“Beautiful doesn't begin to describe it. A flower is beautiful. But this is beautiful the way that a person is beautiful – terrifying with its jagged edges, yet seductive with its crevices that hide so many secrets.”
- Jeri Smith-Ready
"Wow," said Lana. "This is… amazing!"
Clark agreed, though the words were inadequate to describe the view before them. All of the Grand Canyon was impressive, but this was something more – something that took the breath away.
For the last few hours of their journey downstream, the canyon had been very narrow and bends in the river had often made it impossible to see far ahead. Clark had felt almost claustrophobic, as if the canyon walls were falling down on him. It hadn't help that evidence of rock slides was all around him. But then they'd rounded a curve at mile 52 and the horizon had opened up in front of them.
Just ahead on the right, the Colorado was joined by Nankoweap Creek, which had carved out its own side canyon. The Colorado curved gracefully around the delta then meandered gently ahead for a few miles. Somewhat paradoxically, the peaceful view had been created by violent flash floods from the creek, which could dump a year's rainfall into the area in a matter of minutes. One particularly large deluge had set off enormous landslides, widening the canyon in this section.
With a wider canyon, more sunlight could reach the river and there was more room for plants to make a foothold – predominantly cacti, sagebrush and yucca, interspersed with wildflowers. With a reliable supply of food and water, wildlife abounded in the area, although the deer tended to stay clear of the human interlopers. All these factors combined to create a veritable explosion of colour, and made the rock strata stand out more strongly than ever.
Clark had never been one to pay much attention to rocks – his earlier questions to Lex had been intended more as conversation starters than anything else. But suddenly, he was swept up in what an earlier explorer had called 'the most sublime spectacle on Earth.' He and Chloe started pelting Lex with questions, with Lana and Lois eagerly listening in. Lex was obviously gratified by their interest and quickly drew a cross sectional view of the canyon, showing the names and ages of each strata. The oldest rocks in this section dated back to the Cambrian Period, over 550 million years ago. This was the time that life on earth explosively diversified, both in the oceans and for the first time making a solid foothold on land. Inspecting the Tapeats Sandstone, it didn't take them long to find the fossil of a trilobite, one of the most successful early animals. It was tempting to take it as a souvenir, but they all took photographs instead.
Although it was only just past noon, they decided to stop here for the day and explore further. The peaceful sounds – the low gurgle of the river, the rustle of tall grass in the wind, the occasional call of a raven – were broken only on occasion by the distant roar of an aircraft passing high overhead.
As they ate lunch, Karyn read out facts and figures from her guide book, while Chloe shared some juicier stories from her book on Southwestern mysteries.
"Nankoweap is a Paiute word meaning echo or singing," Karyn explained. "I can show you this spot where the reverb effect is really cool."
"It says here that Nankoweap comes from the Paiute word 'ninkuipi', meaning Indians or people killed. The Paiute fought with some Apache around here."
"Anasazi," Karyn quoted, "is actually a Navajo term, meaning 'ancient enemy'. It refers to an ancient Indian culture that lived in a range of structures, including pit houses, pueblos, and cliff dwellings designed so that they could lift entry ladders during enemy attacks."
"They controlled this area for hundreds of years," added Chloe. "Then suddenly they just disappeared. Nobody knows where they went. Some stories say they were taken away by spaceships!"
"They probably just migrated," said Karyn. "Because of a prolonged drought."
"And there's all sorts of legends about them leaving behind a vast treasure!"
"The mythic Seven Cities of Gold," said Karyn, closing her guide book with a snap. "The Spanish drove themselves crazy trying to find them. Believe me, there's nothing of that sort here. But don't despair, Chloe. If you feel up to the climb, we can at least visit the granaries the Anasazi built here."
The granaries were set in a layer of limestone more than 700 feet above river level. Most of the group were eager to make the climb, no matter how daunting it looked. Clark was the last holdout until some relentless teasing led by Lois convinced him to join the 'fun'.
Old fears die hard. After the first hundred feet up the winding path, Clark could only make further progress by focussing his vision on his feet and the rocks just ahead of him. He studiously avoided looking around, and was irritated by the cries from his friends about the amazing scenery. The higher they climbed, the worse his sense of vertigo, compounded now by a ringing sensation in his ears. It was almost like being too near a small chunk of kryptonite.
Finally they reached a level area overlooking the river. To their right ran a narrow path leading to a jumble of rocks that led up to the granaries. Clark took one look at the sheer cliffs and refused to take another step forward. While his companions scrambled up the scree and peered into the granaries, Clark forced himself to look out at the valley. From this vantage point, he had a spectacular view of the canyon walls – 3000 feet tall and practically sheer at times, especially on the far side of the river. Some threatening clouds had swept in while they'd been climbing, but that just served to intensify the colours and atmosphere.
Clark breathed deeply, willing the spinning sensation and ringing in his ears to stop. It did not. He leaned back on the cliff wall, well away from the edge of the plateau and closed his eyes. When the worst of the vertigo stopped, he cautiously opened his eyes and turned to face the cliff, careful not to look down. He gasped in surprise.
"Clark, are you okay?" asked Chloe. "You're looking a bit green."
"This is amazing," said Clark, gently brushing his hand on the rocks in front of him. When Chloe just looked baffled, he added, "Can't you see it?"
Chloe leaned in and shook her head. "Is it a fossil?"
"No, it's a symbol – in Kryptonese. You really can't see it?" To Clark, the symbol was clear, a very deep red contrasting with the brighter red of the cliff.
Chloe shook her head. "Nada."
"It's sort of like a route marker, but it's pointing me up the left, away from the granaries." He looked around. "Chloe, I have to check it out. Is there any way for you to clear everyone out of here?"
Chloe chewed her lip for a moment before reaching into her backpack to pull out a notebook. She tore out some pages and started scribbling. "I'd been thinking of doing this if we had some spare time. Seems like the perfect opportunity. Here, make some copies."
Chloe handed him a long list containing items like '10 different kinds of rock', 'something that floats', 'piece of garbage', and 'something yellow'. While Clark was copying, Chloe rounded up the group and told them her idea: a scavenger hunt.
The idea was greeted with enthusiasm and Lois immediately charged off towards the camp, knowing many of the items could be found amongst their trip supplies. Jason and Lana were hot on her heels, but Karyn and Bitty lingered on the plateau before Lex upped the ante by offering a gift certificate to whoever won. He assured Bitty that he'd be safe out of her sight just this once, and ostentatiously started searching through a nearby rock fall for items on the list. Karyn and Bitty exchanged challenging looks, and then started scrambling downhill. They were soon out of sight.
Lex dropped the pebbles he'd collected and demanded, "Something I should know about?"
Clark sighed and explained about the symbols. He then begged Chloe to stay behind in case anyone in the group doubled back – he knew there was no point in asking Lex to do the same. Reluctantly, she agreed. They left as she started gathering up the pebbles Lex had dropped earlier, saying she'd make sure they had something to show for the scavenger hunt.
Lex and Clark made their way upstream and upwards for nearly half an hour. There was no path here, but the limestone provided plenty of small footholds. Clark would occasionally point out a symbol, invisible to Lex, that assured them they were on the right track. Strangely, Clark's vertigo had disappeared even as the ringing in his ears gradually intensified. Clark no longer needed the symbols to guide him: somewhere just ahead hid a Kryptonian artefact.
Clark was just taking another step up when the rock his hand was leaning on suddenly collapsed inwards. Clark lost his balance and tumbled forwards. When he righted himself, he could see a small recess in the cliff wall that had previously been hidden from sight by a thin layer of mud bricks, one of which he'd accidentally pushed aside. After exchanging looks with Lex, he started moving the rest of the bricks away from the cave entrance.
"I feel bad doing this," he whispered to Lex. "I mean, it's the Grand Canyon."
"If this was anything but what I think it is, I'd agree with you, absolutely. I'd be the first one to let the archaeologists have the place to themselves. But if the Kawatche Caves taught me anything, it's that you can't not look. Am I wrong?"
Clark sighed. "No, you're right. I have to check it out. God knows what would wind up happening if I tried to ignore it. One time, I think I wound up flying in my sleep."
Lex nodded jerkily, his eyes opening slightly as he digested the revelation. They continued to move the bricks in silence and made their way into the recess.
It was a small cave, something not uncommonly found in limestone rock. Beyond the entrance, they could stand comfortably but the light quickly faded. Lex reached out his hands to feel his way along the wall.
"Be careful," whispered Clark. His eyes were quickly adapting to the low light levels, and he could already make out several symbols much like the ones in the Kawatche Cave. A large one near Lex looked like the looped lines meaning water, but there were additional symbols jumbled all around it. Clark struggled to decipher the meaning.
Lex took another step forward. His hand moved, touching the large symbol. The walls gave a pulse of white. The ringing in Clark's ears intensified before it abruptly stopped.
Lex felt he was falling, falling, falling headfirst into the depths. But instead of fear, he felt a rush of exhilaration. Something he'd yearned for all his life was just ahead. Knowledge. Answers.
Lex felt the wind whipping through his clothes as he continued to accelerate. It started to feel uncomfortable so Lex concentrated on slowing his fall until he finally stopped, hovering upside down in the void. That felt wrong so he spun himself around. It was dark so he turned up the light.
I must be dreaming, thought Lex.
No, responded a rich, cultured voice. This is not a dream. It is… an interface program. That is the most accurate terminology I can find in your language.
Lex's hand reached up to touch the chest pocket he'd had sewn into all his shirts. In that pocket lay the crystal he'd 'liberated' from Genevieve Teague.
Yes, said the voice. The crystal was designed for interactions such as these. And to allow humans to share some of the Kryptonian experience, or vice versa.
So you can walk a mile in my shoes, thought Lex.
The idiom is appropriate, agreed the voice.
Wait, wondered Lex. Why is your voice British?
Is that really the question you wish to ask? The voice sounded almost amused. I communicate directly with your mind. Your brain interprets this as sound, using your cultural expectations when providing the specific words and intonations.
So you sound like Jean Luc Picard because I think of Star Trek when I think of advanced technology?
Correct. The voice was now that of the woman, Majel Barrett, who had voiced the computer on the original Star Trek episodes.
Now you're just frakking with me, thought Lex.
Not possible. Lex had the impression of laughter. But the interface works best if your mind is relaxed. There is much for both of us to learn.
The void around Lex shifted, reforming itself into long corridors reminiscent of The Louvre. One door, labelled science, was shut, but another, labelled history, opened at his glance. Lex started forward, his footsteps echoing loudly.
The first picture showed a red sun glowing in the void of space. Rao, whispered the voice. Astronomical data scrolled through his mind – type M, mass 0.49 Sol, surface temperature 3600 K, luminosity 3.5% Sol, radius…
Lex moved on to the next image, showing a planet circling closely around the sun. Krypton, said the voice. More data: radius 3.4 times earth, gravity 10.6 times, temperature…
As Lex continued to walk down the corridor, the pictures showed the dawning of life and the gradual evolution of higher life forms. He turned down a different corridor and saw the birth of Kryptonian civilization and the rise of the great city states. Turning down another corridor, he saw the first steps of space exploration, and then the creation of immense generation ships to colonize the stars. Then the great break through: faster than light travel, leading to the creation of the First Kryptonian Empire. Then came the discovery of the effect of a yellow sun on Kryptonians, leading to civil war. Empires fell and rebuilt, only to fall again. Then the invention of the intergalactic portal, leading to an intense burst of exploration. Until finally, the discovery of Sol and its planetary system.
Lex stood a long time before the picture of Earth. From the Kryptonian point of view, it had been nothing special – just one life bearing planet among billions. But that all changed when they met the inhabitants.
We came in peace, said the voice. But it did not stay peaceful for long.
The picture in front of Lex now started to shift into another, then another and then another, much like a high speed slideshow. First contact, nearly 4000 years ago, with ancient societies around the world. At first, the Kryptonians stayed aloof – confining themselves to cultural studies. Gradually though, interaction increased, at first to help with some local disaster or another, and then out of a growing respect and friendship. Attitudes started to shift. Some Kryptonians became despots, or found themselves worshipped by the locals. Then they started encountering resistance – beings who called themselves gods, other alien races, magic users…
Magic, wondered Lex. How does that work?
I have been contemplating that question for nearly four millennia, responded the voice. I know less now than the day I started. It has rules but defies logic.
The pictures resumed, showing a growing number of devastating battles. Finally about 1500 years ago, the 'good' Kryptonians and their allies succeeded in sending the despots back to Krypton. Regretfully, they too abandoned Earth, fearing the temptation to abuse their power would continue to grow even for those who had so far refrained. But they left behind pieces of technology, some to monitor conditions, others to summon help if it was ever needed, and still others as a backup in case Krypton itself should fall.
Since then, contact was strictly limited, explained the voice. Fewer and fewer came, until all communication with me ceased some 500 hundred years ago. What happened next, not even your foil knows.
Foil? Lex wondered. Is that what Clark is to me?
It is a difficult concept to express in your language, replied the voice. The two of you are linked by what you might call destiny, striving together to achieve the balance. The ancients made it this way.
Destiny? Lex felt a bitter taste in his mouth. So the Kawatche were right? Clark's Naman, the saviour of his people, and I'm Sageeth? The enemy. I don't have a choice in the matter?
The myth you refer to is just that, a myth, responded the voice. It is a distortion of ancient prophecy, rendering a complex spectrum of possible futures as simple black and white.
Lex felt his mind flooding with images – scenes from the distant past, flowing into projections of the future; scenes of incredible heroism and others of inconceivable despair. And at the centre of it all, Clark.
Kal-El, corrected the voice. Long ago, your seers foretold the return of our race to Earth, whether for good or more likely for ill. But your friend, Clark Kent – he is something new, unexpected. A Kryptonian raised under the yellow sun, one who identifies himself as human – this changes everything. Your role is perhaps more crucial than ever.
And I'm just some sort of… tool… for you and Clark to use?
You might as well say that Kal-El is a tool for us to use. The voice sounded chiding. Both statements are equally true, which is to say they are almost wholly false. You are both free agents, equals yet opposite. Your strengths balance his weaknesses. He is idealistic, while you are more pragmatic – both viewpoints are needed.
Lex felt suddenly exhausted. The voice seemed so calm, so rational, so optimistic, so beguiling. But Lex felt that instead of accepting its presence so eagerly, he should feel horrified by its presence in his mind. Just how deeply was the voice manipulating him? Could he trust anything it said?
Let yourself rest, said the voice. Communication of this sort is taxing for the human body. There will be time for us later to resolve these matters.
Just as Lex was falling asleep, he saw one last image – a Kryptonian named Brol-Ez lying on a slab, a tangle of wires feeding from his brain into a machine. Lex realized that the Kryptonian was one of those who chose to leave Earth and the promise of virtual immortality, instead leaving behind an artificial intelligence that would monitor this portion of the world. Brol-Ez opened his eyes and seemed to stare across time into Lex's eyes. We would have been friends, thought Lex. Brol-Ez smiled.
*******May 27, 2005
Clark slept fitfully in the small two-man tent, waking frequently to check up on Lex and then drowsily reflect on the events of that afternoon.
When Lex had collapsed, Clark had turned his body over and had seen one of the crystals glowing through the fabric of his shirt. X-ray vision had confirmed it was the crystal Lionel had used to swap bodies, and Clark had wondered out loud if it was safe to remove it. Imagine his surprise when a voice had answered.
The two had talked only briefly, enough to introduce themselves and for the voice, which invited Clark to call it Brol-Ez, to explain what was happening with Lex. Clark was apprehensive on his friend's behalf, but instinctively trusted this new entity far more than the one patterned after his own father. Brol-Ez had seemed dismayed when Clark relayed the message from Dr. Swann about the destruction of Krypton, but was far more perturbed when Clark explained some of his subsequent interactions with the ship and the Kawatche Caves. Brol-Ez asserted that the artificial intelligence based on Jor-El must be contaminated, pointing out the discrepancy between Jor-El sending his son to be raised by people like the Kents and the command to 'rule them with strength'.
Clark was comforted by this assertion, and happy to meet a part of his Kryptonian heritage that seemed actively concerned for the welfare of humanity. He was even happier to have an explanation of the legend of Naman and Sageeth – he realized now how much he'd let that story color his perceptions of Lex's actions in the last year. He also thought back to the paintings in China and wondered if that story had been misinterpreted as well.
I don't have to kill the dragons, he thought sleepily. Maybe they hadn't even been fighting at all, but playing – happy at finding someone a little bit like them. Call him romantic, but Clark liked the thought of the dragons surviving on some distant planet.
Next to him, Lex stirred slightly and then opened his eyes. Clark quickly gave him some water and warned him not to speak. "You were out for about 12 hours," he whispered. "But Brol-Ez said it would feel like days to you. Chloe and I covered, but I think Bitty is worried."
Lex nodded, before trying unsuccessfully to sit up. His hand moved frantically to his chest and relaxed when he touched the crystal still nestled in the pocket.
"Yeah," said Clark. "Still there. Brol-Ez said it would help 'improve the interface' if you kept it for a while. You okay with that?"
Lex nodded and closed his eyes, quickly returning to sleep. Clark watched him a while longer, wishing he too could find some repose. Finally he gave up. He donned his jacket and walked away from the campsite to stare up at the few stars that managed to peek out from behind the clouds.
"Is that you, Clark?" Lana was walking towards him, carrying a small flashlight. "I can't sleep either. Something feels… strange."
Clark looked around – everything seemed normal. There were several campsites from different expeditions scattered all over the area, over a hundred people all told. But aside from the occasional snore or rustle from the surrounding brush, it was totally quiet. Clark gave Lana a shrug. "Looks good to me."
"Maybe it's just being in such a strange, wonderful place," said Lana softly. "Or maybe it's a guilty conscience." At Clark's inquiring look, she continued, "I used to give you such a hard time for all your secrets. I could never understand why you held on to them so closely, pushing all your friends away. But now I find myself doing it too."
"Because of Isobel."
Lana nodded. "And Gertrude and Jason… I love him and yet every day I find myself wondering if push comes to shove, which one of us he'll chose. And what Isobel will do if he chooses his mother instead of me."
Clark gave her a compassionate smile. "I wish I could help, Lana. But I'm not exactly the one people come to for relationship advice."
Lana gave a small laugh. "Too true. But you are the one people come to when they're in over their head." She hesitated and then reached into a pocket, pulling out a handkerchief. "I've been holding on to this, hoping it would lead me to some answers. But now, it feels like I've just made myself into a target." She pulled back the edges of the handkerchief, revealing the crystal from China. She looked up at him beseechingly. "Can you keep it safe?"
Clark nodded, at a loss for words. Lana bit her lip and gave the crystal a long look. She then rewrapped it in the handkerchief and handed the bundle to Clark.
Clark took it almost reluctantly, looking at her searchingly. He felt he owed her something but all he could come up with was a simple thank you. Apparently that was enough: Lana smiled at him softly and walked away.
Clark stood alone, staring down at the bundle and wondering at the turn of fate. Less than 24 hours ago, the location of the missing two stones had been a nagging question in the back of his mind. He'd received dire warnings of the consequences if they fell into the wrong hands, but no information on how to recover them. He'd spent nearly a year chasing after them, and now, when he least expected it, here they were. He wasn't all that shocked to discover that one had found its way into Lex's hands, though he had been surprised that Lex had brought it on the trip instead of keeping it in a high security vault. But learning that Lana had obtained the other stone, and had also seen fit to bring it with her, and then chose to hand it over… It smacked of destiny.
And for once, that word didn't make him want to run away as fast as he could.
Clark evaluated his options and decided there was only one logical place to store the crystal. As quickly as possible given the poor footing, he made his way back up the canyon wall to the hidden cave. He had little to say to Brol-Ez, simply asking him to show him some images of Krypton. He was eager to know more, yet somewhat melancholy as well – seeing his home planet just underscored how alien he was, how truly alone. Brol-Ez seemed to understand his mood and simply opened a hidden panel to store the crystal. Clark lingered for a few minutes, and then bid a reluctant farewell.
In the dawning light, Clark made his way carefully back down to the floor of the canyon. The visibility was poor but high overhead, he could hear the rasping 'kack-kack-kack-kack' of a peregrine falcon. He switched to X-ray vision to watch it hunt. The falcon soared and circled, before suddenly folding back its wings to enter a dive. In a matter of seconds, it fell several hundred feet and reached out to snap the neck of a bat. With a triumphant cry, it spread its wings and soared back aloft.
Clark shook his head in admiration and resumed his descent. The sound of his feet seemed to grow louder with each step, particularly when he slipped and set off a cascade of pebbles. He stopped to regain his balance and savoured the early morning hush.
Then it hit him. It was too quiet. Even this early in the day, most expeditions were already preparing breakfast and breaking camp, eager to take advantage of the cooler morning conditions.
He should have known better than to ignore Lana's premonition. She did harbour a powerful witch after all.
Clark tried to see what was happening down at river level, still a few hundred feet below. There was a strange mist, difficult for even him to see through. He took a deep breath and almost gagged. Gas, he thought with dread. He listened carefully and soon zeroed in on the sound of Chloe's heartbeat, then that of the rest of his friends. Slow, but steady – at least the gas seemed to be nonlethal.
He could now also hear the sound of several people moving about in a methodical search pattern. As they came nearer, he could see they wore gas masks and were heavily armed – a military unit of some sort, attacking under cover of darkness. But why?
Then at the back of the formation, he spotted the distinctive shape of a woman. Focussing his vision, he quickly identified her as Genevieve Teague and silently cursed himself for underestimating the risk she posed. She had somehow slipped away from Lex's surveillance and assembled a strike force. He doubted it was a coincidence that she'd arrived so soon after Lex's crystal had been activated.
Although Genevieve's voice was muffled by a gas mask, Clark could hear her softly chanting in Latin. Misty green tendrils spread out from her along the floor of the canyon, reaching towards each of the campgrounds scattered around the area. Genevieve gave a cry of triumph and sent several of her soldiers towards the area where Clark's friends were sleeping.
Wanting to protect them, Clark started to move quickly but almost immediately lost his footing on the steep slope, sending off a small cascade of pebbles. One foot kept slipping downhill and despite every effort to regain his balance, Clark soon found himself tumbling down the cliff face amidst an ever growing rock slide. He finally reached the base of the cliff with a tremendous thud and continued rolling down towards the river, being pelted with rocks all the time.
Clark finally stopped rolling and slowly opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by soldiers, guns pointed at him. Genevieve's expression was hidden by the gas mask but he could sense her gloating.
"Clark Kent, I assume," she said. "My son has told me much about you. It seems he is rather easily impressed. I was expecting more than this blundering entrance."
Clark spat out some of the dust he'd swallowed in his descent and struggled to get to his feet. Genevieve gave him an assessing look and ordered her soldiers to open fire.
Before Clark had time to react, a hail of bullets started pelting him from all directions. He imagined it was like being attacked by a swarm of bees. Each strike was little more than a jab, but the cumulative effect was enough to wear even him down. He swayed under the impact and fell to his knees, before struggling once again to rise.
Genevieve raised her hand and the shooting stopped. She stepped forward and brushed her hand down Clark's shirt, inspecting the bullet holes and the rapidly healing bruises underneath. "Impressive," she said caressingly, making Clark's skin crawl. "If I was less pressed for time, I would enjoy testing the limits of your strength. But I must act quickly, and cannot leave even such a tantalizing loose end behind."
Genevieve started speaking again in Latin, accompanied by dramatic arm gestures. Clark felt something brush against his neck, his arms, his legs – tendrils that started to tighten inexorably. He raised his hands to his throat, trying to break free but there was nothing there to fight. Clark started to gasp and then could no longer even do that. His lungs burned, his vision blurred.
Clark pitched forward and landed with a splash by the bank of the river. He gave one last twitch and then went still.
Lex awoke with a start and struggled to open his eyes but they seemed glued shut. His head pounded with what felt like the worst hangover of his life, and his mouth tasted like garbage. Worst of all, he seemed to have no control over his body, which went into spasms when he tried to sit up.
"Shhhh," a woman's voice whispered fiercely. "They're looking for us. Don't make a sound."
Lex went still and concentrated on breathing deeply. Slowly, the worst of the hangover sensation passed. Cautiously, he opened his eyes and tried to figure out what was going on.
It was just past dawn. A heavy mist lay across the ground, limiting the view of his surroundings to a few feet. He was in a small clearing surrounded by rocks and brush. Beside him lay Chloe and Bitty, who both looked to be in the same shape as him – barely conscious. Further away, Lex could just make out Lois, who was breathing hard as she dragged a body towards them. It was Karyn, out cold.
"What's going on?" whispered Chloe.
Lois shook her head, struggling to regain her breath. "No clue." She reached into her backpack and gulped down some water. "I woke up early and was, uh, going about my business when I heard a popping sound. And then I saw this mist and everything went blurry."
"Some sort of knockout gas," said Bitty, struggling to sit up.
"Yeah. So when I came to, I tried heading back to camp. But I couldn't get very far without getting dizzy so I started bringing you all here. I couldn't find Clark though, and some guys with gas masks dragged Lana and Jason away."
Lex absorbed the news in silence. It added up to only one thing: Genevieve Teague was out for blood – Lana's blood. And it was mere luck that she hadn't captured him as well in the original attack. He would be the next target. Only his clenched hands betrayed his anger.
"We need a plan," he said. "We're easy targets here."
Lois nodded. "Yeah, but there's a problem. We're tied down – this is the only place we can breathe."
That made Lex wonder: just what was so special about this clearing? He looked around and his eye fell on an object tucked behind a particularly large bush – the LeoLet. They'd set it up last night in this clearing – close to camp and yet with a modicum of privacy. He struggled to get up to inspect it more closely but his muscles refused to co-operate. Grumpily, he asked Lois to bring it over and then had to laugh when she struggled to lift the entire apparatus. At her glare, he explained he just wanted the canister that was slotted into the back.
"You could have just said that," said Lois, handing the cylinder to him. It looked somewhat like a large water filter, molded plastic with openings at either end covered by a fine mesh lining.
"What are you thinking?" asked Chloe.
"The bacteria in here… the first thing they do is break down waste emissions."
"Odour eaters," said Lois.
Lex's chemistry lesson was cut short by the sound of gunfire, not far away. Lex took a deep breath. "We're out of time. We need to find Clark and rescue Lana. Jason too I suppose."
"You have a plan?" asked Lois. "Or do we just go in guns blazing? 'Cause in case you didn't notice, they have all the guns right now."
"We don't even know how many of them there are," said Chloe.
"And we're going to have to stay close to each other," said Bitty. "Can't see more than 20 feet through that crap."
Lex evaluated his limited options. "Right. First thing, we head to the raft and pick up some spare canisters. We can't risk our air supply. Next, we get up close and scout them out. We can't see well but neither can they. We should have the advantage of surprise at least."
Lex looked down at Karyn, still unconscious though breathing now more regularly. "And we'll have to leave her behind. She should be safe enough here."
"Safer than us," said Lois cheerfully. At first glance, Lex might almost think she was having the time of her life. A closer look revealed her tension and resolve. Her father had trained her well for such situations.
She and Bitty led their advance, moving soundlessly with a predatory grace. They reached the supply raft and Lex broke out some of the spare canisters, which they each tied around their neck to keep their hands free. Then they had a hushed discussion about where to go next. Lois thought they should head where they could hear a helicopter coming in for a landing. She pointed out that the enemy forces would need to retreat soon, before the knockout gas dissipated. Chloe though insisted on heading further downstream, where the gunfire they'd heard earlier had come from. Lex could hear her unspoken thought that Clark was probably to be found there. He was reluctant to break up the group but recognized the necessity.
"Be careful, Chlo," said Lois. "You can't do anyone any good if you get hit by a stray bullet."
Chloe gave her a quick hug. "I'd tell you to keep your head down if I thought you'd listen. Luck!" She disappeared into the mist.
Lex and his group stole their way forward, stopping every few yards to listen carefully. Before long, they started to hear some faint voices. After some more cautious steps, the conversation became clearer.
"We couldn't find him, ma'am," said a muffled man's voice. "Only the primary targets were at the campsite."
"Fools," responded a distinctive woman's voice – Genevieve Teague. "Though I wouldn't blame the rest of the group for wanting to stay away from this… creature." There was the distinct sound of a kick, and then Genevieve continued, "I do not know what my son sees in her."
Lex crept forward slightly and could just make out Genevieve's figure through the mist, surrounded by guards. Two bodies were sprawled on the ground. Genevieve gave the smaller one another kick – the body twitched in response. Lex stepped backwards and warned his friends, "Be careful. Unless I mistake my guess, things are about to get crazy."
"About to get crazy?" said Lois. "Unless I miss my guess, we passed that point a long time ago."
Lex smiled. "Point. Regardless, I need to keep an eye on things here, but I'd also like to even the odds if the situation starts to deteriorate. Do you think you can disarm some of the guards?"
Bitty and Lois exchanged looks, sizing each other up. Then they nodded firmly and melted away into the mist.
Lex took a deep breath and crept forward until he could once again see Genevieve. She was giving Lana's prone body another kick.
"Did you think I wouldn't have my research division analyze the crystal's properties?" Genevieve asked. Kick. "Did you think I wouldn't notice when you used it yesterday?" Kick. "How big a fool do you think I am?"
Genevieve started to deliver yet another kick, when suddenly Lana's hand reached out to grab her leg. With a twist, the younger woman sent Genevieve crashing to the ground, and then stood with a mocking smile. The glowing purple eyes confirmed Lex's earlier fears: Isobel had been awakened.
"I think your folly has few limits," replied Isobel. "You proved this by deliberately wakening me, merely to steal something that I no longer have, that I no longer want or need. So let our ancient battle end here today." She made a gesture at the sky and commanded, "Pluvia!"
Lex felt a chill as the wind shifted and the air pressure dropped suddenly. Lightning flashed high above, followed quickly by the crash of thunder. More lightning strikes followed and more thunder, until the canyon seemed to shake with the fury of the storm.
Only a few raindrops fell in the valley itself. Lex realized with a sickening dread that Isobel must have been listening in on earlier discussions about flash floods: she had commanded the rain to fall in the plateau high above. Even now…
On the heights of the Kaibab Plateau, a vertical mile above where they were currently standing, the rain was falling in torrents. It immediately started running downhill, carrying anything in its path with it – soil, gravel, boulders, branches, tree stumps… The runoff pooled in Nankoweap Creek and quickly plummeted down towards the Grand Canyon. For a few minutes, the flow of water from the creek would be greater than that of the mighty Colorado itself. The force of the falling water was nearly unimaginable.
"Get away from the river!" he yelled. "Chloe, Lois, Bitty – run!"
He suited action to words and sprinted towards the canyon walls. The mist was rapidly being dissipated by the wind and he could now see Lois and Bitty also moving to safety. The guards though were frozen, looking to Genevieve for instructions. But she was locked in silent battle with Isobel.
As for Chloe, he finally spied her hundreds of yards away, kneeling at the edge of the river. He yelled a last despairing warning, but it was too late.
With a deafening roar, the leading edge of the floodwater roared into the Nankoweap delta. It swept across to the far canyon wall and sent a muddy wave dozens of feet into the air before falling back into the river. The Colorado foamed from the impact and spread out far from its normal banks. Everything in its path was swept away.
Clark had never lost consciousness. Genevieve's spell was like a noose around his neck and limbs, leaving him powerless to move, and he was floating face down at the edge of the river. He was cold, blind and nearly deaf, but his mind was still aware – still wondering how long he could survive without breathing.
Five minutes passed, then ten and fifteen. Still he floated, unable even to panic. Perhaps that saved his life.
Then he felt a brush on his shoulder, a tugging at his arm, a faint voice pleading, "Clark, Clark. Wake up!"
Clark tried to respond but he felt drained of all energy, unable to twitch so much as a finger. The tugging at his arm continued, and he realized he was being dragged to shore.
"God, you're heavy," said the voice with a grunt. Clark realized muzzily that it was Chloe, now trying to roll him over onto his back. She gave one last heave, and herself fell backwards into the river with a splash followed by a series of curses.
Clark could feel Chloe's hand on his neck, feeling for a pulse and heard her sigh of relief when his heart beat sluggishly. But he still could neither move nor breathe.
A clap of thunder reverberated through the canyon, startling Clark with its intensity. Even the tendrils wrapped around his body seemed startled somehow, loosening their death grip. Clark drew a grateful breath. His eyes snapped open.
"Oh thank god," said Chloe. She was covered in mud from her fall in the river and her hair was sticking out at all angles – she had never looked so good to Clark. He tried to smile at her but was unable to summon the energy.
The rumble of thunder continued and far away he could hear Lex shouting a warning. Chloe turned around and gave a gasp of horror. Clark tried to follow her gaze and saw a wall of water bearing down on them with incredible fury, moving far too fast for Chloe to outrun. With an adrenaline fired burst of energy, Clark pulled Chloe behind him and prepared for impact.
The leading edge hit with the force of a freight train, sweeping Clark and Chloe from one side of the river to the other in seconds, then hurling them towards the far canyon wall. Clark spun desperately to protect Chloe from the impact, and grunted with pain when a branch speared into his gut. For a few moments, they were pinned against a rock by the water that continued to pour down from the creek, before the turbulence started pushing them back to the centre of the river. Debris from the flash flood continued to crash into Clark. He felt a rib crack, then another. Cuts and bruises started to form on every part of his body. But still he kept Chloe safe.
How long it lasted, Clark never really knew for sure – it felt like an eternity. But finally, the current released them and they came to rest in an eddy. Clark could hear Chloe gasping for breath and smiled gently. He then closed his eyes, content to let go now that she was safe.
"Oh no you don't!" Chloe shouted, giving him a shake. He heard her struggling to her feet, and once again felt her tugging on his arm to drag him onto shore. He wished he had the energy to admire her determination, but instead hovered on the edge of consciousness.
Chloe gently removed his jacket and examined him carefully, muttering aloud at the damage he'd suffered. She was particularly worried about the branch embedded in his abdomen, but finally decided to leave it alone. "Don't want to risk internal injuries," she explained, as if he was questioning her judgement. She did her best to wipe away the blood and ripped off his shirt to wrap some of the worst cuts. She then fell to waiting by his side.
Time passed and Clark floated in a haze of pain. Then he felt it – the faintest hint of the sun, poking its way over the canyon wall and down to the valley floor, moving ever closer until finally it touched the tip of one finger. Clark gasped – nothing had ever felt so good. He stretched sensuously towards the light and felt a rush of energy in response.
Chloe gave a crow of delight. "You're healing! Thank God!" She helped him shift the rest of the way out of the shade and beamed down at him.
He tried to smile back, before reaching towards the branch in his gut. He tried to pull it free, but failed, still too weak. Chloe bit her lip and then closed her hands around his. Together, they pulled the branch free. Clark was finally able to breathe freely, and felt his strength slowly start to return.
Side by side, Chloe and Clark looked out over the river, watching the debris picked up by the flood continue to drift by: paddles, cooking gear, food supplies – anything that had not been firmly tied down the night before. They also saw the shattered remains of a raft that had been torn free of its mooring and then tossed about in the current. One of the pontoons had been torn off completely, while another was bent in the middle, no doubt from the impact with a rock. Chloe's hand tightened on Clark's at the reminder at how close to disaster they'd come.
Then Clark spotted the glint of first one metal spar and then another. He gradually realized it was the crumpled remains of a helicopter, floating in the current. Looking closer, he also spotted the body of one of the guards who'd attacked him. Dead, he realized.
The sight snapped him out of his stupor and brought him to his feet. He still had a witch to deal with.
Lex watched the flood slowly recede, marveling at the damage done in just a few minutes. The formerly idyllic landscape was now littered with debris. Plants had been uprooted or covered with mud. The canyon walls had been scoured, and would undoubtedly be subject to landslides for days and weeks to come.
Yet the damage could undeniably have been worse. The campsites had been far enough away from the river to avoid the initial devastating impact of the flash flood. The valley had quickly filled with water, and loose items had started drifting downstream but so far he'd seen no campers in distress. Lois and Bitty were now circulating through the campsites, helping still groggy people out of their soggy sleeping bags, offering up quick explanations and quickly moving on.
The assault squad brought by Genevieve had not been so lucky. The ten men had scattered at the last possible instant, and all but one had been caught up by the edge of the flood's path rather than meeting it head on. That one guard though had been smashed into the side of the helicopter, which in turn had been repeatedly smashed into the side of the canyon. Lex didn't doubt that guard was dead.
Most of the other guards had dropped their weapons while floundering through the backwash of the flood, and the rest had been quickly disarmed by Bitty and Lois – the two made for an impressive assault squad of their own. Lex had just finished securing the prisoners and tending to the injuries they'd suffered in the flood. He was now able to turn his attention back to Genevieve and Isobel.
These two were still locked in a silent duel. They were connected by ribbons of light, coloured red and orange on Genevieve's side, blue and purple on Isobel's. The ribbons lashed forward and sideways, curving around and over, seeking for an opening in each other's defense. Where the ribbons touched ground, they set off fires, despite the sodden ground. On occasion, a ribbon would land on the ground in between the two women, striking the prone body of Jason, who writhed in agony. Neither woman noticed, too intent on their foe.
Lex tried to get close to the battle but had to jump back when one of the red ribbons struck him in the chest. It stung like a whip and immediately raised a welt. Lex took another step forward and was immediately struck by another ribbon, then another. He started to bleed and reluctantly retreated.
He started to yell at Genevieve, then Isobel, hoping to distract them for just an instant. He tried to appeal to their mutual love for Jason, asking them to at least let Jason go. But their concentration on each other was too deep.
Lex blinked and Clark appeared at his slide. Clark was shirtless, his pants were torn, he was covered in mud, his hair was full of debris, and he seemed a little punch drunk – otherwise he looked perfectly normal.
"Took you long enough to get here," said Lex, hiding his relief.
"Chloe's fine – thanks for asking. And I've had a bad day."
"Well, it's going to get worse if we can't control those two. The flood was bad enough – this weird fire…"
Lex trailed off as Clark stepped towards the fire, trying to put it out. But Clark soon jumped back in pain. "That hurts!" he said.
"I guess that means you're not immune to witches," said Lex. "More's the pity."
"Hmmph," said Clark. "I hate magic."
"You and me both. I think our only chance is to distract them. Give you an opening."
Clark nodded. He picked up a small rock and heaved it at Genevieve's head. Immediately, one of the tendrils swept at it, sending it back towards them like a projectile. They barely managed to duck in time. Genevieve's concentration had not wavered for an instant.
"We have to get inside…" Clark broke off and started yelling at Jason. When Jason finally looked their way, Clark started to make gestures with his hands and feet. Lex smiled as he interpreted the football referee signals for unsportsmanlike conduct and tripping. Would Jason be able to follow through?
He could. Jason inched towards Genevieve and grabbed her leg. He then rolled away as fast as he could, sending Genevieve tumbling forward. For an instant, the red ribbons faltered.
Clark immediately ran forward and grabbed Genevieve. He was then engulfed in a halo of fire. He screamed in agony.
Lex made a connection and yelled, "Water! That must be her weakness." Isobel had used the flood as her first weapon, surely for a reason.
Clark staggered towards the river and threw himself in, holding tightly to Genevieve all the while. All around, the fires started to flicker, before gradually dying out.
Lex turned to face Isobel, who wore a triumphant smile. She started to chant once more and raised her hands to cast another spell at Genevieve. Lex grabbed her arms and held her still.
"Lana, Isobel – both of you, listen to me. It's over. Genevieve is down for the count and I assure you she's not getting away."
"Don't make promises you cannot possibly keep, little man. This fight goes on to the death." Isobel struggled to free herself but had obviously been drained by the battle.
"And then it just passes on to the next generation, and the next and the next, until all of you and yours are dead and gone. Do you even know what you're fighting for?"
"It is our destiny. We are the balance between good and evil."
Lex smiled ruefully. "I know a story much like that– I've been living with it for years now. But I don't think there's only one way to fight that kind of battle. Genevieve is your enemy, true, but what about her son."
Isobel looked down at Jason and her eyes flickered. "He does not have the same taint as his mother. He chose wisely."
"For his sake, and Lana's, forsake your vengeance. Allow us to deal with Genevieve."
Isobel grimaced as she looked over at Clark, still holding Genevieve almost completely under water. Only Genevieve's mouth and nose broke the surface, allowing her to breathe. "Your friend is too gentle. He does not have the will to do what needs to be done. Genevieve should die for what she tried here."
"Perhaps. But that's not for me, or you, or Clark to decide. We all have to learn to trust the course of justice, flaws and all."
"Justice," spat Isobel. "She will be free in a month. And I will be needed again."
"So be it. But for now, think of your host. She has a right to her life. Please, Isobel, just let go."
There was a pause. Then Isobel shuddered and closed her eyes before slumping forward in Lex's arms. He laid her down by Jason's side and moved down to the river.
"How is she?" Lex asked, gesturing at Genevieve.
Clark shrugged wearily. "Unconscious. Lana?"
"Isobel let her go. Jason's looking after her."
Clark splashed his way to the shore and sat down on the bank with a sigh. "I haven't felt this bad since, well, ever. Makes me long for an old-fashioned meteor freak."
"I don't know what you're complaining about," said Lex, rubbing at the welt on his chest. "You haven't got a scratch on you."
Clark bristled indignantly. "I got caught in a landslide, strangled by a witch, nearly drowned, caught in a flash flood, speared by a branch…" He broke off his litany when he saw Lex grinning.
"Good thing you heal fast then. Wouldn't want to lose my foil."
Clark smiled brilliantly and Lex felt his own smile widen in response. It was good to have friends.