Annie would never know how she managed to hold onto consciousness long enough to finish the incantation, but somehow she did. Despite being in more pain than she had ever previously known, she held on. Ignoring the way the bone dagger piercing through her seemed to pull at her lung with every breath, ignoring the splinters and broken glass pressing against her hands and cheek as she lay on the floor too weak to move, ignoring the roar of the evil made flesh and the answering roar of Ash's chainsaw, Annie held on and spoke the words, not loudly but with perfect enunciation, in order, from memory. She had done it. Her father would have been so proud to know that all those hours spent making her practice her linguistic skills would one day save her life and maybe the whole world.
And yet somehow the danger still was not over. The pall of evil which had permeated the place was gone, but though the sound of the trees trying to bash their way into the cabin had ceased, the groaning and cracking of breaking wood and plaster continued, and the wind steadily rose until its howling replaced that of the now vanished giant tree creature. The vortex which had taken the evil back from whence it came would close when it was ready and not a moment before. Maybe, Annie thought, it would be for the best if this place were to be wiped from the map, erasing all traces of the horrors which had occurred within these walls.
Ash's shouting had become even more desperate, but there was nothing more Annie could do to help him. She couldn't even open her eyes. The pain of her stab wound was giving way to blessed numbness, and she couldn't hold on any longer. Apparently, neither could Ash. The last thing Annie heard before fully losing consciousness was the sound of Ash's screams vanishing into the distance. The raging winds continued their destruction of the cabin, but Annie was too far gone to notice.
"His last words were, 'Dear God, how do you make it stop?' and then he was just gone, and I blacked out. I'm sorry I can't tell you anything more," Annie said, concluding a recounting of events so edited as to have taken almost no time at all to tell to the man and woman sitting at her bedside in the hospital, more than a week later. Ash's parents: his mother displaying the same sharp dark eyes and determined set of her jaw, even while haggard with grief, and his father, not as tall or as handsome as his son, but speaking with a voice that sounded so much like Ash's that it made Annie ache in ways that had nothing to do with the slowly healing hole in her back, though she would definitely blame said hole if anyone noticed the tears that occasionally threatened to spill from her eyes.
"That sounds just like something my boy would say," Mr. Williams said, shaking his head sadly. "Ash was studying to be an engineer, you know. He thought a man could solve any problem in the world if he hit it with the right combination of tools and materials, even a tornado."
And Annie did nothing to disabuse Ash's father of the notion that his son had died in a freak natural disaster, because according to official reports, that was exactly what had happened. The flashing lightning and swirling debris which accompanied the vortex had been enough to be seen from the road miles away from the cabin, and some passing motorist had found a payphone and called the local fire department about it. The rescue crews reached the site just after dawn, and between the torn-up bridge, the cabin knocked apart until there weren't two boards left nailed together or two stones left sitting on top of each other, all the other surrounding destruction, and body parts (every piece looking human once more, now that the evil had been banished) scattered across the landscape, they instantly declared it all to have been caused by a tornado.
Annie did not know if they genuinely thought it had been a tornado or if they suspected there was a darker explanation but refrained from investigating any further for fear of what they might find. Annie did not dispute any of the conclusions the rescue crew presented to her once she was well enough to answer questions. She did not even remind them that the bridge had already been reported as being out the previous evening. If they were willing to so blatantly forget certain facts, then so was she.
Annie's own survival had been hailed as a miracle, and she did not dispute that either. The winds had dropped her unconscious body into the sheltered hollow between two fallen trees, and the porous nature of the bone knife embedded in her back had allowed the blood to clot far more quickly than if the blade had been regular steel. She had required multiple surgeries, most of them mercifully carried out before she ever regained consciousness, and multiple types of antibiotics she had never even heard of before in order to quash a potentially nasty infection which had threatened to entrench itself in the wound (probably her own fault for having stabbed Jake in the guts with the knife right before getting stabbed with it herself, but she was not going to tell that to anyone unless specifically asked about it), but the doctors assured her that her lung would have some scarring but not enough to have any noticeable impact on her breathing once it healed, and that she should eventually regain at eighty percent or more of the function of her shoulder if she remained diligent in her physical therapy.
And now here she was, trying to talk to Ash's parents, who had driven nonstop from Michigan as soon as they got the news, about the events of their son's last night on earth without mentioning any of the circumstances which had actually contributed to his and everyone else's deaths. Annie wasn't trying to protect herself, aside from her shame at what she had done to Jake. She genuinely believed these people were better off never knowing all the appalling things which their beloved son had been required to do prior to meeting his untimely death, so although Annie could not bring herself to lie through her teeth the way she had with the police, she still ruthlessly edited all the most important facts out of the story until what little truth was left behind might as well have been fiction.
"I wish there was something more I could say, but there isn't much of anything really," Annie said starting to shrug, but then the pain in her shoulder reminded her of why that was a bad idea even before she had moved enough to come close to pulling her stitches. "Chad and I had only just arrived at the cabin when everything started happening, and we didn't have much of an opportunity to talk." All of that was technically true if you knew exactly what 'everything' entailed. Annie wished there was some way to tell them more without making either herself or Ash seem deranged. She wished she could tell them that while she had only been able to get to know Ash as a bizarre combination of brash and fear-addled, he had seemed to be a good man underneath it all once she stopped thinking that he had murdered her family, and how he had tried to comfort her after dismembering the demonically reanimated corpse of her mother.
"That's okay, dear," Mrs. Williams said. "We should be leaving soon anyway. We wouldn't want to tire you out after, and we can't stay much longer if we want to get to the crematorium for pick-up before they close."
"Crematorium?" Annie was too shocked to try to sit up, which was just as well. "You mean they found him after all?"
"Only his right arm, but at least we can properly say goodbye to part of him. I never thought anything good would ever come from Ash getting arrested for that stupid prank when he was nineteen. It cost him his scholarship and set back his graduation by years because he couldn't go to class full time while working to pay his way, but it meant that his fingerprints were on file when we needed them for identification."
"Fate works in mysterious ways sometimes," Annie said, trying not to show how relieved she was that they had burned that damn hand beyond any hope of causing more trouble for anyone. She hoped that Ash, wherever he was, knew it had been done and his spirit could rest easier as a result.
As soon as she was able, Annie continued her father's work, using her connections, her family name, and her own academic credentials to secure permission to oversee the continuing excavations at Castle Kandar (officially to honor her father's legacy, but really so she could be on hand just in case any other dangerous artifacts turned up), while finishing her own PhD. Once she was officially a 'Dr. Knowby' like her father and grandfather before her, she expanded her area of study to include other ancient cultures of the world, taking a more-than-academic interest in any chthonic myths she could find, because 'once burned, twice shy.' Or maybe it was a case of 'destroy my life once, shame on you; destroy my life twice, shame on me,' with a side of 'that which does not kill me isn't going to get a second chance, you undead bastards,' because those were totally applicable too, even if Annie had felt completely ridiculous the one time she had dared to say them aloud. Some of her colleagues whispered not so quietly behind her back about Annie secretly wanting to transfer to the English department to study comparative literature, but she ignored them, because assholes were assholes the world over, and she had bigger fish to fry of the ancient, malevolent, and possibly cosmically vast variety. In comparison, petty backbiting simply was not worth her time as long as nobody tried to threaten her funding.
Years passed, and life went on, and so far Castle Kandar had yet to offer up any other artifacts more dangerous than piles of rusting broken weapons. Annie would have been tempted to feel relief at the apparent lack of supernatural threats, if not for the fact that the more they dug, the more signs they found of someone having gotten to the site before them at some point in the past. At first glance, the layers of sediment appeared to be undisturbed, but tiny bits of the modern world kept turning up, a broken modern plastic button here, a fragment of laminated automotive glass there, the crumbling pages of a movie magazine seemingly preserved in the anoxic environment of a centuries old midden heap. It seemed unthinkable that someone could have overlooked such a strange collection of items while doing an otherwise perfect job of erasing any signs of previous excavation, but the only other explanation Annie could think of was that someone was planting these items as the dig progressed in order to sabotage the project. Whether it had happened in the past or was happening in the present, Annie had no way of knowing what items the culprit might have absconded with in the course of their tampering, but there was nothing she could do without evidence of who was responsible for it. Until she discovered that all-important fact, the only thing she could do was cover her ass by thoroughly documenting all irregularities and making sure everyone religiously followed proper excavation procedures.
The breakthrough came when Annie started looking into a proposed satellite site that Chad had presented to her father as being potentially related to Castle Kandar. It was out in the middle of nowhere, probably a half day's ride from the castle by horse, in a barren area with no records of ever having had any human habitation, but certain ancient texts had described it as the location where the Promised One had walked into a cave and then used his magic to bring down the mountainside in a great gout of smoke and fire so that he might sleep undisturbed in his Chariot of Death until it was his time to wake and live again. Following the clues, Chad had gone to investigate and found what appeared to be a centuries old and suspiciously well-contained landslide marked with a standing stone with a single large rune, ᚪ, carved into it. They'd all gone to the cabin and everything had gone to hell before her father could secure enough funding to operate a second dig site in tandem with the main castle complex.
Annie had considered ignoring it, because without context a single rune could have meant anything. The concept of graffiti had been around longer than the written word. It could have been carved there by some random ancient idiot whose name began with ᚪ or by somebody who happened to really liked oak trees but felt carving a picture of one would be too difficult, so they used the rune with the same meaning instead. They hadn't even done any testing yet to see if it had been done during the same era as when Castle Kandar was inhabited.
Also, countless cultures had legends of a king or hero sleeping for centuries in some secluded spot until they were needed by their people again, from King David to King Arthur to Sir Francis Drake, Theseus to Boabdil to Tecumseh to Vlad the Impaler. However, some of the passages describing the Promised One waking and living again sounded uncomfortably like H.P. Lovecraft might have used them as inspiration for his famous line about, "That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die," and since that same story had ended with its protagonist getting "plunged into the ghoul-peopled blackness of earth’s bowels," Annie figured the whole thing sounded far too similar to her experience with the Necronomicon to be pure coincidence.
In the end, she decided to go alone, so as to minimize the number of deaths should things go wrong like in the cabin. She left behind a large sealed envelope to be opened in the event that she did not return in a timely manner. It was full of as much of an explanation as she could manage, complete with a first page listing all the sorts of things which should never be read aloud, especially not into a recording device, and phonetic transcriptions of the banishing spells only to be used in extreme emergencies. She took with her a tent, a sleeping bag, three changes of clothes, toiletries, a propane camp stove with spare fuel cans, three cigarette lighters and three boxes of waterproof matches, a week's worth of food and water, three lanterns, two cameras, more rolls of film, flashbulbs, and batteries than she cared to count, a hardhat, work gloves, a shovel, a pickax, a regular ax, and a 48" Fulton wrecking bar. Then she filled up most of the leftover room in her truck with cans of gasoline.
She planned to open the (hypothetical) entrance Chad had identified and then do a quick reconnaissance inside. If there was anything there to find, she would touch as little as possible while photographing everything. If nothing looked dangerous, she would bring in the team from Castle Kandar to get started on the official cataloging and preservation. If she turned out to have another Necronomicon or similar on her hands, then she would use the cans of gasoline to burn everything, historical knowledge be damned, and come back with explosives if burning wasn't enough. As an afterthought, she packed rags and glass bottles into the nooks and crannies left within the rest of her gear, because a potential demon hunter never knew when she might need to lob a few Molotov cocktails instead of just pouring a puddle of gasoline and lighting it.
Getting into the cave turned out to be unexpectedly easy. Annie would even go as far as to call it suspiciously easy. What she had expected to take days had taken less than an hour. A lot of the stones in the center area of the rockfall were rounded and precariously balanced. A few well-placed applications of the Fulton and she had dislodged enough stones to open a four foot diameter passage into the cave. A common crowbar would have worked just as well, but she had grown fond of the Fulton, both for its versatility and for the fact that its odd rocker-head design bore more than a passing resemblance to an ancient Egyptian was scepter. Considering how magic seemed to work, anything that looked like a symbol of protection could potentially function as a real symbol of protection. She wouldn't bet her life on it working in that regard, but she figured it couldn't hurt to have it either. Besides, over ten pounds of solid steel forged into a good shape for clobbering things was reassuring in its own right.
The rest of the stones seemed to be wedged against each other into place and refused to budge even the slightest bit no matter how much leverage she applied, so she shouldn't need to worry about being trapped inside by another accidental rockfall. She had been inside enough tombs to recognize the smell of ancient death, but this cave didn't have any of that. The air inside smelled if not fresh then at least safe, with no hints of the usual trapped gases that would require time to vent before the cave could be entered. The rounded stones must not have formed a tight enough seal to prevent the cave from "breathing" with the temperature changes. At worst, it smelled like someone had left a few dirty gym socks in a corner. Annie strapped the sheathed ax to her back, straightened her hardhat, gripped a lantern in one hand and the Fulton in the other, and stepped inside.
Aside from spider webs seemingly everywhere and a few long, skinny soot marks in odd places, the interior walls were unadorned. There were no paintings, no carvings, no demonic incantations etched into any surface Annie could see. There were barely even any stalagmites or stalactites. There was no indication that the spider webs were caused by anything but normal-sized spiders with way too much time and not enough bugs to catch. Maybe whoever was tampering with her main dig site had already been here and gone, removing anything of value. Or, maybe a legend was just a legend and Annie had gotten worked up over nothing. There might still be something deeper inside though. The cave passage only extended back a dozen yards or so before disappearing around a corner. It might go on for miles or it might end just a few feet out of sight, and there was only one way to find out which it was.
The rear portion of the cave turned out to be even smaller than the front portion. Just past the curve there was a big lump of something which didn't look like a natural stone formation, and then beyond that, the ceiling dropped lower and the walls narrowed until the whole passage tapered down to nothing. The walls back here were just as unadorned as up front, and the spider webs were laid on even thicker. As for the lump, it appeared manmade, but hardly a sarcophagus worthy of myth and legend. With patches of corroding metal here and decaying wood there, it looked more like someone had taken an old sedan, beat it to hell, tore off the roof, then tried to distract from all the damage by covering it with random chunks of iron and broken pieces of lumber, and then left it to sit and gather spider webs for longer than should have been possible given the apparent manufacture year of the car. Or maybe someone could have sealed tens of thousands of spiders inside the cave and achieved this level of coverage in a matter of months? Annie did not know enough about spiders to know if such a theory was feasible, and she was not sure if she wanted to.
Cautiously, she approached the pseudo-car. Beneath its thick shroud of spider webs, the interior resembled that of a car as well, and there appeared to be a body in the backseat, which seemed a bit ignominious given such places were more often associated with accidental conception of children by incautious parents-to-be rather than glorious final resting places of heroes. It was the body of a man with unusually long and unkempt hair and beard. From what Annie could see, he appeared well-preserved, practically lifelike. Even if this whole tomb was a sham and a fresh body had been placed here within the past few days, the temperature within the cave was not low enough to provide significant refrigeration and there should have been some visible signs of the early stages of death decomposition, but aside from the awful hair and the lack of any breath moving the cobwebs stretched across his face, he looked as pristine as any dead body Annie had ever seen.
That left two possible options. Either the body had been preserved with such toxic chemicals that no bacteria could grow in or on it, as was so often the case with the so-called incorruptible saints, or this was something evil merely pretending to be dead while it waited its chance to wreak havoc upon the world again. Annie had not thought to bring any chemical testing equipment, but option two was easy enough to test. Standing as far back as she could and using the chisel tip of the Fulton, she pierced through the cobweb veil and gently prodded the corpse on the end of its nose. This was not even close to being the proper way to treat a freshly discovered set of human remains at an archaeological site of unknown age, but Annie was not going to put her fingers anywhere near that mouth until she was certain it was not going to bite, and she was not going to turn her back on it either.
At first poke the flesh flexed and then returned to its original shape with just the right amount of elasticity when she removed the pressure, just like living human skin and cartilage would, but there was no other response from the corpse. A second poke produced the same result. Annie almost dared to believe that she really was just dealing with an unusually well-preserved corpse. She desperately wanted it to be true. She gave the nose one final gentle poke, just to be sure, at which point the supposed corpse snorted and backhanded the Fulton away from its face with a clang of metal on metal, like it was trying to swat a fly with its gauntlet-covered hand.
Annie shrieked, overbalanced backwards, and both she and the Fulton tumbled to the ground with more clanging, this time of metal on stone. Even before she hit the floor, the corpse was sitting bolt upright with a shout of, "What the hell?!?" like someone whose alarm clock had inexplicably gone off two hours early. The shredded spider webs drifted around its shoulders like the world's thinnest and most useless blanket.
Annie groaned as quietly as she could from her place on the ground. Leaving that ax strapped to her back had not been a good idea at all, she wordlessly berated herself. If she lived through the day, she was going to have an ax-handle shaped bruise all up and down her back from where she had landed on top of it.
"God damn it, what now?" the not-a-corpse muttered while looking around, rubbing the back of its neck in a manner that looked for all the world like massaging soreness out of stiff muscles, and blinking in the dim light of her lantern and the mid-morning sun which was pouring in through the cave entrance and reflecting off the angled stone wall into the rear alcove.
Annie knew that voice, even after so many years, because she heard it in her dreams and nightmares far too often to forget, and now that it was vertical and animated, she recognized that face too, even under all that hair. She might have fallen a little in love with that face and that voice over the course of working her way through seemingly all possible permutations of 'what might have been.' And wasn't that a stupid way to react to the memory of a dead man? she thought to herself, yet here he is. Somehow. Maybe. She re-tightened her grip on the Fulton and called, "Ash?"
His head whipped around, instantly locating her amongst the shadows on the floor. His eyes narrowed, then widened with a look of recognition and surprise. "Annie?" he said. "I thought you were dead."
"I could say the same about you," she said. She took her eyes off of him for the briefest of moments while she scrambled upright once more, careful to keep the Fulton hidden on the far side of her body, and when she looked back at his again, his shoulders had slumped slightly and he was scanning his surroundings in a vague sort of way, as if the initial shot of adrenaline was wearing off and giving way to confusion.
"I was having the strangest dream," he said. "I dreamed I woke up nearly a century too early and almost shot my great-grandfather in the face because I thought he was another evil copy of me. He turned out to be better than me at almost everything, and his horse kept making fun of me."
"You dreamed your great-grandfather had a talking horse?" she asked, against her better judgement, because this was still most likely all a deadite trick. They had used her mother against her, and they had already used Ash against her too, even before she had developed any kind of feelings for him. She knew that she should not let herself get too involved in the story, because that would risk letting her guard down too much, but she couldn't help it.
"No, the horse just made horse noises," Ash said, "but somehow I knew it was telling me that I looked like a monkey humping a football when I tried to ride. I can ride just fine, thank you very much, but that horse was picky. There were these two hot German blacksmith sisters, though, and they totally dug guys who were good at building stuff," his shaggy face split into a grin before he seemed to realize just how close he was to over-sharing in a major way. "And you probably don't care about my stupid dreams," he trailed off lamely. He placed one hand on the driver-side front headrest and the other hand on the rear seatback and began to hoist himself into a standing position.
Wait. That wasn't right. When the realization of what exactly was wrong with the picture hit Annie, it almost felt like relief. Got you, you undead bastard, she thought. She stepped forward as if she was about help him climb over the ruins of the car door, but at the last moment gripped the Fulton like a baseball bat, and swung for the bleachers. She stepped too far forward, though, and only managed to catch him across the face with the straight shaft instead of planting the claw right between his eyes. Still, it was enough to send him over backwards into the foot-well of the backseat. She moved in to take a second, better aimed swing, only to find herself staring down the twin dead-black openings of a familiar sawed-off shotgun swinging out over the edge of the car. She dove for the ground, but the shotgun tracked her movement with uncanny accuracy, and the only thing that saved her life was the click-click of first one barrel misfiring and then the other one too, in swift succession. However long this thing had been waiting for her, it hadn't counted on the percussion caps of the shotgun shells degrading with age.
There was a moment of silence then rustling and a series of quick rattle-rattle-clunk sounds which could only belong to unsuccessful attempts at starting a chainsaw. An oddly muffled, "Fuck!" echoed through the cave.
Annie stayed low to the ground and refused to take the bait, because back in the cabin, any time that things had looked like they might be going her way for a change, it had turned out to be a sign that things were definitely not about to go her way. She gently settled the Fulton on the stone floor, being careful not to let it make even the slightest scraping noise, and then she detached the ax from the holster on her back. She was not going to attempt the banishment spells, because in such close quarters doing so would be tantamount to suicide, but good old fashioned dismemberment of the possessed corpse should still do the job.
"C'mon out and I'll make it quick for you, I promise," Annie shouted and then scuttled sideways just in time to dodge a thrown rock only slightly smaller than the fist. All she needed was for him to get cocky enough to stick his head up just once, and she should be able to take it off, or at least take off the top part, which should be good enough.
"Do you think I'm going to fall for your garbage just because you're wearing a pretty face?" came the shouted reply, still muffled. "It didn't work with Linda, and it barely worked with Sheila, and I'm not going to fall for it again!"
"Do you think I'm stupid enough to actually let beginner-level head-games make me question which one of us is the human and which one of us the corpse-wearing demon?" Another dodge to the side, another near miss with a rock, this one slightly smaller than the first. She crab-walked a few more steps then called, "Just save us both a lot of trouble and skip to the part where you start babbling about swallowing my soul!" She dodged in the opposite direction this time, and it was a good thing that she did, or she would have stepped straight into the path of the third rock, which was even smaller than the second rock but still could have given her a concussion if it had connected. Either he really didn't have all that many to choose from in there and was running out of good ones fast, or he was trying to lull her into a false sense of security.
"Ha! That's rich coming from the lady who tried to kill me without provocation!" Another rock sailed through the air, this one the smallest yet and going in the completely wrong direction to boot.
"Oh, yeah, because the undead asshole you're talking to thinking you're too unobservant to notice he has the wrong number of hands compared to the previous time you supposedly met the person he's posing as totally doesn't count as provocation!"
"Wrong number of--?!?" He cut short his own indignant splutter. "Aww, crap," he sighed. "Are we really doing what I think we're doing?"
"Why don't you stop hiding and find out?" Annie suggested.
And he actually listened to her. He rose out of his crouched position in the Oldsmobile's backseat and glowered down at her from behind his mat of hair. His left hand was clamped across the bridge of his nose, trying to stem the flow of blood, if the red seeping between his fingers was any indication. Well, at least that explained why everything he said had been sounding funny. Unfortunately, his right hand was hanging down at his side and continuing to prove that he did indeed have too many hands to be the real Ashley J. Williams, so she took another swing at him.
He caught the ax one-handed. "Dammit, Annie, can you just gimme a minute to explain without you trying to split my skull open?" She struggled to hold on, but he yanked the ax from her grasp, and tossed it over his shoulder. "You know, I would probably think this tenacity in going for the kill was sexy, if I didn't seem to always be the one you were using it against."
"Save the false flattery and skip to the point. You have until I get my ax back," she said then backed out of grabbing range and started carefully walking around the car without taking her eyes off of him. She had seen the grapefruit-sized rock sitting within easy reach on the seat. At least he would need to bend over to get it, which would give her a tiny bit of a head start in getting out of the way, as long as she saw it happen. Instead of going for his weapon though, he let go of his nose and, with bloody fingers, tripped some kind of small switch just below his right wrist, and then gave the gauntlet a sharp twist, causing it to detach and reveal that there was no flesh and blood hand inside of it.
"Oh my god," she said.
"Are you happy now?"
"Oh my god," Annie said again, then, "Can I take a closer look at that?"
"Only if you promise not to try to kill me with it," Ash said, "because I've already had enough of my own limbs being turned against me to last a lifetime."
"I promise," Annie said, stepping closer.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Ash said. "If you go back on your word, then it's no more misted nice guy." And with that, he dropped the metal gauntlet into her outstretched hands.
It wasn't quite body temperature, but it had managed to absorb enough heat through contact with the metal sleeve which was in turn attached to his forearm that it wasn't ice cold either. She could see different rods and springs moving on the back of the hand for each different finger of it that she flexed. "Oh my god," she said yet again.
"Okay, now you're starting to freak me out even more than when you were trying to brain me. At least I've had time to get used to that kind of behavior. I don't recall you being all that impressed with me the last time." He shifted from foot to foot.
"Where did you even get this?" Annie asked as she rotated the thumb through its full range of movement. Then she passed the hand back to Ash, because as amusing as it was to see him suddenly looking so nervous when he had not while they had been trying to kill each other mere moments before, she was not actually trying to torture the man.
"I made it," he said, as he twisted it back into place in a single, well-practiced move. "Well, most of it. I did the design work but got the local blacksmith to do most of the actual construction, because parts fabrication sucks when you're trying to do it one-handed." Ash went back to pinching the bridge of his nose with his flesh hand, while he did a quick and complicated set of movements with the metal one which would not have looked out of place on a musician doing warm-ups and then, having satisfied himself that everything was still in good working order, put it behind his back, as if to remove any temptation she might feel towards taking it away from him again. "I don't see what the big deal is."
"That smith's name wouldn't happen to have been Creidhne, would it?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Ash shrugged. "I just called him, 'Hey, you.' What does it matter?"
"Creidhne," Annie said, "the mythological smith, one of the three Celtic gods of art, he supposedly built a fully functional silver hand for king Nuada Airgetlám, so he could get around the rule saying that a monarch needed to have a perfectly whole body in order to rule. You may have either met him or personally been the basis for the legend, and you don't care?"
"Not really, I just wanted to do what I needed to do so their wise man would send me home. I mean, they did offer to make me king, but that would have required living in a place that was basically godforsaken hole for the rest of my life. Speaking of which, if we're done with the whole duel to the death thing, can we get out of here? I don't know about you, but I haven't eaten since the Middle Ages and could really go for a giant plate of French fries, and pizza, and all the other things I thought I might not ever get the chance to have again."
"Okay," Annie said, "but we're going to need to get out stories straight."
Ash's eyes narrowed. "About what?"
"About everything eventually," Annie said, "like where you've been for the past five years?"
"Exactly, please allow me to be the first and hopefully only person to welcome you to 1992." She patted his shoulder. "We'll start small and work our way up to the big questions. First of all, if we're already doing revisionist history, I vote we start pretending that I woke you with a kiss instead of poking you in the face with an oversized piece of steel and then us trying to kill each other. It makes for a much better story."
"Even if it's a story we don't plan on telling anyone else?"
"We have to start somewhere."
Ash took his hand away from his nose, dabbed at it to test that it had finally stopped bleeding, and when he saw that it had, he gave Annie a smile bright enough to be at odds with the rest of his battered and unkempt appearance. His tongue darted out to lick his lips, and at the moment, it was the only clean looking part of him, but Annie couldn't hold it against him, because in all honesty, they had both been worse. "In that case," he said, his smile stretching even wider, "I think you should kiss me, just so we can make it more believable."
"I would be disappointed if you didn't let me," Annie said and realized it was true. She had been too afraid to get close to anyone after what had happened at the cabin, and here was the one man in all the world who she didn't need to hide from or lie to because he already knew exactly what she had been through. Knowing that he would clean up quite nicely once he got a shave and a haircut was a nice bonus too. And he had called her pretty; one mustn't forget that.
He wrapped an arm around her waist, and when she showed no signs of protesting, he literally swept her off her feet, dipping her so low that she was practically horizontal, and kissed her long, slow, and smolderingly.
Yes, she could definitely get used to this sort of thing. "Hail to the king under the mountain, baby," she said, giggling.
He gave her a funny look but didn't protest as she gathered her weapons and finally led him out into the sunlight. As they passed the standing stone, Annie paused to take another look at it, and then burst out laughing.
"What is it now?" Ash asked warily.
"Nothing important," Annie said, "just realizing that I probably would have given you a warmer welcome if whoever had carved this had gotten it right." She traced her finger over the long vertical line, the pair of short lines slanting diagonally down to the right from its top, and the short upswept stroke at the end of the higher of the two. "This means oak." Then she covered the small upstroke with her hand while leaving the rest exposed. "And this means ash."
"Of course it does," he snorted. "Are you going to try to tell me that they named this after me or something?"
"Not unless you went a lot farther back than 1300ad, but I thought you deserved to know, seeing how much assorted translations have already caused trouble for the both of us."
He nodded. "Okay then. Now let's blow this popsicle stand. Not literally though," a pause, "unless you really want to," he added when he noticed all the Molotov cocktail materials in the back of her truck, but he did not ask for an explanation, because he if he did not already know the reason then he probably at least suspected. Without further comment, he fished a bag of chocolate chip cookies out of her food supplies and settled into the passenger seat with them, propping his disintegrating boots on the dashboard, and letting Annie drive them back to civilization so they could both start really putting their lives back together.