By Dale Aymont

(As occurred between the events of Demons of Eden and The Mars Arena)

"Too close", Ryan thought as played the events of the past days in his mind.

The fight for Ti-Ra’-Wa against Touch-the-Sky or Joe as they called him had nearly cost them, and him, dearly. Kristy had taken an arrow in her chest, just a breath away from her heart. Mildred, with all her years of experience and expertise as a medical doctor and with no access to a sterile operating room and the tools in which to remove the arrow safely had legitimate concerns for the life of her friend. Only with the intervention of Sisoka and her faith in the healing powers of "Grandmother Earth" had Kristy been saved. Although Ryan did not completely understand the mystical powers that had healed Kristy he was just grateful that she was well.

Ryan looked over to the group of companions he called friends as they slept under the dark, moonless night sky. Just that day they had left the pass which separated Ti-Ra’-Wa from the Deathlands and had found an elevated and well treed position in which to camp for the night. Even though the decision was Ryan’s, all had agreed that this was a well-suited position to protect and defend and everyone was thankful for the opportunity to rest after a long day’s march. Jak, as usual, slept with his head raised high on the tree he chose to lie up against, ready to awaken and wreak havoc and death at the first sign of trouble. J.B. and Mildred slept together with Mildred’s head resting gently on J.B.’s chest. Both had their weapons well within easy reach. Doc Tanner, snoring loudly, slept spread eagle under a large oak. Then there was Kristy. His mate, his lover, his confidant. Ryan was unsure how he would carry on if he lost her, but if there are any constants in all of Deathlands, he knew of two; He loved Kristy more than life, and he would remove the spine of anyone who tried to take her from him, or die trying.

"Fireblast," Ryan quietly cursed as he realized he was allowing his mind to wander. "I should know better!"

He was supposed to be on watch and it wouldn’t be good for his health if he let a group of stickies sneak up on them while he wasn’t paying attention. A glance at his wrist chron showed in was 1:55 A.M., which meant he would be waking Jak up in a few minutes for his watch. Ryan looked forward for the opportunity to sleep. Even though the bullet wound and broken bones in his right wrist from Joe’s blaster had just about healed, the minor nerve damage still created some discomfort for him. Mildred assured him that this should disappear over time.

As Ryan made his way through the clearing to wake up Jak, a whisper from behind, like the sound pant legs make when they rub together, rose the hairs on Ryan’s nape. In the time it takes for the normal man to blink, Ryan’s SIG-Sauer was out of its holster as he spun to face the near silent intruder. Standing only 2 feet from Ryan was Jak, who had readied himself in a combat crouch than would give an attacker less of a target to shoot at. It took Ryan all his self-control and years of experience not to have drilled a neatly placed round in the forehead of the white-haired teenager.

"That was triple-stupe!" an angered Ryan exclaimed, "I could have chilled you! You should know better than to go sneaking up on me like that."

"Wasn’t sneaking." Jak replied, "If was, you have wouldn’t heard me."

If it had been any other person making such a boast Ryan would have had a good laugh. With Jak, however, he had no doubt that what the teenager said was true. In all of Ryan’s travels, he had never met an individual with the hand-to-hand combat skills of Jak Lauren, and he doubted he ever would.

As usual, Jak’s face was stonic. "Watch up, mine turn" said Jak. "Go set some sleep."

Ryan made his way to where Kristy was sleeping and placed his Steyr gently on the ground, and well within reach. He then lay down next to her as she stirred and woke. "Go back to sleep lover," soothed Ryan, "cause that’s what I’m doing".

Ryan kissed Kristy softly on the cheek as both of them drifted off to sleep in each other’s embrace.

Almost immediately, Ryan began to dream.

* * *

There were many differences between a sleep dream and a mat-trans dream. Ryan had thought about these differences in the past. A dream brought on by sleep was generally something Ryan could control. Years of life in Deathlands had a way of not only hardening a person’s body and reflexes, but also their mind. Ryan liked to think he had control over all three of these things. A mat-trans dream (or nightmare) was quite different. Doc and Mildred speculated that it was the human brain’s way of defending itself from the potentially maddening effect of having one’s body broken down into it’s most basic molecules and shot at light speed to another location. No matter what the reason for them, they were almost always a reflection of individual’s most basic primal fears and fantasies all rolled up in a sick collage of a surreal dreamscape. Needless to say, Ryan preferred the sleep-induced dreams.

However, this sleep dream was different and somewhere in the reason-fogged abyss between the waking work and the dreaming work, Ryan knew it.

Ryan stood at the beginning at what he thought was a long tunnel. What confused him was that there was a clear night sky, full of stars all around him and it seemed that he was standing in mid-air. How he knew that he was in a tunnel he did not know, however, in the distance a light shone brightly, beckoning him towards it. As he began walking toward the light, the stars suddenly began to rush upward, giving Ryan a sickening feeling that he was falling. As the feeling of vertigo passed, Ryan continued on in the direction of the light.

Upon reaching the end of the tunnel and walking into the light Ryan was at immediately breathless at the sight he saw. A valley opened before him that had a beauty he had never even imagined could exist anywhere in Deathlands. Lush green grasslands covered the ground with varied types of fruit trees growing in plentiful quantities. Flowers of all types and colors gave the area a mixture of beauty and delicacy. In the backdrop, the mountain walls of the valley kept this paradise protected and spectacular waterfalls emptied into creeks which in turn fed the crystal waters of a large lake in the center of the valley. Wildlife of all sorts walked, hopped, trotted and scampered all throughout the landscape and the lake teemed with fish that leaped to feed on the small insects that skittered along the water. The call of a bird of prey brought Ryan’s eye skyward just in time to see a bald eagle begin it’s dive to snatch some target which was invisible to Ryan in the grass. Ryan’s eye however did not stay focused on the eagle, but on the sight that he had only heard once existed.

Upon looking upward the sight which Ryan saw bought gooseflesh to his body. The sky was blue, a breathtaking light blue with billowing white clouds spread lightly across the sky. It was not the purplish blue hue that had dominated the view since the time of skydark. A view which the detonation of a multitude of nuclear weapons and the large amount of radiation in the atmosphere had created, which was the only view Ryan had ever seen in his lifetime. All he wanted to do at that moment was to lay down and look. This was the place he and Kristy had always dreamed of. A place where they could settle down and live a normal life and allow Ryan’s son Dean another option rather than the constant battle life can bring in the Deathlands. Ryan wanted to explore and learn more; To see if this place could be a real possibility in their lifetime. At that thought, he began to move down the rocks to the valley below.

As Ryan left the mouth of the tunnel, a sinister laugh got his attention. Ryan spun to his left and toward the sound of the laugh and the sight that was before him caused his heart to skip a beat. Before him was Harvey Cawdor, Ryan’s brother. At over 300 pounds, Harvey was the epitome of overindulgence to the point of disgusting. Instinctively Ryan’s hand went to the patch on his left eye and followed the long puckered scar from his empty eye socket down to the corner of his mouth. A vicious wound inflicted by Harvey on Ryan during their youth when Harvey was trying to gain control of the Front Royal Barony of Ryan’s father, Baron Titus Cawdor. Ryan to this day still felt the grinding of Harvey’s knife in the socket of his left eye. Ryan had however avenged his father and himself by returning home years later and overthrowing Harvey and punching his ticket on the last train to the coast. Needless to say, seeing Harvey before him now seemed like an impossibility, but he was there.

"Long time no see brother," said Harvey, "I see you’ve aged well."

"Quite frankly Harvey I don’t really know why your aging at all, considering I saw to your sorry fat ass being frag’d once already" replied Ryan.

"Oh, oh Ryan my dear brother, I’ll show you later what chillin’ really means here." chucked Harvey, "and by the way, how’s the vision lately?"

"Fuck you Harvey!" Ryan exclaimed.

"Temper, temper brother," taunted Harvey, "the knife in the eye was nothing personal, I just needed you out of the way!"

Ryan was getting tired of this conversation with his supposedly dead brother and he knew that it would make him feel extremely good to put a bullet into the fat gut of Harvey Cawdor. Ryan reached to his hip to pull out his SIG-Sauer only to realize that the holster was empty. When realizing what Ryan had intended to do, Harvey let out a twisted laugh.

"What’s wrong Ryan, no blaster?" Harvey said, "I always knew you could measure a man by the size of his blaster and right now, you ain’t much of a man!"

Ryan reached to his other hip and his hand fell reassuringly on the hilt of his 18-inch panga. He drew the honed steel blade and was about to separate Harvey’s head from his body when another voice, one from behind him again, got his attention.

"You wouldn’t chill and unarmed man, would you Mr. Cawdor?" said the unseen voice.

Ryan spun on his heels and came down into a classic knife fighter’s crouch with the blade of his panga low and pointed up to face this new threat that had made itself known. Standing on the opposite ledge was another man from Ryan’s past. Cort Strasser, the most evil sadistic son of a bitch that Ryan had ever known stood facing him. Strasser was a tall gaunt man who kept his head bald and sported a long moustache. This skeletal twisted man who Ryan had personally chilled had once held Ryan’s future mate Kristy Wroth and a future companion and friend Doc Tanner, prisoner’s in the now defunct ville of Moscin. Ryan had rescued Doc and Kristy only to see Strasser escape. A number of months later their paths crossed again and Ryan had made sure that he saw this bastard chilled. The fact that he now stood before Ryan alarmed him.

"Cat got your tongue my old friend?" whispered Stasser, "Too bad because I very much would like to remove it myself."

"If you get his tongue, I would like his balls comrade!" bellowed a new voice.

Ryan turned back in the direction of Harvey only to see other face from his past. Major Zimyanin, the Russian soldier who Ryan had first met when he and the others had jumped to the old Soviet Union. Ryan had later chilled Zimyanin in hand to hand battle between the two.

"Don’t forget to save some for me!" another voice exclaimed.

"And me!" said another.

Now Ryan saw new figures from his past approaching his position. Jordan Teauge, the fat Baron of Moscin was coming up next to Cort Stasser. Ryan also saw Mephisto, the sec man of Baron Tourment and Baron Tourment himself slowly moving up the rocky cliff face which opened into the valley below. Adam Traven, the twisted sec boss of Larry Zapp was just a few feet behind Tourment. Ryan then saw others moving out of the valley. Hundreds of faces, some who’s name Ryan could not even remember, all moving toward him. All these sick, evil individuals had one thing in common, Ryan either punched their tickets to on the long train to hell personally, or had a hand in helping the trip along. Either way, Ryan knew he was in big trouble. He could not possibly take down all of these attackers with only his panga, but he did know that he would take as many with him as possible.

"I told you I would show you what chillin’ means in this place." taunted Harvey, "Me and all of your old friends."

At that, Ryan moved. He first target was going to be Harvey because if he was going to be chilled he wanted to wipe that damn grin of his brother’s face. He came in on Harvey low and fast, taking a quick step to the right as Zimyanin, who was still standing next to Harvey, drew his own blade. Ryan swung his blade in a low inside arc coming up on the side of Harvey’s head. The sharp steel bit into Harvey just below the left ear with a spray of blood from the severed carotid artery, and in turn soaking Ryan a warm salty gush. The blow was so devastating that it partially removes a third of the left side of Harvey’s head. With that move, Ryan had completely opened himself up to the attack of Zimyanin’s blade; however, he had made no move toward Ryan. Harvey however still stood there, with his lifeblood pouring out, and laughed.

"Nice try brother," mocked Harvey, "now it’s our turn!"

The others now made their move, all at once. With hollowing laughter that made Ryan’s skin crawl, a crowd of his dead enemies attacked from all sides. Ryan tried to fight them off with the 18-inches of steel death, but for every one he cut down, 3 more took their place. Covered in blood and pieces of cut flesh, with severed limbs and heads at his feet, Ryan was overwhelmed. A hundred bodies converged on him at once, beating and stabbing him down. Ryan felt the blades of his enemies thrust in and out of his body and with one last act of defiance, Ryan screamed…A long guttural scream that meant nothing other than the announcing of his death. And then…everything was gone.

Ryan lay there, unable to stand, face down on the ground; unsure of whether of not, this was death. Then slowly, his strength began to return and he was able to sit up. At that, all Ryan saw was blackness, blackness so bleak that he truly felt that this was what death was like. Suddenly a new light appeared in the distance and began to approach him quickly until, what seemed like only seconds later, it was in front of him. With more strength returning Ryan was able to stand and face this new light. The light seemed to be a collage of all colors at once, like a rainbow that had been removed from the sky, shaken up, and replaced. Within the light there was movement and out it walked a single person; A woman who was more beautiful than he ever could have imagined existed. Her sight brought to the surface feelings he thought that on Kristy could bring out. Not just love and sexual desire, but an overwhelming need to see to her protected. In his heart he knew that she was very important and he would make it his mission to ensure that no harm ever came to her. It was then that she spoke.

"Greetings Ryan Cawdor," she said, "I knew that one day our paths would cross again."

Her voice was like the beauty of nature itself with a sound that could only be described as the song of morning birds.

"Have we met before?" Ryan stammered, "Because you don’t look familiar to me."

Ryan could never remember ever feeling so awed by anyone in his life. The woman seemed to sense his reverence for her and at that, her long red hair moved on it’s own into what seemed like a more relaxed position. This sentient hair attracted Ryan’s attention immediately as it reminded him of the hair of Kristy Wroth.

The woman replied, "Not directly Ryan, however you know me by the name of Gaia, The Earth Mother."

At that admission, Ryan’s jaw dropped. A thousand questions entered his mind but none could seem to make it to his lips. All the time he had known Kristy, her relationship with Gaia was always pronounced. One amazing aspect of this was Kristy’s ability to draw on the power of Gaia and gain incredible physical strength for a short period of time. This had been an extremely beneficial advantage to them in the past, however, it did have the always serious effect of leaving Kristy near comatose for a time after the effects wore off. Kristy had spent time teaching the calming techniques of her Gaia studies to Ryan and he had found them a personal help to him. However, even considering all of these facts, Ryan was still unsure whether he believed that Gaia really existed or if all of Kristy’s abilities were simply that of a mutie. Gaia somewhat answered that question for him.

"I know that you will have difficulty acknowledging my existence Ryan Cawdor, however that is not why I am here today" indicated Gaia. "I am here to give you some insight into your future.

Ryan was confused, and it showed.

She continued, "What you have seen here today could be your future. The valley that you so desire to be the home for you and Kristy is out there and with your reach. As you witnessed however, it is not to be reached with ease. You have battled much in the past Ryan, but your greatest battles are that which are still ahead. There are dark times in the future of your world Ryan Cawdor and you have positioned yourself right in its path. Of this you must always be aware, the ways that you and your companions have followed is in contraction to forces, which have different goals, and values to that of you and your group. These forces would like nothing more than to see your downfall. Do not underestimate them."

"Who are these forces that we must protect ourselves from?" queried Ryan.

"I am not permitted to give you the answer to that question Ryan Cawdor." Gaia replied, "However I will say that you will know, you will definitely know, when the time comes."

Ryan was going to ask more questions but she only held up her hand for silence.

"Continue with the friendships you have Ryan Cawdor, they will help you in the battles you have ahead of you." She continued with a smile, "and care for my faithful daughter, Kristy, as she loves you dearly"

With that, Gaia began to fade back into the light and Ryan heard her quieting voice say, "Go back to whence you came Ryan Cawdor and share this meeting with no one. But please, do not forget our words today."

And she was gone…

* * *

"Ryan…lover…wake up…"

Ryan opened his eye to see the green eyes of Kristy Wroth looking at him. Ryan sat up and saw that the morning sun was just beginning to rise in the west and with the look of the cloudless purplish blue sky, it was going to be a nice day.

"Slept well I hope?" asked Kristy with a sly grin, "Were you dreaming about me?"

At that Ryan could not suppress a chuckle. Kristy looked at him with a questioning smile on her face.

"What?" Kristy prodded, "Tell me."

"Did I ever tell you how much I love you?" Ryan asked.

"All the time." replied Kristy as she put her arms around Ryan’s waist.

"Well I want to tell you again," Ryan continued, "I love you, and don’t ever forget it!"

With a kiss Kristy replied, "Well I love you too, and don’t YOU ever forget it!"

Satisfied that he had successfully changed the subject Ryan said, "I’m starved, lets go and make something too eat."

"Sounds good to me lover." answered Kristy.

With that, the two of them walk arm in arm to have breakfast with the others.



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