by BobH © 2002.
(Mantra created by Mike W. Barr)
BERLIN: April 30th, 1945.
From his position behind one of the piles of rubble that vied with the fires and bomb craters to be this battered city's most ubiquitous feature, the man in the shadows watched his prey through cold, calculating eyes. To those who could read such things, his uniform identified him as an SS Sturmbannfuehrer. To those who could read a man's soul, his eyes marked him as a ruthless killer.
These were the last, dying hours of the Third Reich. Berlin was ringed by Soviet troops, the Red Army closing in and tightening the noose as they fought their way ever closer to the Reich Chancellery and to the ultimate prize, the capture of Adolf Hitler himself. It was one of these advancing soldiers who was the focus of the Sturmbannfuehrer's interest. Battling their way in from the north, this arm of the Red Army advance had penetrated west of Berlin, sweeping aside the Volksturm units that opposed them, and into the streets between the Bismarkstrasse and the Kantstrasse. Fighting between the Red Army and the city's defenders, under the overall command of the city commandant General Weidling, was now being conducted house-to-house in that warren of small streets. Every inch of ground was being bought at tremendous cost in blood despite those defenders often being the boys and old men that were all the Reich could muster in these its final hours. It was in the nature of such combat that individual soldiers often got separated from their comrades, and unfortunate for one such soldier that he was now in reach of the man in the shadows.
Since being drafted in the dark days of 1942, Alexei Denisovitch had fought bravely first in defence of the rodina and then as part of the avenging force rolling back the fascist imperialist aggressor. He hadn't expected to live as long as this, but now that he had, now it was obvious the time left to the Third Reich could be measured in hours, he was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, he would live to once again see his family's small farm in the Ukraine. The man in the shadows reaching out from his place of concealment and violently twisting Alexei's head around ended that dream with a single loud crack.
To Lukasz, in the body of Sturmbannfuehrer Heinrich Krueger, Alexei Denisovitch's death was just one more in a line stretching back fifteen centuries. He gave little thought to who the man might have been as his lifeless body slid to the ground. All that mattered was there was no blood. Moving swiftly and efficiently, Lukasz stripped him of his Red Army uniform, stuffing this into a backpack he had brought along for that purpose. Swinging the backpack over his shoulder and carrying his victim's rifle and helmet, Lukasz headed for the relative safety of the area around the Chancellery still controlled by Berlin's defenders, leaving Denisovitch to the rats.
Lukasz had been in combat situations many more times than he could remember and had long since developed the instincts that could mean the difference between living or dying on the battlefield. It was these that made him suddenly freeze in his tracks half way along the Carlottenburger Chausee. He didn't know what was wrong, he just knew that something was. Crouching down, sniffing the air he tried to get a fix on what had set alarms ringing in his head. He was in no immediate danger from the Red Army; from the gunfire exchanges he could hear they were still several streets away. They had temporarily stopped shelling the area since they could no longer do so without killing their own troops. There were no tanks nearby. He had had to leap for cover during his outward trip when a Russian fighter strafed the road he was using, but there were no airplanes overhead at the moment. So what was it? The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. He was beginning to taste a faint tang of...ozone? Sorcery! As the realization hit him a small sphere of purple light appeared six feet above the ground to his left, instantaneously expanding to eight feet or so in diameter, the air it displaced hitting Lukasz with the force of a sledgehammer, throwing him against the wall of a burned-out shop. He lost consciousness immediately.
BERLIN: November 9th, 1995.
It was a little after 10am, and my mother and my kids, Gus and Evie, were finally all asleep. I never suffered from jet lag, but it had hit them hard. Since I'd gotten all the sleep I needed on the flight over, I figured I had the next four or five hours to myself. Our flight across the Atlantic had been boring and uneventful, our landing at Berlin's Templehof smooth and efficient. I remembered an earlier landing at Templehof, a few days before the Red Army took Berlin at the end of World War II, that had been anything but smooth. Then I'd been with that madwoman Hanna Reitsch, and she had flown us in through heavy anti- aircraft fire from the Russians besieging Berlin. Gods, what a pilot that woman was, one of the best I've ever seen! She had the same swagger and lust for life, the same risk-loving personality as any male top gun pilot. For a time, a very brief time, we were lovers. I wonder what she would think if she could see me now?
My name is Eden Blake and I am a woman, but this wasn't always so. I was born Lukasz, a man, and for fifteen hundred years, in countless different bodies, I remained a man. Until now. Now I am female, and the next time I die will be my final death.
Our suite of rooms at the Berlin Hilton was magnificent, and I thank whatever fates had been responsible for my mother winning an all-expenses paid week's vacation for us here in that write-in competition. I'd known the city in the days of Bismark, during the decadence of the Weimar Republic, under Hitler, and when divided by the Wall, and I was looking forward to seeing it again with my family. 'My family'. Funny how easy, how natural, it is to think of them that way when I hadn't even met any of them two years ago. When the soul of Lukasz displaced that of Eden Blake I assumed responsibility for her children. Though it can be exasperating at times, being a mother to Gus and Evie is proving more fulfulling that I ever imagined it could be.
Pausing only to touch up my make-up, I grabbed my purse and coat and headed out. At reception I booked an appointment at the Hilton's hair and beauty studio for early tomorrow. I'm always the first to rise and I planned on taking full advantage of that fact. Nothing like pampering yourself when on vacation. For a long time, I fought against the role I was expected to play. I knew enough to wear heels, skirts and make-up to fit in, but I resented it. After finally accepting this is who I am, that I'm a woman now and for ever, I don't anymore. I haven't grown to enjoy that stuff yet, though I know I may well eventually, but I've become comfortable with it. And after fifteen centuries as a man that's no small accomplishment, believe me.
The Berlin Hilton is on Mohrenstrasse and faces the Gendarmenmakt, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Since it was an unseasonably mild and sunny day, I decided to breakfast at one of the small cafes on the square. Over coffee and pastries, I mulled over what to do with these few precious hours on my own. Perhaps a trip to nearby Friedrichstrasse? It had the priciest shops in Berlin but the competition that won us this trip had also included a generous amount of spending money.
While I pondered my options, I flicked through the copies of 'Die Zeit' and 'Stern' the waiter had brought along with my breakfast, reading a few short pieces in the former before picking up the latter. 'Stern' is a glossy magazine with high production values and among the items in this issue was a set of recently discovered photographs taken by Artur Axmann, the leader of the Hitler Youth - or Reichsjugendfuehrer to give him his formal title - in the final days. I smiled ruefully. If I wasn't thinking about those days for myself, it seemed something was going to come along and remind me of them anyway. I didn't realize just how much until I turned to the second page of photographs. I caught my breath at the sudden shock. There on the page was a photograph showing several of those present in the bunker after Hitler's death - Bormann, Burgdorf, Mohnke, Guensche, Linge, Kempka, Stumpfegger, and two others, both captioned as "unknown". One of these was Heinrich Kreuger, my identity at the time, but Kreuger had never had his photograph taken with those men, had never even made it into the bunker. This picture was an impossibility; it could not exist. What made it even more impossible was the identity of the final person in the photograph. It was me as I am now. It was Eden Blake.
LEIPZIG: April 14th, 1945.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Hotel had seen better days. One entire wing had been lost to a bombing raid by RAF Lancasters several months earlier, but the damage was to more than just the fabric of the building. Food and other supplies of the quality the hotel was accustomed to serving had been increasingly difficult to come by, and as experienced staff were called up to defend the fatherland so they had been replaced by people too young or too old, people lacking the necessary skills. Still, as with everywhere else in this now ravaged country they had to make do. Not that their guests were unduly disturbed by how down at heel the place now was. They had more important matters on their minds.
In their private suite, Sturmbannfuehrer Heinrich Kreuger paced up and down impatiently, much to the amusement of the other man in the room. Dressed in the black uniform of a Gestapo officer, he was sitting in the main room's largest armchair, nursing a brandy.
"Relax, Lukasz. The master will be here soon, I'm sure. In the meantime our companion is easy on the eyes."
Lukasz certainly agreed with Thanasi's appraisal, but hoped he would never be so crass as to say it out loud like that where she could hear. That companion was their master's familiar, Katinya. A beautiful young blonde woman, she had recognised them both instantly when they each arrived at the hotel, despite having never before seen either of their current bodies. Lukasz had never figured out how she did this, but it was a useful trick. At the moment she was preoccupied with her appearence and was primping and preening in front of a full length mirror, minutely examining her hair and make-up.
"Why are women so obsessed with how they look?" said Thanasi. "I bet you're glad you and I will never have to deal with all that hair and make-up rigamarole, eh Lukasz?"
Lukasz remained silent, but he certainly agreed with his friend.
The woman turned from the mirror then and announced: "He comes!"
Thanasi leapt to his feet. When your master was a wizard as powerful as Archimage it wasn't a good idea to show disrespect.
One moment they were the only people in the room; in the next Archimage stood before them. There had been no rush of displaced air, no accompanying light or sound phenomena. Which meant this was just a projection of their master and the real man was somewhere else, possibly thousands of kilometres away. Not that it made any difference to them. He interacted with them no differently in this form than he would as flesh and blood. A tall man with long, grey braided hair and beard, the wizard still affected the archaic barbarian garb he had worn a millennium and a half earlier, back before he and his brother, Boneyard, had become deadly enemies.
'Archimage' and 'Boneyard' were not their real names, of course, but the non-de-plumes they used. A wizard's real name gives far too much power over him to ever be lightly revealed.
"What do you have to report, Thanasi?" he said, without preamble.
"Nothing I'm afraid, master. We know from Lukasz's last mission for you that Boneyard has some interest in the Nazi concentration camps, but after months of sniffing around the Gestapo, I think I can say with confidence that interest doesn't extend to the secret police."
"Any clues as to the whereabouts of Mordius?"
"Alas, no" sighed Thanasi. "We've been hearing rumours since the start of this war that Boneyard's right-hand man has assumed the identity of a high-ranking Nazi, of one of Hitler's inner circle, but we're no closer to finding out who than we were four years ago."
"I've been no more successful with the SS, Archimage. Whatever Boneyard and his men are up to seems to be specific to the camps, and we're no nearer to knowing what that is now than when I was in Buchenwald last year."
Archimage sighed. He looked like he was under considerable strain.
"I fear we won't discover what Boneyard is planning until he springs it on us. That being so, I have another mission for you, Lukasz. We've known for some time the Nazis were scouring the Continent for artefacts of great mystic power, items like the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus, which some call the Spear of Destiny. Whether that madman Hitler has acquired any of these things we do not know, but my intelligence suggests that he certainly had something of great power delivered to the Chancellery in Berlin this week. The fat fool Goering has been plundering Europe for years, sending trainload upon trainload of booty to his Karinhall estate. It seems that one of the items his agents found was much more than a mere work of art. It was flown into Berlin on Wednesday. I need you to find out just what it is, Lukasz, and to either bring it to me or destroy it."
"Of course. When would you like me to head north for Berlin?"
"As soon as you can arrange it. You should also leave Leipzig, Thanasi. In less than two days this town will fall to the Allied advance.
This meeting is concluded."
With that, Archimage disappeared as instantaneously as he had arrived.
"Well, looks like we're on the road again, old friend." said Thanasi.
"I guess it does," murmured Lukasz, thinking it was time he hooked up with Hanna again, "I guess it does."
BERLIN: November 9th, 1995.
The click of my high heels on the sidewalk as I hurried along...was a reassuringly familiar sound. Had I known I'd be walking as far, however, or picking my way over the rough ground I would have to, I'd have worn something more practical than pumps with three inch heels.
That I was giving even a moment's thought to my shoes in these circumstances, that I was worrying about how they might get damaged, suggested I'd become far more of a woman than I'd realized.
The wall had come down six years ago this very day, but even now much of Berlin was a building site looked over by a forest of tower cranes. The Reich Chancellery had long since gone, but beneath the ground where it once stood, Hitler's bunker still lay. The Russians had closed off the exits and the air vents with explosives in late 1946, but they hadn't destroyed it. That ground had remained a wasteland during the twenty eight years of the Berlin Wall. Now it was accessible, but soon some developer would build on it. Before that happened I needed to find....something. Reaching the site, standing on that rough earth, I was suddenly confused. What was I doing here? What had I hoped to find? Why had seeing that photograph in _Stern_ made me rush over to this place? And was my being here on this day of all days, a day of such significance in German history, a coincidence or was it something more? November 9th wasn't only the day the Wall came down.
Among other things, it was also the day of Kristallnacht and the day when the Kaiser abdicated.
As I wandered aimlessly around, cursing the way my heels were sinking into the damp earth, I started to get an odd feeling of deja vu. Yes, I had been here before, but it had looked much, much different back then. All, that is, except for one otherwise unremarkable mound of earth. My hands started to shake. I remembered burying something there, and yet I knew that I couldn't have. My mission to Berlin had been a failure. I couldn't get into either the Chancellery or the bunker, and I never discovered whether or not any mystical artefacts had been taken there. But I had seen something get buried under that mound, I was certain of it. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. Trembling, I recited my mantra of power:
"Change, growth, power!"
As it always did, this chant triggered a transformation, a wave of mystical energy rippling across my body and switching my clothes for the armour of the sorceress and ultra...Mantra! Armour is perhaps not the best word to describe a costume which leaves so much of my flesh on display, but it does a surprisingly good job of protecting me. The part that covers my torso may look like little more than skimpy metallic bathing costume, but it's deflected bullets on more than one occasion. Similarly, the long gloves and thigh high boots that cover my arms and legs are made from some stange form of black leather that is at once both incredibly tough and amazingly flexible. No mortal blade can cleave it, and it moves with the ease of a second skin. Most impressive of all my defenses, however, is my long hooded cloak. It appears to be made of a simple dark cloth but is actually a dimensional portal. Any blade or bullet hitting it simply vanishes into its folds, sometimes to reappear and sometimes not. Within that cape is a gateway to a whole pocket dimension. My mask wasn't directly for protection, but it did amplify this body's natural sorcerous ability and, of course, conceal Eden Blake's identity.
I assumed a floating lotus position, hovering several feet above the ground. Reaching out to the mound, I gently probed it with my higher senses, ready to pull back in an instant if I detected the slightest magical emanations. I detected nothing. Whatever lay beneath the mound was mystically inert which meant I wouldn't trigger any mystic defences if I hit it with a sorcerous bolt. This was good to know because that's precisely what I intended to do. Summoning up mystical energy from within you is hard to describe. It's something you can either just do or you can't. I can. The blue flame leapt from my outstretched hand and hit the mound, blasting away the hard packed earth in an instant. Beneath it lay a large rock, maybe three foot high. Carved deeply into that rock was a strange rune. I reached out for it gingerly. The moment I touched it the world exploded in a burst of purple fire which consumed everything.
BERLIN: April 30th, 1945.
I experienced a few seconds of disorientation and vertigo as the purple fire first flared up then died away. The rock may have been mystically inert but my touching it had still triggered something. Clearly, it had been keyed to react to the touch. But to anyone's touch, or just to mine?
As my vision cleared, I saw I was now somewhere else. Or was I? No, I was some_when_ else. I was still in Berlin, but from the devastation all around, the smells, the fires, and the sound of battle in the distance, this had to be near the end of World War II. I wasn't certain, but it looked like this could be the Charlottenburger Chausee. There was a man slumped unconscious against a nearby shopfront. It may have been half a century since I last saw that face in a mirror, but I recognised him right away. It was Heinrich Kreuger. It was me.
It was the same dream Lukasz had been having for the past year. In it he was surrounded by countless thousands of skeletal, sunken-eyed people. Sallow-skinned and unblinking, all of them had their gaze fixed on him. Then as one they moved forward, bony hands clawing at him, lips moving silently as they dragged him down, imploring him and smothering him with their desperation and their need as he was overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.
He woke with a start, lurching forward and crying out. For a second there was confusion, but only for a second. You did not survive as long as he had if you couldn't gather your wits pretty damn fast. There was a woman watching him, a very beautiful woman. She was dressed in long leather boots and gloves, a hooded cloak, a metal bathing costume, and some sort of mask. It was an outlandish garb for this time and place, but conservative compared to some he had seen in his too-long life. She was smiling at him, but there was something else in her expression. Compassion?
"Who are you?" demanded Lukasz, now crouched and ready to spring if this woman presented any sort of threat.
"I sometimes wonder myself." she replied. "You can call me Mantra, Sturmbannfuehrer Kreuger. Or should I perhaps call you Lukasz?"
Lukasz leapt for the woman without warning, his hands reaching for her throat. Only she wasn't there. Unable to check his momentum, he crashed into a pile of rubble, adding more cuts and bruises to those already sustained during Mantra's arrival. Groaning, he turned and watched as she floated back to earth. A sorceress! She had to be working for Boneyard.
"That wasn't very clever, but then I would've done the same thing in your position. In fact, I just did."
"What are you talking about? Is this some sort of trick?"
"No, no trick. And in spite what you must be thinking, I don't work for Boneyard."
She eyed him levelly, as if trying to make her mind up about something. At the moment, Lukasz was sure she had him at her mercy. He had only seen her act defensively so far, but from her bearing and her obvious confidence he had no doubt she was equally capable of offensive action, too. She appeared to reach a decision.
"OK, I'm not entirely sure of the consequences of telling you what I'm about to, but my intuition tells me it's the right thing to do. It will seem utterly fantastic, but I assure you it's all true."
For no good reason, Lukasz felt a chill run down his spine.
"Firstly," said Mantra, "I'm from the future; from fifty years in the future to be precise. Secondly, I'm you."
Lukasz snorted in disbelief.
"What are you trying to pull here? In fifteen hundred years of moving from body to body I've never once been a woman. Why should that change half a century from now?"
"Because the rules of the war between Boneyard and Archimage changed. Because Archimage realized relying on technology alone was no longer an option."
Could that happen, wondered Lukasz? He had no desire whatever to be female, in fact the idea repulsed him, but if he had to be a woman then better to be one as gorgeous as this Mantra than to be some dumpy fraulein. This could still all be a con, however.
"Prove it," he said, "Prove that you are me."
"OK. I'll tell you how I first met our wife, Marinna, describe things that only you could know, and answer any questions about our past you can think of."
And she did. For the next half hour they went back and forth, Lukasz being astonished and appalled by just how much this woman knew about him, by how intimately it meant his enemies knew him if she was a fraud. What finally convinced him, surprisingly, wasn't her recollections of his early life all those centuries ago but her account of something far more recent. Listening to her tell the story of how he had made love to Hanna Reitsch in that aircraft hangar in Munich several months ago was what convinced him she was who she claimed. It wasn't what she was describing, though the details were all correct, but *how* she described it. The expressions on her face as she told the story, her relish and the way she flushed slightly at the memory were what tipped the balance. She was boasting about her/their conquest exactly the same way he had. So it was true. She was him. Fifty years from now he would be a woman. It was difficult to take in.
"So why tell me all this? Aren't you worried about altering the past?"
"I've already altered it. I have no memory of meeting me when I was you, or of that photograph, yet here we are."
"OK", she sighed, "that's one more thing I need to . tell you about from the future, that and the runestone. Then that's it. Any more and I have a feeling I really could start seriously damaging the timestream."
When she had finished her tale, Lukasz gazed into space thoughtfully.
"So you think this runestone has something to do with what may be about to happen here, that you were brought to this time for a reason?"
"Yes. In fact, I'd have expected to be transported to wherever the runestone is in this time period. I guess the law of affinity meant I was drawn here instead due to us having the same soul. We can worry about that later. Right now we need to get to the Chancellery."
"Alright, but first we need to get you some different clothes. You'll stick out like a sore thumb in that outfit. Here, help me up."
He reached out, and as Mantra took his hand something strange happened. Suddenly he was seeing not just through his own eyes, but through hers as well. He could feel her body as well as his own, was thinking her thoughts as well as... Mantra let go of his hand as if it had suddenly gotten red hot.
"What the hell was that?!" they both said, simultaneously.
Lukasz shook his head to clear it, his perceptions now settling as those of his own body alone.
"We linked minds, but neither of us has any telepathic ability. It..it must be because we share a soul and have the same mind. We're like two radios tuned to the same station." said Mantra
"Well, I've never experienced anything like that before and I'm not sure I ever want to again. Now c'mon; let's get you into more suitable clothes."
As we reached Unter Den Linden, at the opposite end to the Brandenburg Gate, hugging the shadows for safety, I breathed a sigh of relief that Lukasz hadn't questioned my claim that Archimage had realized technology alone wasn't enough in the war against Boneyard. That was a lie, but a necessary one. The last thing Lukasz needed to find out was that in my time Boneyard and Archimage are both dead, and that I killed Archimage.
Lukasz led us down a side street and into one of the many ruined buildings along its length. In the cellar was a small pile of discarded women's uniforms.
"A bunch of blitzmadchen obviously decided they had a better chance of surviving what's coming as civilians. This is where they dumped their uniforms. I found this stuff a few days ago. There should be a uniform in that pile that fits you."
There was. Lukasz watched with interest as the mystic energy swept across my body, substituting my street clothes for my armour in its wake.
"So that's what women will be wearing fifty years from now", he grinned. "I approve of the short skirt."
Then his face fell and I had to laugh. He'd just realized that he'd be the one wearing that skirt fifty years hence and he clearly wasn't happy at the prospect. I undressed quickly, not bothering to ask Lukasz to look away. This didn't seem the time to be displaying false modesty in front of, well, myself. Lukasz had picked up my digital watch and was examining it with interest.
"If I hadn't believed you were from the future before, this would prove it."
"Yeah, well, though I don't like it, it looks like I'll have to leave that here along with my clothes and my favourite pair of pumps. If we never get to retrieve them, chances are they'll be destroyed when the shelling resumes, anyway. I don't care about the watch, but I'll miss those shoes."
There I go with the footwear again.
As I finished dressing, Lukasz took his backpack and the Russian helmet and rifle he was carrying and stashed them away in a corner of the cellar, concealing them with some old floorboards. When he had taken the backpack off, a wallet fell out. I picked it up.
"You dropped this," I said.
"It's not mine. It belonged to the Russian I got the uniform from. Must've fallen out of a pocket. I don't need it. Throw it away."
"Aren't you even curious about the man you killed for his uniform?"
"No, not even slightly. Throw it away."
Instead, I tucked the wallet inside my blitzmadchen uniform. Lukasz said nothing, but gave a shrug at this. He would never understand. In fact we didn't speak again until we were approaching the security perimeter around the Reich Chancellery.
"So what makes you think we'll get in now when I haven't been able to before this? I still have the same papers I always did and they were never enough before."
"This is April 30th, right?"
"Yes, but what has that...?"
"Hitler is dead. He committed suicide several hours ago. While you were out lying in wait for a hapless Russian to come by so you could steal his uniform, everything has changed at the Chancellery. Before, they were keeping everybody out in order to protect the Fuehrer. Now everyone is planning their escape and wants to get out. Now, they'll hardly give you a second glance."
"How can you know...oh."
It all went just as I'd said it would. Oh, I doubt if the guards would have let just anyone through but Heinrich Kreuger was an SS Sturmbannfuehrer, and while he might not have the extra clearance that would have got him into the Chancellery yesterday, that was more than enough for the guards to let him in today. He told them I was his assistant, and they just waved me through, too.
"You were right", said Lukasz. "What would you have done if your plan hadn't worked?"
"Then I would have had to try the Jedi mind trick."
"'Jedi mind trick'?"
"One of those future things I daren't explain. If I did, reality as we know it might not survive."
"Oh." he said, looking chastened. I tried not to laugh. If I had, it would've been nervous laughter. I knew what *had* happened here, what would still happen if the past had remained unchanged, but I didn't know what was *going* to happen now, and that worried me. It worried me a lot. I was also starting to feel slightly nauseous, as I always did in the presence of powerful magic. Whatever was here had been masked enough that I couldn't locate where exactly it was with my higher senses, but the spillover was still enough to set those senses jangling.
Lukasz noticed nothing amiss, of course. He had enough of a sixth sense to feel when he was in immediate danger, be it from sorcery or more earthly perils, but he lacked the ability to sense ambient magic.
The Reich Chancellery had been an impressive building a few years earlier, its huge rooms with their vast slabs of marble and porphyry, enormous doors, and multiple candelabra had witnessed grand parties and triumphal gatherings of the elite of the Third Reich. I know, because I witnessed several of them while on missions for Archimage. Now it was a burnt and bombed-out shell. A command post was maintained in the ruins, but the real business of the place was now conducted fifty feet below the ground, in the bunker. It was reached via stairs leading down through what had once been the butler's pantry.
So it was that we made our way down into the bunker proper, Lukasz alert to our being discovered and me distracted by the constant buzz of my senses. This first part of the bunker consisted of a dozen rooms, all of them small, on each side of a central passage. At the other end of the passage, we saw a number of men standing having their picture taken. They were all there, Bormann, Burgdorf, Mohnke, Guensche, Linge, Kempka, and the gigantic Stumpfegger, all save Stumpfegger in uniforms attesting their high status. The man with the camera was Artur Axmann.
"Stop!" I whispered to Lukasz. "This is the photograph."
He froze and the flash went off as Axmann took his picture.
"Thank you, gentleman," he said. "Even in the present trying circumstances, we must record what we can for posterity. This is history!"
It certainly was to me. As we turned to leave we were surrounded by guards. They all had their guns pointed at us.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded Lukasz, doing his best impression of an outraged Prussian officer.
"Yes, who ordered them detained." said Mohnke.
"I did," said Martin Bormann, stepping forward. Dark haired and beetle-browed, Hitler's deputy gazed at us with those oddly inexpressive eyes of his. "These two are enemies of the state. I will deal with them personally."
If the others thought this odd, they kept their opinions to themselves and made no move to intervene. We were led back to the surface at gunpoint and out into the Chancellery garden. What now? Were we going to made to kneel down before each getting a bullet in the back of the head? I couldn't let that happen. I had to keep living for Gus and for Evie. As soon as any possibility of escape presented itself, I would take it. Unfortunately, none did.
"So," said Bormann as we stopped in front of something covered by a tarpaulin, "Archimage sent you, did he Lukasz?"
Bormann was Mordius! That realization hit us both at the same moment I realized he wasn't speaking German. He'd switched to Navajo, obviously not wanting our guards to overhear. But there was a mystery here.
"How did you know who I am?" said Lukasz, also in Navajo. Mordius should not have known he was anyone other than Heinrich Kreuger.
"Because, my dear Sturmbannfuehrer, I have limited but very real telepathic talent. I can't send but I can receive when a telepath broadcasts. Less than an hour ago, not far from here, you or, more precisely, some telepath working with you, made a short but powerful telepathic broadcast. Short, but not so short that I didn't recognise you, or couldn't identify who you are now. A mistake on your part, I'm sure, but very convenient for me. Now, who is this young woman with you?"
He didn't know! Of course - single soul with a single mental signature. There was no way Mordius could have known that burst was from two people, nor reason to suspect it was an unintended consequence of Lukasz and I touching. I had to act cool, pretend I couldn't understand what they were saying. And if the buzzing in my head got any louder there would be no pretending involved. Whatever was under that tarpaulin was the source of the mystic power I could sense, I was sure, and it was all I could do to keep from barfing.
"She's nothing," said Lukasz, "Just someone to keep me warm at night."
Mordius stared at me for a moment longer then turned his gaze back to Lukasz.
"Perhaps she is what you say, and perhaps not. Until I know which, she stays under the same guard as you. What is about to happen here is the culmination of a decade of work and planning. I won't take the chance of you disrupting it."
With a theatrical flourish, he pulled the tarpaulin away, and there it was: the runestone. When it had snared me in the present it had seemed inert, but here in the past it throbbed with barely contained power, the rune cut into it glowing like a blood red neon sign. The energy in it was held back for now, but it couldn't be for much longer, I was sure. It was like a powerful beast pawing at its cage, and it would have its release. Whatever was happening here was going to happen within the next few minutes
"This is the Knight's Cross of Adolf Hitler," said Mordius, dropping the ribbon of the medal over his head, "but not the one he was presented with for his services to the Fatherland during the last war. No, we replaced that one with this ten years ago. It's made from a piece of the runestone."
"Why go to all that trouble?" asked Lukasz. I had a sinking feeling I knew the answer.
"Power. For the past dozen years, Hitler was the focus of the worship of a nation of millions. Yes, worship. He was almost a secular god, something quite new in the world. With all those rallies and the brilliant propaganda, that worship reached feverish levels. Worship, as sorcerors have always known, is a powerful force, but Hitler wouldn't have known how to harness that force for sorcerous ends. He wouldn't even have conceived of the idea. Boneyard did. If Hitler wasn't going to channel those energies, we would. And we did. Into the runestone."
Mordius paused to run his hand lightly over the surface of the stone, a strange intensity in his eyes.
"The runestone was created by Archimage and Boneyard together, you know, a long, long time ago. It's the key to a door, a door which holds back....but, no. You'll be seeing what it was holding back soon enough. After they created the runestone and had succeeded in locking away...what they locked away, neither trusted the other not to use its power for his own ends. Even then, they were wary of each other. So they combined their magic to spirit it away to some random place in the world, expecting it to remain lost forever. It was lost for a very, very long time. But not forever.
In 1929, just outside of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, USA, a farmer was working one of his fields when his plough struck an object under the soil. It was the runestone, of course. That impact of metal on stone created a spark. A tiny spark, it's true, but enough to cause a tiny bolt of mystic energy to be emitted by the stone in response. Such a small bolt wouldn't have been detected by anyone who didn't have superbly attuned mystical senses, and not even by such a person if they were more than two or three kilometres away. By an amazing stroke of luck there was such a man in the right place at the right moment, an agent of Boneyard. Not such a stroke of luck for the farmer, who had to be killed of course, but a great day for us.
Goering's men were allowed to find it recently to ensure it would be here, in this place, at this moment. The Knight's Cross was attuned to Hitler alone and couldn't be used by anyone else while he was alive. But he's dead now, and so the Cross passes to me."
"To you?" said Lukasz. "Don't you mean to Boneyard?"
"Do I? Perhaps I do. Then again, I'm here with all this power in my hands and Boneyard isn't. And if anything goes wrong with what I'm about to do I have a second, even more powerful source of power waiting in the wings."
I didn't like the sound of that, I didn't like it at all. I wondered what Mordius could mean.
"I sent a few telegrams out to new Fuehrer Admiral Doenitz to make it appear I'm jockeying for position," said Mordius, "but that was just for show. All that really matters is what's going to happen here. It's a shame the Generals' plot failed. That would've taken Hitler out of the picture earlier and left me with more to work with than what remains of the Third Reich. Still, all is not yet lost. Germany is about to experience a miraculous improvement in its fortunes."
While they didn't understand what was being said, the four soldiers guarding Lukasz and me, knew something strange was going on and they were by now all looking nervously at the glowing, throbbing runestone and almost ignoring us. This was my chance.
"Change, growth, power!" I said. I said it quietly, but it was enough. My armour appeared and I reached down to the large gem located over the navel on my armour. Around the gem was a removeable ring which expanded into a mystic weapon, the Sword of Fangs. I removed it now, grabbing the sword and let loose an ululation.
It was now or never.
If Lukasz hadn't seen Mantra change, he would have been as startled by the noise, as the guards were. Too late, they swung their rifles toward her. As they did, Mantra brought her sword down. Though looking something like a scimitar, it was stronger and sharper than the best katana. It sliced through their weapons as easily if they were paper, and the guards' mouths fell open as their severed rifle barrels hit the ground. Then they fled. Lukasz wasted no time. When he saw Mantra begin her play, he leapt for Mordius...only to be stopped in his tracks when a fist the size of a hamhock slammed into the side of his head. The giant had appeared out of nowhere.
"That's right," laughed Mordius, "Ludwig Stumpfegger works for me. Skarn took over his body soon after he arrived at the Chancellery last October. Himmler and that loathsome toad Gebhardt had him sent here as their agent, but Boneyard wanted him to become the confidant of the Fuehrer and to undermine Himmler's position. They're probably still puzzled they never heard from him again."
Dazed from the blow, and lying on the ground, Lukasz looked past the hulking figure of Skarn looming over him to see that Mantra was in the air. She was firing sorcerous bolts at Mordius, but they did no good, dissipating harmlessly on an energy shield that flared into existence as they got within a foot of him. He had both his hands on the runestone, the veins in his temples standing out, his face a mask of determination. He was willing something to happen ...and it was. Slowly but surely, a tall figure was forming out of the air, becoming more and more solid until he finally materialized. When he had, he glanced at Mantra and the power of flight deserted her. She fell from the air, landing heavily on her armoured backside. She hadn't been very high up, and her armour may have absorbed most of the force of the landing, but it still looked painful to Lukasz. Mantra lay on the ground panting, temporarily hors de combat, and Lukasz turned to get his first look at the newcomer.
He was tall, easily seven feet, rippling with muscles, and had long red hair and beard. He wore a dark leather tunic of some sort and gauntlets of the same material, but his arms and legs were bare, while his feet were clad with boots of the same white fur as the cape around his shoulders. His helmet was made of gold, as were the bracelets on his arms and the decorative inlay on his tunic. Walking over to the runestone, he raised his fist high above his head, and brought it smashing down on that rock, shattering it, releasing the pent-up mystic energies in all directions. In the middle of the rock had been a hammer, one where head and shaft were a seamless whole, made of some strange material that was neither stone nor metal yet looked to be some weird hybrid of the two. Blue fire danced across its surface, the released energies of the runestone now contained within its core. As the newcomer raised the hammer to the heavens, Lukasz knew without doubt who he was.
"Donar, Lord of the Thunder, God of Storms," said Mordius in ancient Norse, "look about you. The Rus, barbarians from the east, are at the gate. This is your people's hour of need. Deliver them from this scourge!"
Listening from where I lay bruised, battered and still trying to get my breath back, I was momentarily puzzled by this.
Donar? Of course, the Germanic name for Thor. I once met an other-dimensional version of Thor and had since wondered if his counterpart existed in my own world. Now I had my answer.
Donar was staring expectantly at the Potsdamer Platz, some three hundred yards away. There amid that pile of ruins, the masses of destroyed vehicles, the scorched and twisted skeletons of ambulances with the remains of severed bodies spewing out of them, a thick mist was slowly rising up, strange lights sparkling within. A vast, monstrous presence, unseen but no less awesome for being invisible, seemed to engulf the scene. The besieging Russians, the Nazis in the bunker, and Berliners huddled in their cellars all stopped and held their breath, suddenly chilled to the bone. Something immensely powerful and terrible had just entered the world.
I felt it, too, but unlike those who cast their fearful gaze on the heavens, I was still watching the Potsdamer Platz and so got to see a war chariot emerge from the mist, drawn by two huge white goats easily three times the size of any I'd ever seen before. They leapt into their air, pulling the chariot after them and landing on the Chancellry garden next to Donar. They and the chariot landed light as a feather, and that after a leap of 300 yards. Only it hadn't been a leap, had it? They had flown. That power of flight was soon confirmed when Donar stepped into the chariot and they took to the skies as if born to that element. Maybe they were. They certainly had greater speed and manouverability than any of the aircraft of this era.
While this was going on, the Russians had surged ahead, pushing through the ragtag assembly of SS guards, U-boat crews, Hitler youth, anti-aircraft troops and policemen who were Berlin's last defenders. Russian T-33 tanks were clanking down Wilhelm Strasse and the Voss Strasse, the bunker itself now in their sights. As I watched, a bolt of lightning struck the lead tank on Wilhelm Strasse and it exploded in a ball of fire, blocking the way for those behind. It was Donar. In his chariot high overhead, he was shouting words I could not hear, calling down the lightning and directing it with his hammer. And all the while, behind him and all around us, was that monstrous presence, filling the world.
I'd figured out why I couldn't fly, what Donar had done. Much of my sorcerous powers derive from my control of the four classical elements - earth, air, fire, and water - with my ability to fly tied directly to my control over air. Unfortunately, a storm god trumps a mere sorceress, and as long as he was here and controlling the air I would remain earthbound.
The lead tank of the column on the Voss Strasse blew apart, hot metal fragments being thrown hundreds of feet. Now Donar was directing his lightning at the Red Army soldiers, scattering them in all directions, actually driving back their advance as they fled in disarray.
Earthbound though I was, I let fly several sorcerous bolts, all of which were intercepted by lightning before they got anywhere near Donar.
He noticed them, though, and swung his hammer in my direction, calling down a lightning bolt. My world was filled with brillint light when it struck, and I was thrown to the ground.
Lukasz watched in horror as the lightning struck Mantra. Nothing human could have survived such an assault.
"No!" he yelled, leaping forward, his head catching Skarn square in the groin. The giant bent forward in pain, and Lukasz brought his knee up, slamming it into Skarn's face as hard as he could. It wasn't hard enough. Roaring with pain, blood streaming from his nose, Skarn was still fast enough to grab Lukasz around the torso, to get him in a bear hug and then start squeezing with those hugely powerful arms.
Caught in that vice-like grip, Lukasz felt first one rib crack, and then another. He only had one chance if he wanted to live. Bringing his arms back, he swung them forward as hard as he could, his open palms slamming into the giant's head over each ear, the pressure wave bursting his ear drums. Skarn staggered backwards, dropping Lukasz, who immediately pressed his advantage. Picking up one of the discarded rifle butts, he swung it like a baseball bat, catching his opponent under the chin. That was the blow that finally did the job, Skarn toppling backwards, hitting the ground with an almighty thud, and lying still. A normal man would have been dead by now, but it was enough that the giant was unconscious and no longer a threat. In a single, fluid motion, Lukasz tore the luger from Skarn's holster, turned, and emptied the pistol firing at Mordius. It had no effect. Mordius was still protected by his mystical forcefield and hadn't even noticed the attack, enraptured as he was by the scene overhead and the way Donar was single-handedly driving back the Red Army.
Lukasz threw the gun aside and ran over to where Mantra lay. Had he just witnessed his own future death, he wondered, as he knelt beside her and raised her head? To his amazement, she was still breathing and even seemed to slowly be fighting her way back to consciousness.
God, she was beautiful! He was trying very hard not to think about what it meant to have lustful feelings for someone who was a future version of yourself.
Mantra's eyes suddenly snapped open.
"How are you still alive?" he demanded.
"Later, Lukasz, I...omigod!" she said, the colour draining from her face at the sight of something behind him.
Lukasz slowly turned. It took a few moments for his mind to fully register what he was seeing. The powerful and terrible entity at Donar's back whose presence everyone in the area had felt could now be seen. Spectral still, his vastness dwarfed everything and he seemed to fill the sky.
"Woden!" whispered Lukasz.
There could be no doubt it was he. Woden the Grim, Father of Donar, Lord of the Aesir, the One-Eyed God of Ancient Winter. For the ordinary soldiers of the Red Army this was too overwhelming. Already falling back from Donar's assault, they turned and fled in abject terror at this apparition. Nor were they alone. A large number of those in the bunker were also fleeing, not caring the gods had returned to earth to fight on their behalf.
"We have to stop this!" said Mantra, steely determination in her voice.
"How?" demanded Lukasz. "Donar brought you crashing out of the skies with a glance, and swatted you aside with a casually tossed thunderbolt. He's way out of your league as it is, and Woden has to be much, much more powerful."
"We have one weapon in our arsenal," said Mantra. "We have the dream that's been haunting your sleep for the past year."
"You know what it is?"
"Of course I do. When you went on that mission for Archimage to Buchenwald you saw things that shocked even you. After 1500 years of life you thought you'd seen everything and were no longer capable of feeling such shock. You were wrong. It's impossible to live that long without getting inured against the suffering of others, to lose the ability to empathise, but Buchenwald got through to you, and you've been having the nightmares ever since. I haven't had that dream in almost half a century, praise Archimage, but it's still in you. We need to use that, use your fresh memories of Buchenwald."
"What do we have to do?"
"Just take my hand," said Mantra, holding out a gloved hand.
Remembering what had happened the last time, Lukasz wasn't happy with the idea but, reluctantly, he grasped her hand. The connection was instant. He was looking through her eyes and his own, seeing him looking through hers looking through his looking through hers his hers his hershishershishershisssss. It was a self amplifying loop, a telepathic pulse growing exponentially stronger by the nanosecond, something their minds could not long contain without shattering. Their focus became laser sharp, every last feeling and detail of the nightmare, every last memory of Buchenwald was poured into a sorcerous bolt which, as the strain of what they were doing threw them apart, breaking their connection, Mantra launched at the heavens, straight at the head of the grim god looming over all.
It struck true.
That vast spectral figure stopped in it's tracks, momentarily staggered. Then it turned, its terrible gaze alighting on Mordius, on the being who had summoned it to this plane.
It was a word whispered on the wind.
It was a word that made the ruins of Berlin shake.
It was a word that filled the world, roared by an angry god with the power to move mountains.
"What just happened?" yelled Lukasz, straining to be heard above the roar.
"The Aesir are a pantheon of noble warrior gods," I shouted, "summoned to the aid of those who once worshipped them. I thought showing them the evil and depravity of the camps would show them there's nothing noble about those they were aiding, that they were no longer worthy of such aid. I guessed right."
"Mordius," yelled Lukasz, "what's he doing now?"
I turned to see, puzzled at first by the items he had hastily withdrawn from a bag near his feet. They looked like a lampshade and...a bar of soap? Then it dawned on me. He yelled a single word, the final one needed to complete a complicated spell cast some time before, and tossed the items aside.
"Oh no," I said, as Mordius began to grow, the forcefield that had surrounded him blinking out of existence as he switched from his earlier source of power to this new one, "dear gods, no."
Mordius continued to grow rapidly as he advanced to face the angry god bearing down on him, his body turning blacker than obsidian, eyes becoming like molten lava as he topped a hundred feet, still growing.
"You always wondered what Boneyard's agents were up to in the camps," said a voice, "what possible interest we could have in those vile places, that ultimate expression of the Nazis' deranged racial beliefs. Now you know."
It was Skarn, up on one elbow where he lay, wiping blood from his nose with his free hand.
"We were turning them into temples, " he continued.
"Temples?" said Lukasz, uncomprehendingly. He didn't know, couldn't guess the true horror of what we were witnessing.
"You can't make a temple of a battlefield but you can make one of a camp," said Skarn. "Ironically, the Jews would understand the concept.
They have something called an eruv, and we used a similar mystic principle to make the camp fences the defining walls of temples. And where you have a temple you can harvest any sacrifices that occur within it. The Nazis were killing millions upon millions, representing a vast amount of necromantic energy that otherwise would have gone to waste. We made the ovens into altars, every death another blood sacrifice, another power boost. Can you imagine the power Mordius now wields, the power of millions of murdered souls? With such power you can bring down the gods themselves."
"Sympathetic magic," I said to Lukasz, "the lampshade and the soap provided the link, and now the bridge has been made all that power is flowing into Mordius."
"A lampshade and soap?" he replied. "I don't understand."
"Oh," I said, "That's right. It hasn't come out yet. You know the Nazis turned mass murder into an industrial process. What you don't know is they decided that process should have more than just corpses as its end product. That lampshade is made of human skin, the soap from fat from rendering down human corpses."
The ground shook, and we all looked up fearfully. Mordius was now equal in size to Woden and engaging him in physical struggle. Woden still looked spectral, we could still see through him, but he was solid enough to grapple with Mordius. We could see Donar, way up there in the sky, chariot darting here and there as he rained lightning bolts down on Mordius. He was as ineffectual as a fly. As we watched, Mordius swatted him aside like one. Thrown from his chariot, Donar hurtled to the ground, creating a crater where he hit and showering us with dirt. He lay very, very still. Above our heads, impossible as it seemed, Woden was slowly being driven back. Mordius was winning.
"There's something I don't understand," I said, as we were showered with debris from another direction, the result of Mordius bringing down several wrecked buildings as he shifted one of his enormous feet slightly.
"What's that?" said Lukasz, diving clear of a shower of falling bricks.
"The soap and the lampshade are enough to make a sympathetic link but not to sustain it. To channel the levels of power Mordius is wielding requires a significant mystical device, and it would need to be close by, but there's nothing here."
Skarn, still lying prone, looked smug, as if we were missing something obvious. Then I had it.
"Lukasz, the soap!" I said.
"NO!" yelled Skarn. It shouldn't have been enough to get Mordius' attention, but it was. That great, obsidian giant briefly turned his flaming gaze upon us. As he did so a strange howling filled the air. Ghostly forms materialized around us, a great sea of them, falling over us and each other. We were surrounded by countless thousands of skeletal, sunken-eyed people. Sallow-skinned and unblinking, all of them had their gaze fixed on us, moving forward, ghostly hands clawing at us, screaming as they dragged us down, imploring us and smothering us with their desperation and their need as they overwhelmed us with their sheer numbers. It was the dream again, this time given form by Mordius. We were the focus for the pain of a million murdered souls, their despair threatening to drop us where we stood.
"Please, don't...I can't...I..." I cried tears streaming down my face as I tried to move forward. My legs were made of lead. Each step taking an eternity. Then I stumbled, falling to my knees. I pressed my hands to my ears, vainly trying to block out the terrible cries of the tormented. Both Lukasz and Skarn were curled into foetal balls, hands over their ears, pleading for it to stop. It was up to me now. I pictured the faces of my children, of Gus and Evie, concentrating on them to the exclusion of all else, using my love for them as my anchor. I had to succeed. For Gus and for Evie.
Crawling, I groped my way forwards, getting ever closer to where the soap lay. Even through the babel around me, my higher senses still functioned, and they told me something was coming up behind me. I turned, and there was Donar, now the same obsidian colour as Mordius, with the same burning eyes, striding towards me, treating the screaming wraiths as if they weren't there.
"For Gus and for Evie!" I shouted, screaming my defiance against the despair, somehow forcing myself to make that final lunge and close my hand around the soap before Donar reached me. I slammed it down on a brick with all my woman's strength, the soap falling away to reveal a glowing, pulsing gemstone. *This* was what was maintaining the link.
I saw the shadow first. It was Donar, looming over me, hammer drawn back and preparing to strike a blow I could not survive. Only the hammer never descended. First the blue flame started to dance around the head of Donar's hammer, driving back the darkness, revealing the hammer in its true glory, then it continued along his arm, driving the darkness out of his hammer arm completely. Donar roared, grabbing the wrist that of the hand holding the hammer with his other, still-dark hand, trying to force it to descend. It could only be Woden, diverting what little of his strength he could spare in order to aid me. The way his battle with Mordius was going, that aid couldn't last long, but it would be enough.
Struggling to my knees, I pulled the ring from around the jewel on my belt, breathing a sigh of relief as it expanded, becoming the Sword of Fangs. Raising it over my head, I brought the blade down on that pulsating gemstone with all my fading strength. I struck true.
The gemstone shattered, sending a laser-like beam of energy into the sky, the clouds parting before it as it pierced the heavens. Into that beam were sucked all the wraiths. And Mordius' power. It was pulled from him in a single dark stream, his form shrinking as it flowed from him and into the beam from the gemstone.
"NO!" he screamed, but it was no longer the voice of a man become a god but that of a god rapidly becoming a man again.
When the last wraiths were pulled into the beam, the darkness drawn from Donar, and the final vestiges of power sucked from Mordius, the gemstone beam shut off as abruptly as it had started. As the last of the wraiths vanished I thought I heard a voice whisper "Danke", but that may just have been my imagination.
Mordius was floating in the air directly in front of Woden's face, Skarn floating beside him, their bodies as stiff as mannekins. He stared at them, expression like thunder, then he opened his mouth, and sucked their souls from their bodies. They had time for a single sharp scream, then it was done. There would be no rebirth for either of them this time. With their souls consumed, this was their final death.
Their bodies, the bodies of Martin Bormann and Ludwig Stumpfegger, floated gently to ground some streets distant from where we were.
"May I help you up?" came a voice that was the most manly I had ever heard. I looked up. Donar was offering me his hand, a smile on that handsome, chiselled face. I took the hand and he helped me up. Standing next to him, I gulped. He was like some Platonic, idealized version of what a man should be, some perfect representation of distilled maleness. I felt strange stirrings in my chest and groin, and found my heart was racing and my breathing getting shallower. Dear gods, my body was reacting to him, the first time I'd reacted that way to a man since becoming a woman! Flustered, I backed away.
"Lukasz," I said, "How is Lukasz?"
"I'm OK, Mantra." came his voice from behind me. He was climbing to his feet, and looked both shaken by his ordeal and chagrined that I'd succeeded where he had fallen to the wraiths.
"How did you know the gemstone was hidden in the soap?" he asked.
"I didn't, not exactly. There was just something about how smug Skarn looked that made me think we were missing something obvious, something hidden in plain sight. Then I thought about how the forcefield around Mordius vanished when he switched from one souce of power to another, how he would have expected this and known any device for maintaining the link to that second source of power would then be visible and vulnerable. He was counting on us assuming anything he so casually tossed aside as he did the lampshade and the soap must have served its purpose and be of no further use or interest to him. He was relying on subterfuge, and it almost worked."
Lukasz was impressed. On the one hand he was mortified that a woman had both figured this out and succeeded where he had folded under the pressure, but on the other hand he would one day be that woman and could take pride in the knowledge he would eventually grow wise enough and mentally strong enough not to fail the challenge when next he faced it. He looked around him, noticing for the first time how totally, eerily quiet it was. Then he saw the fleeing Russians in the distance, frozen in mid-stride, the rat a few feet away, suspended in the air in mid leap as it skittered through the rubble. Time had stopped. Only he, Mantra, and Donar were still moving. Overhead, the architect of this miracle gazed down impassively, single huge eye focussed on them, a dark unfathomable void where the other should be.
"I can see the stars through him," thought Lukasz, the grim god looking as spectral as ever.
"What is to be done about the Germans?" said Donar. "The abomination they have created demands the justice of the gods."
"No," said Mantra, firmly. "Their crimes were crimes against humanity and it's for humanity to judge them. I know how this looks now, and the monstrousness of what was done in their name will forever leave an ineradicable stain on the soul of the German people, but the next generation will build a German state that finally abides by the democratic norms of the civilized nations of the world. They will be at the heart of a Europe that it is in my time almost impossible to imagine tearing itself apart as it has twice in the past thirty years. Give them that chance."
Germany as a civilized democratic nation? That struck Lukasz an something it would be interesting to see. Watching Mantra, noting her body language as she stood next to Donar, the way she kept stealing glances at his face and flushing, he realized something: she was attracted to him. He felt queasy. It was bad enough to know he was going to be a woman eventually, the only thing that really made this palatable being the prospect of getting to see what hot lesbian action was like as one of the participants. It hadn't occurred to him that he'd be interested in men. Donar was speaking:
"It shall be as you wish, Mantra," he said. "When you sent the telepathic message showing Lord Woden that evil, you unknowingly also gave him access to all your memories. He knows what the future should look like, and this affair will not change that."
"But how?" she said.
"Woden has stopped time in this city. When it restarts, none will remember that we were ever here. Those who were killed will remain dead, but the minds of the living will fill in any details required to explain how they died. This same glamor will also affect your earlier incarnation," said Donar, nodding towards Lukasz. "While the brothers who barred us from this plane yet live it is not time for the Aesir to walk the world once more, for they could lock us away again or possibly bend us to their will, as Mordius attempted. In your time, however, they are no more. And so we leave with you the decision on when and if to end our exile."
So saying, he placed his hammer head down on the ground amid the shattered remains of the runestone. As soon as he released his grip on it, all the scattered fragments flew towards it. Like a movie run backwards, the runestone swiftly reassembled until it was as they had seen it earlier, not a crack to be seen.
"Woden has placed two spells on the stone," said Donar. "When you first discover it in your time and touch it you will activate the first one. This will both be the force that brought you back here and cause your mother to win that competition, several weeks earlier."
The cause-and-effect here made no sense at all that Lukasz could see, but then when you brought together time- travel, gods, and magic, that was probably only to be expected.
"The second spell," continued Donar, "is the one that will activate the stone once more and release us. We leave with you the decision on when and if to end our exile. And now we must go."
"Wait," said Lukasz, "I have a question."
"Yes?" said Donar, regarding him with what looked to Lukasz like amusement.
"I just noticed you're speaking the ancient language of my youth. How is that?"
"I'm speaking the language of the gods," said Donar. "Mortals hear it in their own tongues."
He turned once more to Mantra.
"Bury the stone and it will both return you to your own era and start time flowing once again in this city."
So saying he lifted Mantra's hand and kissed it, which struck Lukasz as an oddly courtly gesture for a supposedly barbarian god. Donar gave a huge grin, saluted them, and he and Woden faded away as if they had never been there. Mantra stood stock still, looking stunned, until Lukasz said:
"I need you to give me time to get to that cellar before you head home."
"Hmmm?" said Mantra slowly, as if coming out from under a spell. "Oh. Yes, of course. But you'd better hurry. I'll start burying the stone now, but I won't finish until you're clear."
So saying, she assumed a floating lotus position and started moving earth onto the stone with her power over that element.
"OK," said Lukasz. "I guess I'll see you in the mirror fifty years from now."
He turned and immediately set off at a trot. He did not look back.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC: November 17th, 1995.
Our seats were at the rear of the 747 carrying us home to California. It had been an enjoyable vacation, but I think we were all going to be glad to get back to Canoga Park. Gus and my mother were asleep in the two seats ahead of us and Evie, my darling daughter, was asleep in the window seat next to mine. She'd pulled up the armrest between us and her small body was snuggled up against me. Held against her chest was a doll she'd insisted I buy for her early in our trip and which had hardly left her side since: Mantra Barbie. Looking up from my book, I smiled down at her and gently ruffled her hair. She stirred slightly, but didn't wake.
The book I was reading, one of several I'd bought in Berlin, was Hugh Trevor-Roper's 'The Last Days of Hitler', the definitive work on his final days. It had originally been published in 1947 and modified slightly in later years as more information subsequently became available. My copy was a German translation, but since those of us who had served Archimage and Boneyard for so long were fluent in several hundred languages, many of them no longer spoken by anyone else still living, this was hardly a problem. In the preface to the 1978 edition, I found the following:
"In 1946 I recorded the evidence of Artur Axmann who stated that he had seen the bodies of Bormann and Stumpfegger lying in the Invalidenstrasse near the Lerter station...In December 1972, in the course of building operations in the same place, two bodies were accidentally dug up which the German authorities have declared, after forensic tests, to be those of Bormann and Stumpfegger...Dr Reidar F.Sogannes, a US dental surgeon who has specialized in such identification, and has used the surviving dental records of Bormann's (and Hitler's) dentist, Professor Hugo Blaschke, is satisfied the shorter of the two bodies has been correctly identified as that of Bormann.
Thus Axmann's evidence is at last independently confirmed, at least in its essentials. Only in one inessential detail does it need to be modified. Seeing no wounds, Axmann assumed that Bormann and Stumpfegger had been shot in the back. The German authorities concluded that, despairing of escape, they had taken poison."
I suppose that was a reasonable assumption, there being no forensic test for determining whether the soul has been sucked from the body and consumed by an angry god.
When I returned to the present from my momentous adventure in 1945, mere minutes after I had left, I was faced with the problem of what to do with the runestone, which lay in front of me, where I'd first unearthed it. The decision on whether or not to bring back the old gods was an awesome responsibility, and one that I needed to think about a lot more. Yes, Archimage and Boneyard were now gone, but was the world ready for the return of the gods of myth? I could imagine Donar doing a lot of good, or was the idea of a god working alongside Ultras maybe too fantastic? I blushed at the warm tingly feeling I got whenever I thought of him. I'd seen enough displays of male interest in this body to know what they looked like by now, and he was interested. But was I? This was too troubling an idea to even think about right now.
I had wrapped my cloak around the runestone, allowing it to be drawn through the dimensional portal contained within its folds, and had followed it to the tiny pocket dimension it led to. The earth there was churned up, the few trees blasted and blackened. Lukasz asked how I had survived Donar's lightning bolt. This is how. The bolt had not struck me but had gone through the portal and struck the ground here. It was the backwash of that strike that had rendered me unconscious. I would not have survived the strike itself. And that's where I left the runestone, lying on that ground. It will stay there until I decide what to do about it.
I closed Trevor-Roper's book and picked up another I'd bought, one containing photographs of the fall of Berlin. I smiled as I always did whenever I saw the photo on the cover. It was the famous picture of a Russian soldier raising the red flag atop the burned out shell of the Reichstag. That soldier was Heinrich Kreuger.
Thinking back to when I *was* Kreuger, I remember killing a Russian soldier for his uniform, to give me both the escape route I was certain I'd soon need, and possibly a way of still completing my mission. I remember making my way along the Charlottenburger Chausee...and then I was in a cellar, with no memory of how I got there. I figured I'd blacked out, suffered some kind of brief memory loss as a result of being on the edge of an explosion, or something similar. It was a plausible explanation given the times, and I gave the matter no more thought.
Peering out through the cellar window at the boots of Red Army soldiers as they rushed by on the street outside, I knew it was time to go.
I quickly threw on my Russian uniform, hefted my rifle, and joined them in the final assault on the Chancellery. As far as I remembered, I'd never managed to get into it before, but now, as one of the Russians first overrunning and then looting the building, I got to look for the artefact Archimage had sent me in search of. Not knowing what I was looking for, I didn't investigate the mounds of churned earth in the garden and could never have guessed what lay under one of them, mystically buried by my future self as she returned to her own time.
All along, on my time trip, I assumed the past had been altered, but it hadn't. Everything unfolded as it always had.
On my return to 1995, and after securing the runestone, I took to the skies, flying back to the Berlin Hilton and phasing through the walls and into my room, unseen. When I made my armour vanish I was, of course, still clad in the uniform of a blitzmadchen. No one else was up yet, so I quickly changed into more conventional clothing, tucking the uniform away in my luggage. I'm sure it will fetch a good price from a collector of Nazi memorabilia back in the US, and the money can go towards buying several new outfits to replace the clothing I left behind in 1945. Tucked away in the uniform was the wallet of Alexei Denisovitch.
Opening the wallet now, looking at the photos of his wife and young children, and reading the tattered letters tucked away inside, I resolved to pass it on to the Russian consulate in Los Angeles when we got home. Those children and possibly even his wife might still be alive and it was only right this be returned to them. Fifty years on, they would appreciate it, I knew. Lukasz, the man I used to be, would not have understood this at all. What he had done, his killing of Alexei Denisovitch, was perfectly justifiable in war. People were killed for less, and I had done far worse in my time. But Lukasz would have seen my interest in returning his wallet to his family, my empathy for them, as a sign of weakness. And he would have been wrong.
I always wondered why that terrible dream that had haunted my sleep since Buchenwald suddenly went away. Now I knew it was thanks to the intervention of the gods of old. That dream was a reaction, the first time Lukasz had felt much of anything in perhaps 1300 years. His finer feelings had long since dulled away to nothing and it took witnessing an obscenity like the Holocaust to get through to him at all.
At the end, when we were all that stood between Mordius and him stealing the power of the gods, the power to rule a cosmos, Lukasz had no anchor to hold on to, nothing to use to fight the despair. I had my love for my children, for Gus and for Evie. Lukasz would have considered such feelings a distraction and an irrelevance, but with them I saved the world. And before that, they had already saved me. I would lay down my life for Gus and Evie.
When Archimage trapped me in this woman's body, I thought he had cursed me. He hadn't. Unwittingly, he gave me the greatest gift of all. He gave me back my humanity.
(Author's Note: With the single exception of Heinrich Kreuger, all the Germans named in the story were real people. My primary source for the historical background in this tale was H.R.Trevor-Roper's THE LAST DAYS OF HITLER (1947, MacMillan & Co., 1978 revision, ISBN 0 330 10129 3). I also used Douglas Botting's IN THE RUINS OF THE REICH (1985, George Allen & Unwin ISBN, 0 04 943036) for additional detail.)