposed to." She paused to throw a glance at her husband, and she smiled. "After which, my life was never the same again ..."

"Unit two-twenty. We've cleared the Hoskin's land and are now moving down river."

The com unit crackled as she thumbed the switch. It had been a hot day and the air was heavy with lingering heat. "Unit two twenty, we copy that. Area 15 and 17 is reported clear. It's starting to get dark, deputy. You sure you can carry on?"

Sky Zaherne, deputy in the West County force and currently co-opted leader of one of three search units sent out to find the Millen girls, heaved a quiet sigh. "I got two missing kids out here, Jo. What do you think?"

The com unit crackled again. There was going to be thunder tonight. "Copy that, two-twenty. Call in when you can."

She dropped the handset back into its cradle and leaned back out of the car, glancing around, trying to assess the situation. They'd been following the course of the narrow stream that backed the old Hoskins place, since Jodie and Angela's father had suggested the girls liked to go there to hunt fossils and play. The stream itself was little more than a muddy runnel, cutting out into the desert to vanish somewhere in the uneven ground that marked the start of real badland country - but it had its moments, and it supported a line of scrub and brush that marked out its territory, even in the growing gloom. Somewhere up ahead there was the entrance to a narrow valley, one the Indians claimed as sacred land. And beyond that, nothing but raw desert. She doubted the girls would have wandered much further than where she was standing right now. It had been a hot day. They'd probably found a cool spot by the stream and gone to sleep there. They might even stumble over them any minute.

"Okay," she decided, directing her three man unit to spread out on either side of the scrub line. She put Linus at the far end, since he had the sharpest eyes, and sent Kingsley and Artie along the midline, close to the stream. She took point herself, her instincts warning her that something was about to happen, and knowing that she needed to be alert for it. They'd cover the next two hundred yards or so and then she'd send Artie back to bring up the car while the rest of them continued on. It wasn't the best of search patterns, but it was all she could do with what she had.

Barely a hundred yards later, they spotted the pick-up. It wasn't an old vehicle, but neither was it tourist new. It had been parked under a sloping overhang, presumably to shield it from the direct impact of the sun, but also serving to effectively conceal it from all but the closest observers. She signaled the men to stay put and walked over to take a closer look.

The cab appeared to be empty except for an abandoned jacket, tossed onto the passenger’s side of the seat. It looked like a hunter's jacket, a little battered and stained with desert dust. She tried the door, but it was locked, so she slid round and took a look in the back. There was a tarpaulin covering most of the cargo; the shapes of boxes and softer bundles emerged from under it like a landscape frozen in ice. She lifted one end and took a quick peek, finding nothing more than bundled blankets, a little canned food and a box full of books. Old books. Books with leather bindings and gilt inlay, with yellowed pages and even, in one or two cases, latches and locks. They seemed out of place in the back of a dust spattered, well used pick-up, especially one packing someone's life in it. She knew the signs. The truck was somebody's home - or the closest thing to home they had. A drifter, passing through, looking for work perhaps, or somewhere to hide.

She frowned, dropping the tarp back into place and trying to let the thought that had sprung to mind blossom into something more than whispered instinct. Drifters could be bad news. Most of the time they were just lost sheep, but they might be wolves - and something about this one was ringing alarm bells. Something about the quality of that jacket, and the presence of the books ... …

She glanced up at the trail ahead and the soft rim of gold that hugged the horizon. Wherever the owner of the truck was, he had to be somewhere ahead of them, since they’d met no-one lower down on the road. The truck was covered by a drift of desert dust. By the look of things, it had been parked for hours. If the girls had come up this way, they would have seen it. And possibly the man driving it.

The thought crystallised into narrow-eyed concern. She beckoned the men over, reviewing options. "We got company out here," she announced, keeping her voice low. "Might just be co-incidence, but I'm not taking chances. There's no reason for anyone to come out here on their own like this. He might have followed the girls out of town. Which also means he might be with them now. Linus - circle round at the back there, towards the valley. Artie - you take the other side. Kingsley, with me, okay?"

They nodded, setting off as they'd been ordered, shifting from searchers to hunters with practiced ease. Sky reached under her shoulder and pulled her gun from its holster, matching the actions of the reservists and falling, like them, into a semi-crouch as she began to lead the way up the trail. This was the part of the job that set her pulse racing: heading into the unknown, senses fully on alert, ready to confront the evils of the world. She had joined the police force because she believed in right and justice. Too many years of seeing the system fail had not yet cured her of those beliefs, even if she no longer quite believed in the power of the system itself.

As for the evils of the world - well, she believed in them all too strongly. …

Missing kids were never a good thing. Sometimes they were found alive and well, often they were not. Too many of them were just never found at all. She'd dealt with desperate runaways, traumatised victims of abusive parents, spoiled brats who needed love far more than they'd ever needed toys and treats and being allowed to go their own way, even silent, damaged children old before their years - children whose childhood had been stolen from them, whose lives were filled with fear and guilt - and all in the name of love.

According to their father, the Millen girls were just a pair of high-spirited kids, with no common sense and a curiosity that knew no bounds. He'd done his best to take care of them after their mother died, but he was a busy man and he didn't always have the time they needed. They'd roamed before, he'd admitted, upset by the confession, but they'd always come back, often at the moment he was just starting to get worried about them. This time they hadn't. He' d waited hours. And then he'd called the police.

Sky hadn't been the one who'd interviewed him - or his equally anxious brother-in-law, come to that, but she' d seen how upset they'd both seemed to be. She just wished they’d called earlier. The last few hours of a dying day is not the best time to start searching the desert - or the town, even using the house-by-house check that the sheriff had hastily organised.

There was a hint of movement, somewhere ahead: she signaled Kingsley to stay close behind her as she crept forward, down the shallow slope. There was a clearing here, a natural bowl created by the foot of the sweeping spur that blocked the entry to the Indians' valley. The stream gathered in a hollow at the foot of it, creating a small pool edged with wind smoothed rocks, before spilling onto into the badlands themselves. She'd been down here before, earlier in the year, dealing with a stubborn old man who’d come out to the valley to die. His ancestors, or so he'd claimed, had been the ones to carve the rocks and leave their spirits talking to the wind. He'd wanted to join them. But in the end, his daughter had persuaded him to return to the nursing home, where they'd treated his condition and finally discharged him, fit and well. She'd rather liked the old man, and hoped it would be a long time before he joined his ancestors. She hadn't been able to see the carvings he'd been talking about though. All she'd seen carved on the rocks had been modern graffiti and a few sixties 'Indian Rights' slogans. She hadn't gone right up into the valley, of course, but no-one in their right mind would. It was a treacherous place, subject to landslides, natural pitfalls and lurking rattlers. She seriously doubted anyone had ever climbed to the spirit's peak, way up above the main valley floor.

You'd get a good view of the desert from up there though. If you were stupid, or crazy enough to make the attempt.

Or needed to speak to the wind that badly ...

She paused beside a jutting rock, staring down into the shadowed hollow as she tried to make out what lay below. The last of the sunlight glinted off the surface of the pool, rimming it with dying gold - and it outlined the figure that was rising from a crouch, down by the water's edge. A tall and rangy figure, bare headed, with short dark hair; the man was Caucasian in colour and build, and wearing dark jeans and an equally dark sleeveless shirt.

He was almost invisible against the shadowed stones, but the movement and that last touch of light had picked him out, just as he stood. He was looking away from her - further into the desert, down the broken slopes that led into the arid land beyond.

A traveler, lost in wilderness, lost in soul, her mind supplied, quoting her father and his inevitable verses, most of which had never made any sense. This man had that air about him; the air of someone on the brink, a restless, unsettled soul in search of himself ... …

"My god," Kingsley whispered, pointing - not at the man, but at the pale bundle which lay at his feet. Sky blinked, trying to see past the golden layer of light to interpret the shapes beneath it. A pale bundle with ..?

"Oh christ," she swore, the sudden poetic vision crashing down into cold hard reality. It wasn't a bundle of anything. It was a child. A girl, her gold-touched hair spilled across the dark ground, and her sun-washed dress ominously stained. She wasn't moving. Nor - looking at the line of her body, the twisted angle between head and neck - was she ever likely to do so again.

The man glanced down for a moment, staring at the sprawl of the corpse, then began to walk away from her, picking his way round the tumbled stones as he headed towards the desert below. Sky was already on the move, pounding down the trail, her gun a determined weight in her hands. Kingsley was less than a step behind her; they arrived at the base of the hollow and slewed to a halt, weapons coming to bear with well trained precision.

"Hold it right there, mister," she demanded breathlessly. "Don' t even move."
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