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The Clock Strikes Twelve

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Imagine the usual disclaimers. The usual warnings too. Is there a warning for excessive sf content within the context of a fantasy premise?

And now for something completely different . . .







The Clock Strikes Twelve





The story begins roughly two hundred years after the end of The Good Teacher.





The immortal woman fled through the city of futures past.

All around her were warnings, flickering up from the translucent plastic pavement beneath her feet--THE END IS NEAR--and interactive advertisements, sliding across the windows of skyscrapers ten thousand feet high--FREE PORN IN YOUR HOME NOW! and LIVE THIRD-WORLD ORGAN 'DONATION' - EXPERIENCE THE AGONY and THRILLKILL PARTICIPATION NO OTHER SERVICE OFFERS YOU THIS LEVEL OF VIRTUAL GORE--and a vast on-line news bulletin whose canvas was the sky itself. Sixty different headlines a minute strobed at her, the beating of the city's electric heart. Over and over, the date flashed out: SEPTEMBER 4th 2097.

The babble of noise was constant, a dozen different kinds of music fighting for supremacy.

Above the skyscrapers, the true sky had been blanked out behind the perpetual on-line calendar/bulletin. It was impossible to distinguish day from night. The city existed in a permanent twilight--a gaudy carnival half-state that would never end.

She ran through brightly-colored crowds, captured in the endless rush of Greater Seacouver. There were women in fashionista chic, professionals with shoulder-laptops and the perverse elegance of masculine business-suits tailored to lush feminine bodies, and faux-guerilla mademoiselles in khaki rags. White-collar workers hurried along, alike as clones; blue-collar workers slouched in their wake, wearing plaid and cotton and jeans; and teenage boys went past in gangs, dressed like baggy-kneed clowns. Anti-global rebels, in real rags, smoked joints in grimy alleyways. Panhandlers thrust plastic cups at her. At every place of business she passed, advertising jingles started up at her approach--triggered by electronic sensors--and automatic commercial displays flashed lights at her, meant to tempt her fancy and open her purse. She ignored it all. She was more real than modern Seacouver, many hundreds of years the city's elder, and she was fleeing for her life in the grim immediacy of a Game that had been old when the world was young. The cityscape around her? It was only a vivid show. It was a soap-bubble, a dream. She went right through it.

She was exhausted. Her black leather coat was scuffed and dirty; it made her look like one of the anti-global street people. Against it, her hair was a scream of violent red.

She had been on the run for days.

A single mistake now, and she would perish slowly, dragged down by dozens of little hands and dismembered till, under the teeth of her hunters, she met the final death. Every time she stopped to rest, she felt them closing in. And now their presence was like a teasing flavor on the air . . . the abominations, the unnatural things. The immortal children.

When her step slowed, she caught a first glimpse of one through the jazzy silhouettes of the crowd. It was a nightmare contrast. The thing she saw was naked, grimy, a goblin with hard ungainly limbs. Unkempt elf-locks hung over its face. There was only that one glimpse, but the child broke into a sudden grin. Its tongue slid sideways over its lips, its eyes grew big and wet with lust--then it vanished like a ghost.

It was surreal, how the naked child in all its filth slunk through the crowd, never disturbing the busy pedestrians.

She shuddered and broke to the left. There was her turn, off the main drag into a maze of side-streets whose pavement was failing and only managed to light in irregular patches. Even the color of the light was sickly. Garbage lay in corners. She knew this area from long ago, the most disreputable part of Seacouver. But that didn't matter anymore, and her hunters were getting closer.

The garbage was brightly colored, literally indestructible; it was composed of objects meant to last forever, never breaking. All of it looked clean and perfect as if newly-made. There were logos and slogans printed on it, and some of it twinkled and glowed with tiny video animations. She skidded round a turn, and a cup rolled under her heel; she turned her ankle and went down cursing, a jab of pain going through her leg.

Human bones--long yellowed shafts from arms and legs, and broken fragments of skulls--mingled with the plastic rubbish. The garbage looked far fresher than the bones.

The pedestrians walked right through her, undisturbed.

They were broadcast images and while she lay there, the same gang of schoolkids with furry backpacks sauntered by twice, talking about school in voices that were an electronic buzz. "--an I say to her, I say gad my fucher-mucher, and she say, Don't you talk that way to me, boy--" Each time, one of them stepped ankle-deep into and through her shoulder and arm, insubstantial as a ghost. And went on, treading oblivious upon bones. "--an I say to her, I say gad my fucher-mucher, and she say, Don't you talk that way to me, boy--"

From the cup, now under her nose, came a burst of cartoon action and a tinny theme-song. She struck it with her hand, sending it flying. As she did, a pair of bandy-legged teenage boys fell upon her.

They had come right through the holographic crowd. Together, they outweighed her. They swarmed onto her back, and one of them sank his teeth into her wrist and hung on, chewing. She fought them--grimly, no holds barred--while the phantom images of happy mortals flickered past. "--an I say to her, I say gad my fucher-mucher, and she say, Don't you talk that way to me, boy--" They had knives, indestructible objects like all the other artefacts of the city around them, perhaps picked up on the street amidst the garbage. The stench of them alone was an offensive weapon. It made her gag and retch even as she fought. Then she got her steel whip out.

It was a Chinese weapon, the bien tzu chiang: a length of steel chain, which in the hand of an expert could be as versatile as a sword or staff. She was an expert. She carried her steel whip conveniently coiled up one sleeve, and now she used it mercilessly, flailing it in reverse snaps like the whip it was based on. It was the perfect choice to get an opponent off her back. She had other weapons, of course--more lethal weapons--but both children were immortals like her. She didn't dare behead them. If she was slowed by a quickening now, the rest of the pack would take her while she was down.

As it was, three more children threw themselves at her even before she finished with the first two.

The two boys were on the ground, groaning, with broken bones. The chain whip flashed in her hold as she turned on the others. She hit a control on the whip's orthopedic handle, triggering what was called a shaped electric charge. All good modern hand-weaponry was electrified; the children's knives would be, if they could get hold of power-cells. Snap went the whip--and this time, when it hit, sparks sizzled.

The children screeched and scattered.

At her feet, the two she had defeated were healing. More were appearing, eerie jungle-creatures glimpsed in flashes through the holographic street-facade. They were filthy, their joints standing out in knobs; they bore the mark of scurvy and rickets and the swollen pot-bellies of malnutrition. They could starve, after all, but the immortality would always bring them back. They were all ages: the boys who had tackled her appeared to be in their early teens, but one of the others was a ghastly semblance of a toddler--a baby girl whose hair beneath the dirt was a curly mop, whose eyes were bright innocent blue. A baby girl with an oversize knife in her hands. She couldn't take them all on . . . not when she was this exhausted.

She turned and ran, with them on her heels.

She sprinted now, full-out. Her ankle had healed, and none of them was fast enough to keep up with a grown woman. But in the end, she knew, they would catch her. She could kill them a thousand times but they would never give up. They wanted something more compelling than meat or drink or sleep. It was her quickening they hungered after. When she went down, they would fight like wild animals for the privilege of hacking off her head.

The crowd-images blurred into shadow-silhouettes as she dashed through them. A filthy child flung himself at her feet, and she snapped out a front push kick, swerved, and was around him. But a dozen more swarmed after. The bigger ones shouted street-insults and obscenities. The smaller ones made wordless animal sounds; they were probably incapable of human speech. Besides, they stank so badly that she wanted to vomit. They were like flies around her, everywhere, and now they appeared ahead as well as behind. No matter which way she fled, she would eventually be surrounded.

Among the kiosks of an outdoor dining plaza, she let them come at her.

She counted more than twenty. Three rushed her from the left, and she hit the foremost with a roundhouse kick, cannoning him off his feet and into the other two. They were only the first. They scrambled and swarmed around her, and around them all the holographic people went about their business. There were unreal couples and families at the tables, eating unreal food . . . not a single living person in the whole busy plaza, except herself and the children. Not in the whole city. There were no mortals left. They had all died, leaving their shadows behind.

But the whole city was peopled with moving holographs. They enacted carefully-filmed dramas directly descended from television; everywhere you went, you could enjoy the street theater they provided. Hundreds of holographic skits played on continuous loops, twenty-four hours a day, a different playlet in every public place. Parks had perpetual Shakespeare and performance art; at clothing stores, holo-models put on canned fashion shows for nonexistent clientele; in schools and universities, holographic teachers had franchised their lectures nation-wide. Every modern home had once had its holographic inhabitants, which had moved among the actual inhabitants, entertaining them, keeping them company, teaching the children and providing imaginary friends. The lives of real people had been arranged around the more-interesting pseudo-lives of holograph-actors.

There had even been an art-form based on holography: living men and women had played at being shadows, stepping into chosen images and copying their every move, till onlookers could not tell one from the other. It had been very popular. People had called it karaoke.

But all that was long gone.

All the things of the city had been too well made, and outlived their mortal makers. Only the moving images were left--those, and immortals.

A crack of her chain whip, and another went down. Knee wheel throw to the right, followed by a hammer-fist blow. Knife hand punch to the front. Spin sideways, heel kick. Hip throw. Forearm strike. Jumping front kick. Major inner reaping throw. A series of karate kicks punctuated by knife-hand strikes. Crack went the chain whip. Crack!

She spun in their midst, kicking, punching, striking them at will, and not one of them seemed able to lay a finger on her. Even exhausted, she moved at twice their speed and with three times their skill. Great soft sparks crackled along the electrified links of the whip. It shocked everyone who felt its lash, everyone who touched it--except her.

As she fought, her face became hard with rage. "Damn you," she whispered.

They backed her into an angle between two dining kiosks, in whose display-cases the food had long since moldered and dried to nothing; the remnants of human skeletons lay scattered across otherwise-immaculate self-clean cooking surfaces, across counters which never got dusty or dirty. Human bones lay on the floor, too. She kept glancing at the uncaring sky: the calendar/bulletin flashed down at her. SEPTEMBER 4th 2097. She took a firmer grip on the electrified whip, her eyes going hard. Then she reached for the dial which controlled the electric charge, and turned it all the way up.

"Damn you!" she cried.

The children died screaming at the whip's touch. They died in convulsions, electrified. But there were so many of them! She couldn't kill them fast enough to escape before they came back to life.

Then it happened--what she had been waiting for. Above, the calendar-bulletin broadcast the turn of the hour.

All around the plaza, the automatic doors of businesses began to shut. They operated on electronic circuits: throughout the city, shops were closing, lights dimming to night-cycle and shop keyboards toting up their end-of-day calculations. Every keyboard would ring a zero, for there were no customers left. But the computers that ran Seacouver didn't know that.

As the doors were shutting, she was moving. She took her hunters by surprise. Before she let them catch up, she had marked out her target, and now she went straight over tables and trash-receptacles, heading for it. The children fell over themselves as they chased after. Too late. Too late. She shot through the door of her target business, getting in by the skin of her teeth. The locks engaged with a snick like fate as she tumbled head over heels into the shop; an instant later, thuds and thumps rang against the store windows, and the children hammered furiously on the glass and clawed at the locked door. She sat in the middle of the floor, looking out at them. The glass was, of course, unbreakable.

She was safe. Her shoulders slumped, and she brushed a strand of red, red hair out of her eyes. She had survived--for now.

And she had been running and fighting for so many long years; she had crossed an ocean and a continent to reach this place . . . Taking shelter in the new immortal-populated towns which had sprung up wherever holy ground could be found; elsewhere, fighting off vicious challenges from half-mad strangers. Halfway across Europe; across the Atlantic solo in an outrigger boat. At first she had wandered aimlessly. Then she had begun to hear rumors of Seacouver. It was a place with an eerie reputation now, and the other immortals whispered tales of magic done on holy ground, of mortals glimpsed amidst the ruins. Of impossible things.

They talked of the MacLeod, who claimed the whole city as his territory. Then, lowering their voices, they had mentioned the Lonely One . . . and when they did, their faces had twisted with dread.

Well. Enough of that. She could tell herself campfire-tales later. For now, it was time to get busy.

It was a weapon-shop she had chosen. Doubtless the children had been in here, and perhaps some of the blades they carried even came from this place. It certainly had a looted look to it. One of the display cases had actually been broken open--that must have taken time and trouble--and things were in disarray. But the most exotic (and dangerous) of the modern weapons were useless to them. The surplus munitions from World War V, the lorica armor-suits, the tracking-and-surveillance equipment? Some of it littered the floor. The child-pack had armed itself with Bowie knives and machetes, and thrown aside the really lethal stuff.

She picked up what looked like a fist-sized globe of translucent red glass, its polished surface broken by finger-grips. She hadn't seen one of these for years now. But it was inert in her hand, just so much junk. Without the power-cell that would make it work, it was garbage.

But she pried into the shelves behind the owner's counter, and found a concealed switch. Trigger it, and-- Aha! A click. She pulled a hidden drawer open, and there was her prize. Something better than any weapon.

Weapons were nothing, they were only good for fighting. Infernal clockwork, engines of destruction. She despised them. There were so many other sorts of machinery, things that could be put to better uses! Things that fascinated her with their sheer cleverness, things she loved. And here was one. She reached into the drawer and lifted it out.

It was a police-issue override unit. How it had gotten here, she would never know. It had once been the worst kind of contraband. It was unpowered--she shook it, and shrugged--but she had tools in her kit, and (naturally) she had brought along extra power-cells.

She sat down behind the shop-owner's keyboard, and got to work.

An hour passed. The child-pack, outside, fought viciously for a view through the windows; they bit and snarled over the place closest to the door. Then they kicked the door and bit it, too, but that got them nothing but sore teeth. Finally, they settled down in a ring just outside the gun-shop. They scratched themselves and whined with frustration, and some of them wandered away. But most stayed. The ones who stayed were the ones who had tasted quickening; they would do anything to feel that again.

When the shop-door opened, it caught them napping. Two of them had stayed awake, combing lice out of each other's hair; they leaped up and let out piercing howls. The rest were just waking, when the immortal woman stepped out and the sky fell on their heads.

She came like a lion, roaring. The children reeled, clapping hands over their eyes, as every light in the plaza blazed to full power. The holographs around them blinked off. They were alone, in a strange bare place, without video, without audio; the silence was deafening. It was utterly disorienting; it scared them silly. But only for a moment.

Sirens went off on every side. They yelled. The lights flashed blindingly. They didn't know which to cover first, their eyes or their ears. Then something like huge bees swarmed down upon them, as the city's police-defenses came alive and bombarded them with apple-sized Crowd Control remotes, buzzing around their heads, taking their pictures for posterity, and bombarding them with pre-recorded warnings to Play Nice. The woman had some sort of computer strapped to one forearm, and the fingers of her free hand played on the buttons as she danced forward. The children rushed at her. She shook a warning finger at them, hit a button--and the Crowd Control bees jetted pepper spray into their faces.

They writhed on the ground as the woman walked past, and she flashed them a smile and laughed at them, with a joy in her voice they would never forget. Her steps bounced. At the exit of the plaza, she paused and made them a bow. Then she skipped out of sight, waving.

The CCBs swooped closer, tiny rotors humming. They unfolded nets of unbreakable supernylon mesh, dropped them, and began to play canned Miranda notices. Then they hovered vigilantly over their writhing captives.

They were programmed to guard alleged lawbreakers as long as necessary. Until backup arrived or hell froze over--whichever came first.

#

She slept on holy ground that night.

Her police override had given her directions to a nice friendly church. It was, true, so surrounded by superskyscrapers that it existed in perpetual gloom (as good as underground!) and its stained-glass windows were backlit by panes of white neon to give the proper sacred effect. No matter. Holy ground was holy ground. It was, moreover, a good distance away from where she had given the child-pack the slip.

In a dream, she walked through a city crowded with innocent mortals. She stopped in a rose-garden; it was high summer, and the air was full of perfume. Immense fragile tea-roses grew on every side. Magenta and harlequin and peach and pink--magnificent colors. Her red hair glowed, brighter than the roses. She wore clever jewelry, full of electronics that could do a myriad of things. The clip that held her hair up at one side, broadcast a moving image. A tiny environment of living plants built itself in her hair. There were air-ferns, small and brilliant green and perfect, set amidst orchids with pale tendrils and delicate spotted blossom; these were Dancing Lady orchids, gay as butterflies, and the clip broadcast a flight of blue butterflies that danced over the flowers. Little bright blue butterflies, flitting among red-and-yellow orchids. All made of air and light.

As she bent to pick a rose, the wind began to blow. Vast black clouds massed in the sky, filled it from east to west. Thunderclouds, against which her butterflies sparkled like sapphires. Sheet lightning flared on distant horizons, and then the rumble of thunder rolled out of the uttermost ends of the world . . . and filled her ears with dread and foreboding . . .

She woke, and the thunder still rolled in her heart, but it was the presence of other immortals surrounding her.

Hundreds of hungry immortals.

She sobbed once, but her eyes were dry and hard; it was many years since her last tears had dried. Then she booted up her police-override, and set about interfacing with Seacouver Central.

When she was ready, she strode down the nave of the church, drew her sword, hit the Enter button on her keyboard--and kicked the door open.

Last night, she had fought perhaps twenty children. This morning, there were over two hundred waiting outside her refuge. They leaped at her, a baying horde all tooth and claw, some of them tattooed with psychedelic net-designs from their previous encounter . . . and she plunged straight into them, whirling, with her sword. She cut right and left. She was still not striking to decapitate, though she could have reaped their heads like Nemesis. No, this time she struck to maim.

In deadly silence, her lips tight shut. Her eyes burned with unshed tears.

The override duplicated her image in video a hundred times over, broadcast it so she moved in a fun-house of befuddling mirror-reflections.

She sliced off arms, hands, feet . . . knowing that whenever she lopped off a limb, she would slow the other hunters down a little. And there! As she fought her way through the crowd, she heard wild noises in her wake. It was as she had expected. The other children were falling upon her maimed victims. They were fighting to behead them and get their quickenings.

They were cannibals, monsters. They had all been innocent pre-immortals once. Now they were human beings reduced to savagery.

Crowd Control bees came whizzing from every direction, lending their mite to defend her from the riot.

Explosions of lightning burst out where she had passed, flaring skyward. Each explosion marked the final death of one of something that had been a child.

For every one that died, two more came after.

Oh, there were too many of them and her heart was not hard enough to go on with the slaughter. When it became too much for her, she abandoned her strategy and simply ran. Children threw themselves at her, and she killed them quickly, cleanly. They rose, healed, and returned to the chase.

When her breath came in agonized stitches and the muscles of her sword-arm became like jelly, she let it all become distant--unimportant--and began mentally to prepare herself for death.

They overthrew her in the heart of the city. Vast superskyscrapers shut out the sky, but the hovering bulletin-calendar still shone down on them; and all the crowds of holographic shadows went about their business, unseeing. It happened when her sword-blade stuck between a teenage attacker's fourth and fifth ribs. The edge grated on bone, she tried to twist it rather than slicing loose, and as the boy fell, the sword jarred out of her hand. She fell too--toppling backwards, mouth open in a silent scream. Children swarmed over her. She felt as if she was drowning in them. Little bodies weighed her arms down, little hands tangled in her hair; she couldn't breath. Her eyes had fallen shut. The hands in her hair yanked her head back, exposing her throat, and she gave up--she let her limbs go limp--

Bada-BADA-BOOOOM!!!

Her attackers fled like rats from a sinking ship.

She opened her eyes. They were gone. Another immortal--an adult immortal--strode past her, hefting a gun that looked big enough to take out a small aircraft. He said without looking at her, "They scare easily, but they'll be back. Get yourself together, and I'll take you to the edge of the city." A pause. "Or if you've come to challenge me, fine, but we should go somewhere else before we fight. I'm Duncan MacLeod of the--"

Then he did look back.

All the wonder in the world was in his eyes, huge and dark and lit with dawning delight.

"Amanda?"

#

"Who would have guessed the Greater Seacouver child-pack could get this big?"

It was ironic: here they were, in a public park in one of the world's most technologically modern cities--and Mac had built himself a tidy little campground with a daub-and-wattle hut and a fire-circle ringed with boulders. This was obviously a place he stopped at often. There was stacked firewood, and a pair of white horses tethered out to graze. The fire he had lit was now burning brightly, and there was a little pot of soup hung from a tripod. Further, he had opened a saddlebag and produced (to Amanda's secret amusement) oatcakes, blackberry preserves, and butter.

Nearby, in an improvised smoke-house, over two dozen salmon were curing.

He drank from a silver flask, handed it over to her.

"They stay out of my part of Seacouver," he said, "and I usually leave them to theirs. They know better than to mess with my territory. But they're quick enough to jump on any stranger who turns up on their turf . . . I'm not sure how they communicate with each other, really. Most of them have gone completely feral. But you've seen that for yourself."

". . . I've run into child-packs in the ruins of other big cities," she said. "They're not like this one."

"The whole west coast has been getting bad for almost a decade now." Mac shook his head. "So many children! Every year, there seems to be more. It's as if they're attracted to each other."

"Mac. Have you seen . . ." She was leaning forward, suddenly intent.

But he looked away.

"Whoever you've been looking for, Amanda," he said, "I haven't seen anybody. Not since it happened."

"But it's been so long since I saw you, myself!" she cried. "Not for years and years--not since that weird business with that woman--Artemisia--you know, the lunatic who was in the asylum in south France? And then you vanished. You and Methos both. And I thought, you know, I'd bump into the two of you on the Riviera one year, or else you'd turn up here in Seacouver or in one of your other haunts . . . but you never did . . . and then, and then--"

"And then it happened."

"The plague."

"The end of the world."

"All those mortals--all the mortals--dying like that, and--" Her voice broke. "I've seen a lot of bad things, Mac. I lived through the Black Death, after all. But not even the Black Death had anything on the Rapture."

". . . And who could have guessed that there would be so many immortals left afterward?" Mac took the flask back, drank deep, returned it to her. "I never thought there were so many of us. A few hundred, I thought. But this--" He shook his head. "Literally thousands of full-fledged immortals, all suddenly exposed. We've never been able to count our numbers before. And the number of pre-immies, the children . . . hundreds of thousands. Inconceivable. Where were you when it happened, Amanda?"

"Me? I was in the Aegean. It's taken me all this time to work my way across Europe and over the Atlantic. Then I had to cross the continent. Didn't know where I was going, at first." Amanda shivered. "There's so much violence out there. I used to imagine we were lawless types and some of us were real wild, but as long as there were mortals around who might catch us, we were restrained, Mac. Now we're not. Anything goes." Again she shivered. "I think I've taken more heads in the last few years than my entire life. Then . . . I heard these rumors of you, of Seacouver . . ."

"Where did you hear them, south of here? At St. Francis Retreat--" it was one of the new towns, south down the Pacific coast, "--or Loyola College, or Amitayus City?"

"No. Virgin Mary Hodegetria." She smiled faintly. "In Iowa."

"Damn," said Mac, evidently perturbed. "No wonder I've had so many challengers lately."

"Mac, where are you living? Not here." She gestured around.

"No, not here. I come through here regularly on hunting trips, but to live . . . ? Only a fool would live cheek by jowl with a child-pack." But he didn't seem inclined to tell her more than that.

She sat looking at him. He had changed, she thought. He had grown out his hair again--it fell over his shoulders, almost to his waist, reminding her (she hid her grin) of a romance hero's flowing locks. The Blade of the MacLeods, indeed! But it wasn't that. He needed a shave, but it wasn't that. It was something about the way he sat, relaxed by his campfire, and let her stare at him without so much as a flick of his eyebrow. He had always been a calm man, but it had been the calmness of resignation; he knew what the Game dealt out for every immortal, the endless violence and the almost-certain death. Not to mention the lack of the small things, the little things mortals took for granted. Mac had always yearned after the little things. Marriage and family, safety and security. The ability to live honestly in the sun. No more mysteries, no danger, no secrecy. Mac's calmness had always been underlaid with despair.

He had been like a knight on a mystic quest, seeking the answers to questions of life and destiny. When had he lost all that?

"You saved me," she said at last. "Turning up in the very nick of time, just like--"

"Sir Anthony Absolute?"

Amanda racked her brain, but missed the reference. It didn't matter. She bit her lower lip, smiled slightly . . . and for the first time in a long time, allowed herself to feel a little joy. Then she scooted closer, seeing Mac sit up and take notice. So handsome, he was. So tall, so broad-shouldered and mm, so muscular. Her hero. And it had been so long--! "Saved little old me," she said softly. "Guess I've got to think up a suitable reward."

She leaned toward him, face lifted, eyes wide, lips parting, and her heart fluttered in anticipation.

It was unmistakable-- the way he stiffened, and shifted imperceptibly away.

Amanda froze. "What the hell?" she said incredulously.

"It's been a long day," he said, getting to his feet. Standing over her, he looked down; his brown eyes were very large and dark, but his face was resolute. He held out his hand, and Amanda took it numbly and let herself be helped to her feet. "Come on. Let's get some sleep."

#

Turning over in the wee hours of the morning, she felt a chill and reached out blindly, patting at his side of their improvised bed--the bed in which they had slept together as distantly as strangers. She groped, whispered, "Mac?" But the blankets under her hand were flat.

Amanda sat up, hugging herself. She had to stay bent over, to keep from bumping the low roof of his lean-to. Dimly colored lights shone through the entrance, where the canvas door was looped back; these were the lights of the city, pale constellations across the floor. She heard . . . his footstep, his voice? She crawled to the entrance and looked out.

Yes, he was pacing back and forth out there, talking to someone. ". . . look, I just want you to take a look at her--I told you what she said . . ." A second man walked beside him, but he was nothing but a shadow in the night. Nothing but a soft mumbled reply. Everything at ground level was dead black, showing only as silhouettes against the bright skyline. Beyond the perimeter of the green-belt, the superskyscrapers shot straight up, glowing, and the perpetual calendar shone down a slogan: FIGHT THE ISOLATION OF MODERN LIFE and then, flashing out, the date: SEPTEMBER 4th 2097. If there were stars, they had been blotted out.

Mac said more loudly, "Yes, yes, yes. It might do you good, you know."

"Mac?" Amanda said.

The second man vanished.

"Amanda?" Mac came to her. "Are you all right?"

"Who was that?"

". . . I have a holograph of Joe Dawson," MacLeod said. "I had it made before he died. Remember Joe? I like to replay the image sometimes and imagine he's still alive. There's not that much that I have left of our old life."

#

Morning came.

Amanda's hair had once been treated with the latest anti-grease and dirt-repellant, set with static-control, resistant to the rigors of weather and humidity. Its roots had been arrested with hormones, to keep it from growing out of its perfectly coiffured cut. It had never needed washing, never grown longer; she had been able to shake the dust out of it, fluff it with her fingers, and there it was, perfect. A return treatment once a year was all it had needed. It had been hair like a dream come true.

All that was long past now--except for the color-control options. Now, washing it over a public fountain where the water still ran clear and clean, she squeezed excess moisture from the ends and sighed a little. Oh for the hair of yesteryear . . . Hair of infinite utility and glamour. Then she reached for the chip tucked behind the back of her ear. "Trigger tint program," she said. There was a beep. "Darken four degrees, fix." Beep! "Undercolor option. Standard yellow. Mm . . . Increase color saturation. Increase. Increase. Increase. Decrease-- Shift two degrees toward brown. Ah! Fix." Beep! "Shade/glitter option. Custom red #2. Decrease brightness. Decrease. Fix." Beep! She considered. "Close program," she said at last.

Beep!

Her hair was still red, but a deep yellow almost of harvest auburn lay upon its every shadow; and in these shadows, dim scarlet stars glimmered. What had been wild was now subtle and rich. Tapestry brocade, rather than shellac. Amanda fluffed it. Then she strolled off to join MacLeod.

She found him sitting in the sun before his lean-to, fiddling with a keyboard and optics. "Aw," she said. "I've got a contraband keyboard too. What hoops does yours jump through?"

"I saw yours," he said, tapping keys. "Mine is better. Mine has a direct line into the offices of the city AI."

"Exclusive! Let's see." She crouched beside him and watched him work. "What's that you're consulting?"

"Same program I used to find you. You see, about two years before the end, the city installed something called a Big Brother system . . ."

"I remember reading about those on the sky-news! Weren't they controversial?"

"They certainly were. They're meant to counter civil insurrection. The equipment is so sensitive that it can track the movement of a single citizen out of a population of three million, anywhere in the city limits. Or how did you think I found you in time?" MacLeod frowned down at his keyboard. "The devil of it is, I've got two more visitors. They turned up on the eastern perimeter just after midnight. Moving on foot, from the look of it. And the child-pack is already tracking them. We'd better go check before somebody gets hurt . . . What are you smirking at?"

"You," said Amanda. It was the optics--small and square-lensed and wire-rimmed--perched on his nose that made her smile. "You look so cute in granny glasses." And she reached out and tousled his hair.

He caught hold of her wrist. "Enough, Amanda."

Amanda straightened. Hands on hips, head tilted inquisitively, she regarded him. "So you've got someone already," she said. "You can just say no, you know. N-o. No."

"Leave it alone, Amanda."

"Fine! I'll get the horses."

While she saddled and bridled the two horses, Mac busied himself with heavy armament.

"Merde!" she said, catching sight of him at this work. "How many battalions do you think we're facing?" He just shrugged. She came closer, saying, "Good fights on the side with the biggest guns, but this is ridiculous." In a smaller voice: "And what happened to your katana?"

His sword, which he had just half-drawn from the scabbard to check the cleanliness of the edge, was heavy and straight-edged, with an antique hilt finished with gold chasing.

They rode west, deep into the city. MacLeod's horses clip-clopped calmly down streets paved with imperishable psuedo-tarmac, the surface reflecting green in the correct driving lane and red in the incorrect one. Traffic directions hung transparently in the air, nine feet above street level. On the sidewalks, holographic pedestrians window-shopped. There had been holographic swans on the stagnant green ponds in the park. Now they passed homes which had been gutted by fire, but the ever-present holographs had survived and flickered eerily against a background of blackened wall-beams and rubble. Bindweed and wild bridal-veil clematis climbed over the ruins. In the skeletal remains of a burned-down house, the whole decor had been holographic and had survived the destruction; against the remnants of the walls, nature murals shone palely, and videos of playing children chased a ball through rooms that no longer existed.

MacLeod consulted his keyboard, steered them further south. Here were more fire-ravaged stretches, sometimes extending a block or more. He remarked, "I told you I had a lot of challengers."

She had passed through other spots like these on her way into the city, but had thought nothing of them. She was appalled.

Soon after, they came upon the first body.

It was a child's beheaded carcass, in a great splatter of blood. Everything in a fifty-foot circle around it had been blackened by quickening, and fires still burned fitfully here and there. In the center of the circle, the surface of the street itself had been stripped away and showed ragged patches of sparkling electronic wire. But it was the body that was the most shocking thing, for it had been sliced limb from limb--not just decapitated, but dismembered like an insect pulled to pieces.

Two blocks further, there was another. Half a block past that, there were three.

Each death-scene had been the site of an explosive quickening. The bloodstains Amanda and Mac found were still sticky, only half-dry. Other bloodstains, splotching the streets at intervals--some had even splashed high across the windows and doors of the surrounding businesses--told the tale of a running fight. No, not a fight . . . it was a battle. All the dead were children.

They lay beheaded, poor things, reduced to charred and reeking meat. Amanda had to remind herself that all these 'children' had survived long beyond any mortal lifespan. But they had lived in misery, she was certain of that--twisted things, never entering the kingdom of their true heritage--and in the end, they had died in the most hideous way. Each had perished differently, that was the strangest part of it. But each death must have come with agony.

There was one that had been spitted by a spear, pinned to the pavement like a butterfly before the killing slice came. Another had been roped by the feet, gutted, and dragged almost the length of a city block . . . her intestines unraveling like filthy cords in her wake . . . and the smell of it . . . Amanda leaned over the side of her saddle, and vomited.

MacLeod was paper-white. "Whoever he is, how is he managing to do this--?"

"--without being beheaded himself while he's down from the quickenings?" Amanda was flabbergasted and more than a little frightened. It seemed . . . unnatural. "I always thought that was how the child-packs survived--because there's strength in numbers."

"Unless . . ." He studied the scene of the latest carnage. "The principle of the Horsemen," he said suddenly. At Amanda's blank look, he explained, "The child-packs aren't the only ones who can find safety in numbers."

"Do we really want to find these people?"

"I won't have them in my city," Mac said between his teeth. "Come on. We'll have to go on foot. The horses are already spooked as it is."

They found the killers in the eye of a hurricane of attacking children. The sheer hubbub of the battle was apocalyptic: the thin screeches and snarls of the child-pack could be heard three blocks away. There were two attackers, and both were men, big men. They towered head and shoulders above even the tallest of the immortal children. And they looked even bigger than they were, because they were fully armored in mail.

One wore knight's armor in the antique style, harking from the era of the Emperor Maximilian when such arts had reached their European zenith. Like many such suits, its make reflected the fashions of its period: the pointed shoes, the fluted skirts of the coats, the fanciful puffed sleeves were the image of a medieval nobleman's costume. Furthermore, the armor was not steel, but evidently space-age lightweight metal--titanium or its ilk. Whoever had forged it had been a master smith, and he had decorated the finished pieces of the suit with anodized colors. Green, blue and orange. The patterns of rich color mimicked brocades such as might have been worn at the courts of kings, heightening the illusion that the metal was fabric. The effect was eerie and beautiful. It took Amanda back to her youth.

As for the other, he was even stranger. His armor was Persian scale-mail, the long-sleeved and skirted coat of a cataphract--an armored horse-warrior--but he was afoot. His helmet covered his entire head, and he looked out through almond-shaped eye-slits. And, again, his mail--it covered him from wrists to ankles, and the skirts of the coat were slit front and back like a cowboy's duster--was made from lightweight anodized metal, in alternating bands of reddish-green and coppery orange, and some of it was gilded. It glittered. Long ribbons floated from the crest of the helmet, and feathers fluttered from the edges of his keyboard, as if it was some kind of shield. A true cataphract, tumbled off his horse (which would be clad in matching scale) would have been so clumsy as to be defenseless. This one moved as if what he wore was as light as quilted cloth.

Above the screeching of the children, the deeper voices of the men carried.

"--Luk kreung!" one cried as he fought; that was the cataphract. Amanda blinked, because it was slang from old Saigon: half-children, he was calling his opponents. "Little bushies! Beware me, lumpen! Goonda!"

The other roared out, "Xa mro khar!" And she didn't know just what that meant, only that it was Rom, and obscene.

The cataphract wielded a broadsword. The European knight used a halberd, whirling it in wide circles as he spun and turned in the midst of a crowd of children. But both of them also wore keyboards strapped to their sword-arms. They fought with the keyboards as much as with their actual weapons--which were of modern forging, electrified. A host of shuriken, also of modern make, whirled through the air around them. They were independently powered--smart weapons, operated through the keyboards--and, obviously, lethal.

As Amanda and MacLeod caught sight of them, the nearer of the two knights snapped out what was plainly an order. His companion instantly closed with him, swinging his halberd. He moved in a defensive pattern. The immortal with the sword bent and sliced at something on the ground. Then (as his companion protected him) he straightened, arching his back, shouting aloud as the electric arcs of a quickening sprayed out around him.

His roar was half-mirth, half-ecstacy. He sounded drugged with sensation. His armor was splattered from boots to belt with the blood of the child he had just dispatched.

Finishing, he bent over and puffed, hands on his knees. Neither the power-shuriken nor the surrounding holographic crowd had been disrupted by the quickening; it took more than that to put EMP-proof electronics out of commission. Throughout, the swordsman's companion had warded the other children off. The swordsman groaned and the halberdier, in passing, patted him on the shoulder. Together, they turned back to the fight.

"I've seen enough," growled MacLeod, beside Amanda. He unshipped his bazooka-sized gun, fired into the air.

BOOM-badadad-BOOOM!!!

As the echoes faded away, the surviving children took to their heels. Over a dozen were left on the ground, wounded or dismembered or just plain dead. The adult immortals spun, going to guard positions. They spotted Mac and Amanda. Their reaction was instantaneous. They came straight at them, attacking.

"Oh holy sh--" Amanda drew, dropped, sucked in a deep breath as the blade of the halberd sliced air inches above her back. She rolled. She stabbed upward with her own blade as she did, passing beneath the halberdier and aiming for the groin. There! Beneath the skirts of his armor. Her point bit deep, and she thrust with the full strength of her arm, twisting and releasing the hilt; then she bounced onto her feet, disarmed but unfrightened. The halberdier crumpled before her, screaming as blood sprayed the pavement at his feet. Her peripheral vision told her that Mac had the other immortal thoroughly engaged. Amanda sprang straight up as her own opponent swung his halberd--so the man still had some fight in him?--and the blade swished past right under her feet. She came down, leaped again, toe-kicked the halberdier in the face, and this time she came down with both booted feet planted on the halberd.

She let herself topple backwards, trapping the halberd's shaft between her ankles, and turned the fall into a backflip. At fullest extension, she caught herself on the palms of her hands and flipped over, landing ten feet away. The halberd had gone flying, up and over in a beautiful spinning curve. Amanda snatched it as it fell. It smacked into her palm as if it loved her. Smart-shuriken came flying at her face. She took three running paces, hefting the weapon, and swung.

The halberdier's head came off.

All the shuriken deactivated and fell out of the air, bouncing on the pavement--put out of commission by her follow-through, which sliced her victim's keyboard cleanly in two. Amanda wailed as light exploded around her. She did not see visions, as she sometimes did. Instead, she heard voices. The voices of men boomed and chanted in the echoing confines of her skull, till she thought she would be driven mad with it; and as this happened, a ring of colored fire erupted from the ground around her, flashing toward the heavens, blotting out the world while the deep voices deafened her with their clamor--

The light--

The light--!!

The light--!!!

It ended. She was on her hands and knees on smoking, melted pavement, looking at MacLeod's back--and beyond Mac, at the other stranger, the swordsman. There was a ringing in her ears and she couldn't hear anything through it. The swordsman lunged, cut, cut, beat Mac aside and came straight for her. Roaring. His face seen through the slits of his antique helmet was monstrous, swollen and dark with sheer rage. Amanda felt herself scream--she was helpless--it was the end--

The swordsman convulsed, caught in--in a bolt of lightning?

Electricity crackled through the chiming rings of his elaborate mail-coat. He jerked and jittered. The sword fell. He tottered; stinking black smoke hissed from the leather lacings of the armor. The swordsman fell. MacLeod walked up behind him, took unhurried aim, and cut off his head.

Every holograph and electronic display along the length of the street failed, flickering away to nothing . . . though the quickenings of the children had not affected them at all. The keyboard on the decapitated swordsman's forearm burst apart in a flash of smoke and flame.

"Guard me," said Mac as Amanda rose to her feet. Then the second quickening hit him.

#

There were panoramic viewpoints throughout the city, so all the citizens had been able to come and marvel at the wonder that was their world.

MacLeod had taken Amanda to one such point. They sat together in it, an amphitheater of vaguely Grecian lines, with gently curving rows of seats. To complete the illusion of antiquity, the seats were white stone, polished like marble. From them, one could gaze across Seacouver's bay, and see all the way east to the Rockies. It was sunset, and the sky out to seaward blazed green-gold.

"Amanda? Tomorrow I'll take you as far as the edge of the city. You can have my spare horse and as many supplies as you want."

"Then you have urgent business elsewhere, but you don't want to talk about it," Amanda said, "is that it?"

"I . . . Yes. I'm sorry, Amanda."

"Oh."

"He said my name," Mac said after several minutes.

"Who?"

"The second immortal. He looked right at me before we first closed and said, 'Duncan MacLeod. At last.'"

"So they knew you. So what? Mac, lots of immortals know you. You haven't exactly led an inconspicuous life."

"And when you struck his fellow down, he said, 'Squire.'"

"Well, whoop-de-doo," said Amanda. "I think they had this age-of-chivalry thing going just a tad too far."

"True."

MacLeod raised his keyboard, hit Enter. A flicker of light ran over the scene around them. Everything changed . . . and in place of the mountains and sea, the megapolis of Seacouver blazed up like sunset clouds, as it had been in its heyday. There it was, its superskyscrapers towering over six hundred stories tall, their uppermost thirds sheathed in green-house glass. These had been biofactories, in which genetically-engineered materiel had been grown--for food, for medicines, for industrial purposes, and to form the circuits of computers. In the gardens atop the glass giants, there had been parks and athletic fields. More than six million people had lived in the inner city. And Seacouver had been a little city, a small city--ultramodern, but small.

A tiny city of six million mortals. Who could have anticipated the shifts in demographics that more than doubled the world's population in two generations, and then saw most of that excess migrate to Europe and North America? Vast portions of the third world had simply emptied. The megacities had grown their own food, culturing it on the sides of their superskyscrapers. Whatever else they needed, they had manufactured with nanorobots. They had been self-sufficient. Meanwhile, holographic technology had linked every city to every other one. The world had become a smaller place. The best of everything had been available to all. And the worst, too.

But it was the best of the mortal world Amanda remembered.

A blink of the eye and the whole card-castle had come tumbling down. It had been a plague. But no ordinary plague . . . There had been no immunity to it. The death rate had been one hundred percent. Every human being on Earth had died; and every immortal had shrugged off his or her death and risen, reborn, in the immortal way. To find themselves the inheritors of the Earth.

The mortals had vanished, the immortals remained. Afterward, they had called it the Rapture.

MacLeod clicked his keyboard. The mirage of old Seacouver winked out. All that was left was the new world, an empty shell. Its abandoned cities had been built for the centuries, and the machinery of civilization ticked on. It was self-cleaning and self-repairing, and might still be standing when aliens arrived millennia onward, to their marvel and puzzlement. But primeval forests now grew across the northern hemisphere, and jungles reclaimed the cities of the south. Vast herds of cattle wandered across the Americas, where the buffalo had once roamed. On the great plains, there were lions, and in the mountains there were tigers and bears. Immortals built frontier-style towns, founded upon holy ground; they raised crops, traded, carried on as if there had never been another way of life for them. The only things missing were the mortals.

Amanda drew in a long, aching breath. Then, suddenly, her eyes swam with tears. She choked, doubled over, and began to cry.

She cried in great heaving sobs, strangling on them, her body bent. Her ribs tore with the pain of it, and she wrapped her arms around herself and wept on. She cried for the dead in their billions, so many that they could not be buried and they had rotted where the plague left them; even today, every city was a catacomb of bones. She cried for the lost mortal world, the world she had grown up in, the world she had not known she loved. Till it was too late.

Mac patted her helplessly. "There, Amanda, there--" His voice thickened almost to a brogue, to the Highland accents of his youth. "Weep it out," he said, taking her into his arms. "Weep it out, Amanda--your heart will be the better for a good cry--ah there, my mother used to say, there's not a trouble exists but time and tears will wash it out to sea . . ."

"I want them back," she managed to gasp out, "I want them back--even the ones who were pricks, even the dumbest things--I want it all back, everything back, I can't stand the loneliness anymore--"

He kissed her forehead.

After a long time, she began to press tiny kisses into the hollow of his throat, to the bare skin between the open points of his collar. She huddled against him. Everything was long-familiar to her: the smell of horses, his sweaty skin, the springy crispness of his chest hair under her fingers when she unbuttoned his shirt and slipped her hand inside. MacLeod stiffened, seemed on the point of pushing her away. At this she raised her head.

Her eyes were enormous, wounded. "If you're in love with someone else," she whispered, "you know all you have to do is just say no."

"I'm not in love with anyone else," said MacLeod.

He lifted her effortlessly. Amanda let herself fall backwards in his arms, and then she turned her head and began to kiss his throat and chest again, tugging at his buttons and then digging her nails into the material of his shirt and ripping impatiently. When she grabbed at his belt buckle, MacLeod burst out in deep chuckles. "Rowr!" said Amanda, and he said, "I've forgotten how you--"

"I've forgotten you," she said.

She yanked the shirt down over his shoulders, slammed him back to the stone seating. "Shhh, shh--" He caught at her flying hands. "Wait, but we have to be sure of our weapons--better make sure they're in reach--the children could--"

"Let them come and look!"

They laid their weapons close to hand. As for their clothes, those ended up everywhere, entangling Amanda's ankles, shoved beneath her rump by Mac to make a simple pillow, and bits of electronics jabbing into her naked back so that she yelped and then had to flash a smile. It had been nearly two hundred years. She couldn't believe he was with her now, she didn't dare close her eyes. She couldn't keep from looking at him--as if he might vanish the instant she blinked. Especially there, she couldn't keep from looking at him there--stealing quick sly glances, and then with a long look that ended with him tipping her chin up and a blush heating her whole face. But it had been so long. She kept irresistibly laying her hand there, touching him, brushing her fingers across his damp hot skin, and then she couldn't help arching up to press one thigh against him warmly between his legs right there--

Every little thing she remembered about him was a revelation. His strong hand stroking along her spine. The softness in his brown eyes. Oh, there had been other men--it had been almost two hundred years, after all--but it was wonderful, marvelous, to lie down in friendship with her big boy scout again. Like revisiting a favorite playground, the scene of many happy games. She had always been fond of the big lug.

His hand settled on her rump, his other hand slid under her shoulders. Amanda let her thighs part as he lifted her and gathered her against him. He had never done this before. "Amanda, I thought I'd lost you--" He cradled her--like a doll, like a child--so that a surge of tenderness went through her. Deep. Sweet. So sharp it was almost painful. Tears pricked into her eyes. MacLeod rocked her in his arms, and she clung to him. For an instant, she felt weightless--then she thumped to earth.

Thump.

Thump.

Thump.

Big indeed. And there--ahh--oh yes. She heard herself panting in sharp gasps. Oh yes. Yes. Big boy indeed.

But she could tell that whatever woman he was with now, took good care of him. There was a certain lack of hurry in his movements, a calmness--well, that told the whole story, didn't it? No urgency--she thought, even as she arched her back, tightened her grip, digging her fingers into his shoulders with the rhythm of a kneading cat. As he moved over her, and with each movement she was driven ruthlessly back into the stone seating.

. . . And she never had imagined he had been faithful. Mac hadn't been made to stay true to a memory, he wasn't the type. He fell in love honestly, wholeheartedly, suddenly . . . as naturally as he breathed. And almost as often. No use wishing he was any other way. It had never been in him.

He was even a little too restrained. As if he was comparing her to some kind of standard. And not with high expectations, either. Well! Why did she care?

"Hey!"

She smacked his bare flank. MacLeod froze with his weight supported on his hands. Amanda stared hard into his eyes. "Whatever the hell she can do for you," she said, deliberately laying back, winding her arms around his neck to draw him down with her, "it's me here, Mac. So get to it, mister."

Then she abandoned herself to wiggles and delicious squirms, rocking her bottom busily up and down on its makeshift cushion. Till time was counted only by the soft ripping sound of her breathing, the thundering beat of her heart. And oh yes, he had changed--she had a sense of him moving past her into some country she had never discovered, growing--but how could that be?-- while she had stayed frozen in the eternal youth of their kind. What had happened to him? She had slept with him hundreds of times--they had tumbled down together in haylofts and meadows, they had romped in beds beyond count. With laughter, with gentleness, with affection, but always casually. And though she had wished for a little true love, deep in her heart she had known their kind wasn't made for that--

This time it was different.

It was the way he leaned down to seal her eyes shut, one after the other, with his mouth. As if to make her forget to see the tragedy of the world. The way he pressed his lips to her ear and then breathed out, so all she knew was a sea-shell sound that made her skin prickle and shiver. And the little kisses dropped like autumn grief on her brow--

Why was she crying again? Clutching at Mac instead of urging him on. "Coins of clay, bread baked from ashes," she managed to stammer, scarcely knowing where the old saying came from. It was all they had ever had before. "Oh--oh--when did you learn to give coins of gold--?"

--and oh, there was such tenderness in the way he brushed her face with his fingertips. Every lingering kiss made her feel treasured. Aching inside with deep desire. Longed for--and what was he saying? Speaking into her hair, into her ear, words like sighs along her cheek and eyelids--

". . . and the world will go on . . . there will be a civilization again . . . it's not the Gathering, Amanda, this isn't the end of days . . . it's like the stories Methos tells, about the very beginning and the way immortals used to live, when we outnumbered mortals and had no need to hide. We lived on holy ground. Our Game was about magic--not head-hunting. There were no secrets then. He says when he was very young, we ruled the wild places of the world and we had no need for shelter or weapons or anything but each other. And we were the princes of our own universe. Amanda? Don't despair . . . the end you fear is just a sea-change. What's coming is a new day we can't imagine . . ."

As he made love to her, the video-program of the paradisial Earth ran to the end of the recording and turned itself off. The picture faded, the lights and colors melted to nothing . . . leaving blank screens surrounding the faux-marble amphitheater. The flawless blue sky gave way to the eternal holo-broadcasts, advertisements for all manner of lost dreams. Emergency lighting between the rows of seats shone through the eye-holes of skulls. The floor was a tumble of dry bones. When the end came, decades before, the people of the city had gathered in places like this to die. Their skeletons were all that remained. When their last remaining bones had crumbled to dust and even the dust was gone, the mirages they had made would still be as good as new.

Above, endlessly, shone the date that never changed. SEPTEMBER 4th 2097. Paradise lost.

Amanda fell over the brink into the little kindling--the pleasure so utter that it was like death. Death, compared to which every other pleasure was only sleep. All she knew was her own shivering delight. And his voice whispering: ". . . he says it will be a rebirth . . ."

#

A new day.

Not looking at each other, they found their clothes and reclaimed their weapons. After saddling the horses, they struck out due south. Amanda let MacLeod lead the way. Neither of them wanted to talk.

Seacouver was a tomb around them.

They rode all morning and most of the afternoon, halting briefly to eat a bite when the perpetual calendar told them it was noon. But evening was drawing toward twilight when MacLeod finally cleared his throat and spoke.

"You're well out of the child-pack's territory. This is the old inland highway corridor, if you follow it you'll find your way down-coast and eventually to all way to New Phoenix . . . I can't go any further with you just now. So this is goodbye." For an instant his gaze met hers. "You won't be trying to track where I ride."

"No," said Amanda. She lifted her chin. "I won't."

Neither one moved to ride off.

". . . Mac. Do you suppose it's true what they say? That one of us did it?"

"Caused the Rapture? From what I've seen of some of us," Mac said, "it could be true."

Pause.

Again, he said, "So this is goodbye."

"Yes. But before I go," said Amanda imperiously, "there's something I want."

"Mm?"

"Show me what you did to the second knight. The thing with the lightning."

She thought he was going to ride away without doing it. Then she thought he was torn by some battle between defiance and obligation. Then he nodded, once, sharply.

"Hold my horse, will you?" He dismounted. Amanda leaned forward and took his mare's reins, and waited. Mac walked away, while she wondered. When he was almost twenty feet distant, he turned and faced her.

All he did was raise one hand. Then . . . a brief flicker danced between his fingers and thumb, so sudden that Amanda doubted what she had seen. A heartbeat--and a flare of light shone from deep within MacLeod's eyes. Even twenty feet off, it was obvious. The horses shifted feet, uneasily. Mac closed his fist. Again, electricity--was it electricity?--played over his hand. St. Elmo's fire. Foxfire sparks fueled by nothing. Quickening.

Mac thrust his fist skyward, brandishing the thunderbolt, and lightning burst from his fingers, straight up toward the zenith on a crackling breeze of ozone and a blast of deafening noise. While quickening ran over his whole body and his eye-sockets filled with cold blue fire. Then both horses went wild, and Amanda had her hands full keeping in the saddle. By the time she got her mare back down to four feet, the show was over.

Her friend came strolling back to join her, an ordinary immortal of no great glamor or length of days, seemingly unremarkable . . . unless you knew what he could do. He was smiling a little, his face calm.

"Mac--that--"

"It's a trick," he said. "That's all. But for God's sake, don't tell anyone else about it."

"But why show me . . . ?"

"For coins made of clay, cake baked from ashes," he said. "We were always forgers before--"

"Hey," said Amanda, stung.

"--For true coin . . . shouldn't I give back lightning?"

#

MacLeod rode north, taking all precautions to avoid being tracked. He had miles to go, much to do. Winter was coming, and he had to hunt and cure meat, dry as many salmon as he could catch, and patrol Seacouver to keep his territory safe. All this, before the snows set in and closed the mountain roads. Everything was to protect his family--the new clan MacLeod.

And he had to meet Methos, who now had another name. Methos, from whom he had been inseparable for the past two hundred years.

Amanda rode south. She kept her promise. She would not try to trace him to his secret hideaway, wherever it was. But she wondered . . . and she wept as she rode, tears running down her face, as if she had lost paradise a second time.









Originally posted elsewhere September 28th, 2002.