Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. NCIS and associated characters are owned by Belisarius Productions. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. This is a sequel to my story, Eternity. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2009.
Standing on a low bench, Daria Morgendorffer threaded a weaver's shuttle through the warp threads hanging on a tall loom set against the wall of her home. The weft thread in place, she set the shuttle on the heddle bar and picked up what looked like a wooden sword. With swift and practiced motions, she tapped the newly laid linen thread tight against those already in place.
Seated on an easy chair nearby, her husband and partner, Tom Sloane, read a book. Beside the rustle of paper as he turned a page or the soft thump as she batted threads into place, their pleasant, isolated house was silent. Hearing a sound outside, he said, "Someone is coming up the walk."
Daria sighed as she secured the shuttle and weft beater to hooks on the frame and stepped down from the bench. "It looks like it's time to go back to work."
Tom closed his book and set it on the table next to the chair before rising. Only a moment after the visitor had knocked on the door, Tom opened it. "Good morning."
A man in a black suit presented Tom with a sealed folder and said, "Special Agent Sloane. Your next assignment."
"Thank you," Tom said, taking the folder and stepping back into the house. Without a further word, the visitor turned and walked away after Tom closed the door.
Daria gave Tom a few moments to scan the file before saying, "What's the situation?"
"Marine Gunnery Sergeant Eugene Miller was killed on base at Quantico, Virginia, two days ago."
"Nobody saw or heard anything and a nearby guard reported seeing a tall, thin figure that he said looked like it was wearing a horror movie costume. He also said it looked like the figure was carrying some kind of stick or club. No evidence of said figure entering or leaving the base was recorded."
"A reaper hunting in the middle of a military base is awfully brazen. That really bothers me. They've been keeping a low profile ever since they got loose."
"Oh, and there's one more thing."
"You know how much I hate, 'one more thing.'"
"The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is already working the case. One way or the other, we're going to have to deal with them."
"I hate having to work and play well with others."
"I know you do, honey," Tom said, giving her a kiss on the cheek.
She returned the kiss and said, "Well, we'd better hit the road and get caught up on the file along the way."
Special Agent Jethro Gibbs lowered a large cup of Caf-Pow in front of a raven-haired forensic scientist seated at a lab bench. "Ducky said that the wounds on our dead marine weren't severe enough to kill him and that he died before bleeding out. Do you have anything for me from the tox-screen, Abby?"
Abby Sciuto grabbed the cup and took a long drink through the straw. "Sorry, Gibbs, but our gunny was so clean, he could've been a poster boy for 'Just Say No.' If he was poisoned, it was something really hinky."
"Then you're going to have to test for hinky. Also, Ducky said that the wound was from a very sharp blade. Any progress in identifying what kind?"
"I made a casting of the wound and you're not going to like it."
"The blade wasn't metal."
"Some kind of ceramic or graphite composite?"
"Good guess, but way wrong. Way too high tech."
"Abby, I don't have all day."
"It was a flaked stone tool."
"Flaked stone? Like a cave-man?"
"You got it. Probably flint."
Behind them, Daria said in her calm monotone, "Very good. It was a flint blade on a wood haft."
The two turned to see Daria and Tom, dressed in business suits, standing in the lab. Abby said, "Gibbs, I thought you were the only one allowed to sneak up like that."
"Who are you and what do you know about this case?" Gibbs said.
"I'm CIA Senior Field Agent Daria Morgendorffer. This is my partner, Senior Field Agent Tom Sloane," Daria said, holding up her ID.
Frustrated at the cross-agency intrusion, Gibbs said, "What in the hell does the CIA have to do with our case?"
Tom said, "This is a highly classified situation. Please bring your team down here for a briefing."
Gibbs said, "MTAC is more secure than the lab."
"I don't want to empty MTAC simply to brief you and, yes, we have the authority to empty it if necessary. This case is need-to-know and nobody in MTAC has a need to know. Only you and your team will be briefed since you're already involved and, based on your reputation, we might as well bring you on board now since you're going to be involved whether we want it or not."
Abby playfully punched Gibbs in the arm and said, "See, your reputation helped for a change."
"I'll call them," Gibbs said.
While Tom was talking, Daria had taken a crystal pendant out from under her shirt and, holding it, whispered. When she was done, she said, "The room is secure."
Gibbs got on the phone. "DiNozzo. Get down to Abby's lab pronto, and bring Ziva and McGee with you. Don't argue, just do it. Now. And bring me some coffee."
Meanwhile, Abby was on another phone saying, "Ducky, just get over here."
Within a few minutes, Special Agents Anthony DiNozzo, Ziva David and Tim McGee, along with Medical Examiner Donald "Ducky" Mallard, were in the lab. Tony DiNozzo was a tall, dark haired and--if you asked him--incredibly handsome man. Ziva was a brunette who held herself with the ease of someone capable of killing you in a dozen ways without making an effort. Special Agent McGee was boyish-looking, but with a brilliance in his eyes not to be underestimated. Ducky was the oldest of the new arrivals, and a man who had aged well.
After introductions, Tom said, "The briefing you are about to receive is Top Secret. The kind of Top Secret where if you mention the slightest detail to anyone, your career will be over before the end of the day and your reputation obliterated to where you'll be lucky to get a job flipping burgers at the Burger World in Highland, Texas."
Daria hid a smirk at Tom's reference to her past, along with the knowledge that such a fate was truly worse than death.
"Thanks for the warning," DiNozzo said. "But we know the drill. We've dealt with some serious threats before."
"I can assure you that this is completely different from any threat you've ever experienced," Tom said.
McGee said, "If this is such a Top Secret case, why are you briefing us here? There are surveillance cameras all over the lab and the feed upstairs was working fine when I left. Why not MTAC?"
"We don't have to evacuate the room and this place is easier to secure," Daria said. "Those cameras are showing what I want them to show. Nobody upstairs will notice this briefing and none of it will be recorded."
"How?" McGee asked. "We would've detected any kind of tampering with our security system or its firewall."
Daria gave him a faint smirk and said, "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology."
Animated and gesturing with her hands, Abby said, "You had another mind inside your head with you? That is so cool!"
Ziva glanced at Abby and said, "I find it rather disturbing."
"Well, yeah," Abby said. "But still cool."
McGee said, "Honestly, do you really expect us to believe that story?"
"Yeah, even you wouldn't write something like that," Tony said, teasing McGee.
After a drink from his large cup of coffee, Gibbs said, "Agent Morgendorffer. You have to admit that is an improbable tale."
Tom took a thumb drive from his pocket and said, "We anticipated that you would be hard to convince. Here is a copy of the surveillance tapes from the laboratory. I believe you'll find that they support our story."
"McGee, Abby, check it out," Gibbs said.
"On it, boss." McGee took the drive and stuck it in the socket of a nearby computer. In a few seconds, they were looking at security camera footage from two years before. In the center of a secure lab, a man wearing a lab coat read from a computer printout and scribed a door-shaped pattern on the wall. He stepped back and began chanting. At the wave of his hand, a thin, pale figure appeared at the doorway and stepped into the room. Dressed in dark clothes and hooded, it slowly looked around and then emitted a horrible, laugh-like screech. Arrogant, the lab-coated man held up a crystal and said something in a strange language. In one motion, the creature swung its scythe at the supervisor, decapitating him.
In the chaos that followed, the creature slew the guards on duty, their bullets ripping into him with no effect as he swung a small scythe at each, cutting them down. Abby reached around McGee and set the play to fast forward. They saw the first reaper, a shaman, bring more in through the portal. The first few stayed as guards and the later entrants left the room. After a while, two reapers re-entered. They drew pistols from under their robes and began firing. The shaman was the first to fall, crying out and fading to dust. After a moment of shock, the other reapers attacked. By the time Daria and Tom burst into the room, the guards were dead, but the intruders were both wounded.
One of the reapers swiped a bloodied hand across the portal, causing concrete to flake away as it faded. It fell back against the wall and said in English, "Done."
The second nodded as Daria and Tom approached, and then walked over and embraced the first.
Watching intently, Abby whispered, "That's them. Etraya and Cavius after they took over those reapers."
On the playback, Etraya looked at Daria and Tom and quietly said, "Kill us, now. Please." She buried her face against Cavius' shoulder. "And shield no more."
When nothing happened, Etraya ordered, "Hurry, the beasts' souls are gone, but their hunger remains; the body can only feed upon souls."
Crying, Daria raised her pistol. Following her lead, Tom did the same. "Hold still," she said before closing her eyes. "Tom; one, two, three."
The mistletoe-spiked bullets struck each of the ancient lovers in the side of their ribs and came to rest near their hearts. They remained together, staring into each other's eyes before dissolving into a thin smoke that slowly dissipated.
Numb, Daria dropped her pistol. "I hope that they are together in eternity."
Tom put his arm around her. "They've certainly earned it."
The playback ended. McGee sat, looking at the image for a few moments. Then, he began to analyze the images.
"It's going to take them a while to validate the recording," Daria said. "Do you mind if I have pizza delivered? I'm hungry. Don't worry, Agent Gibbs; we'll put them on our agency's tab."
McGee said, "The time stamps and the underlying security codes are legitimate."
Abby said, "There's no sign of image manipulation or CG animation, Gibbs. That really looks real. If it's a fake, we're talking serious Hollywood movie magic."
"So, Agent Morgendorffer, you're really a witch," Tony said. "Do you think you could mix up a love potion or two for me?"
Daria shared the same annoyance at him as the other women in the room and said, "I could, and then I'd make sure that the first thing you saw was a frog."
Gibbs slapped the back of Tony's head and said, "Not now, DiNozzo."
"Sorry, boss," Tony quickly said.
Gibbs then said, "I'm not convinced by your story, but for some reason my gut tells me to work with you anyway."
Abby said, "You can trust his gut more than you can trust Major Mass Spec. I'm in."
"If that video was a forgery, I want in just to figure out how you did it," McGee said.
Gibbs folded his arms and stepped over in front of Daria and Tom. "Okay, where do you want to start?"
"The crime scene would be nice," Tom said.
"We've already been over it with a nine-toothed comb," Ziva said.
Seeing Daria's lifted eyebrow, Tony nudged Ziva and said, "Fine-toothed comb."
Ziva gave him an annoyed glance and said, "They got the point."
Daria nodded and said, " Your team has a good reputation and we're sure that they've done an exceptional job. But the two of us also have a few nonstandard tools and skills at our disposal."
"Nonstandard will not help us with a prosecution," Gibbs said.
"Trust me," Daria said. "If this is a reaper, there won't be a prosecution. Only an execution. If it's not a reaper…we probably won't find anything more of use and we'll leave."
"If it is a reaper, not a bit of it will go on the record," Tom added. "They officially do not exist."
Tony said, "Why does that bother me so much? When you're done, are you going to neuralize us like Agents Jay and Kay from Men in Black?"
"Sorry, I don't make this suit look good." Tom said, referring to a movie quote, "But we'll give you an appropriate cover story."
Ziva whispered to Tony, "Now that bothers me."
Tom ducked under the yellow warning tape that cordoned off the alleyway behind the base NCO club and began to carefully examine the area while Daria, Gibbs, DiNozzo and Ziva stayed behind the tape and watched. Gibbs motioned with his head to tell Daria to hold back.
Standing close, he said, "So, if your reapers exist, what more do we need to know about them?"
Daria replied, "Not much more than I've already told you. They tend to gather groups of ally humans around them and move with that group. To date, the ones we've dispatched have gained control of mostly criminal gangs, though one did use a religious cult."
"You describe these things as some kind of monster. How do they gather these followers?"
"The same way any ugly bastard like Hitler gains followers. Fear, greed. The usual. Plus, there might be some kind of hypnotic control."
"Might? Don't those extra memories of yours give you better intel than that?"
"Etraya was a young village healer. Not a combat mage. Plus, the ancients really didn't know that much about reaper physiology since every encounter tended to result in the human or the reaper dying."
Tom stopped and knelt down. He swung a camera over and took several photos. "I found a footprint."
"What?" Tony said. "Gibbs missed a footprint?"
"It's very faint," Tom said.
"Let me see," Gibbs said, walking forward and swinging the tape over his head.
Tom waited and pointed out the faint outline. "Right here. Unless you grew up tracking animals for food or have their memories, you'd never see it."
Gibbs squinted for moment before finally seeing it. "Good job," was all he said before standing and going back to the others.
"Okay, now I believe you," Tony said. "No normal human could find a footprint that Gibbs missed."
Daria went under the tape and joined Tom. After whispering an incantation over her crystal pendant, Daria took a pinch of dust from a pouch hidden inside her suit jacket and blew it over the footprint. The dust glittered green and moved off as a small cloud. She said, "It went that way."
Watching the cloud, Gibbs said, "It's going to where the guard saw the intruder."
"That intruder was your killer and it was a reaper," Daria said.
"Okay," Ziva said. "Can we follow that cloud to where it went?"
"Probably not. It's only good for maybe a hundred yards or so. Good for tracking a wounded animal," Daria said. She waved her hand and the cloud dissipated. "Besides, we can't risk unauthorized witnesses to my ability. Too many questions I'm not in the mood to answer."
Gibbs said, "So, what now?"
"It hasn't gone very far."
"On base? Off base?" Gibbs pointedly asked.
"Probably on," Tom said. "I've had a very disturbing thought. Daria, do you remember what Etraya told you about them getting loose?"
"She told me, 'Your nations would accuse each other and fight, making it even easier for the reapers to move and feed,'" Daria said. Guessing at the reaper's plan, she added, "It's trying to get control of a group of marines and go to a war zone. It can feed there without restraint."
"If it succeeds, others can follow," Tom said. "Several of them could cause enough suspicious civilian deaths to destabilize Iraq or Afghanistan. More chaos, more chances to feed."
"We need to find out what units are about to leave," Daria said. "And what your dead marine has to do with any of them."
"Do you think the gunnery sergeant was working with them?" Ziva asked.
"He was probably in the way," Daria said. "And was eliminated."
When they returned to NCIS headquarters, Director Leon Vance was waiting in the team office area while McGee and Abby worked at McGee's station. Vance curtly said, "Senior Agents Morgendorffer and Sloane. A word."
He led Tom and Daria up the stairs to the landing overlooking the team area. "I do not appreciate CIA agents walking into my headquarters and taking over one of my team's cases. Especially agents that don't have the courtesy to introduce themselves and explain what they're doing."
"Director Vance," Tom said. "We apologize. You were unavailable when we arrived."
"Then I expect you to wait until I am available before taking my agents on a wild goose chase."
"This is a time-sensitive case," Daria said. "We needed to quickly brief Agent Gibbs' team and begin the investigation. This is a matter of high national security."
"I bet it is," Vance said, going to his office and directly to his desk. "Close the door."
Tom was the last through and did as requested.
Vance said, "I'm going to call the Director of the CIA and see if he can teach you a little bit about manners."
Daria said, "Director Vance. This is a highly unusual, need-to-know situation and, frankly, only the investigative team has a need to know. We will try to clear up this case as quickly as possible and get out of your way."
"That's not good enough, Morgendorffer."
"It'll have to be, sir," Daria said. With a sigh, she took a laminated sheet from her briefcase and set it on his desk. "We have presidential authorization to use any and all resources necessary to complete our investigations."
Vance grabbed the letter and read it. When he was done, he lifted the phone and said, "I hope you don't mind if I confirm this."
"Please, do," Tom said. "It shouldn't take too long."
Downstairs, Gibbs asked McGee, "What do you have on our guests?"
He said, "Agents Morgendorffer and Sloane were both born in 1982 and graduated from high schools in the same town, Lawndale, Maryland. Morgendorffer graduated Summa Cum Laude from Raft in 2004 while Sloane graduated from Bromwell the same year, also with honors. They joined the CIA in March 2005. They were married in February 2007 and received promotions to Senior Field Agents less than a month later."
Tony whistled. "Talk about your fast track."
McGee continued, "Three months later, their records were sealed."
"Abby?" Gibbs said.
"Agent Morgendorffer wasn't kidding. There's no sign of our little briefing down in the lab. All the security tapes show what looks like normal activity. If she doesn't have some kind of witchery going on, she's got a special effects team that makes ILM look like Seventies BBC."
Ziva asked, "What did she just say?"
McGee said, "That it would take a special effects team better than state-of-the-art to pull off what Agent Morgendorffer did with our security recordings."
Vance, Daria and Tom appeared from the director's office and, as the agents walked down the stairs, Vance begrudgingly said, "Give them your full cooperation."
Daria was glad that their CIA travel allowance allowed decent hotels. The shower had been hot and refreshing after a long day spent convincing hardened investigators to believe something so illogical as magic. Still toweling her hair, she exited the bathroom and went to her suitcase to retrieve a comfortable night shirt. Daria dropped onto the bed and looked over at Tom lounging in a chair. "Shower's free."
"Thanks," Tom said as he stood up.
"I'm going to be so glad when this is all over," Daria said. "I'm tired of dreaming about reapers."
"You're not the only one. At least we've got some good help this time."
Daria nodded. "Gibbs must be good to have pissed off the CIA Director that much and kept his job."
Joking, Tom said, "Just think, when we're done, we can go back to the boredom of regular espionage."
Daria smirked. "I need some Melody source material. Nobody would believe the stuff we're doing now."
"Your sarcasm is showing," Tom said. "I like that in a woman."
"Sarcasm has its appeal in a man, too." Daria said. She pulled the covers over her legs and said, "I'll be waiting for you to get out. If you're good, I might find the fur bikini."
Tom hurried to the shower and said, "I won't be long."
Mid-morning the next day, McGee had transferred his computer display to a large plasma monitor in the work room for the entire team to see. He pointed to the military record shown and said, "Gunnery Sergeant Miller returned from Iraq only two months ago, so this reaper could not have been trying to follow his unit overseas."
After downing some coffee, Gibbs said, "Tony, Ziva, get anything from the interviews?"
At his desk, Tony said, "Not much, boss. Everyone said he was a good marine. Well liked by his troops."
"Any hobbies?" Gibbs asked.
"Boats," Tony said. "I think there's a rule about old marines and boats."
"What was his next duty assignment?" Gibbs said.
Holding a folder, Ziva said, "He was scheduled to teach in-theater camouflage for Iraq at the Marine Sniper School next month."
"So he's a good observer…" Gibbs mused before going back to his desk in thought.
Tony leaned back against McGee's desk. "What do you guys think about our new 'X-Files in the CIA' partners?"
Ziva said, "I don't know what it is, but something about Agent Sloane makes me want to slap him."
"There's something about the name that sounds familiar," Tony said.
McGee read from another computer search and said, "Does the name Grace, Sloane and Page mean anything to you?"
Tony snapped his fingers. "That's it! That was one of the big financial houses in Baltimore when I worked there."
"Agent Sloane is the son of Angier Sloane, one of the owners."
Tony whistled. "That's some serious old money there. I wonder what he's doing working for the CIA?"
"Maybe he wanted to do something for his country?" Ziva asked.
"Ziva," Tony said. "People with that kind of money buy politicians to do it for them."
Abby led Daria and Tom around the laboratory, giving them a tour. Along the way, Abby asked, "So, was it just the whole 'humanity's not ready' bit that convinced you not to pass on your knowledge?"
Daria said, "Mostly, but I also realized that the human population of fifty-six hundred years ago depleted the manna and magic faded. How fast do you think the current human population would take to wipe it out again?"
"About six months," Abby joked.
Tom examined some of the microscopy equipment. "Nice setup you have here. I see you haven't had a problem with budget cuts."
"Gibbs is very good to me around budget time."
Daria noticed several empty Caf-Pow cups in a bin and said, "It looks like you chain through caffeine like my friend, Jane."
Abby matter-of-factly said, "I use it only to maintain consciousness."
Tom said, "Just like Jane."
Abby led them past a glass sliding door and into what served as her office. "My inner sanctum. This is where I do all my real thinking." She abruptly picked up a stuffed hippo and handed it to Daria. "Say 'Hi' to Bert."
When Daria grasped the toy, it produced a loud farting sound. She said, "That must be its way to say hello."
"He likes you," Abby said.
Tom said, "He has good taste."
Abby put her hands on her hips. "Okay, guys. I've got a big question for you. These reapers have been on the loose for two and half years. Have they had time to reproduce or anything like that?"
Daria sighed. "We honestly don't know."
"So there might be more than the five you still haven't accounted for?" Abby said.
"Yes," Tom admitted.
"In that case, wouldn't it be a good idea to capture one so that you can find out?"
"It's far too dangerous to try to capture a reaper," Daria said.
"You've got to," Abby said. "Because if you don't, you can't know if you got all of them. What if they have some kids that lay low after you kill off all the adults? What if they wait until you die of old age or something?"
Daria muttered, "Dammit."
Tom covered his face. "Damn."
Abby said, "So…how do we capture one?"
"And when we capture it, where do we hold it?" Daria asked. "We can't send it to Gitmo."
"Hell, we need to figure out how to hold it," Tom said. "That is, without getting anyone killed."
"One thing at a time," Daria said after collecting her thoughts. "First, we have to find it. Abby, that's where you and your crew come in."
Excited, Abby said, "It sounds like you have a plan."
"A start, Abby. A start."
Gibbs stared straight into Daria's eyes and said, "You want us to do what?"
Daria patiently explained, "Capture the reaper and get it onto a flight overseas. Preferably, on a cargo flight to minimize risk."
Gibbs turned and said, "Abby, tell me that something in this request makes sense."
"It really does, Gibbs. Just give her a chance." As an aside to Daria, Abby said, "I told you to bring him coffee."
Tom said, "Abby brought up some points we couldn't ignore. Such as, if they've produced kids or anything. Therefore, we have to capture one to gather information. I'm sure you can see that."
"Okay, Abby. Morgendorffer, Sloane, if you capture one of these things," Gibbs said, "where are you going to keep it, Gitmo?"
Daria said, " We can't take it to a regular prison. We don't know what it may be able to do with other prisoners around. Therefore, we need a place out of sight where nobody will be suspicious of a small CIA holding area. Someplace like Iraq or Afghanistan."
Tony said, "Damn, she's devious, isn't she?"
"You have no idea," Tom said. "No idea."
Tony said, "And I bet you like it."
Tom said, "It has its perks."
Gibbs shook his head. "I'm not going to put a marine aircrew at risk for your little plan. If you want this to look like a CIA job, you'd better go all the way."
"What do you mean?" Tom asked.
"Arrange an extraordinary rendition flight for your prisoner. My gut tells me you can make it happen."
Daria and Tom looked at each other. She said, "We'll need to pull a few strings."
"Pull them," Gibbs curtly said.
With the team gathered around in the lab, Tom said, "Call us in when you spot the reaper. Do not, under any--and I mean any--circumstances approach one. All it needs is to physically touch you to kill."
Ziva said, "I don't like it. Why can't you protect the rest of us the way you're protected?"
Daria said, "Because I don't have any spare crystals and putting all of our souls in one crystal would be foolish. If anything happens to it, we're all screwed."
Tony said, "What if we're spotted and it attacks?"
"Then use the mistletoe-laced bullets we gave you," Tom said. "It's better to start over than have any of you killed."
McGee examined the provided clip. "Modified hollow points?"
"Yes," Daria said. "The mistletoe is in the cavity."
"Anything we need to know about where to target?" Ziva said.
Tom said, "Center of mass. The bullets do the same kind of damage to them that they do to humans."
Tony said, "And you're just going to hang out and wait?"
"How much attention do you think two CIA agents poking around a marine base will attract?" Daria said.
"Ooh, yeah," Tony said. "You two would stand out like McGee at a frat party."
Standing outside of a barracks, a naval policeman said, "Sir, could you please clarify, 'anything out of the ordinary?'"
Tony said, "You know. Out of the ordinary. Strange. Weird. 'What the hell was that?' kind of stuff."
"No, sir," the petty officer said. "Nothing like that."
"You'll let us know if you do, right?" Ziva said.
"Have a good day," Tony said and turned back to the sedan. "I hope Abby has better luck with the surveillance cameras than we're having."
"It would make things easier if we could ask direct questions," Ziva said.
"Sure. 'Hi there. Have you seen a four thousand-year old legendary monster wandering around a secure military base?' I'm sure we'd get a lot of cooperation if we said that."
"We've been at this for four days straight. I feel like we're looking for a needle in a haystack."
"Hey, you got one right!"
Ziva glared at him. "I don't make the same mistake twice."
Seeing the trash can overflowing with Caff-Pow cups, Dr. Mallard cautiously approached. "Abby?"
Abby spun around from watching dual monitors, each showing feeds from four surveillance cameras. "I'm going insane, Ducky!"
"Are you sure it's not a little bit too much caffeine?"
"Ducky, I've watched every real-life soap opera going on in Quantico. Every one! I can't take it any more."
"I'm sure it's not that bad."
"I can tell you which mockingbirds around the officer's club are cheating on each other."
McGee rode in a black sedan driven by Gibbs and asked, "Boss, where to next? I think we've covered almost every place possible on base."
Gibbs rolled the car to a stop at an intersection and stared ahead. A memory clicked in his head and he said, "Not every place," as he hit the accelerator to speed ahead.
"Those two spooks said that Sgt. Miller must've seen something. Where would he be to see something that most marines wouldn't go?"
"If I say the NCO club, you're going to hit me."
"The sniper range. Check to see if Sgt. Miller was there before his death."
McGee checked the information he had stored on a laptop computer. "The same day."
"I think he must've seen something there."
"Seems logical. The range has plenty of places for something or someone to hide."
"Part of a sniper's training is spotting the target even when the target is camouflaged."
As they neared the exit gate, McGee said, "Why are we leaving base?"
"If we're going to check out the sniper range – I want my gear."
Daria and Tom had joined Abby and Dr. Mallard in the laboratory. Abby said, "Are you sure this thing is still around? I haven't seen the first sign of it on any of the video feeds."
Daria said, "Reapers are experts at going unnoticed when it suits their purpose."
"Then how do we know it's still around?" Dr. Mallard said.
"I used a charm to scan the base. It can't give a location; it just tells that the reaper is within the general area."
Hearing a familiar Blue Oyster Cult ringtone, Tom answered his cell phone, saying, "Agent Sloane." He listened and nodded. "Thank you." He closed the unit and said, "Agent Gibbs spotted the reaper on the sniper range. He's keeping it under observation."
Daria said, "Abby, Dr. Mallard. Is your truck ready?"
"Yes," he said.
"Then let's go."
On their way out, Abby punched Dr. Mallard's arm and said, "I never get to drive the truck. It's my turn."
He sighed and handed over the keys. "As you wish, my dear."
Standing with the team on the edge of the sniper range, Gibbs said, "Walking up and poking it with a stick is your plan?"
"Sounds lame when you say it that way," Tom said. "But we want to provoke it enough not to try to escape."
"I'd say that you have the provoking part down pat. Why don't we shoot the damn thing with a tranquilizer dart?"
Daria said, "Because we have no idea of what dosage of modern tranquilizers to use or if they will even work."
"And you think your herbal concoction will? Why not put it in the dart?"
"Since it's magically attuned, my paralysis salve has a better chance of working, and it's too thick to work properly in the dart. Trust me that I'd rather use the dart."
"Better chance? What if it does squat?"
Tom held up a taser. "Daria will zap it. And if that doesn't work, our 9 millimeters will. But that's our last option."
"I know we sound crazy," Daria said. "We probably are, but we're trained field agents that have experience at this kind of thing. More than anyone else alive."
Gibbs said, "Yes, you are crazy, but it's your call."
Tom said, "Okay. The rest of you need to fan out around the subject in case it tries to run. If it comes your direction fire and use a full clip. Overkill is your friend."
"Reload and keep your weapon trained on it," Daria said. "We'll make a close inspection in case it's playing opossum."
"I know that there's no logical reason for it to imitate a small marsupial," Ziva said. "Do you mean that it might fake being dead?"
"Yes, Ziva," Daria said. "Sorry about the terminology; it was my Texas childhood showing through."
Tony said, "See, Ziva, you're catching on."
After Ziva slapped the back of Tony's head, McGee said, "Even I saw that coming."
Holding a spear in his right hand as they moved up the hillside, Tom reached over and grasped Daria's hand with his left. Ahead was the small cave the reaper was using for cover.
She squeezed his hand and said, "The last time someone used a spear against a reaper didn't exactly end well."
"I keep telling myself that we have more backups than Etraya and Cavius had."
"That's not comforting me, either."
A high-pitched shriek came from the cave, followed by the reaper. It watched Daria and Tom for several moments. They broke into a jog approaching the cave. The reaper said something in its ancient language and sprinted uphill, away from them.
Tom spoke into the radio headset he wore. "It's making a break for it. McGee, you're up."
McGee muttered, "Great, it's coming at me." He dropped to one knee and took aim with his service pistol. The first two shots missed, but the third hit the reaper in the left thigh.
When it dropped, Daria called on the radio, "Hold your fire! Hold your fire!"
She and Tom sprinted up the hill while the NCIS team moved in closer, each with service weapons ready.
The reaper hissed and struggled to stand, one hand holding the wound on its leg. A marine combat knife was on its belt, but more worrying was the automatic pistol in its free hand.
"Dammit!" Daria said as she and Tom split apart. Having the taser in hand, she fired it, landing a direct hit on the creature's chest.
It howled at the high voltage, but grimaced and yanked at the wires with its bloody hand, pulling the weapon from Daria's hand. "Dammit!" she yelled again.
"I saw!" Tom said, taking the distraction to close the distance to the creature.
The reaper saw Tom and spun, firing the pistol at close range and hitting him in the stomach.
Tom groaned and fell to the ground, clutching at his stomach. The reaper leapt at him with feral glee, slashing with his left hand.
Tom blocked with the spear haft and rolled to the side while sliding his hand closer to the salve-covered head.
Tom and the reaper were grappling over the spear when Daria got to them. Making sure Tom was clear, she pressed her pistol against the reaper's right knee and pulled the trigger. It howled and staggered away, collapsing on the ground.
Tom thrust the spear at the reaper, slashing across the side of its chest and delivering the salve to its target. Except for shallow breathing and rapidly darting eyes, the reaper became still.
"Tom!" Daria cried, diving at her husband. "Dammit, dammit, dammit," she said as she pulled his Kevlar vest away to examine the entrance and exit wounds.
Gibbs called on the radio, "Ducky, grab your medical kit and get up here."
Tony and Ziva stopped near the reaper, pointing their guns at it. McGee dropped to one knee next to Daria and Tom. "Oh, God."
"Apply pressure to the wound. Now!" Daria ordered as she rolled Tom to his side to expose the injuries.
McGee pressed on both wounds and held tight while Daria opened the compartmented pouch on her belt.
Gibbs said, "Ducky's on his way and so is an ambulance."
"We can't wait that long." Daria took a polished bloodstone from the pouch, along with a linen sachet.
"Lift your hand," she told McGee. She then placed the herbal pouch on the open wound and the bloodstone on top of that. "Humour of life – draw strength from the stone of your kind and weave together as the flaxen fibers."
Daria gently lifted the sachet and the wound had clotted. She tossed the sachet aside and grabbed another to repeat the process on the exit wound.
"I don't believe it," McGee said. "I don't believe it."
Daria said, "We need the forensic truck up here to load the reaper. Oh, and call off the ambulance."
Ziva said, "What about Agent Sloane?"
Daria stood and wiped her forehead, accidently smearing some blood. "Tom's stable and we can get him out of here safely. I can finish healing him after we clear the area."
Tony said, "He was just shot!"
"I know what I'm doing. He's my husband, dammit. I wouldn't move him if I didn't think it was safe."
Bumping along the uneven ground, the truck arrived with Abby still at the wheel. When the vehicle stopped, Dr. Mallard quickly got out and rushed over to Tom. "How is he?"
"Through and through bullet wound," Daria said. "I stopped the bleeding and can work on him on the way back. Can you care for him while we load the reaper into a body bag and secure it?"
Dr. Mallard examined Tom and said, dumbfounded, "How did you?"
"Magic. I don't have time for anything more. Let's get moving before we attract any more attention."
"You heard the lady," Gibbs said. "Abby, get the body bag."
"On it, Gibbs."
"I'll have to handle it myself," Daria said. "None of you can risk touching it. But you can help carry after it's bagged."
"What about its wounds?" Tony said. "Why capture it if you're going to let it bleed out?"
Daria pulled some poultices from her pouch. "These are slower acting, but take a lot less out of me."
In less than five minutes, the reaper was zipped inside a body bag and had been loaded onto the truck.
Tom was awake when Daria got back to him. "Sorry for zigging when I should've zagged."
Daria said, "DiNozzo, McGee. When I'm done, we're both going to need help getting down the hill."
Gibbs said, "Then you can ride in the truck. I'm driving."
"I won't argue."
"Then you can tell me why you thought this was such a good idea."
Daria looked at him. "Reapers have always used their old weapons and the skills that Tom knew from Cavius should have been more than adequate. This is the first reaper we've seen use a gun."
"Then I would say that they're starting to learn modern ways."
"That's what I've been afraid of."
Gibbs drove the forensic truck while Daria was seated in the middle, working on Tom's wounds. She kissed Tom and said, "There, I've got everything back together, I think."
"I feel like crap," Tom said.
"You'll get better in a few days." Daria turned to Gibbs. "Okay, you've had your chance to grill me about the operation. Now it's my turn. I thought the marines kept their weapons under tight security. How did that reaper get a service pistol and full-jacketed, armor-piercing rounds?"
"I don't know," Gibbs said. "But my team is going to be working on it."
"They'll need to work fast. Our rendition flight leaves in twelve hours."
"This wouldn't be the first time we've worked under a deadline."
With a lab coat under him, Tom laid on one of the autopsy tables while Daria worked the final charm to heal his wound. "Now don't do that to me again."
"Yes, dear," Tom said. "Though I think me telling myself, 'Don't do that to me again,' would be more effective."
"Yeah, but you won't listen to yourself."
"Oh yeah. That's one of the reasons I keep you around." Tom sat up and then yawned.
"You're going to be tired." Daria helped him off the table. "Why don't we find a comfortable spot somewhere and catch a nap?"
"It sounds good to me."
"And I suspect it sounds good to you, too," Tom said.
"It's almost as if you read my mind."
The armory sergeant checked the pistol's serial number against a computer database while DiNozzo and Ziva watched. "Ah, there it is. Replacement issued four weeks ago to 1st Lt. Calvin Antelli."
"What's his unit?" Tony asked.
"Third Combat Infantry."
Ziva asked, "Anything else?"
"Standard officer's combat issue, ma'am."
"Combat issue?" Tony said.
"Yeah. The Third's now in Afghanistan."
"Thank you, sergeant," Tony said. "Let's go."
Ziva followed him out of the base armory. "That didn't sound good."
"Not at all." Tony opened his phone and hit a speed dial. "Boss, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we found who was issued the weapon. The bad news is that he's overseas. Okay, heading straight back."
"What did Gibbs say?"
"He wants us back pronto. He'll be in MTAC."
Gibbs paced back and forth in front of a video feed of a Marine Colonel dressed in field BDUs. "What do you mean you don't know where he's at? He's leading a whole platoon of marines."
"We've lost all contact with them."
"Were they attacked?"
"Not as far as we can tell. The entire platoon just seems to have driven off and decided that they don't want to be found."
"What do you think we've been trying to do, Agent Gibbs?"
"Colonel Merritt, we recovered Lt. Antelli's service automatic from a hostile agent. We need to find out how that agent got ahold of the lieutenant's weapon."
"I understand. As soon as I locate him, I'll let you know."
"Thank you, colonel."
Ziva and Tony entered as the connection broke. "What's up, boss?" Tony said.
Gibbs said, "I've got a very bad feeling about this. Did you see those two CIA spooks out there?"
Ziva said, "They're asleep, leaning against each other. They look rather cute."
"Then wake their cute butts up and tell them that we need to interrogate that thing immediately."
At a fast pace, Gibbs entered Autopsy and said, "What do you have for me, Ducky?"
Dr. Mallard went over to the X-ray displays and sequentially turned on the backlights. "There's only so much you can do when you can't touch the subject. However, there's one thing I can immediately tell you from the X-rays."
"She's pregnant. Or more accurately, it's pregnant. These creatures are hermaphrodites."
"So they can reproduce by themselves?"
"Based on the orientation of the genitalia, I don't think so. Two are still required. Even if one used artificial insemination, I suspect the result would be close to siblings producing a child. A high risk of genetic disorders."
"So there's another one out there, pregnant?"
"This just keeps getting better." He then walked to Daria at the far end of the room. "What do you have?"
She was standing by the reaper, who was strapped to an examination table. "These things are just as arrogant as I expected them to be. They'd make great high school football players."
"I mean, what kind of intel do you have."
"Very bad news. Its partner is already in Afghanistan."
"Is the partner pregnant?"
The self-satisfied grin on the reaper's face told Gibbs the answer. "Damn."
"You cannot stop us," the reaper hissed. "You failed in the before time, and you will fail now. Before, you were few. Now, you are many. So many. We will feed and feed and feed."
"We'll see," Gibbs said. "We'll see."
Dr. Mallard said, "Agent Morgendorffer. Don't you think it's suspicious that it talked so freely?"
Daria picked up a knife with mistletoe wrapped around the blade. "It's gloating because it knows it's going to die. Like I said, it's an arrogant little bastard."
"Agent Morgendorffer!" Dr. Mallard barked.
"When we call this a monster, it's not figurative. This is a being of evil. It exists to feed upon souls. That's all that it feeds upon."
"You can't simply murder a prisoner!"
"What do you suggest?" Daria said. "We can't feed it. Would you rather it die quickly, or starve?"
Dr. Mallard angrily said, "Fine! Just don't do it in my Autopsy!"
Gibbs said, "Do you really have the stomach to do it?"
Daria's eyes were cold as iron. "Yes."
The reaper lunged at Gibbs, easily snapping the leather restraints. Holding the knife blade down, Daria threw herself in front of Gibbs and slashed the blade across the reaper's chest.
The reaper stumbled back, looking down at the fatal wound. Its taunting laugh echoed through the room as the reaper faded into an ugly, oily smoke.
Daria quietly said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Mallard. It didn't give me a choice."
Stunned, Gibbs' hand went to the red welt on his cheek. Dr. Mallard said, "Jethro, are you all right?"
Gibbs said, "It barely touched me for a moment…I felt…like I was being pulled out of my body."
Starting to breathe heavily as a rush of adrenalin hit her system, Daria sheathed the knife and said, "You were. We fear the dark because real nightmares used to stalk us. We can't let those nightmares grow again."
Dr. Mallard fingered one of the broken restraints. "Reluctantly, I must agree with you, Agent Morgendorffer."
The nondescript cargo plane gently shook and swayed as it flew through atmospheric turbulence. Daria, Tom, and the NCIS field team were seated on jumpseats situated amid secured boxes. To pass the time, Daria spun thread with a drop spindle while Tom read a book. Gibbs was soundly asleep, his head tilted back slightly. Ziva rested with her eyes closed, but was clearly awake and fully aware of her surroundings. DiNozzo was absorbed in playing a game on a handheld unit while McGee uncomfortably tried to get some work done on a laptop computer.
McGee set the computer to sleep mode and said, "I thought it was strange that the flight crew didn't come back here to check on things. We're on a rendition flight without a prisoner."
Tom looked up from his book. "Deniability. We don't see them and they don't see us. Prisoners aren't the only things moved around on these flights."
"I suppose not," McGee said.
Tom said, "How else do you think the CIA gets strippers to its outposts?"
"Um, right." After an awkward silence, McGee turned to Daria and said, "Somehow, I never pictured a CIA agent spinning thread by hand."
Without looking up, Daria said, "It's surprisingly soothing, and it has the added advantage of driving my sister crazy."
"I was never into clothes and stuff like that. Now, I can make something literally from scratch. The only thing that keeps her from wanting to kill me is that I don't make anything complicated or what she'd really call fashionable."
"So, what do you make?"
"Just simple stuff to wear while relaxing around the house."
"Do you want to try?"
"I think I'll pass."
Daria shrugged. "What were you working on?"
"I'm trying to work out some reproductive estimates for the reapers."
"Assuming a nine-month gestation time…there are probably already some offspring."
"Meaning that we really don't know how many are out there."
"And we have no data on how fast they grow. If they reach sexual maturity faster than humans…you could see the population grow very quickly."
McGee said, "I can't give a precise estimate, but considering the intelligence that they show…the odds are that we may not be able to find all of them within our lifetime. If ever."
"We really need more information. We have to capture the one in Afghanistan."
Without opening his eyes, Gibbs said, "I was wondering when you were going to say that."
Tom said, "Does he do that often?"
Together, McGee, Ziva and DiNozzo said, "Yes."
In the marine command post, Col. Merritt said, "The controller of a Predator drone spotted them. Damned near called an airstrike on their asses before she realized that it was a friendly unit. What the hell has Antelli gotten into that brings NCIS and the CIA out here?"
"You understand need-to-know, colonel," Gibbs said.
"I think that having an entire platoon of Marines under my command hijacked gives me a need-to-know."
Daria said, "To put it in terms that we can use, an enemy agent has gained influence over the lieutenant. This agent is manipulating him and his unit for its own purposes."
"He's being blackmailed?" Col. Merritt said.
"That's one way of looking at it," Daria said.
Col. Merritt said, "And people wonder why I hate CIA spooks. You can't get a straight answer for anything."
"Don't worry, we get that a lot," Tom said. "Trust me when I say the secrecy doesn't make our job any easier."
Col. Merritt said, "Now that the mutual BS is out of the way, what can I do to help?"
Daria asked, "Did the Predator controller report anything unusual?"
The colonel said, "You mean, more unusual than an entire platoon going UA?"
Daria patiently said, "Like non-military personnel with the platoon."
Col. Merritt picked up a sheet of paper from the communications desk and reread a report. "A civilian and small child wearing burkhas were spotted."
"Damn," Tom muttered.
"Okay…" Col. Merritt said, watching Tom and Daria.
"Things are worse than we thought," Daria said. "Much worse."
Gathered with the others in a tent on the marine firebase, Tom said, "I wish we could, Agent Gibbs, but we can't risk anyone else seeing them."
"They're in burkhas," Gibbs said. "We don't have to tell them anything else."
"But they'll ask questions if they see them do anything unusual, like kill someone with a touch," Daria said. "We have to recon the old-fashioned way."
"Do you really expect all of us to sneak up on a platoon of marines?"
"No," Daria said. "But I expect that you and Tom can. Tom still has all the hunter skills he learned from Cavius and you're a former marine sniper."
Gibbs gave Tom a doubtful look.
Tom said, "I'm still stiff, but give me a chance to prove myself."
At a distance of over 300 meters, Tom watched the marine holding a flag-topped stake and spoke into a radio headset. "Five meters forward and two to the right."
The marine followed directions and stopped. Tom said, "Extend your arm and lower the flag."
Watching the stake set on the ground about one foot in front where he was camouflaged, Gibbs said over his radio, "Impressive, Agent Sloane. I'll do it."
Listening on his headset, DiNozzo glanced at McGee to his left and Ziva to his right. "He spotted Gibbs."
Stunned, McGee said, "Yeah."
DiNozzo repeated, "He spotted Gibbs."
"We heard you, Tony," Ziva said.
"He spotted Gibbs."
Ziva said, "We heard you that time, too."
"Then how about, 'These two are really starting to freak me out,'" DiNozzo said.
"I can go with that," McGee said.
Ziva said, "Me, too."
Patience is one of the hallmarks of a trained sniper, as well as for a trained hunter. By use of careful camouflage and slow, calculated movements, Gibbs and Sloane gained a position to observe the encamped marine platoon.
Whatever had happened to the marines, it had not affected their combat proficiency. Even with his experience, Gibbs was more than reluctant to attempt a closer approach.
Tom was the first to spot the reaper. As in the UAV camera recording, it was wearing a burkha to hide its appearance. However, the fact that it was ordering marines around dispelled any misconception that it might be anything or anyone else.
More disconcerting was when it took a satellite radio from under its clothing and began to talk on it.
"Your mythical beasts are learning technology pretty quick," Gibbs whispered.
"Too quick," Tom whispered back. "I really preferred it when they were using flint tools."
"Sloane, we're never going to capture this thing with all these marines around it."
A smaller figure appeared from a tent and ran toward the reaper. Along the way, the head covering of the burkha pulled away to clearly show the young reaper.
Tom said, "Is it me, or does it already look a little taller?"
Gibbs said, "I think you're right. This just keeps getting worse."
"Why do you think we've been trying to clean up this mess?"
"Because the bosses that cause them never do."
When they returned to the command post, the look on Daria's face caused Tom to say, "Looks like it's time for whose news is worse."
Daria nodded and said, "There's been another possible reaper-related killing. This one was at Ft. Bragg – the Special Warfare School. All we need is a reaper controlling a Green Beret team."
Tom said, "The reapers are with the marines. The little one has probably grown a couple inches in height and we spotted the adult using a satellite phone."
Daria said, "A sat phone? Aw, crap."
McGee said, "It sounds like a coordinated infiltration of the military. We need to bring in more help."
"It may be too late for that," Daria said.
"We have to do something," McGee said.
"Agreed," Daria said. "But simply expanding our current efforts isn't going to work."
"What do you suggest?" Ziva said.
"I don't know yet. I need some time to think."
Tony said, "What do you suggest we do in the mean time?"
Tom said, "Try to think of something that we've missed."
McGee said, "Shouldn't we alert our military bases?"
Gibbs said, "Do you really think they're going to believe us?"
McGee said, "Let's start trying to think of something we missed."
Abby paced back and forth in MTAC until Daria appeared on the large satellite link monitor. "Agent Morgendorffer! I got it!"
Daria said, "A solution to our problem?"
"Exactly. But, well, you may not like it."
"So it's going to sound like most of my life in high school. Go ahead."
Her hands gesturing as she spoke, Abby replied, "Do you remember how you said that these reaper thingies disappeared as the manna that powered magic was depleted?"
"Yes. They're partially magical creatures and depended upon it."
"And you said that the Earth hasn't regenerated all that much manna and if word got out about magic, humans would quickly deplete it again."
"Well, since nobody but you, us, and, I guess, your bosses know about the magic…why don't we deplete it again. Do something really big, like save the whales or something."
Daria sat down. "That's a good idea, Abby. That's the only way to be sure we've eliminated the reapers."
"I knew it!"
"Now I need to figure out something that will, literally, use up all the available magic."
"I take it saving the whales won't work."
"I really don't know anything about cetacean magic. Sorry."
"Cure everyone with AIDS?"
Daria shook her head. "The ancients never encountered HIV, so they never developed a treatment."
"Well, something. There's lots of stuff out there that's been around forever. The common cold."
"Sorry, even the ancients never developed a cure. I think humanity will always be stuck with that."
"How about the flu? You know, like that new strain that's going around."
"Hmm," Daria said. "I know some broad treatments for influenza. I'll need to think about it. Abby, can you check botanical records for me?"
"No, but I know someone who can…no questions asked."
Inside the conference tent of the marine command post, Daria said, "Abby pulled through and gave us what may be our best and only shot at eliminating the reapers. That, and nature in the form of the H1N1 influenza that the WHO thinks may become a serious pandemic. I can't stop the pandemic and I can't save everyone infected, but I can weaken it. To the rest of the world, it'll look like we dodged a bullet."
"Will it be enough?" Gibbs asked.
"With hundreds of millions or billions potentially infected…I think so."
"You think so?"
"I can't test it beforehand. Even if it doesn't completely consume the manna, we'll weaken the reapers and spare the world a serious pandemic."
"I can't argue with that," Gibbs said. "What do you need from us?"
"Get me to a large poppy field. Abby's friend provided satellite imagery for the closest large concentration."
"A lot of those are controlled by the Taliban," Gibbs said.
"I know. I'm going to need protection while I work."
Gibbs frowned. "That could get tricky."
"That's usually the story of my life," Daria said. "But it usually is worth it."
Col. Merritt wasn't happy as he scanned the terrain around a large poppy field to ensure his troops were in place. Holding his troops back as a rapid reaction force while civilians carried out a mission rubbed him the wrong way. "We're ready," he said into his radio headset. "You're clear to go, Agent Morgendorffer."
Hidden among shrubs near the field edge, Daria said, "Confirmed that we're clear to go." To the others, she nodded and said, "I'll try to be as fast as I can."
"Do what you have to do," Gibbs said.
Wearing camouflage and body armor, Tom, Gibbs and the NCIS team spread out around Daria and, with weapons drawn, escorted her into the field.
Tony said, "Do you really think you can do this?"
"Not until I try it," Daria said.
"That doesn't sound very confident."
"It's the first time I've tried something on a global scale," Daria said. "Cut me some slack."
Daria reached the middle of the field and squatted down. She started to take supplies from her belt pouches. Mustard seed, a scrap of cloth, a vial of aromatic sap and a small bottle of mint tea. Daria pulled the crystal around her neck out from under her shirt. "You know, I really don't know what this is going to do to me. Some magic takes a lot out of the caster, so…"
"Don't worry," Tom said. "I'm keeping an eye on you."
"Keep an eye on her," Gibbs said, "and we'll keep an eye on everything else."
With everything gathered, Daria first carefully said a charm over her pendant. Convinced that important step was done, she plucked a single poppy flower from a stem. "Here we go."
Alerted by one of his lookouts, Col. Merritt spotted a group of armed men and radioed, "You have hostiles approaching from the northwest. Five bogies with infantry arms."
"Acknowledged," Gibbs said. To the others, he used hand signals to direct their attention to the intruders.
Daria crushed the poppy flower and mixed it with the sap, mustard seeds and a little water to make a paste that she applied to the cloth scrap. The pungent smell cleared her sinuses as she whispered the matching charm.
"Now comes the hard part," she said to Tom.
"Keep down; we have company," he said, though she didn't appear to notice.
The heavy report of Kalashnikovs rolled across the field. Whether the men were from the local warlord, the Taliban or Al Qaeda meant nothing to Gibbs and his team as they took cover as best they could among the cultivated rows and returned fire.
Daria recalled one of the earliest lessons Etraya had learned: the need to focus and concentrate her magic. She remembered the importance of not letting the magic grow out of control…and what happened to apprentices that failed to learn that lesson.
Three of the hostiles had fallen quickly. The two survivors dropped for cover and were more carefully returning fire. Several bullets whistled over Daria's head. She pulled her head lower and started to release her focus on the magic resting in her hand.
Daria felt a tingle where her crystal pendant touched her. It grew through her torso and out along her limbs. From the charm, the growing magic spread from poppy plant to poppy plant like a tiny, almost invisible spark.
Tom jumped past her and positioned himself between the attackers and Daria.
Col. Merritt called on the radio, "You have four more coming from the north. One has an RPG."
"That's just wonderful," Gibbs said. He scanned the indicated direction, looking for the larger threat.
"How are you doing?" Tom asked.
Daria didn't respond as she continued to release the charm's magic and the tingle had grown to a warm buzz throughout her body.
With his skilled sight, Tom noticed the faint glow spread through the field. "I think it's working," he said over the radio.
"Good!" Gibbs said. He'd managed to bring down one of the new group, but had failed to locate the Rocket Propelled Grenade gunner. "Tony! Ziva! McGee! Covering fire!"
The three special agents kept up an even, sustained fire at the enemy while Gibbs, at a crouch, sprinted to the north.
By now, Daria felt like her entire body was vibrating and she was sitting in a sauna. The magic had spread beyond her sight and was leapfrogging from poppy field to poppy field. To her surprise, her senses were spreading with the magic. The two nearby reapers had felt the spreading magic and were desperately heading her direction.
Gibbs dove into a furrow, barely avoiding bursts from two assault rifles. He popped his head slightly above the foliage to scan the field edge for the new threat.
Ziva shot one more of the original group. "Tony, concentrate on the one to your right!" she said, trying to force that man to a position where she could get a clear shot.
By this time, Daria was shaking and her skin had turned red. She let the magic go completely and directed it to the tiny bit of will she had placed in the pendant. At the limit of consciousness, she sipped the prepared tea and whispered a final charm.
A rocket was launched from near the field edge and shrieked toward the agents. "Incoming!" Gibbs yelled as he spotted the man holding the launcher. He squeezed off a successful burst from his rifle as he dove for the ground.
Hearing the warning, the NCIS agents hugged the ground and covered their heads. Tom glanced over his shoulder, but forced himself to stay put in the hopes of providing some cover for Daria.
The rocket flew over Daria and struck the ground almost ten meters beyond. Amid the shock and smoke, to Tom it seemed as if Daria had begun to glow as she fell to the ground. He rose and charged toward her. Halfway there, Tom saw a bright flash erupt from her chest.
Dazzled by the light, Tom reached Daria and, mostly by touch, grasped and held her close.
In the distance, he heard a pair of fading, high-pitched cries.
Ignoring the ongoing firefight, Tom blinked his eyes and tried to see. Her ever-present crystal was gone and her body armor looked as if it had been burned away. Daria's skin was dry, parched and hot to the touch. Her breathing was shallow, her heart was racing and her eyes had rolled back.
Tom called on his radio, "We need a medevac!"
Col. Merritt said, "I'm bringing my men in. Hold on tight and watch how Marines get the job done."
The doctor in the field hospital told Tom, "I don't know what she was doing out there, but I've never seen someone with a body temperature that high and, honestly, I'm surprised that I was able to bring it down in time to save her."
"What about long-term effects?"
"With this severe of a case of hyperthermia, I expect that there may be some complications and possible permanent damage. We won't know until later. I also can't figure out how something burned through her body armor and left a third-degree burn on her chest."
"It's complicated," Tom said.
The doctor sighed. "Right. I want to get her on the next plane to Germany. That burn is going to need a skin graft."
"We already have a flight to take her back to the states, as soon as you release her for travel."
"I'll have her prepped within the hour."
In a secure, private room at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Tom sat next to Daria's bed while Gibbs and his team gathered around. Gibbs said, "Lt. Antelli and his platoon have returned to base. As far as they remember, they were acting under orders of a, surprise of surprises, CIA agent."
"So the reaper was able to mentally mask its appearance and substitute a plausible illusion," Tom said. "That explains a lot."
Impatient, Abby said, "How is she?"
"Drifting in and out."
"Do you know if she was successful?" McGee asked.
"I haven't asked yet."
Very weak, Daria said, "Who's making all of that noise?"
"It's me, honey," Tom said, holding her hand.
"You and what herd of wild ponies running free across the plains?"
Gibbs said, "Agent Gibbs and my team."
"You were the only casualty," Gibbs said.
"Good." Daria opened her eyes and looked around. "You're worried about me."
Tony said, "But don't let it get out or we'll have to kill you."
Ziva said, "Agent Sloane told us that you are expected to make a full recovery, eventually."
"That's what they've told me," Daria said. "I suppose you want to know if I was successful."
Gibbs smiled and said, "That would be appreciated."
Daria tried one of the simplest charms she knew. Nothing happened and emptiness flooded through her. With profound sense of loss, Daria said, "Yes."
"Are you sure?"
Ziva said, "Too bad you couldn't have saved enough to cure yourself quicker."
"You almost died from heat stroke," Dr. Mallard said. "Such a recovery takes time."
"I diverted enough to save myself. I used an anti-fever charm just before I blacked out," Daria said. "If I hadn't…it wouldn't have been pretty."
Tom looked at her in horror. "The crystal?"
"The same thing would've happened to me."
Everyone stood in silence until Gibbs changed the subject and said, "We're going to follow through on Agent Sloane's recommended cover story. Gunnery Sgt. Miller was killed by an enemy agent attempting to infiltrate the base. We tracked him to Afghanistan. There, he and all members of his cell were killed in a firefight with a Marine unit."
McGee said, "Too bad we can't tell the truth. It would make a great story."
Daria said, "Who's going to believe us? Even if…no, when, word of this eventually gets out, it'll be about as convincing as the CIA's old ESP projects. A few conspiracy-types will believe, but that's it. If we're real lucky, it might get Sick, Sad World coverage."
"But we know the truth," Ziva said.
"We do," Daria replied. "And we'll never forget."
After a knock, Director Vance entered the room. "Agent Morgendorffer. I'm glad that you're expected to make a full recovery."
Daria said, "I'm glad, too. I suppose you want your team back, Director."
"The thought had crossed my mind." Vance then said, "Gibbs, we have a case for you."
"Yes, sir." Gibbs offered his hand. "It's been an adventure working with you, Agent Morgendorffer. Good luck on your recovery. You too, Agent Sloane."
"Thanks for your help. All of you," Daria said, shaking Gibbs' hand.
Following their boss's lead, the rest of the team said good-bye and then silently exited the room.
Going down the hospital corridor, Tony said, "McGee, you're a writer. You could tell the story."
McGee glanced over his shoulder. "I think I'll leave that someone else."
Inconspicuous among the other tourists, Daria and Tom stopped in front of the glass-cased display at the center of the exhibit. Inside were the carefully displayed remains of Etraya and Cavius, preserved in their final embrace.
A tear formed in Daria's eye as she placed one hand on the glass. "Your courage won't be forgotten."
A teenage girl suddenly appeared next to Daria, saying, "Oh my god…oh my god, oh my god."
"Can I help you?" Daria said, breaking out of her reverie.
The girl held up a book. "Ms. Powers. Can you sign this for me, please?"
Daria smiled and said, "I guess I can't go anywhere without being recognized. Sure. What's your name?"
Giddy, the girl said, "Denise. Oh my god, and you're signing it for me here! I can't believe how lucky I am."
Daria opened the book and wrote, "To Denise on your visit to the Mantua Museum. Best wishes, Melody Powers."
She handed the book back with a smile and let her hand rest on the title for a moment.
Thanks to Kristen Bealer for beta reading.
December, 2009 – February 2010