Imagine the usual disclaimers.
Letting In The Jungle
Methos stood alone in the dark.
He was on a hill, overlooking one of the new immortal towns--a city its inhabitants called it, though by the terms of the vanished mortal civilization, it would have been no more than a hamlet. If that. A ghost town, maybe. It had been built on the ruins of Greater Seacouver, far down the southern coastal superhighway but still part of the dead megapolis. And when Methos had first laid eyes on it, it had been a thriving 'city' of over four hundred immortals. It was much smaller now, holding less than a hundred souls.
A ghost town. Like most immortal settlements on the west coast, it had the rough-hewn look of the frontier. And its citizens--like most immortals nowadays--tended to follow the ways they knew best, which were the ways they had lived in their youth. In this case, the result was fifty percent log cabins, about thirty percent adobe, and the remainder a confusion of masonry, daub-and-wattle, and brickwork. Plus a few Mongolian gers. The town's location had been chosen to take advantage of two things: fresh water, and holy ground. The water was the small river now known locally as the Three Heads Off. Where the Three Heads Off ran through holy land, a cluster of homes stood all crowded higgledy-piggledy, with fields and pasturage adjacent stretching out on all sides . . . but every home was built on holy ground, and that was what mattered. It was an eerie hark-back to the old days, when people had huddled behind stockades and walls, guarding their settlements against attack. Nowadays, people still huddled where it was safe--but the people were immortals, and the threat was the Game.
Finally--again, exactly like many other immortal towns--its name harked back to holy ground. The town of Graveyard. Across North America, one of countless towns called Graveyard.
Methos had been camping in the vicinity for several months now. He had set up a trapline, and traded furs--beaver mostly, but also lynx and wolverine, and small varmints like winter weasel and muskrat. There was an Anasazi holy woman who paid him to keep her in porcupine quills. It was enough to earn his keep.
Just now, though, he was planning.
Sturdy houses of every type, and lights blazing from every lane-corner. A tidy little settlement.
He squatted down on his heels, gazing over the town.
Presently he sighed, picked up his knapsack and slung it over his shoulder. Toting it, he headed into Graveyard.
Graveyard had a tavern; Last Man Standing was its name. It was crowded to the rafters when Amanda--a weary and road-rumpled Amanda--dragged her feet through the doors, fought her way to the bar, plunked herself on a stool . . . looked around, and sat up straight. Everyone in the room was wearing a sword. Some wore two blades, and some were packing extra weaponry on top of that, extreme firepower--why, the only one in sight not in a swordbelt was the woman behind the bar. Highly suspicious behavior, for immortals safe on holy ground. Amanda patted her own sword, double-checked the draw and thought for a split-second about legging it out of town . . . and then her shoulders sagged again, and she dismissed her worries. She had more important things to fret over. When the bar-woman sailed past, she caught her eye and asked, "What do you have?"
"Uisge-beatha, lager, ale, small beer. Milk punch. And finally, a little something we like to call 'Kickapoo joy juice.'"
"What's in the milk punch?"
"Bathtub gin. It's okay, not bad at all . . . By Jesus and Mary! Is that you, Amanda?"
". . . Jinny? Jinny Dall, from the Hebrides?"
"None other!" They gripped hands across the bartop. "First round's on the house, Amanda. I thought you were dead!"
Amanda ordered the milk punch. Sipping it, she looked around again. So many swords . . . some of them very valuable antiques too! The older the sword, the more dangerous the immortal, that was her rule of thumb for a challenge; and this looked like a formidable crowd to her. Seemed like the whole town was present, crowded around the tables. The wooden walls rang with noisy voices. Edgy voices. And there was that armed-and-dangerous ambiance again. She kept her head down, eavesdropping. What was the matter here?
"Damn wild pigs," the immortal on her left was saying to his neighbor, "rooted up my sugar-beet field. Ever see what feral hogs can do to a field? Like gophers, only fifty-kilo size--and the holes they dig, the dirt they can root up . . . I shoot 'em, hang the carcasses up like scarecrows, it barely keeps the rest away a day." His face was long and oval and gentle, with black curling sidelocks, and he was drinking wine. "I tell you, kittim sometimes come and ask me why swine ever got declared unclean, and I answer: just try farming where they run wild. Just try."
A voice floated over the hum of the crowd: ". . . the Lonely One . . ."
To the right, a weather-beaten immortal was saying to Jinny Dall, "Haven't got much, but will this do?" He held out a piece of crumpled paper. "An Aphrodite by Praxiteles. Used to be a slave in his workshop, I drew it from memory."
Jinny studied the drawing. "Hm. Think you can do more of the same?"
"Everything he ever carved. If you want."
"I want. Room and board plus all you can drink till you finish."
The walls of the tavern were decorated with artwork. Upon rough-hewn logs, canvases were framed in nonreflective glass cases, with professional lighting. There was an immense Jackson Pollock, three Monets and an ethereal Turner. The Monets were excellent copies (in Amanda's expert judgement) but the others appeared to be genuine.
A shaggy-bearded backwoodsman thumped his fist on the bar counter and shouted, "Jinny! When are you going to get speakers installed, I want to hear Brahms with my meat!"
"What do you care!" Jinny shouted back. "There are so many of us in here that we're all deaf from the buzz anyway!"
"--Excuse me." Amanda leaned forward and snagged Jinny's sleeve in passing. "Do you know if a man named MacLeod ever--"
"MacLeod?" she said. "Sure. We got 'em passing through regular, in fact there's one right over--" A jab of the thumb. "--there."
Amanda twisted around, craning. "Mac!?" Then she spilled her milk punch. "Adam?!"
She pushed her way through the crowd.
It was. Methos himself, in buckskin and leggings, as large as life. All this while he had been sitting quietly in the corner, eating dinner; in fact Amanda had completely overlooked him. He did look different. He looked dusty all over: his hair dusty brown, his skin tanned, his clothing not overly clean. He also failed to look surprised. "Hi, Amanda."
There was no chair. She perched on the edge of his table, peering down at him. "You seem . . . well."
"End of the world agrees with you?"
"Yep," said Methos, tucking into his stew. "By the way, if you're hungry, try the venison hot-pot, it's very good."
"And you're going by the name of MacLeod now."
". . . Duncan MacLeod? M-- Adam, I swear, if I hadn't just seen Mac and talked with him, I'd be wondering if you had--"
"Victor," said Methos, glowering. "Victor MacLeod, thank you very much."
Victor, he was calling himself now? She could just imagine Mac's expression. "Victor Inconnu," she said aloud, chuckling. "I did see Mac, in Seacouver. But you already know that?"
"Yes. We've been in touch."
"Direct two-way audio?"
"I thought that might be you he was talking to that night . . . Um, listen. He showed me something, with quickening--"
She broke off. Nothing had happened--except that Methos had flicked a glance at her from under his brows, and she had felt dread seize her--blind dread, like a blow to the heart.
"That was none of your business," said Methos, "and if you know what's good for you, you won't talk about it in crowded taverns."
There didn't seem much else to say. Methos now seemed more interested in his dinner than conversation; Amanda, abashed, found herself kicking her heels, looking anywhere except at him. Besides, he then caught Jinny Dall's eye, and they seemed to get quite a thing going on. Obviously they were acquainted. Phooey. She made herself comfortable on her perch, leaned back on her hands, attempted a carefree whistle--trying to compensate for her moment of fear. Then her attention was caught by immortals talking at the next table.
They wore homespun, and looked like farmers. ". . . what do you expect?" one was demanding, in what seemed blind frustration. All of them looked upset, huddled together over their shot-glasses and talking just a shade too loudly. "Whole town is cursed, the place has gone bad, we ought to have foreseen it--we built our houses on mortal graves, we pillow our heads on their bones, Graveyard we named this town and a graveyard's what it is, only it's going to be our graveyard too, ours as well as theirs!"
"Old Kallikrates, gone. I can't believe it."
"Taken right out of his house, by God--"
"Mark my words," said the first speaker, "this time last year this was a thriving happy town, and by this time next year-- Nothing. None of us will be left."
"What's happening?" Amanda whispered to Methos.
He said, feather-soft: "It's ten-little-Indians time."
The man at the next table had overheard. He pointed a finger at Amanda. "I can see you're a stranger to this district, missy," he announced loudly, "so I'll give you a piece of advice. Get out of town. Isn't safe." Then he leaned toward her and spoke almost inaudibly: "There's something out there that feeds on immortals."
"So big deal," said Amanda (after reflexively patting her sword). "There are headhunters everywhere these days."
"You don't have a clue, woman! There's been five deaths already and the month's barely half-done. And the last one, Kallikrates--" A pause, then: "His wife found the body in bed beside her. This morning. In his bed, in his house, the thing beheaded him. Inside the town. On holy ground." The man held Amanda's gaze, his own eyes white-rimmed and spooked. "On holy ground," he repeated. "And his wife didn't even feel the quickening go."
Amanda imagined waking up, a thing next to her in bed, a severed head staring from her husband's pillow. The skin crawled on the back of her neck--and she found herself instinctively reaching for her sword again.
Then she wiped all expression from her face. What kind of predator could behead an immortal in his own bed, without leaving any traces of a quickening? She thought she was sitting next to a likely candidate. And, looking down, she found him watching her with bright birdlike eyes.
Methos finished his stew, pushed his plate back, rose and caught the bar-woman's attention again. He raised an eyebrow, tilted his head. Jinny set down the glass she was polishing, and frankly leered at him. Then she jerked a thumb toward the far end of the tavern, where a beaded curtain screened the entrance to a stairway leading upward.
She tossed her rag straight back over her shoulder, swung around and picked up a drumstick lying on the bar counter. Then she hit a big brass gong. The sound boomed through the crowded room, making plates jump on tables and reverberating off the ceiling. Jinny clapped her hands. "Last call!" she shouted into the sudden ringing silence. "Bar closes in fifteen minutes." Fortissimo, while the whole house whooped with laughter: "Someone's getting lucky tonight, folks!"
"You can have my chair," said Methos to Amanda. He shouldered the pack that lay under the table, walked across to the stair and vanished up it.
Several hours later, long past midnight, a quartet of immortal riders came clip-clip-clopping down the empty streets of Graveyard. Not a creature was stirring. Well, no, that wasn't quite true . . . for as the newcomers pulled up their mounts and conferred in the quiet common at the center of town, other immortals stepped out of the shadows and surrounded them.
"Neighborhood watch," drawled one. "We got a new policy in this town, friends: the streets are patrolled dusk to dawn. State your business?"
The riders were in pairs, as if by design. The two in the fore were dressed as Japanese bushi, in full armor of lightweight space-age metal, with the traditional mempo masks covering their faces. Both bushi were male, but one's mask was an akuryo, a traditional demon-visage, and the other was an onna-mem . . . a woman's likeness, also traditional, but exotic in these circumstances. Both rode big horses, with the look of Andalusian-thoroughbred crosses. The two riders in the rear were Brazilian by their appearance, half-naked pagans with the stamp of the jungle upon them: bobbed black hair, ruddy skins decorated in elaborate tattoos. Of these two, one was a strapping specimen of masculinity astride a Morgan quarter-horse, and the other a diminutive girl perched on a donkey, with the fragile innocence of her teenage years still hanging deceptively about her. All four looked dangerous. Even the girl was like a flower of steel--delicate, yet razor-edged.
It was the larger of the bushi who answered. "We're looking for a man named MacLeod."
Methos lay awake in bed, arms crossed behind his head, at ease. The sheet was rucked half-down, and next to him was the bar-owner, Jinny--her face stunned with something like exhaustion--sleeping the sleep of the totally gratified. A little light came in at the window-slats. Methos was talking.
". . . yeah, Amanda's here. What? Oh--Graveyard, that's where. As you should know. Where else do I ever get lately?"
"No. But that's not why I called you." Methos sat up violently in bed; the woman beside him never stirred. "Where the hell," he demanded of midair, "do you get off showing Amanda your tricks?!?"
His voice had been quite loud. He tilted his head, paused, went on more quietly.
". . . Isn't the same case. You know it's not." Pause. "What? Oh--no, she's completely out of it, don't worry." Here Methos twisted around and patted Jinny's cheek; she did not so much as twitch. He smiled, propped up on one elbow gazing down at her, and patted her again. "Won't wake till noon, I think."
Pause. He said, shrugging, "That isn't the same case either. All I used on this one is technique."
"I don't want to fight with you over it! Cut it out, Mac--you know better than that."
A long pause this time. During it, Methos climbed out of the bed and began absently to pace back and forth, listening. Once or twice he nodded.
"Okay," he replied at last. "Fine! Be that way." In frustration: "Okay. But not in here--look, I'll go outside. Just let me get my pants on."
He pulled on most of his clothes, his motions quick and angry. Then he grabbed his sword and scabbard and belted them round his waist, striding toward the door.
Outside, all was peaceful. Methos paced to the corner of the log building, glanced automatically into the narrow alley, leaned back against the wall with crossed arms. A streetlight followed him, bobbing over his head. He could feel other immortals all around him, a whole town full of his own kind--their quickenings were like the hum of a busy beehive. Some of them were moving at a distance--he could tell the difference without thinking much about it--but most were stationary, safe in their beds no doubt. He said quietly, "All right. So I'm paranoid."
Mac's voice said in his ear, via subcutaneous transmitter: "I'd trust Amanda with my life."
"Easy for you to say, you're not here." Methos scowled. "You ought to be. Can't hide yourself away in Seacouver forever, Mac, the Game goes on--"
A sigh. "Methos. For once, just forget the Game."
"Can't forget the Game," Methos snapped. "It's all around us, everywhere, everything. You can't step aside from it, it's life. And if you're not playing, then you're not alive."
"You didn't used to talk that way."
"I was out of the Game then."
"You're not the same Methos I first met."
"I-- Wait." Methos had heard something.
It was a tumult, coming from the far end of town. People were shouting, arguing evidently, and then a whole crowd--some afoot, some mounted--came boiling out of the central square and bore down on Jinny's bar. The horses were charging, their riders carried drawn swords. Other immortals ran in their wake, in a swirl of noise and movement. It looked like a riot of peasants out with torches to burn some castle down, and Methos considered it and then ghosted backward into the alley, too fast for his attentive streetlight to follow--vanishing like magic. MacLeod had gone silent.
The whole shoot-and-shebang boiled to a halt right in front of Last Man Standing, and the old-fashioned wooden sign hung over the bar's doorway swung creaking as if in protest. There was a pair of bushi, a pair of Brazilian tribesfolk, and a lot of yelling. The lead bushi with the demon mask was the loudest of all as he swung his armored mount to a halt, kicked out with the hollow steel box of his stirrup, and knocked crashing on the door. "MacLeod!" he roared. "Send him out to us--MacLeod!"
The door slammed open. Jinny Dall, a bedsheet round her, stood in the black rectangle of the doorway. She roared louder: "What the hell is going on!"
A hush fell.
"Now," said Jinny, thrusting her chin out, "settle down, everyone." Her chest heaved and her hair was tumbled all over her face. Methos, looking on unnoticed from the alleyway, admired her. He noticed Amanda too, off to one side in the crowd. Briefly, their eyes met.
"As for you, strangers," Jinny was saying, "this is holy ground, remember? So I'll thank you for a little courtesy. Now what brings you to my door at this ungodly hour?"
"MacLeod," said the demon bushi. "Bring him on, woman. We've no quarrel with you."
Her eyebrows were all crooked, her brow creased. "MacLeod. Who's he? Never heard of him."
One of the men in the crowd called, "Jinny, don't bother, get your boyfriend downstairs and let's get this over with. It's half-past-two and we've got twenty head of cattle to slaughter and butcher before nightfall tomorrow."
"Ahhh," said Jinny, throwing up her hands. "Hell. Him? I squeezed that man like a basket of grapes, wrung every last drop out of him, and when we were done dancing over the vintage I kicked him out the back-door and he's long gone, out of town. I believe he went east. Sorry."
"You're lying," said the bushi, flatly. "If he's got any manhood left in his sorry body, tell him to step out and face us."
"So you can get off holy ground and do your business?" She lifted her eyebrows. "Four against one? I don't think so. Besides, that's not the Game."
"One at a time," the bushi said, "one after another, as soon as we're beyond the town limits--that's the way things are, isn't it?" He added, "Winner takes all."
Enough, Methos thought. And he stepped forward into the light.
"That's the law of the jungle," he said. Instantly, the four riders focused on him. "My name is MacLeod. Victor MacLeod. And you want something from me?"
The bushi stared long and hard at him, then shook his head. "No. It's a Scotsman named Duncan MacLeod I'm seeking, Graham Ashe's last student, not you."
". . . But if you happen to know him, you'd better tell us where we can find him. Or else--" The bushi laughed a little. "You think your hayseed cow-town friends here can protect you? Think again." In a flat dead voice: "I remember from long ago, there were always two MacLeods and they watched each others' backs. Well, don't think you can play that theme. Screw around with us, and we'll see how you survive the Game with stumps for wrists." Pause. "And for ankles, too. Think about that."
"That's enough!" That was Jinny Dall. "You--" crooking a finger at Methos, "--you get your shapely bum over here, my lad. Whatever these jokers want you for, you didn't do it: my faith on it, that's how sure I am. And you--" jabbing a gesture at the four riders, "--as for you, I've heard enough. You're not welcome here. Get out."
"Or what?" the bushi demanded. The others behind him were laughing.
It was the immortal with the cattle to slaughter who answered, though. His voice was very flat. "Or this." He drew something from under his coat. The bushi took one look and stopped short; the other three riders cut off their laughter. All around them, the people of Graveyard were drawing similar weapons--short, heavy weapons like wands, some three-pronged and some one-pronged and some five-pronged, made to be gripped round the midpoint. Small telemetric displays and control lights winked on the metallic devices.
"Thanks, Jed," said Jinny.
"Think nothing of it . . . Guess you guys know what we're talking about," drawled Jed. He had a blade of grass in the corner of his mouth, chewing on the pith; it jerked up and down as he talked. His expression was completely blasé. "Even if you didn't expect a bunch of hayseed cow-town yokels to be packing this kind of firepower. But see, we've been taking security measures just lately. An' having a headhunter in the vicinity of town just naturally tends to make us jittery on the trigger."
He hefted the weapon. A soft glow pulsed at one end. "These're the spokes on the wheel of Law," he added softly. "Now ride. Ride out."
Without a single word, all four riders wheeled their mounts and headed out of town.
The citizens of Graveyard watched them go. Finally, Jed stirred. He spat out his grass-stem, remarked, "You MacLeod boys, you sure stir up trouble. Think they'll be back?"
"They will," said Methos. "Thanks for your help, though."
"Don't thank us. This warning is for you, too, mister. Start anything around here, and--" A wave of the wand-like weapon, and suddenly a dozen--a hundred--floating lights switched on around him, hovering at neck-level, encircling the knot of people. These were not streetlights. They were mechanical crowd-control remotes, humming in quiet menace as they bobbed through the air. They shone with multiple electronic sensors, and--unlike the crowd-control bees of old Seacouver--they had been equipped with razor blades and needles and hooks and claws.
"We've been taking precautions, 'cause of the Lonely One," said Jed. "Built enough of these here hornets to blanket the whole town. Nothing's going to happen, nobody's going to pull anything in Graveyard--not and not find twenty of these babies slicing into their throats."
Sometime afterward, when everything was quiet again, the immortal named Jed took a meditative walk around the town limits. He was chewing on another grass stem as he went. He carried his wand-like weapon cradled in the crook of one arm, humming softly, twinkling lights--it looked pretty, he fancied, real pretty. Like a Christmas ornament. An armed and deadly ornament.
The weapon was called a vajra, and had ancient and honorable antecedents. Long a Buddhist symbol of the divine thunderbolt, it had been adopted into the eclectic arsenal of Japanese martial arts and had, for centuries, been carried into battle as well as used in everyday devotions. As a traditional Japanese weapon, the vajra was heavy, cast from solid metal, ending in blunt spokes or multiple claws, and could be wielded in several disciplines: tessenjutso, kenjutso. You could swing it to block a sword-blow, you could jab with it and inflict considerable damage to an opponent's vital parts. The modern vajra was something more than that, though. It was a formidable energy weapon--a fancy keyboard--much favored by immortals, because it could be used in tandem with a sword.
Sword in one hand, vajra in the other. Besides, the thing was still perfectly shaped to be used as an offensive weapon--irrespective of its other functions. This appealed to most immortals, who liked the idea of a computer they could club opponents with.
Jed liked the heft of a good vajra in his fist. It made him feel better about life in general. And a man could never have too much security.
Just now, he had safety much in mind. He knew to an inch the dimensions of Graveyard's holy ground: every wise immortal, in Jed's opinion, should know his holy ground. As he moved around the perimeter of the settlement, he was marking the edges with a bucket of whitewash he had just mixed up. He had a paintbrush. He had his grass stem. He had enough firepower to make any man stand tall, and he was painting lines across every road and walkway and little path out of town . . . just in case.
His work tomorrow was also on his mind. The cattle he had driven down from the range for slaughter were penned outside town limits, in a little feedlot he owned. When he came to the narrow road that led to his feedlot, Jed halted and spent several moments just quietly looking in that direction.
He could see the lot, fenced in with stout logs, by the light of the Indian-summer moon. The cattle ought to be snug and corralled, lying down, enjoying their cud. (He shifted the grass stem from one corner of his mouth to the other, chewing.) What was that?
Jed leaned forward over the line he had just painted. He stared. He saw something that made him drop the brush and bucket, draw his sword, and rush headlong to his own death.
"Jed was always a hothead," said Jinny sadly.
It was daylight. She and nine or ten of her fellow citizens stood around a broad white line painted across a dirt road. There were blood-splatters crossing the painted line, now. They vaguely resembled wheel-tracks. They ended several yards inside the line, where a roughly spherical object had rolled and bounced all the way to the nearest house.
It had been Jed's house, of course. The spherical object had been Jed's head.
"It's the Lonely One."
Several immortals crossed themselves.
"So . . . Jed happened to glance at his corral, and somebody had taken the fence-rails down and scattered his livestock to hell and high water: okay. Still, it's an obvious trap. Doesn't explain why Jed was stupid enough to go for the bait." Jinny's brow wrinkled. "Except that he was always a hothead. If he got a good look at whoever was doing it, if he was sure he could take him--he'd try, all right. Damn right. Dead wrong. Poor Jed."
"And whoever was doing it," said another immortal, quietly, "had the nerve to shy Jed's head at us all. And cock a snook at all our gadgetry, blast him. Jinny, I had twenty bees checking out the crime scene within half a minute of that head bouncing over town limits. And what for? Nothing. He'd already cleared out."
"He's making fools of us all! Laughing at us, and-- We're all going to die, aren't we?"
"Shut up, Winston."
"Anybody find the perp's trail?" said an immortal with a New York accent.
"No. The Kondhs are still looking, though."
"If they can't find a footprint, nobody can. Not the best tracker in the world. It's . . . it's as if . . . it's as if there wasn't anyone to make marks--"
"Phooey. You just take that malarkey and shove it, Winston--we're not dealing with a ghost here. Just a man."
"Not a ghost, not a monster," someone else agreed. "Maybe someone Jed recognized."
"Or whatever, but can the supernatural guff, okay? So we're looking for an old immortal, somebody pre-industrial. Or a native American? Or somebody from some jungle, anyway. A hunter, someone woods-wise."
"It's the Jersey Devil!"
Six immortal men had been giving the ground around the feedlot one last thorough going-over. They now came back to join their fellow citizens, swords in hands, moving in tandem, lightly and bouncily as attack dogs. One looked British, one was an Arab, four had the air of distant India about them. Their garb and weaponry were also vaguely Indian. They called themselves the Kondhs, and they were the best woodsmen in Graveyard.
"You boys find any clues?" asked the immortal with the New York accent.
"No," said the one who looked British. "But we will. Right, we're off. If the bugger's left spoor anywhere in six miles, we'll find him and stick him and be back home before tiffin." He brayed out a laugh. "Wish us luck."
They had already buried poor Jed--his head and body both. They had crawled over the whole area searching for clues, and hadn't even seen any sign of a fight. Only, whoever or whatever had beheaded Jed had then picked up the head, walked deliberately up to the line that marked holy ground, and pitched the severed head across like a man playing bowls on the village green.
"Don't call me that," said Methos.
"Sorry." Amanda came a few steps closer. "I guess it's never safe to use that name, is it? Though I have to admit, I can't get used to thinking of you as 'MacLeod', even if you're now going everywhere with his . . ." She trailed off. ". . . katana."
Methos just shrugged. Here was his camp, his horses hitched in a stand of poplars just inside the safe border of holy ground; the trees had turned golden, their boughs light and airy against the bright blue sky, but the grass between the tree-trunks was still long and green and lush. It was a cosy gypsy arrangement, with the back of Jinny's bar looming up just beyond the trees, and the road into central Graveyard within sight too. A roadside camp. He had built a hearth of stones and pitched a little tent, and was sitting cross-legged in front of it, cleaning his weapons.
Amanda dropped down, with a little less than her usual grace, to kneel across from him--her gaze now glued to his sword.
"Don't gawk like that," said Methos. "You'll make me blush. In a Freudian sort of way."
"How long have you been carrying Mac's katana?"
"Oh, for some years now. It's a shame when a good weapon isn't put to use--isn't it?"
Amanda looked away and bit her lip. This tidy little campsite, what did it remind her of? Then, with a pang, she remembered Mac's similar campsite in the ruined park of Greater Seacouver. Not so very far away from the here and now. And Mac hadn't been carrying his katana; no, he had been armed with a sword which . . . which she had seen in Methos' hand, long ago, before the world ended.
Her attention was caught by something just visible in the open saddlebag on the ground next to Methos' fire: a jar of blackberry preserves, and a packet of dried salmon.
"You know, you've changed," he went on, not looking up; he was polishing the blade of the katana with a piece of soft chamois, gently bringing the metal to a sheen. The irregular lightning-streak of its tempering was clearly visible, the grain of the steel blue and fine. Methos held the katana up close to his eye for a moment, inspecting some fleck of soil in the dragon-head of the hilt. "The hair. The jewelry? Looks great on you."
"Not to mention that nice manriki-gusari you've got there," he went on. "You know--the 'chain-to-the-thousandth-power'. Those things are formidable. Can I . . . ?"
"Um. Yes, I guess so." She fumbled the steel whip off and let him have it. Methos looked the weapon over with an appreciative air, handed it back before she had time to second-guess herself and grow apprehensive. Then he grinned at her.
"Don't be such a worrier, Amanda. I'm not after your pretty head."
"Methos. What are you doing here?"
"Trading furs. I've got a regular route going, takes me all round the perimeter of Seacouver. It's a living."
"Oh, don't give me that garbage! I mean--what do you think you're doing, Methos?"
He didn't answer.
"I mean, does Mac know what, what you're--"
"Why Amanda," Methos said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You've changed. You've changed so much." With a helpless gesture: "Every time we ever met, you've seemed like a different Methos to me, but now you've really changed. What have you become?"
"You're wrong," Methos said. "I never change. You've just never known the real me."
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," said Jinny Dall.
It was evening now, and they were out on a picnic--Jinny and Methos. Another lovely grove of autumn poplars sheltered them, but this was a different quarter of the countryside, far from the town limits of Graveyard. To reach this secluded hideaway, they had ridden an hour up a mountainside. She had spread a checkered gingham cloth on the grass and set it with Irish Belleek china in a seashore pattern--creamy-glazed stuff, almost transparently delicate, each plate and cup standing upon knobs which were starfish or knurled shells and reef-life, and every plate and cup different in its details from every other. The teapot was decorated with seahorses gently nodding together, and the sugar-bowl was a seashell. Jinny was just pouring red wine into lead-crystal glasses.
Methos reclined opposite her. "What d'you mean?"
"Well, just look at us all, would you? Here it is, the twenty-third century, post-industrial-revolution and post-computer-revolution and post-apocalypse and all--and how do we live? We're the survivors of the great age of technology, masters of the world, and we're building ourselves log cabins and hauling our water in buckets from the river. Half of us farm, half of us hunt. Lord have mercy on us, there are immortals out east on the prairies living in teepees and hunting with bow and arrow."
"And sword," said Methos mildly.
"Well, yes. We've got access to high technology. Why are we living like peasants?"
"We're not, when it comes to weaponry," Methos said. "Those vajra of yours are nice toys, aren't they? As for the rest of it--" He shrugged. "We're a hidebound lot, we immortals. Every one of us wants to live the way he did when he was a kid."
For their picnic, she had made poulet en ragout dans une boteille, an old campaigner's dish dating from the seventeenth century--perhaps proving her theory even as she spoke. She had deboned a chicken and removed the skin whole, then stuffed the skin into a wine-bottle, leaving a little projecting outside the bottle's neck; then she had stuffed the chicken itself with all sorts of savory things, wild morels and pine-nuts and egg yolks and lobster-meat, and forced the whole delectable mess into the waiting bottle. After sealing the bottle with pastry, she had baked it for several hours and then left it simmering before their little camp-fire.
Now she served her dish with a diamond-cutter, slicing round the neck of the bottle and rapping hard to snap the incised portion clean off. The resulting burst of steam made her laugh and Methos lick his lips. As a side dish, she had made an omelet, pan-fried with cheese and marmalade. Their dessert was fresh-baked oatmeal cookies. Jinny poured out uisge-beatha, the traditional Highland whiskey with a smokey bite to the flavor. They clicked their glasses together.
Afterward, she lay stretched on a blanket, her head pillowed on Methos' lap, and swigged her whiskey straight from the jug. "It's a sweet life," she said.
"You know, I know what you're doing."
"But what I don't know," she went on, her bright black eyes popping open, "is what's about with those ruffians on horseback who rode into town last night. Oh, I know where they come from, it's one of the new cities to the south: Bakufu, they call it. And they know you. And they want something from you MacLeods? But what's the connection between them and you?"
"There isn't one. At least, not so far as I'm aware. They're just idiots in costume, that's all." Methos bent forward and poked her. "Here's a question for you, Mother Shipton. Who are those Kondh guys you've got in town?"
"The Kondh brothers? Oh, they hail from India, Deccan peninsula--"
"Wait a minute!" He snapped his fingers. "Kondhs, right, a hill tribe from the Deccan. Madras district. I know about them. I've been there."
"They're a line," she said, meaning an immortal teacher with a family of students. "The older one with the scars, the Sadhi, he's the teacher, and he gathered the rest of them together during the British occupation. All except Sarhang. Sarhang was a Mogul--he's always going on about invasions and siege and rape. When he's drunk, you can't get him to quit bragging. And all six of them are always a little drunk. I don't like them," she added.
"They're good trackers," Methos said, "Kondh tribesmen. Good with their bows, too. I've seen a shot from a Kondh man's bow go straight through a buffalo-bull's shoulder and stick six inches out the other side."
"They've gone out on foot with their vajras, to hunt the Lonely One," said Jinny. "They say if they find him, they'll prove his neck's as much flesh and bone as any other immortal's. They'll be patrolling every night now." She looked up into his eyes. "I told you I know what you're up to. I know when you're in the vicinity, when you slip out of my bed of nights. No one else can tally your comings and goings, but I can."
"Jinny, why are you telling me this?"
"Because, well--it's the Game, isn't it?" she said. "And I know who I like. You're a charmer, my boy, and I think you're very old. I never met an old one yet who didn't have a little sparkle of divinity in his soul. And besides, if I can charm you back, maybe you'll take me away to whatever secret spot it is that all you MacLeods hide out."
He only frowned. "Jinny--"
"And I don't like the Kondhs." Jinny put up one hand and smoothed it over his brow. "I told you. I know whose side I'm on, whose side I'm not. I know who I can trust."
Methos stroked her hair back from her forehead.
"Methos. Who is she--the girl you talk to, when you're alone? The one who leaves you looking so troubled? And then sometimes you pace for hours. That girl."
"Shh. That's not a girl," said Methos, "that's a bloody big man, a man's man--that's who that is."
He bent and kissed her. Then he took the whiskey firmly away from her, and caught her hands and kissed them when she would have protested. "No more questions. It's almost sunset. Time to put out the fire and head for home."
Later, he left her at her door, with a good-night kiss as she tried pull him inside. As he walked away, MacLeod said in his ear, "Don't do this."
Methos said, "There isn't any choice."
"There's always a choice," said MacLeod.
Barely half-an-hour later, before the last silvery romance of twilight had faded from the gloaming, another citizen of Graveyard vanished.
The following day, one of the Kondhs was taken--plucked right out from the company of his brothers, as they patrolled high up on the mountainside. They were riding single-file along a narrow horse-track, when the last in their line was snared by a noose from the thick spruce-forest above. He had been pulled off his saddle, barely a sound to mark the moment, and by the time the other Kondhs swarmed off their horses and gave pursuit through the heavy undergrowth, he was long-gone.
The five remaining Kondhs returned to Graveyard all white-rimmed eyes and jittering nerves. "Pulto bagho," one of them said, over and over. "Pulto bagho, pulto bagho. Werewolf!"
"We knew another immortal was with us," said another, "felt the warning--but before we could even react, it was all over."
"The--the bloody dacoit took him right from under our noses," said the Kondh who had been British, his voice very clipped. "He should have put up a fight. Should have fought back. My opinion, the Lonely One broke his neck with the first jerk on the noose, killed him and carried him away like a man-eating tiger. Dragged him out of earshot and then enjoyed his quickening at leisure."
By evening, most of Graveyard's remaining immortals had gathered together.
Without talking it over, they had instinctively avoided Jinny's bar, their usual choice for a meeting-place; there were too many out-of-towners to be found at Jinny's bar. Besides, they knew Jinny Dall was sharing her bed with a stranger these days. So they had congregated on the village green, around the bandstand they had built in sunnier days. They had once used to come here to enjoy jazz sessions and fiddling and the Kondh boys' fine barbershop sextet; they had danced the nights away and had a fine time. But tonight there was no music, and their faces were grim.
Every man and woman of them carried extra weaponry: vajras, swords, axes, energy weapons of all sorts and sizes. High-caliber multitype Holtz power-rifles, for preference. Most of them wore holographic-flak jackets--combat jackets which (when turned on) broadcast animated images, to draw an opponent's fire and give an advantage in a fight. These had once been the leading edge in mortal warfare. Anime-amine was the proper technical term. Anime-armor.
They broached a keg of wine, newly shipped from the nearby town of Resurrection. It was an excellent vintage, but none of the immortals enjoying it looked happy. They sat on the edges of the bandstand and sipped from cut-crystal glasses, almost comical--weather-beaten, wary immortals, every one of them a veteran of hundreds of conflicts, but white-faced now and fidgety. With an edge of panic to their voices. With a look of superstitious fear.
". . . took Raphael in broad daylight as he was working his fields, left nothing but a ruddy crop-circle behind . . ."
". . . I was barely fifty metres from him, just tinkering with the plough's rotors, trying to get it back in the air, when I heard him shout, but---pfft!--never saw nothing . . ."
". . . took Jules and Mercedes on the road between here and Seacouver . . ."
". . . emptied New Phoenix, that's what I heard--the cochon picked them all off one by one, left the whole town empty except for the heads . . ."
"No-all knows whoziz, no-all knows whatziz. Nobody-at-all knows flaming how to close the fucher-mucher's window--"
"Anafanya vita huyu . . ."
"--the Lonely One."
Eventually they set their wine aside, and those who had thought to bring packed lunches finished eating and tidied up their mess. The immortal with the New York accent said, "Everybody's heard what happened with the Kondhs."
There was a general murmur of assent.
"Everybody's had a chance to talk things over?"
"Anybody got suggestions?"
"Can't just sit back and wait to be picked off one by one," someone called out. "Got to do something."
From another quarter came a quavering voice: "We know it's nothing natural. I say, have Singing Fox and Galadriel call up the spirits and do an exorcism--"
"Shuddup, Winston. I love you, man, but just--shut--up."
Winston shut up.
After allowing a few moments to go quietly by, the immortal with the New York accent went on, "Okay. We're agreed in general that the perp's gotta be an outsider. A roving headhunter. Not one of us. And until we take measures, more of us are going to die the final death. So . . . in order to protect ourselves, we expel all outsiders. Usher them off our holy ground and let them take their chances."
The audience looked aside, many of them reaching down unconsciously to touch their swords. Through the minds of almost half of them (especially the five Kondhs) went an instinctive thought, a thought of other immortals turned out in surprise and disorganization, off holy ground . . . left vulnerable.
The half who were not tempted by this thought, read it on the faces of their neighbors. They in turn thought about protesting, knowing what would almost certainly happen. Then they wondered whether protesting would put them, too, outside the pale. Who else might be turned off holy ground, marooned outside? With the Lonely One waiting.
Then they looked around, studied the immortals surrounding them. Seeing a sudden hungry brightness in the eyes of those like the Kondhs, they wavered. They lost their nerve, shut their mouths on their misgivings, and when the immortal with the New York accent said, "So we're decided?" they joined in the chorus of agreement.
Amanda learned about all this when a posse came for her.
Like Methos, she had her little camp just inside town limits; every immortal township followed the same custom these days, setting aside ground within its borders so that travelers would have a safe place to squat. Amanda's camp was a blanket on the grass, with a modest awning set up on a pair of poles. Well, and there was also the bug-zapper she had picked up on her trip across the continent, a black box dangling from the frame of her awning. It had eyes in it, and a tiny laser. It could fry mosquitoes and mice and snakes and marauding blackflies--any creepy-crawlers that might come to bite her while she slept. It also beeped like hell if someone tried to sneak up.
BeeBEEEEbeeep! it went.
She rolled over and rose, holding whip and sword.
"'Scuse us for interrupting your sleep," said one of the immortals standing over her. He tipped his hat. "But it's time for you to go."
". . . what?"
"Time to go. Pick your things up, miss, and we'll see you out of town."
Amanda sat down on her blanket, staring; then she started to laugh. "Is it April first already? Because this is such a joke--"
"No joke. Sorry, miss."
"What if I don't want to leave holy ground?" she asked blankly. "You can't make me."
But the taboo against violence on holy ground worked two ways. Amanda stood by open-mouthed as the Graveyard immortals began to strike her camp for her; in a trice, they had her awning down and her horse bridled and saddled, and when she stepped forward to protest, one of them even whisked the blanket out from under her. Amanda sizzled. At last she hefted her sword in earnest, too hopping-mad to think--and the other immortals surrounded her, moving slowly and holding their hands high, till she lowered the sword in confusion and let them take it gently away.
"You can't get away with this!" she said as they ushered her to her horse.
But they could, because her hands were tied, too. Firmly, they took hold of her mare's rein and led it over the boundary of Graveyard. Once there, they conferred briefly. The immortal who was carrying Amanda's sword handed it back to her. Then all but two of them turned around and walked back toward holy ground.
"We'll see you a ways down the road," said one of the remaining two. He made shooing motions with his vajra. "Miss?"
Neither one of them looked trustworthy to Amanda. They separated, each one armed with sword and vajra, and began to pace her along the road; she reined her mount to a walk, eyeing them every moment. That one on her right hand had a mean and shifty look, and the one on her left hand kept dropping back, as if maneuvering to get into her blind spot. Both of them were big, strong men. The skin crept on the back of her neck.
When several turns of the road had put Graveyard completely out of sight behind them, the two immortals exchanged significant glances. "Well," one said quietly. "Thanks for being reasonable about all this."
Amanda said nothing.
He shrugged, finally turning as if to start on the walk back to town. As he did, his companion moved sideways in a flanking movement--breaking openly into a grin. He jabbed the point of his sword at her horse's belly.
Amanda triggered her steel whip. Electricity crackled along the links of the whip as she swung it around, brushing it along the immortal's sword in what was almost a caress. The man made a choked sound and folded to the ground. She had zapped him with several hundred volts. Now she turned, bringing the whip up, her mare beginning to buck under her. Time slowed. The second immortal was coming at her in a dead run, sword out. If he decided to use his vajra, she was dead meat.
She abandoned her mare, simply toppling over sideways and letting herself roll out of the saddle; she flipped in midair, hit the ground on her feet like a cat. Then she was springing sideways from a crouch, pushing off with one foot, as the mare cantered away down the road. For a few seconds, it had served as cover between her and the second attacker. No longer, though. Amanda swung the whip, saw the second man jink like a football player, and come onward avoiding the blow. Something hit her whip-arm, numbing it to the elbow; she staggered back, almost falling, and began to curse viciously in old French. The whip fell from her loosening fingers. She had lost all feeling in that arm. She swerved, pivoted, parried a lunge. The second man laughed, threatened her. She saw he was wearing a fighting armlet, a thick and heavy ring of stone encircling his right arm above the elbow; he had hit her with it, she hadn't been expecting it at all.
She fell back, moving sideways. Her first attacker would be reviving soon. The second stalked in her wake, now laughing continuously, with a high hungry convulsive sound that reminded Amanda of Africa and hyenas. She caught his gaze, held it while the moment drew out. "Your friend will be up in a moment," she said meaningfully. "He's the competition. You have to take my head before he gets to it--don't you? So come on."
Amanda danced aside, let him pass. Her sword sliced straight through his spine from behind, and his head separated from his neck as the body slid to a gory halt in the dust.
Without a second's pause, she ran the few steps to the other immortal, and took his head too.
It was the Game.
She stood with the bloodied tip of her sword resting on the ground, head down and chest heaving, and hoped to hell that nobody else would attack before she recovered from the quickening.
Methos came by not an hour later.
He rode down the road, his pack-horse trotting behind on a lead-rein, looking keenly at the undergrowth to the left and right. When he came parallel to where Amanda was, he clucked and reined in, halting. His saddle-horse promptly reached out its long neck and grabbed for a mouthful of grass; his pack-horse touched noses with Amanda's white mare picketed by the wayside. "Amanda?" Methos called. "You can come out. It's just me."
She had withdrawn to a prudent distance in the thick forest. "Methos?"
"Ah, there you are." He reached down and just brushed the back of one hand against her red hair. "Good to see you didn't lose your head."
"As you can see--" Amanda had a shovel in her hand. She gestured with it. "They lost theirs instead."
Methos dismounted. "Grave-digging detail, huh? Here." He shrugged off his buckskin jacket, took the shovel, and got to work. "Good idea. Not enough stones around to build a cairn, and there are grizzlies in the vicinity anyway. Lions, too, come to think of it."
"Were you looking for me?"
"Mm-hm. Thought you'd present too tempting a target for comfort. You seem to have had no trouble handling things, though."
"Well, I'm more dangerous than I look," she said snippily.
"I see that."
"What happened with you?"
"What? Oh, nothing special. I went peaceably."
"Oh." Amanda stood and watched him dig. "One thing," she added, "I frisked their pockets, and one of them was carrying an invisibility-coat projector." She patted her jacket pocket. "Not turned on, of course . . . but at least I got something out of the deal. By the way, how did you know it was me?"
"Because that's one of Mac's horses you've got there," he said.
Once he had finished digging a shallow double grave, they carried the bodies over and dropped them in. Then Methos put the heads in too. Neither he nor Amanda said any prayers. He set to with the shovel again, filling the grave. Once, she shivered. "The shovel--you can leave it on the grave when you're finished. It's not mine. I found it on one of them."
"They came prepared?" He tsk-tsked. "The villains." Then he folded the shovel into a six-inch rectangle of plastic, and laid it atop the grave-mound. "Rest in pieces, then."
Together, the two of them walked back to untether their horses, mounted up and began to ride away from Graveyard. "Methos," she said, "what happens next? To these people, I mean."
"They're scared," said Methos. "They don't know what quarter the next attack will come from, and it's got them jumping. See, that's the value of the creative method. A good ghost story comes up trumps over a daylight approach every time . . . It makes people vulnerable. Makes them make mistakes. They're running scared." In the soft pale light of the pre-dawn, his teeth showed briefly as he grinned. "As for me? I think I'll go camp on the mountainside, but I plan to go roundabout and maybe take the horses in along a stream-bed or something, so that nobody can come tracking after me in the night. You're welcome to tag along if you like."
"No," she said, her face hardening. "I think I'll make my own arrangements, thank you."
"You don't trust me, do you, Amanda?"
"Not an inch."
There had only been fifteen or twenty foreign immortals in Graveyard, and most of them submitted to being ejected in a quiet though baffled way; they didn't have a clue what to do next. Nothing like this had ever happened to them before. And holy ground was their first, best choice for safety . . . but they could all smell fate in the air. Doom hung over Graveyard like a miasma. When the Lonely One came to a town, the end was near.
The ejected immortals turned their backs on Graveyard and headed for points elsewhere. Most of them thought privately they were the lucky ones.
Afterwards, a pair of Graveyard's citizens met on a bluff overhanging the town's little river, and stood together talking.
"Think they made it, Solly?"
"Who knows? I spotted some of us slinking home smacking their lips. And the Sadhi and his crew haven't checked back in yet."
"You said it, Winston my man."
Winston wrinkled his brow and checked the rabbit's foot hung round his neck.
"And that's not all that's going down, either. Remember those samurai jokers? The Japanese pair and the Brazilian duo, I saw them watching from the lookout-point over the Seacouver road. So they didn't split after all, they're still hanging around. Can't be good."
"I was thinking," said Winston hesitantly, "ought to pull up stakes, head south myself. Move to Benu city--there's good farmland around Benu city--or maybe Loyola College--some other place. Any place that doesn't feature the Lonely One."
"Giving up, Winston?"
"Yeah . . . well . . . y'know . . . how about you, Solly?"
"Like hell I am! I grew up in Hell's Kitchen getting my ass kicked by Puerto Ricans, and I'm not quitting yet. I don't believe in the Lonely One. What we've got here is some fool with good p. r. and a few old ninja tricks up his sleeve. Let him come! I'll show him some tricks of my own, you bet. And in the meantime, I'm staying put, I like it here, and I don't scare easy--not like you, Winston."
Winston said nothing. He refused to look up, shame-faced. Kicking at a stone on the ground, he walked a few steps away.
"Nope, the Lonely One can't make me run, I'm not superstitious like you--though whoever he is, he gives me the creeps, I admit it. Makes me think, I dunno, of the Ha Gakure. You know, Hidden Leaves, by Yamamoto? Seventeenth-century samurai philosophy. I wouldn't be surprised if the Lonely One isn't Japanese . . . whoever he is . . . You know: 'By the way of the warrior is meant, death. The way of the warrior is death. This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death--it means to see things through, being resolved. The weak are unresolved as to whether to keep to their original plan when faced with the choice of life and death . . . If you make yourself accustomed to the idea of death and resolved on death, and consider yourself as a dead body, thus becoming one with the way of the warrior, you can attain your goals without fail.' Yeah, that's what I think of when I think about the Lonely One, Winston . . . Winston?"
"Winston, where you go, man? Winston?"
Solly turned, and there were only scuff marks on the grass where Winston had stood a moment before. The marks ran backward, vanishing into the nearby forest. Marks like those of a body being jerked off its feet with a lethal snap to the neck, and dragged soundlessly away. Ten feet beyond the point where they started, there was the streak of white paint that defined the edge of holy ground.
As Solly stared, a crackle of electric noise began in the thick spruce forest. There was a boom. Then another boom. Above the pinnacles of the spruce trees, a pillar of fire rose.
It was happening barely fifty yards off through the trees. If he was quick and went off holy ground himself, he could be there before the fireworks died down; he could get at the Lonely One before the Lonely One recovered from Winston's quickening.
His sword was in his hand. He gasped in a deep breath, started toward the line of white paint.
Then he halted, shoulders slumping.
He stood immobile, marooned on holy ground, and did nothing.
They got to work.
Keeping to parties of three or more, they went all the way round the borders of Graveyard and surveyed them, marking out an exact circle; what they intended required geometric perfection. Other immortals followed the surveyors, carrying thin rods of electronic equipment. These were being turned out in a workshop attached to someone's barn. When finished, these rods were planted along the perimeters of the town, every rod at a carefully measured distance from its neighbors. They went in just outside the surveyed circle. Even while planting defensive weaponry, the immortals kept to the old rule: no violence could take place on holy ground.
While the perimeter was being ringed with rods, someone disconnected the town's computer, tucked the unit--it was a slim rectangle perhaps eight inches by eleven--under his arm and walked away with it. Normally, this computer ran all services in Graveyard: the streetlights, power supply if anyone needed it, communications, and the greenhouse effect that would, once winter set it, keep the grass lush and tomatoes ripening in kitchen gardens attached to the various houses; the good citizens of Graveyard were very finicky about enjoying fresh vegetables all year round. The greenhouse effect was a complex undertaking; it involved heat exchange and broadcast pseudo-sunlight both. The technology that made it possible had been invented just before the downfall of the mortal world, and even a century after the Rapture, it was still in vogue. It was the kind of technology that even immortals, an old-fashioned lot if there ever was one, found worth keeping.
The perimeter rods now being planted were customized greenhouse rods. But when turned on, they would do something quite different.
Once enough of the rods had been produced, the immortals who had been working on them set about another task. Some of them had manufacturing tanks stowed in their tool-sheds and basements, and these were plugged in and put to use. In a jiffy, swarms of microscopic robots--nanofireflies they were called--began to pour out. And some of the tanks were put to generate sheets of treated plastic, solar panels. These would be used for hydroponics. A few squares of them, set up in the common by the bandstand, would grow enough food to feed everyone in Graveyard. This had always been possible, but immortals usually tended to want to hunt and grow their own food by hand, the way they had when they were young.
The town computer went on a bench in the bandstand; this was the exact center of the circle of perimeter rods. The immortals who set it up cursed under their breath as they did. No one liked the steps they were now taking. "The Lonely One," one of them said, muttering the words. Then he checked the connections, plugged in his vajra in lieu of a keyboard, and began to write a special program.
Elsewhere, trios and quartets of immortals not needed for these tasks stood guard, armed to the teeth. And talked in low tones, discussing strategy.
"Know neither yourself or the enemy, you lose every time. Know yourself but not the enemy, for every fight won you suffer a matching defeat. But know yourselves and the enemy too, and every battle's a victory. That's Sun Tzu, that is. We have to find out more about the Lonely One. Who is he, what's he after? We have to find out--"
"Security against defeat implies defensive tactics--"
"--ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive. Once we've got the force-field up, we'll need to exit and hunt."
"Yah, effing-find the fucher-mucher and blow him up. Wit' extreme prejudice."
"'The good fighters of old,'" someone quoted, "'first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.'"
"Yeah. That's more like it."
Jinny Dall worked with her compatriots. Only, as the day passed, she excused herself several times to go to the town limits, and stand gazing blindly out. Once she sniffed and wiped her eyes. Otherwise she just looked grim. But they all looked grim, it was a grim time; nobody knew from what quarter the next attack would come.
"Sun Tzu wrote 'The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.'"
Solly, he of the New York accent, heard someone saying this. He scowled doubtfully, but held his tongue.
But Jinny slipped away from the work gangs, and ducked into Last Man Standing. The tavern was empty, echoing and dim; it was a far cry from its usual busy self. Jinny straightened a chair or two, wiped the bar counter, tinkled the keys of the spinet in the corner. She had liberated the spinet from a museum, and in a nearby display case she kept a Stradivarius and a Hutch IV 'Roaring Comet' synthesizer, in case any passing bar patron felt the need to make music. She wandered round, ran a hand over the frame of her much-prized Turner. She poured herself a drink, and sat down at the bar.
She had tucked a few necessities into a bag which now lay by the door. Her saddle-horse was waiting, tethered just out back. Well, time to go. Jinny quaffed her drink, hurled the glass into the dark fireplace to shatter with a tinkle and a crash, hefted the bag and walked away.
As she rode past the perimeter of Graveyard, the other immortals finished their work. In the central commons, someone said, "Well, this is it. Goodbye, cruel world!" and hit the button ENTER.
Multiple rays of light sprang from every one of the hundreds of rods. They crisscrossed in a network of mathematical perfection, a web of thin ethereal laser beams. Ray intersecting with ray, creating a bright barrier extending upward to infinity. It surrounded Graveyard, encircling the town in a wall of light.
Nanofireflies liberated from the manufacturing tanks flitted into the air in swarms millions strong. The tanks were still pumping them out; soon they would number in the billions. Nano robots were cheap and easy to build. Like the perimeter fence, they emitted beams of laser light. They used these to communicate. Tiny pulsing lasers, many-colored, jewel-bright. Like fireflies.
A glowing haze settled upon the town.
Jinny barely looked back.
Amanda, having staked herself out a spot on the mountain, settled down with optics perched on her nose, and began to scan Graveyard and its surrounds.
She watched two of the other immortals ejected from the town limits, as they met one another on the road, challenged and fought each other. The winner enjoyed a quickening, and rode off in the direction of Seacouver. Amanda hoped he wouldn't be stupid enough to enter the ruins of the city.
She spent a little while trying to locate Methos' camp. It must be somewhere up there, hidden higher on the mountainside; she switched her optics to their handy-dandy heat-sensor setting, scanned carefully for clues. But wherever it was, he had concealed it too well to be found.
When the shining ring leaped into existence around Graveyard, she only sighed. Oh, she could see what they were trying to do. It was the predictable defense. Soon enough the whole town would be sealed. The immortals below could sit behind their barrier for a hundred years; food and water and energy sufficient was available to them, they were ideally situated for a siege. It was only when you reflected that their opponent too could wait forever, that Graveyard seemed about as inviting as--as--she shook her head, as an old phrase occurred to her--as a roach motel.
And she recalled old lessons, drummed into her head by Rebecca her teacher. Sometimes, going onto holy ground was the only way to survive. But be very very careful, if go onto holy ground you must . . . be careful to leave yourself a safe back door.
On the other side of Graveyard, Methos too was overlooking the beleaguered town. He lay atop a mossy boulder on a cliff, the katana under his hand; his horses grazed behind him, in a pocket of meadowy grass safe from prying eyes and optic heat-sensors. Finally he wriggled backwards on his elbows till he was out of the skyline, and then sat up and relaxed.
A shadowy figure moved forward to stand beside him. "Methos."
"Oh. It's you." Pause. "Go away."
"You're not the Methos I first met."
"Yeah, yeah, I hear a lot of that."
"Not the man I knew. That man was strong. He wouldn't be racked by doubt and guilt, he wouldn't hesitate. He knew his place in the world."
"And how to protect his own, I suppose."
"And how to protect our own. How will you protect us, Methos?"
He didn't answer, only hunched a shoulder.
"And," said the shadowy figure, more lightly, "Methos? 'A bloody big man, a man's man'? Darling, I love you madly, but--a woman. Thirty-four twenty-four thirty-six. All woman."
"Damn you, Kells, just go away and leave me be."
"But I won't, you know." The dim holographic figure walked forward, unafraid, to look over the edge of the cliff. "Those people. Look at them, poor dears, busy painting themselves into their little corner and thinking that's just so fine. Whatever will they do next? So many ways, so many means--why, the wars of the last century alone left us a host of cutting-edge weapon options. As I should know. For aren't I Jaya daughter of Daksha, patron goddess of all weaponry?"
"Oh, quit posing."
She drawled, lingering over the words, "Amukta, yantramukta, panimukta, mantramukta. Weapons that need not leave the hand, weapons thrown by machines, hand-thrown, thrown by spells. Muktamukta, either thrown or not. Or will it be bahuyuddha? Weapons of the body itself?" In a lighter tone: "All mortal devices, of course. Some things that we immortals would never think of ourselves! And that's the rub."
"Everyone's into nostalgia these days, I guess," Methos said.
"They're fighting for their lives. And there's one weapon that could ensure their victory. But of course, they won't want to build that."
The good citizens of Graveyard were still hard at work. Their town was now enclosed in a precisely knit wall of light. Some of them had gone round with instruments and adjusted the perimeter rods; others were still patrolling. Meanwhile a haze of nanofireflies filled the air. Tiny glowing machines flitted in clouds out of the manufacturing vats, and when enough had been produced, a group of immortals near one edge of the town looked up with satisfaction, one of them saying, "Will you look at that!"
A bird had just flown through the wall of light. The crisscrossed laser beams had not harmed it at all, but as it flew on with a lazy dip of its wings, a brilliant fog gathered in its wake. Then it was enveloped in brilliance. Nanofireflies converged on it by the billions, and when enough had massed around it, there was a small but lethal explosion.
"Well, that works," said Solly, and sheathed his sword. "Anything that comes through the wall goes kablooey."
Graveyard was sealed.
Other immortals had gathered to watch in weary satisfaction. When enough had congregated, Solly glanced around to garner their attention, and raised his voice. "Not time to sit on our butts yet, guys. We've got to talk offense."
"Let's go out hunting in groups like the Kondhs," someone called from the rear of the crowd.
"Where are those Kondhs, anyway?"
"Out hunting, all right. They went out before we activated the laser-wall."
"We all need to be equipped with anime-amine. And there's lots of weapons we could build--"
"We can, yeah, but the Lonely One can play that game too! Who knows what he's armed with? The things he's done--"
"And no matter what kind of firepower we pack," someone pointed out, "the challenge is still one-on-one."
They all paused to consider this. It was quite true. They could build all kinds of puissant weaponry, but so could their enemy; also, when push came to shove, the Game's rules were plain. Single combat was the law. And single combat against the Lonely One . . . None of them wanted to bell that particular cat.
"Okay," said Solly eventually. "You know there's one thing we could--"
Their faces fell. They all knew what he was talking about, but none of them wanted to do that.
Solly read their expressions and understood perfectly. More loudly, he went on: "Ooo-kay! Never mind the speculation, let's check off what we've got. We'll keep the nanofireflies coming, those things are like mayflies--only last about six hours before they crash and burn. We've gotta keep replenishing their numbers. How's our power sources?"
"Got enough batteries to last us fifty years."
"Good. Great! Solar-panel farm all seeded?"
"Planted and thriving, Solly. That stuff grows like bacteria. First crop will be ready to harvest, ah, day after tomorrow."
"And our surveillance system?"
"I reprogrammed the spare tank and popped out about two hundred more bees," someone reported. His neighbors clapped. "Set them to patrolling outside the town limits, programmed to home in on movement. See here? I've just hooked up the remote visual display."
Everyone gathered round to watch as multiple holographic images sprang to life above their upturned faces. The pictures were three-dimensional, slightly jerky, tending sometimes to break up into glowing pixels at the edges of the display; but they moved, they were tiny yet jewel-bright--like glimpses into open windows--and there was even audio. They were first-cousins of the audio/visual linkage that accompanied Methos at all times, but none of Graveyard's immortals thought about that. They were too busy applauding the pretty pictures. The display showed mule deer bounding along a mountain path, horses grazing by the river, an eagle wheeling in flight. "Hey," said Solly, as a chorus of roaring ascended over the quiet evening landscape. "Try the flatlands down below the river's curve."
The immortal controlling the display hit a macro button on his vajra. A single image zoomed into central focus, enlarged, hung over the immortal audience.
There were lions hunting in the flatlands down below the river's curve. Wild cattle had for many years grazed there, pasturing with deer and elk, any man's to hunt; since the Rapture, feral cattle had spread and multiplied, and filled the vast empty spaces of North America. So too had lions. This was the local pride, descended from African lions escaped from the city zoo of Greater Seacouver, soon after the end of mortal civilization. They were little threat to immortals. It was the cattle they were after.
Their deep roars reverberated. An even dozen of them were driving the prey into ambush, into the thick stands of willow by the river's edge. There, another dozen or so of the pride's lions waited silently. The attacking lions had come in from upwind, giving the wild cattle their scent, and roaring continually to panic them into madness. Then the lions lying in ambush were coming out and taking their prey. The thickets along the river were alive with the tumult of it: deep eager grunts coupled with the crash of springing lions, branches breaking as cattle were brought to earth, strangled and groaning moans dying away to nothing. Then the greedy coarse sound of the killers chewing into their feast.
One great black-maned male paced into clear view at last, shaking its heavy mane, framed by the narrow leaves of the willows. It seemed to position itself directly in the center of the holographic scene, and its deep purr of satisfaction rumbled out as it licked dripping blood from its chops. Then it bent, taking hold of the full-grown cow that lay between its forepaws, and sprang out of the frame in the flick of an eyelash.
"Wait a minute," said the immortal controlling the display, his attention snagged by another of the holographic images. "What's that?" He hit a button.
The picture shifted. The lion-hunt was left behind. Another kind of hunt took its place.
"Hot damn!" said Solly.
The five remaining Kondhs were on horseback, somewhere further inland, northeast of Graveyard. The audience could recognize the background. They all knew the locale. There was a road, towering trees shading it from the long rays of the sun; it ascended the mountain in narrow switchbacks, torturous kinks and curves. The image reproduced a moment of tension: the Kondhs whoa'ing their mounts, drawing their swords, gazing ahead. There, from under the shadows of the spruce trees, a solitary man had just stepped into their path. He too had drawn his sword.
"That's one of the ones we ejected from town," said Solly, gazing up at the picture. "But what's he up to--?"
The standing man made a small courtly gesture, inviting attack, one against five. The Kondhs needed no debate. Grins blossomed on their faces. They kicked their horses, whooped, hit buttons on their jacket-pockets. And charged.
As they did, the air blurred around them. Each Kondh was suddenly a cartoon of motion, multiple images of man and horse spreading to either side, trailing behind in a fun-house mirror madness. Their anime-armor had been turned on. Dozens of holographic reflections moved with them now. Somewhere in the midst of each blur of conflicting reflections was the real target, the living man who could be cut and killed--if you could find him. If you were good enough to sort the real man out of the reflections. If.
The audience of onlookers watched with grim appreciation.
"Poor sucker. He's caput."
"But-- Christ! Look at him go!"
It was the damndest thing. The Kondhs milled in a scrum, swords rising and falling, yelling instructions at each other in hill-Indian dialect. They were a chaos of anime-images. They had the advantage of numbers. But . . . the immortal on foot moved amidst them, sideways, forward, back. There was no hurry in anything he did . . . but every cut and thrust aimed at him missed the mark. Moreover, he seemed quite capable of coping with the anime special effects. He wheeled among the horses, and a scarlet arc of blood suddenly sprayed in his wake. "Ohmigod!" said Solly. One of the Kondhs was just toppling out of the saddle. Two more Kondhs swung their mounts around, jostling for space; there was an ugly frustrated note to their shouts now. Their favored method was to soften up an opponent, then back off and draw straws for the head: incapacitate, then decapitate. It skirted the bounds of the rules, but worked like a charm. However, it didn't seem to be working this time--
"Ohmigod!" said Solly again.
A Kondh, beheaded, slid gruesomely in two pieces to the road. It was the leader of the pack, the Sadhi. As his horse cantered riderless away, the first eerie gleam of quickening twisted up lambent in its wake.
The worst thing was that his armor was still turned on. Everything was captured many times over: the head tumbling, the sword spinning lazily downward, even the sparkle as the quickening began. Then it cut off, shorted out by the discharge of power. Left in its wake was a body lying headless in the road, a lone man slumped to his knees beside it. Quickening writhed over him, and he arched his back, sword across his knees, eyes glowing. And screamed.
The remaining Kondhs moved in for the kill.
"Now they've got him. Hey, look. Isn't that--?"
"Yep. It's Jinny's boyfriend. That trapper fellow. MacLeod--"
"--and he's dead."
But it wasn't going to happen.
All the anime-amine jackets had shorted out now. The lone immortal was back on his feet, holding off all four Kondhs--all of them fighting engulfed in quickening. The Kondhs had to force their horses into it, but they forged on. It didn't touch them. It hit the immortal in their midst, poured into and through him. It danced like lightning along the blade of his sword, but he was still moving. He didn't waste a gesture, but he was fighting on even while taking the quickening. And he shouldn't even have been able to defend himself, he should have been blind and deaf to everything around him. He should have been as helpless as a kitten.
And the quickening was like ribbons of ghostly fire, fingers of ectoplasm. Blue. Green. Pale yellow. It mounted three meters skyward, a column of light.
He shouldn't have been able to take a second head. But he did.
He shouldn't have been able to deal with not one but two quickenings, and fight on. But he was.
"Christ in a bucket," gasped one of the onlookers. "I never thought. The effect of quickenings--it's not cumulative--?"
"Who could have told?"
A third Kondh died the final death. A third quickening erupted.
The last two Kondhs were fighting without conviction now, their swords swinging at random, blows struck wildly in panic. The picture was breaking up, the multiple quickenings messing with the transmission. "Their vajras," said Solly, speaking without knowing he did. "They could have taken him out with their vajras. If they'd thought to dismount and come at him on foot. But that first quickening, it knocked out the vajras, and then they were screwed."
"They didn't have a chance."
"There goes Sarhang. Oh, God. He's the last."
A hellish conflagration of quickening consumed the picture image. For a long moment it cut right out; then it reformed. Bright and clear, the display showed all five Kondhs dead. The victor was just stretching, like someone working the kinks out after a refreshing nap. He stooped over one of the bodies, straightened holding a vajra. Between its three-pronged end sparkled a fiery electric arc. He swung the vajra up, casually, and it came to the immortals in Graveyard that he knew they were watching. For an instant, the vajra was pointed straight at what must be the transmission bee. The victorious immortal smiled, seeming to look into their eyes. He hit a control.
The picture winked out as the bee was destroyed.
"He looked right at us," said somebody, shaken.
"Amri ya Mungu," someone else whispered. God's will be done.
Solly wished he had a paper bag to breath into; he was sure he was hyperventilating. But he managed to find the breath to speak. "You know who that really was," he said.
Frightened, appalled, they knew. They knew what it meant--that the Lonely One had let them see his face.
"You know what we've gotta do now," said Solly.
More than just surveillance bees had been drawn by the action.
From not so very far off, Ginny Dall had seen the quickenings begin, and she had gotten on her horse and come galloping. She arrived almost immediately after the grand finale. Five Kondhs lay in ten pieces, their own horses had all run off, and Methos was cleaning his katana and surveying the damage.
He had blood all over him, on his face, on his clothes, on his arms and hands. Most of it belonged to the Kondhs. He had wounds, but they were healing. Still, his hair was full of char, for at the end, the quickening had incinerated the very leaves on the trees and the long needles of the surrounding spruces, and snowflakes of soft strange black soot had fallen upon him. He looked like death.
He looked at her, as she drew up and slowly dismounted, with a queer cold confusion in his eyes. As if he didn't quite know her--? No, it wasn't that. A chill went down Jinny's spine. But she never thought to draw her sword; she only let herself relax into a smile, and then she began to stroll toward him, all the joy in her heart hidden by nonchalance. "Darling," she said.
She was still two metres off when he started for her.
Something warned her. She did go for her sword then, making the fastest draw she ever had, and just in time. Jinny fell back, gasping with disbelief. She had to parry and parry again, as Methos followed. His face was empty. First it had been horrified, then furious, then still as frozen water. Now there was nothing to be read there at all.
"Don't you know what you're doing?" she cried.
Amanda, also arriving at the gallop, came in time to see Jinny pull out her vajra. She shouted to stop the combat. Neither Jinny or Methos heard her. Methos flung himself sideways, bringing the katana down in a whistling slash, rolled on his shoulder and came up and at Jinny from behind. Jinny sobbed. She brought the vajra round, bounced the triple pronged end off the blade of his katana, and zapped him with electricity.
He backed off, snarling.
"Stay away from me!" she said.
He said, "Stay away from me--"
"Or I'll kill you!"
"--or I'll kill you," Methos said.
Jinny fled. She ran to her waiting horse, was up in the saddle and off.
Amanda remained. Across the width of the bloody roadway, across the bodies of the men he had killed, she and Methos stared at each other.
She didn't believe it.
Jinny sat drooping on a spur of rock, twiddling a wild aster between her fingers. He loves me, he loves me not. A track of plucked and pitiful flowers crossed the meadow behind her, a wandering crazy track; back near the road, her mare waited tethered, busy cropping the dry autumn grass. He loves me . . . he loves me not . . . he loves me . . . She finished counting the aster's bedraggled petals, and tossed the flower aside. She had lived too many years to believe in the charms of her Highland childhood. She was wiser than that. She was too experienced. She was too strong and too canny in the ways of immortals, to not know when her neck was in danger.
The Game, it was the bloody old Game as always, but this time she had given her heart. Jinny raised her head, and blind tears ran over her cheeks. With the toe of her boot, she crushed the flower. She twisted her foot, grinding the aster into a pulp. She had been so sure of the boy. Till she had burned her bridges behind her, and then--too late--looked into his eyes with love, and saw Death gazing back.
After a while she just sat and sighed. There was a chill wind on her face. She pulled out her vajra, hit the audio key. The device beeped and a light flashed on it. "Open sesame," said Jinny.
The vajra chirped in satisfaction.
"Thirty-five, sixteen, four," she instructed, rattling through the coded commands with the ease of long practice, "hut, hut, hut." She waved her vajra. Lights sprang to life, bejeweling the length of the device like treasure: diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. The vajra gleamed like a royal scepter. A holographic map display flickered around her, settling into a steady glow. It was a picture of Graveyard and its surroundings, a file summoned via the vajra's interface with the Graveyard mainframe. Jinny regarded it. "Twelve twelve twelve, hut." The display brightened. A ripple passed over it, and suddenly it was full of extra flashing lights; these showed every inhabitant of Graveyard, both the small and the tall. Every last little detail was perfect, and the glowing inhabitants dotted the town perimeters, surely standing guard against attack, or else busied themselves with the manufacturing vats on the village green. Jinny, with her citizen-level passwords and accesses, could watch their every move. And what was this? More input, from bees patrolling without the boundaries? Yes. "Five six seventy-one," she whispered, "hut." The display zoomed out, the town a mere fleck at its center, and now she could see the whole vicinity, wherever the bees patrolled.
With the whisper of a command, she could switch the display to infrared, to EMP trace, to a heat map of the surrounding area. Anyone using any kind of high-energy equipment could be traced by her vajra. But she already knew that her darling shunned all such modern conveniences . . . and now, didn't she know why? Ah yes, she did. He wouldn't want to be tracked. His heat signature would only be confused with the local fauna's. Even that subcutaneous communicator of his was passive technology, surely powered by beam sources from somewhere deep within ruined Seacouver, and entirely transparent to detection. There would be no way of finding him.
For a moment Jinny switched back to spying on her neighbors in Graveyard, such busy little bees they were--putting new vats into commission, were they? Yes indeed. And what for, she wondered? Could be any number of nefarious designs. Could she only somehow thwart their plans, then her darling boy might come to see her as, as . . . as something other than one more target . . .
But there was no way of guessing, no way of helping. And all she really saw were eyes all calm and cold. Staring at her above the blade of a sword.
Jinny's hands clenched on the vajra. She bent over, breathing in gasps; her throat closed, her eyelids swelled and stung. She could spy on them all till the cows came home, but no technology invented could help her read minds.
She was so busy scanning the townsite with her vajra, that she was taken completely by surprise when she felt the buzz. Then four immortals rode out of the forest and surrounded her.
She didn't believe it.
". . . you pigheaded, ham-fisted, testosterone-bound shut-mouthed infuriating lump of a man! Of all the immortals in the world, you're the last one I thought I'd find doing his thinking with his--with his bloody sword, dammit. What's going through your head? Second childhood finally caught up with you? Look, you owe me a few words at least--"
"Are you done yet?"
"And quit rolling your eyes at me!"
"I don't owe you anything," said Methos. "As for the rest, it's late and I'd like to get a little sleep tonight, thank you very much. Without someone ranting in my ear, if possible."
"Well dream on, because I am not going to sleep a wink myself till I hear some kind of sane explanation."
"That'll cramp your style after a few months," said Methos, turning his face away.
"You're worse than MacLeod!" Amanda said.
He only shrugged. They were at his new camp; it crouched high on the mountainside, being composed merely--to Amanda's eye--of a meadow and his grazing pack-horse. Not so much as a halter distinguished the horse from any of the many local wild horses. "I trained her not to stray," said Methos, catching Amanda's glance, "that's all." He unsaddled and unbridled his riding-mount, and turned it out too. Then he pushed through a thick clump of wild berry-canes, and vanished.
There was a cave back there, evidently. Amanda followed Methos' lead, letting Mac's white mare go to join the other two horses, and reflected that the three were probably stable-mates. She humped her saddle onto one shoulder and ducked into the canes. A zillion prickles, a last few blackberries clinging to the canes, an unpromising vista of last year's fallen leaves-- Aha! a heap of horse-tack met her eye. She dropped hers to join his, looked about a little more and found a crevice in the stony ground. A narrow and uninviting crevice. It looked just about right to house a porcupine-lair. There was no sign that anything human had ever come this way. She did a little eye-rolling of her own, sat down on the edge of the crevice, and wriggled in.
She slid into a hollow, jack-knifed, and emerged into glowing light.
"Found this place last fall, when I was scouting out the vicinity." Methos crouched in the natural cave, an irregular space perhaps six paces across. The ceiling was all wedged rocks and tree-roots, and hung low over his head like a curtain. "Turned a bear out of it then, and tidied it up. All modern conveniences, even running water. See?"
'Modern conveniences' was not the way Amanda would have phrased it. As for the running water, ditto. Half the floor was a morass of mud, with seeping puddles here and there. The light came from--of all the things!--a neat brazier, in the old-fashioned style, burning good charcoal almost without fumes; the sight took her straight back to her childhood. There would be no smoke to give him away. Nor were there any modern devices whatsoever, not even weaponry. No electronics, no computer. He had even lit the brazier with a flint and tinder. She was vaguely surprised not to see hand-daubs in red ochre on the ceiling. This was the lair of a prehistoric savage.
She bit her lip, and then set about turning off her own electronics. Right down to the chromatic tints of her eyes, she stripped herself bare, till she would leave as little energy-signature as Methos; then she picked a dead leaf out of her hair, and said, "I want to talk to Mac. Now."
"Shout real loud," Methos advised.
"You've got him in your pocket," she said flatly. "So you can talk to him anytime. That's the one piece of electronics on you, isn't it? The one thing you couldn't bear to give up. Your link to Mac. Get him."
"Shan't." He had settled on his heels next to the brazier, and was carefully wiping down the katana. "Look, Amanda. If all you came to do was quarrel--"
"I'm not going away either. Not until you give me some kind of explanation."
"There is no explanation."
"For all this?" she exploded. "What, when you're roaming round the countryside, slaughtering everyone you meet?! Methos, I heard about the Lonely One halfway across this continent. He's a legend. A horror-story of epic proportions. I didn't even believe he was real! Mac has got to be out of his mind with worry. Why is he even letting you do this? I--" She slammed her open hand against the ground. "Methos, Mac will have your head for this!"
"No," said Methos. "He won't."
Amanda hitched herself a little closer. He was looking aside now, the katana abandoned, rubbing his left hand across the muddy ground beside his heels. "You don't know anything about Mac and me," he went on calmly. "You never did. It's the Game, Amanda. That's all it is."
"Like hell that's all! Mass slaughter was never your thing. I can't--" Her voice broke. "I don't get you. Help me understand. Of all the immortals alive, I'd never pictured you going bad--not like this--not this way."
"You never knew me, either. You only met me during a brief time I was out of the Game."
"A brief time?" she said, lost. "It was hundreds of years, you-- Methos, you're better than this! Oh--" in despair, "why aren't you yourself anymore?"
He raised his face to hers. He had just run the palm of one wet hand down across his brow and cheek and chin, leaving half his face marked by a trail of muddy streaks that glistened black.
In Graveyard, the immortals were hard at work.
They had filled the common with manufacturing vats, tanks that marched in rank and file across the formerly idyllic green lawn: big tanks, little tanks, every size of the things. From the tanks, machinery rose animated. From the databases in their personal computers, Graveyard's good citizens had pulled up the schematics of yesteryear. War machines were what they wanted to grow.
These were living weapons. Biotechnology. They mimicked the creatures of the natural world. And, as had been the custom of the vanished mortal superculture, they were named after the things they had been modeled on. But these weren't just fireflies and bees.
First came small things, electric ferrets equipped with little more than beady camera eyes and twitching arrays of sensory whiskers, with paws to run on and claws for rudimentary self-defense. They swarmed out of the tanks and dispersed. Serpents rose in their wake, all chrome spines and fanged, armored heads. They poured forth. They sidewound across the commons, hypodermic teeth glittering, armed with sedatives powerful enough to knock out elephants, and programmed to entwine and bind their stunned prey after biting. Some of them were glass, transparent, glowing neon colors pulsing in their artificial bones--but touch them and they shattered, and in every fragment circulated poison. Computers were their brains. They were capable of independent action.
Seeds puffed out of one vat, rising on the breeze with a twirl of silken flight vanes. Each carried a payload of electronic sensors. They would spread out across kilometers of terrain, settle to earth and take root, leach elements out of the soil and use them to reproduce, and explode like puffballs--each explosion releasing a thousand more like themselves.
Things designed in the image of hummingbirds flitted away, taking chemical samples with their probing beaks; they were more powerful, sophisticated versions of the bees. Given a sample of their quarry's DNA, they would hunt tirelessly for a match. Forensic woodpeckers joined them, and police dogs which looked nothing like dogs--but tracked like bloodhounds--and bats equipped with sonar and infrared sensors, and eagles whose eyesight made the eyes of real eagles seem blind.
Bucketfuls of landmine earthworms went out to be dumped along the town's perimeter; each worm promptly corkscrewed into the ground, awaiting the signal that would make it trigger and blow. The air-piranha which followed bobbed along in a school, buoyed up with helium pockets, and otherwise all saw-toothed steel jaws awash with caustic enzymes.
There were cats. Rats. Army ants. Mice and moles and flat camouflage-black surveillance cockroaches, each with its own niche of activities to fill, a mock-ecology of machines. Some would gather intelligence, report back. Others had attack capabilities. And there were larger, stranger biomachines to follow the smaller, each with its own name: not merely the great predators of natural world, but velociraptors and dragons, orcs and balrogs, sabre-toothed tigers and tall, swaying triffids. Like an army of animals they poured across the borders of Graveyard, and spread through the surrounding forests.
It was an ecology of war.
"What do we know about this MacLeod guy, anyway?" Solly asked his fellow immortals.
The answers came slowly.
"Always kept to himself, he did. Jinny Dall knew him best."
"Would have sworn he was too meek and mild to be a headhunter."
"Never seemed all that dangerous."
"Where's Jinny got herself to, anyway? Haven't seen her since yesterday. Sure, she was besotted with the man, anyone with half an eye could spot it--thought the sun shone out of his backside--but all the while, I thought he was up to no good--"
"Oh shut up, you didn't have a clue. No more than any of us."
"Enough!" That was Solly again. "Tone down the attitude, people. We need Jinny. Who knows where to find her?"
They searched, and reported back, "She's gone, Solly. Her vajra's offline. Can't trace her . . . Can't trace the Lonely One, either. Not so much as a whisper of EMP activity in the aether to give his location away. No computer, no equipment, no batteries, nothing! He must be going completely barebacked."
"Damn." Solly shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. What would his old teacher do, if she was here? Vivid as reality he saw her face again, her nose big and red and her mouth twisted in suspicion; she had lived for two hundred years in the same tiny corner of New York, sleeping on a doorstep, seeming like a street person, but behind her ragged appearance had been a bottomless well of survival instincts. Old Aletha had known tricks beyond the counting. A thousand challengers had mistaken her for easy prey--and paid for it with their heads. This guy had to be even wilier than her.
"He's a technophobe. Doesn't even carry a keyboard. So what chance does he have?" Still, the back of Solly's neck itched with foreboding. But then he looked around, saw the manufacturing vats humming away at their chores, and thought of all the lovely weaponry being grown even now--all those rough beasts slouching toward the Lonely One. No one man could fight all that. And if he somehow did, why then . . .
Solly turned, and all his fellow citizens turned as one with him. They looked at the far end of the commons, where a cluster of immortals fussed over a series of vats isolated from the rest.
"They're making weapons," said Methos. "Right this minute, no doubt." He knelt beside his little brazier, warming his hands above the coals. Amanda sat nearby, looking hard at him. It struck her that he was kneeling in seiza, correctly and naturally, in the defensive posture correct to a warrior armed with a Japanese katana, and furthermore it was the posture one adopted to counter an unexpected threat--like an attack from a friend, maybe. "Building up the arsenal right now. They've ringed the town with the usual brand of explosive defenses, and I bet they've set up as many manufacturing vats as the power supply will support and have them pumping out the entire catalogue of Jane's Military Bestiary. Robotics. Nanobiotics. You name it. And they're probably all honing their swords, too. While eyeing each other sideways and wondering if they can sneak in a few beheadings of their own while nobody's watching."
His eyes were shut. The low roof of the cave hung over his head like a hood. Without instruments, hidden away underground, unable to see, he went on describing exactly what was happening.
"These are all good guesses," she said tentatively.
"Then there's the Renaissance Fair Templar jokers." His eyes opened. "Remember them? The tag-team knights, yamabushi. They've set up camp on the high ground across the valley. I went up there and had a look yesterday . . . Four of them, loaded for bear. A pair of Japanese, and a pair from the Amazon."
"Methos, I know that. I saw them, remember? Methos? Are you even listening to me?"
He tilted his head, seemed to look through her. "As for the town, all bets are off the table if they do what I think they'll do. You put too much store in their better natures. As immortals as with mortals--once the weaponry starts to escalate, well, the downward path is easiest, but there's no going back."
"Mac?" said Amanda. She stood up slowly. Her heart was racing. "Are you here?"
"--they'll do it, all right. Don't think they won't. I just have to deal with them before they're finished."
A shadowy holographic figure had materialized behind him, like a guardian angel yet dark. Amanda reached toward it. "Mac? I should have known--" Then her hand jerked back.
There were two of the dim holographs, both turning toward her with half-seen faces pale and blurred. The waning light, the dark air of his cave, made them more distinct; in daylight, they would have been invisible. As it was, they were paintings traced in starlight, in silvery lines that faded away when Amanda looked straight at them. They hovered over Methos, flanking him, one on either side. An angel on his right hand, and on his left . . . ? They could have had wings, halos, horns or tails, for all the details she could make out. It struck her hard then: she couldn't tell which was MacLeod.
"I'll rest tonight, yes," said Methos, and it was not Amanda he addressed. "Once I go back out, I won't be able to stop till it's finished. They know who I am now."
"Well, that's the last rhinoceros," someone said, down in the town, at that exact moment.
They stood around, several dozen nervous immortals, and watched as the largest vat hiccuped and disgorged, from a devil's broth of raw elements, a clumsy behemoth straight out of Kipling's Just So Stories. It was iron-grey, ungainly, with a horned snout and wicked sparkly little sensor-eyes: the very image of a rhinoceros. Heaving itself over the side of the tank, it collapsed and lay birth-wet on the ground. Then in its wrinkled and folded armor, it clambered to its feet, sniffed the breeze, and lumbered off across the lawn. A myriad of neon-hued nanofireflies wafted and twinkled after.
It looked ridiculous--the ugly beast with its fairy-light retinue--but it was the perfect equivalent of a tank, with armor-plating and even artillery. It would patrol the perimeters of Graveyard, freeing the immortals for other tasks.
Like the whole zoo of military beasts, it would function in tandem with the hosts of nanofireflies, directed by the communications of their tiny laser-lights.
"Got the whole Noah's Ark working for us now. Everything from aardvark to zebra. So . . . we can reformat their vats, switch them over to the big job."
Solly walked across the common, supervising the labyrinth of busy machinery-works. On every side, his compatriots descended on the manufacturing vats and began to mess with their input jacks. Those few not needed for the work, formed up in ranks and began weapons-drill with their vajras, testing out the new tactical macros just downloaded from the village mainframe. Solly joined them, going to en garde. With his own vajra gripped in his left fist, pointed groundward, like a club that could be swung and used for blows and parries.
As each immortal triggered his holographic flak jacket, a gallery of mirror images blurred into being around them.
Solly uttered his password, and his vajra glittered with sudden light.
"Imbroccata in sixte with atash bazi."
"Hai!" said the immortals. They swung sideways, bringing vajras up and around, steadying them with vajra-hands resting on sword-forearms. From the mouths of their vajras, gouts of flame erupted.
"Fleche with electromagnetic guanta di presa!"
"Hai!" Solly went through an imaginary lunge, bringing the vajra precisely to the point where its claws would engage his nonexistent opponent's sword-blade and then immobilize it in an irresistible magnetic grasp.
"Traverse and high ward advance! Double parry, then shaped electronic charge to quinte!"
"Cross-cut over left to right, then punch back and reverse flamethrower!"
Solly cut and thrust, mimed jojutso blows, rehearsed escrima blocks and hammer-strikes with the pointed butt of his vajra to imaginary nerve points. His companions moved in rhythm with him, mirror-images within mirror-images. His mouth was dry. He was deathly afraid. With every moment, he felt closer to the Lonely One, who was death; who had taken Winston from his side, as they stood together on holy ground; who could fight on while taking a quickening; who obviously knew more about killing his fellow immortals than any old one Solly had ever heard tell of . . . God! Who was he, and what did he want?
Two thoughts chased in endless circles through his mind:
We can do violence on holy ground.
The effects of quickening aren't cumulative.
As the coals in the brazier burned out, the little cave became dark. There was barely enough room for one sleeper and set of gear . . . let alone Methos' sword-polishing kit and the array of weapons he had laid out. These were arranged on an oilcloth sheet, ready for use. Simple weapons from another age, except perhaps for the coil of monofilament spider-wire. There was even a sling and sling-stones. Amanda's eye had been drawn especially by the English longbow.
It was claustrophobic. She shivered, jammed in close to a suddenly unfamiliar Methos in these narrow quarters. Only a whisper of starlight came from the cave-entrance. She imagined him sitting here, buried underground, comfortable in pitch darkness--entombed in a space barely big enough to serve as a sepulcher. Talking softly, intimately to invisible companions. Planning murder.
His holographic companions were gone. They had winked out the moment she tried to speak to them. What had happened to MacLeod?
". . . I lived through the Black Death, you know."
"Yeah," said Methos. "Me too."
"And the grippe, and the stich and the bloody flux, and the sweating sickness and the tarantella and all. But the Black Death, that was special. I was only--what, three hundred or so? Young enough to be cocky, and I'd just gotten around to thinking I'd live forever . . . And then there it was, and we all thought it was the end of the world."
"Where were you?"
"South of France." She shivered. "Out of every hundred in the towns there, they say ninety-seven died. Oh, it was horrible, Methos. I remember the churches full of penitents, the priests roaring in the pulpits. The sermons they gave! All about the apocalypse. Talk of doom. Conversations with bones and worms painted on the church walls . . . And the poetry, and art: the living confronted with the dead, drawing lessons from death." She shivered. "How the reaper walked among us. And even great cities and things eternal, thrones and dominations, must fall to the scythe. And no man or woman born but must partake of mortality. 'Allas ful warly for wo may I synge . . . when I rememyr the death that is scharpe.'"
"I remember it," Methos said. "I remember the paintings: the Three Living and the Three Dead."
"Oh yes. There was one in every church. And I went through my days thinking, we had to do something! Break free. Break out, break all the rules. Break every law if we had to, till somehow, somehow God or the devil would be stymied, and it would all end." She started, hearing her own words. "I mean, be over. Not end! I mean, things would get better . . . I wish Rebecca was here. I miss her so much. She idolized you, you know."
"She called you her raven," said Methos.
"Yeah, well, she called Mac 'Superman'. I wish I could have stolen her a few more years . . . But I'm not that good a thief. And now here we are. Mac, and me, and you. And you're death."
In the dark, she reached up, touched his fingers with hers.
"And I've known you for centuries, but I never quite trusted you till Mac's time--because he loved you from the moment he first saw you, I think, and he's always had higher standards than I did. Same thing with Jinny. She's damned picky, Jinny. Did you know that Mac was head over heels in love with her for almost ten years straight? Back around seventeen-eighty or so. But she wouldn't even look down her nose at him . . ."
Amanda grinned a little at the memory.
"Once he climbed a trellis to her window, with a rose between his teeth," she said. "In the very best romantic style. In one of those terribly drafty Norman chateaus. Can't you just picture it? And when he got to the top, he found she'd gone and barred all the shutters and gone down and set an entire pack of wolfhounds baying at the bottom."
There! She'd made him chuckle.
"So that's Jinny: picky about her men. But you, Methos--she trusts you in her bed. Or like Darius. Darius trusted you too," she whispered into the dark. "So why shouldn't I?"
"You shouldn't," said Methos.
"But I do. And," she said, "I love Mac."
When he said nothing, she sat up hurriedly, began to explain. "Oh, not that I didn't always like the guy a lot, for centuries even--but you know about that--and we were lovers for a long time, off and on. As you know. And I thought I was in love with him, made his life miserable trying to get him to say the words back. But it was just play, Methos. Then . . . when the Rapture came, there I was, marooned at the other end of the world, and suddenly all I could think of was getting back to him--finding him--wherever he was--" She looked down, swallowed. "Just being near him," she whispered. "No matter what. A hundred years getting home to him, Methos. But I would never have done as much, if I hadn't had a thousand years growing up till I--I was old enough to quit playing. Turn my back on the game. Then, after I'd lost him, that was when I began to love him for real." She managed to laugh a little, her voice wavering. "My knight in armor. Can you believe it? Sounds so stupid."
She curled her hand into his.
Then in the quiet, he leaned over and she felt him kiss her forehead, his free hand moving over her hair. "It doesn't sound stupid to me."
"I kind of hope he's listening now."
"Well, he isn't. So relax." He squeezed her fingers.
"I love you too, you know. The two of you almost come as a package, huh?"
"Now, that's stupid . . . Amanda, I wish I could give you what you need."
"I wish I could steal you the sun and the moon," said Amanda the thief. "Or at least give you a butterfly from my hair . . . But it would only betray you to your enemies."
Elsewhere, Jinny Dall sat stewing on the ground, with wet autumn leaves stuck all over her butt. She glowered through her hair. She had been disarmed and ignominiously taken captive, and hauled along at rope's end with a halter round her neck. Now her hands were tied behind her, and she was seething mad.
The big bushi with the demon mask squatted in front of her, hands dangling between his knees. He said patiently, "Tell us what you are to him."
"Nothing," said Jinny, glaring.
"If I thought that, you would be dead now. You sleep with him? You're his lover?"
"Lover?? Ha! You never heard of a one-night stand?"
"You seem a little overfond of your temporary distraction, then."
"Well, he has the moves," Jinny admitted with a great air of candor. "Skill. Experience. Enthusiasm. Plus, even for an immortal, the lad's got longevity."
The bushi rose bow-legged to tower over her. Her face was at the level of his crotch; his eyes gleamed knowingly down through his mask. "So you like a good roll in the hay, woman?" That mask was all grimacing red mouth and black strokes of brows upon inhuman white. The effect was intimidating, even if the thing's true use was to counterbalance the heavy samurai helmet, as Jinny well knew. Like every immortal, didn't she study the usages of arms and armor? This warrior's accent spoke of antique Nippon to her; he was the real thing. True bushi were callous killers. She was in serious danger.
Still, she lifted her chin and said, "Sure do, anyday. But as for you--just a little more into my face and we'll see if I can't bite it off, mister."
"Ah! Spirit. You must be an enchanting bedmate." He leaned further forward, setting hands on knees. "How much would he give to have you back?"
"What?" She stared; then she laughed. "Whaat?? Nothing. I've just told you that."
The other three of the bushi's group were nearby: the second bushi kneeling behind Jinny like a guard, the male Brazilian pacing sedately round the perimeter of their little camp. The female Brazilian was gutting and filleting fish, to grill over a small rollaway pocket-stove like a flat square of metallic mesh. Whenever Jinny twitched, she caught them watching her sideways in fast vigilant glances.
"Look," she said. "I'm telling you the truth. Who are you, anyway?"
"My name is Hachiman," said the demon bushi. He bowed, took off his mask and helmet. The man under the mask was Oriental, his wise eyes set in folds of wrinkles, and with a long string mustache and a spike beard. "My companions and I are Yamahoshi. Practitioners of shugendo--the way of the kenza." He set his hands together, bowed again. "Followers of En, our master."
"Never heard of him."
"Perhaps you might better remember our master by another name: En-no-Gyoja? The 'practising magician'?"
"Oh, him I've heard of," said Jinny. "Dear me, he used to come for tea and crumpets with my own master Merlin Ambrosius. All in the hollow hills, back when the world was young. And Titania and Oberon would stop by and make up a fine whist foursome."
He threw back his head and laughed. "Definitely, your lover must prize you. And you must love him back, to fight for him so defiantly. You mentioned his skills. I think you left a few virtues unsung, mm . . . ?" He squatted again. His black eyes gazed into Jinny's, calm and knowing. Breathing against her cheek, he murmured words like charms: "Tenderness, yes? Good humor. Intimacy. Laughter and sweet affection, aren't these the qualities we really look for in a lover?"
She couldn't help it: the sudden softness in her heart, melting her with recollection. She looked down involuntarily, and her breath caught in her throat.
"Aha," said the bushi.
Then she came up with a shout, and rammed him headfirst under the chin.
She bowled him right over. Her hands were still tied behind her; while he was still down she swung herself around, arched her back into a bow, filched the short knife right out of his sash. A flick of agile fingers and the razor-sharp blade cut the rope round her neck. Jinny bounced to her feet. The bushi sprawled on the ground beneath her; she stamped down hard on his face. His nose shattered in a wash of blood. She leaped over him, and ran.
As she legged it out of there, she flicked the stolen knife again and in a trice the rope round her wrist was cut and thrown aside.
The others were all lunging now. Jinny swerved like a hare. Her steps thudded in rattling leaves. She prayed she didn't hit a slick patch and go flying--the smallest trip now, and she was dead meat--oh, let them be just a little slower than she--
The demon bushi appeared in her way. She skidded to a halt so fast her feet smoked.
"There's no escape, woman."
With a wave of his hand, he summoned his companions.
"Come," he said. "We must be doing."
"--tried to get a message out on the world wide web, but our communications? Jammed."
"Thought you said the Lonely One was a technophobe!"
"Maybe he isn't," said Solly. "How's the special project going?"
"We've started to subassemble components. There's a certain amount of debugging to do. If that goes well, we can begin to fit the superstructure together, and after that, there's special programs to write, and then--" Pause. "This isn't brutework like pumping out nanofireflies, y'know. This takes time. Delicacy. Skill. If we all work together as a team, and if we don't make any mistakes, and if we're willing to go at it like crazy men and commit ourselves to the long haul, then--"
"Oh--about four and a half hours."
In the cave, the coals had burned low.
". . . and crossed the ocean and the whole freaking continent." Amanda's voice was hoarse and she sniffled from time to time; she was almost talked out, tearstains on her face. "You guys were what kept me going, you know. Till I found you again, I didn't really believe the Rapture had happened . . . But it really did, all of it, the destruction of the world, ars moriendi and the Dance of Death and all. Vado mori, je vois morir. We go to die. And there wasn't any meaning to it, there wasn't any grand climax to the story--just sudden extinction--and there we are, confronting their corpses. Us against the skeletons. A world full of rotting victims. And all horrible and foul stinking worms mete. A debate between us, and Death and the body," she concluded.
"A disputation betwixt the body and worms," Methos agreed. He leaned his cheek against her hair, his arms folded around her. Amanda rested, lost in dim sorrows, half-aware of his beautiful voice chiming on in the measured English of her youth. "In the ceson of juge mortalite, of sondre disseses with the pestilence, hevely reynand whilom in cuntre, to go on pylgramege mefed by my conscience . . . In a season of vast mortality, of sundry diseases including the pestilence, which once upon a time ruled over the land, to go on pilgrimage was I moved by my conscience . . . Amanda it's not meet between we two, to stryfe on swylk manner of wise. For we are predestinate to salvation and hereafter shall be joined again together. And because otherwise the worms win, hands down."
He turned slightly, kissed the crown of her head, and went on, as a dim holographic shape settled like a guardian angel at his side: "This that I have complained and said / in no displeasing take it you unto / Let us be friends at this sudden upbraid / neighbors and love as before we gan do / Let us kys and dwell to gedyr evermore, because God wills that we shall again uprise / at the day of doom before the high justice / when our bodies glorified will be . . ."
He put out his hand, and a shadowy hand closed round it.
"For ever and ever, amen," said MacLeod.
Almost dawn now.
In Graveyard, the entire town's population gathered round the common. The vats had been turned off, disassembled, and put away. The immortals had their heads together. "Well," said Solly, glumly. "It's done."
The fruit of all their labors was disappointingly small, an undramatic disc of something silvery resembling metal. It didn't even hum or glow. Nevertheless they regarded it with something like awe. It had taken all of them, a combined effort, to manufacture the bloody thing. That by itself was a proposition fit to give them the shivers. Nor were they sure they were proud of what they had done. They had all had to work together--work like dogs, too!--and for what? Something anathema to immortal psychology. A weapon which took many hands to make . . . but which could be wielded by only one.
A mortal weapon.
"Well," said someone, voicing a common thought. "Who's gonna try it, then?"
It was Solly who reached out first. Several of his neighbors looked ready to protest, but then they reconsidered. "It's damn heavy," he said.
"It's superdense in its folded format. Once fully unfolded, it should seem light as paper to wear."
"Paper armor invented in China," someone commented in a soft lilt of an accent.
"Worth its weight in gold and more." Still, Solly hefted the disc with superstitious care. He felt like a caveman, confronted with the latest in nuclear warheads. He was only an immortal after all: a creature of the past, bogged down in history, compared to the mortals of the last generation. Old-fashioned by nature. "There were only a few hundred made for experimental trials--before the world ended--for mortal soldiers, in mortal armies--and all of 'em were lost, I've heard. And a good thing too. What's the trigger?"
"You just put it in place and say the obvious thing."
"Okay then." He pressed the disc to his sternum, hand flattened over it. "Open sesame--" Then: "YOW!!"
The disc came alive. Its metallic surface blurred, seemed to slither through and between his fingers--almost as if it was melting into liquid--then the liquid was racing over his hand, across his chest, onto him. Its substance was a fretwork of silvery bars, thread-fine, growing like vines. Its leaves, unfolding, were armor-protection at the vulnerable points of the body: joints and nerve clusters, the organs covered with an overlapping scale-mail of metal discs, the throat. Its tendrils were thin bars reinforcing the strength of human bone and muscle. They met at shoulders, elbows, wrists--sheathing the hands in metal gloves--at hips, knees, ankles--and there the bars knitted into solid sockets, with the gears and pulleys of an exoskeleton. Wearing them boosted human strength ten-fold. Solly stood still as stone. His hand was empty now. But gloved in jointed silver. The lightweight silver fretwork encased him, from head to foot, a knight in cutting-edge technological armor who shivered abruptly to life, moving, raising his arms to feel the mechanical joints move with his own. Even his skull was encased in a smooth cap of shining metal. Old met new, the soft wool of his shirt with its homemade horn buttons showing faded red through the loose fretwork of the armor. The spurs on his boots gleamed gold against the silver, and the ornate buckle on his belt. He was turning around now, swinging both arms, kicking out with one foot. "Zero albedo," he whispered, and the armor dulled to nonreflective black. "Camouflage style." Colors swirled in the metal, changing to a faithful match with the weave of his shirt, his buckskin pants. "Mirror albedo." This was an offensive function, the reflective armor blinding to foes. "Chameleon function. Anime-amine. Okay, reset to default." Solly clapped a silver hand to the hilt of his sword. He drew the sword, and the thin metal struts that encased his fingers extended, altered, sealed fresh joints around the hilt and forte in a perfect ricasso grip--reinforcing his control, adding strength and inhuman flexibility.
The armor came with its own tactical computer and fully integrated communications. It monitored his vital functions, worked off his neural activity; the optics now sealed over his eyes boosted his vision five different ways. If he lost consciousness in battle, it was programmed to animate and fight on independent of him--or it would carry him out of danger if he wanted that. Solly felt invulnerable. Then at a sudden thought, he raised his free hand. His fingers formed a blade, and the silvery struts flowed like water over them, lengthening in a lethal cutting edge.
He concentrated, and knife-edges sprouted on every surface of his body. And that was why they called what he wore the armor Cusinart.
He said, "Gotta get going."
"I'm going with you," said Amanda, waking the instant Methos moved. Sleepily: "Not getting away from me--"
Break all the rules.
He leaned over her, supporting himself on one hand; she had fallen asleep against his shoulder, snuggled into the curve of his arm. Methos brushed a fingertip across her cheek. "No," he said softly, "you're not." Amanda's mouth opened indignantly. Then her eyes crossed, her gaze fixed on his fingertip. Where a tiny sparkle of light danced. Methos' expression was kind. He touched her cheek again, and this time . . . the touch left a line of light glowing in its wake.
Luminescence seeped into her skin, and it was quickening.
"Hey," she said almost voicelessly.
"Shh Amanda." Silvery lines followed the track of his fingers, drawn along her jaw, up the side of her face. Her eyes were huge, stunned. Light danced through the flesh of his hand, sank into her; it went through both of them as if they were the immaterial things, rather than it; she sucked in her breath as if struck, leaned into his touch. Methos stroked her hair, and static electricity made the red strands stand out stiff and crackle. Then he cupped her face in both hands, lifting it unresisting, and they froze. In blazing light.
It seemed to Amanda that she was hanging by a thread, pinned in his grasp, lost in the eye of a storm, and if he ever let go she would die of the loss. She couldn't breath. She couldn't protest. She couldn't question. Not while Methos bent and kissed her slowly, on her forehead, and then on one eyelid, and then the other--and lightning leaped from his body into hers. Lightning. Quickening. Filling her eyes like cups. Filling the vessel of her flesh, till she glowed from the inside like an alabaster lamp around fire. When he drew the flat of one hand down, between her breasts to her waist, quickening hissed and snapped like magic sizzling between his fingers, into her. Amanda flattened her own hand over his, and a rainbow of light was trapped between them. Rays of light outlined her hand. She could dimly see her bones.
She was bent over, staring down, clinging to him helplessly, and he kissed her forehead again. "This is--impossible--"
It was bliss. It was ecstacy. It was everything. We are immortals, Rebecca had told her mysteriously once, and made of stuff mortals are not; we are mere vessels for the quickening, and we call it life--but we know not what the life in us is for. And oh, God, it was true.
Electric arcs snapped away from both of them, writhed across the uneven floor of the cave. On every side, things rattled and jumped. The brazier fell over, spilling cold cinders, which caught fire. They went up in flames, and then popped, sparks flying like golden fireworks. Methos leaned his forehead against Amanda's, smiled into her eyes. And the air filled with a myriad prisms of soft glowing color.
It was Amanda's first kiss, the first head she had ever taken, the first time her teacher Rebecca had smiled approval at her. Like feasting with wine, food after starvation, air after drowning--like that first choke of breath when one came back from the dead. Like the very best times with Mac in bed. It was quickening, undetectable by any instrument known; the one kind of energy that would not betray them to his enemies. He was pouring her full of it.
Tears started from the rims of her eyes, ran down her cheeks like molten metal.
She had never imagined it could feel like this--like pure love, found at last after a lifetime squandered on violence and rape.
When it ended, she collapsed bonelessly at Methos' feet.
He stooped and ruffled her hair, then gathered his weapons.
"Me faut faire," he said.
Methos stood alone in the dark.
Here was the hill from which he had originally overlooked Graveyard, considering its ways, and how to wipe the town from the face of the earth. Oh, not because he enjoyed headhunting--no matter what Amanda might say. Not because he hated the immortals he needed to kill. For other reasons. Because, for almost fifty years now, ever since little towns had begun springing up dangerously close to old Seacouver . . . since then, Mac had patrolled tirelessly around his holy ground, driving away any interlopers, and Methos had moved in a vast ring round the outskirts of the ruined city. He had paralleled Mac's patrols, but on a wider circuit. Whenever other immortals settled too near, he killed them.
Over the decades, mystified immortals had come to tell stories of accursed Seacouver, forbidden to outsiders, harboring a treasure somewhere at its heart. Protected by a legend called the Lonely One.
It only went to prove that in this brave new world, all the old immortals reverted to living as they had in the eras of their youth. Which brought the circle back to its beginning . . . with Methos scouting out a primitive settlement for raiding, contemplating a massacre.
The odds were seventy-odd to one against him.
He drew the katana. "Kellistra," he said, addressing the air. "Begin."
In Graveyard, the first the immortals knew of his arrival was when the nanofireflies began to go wild. Long since, the whole town had become a haze of luminosity, softly glowing, pastel-colored, all but opaque: the nanofireflies in their umpteen millions, a jeweled technological fog. Their tiny laser signals relayed intelligence throughout the whole strange cryptozoology of the town's defenders, coordinating everything from rats to rhinoceros. Now a wave of new signals swept through the firefly haze. Where it originated was unknown. Indeed, the immortals of Graveyard didn't even notice it happening. Until it was too late.
The nanofireflies controlled every single piece of biomachinery in the town defenses.
These defenses now parted for Methos as he came circling inward to the edge of the holy ground, unseen. A school of air-piranha met him halfway, enshrouded him. The town's thermal sensors were carried by the birds and the bees, not to mention nanoladybugs and electric ferrets and dandelion-seeds. All these failed to give the alarm. Still, Methos carried the katana at readiness till he was close enough to suit himself. Then he switched to the longbow he carried slung across his back.
He had carried an all-but-identical longbow at the battle of Crecy. It was almost as tall as Methos himself, and the arrows were a yard long each. There was one modification: the arrowheads were hooked, and attached to each shaft was a coil of superstrong microfilament cord.
The first arrow went straight through an unsuspecting immortal, its hooks engaging in his rib-cage, and he was jerked backwards off holy ground and vanished. No one saw it happen. They weren't expecting this kind of attack. They thought they were still safe.
The first quickening, though . . . that, they noticed.
"Solly! Somebody's gone caput out there!"
Solly was on the far side of Graveyard when the alarm went out. He still carried his vajra. But now it was incorporated into his new armor, an extension of his left hand. He raised it to his lips, talked into it. "Everyone sound off, see who's missing. And get to the perimeter! Hurry, people!" As he spoke, he began to run. Day was just breaking, in the deceptive grey light of very early morning that tricks the eye and judgement. His fellow immortals sprinted past, brandishing swords. They were rushing every which way. Every one of them looked frightened.
Their babble, broadcast over the vajra party line, filled his ears:
"Peter, where are you Peter--Peter, oh god--somebody find him--Peter--!!"
"Solly! Juan's gone--"
"Can't see anybody--"
"Solly! Something just hit Chau--it was an arrow--it--he--it reeled him in like a fish, Solly--"
"Ohmigod it's got Michaela too--oh no--"
The perimeter of Graveyard was a wall of light swarming with nanofireflies. Beyond, Solly could just make out fires and explosions. It was just like the last time, when Winston had been snatched from his side, and he had been too craven to attack. But now, things were different. He wasn't about to be a coward twice.
"People!" Solly roared out the word. A dozen of his fellow immortals had reached the spot before him, and more were on his heels. They snapped to attention, stopped their gibbering. "Everybody got their swords? Okay, people. You're with me. Let's get the sucker." Some of them looked positively relieved to hear a commanding voice. Some of them merely looked sick with fear. Solly thought it was time to stomp on that attitude. "Come on!" he said sharply. "No more playing patsy anymore. All of us against one."
"But Solly, that's against the rules--"
"Screw the rules," Solly said.
With this, they sealed their fate.
They followed Solly. They moved in a pack, weapons jittery in their hands, alertness steaming off them. At the very edge of holy ground, they all paused briefly. Then they plunged forward en masse. Ready to kill.
They were almost a third of the little town's population, all off holy ground together. Solly led point, feeling invulnerable in his armor. But it wasn't Solly who first noticed the danger. One of the rearguard raised his voice: "Hey, where did all those fireflies come from? Can't see my hand in front of my nose--" It was true that the haze was thickening. Someone else complained, "They're all getting right in my face," and it was then that Solly put two and two together and ploughed to a halt. He swung around, peering through the fog of fireflies. Streaks of luminosity streamed past him, arrowing in on the immortal who had complained. That immortal was now enveloped in what looked like ectoplasm, and the others were backing away from him, exclaiming. Solly began to back away too. It was instinctual. He shouted belatedly, "Adoph, you gotta run, man--" but it was no use.
The fireflies reached critical density and exploded. Instants later quickening arced up from the spot, sparks sizzling through the cloud of nanofireflies. The closest immortal, as sometimes happened, was singled out and convulsed, screaming in ecstatic pain as the quickening hit him; his fellow immortals moved toward him, eyes glazing over with sympathetic lust and envy. This too was instinctual. Solly looked down and aside, biting his lip. "I should have yelled for him to run sooner," he muttered, feeling shivers run through him: guilt, regret, hunger, a flash of calculation. Just a little closer, and he could have been the lucky one enjoying a quickening--
He couldn't help the thought, even though he was ashamed of it.
Fried fireflies sifted out of the air, falling everywhere in a gentle snow of ashes. Living fireflies spiraled through them, glowing. Streaming toward Solly from every side. "How the hell did they malfunction like that--?" Solly batted an arm in front of his face. "Holy Jesus. Something's got control--"
Holy Jesus indeed. "People! Electrify your flak jackets, don't let the fireflies mob you!"
Someone shrieked suddenly, behind him. It wasn't the one who was taking Adolph's quickening. Solly swung around just in time to see the ground opening, not two meters away. An immortal was down on his knees in the hole, loosened earth sliding down to engulf him, sinking. He reversed his vajra and plunged it into the ground, shouting incoherently. Then hacked at the ground with his sword. Solly got a glimpse of small mechanical animals boiling upward: moles, and the pale corkscrews of the landmine earthworms.
Solly began to run. Away from there.
He heard the kaboom behind him. A swirl of floating balloon-like creatures appeared in front--oh God, it was air-piranha-- and he threw himself flat, rolled sideways, saw them dart off in the opposite direction and fall upon another, slower immortal, jaws clashing and grinding. Blood splattered. Then an eerie blue light leaped from piranha to piranha, and their mechanisms slowed and failed; they fell like fanged rubber balls, hit the ground, bounced, and blew up. Just like balloons, popped by quickening.
All around Solly the tattered remnants of the firefly mist were torn apart by quickenings rising like fountains.
It was a massacre.
Something huge and tank-like charged him. Solly snarled wordlessly. His armor sprouted razor-blades running the lengths of both arms, and he sprang straight up--twenty feet up, clean above the rhinoceros as it passed thundering underneath him--and fell, tumbling in midair to sight with his vajra. Which became a flamethrower. A gout of fire hit the rhinoceros as it wheeled for a fresh charge. Sheer momentum carried it onward, though the black sensors of its eyes were dead and broken now, and Solly leaped to one side and gutted it en passant. Three steps onward, it hit the ground like an earthquake.
On every side now, there was mechanical wildlife gone crazy. Solly spotted a velociraptor loping past, steel jaws smeared with blood. He raised his vajra and incinerated it. When he turned and started in what he thought was the direction of holy ground, he stumbled over a body. No. Several bodies. Lying in a tumble, beheaded. Pieces of out-of-commission predatory machinery surrounded them. On the opposite side of the bodies was a man. Instinctively, Solly moved forward in the en garde position, and the stranger moved with him, mirroring him. They circled. They measured each other, warily. It was him.
A katana in one hand. A longbow over his shoulder. Brown hair in disorder, streaking across a grave and thoughtful face. He looked so calm that Solly was shocked. The Lonely One was a monster; his features should have been ugly with threat, distorted by madness and bloodlust. He shouldn't appear . . . to be . . . at peace.
"Why are you doing this?!" Solly demanded.
"If you knew, I wouldn't need to do it."
"You can't get away with it! You can't kill us all, we're too many--"
"I don't have to."
Solly leveled his vajra at him, and Methos went still. Again, Solly demanded, "Why?"
"You'll do the work for me." Methos glanced past Solly. Then he stepped back. Solly blinked, confused. Before he could use his vajra, a swarm of nanofireflies and nanoladybugs and even hummingbirds swept into his face. Solly swore, swept the air before him with a stream of flame; but after the biomechanisms had rained in crisps of melting plastic to earth, his enemy was gone.
But the next thing he came across was one of his own fellow citizens, busy taking a head.
Solly took it in like a flash of horror. "Jason? Sadie!" Jason's sword swung down, Sadie's head bounced; only then did Jason spot Solly, and freeze like a startled animal. All around them, the pre-dawn--had so little time passed?--rang with shrieks and weird mechanical sounds, dismemberment and quickenings and feeding frenzy. Solly knew that every other immortal in Graveyard would have heard--and rushed to help his small group. Rushed to their deaths.
You'll do the work for me.
You'll do the work for me.
You'll do the work--
Light blazed up around Jason, around Sadie's body. And Jason's face was ugly with threat, distorted by bloodlust and satisfaction, a monster's mask. He looked--he looked the way the Lonely One should have looked. Without thinking, Solly stepped forward and took Jason's head clean off with one swipe of his sword.
Everywhere around Graveyard, that same scene was being repeated.
Methos had known this would happen, figured it into his calculations. He had known that given the chance, the immortals of Graveyard wouldn't be able to resist slaughtering each other.
At that moment, two pairs of mounted immortals entered the battle zone from the northeast. They were the Japanese pair, and the two Brazilians, and they topped a small rise, looked upon the carnage with disbelief, took it all in and shook their heads in wonder. Jinny came stumbling along behind them, hands and feet roped together and a leading-rein hitching her to Hachiman's horse. At a signal from their leader, the riders drew their swords. Hachiman hauled Jinny across his saddlebow like a sack of grain. "Find this 'Victor MacLeod'," he ordered his cohorts.
They saluted one another and rode into the fray.
Elsewhere, the worse of Graveyard's immortals were taking advantage of the moment, ambushing their fellow men. Some of them told themselves it was survival of the fittest. It was the Game, the old Game--and they turned their swords on the other citizens of their town, cut them down hungrily, and took their heads. Not once, but many times over. They had all seen the Lonely One at work. They all knew, now, that quickenings were not cumulative.
It was not very long before some--having heard it was possible--took the next step. The first one to try dragging a fellow immortal off holy ground and there beheading him, did not survive very long. Someone else got him almost at once. But that someone had witnessed the first, and wasn't long becoming the second. Others followed suit. Those who had been wary and kept to holy ground, hanging back from the fray . . . died anyway, soon enough.
Solly was forging his way through the melee, an invulnerable juggernaut. He paused to dispatch any mechanical predators he met. He was also now stopping to behead any immortals he caught with their pants down stealing quickenings. He did it with his eyes dead cold, his teeth gritted and his fists clenched. Once, a pair of his fellow citizens jumped him while he himself was in the throes of a quickening. It was hard, murderously hard, to get to his feet and fight back. But he had been given a good example: he knew from watching Methos that he could do it.
No one could stand up to him. The feeling of power was eventually overwhelming. No matter who he saw, they were all fighting; in the end, he began beheading them all.
This was the thing about the armor Cusinart: it took many immortals working together to forge it, but only one could wear it. And it was all too easy for that one, once he had the armor on, to give in to temptation.
On the whole field of battle, Methos himself was the only one not fighting. He had discarded his bow, and though he still carried the katana at readiness, he skirted clear of any challengers. He didn't need to kill anymore. The good citizens of Graveyard were doing a fine job of it all by themselves.
Solly was searching for Methos. Hachiman and his companions were searching for Methos.
It was inevitable that they should all meet.
They came together on the edge of Graveyard. The two pairs of foreign immortals were filthy and exhausted by then, wrung out by slaughter, and their horses were wild-eyed and almost beyond control. The scene around them resembled a hellish battleground, surreal, straight out of Dali or Bosch. A place where strange beasts sprawled ripped in half, their carcasses drooling computer-hardware and plastic. Tiny sputters of electricity spat from their wounds. Antique swords and weaponry lay around them, and the beheaded bodies of immortals, who had bled real blood, like human beings.
So many had died that the earth was ravaged as if by a lightning-storm, ploughed by thunderbolts, written upon with the moving finger of multiple quickenings in vast charred smears and patches. Devastated. And still the deaths went on. An orchestra of lightnings crashed on every side, sheet lightning filling the sky above--and it was night-black up there--and wildfire flaring and balls of lightning bouncing across the burnt black sod. This place was a graveyard indeed. An apocalyptic one.
It was perhaps ironic that Methos, here, should be challenged by four riders.
No one spoke at first. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed all around them. Jinny, trussed up like a Judas goat, lay face-down over Hachiman's saddlebow. When she saw Methos, she lifted her dirty face and stared; then her eyes clouded over, brimmed over with tears, and she let herself go limp.
Methos stared back at her. Hachiman watched him doing it, and then began to laugh. He started out softly, and then his voice rose till its deep amused rumble rivaled the thunder. At last he said, "MacLeod--if that's even your name--you see I have your woman. Now . . . you will take us to Duncan MacLeod."
Methos said only one short word. "Why?"
Hachiman said, "He killed our master's favored children. We've been searching for him every since. The end of the paltry mortal world--" With a lift and a turn of one hand, dismissing the whole Rapture. "It threw us off the trail. Now we've finally found him, we'll keep coming till we have avenged our own." He hauled Jinny upright against him, holding her pinned: her back against his chest, her head tucked up under his chin, between his throat and Methos' sword, a living shield. "Now take us to him. Or she dies."
Methos moved forward, the katana a line of light slanting up from his hand: steel scribbled with red, elemental as the black char of quickening on the ground. At the expression on his face, Jinny cried out, a short sharp bereaved sound. He said three more short words. "Then kill her."
It was then that Solly arrived.
He came with the earth shivering under his feet. Monsters hung off him--titanium wolves with their shredded limbs spitting blue sparks, a tiger of snarling mechanical symmetry, and there was a t-rex harassing his flank, lumbering alongside, snapping at him. It was three meters tall, gleaming gun-metal grey all over, and its great teeth were shiny metal triangles. Solly's left hand was clamped onto the t-rex's throat. The wolves leaped slavering at him, in waves. He shook off the tiger, left it convulsing in the dust; it fountained writhing live wires and electrical discharge, shorted out, and died. And Solly roared. He swung his sword through the wolves in great sloppy swipes, sending them flying. But no matter how many he gutted, more took their places. They weighed his sword-arm down, dragged at it--nine or ten of them fastening on to him at once. The t-rex spun, hit him broadside with its tail. He went down on one knee, dragging it with him. But his hold on its throat never eased.
Slowly, slowly, slowly, he wrestled the tyrannosaurus to the ground, till he had its shoulders pinned and then, with the snap of a reinforced steel rod giving way, he broke its spine.
A flash of sheet lightning filled the entire sky, backlit him against wildfires and devastation. Wolves, cut literally into pieces but still moving, snapped fruitlessly about his feet. Solly let go of the t-rex and it dropped. He rose out of the machine carnage, and he was all exoskeleton and gears, knives sprouting from every joint, moving with a squeal of metal on metal. Every rip in his armor was repairing itself, sealing over and vanishing like magic. The ground shook again, and he jolted forward a step. And saw Methos.
He came on at a run, the boots of the armor Cusinart gouging great holes in the turf with every step. Three of the riders wheeled and charged him. Hachiman alone held his ground, watching with disdain through the eyeholes of his demon mask, one hand fisted in Jinny's hair . . . till Solly was in among the riders, and then Hachiman gasped. The riders were cursing as they fought; then screams and then gurgles of blood replaced the curses; then Hachiman squeezed his eyes shut and made a sound of blind inarticulate grief, as his companion bushi--the bushi with the woman's mask--died. It all happened so suddenly that the three quickenings from the three riders were barely begun, when Hachiman shoved Jinny off his saddlebow, wrenched his horse's head around, and rode like a madman at Solly.
Solly swung his fist, clubbed him off his horse. Smack onto the blade of Solly's sword. Hachiman hit the ground in two pieces.
It was over just like that.
There was a momentary hush. The beheaded bodies of four immortals in fancy costumes lay sprawled. This quarter of the battlefield was now otherwise deserted . . . except for two remaining combatants. One was Methos. The other was Solly. Jinny lay between them like a sacrifice.
Then the earth shivered again, the black thunderclouds overhead beginning to swirl in a cyclone vortex as wide as half the sky; Solly took a step forward. He reached behind him with his free hand, drew his vajra. As he gripped it, rods and tendrils twined out of his fingers and grafted it to him, plugging access-cables directly into the ports of the vajra. An explosion of quickening erupted from the ground directly to his left, where one of the dead riders lay. Another to the right of him. Two more to the left. And a fourth, behind.
Solly strode on, a mechanical giant. With an earthquake juddering under his feet. Quickening ran all over him in sheets of blue light, starbursts burning out of his eye-sockets. It trailed behind him like a magician's cloak, filled his footprints, burst out of them and made small electric arcs in his wake.
An immense bolt of real lightning, blue-white, came down out of the vortex of clouds and played over him, leaving stark afterimages like doomsday itself. When he swung his sword and it clashed against Methos' katana, true lightning and the St. Elmo's fire of quickening leaped from one blade to another and the two men were outlined in light.
Solly lunged. A fan of anime images lunged with him. Methos wheeled away from the thrust, declining the invitation to attack. His parry was the merest touch, deflecting Solly's blade by bare millimeters. He went up on his toes and leaned back, and the cutting edge sliced a neat two-inch line through the fringe of his rawhide jacket; that was all. Certainly he recognized the armor Solly was wearing. He knew exactly what kind of threat it represented.
Solly swung his sword in a flat beheading scythe-stroke. Methos moved beneath and past, ducking. He was fast; Solly was far, far stronger; he spun, swept one foot around to hook Solly's leg out from under him as Solly lunged again--an ashi-waza judo move, turning momentum against him--and almost toppled him. Solly recovered with a hop and a step, off-balance, cursing. Methos used the moment of weakness to make his own beheading stroke. But Solly's throat was protected by the armor; the katana grated instead of cutting, threatened to bind as hooks suddenly sprouted on the armor surface--and Methos withdrew as fast as he had come, got himself out of reach.
The moves were as precise as an exchange in chess. The blur of anime images around Solly barely troubled Methos. Methos' judo throw had not succeeded. Solly's superior strength was troubling, but Methos fought with the total ease of the very old, seeming almost casual yet always exactly where he wanted to be. No wasted motion. No fuss. Only skill. It was the ease of challenges beyond count or even memory. It was five thousand years' worth of experience, against the armor Cusinart: the ancient world versus the new.
But Jinny, curled on the ground, shut her eyes again--shutting the world out. Tears slid over her dirty cheeks. She was unhurt, but worse than a sword in her body was the cut that had gone through her heart. In that moment, she felt the whisper of a knife touch her ankle.
She jerked, dared to look. She found a silhouette wavering over her, transparent--the battleground showing right through it--but with a slight glassy blur at the edges to betray it, if you concentrated hard enough. The silhouette of a crouching woman, busy cutting Jinny's bonds. "Just hold still," Amanda said.
She was wearing an invisibility coat.
Meanwhile . . .
Bursts of fire sprayed from the mouth of Solly's vajra. He swept his arm back and forth, playing them in wide arcs, like a boy with a water-hose. He shot jets of caustic liquid, shaped electric blast-charges, rapid-fire machine bullets. Not one hit its mark. Methos with his archaic katana avoided every attack. But Methos, though his blade was able to hit Solly at will, left no mark, drew no blood. Solly towered over him, inhuman as the biomachines that had defended the town--a monster made of space-age metals, ceramics and plastics. A robot. A man from outer space. A minotaur, playing with a bull-leaper. It was one of the strangest things Amanda had ever seen. She watched them, narrow-eyed; she curved a comforting arm round Jinny's shoulders, helped her to sit up. She murmured as if to herself, "I know that make of armor--"
Solly couldn't touch Methos. Methos couldn't touch Solly. And the quickening blazed over them both.
They circled each other, came to immobility, falling into a watchful stand-off. Only Solly was growling like a savage between his teeth.
"Oh, for heaven's sake." Amanda let go of Jinny, stood up. She took two short steps, arrived in front of Solly. Invisible. Then she grabbed the front of his armor, and jerked.
She said, "Close sesame!" And the armor turned itself off.
Steel rods snapped loose. Power cables retracted with a snap and a lash. The vajra, freed, fell from Solly's grip. He lost his balance, flailed at the air, almost dropped his blade. What had been an invincible giant, in the wink of an eye, was transformed into a man. A shiny silver disc fell and bounced on the ground, and Amanda went whing with her sword and took Solly's head.
All around Graveyard, now, funnel clouds touched down, swaying. Lightning stabbed the earth, over and over. Too many quickenings too close together had taken their toll. Methos could have warned everyone of the consequences--but no one else present had ever seen such a thing before. The mechanical zoo perished in the conflagration, and a few surviving immortals dropped their swords and ran like hell, but didn't escape. Graveyard was tearing itself apart.
A burning rain began to fall, in streaks composed of nanofireflies and mechanical birds--sparrows plummeting, melting as they did.
Methos and Amanda and Jinny were in the eye of the storm.
Amanda, suffering through Solly's quickening, was blind and deaf. Jinny and Methos stood staring at each other. Then Jinny took four short steps forward, swung her hand across Methos' face.
"You scum," she said. She spat in his face. She turned on her heel and walked away across the battlefield.
Methos looked at the ground. His left hand scrubbed, over and over, across his cheek--wiping at the wet mark. Then he dropped Mac's katana, wrapped his arms around himself, and sank down into a crouch. After a moment, he covered his face with both hands.
When eventually he looked up again, there was Amanda standing over him.
"Whatever she said, it wasn't true."
"We all have to play out the cards we're dealt."
"Yes. We all end up back at our beginnings again. Recreating the world we knew when we were young."
Her gaze took in the horrific scene that framed him: the earth bleeding fire, the sky tearing itself into tornadoes.
"Maybe what she said was true," Amanda said, "but . . ."
"But. Go away, Amanda."
"Go . . . ? Are you crazy? I'm not leaving you alone in . . . this . . ." Again, she took in the background, the destruction; the color ebbed out of her face. "Oh, Methos," she said.
"I told you, Amanda." Methos shook her hand off. His fingers stole once more along the damp side of his face, the left side--where millennia past, he had painted himself half-blue. Then he turned his face away.
"So it's true," she whispered. Then more strongly: "So you dealt this mess? Fine. Then throw your hand in. Give it up, Methos. Stop the game. You don't have to keep doing this. You know it's wrong. Walk away, Methos. Or whatever. Just . . . stop."
She groped out, touched his face, turned it toward her. They were forehead to forehead, leaning together in the eye of the storm. "Oh, Methos," she said. "You're so much better than this."
She rubbed her cheek against his, over and over against the left side of his face. Then at last his eyes opened wide, looking into nothingness; Amanda heard his breath catch in a sudden gasp of grief, and he went into her arms, buried his face in her hair.
"I know I don't understand," she murmured. "But I'm not going to leave you. If you're heading home to Mac, then I'm going with you. And you'll show me whatever it is you've been hiding. You're in trouble, Methos. So I'll help."
After a long moment, not looking up, Methos nodded.
They went away hand-in-hand. As they walked past where the silver disc lay abandoned, Amanda flicked it with the toe of her boot. Up it went, spinning. It slapped into the palm of her hand, and quick as thought it landed in her pocket.
Across Graveyard, the earth opened.
Great cracks shot across the holy ground, with a sound like whipshot. They widened, finding their way from house to house, and fires grew in their depths; first red coals burned far below, and then flickering tongues of flame appeared at the edges of every crack, shot skyward, and rolled forth as lava. The ground heaved, breaking apart. And lifted, tilting, sending shelves of bedrock tumbling end over end as light as autumn leaves. Above, the black clouds whirled. A single immense tornado groped down, grasped the earth, stirred it. Immortals and machines and houses and rocks were sent spinning upward in the resulting explosion. The moving finger writes, and having written, moved on.
One too many quickenings had triggered the cataclysm, and with a final roar, a young volcano yawned, drank down the hissing steam of the river in an instant, and swallowed the town whole.
By the following spring, a hill had piled itself up where Graveyard had stood, rivulets of lava gleaming black-bare on its slopes. All traces of the nanos and biomachines, the ecology of war, were gone. A green fuzz of fireweed was sprouting wherever pockets of earth remained or dust had blown, and within a generation of the deer, the site was a tangle of young bushes, singing with the bright clangor of living birds.