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Gogmagog part two

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Imagine the usual disclaimers. Consider this a commercial for Rhysher. Go out, everyone who reads it, and buy Highlander merchandise today!

Warnings: angst, airy persiflage, incessant chit-chat. Fantasy violence. And the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.

[Ezek 38:2.8] "Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog,

the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him"



GOGMAGOG

Act Two

Shutokubo: Wild Sword

"I have to go back."

MacLeod stood in the bleak interior of the barge, staring at his own glassy reflection in a porthole. His face glowered back at him, dark and dour and utterly furious. Behind him, Joe Dawson was listening to another Watcher on the phone, and Methos sat perched on the table nearby, swinging one leg to and fro. The lad, Jacob, had been ogling the barge's fixtures since the moment he set foot in the doorway, and now he was prowling around, examining every appliance, poking his head into the bathroom, commenting on all he saw. ("Here's a wondernesse of earth, a Scotsman wi' sensibility Oriental!") Even as Mac glared at him, he was gaping at Amanda in the kitchen. And what was Amanda doing? Nothing more outre than to brew coffee with MacLeod's glass Boodum apparatus.

"You don't have to go back, Mac." Joe folded up his cell phone and stowed it away. The Watcher's face was drawn, showing the effects of a sleepless night; MacLeod had a sudden unsettling vision of how old age would soon engrave the lines now visible, and make them permanent. In me thou seest the glowing of such fire / That on the ashes of his youth doth lie . . .

Mac shivered. He said, too roughly and abruptly, "Your people have found Malik."

Joe blinked. "Well," he drawled, "you've welcome too, buddy. Yes. He's still at Rebecca's castle, holed up in the cloister, apparently. I've alerted the Watcher network to the situation. He's under round-the-clock surveillance, and we've taken measures to keep people away from the estate. That's all that we can do."

("--aye, such a cunning oven would cook a rare bouce-jane and loblolly--")

"What did you do?" Methos was asking.

"What? Oh, just the usual. One of our operatives diverted a tanker-truck labeled Toxic Chemicals into the area and staged an accident. The evacuation should stay in effect for at least two days. Or until the authorities get samples into a lab and find out they're harmless, anyway."

("--and you miracle Hygiene: praise the Almighty, not a louse nor a nit have I spied on me since I braist free o' the grave!")

"Joe, you Watchers have a true Machiavellian bent." Amanda came out of the kitchen, carrying a tray of tea and coffee. Jacob trotted after her with his hands full of cups. "If only your power could be harnessed for good!"

"Thank you, ma'am. We aim to please."

She handed him a cup of coffee, and patted his cheek as she did so.

MacLeod took the tea that she offered him. Methos refused; Jacob accepted coffee eagerly, sticking his nose right into the cup and inhaling the aroma. Then he took one sip and stood there making hideous disappointed faces.

"Tell us about Malik, " Amanda said. "Methos?"

"He's tough. He was--very tough. I can't think of many immortals I'd be less interested in facing with a sword--and that was before the dark quickening took him. Now I think I'd head for another continent before risking a confrontation . . . He was hell on wheels as a young immortal. Expert with any weapon, every weapon. And he was a good man, too. Damn strong-minded, stubborn as an angel, couldn't bend a principle to save his soul, his strength was as the strength of ten because his heart was true--you know the type, Amanda."

"I know the type. I think we need a little more specific information, though. Just how mad is he going to be--I mean, about you tricking him into that tomb?"

"Master Methos never played him false!" said Jacob--speaking up hotly. "I lie with a latchet if 'tis so! He lured Malik into the trap, true, but it was either that, alse avisand his sword and have at 'im."

"Hushta, Jacob," Amanda murmured. "Hush thy clatter." But she said it kindly. "What happened exactly, Methos?"

"None of us knew the name of the immortal who passed the dark quickening on to him. It all happened very quickly. He rode out to check into some report of trouble on the border, meaning to be back within the week. I remember him joking with Jacob and Chichak--Chickak was his wife--warning her to take care, not to let Rebecca burn the house down trying to devise the philosopher's egg . . . and when he returned . . ." Methos shrugged, looking down at the swinging toe of his boot. ". . . he was gone forever; I never saw the Malik I knew again."

"And then?"

"We did what we could, Rebecca and I. We disarmed him, and when it became clear he was still dangerous, we entombed him. It was either that, or find some means of getting a mortal to take Malik's head."

Methos paused. He had spoken very softly and without visible trace of emotion. Across the length of the barge, into the eye of the mirror, he looked MacLeod straight in the face. "Chichak was beautiful and pure and good, no one could set eyes on her without loving her. She was the one human being Malik adored without reservation. She stole my sword, and tried to kill him . . . He murdered her. It was Chichak's sepulcher that we used for our trap."

"And," Jacob piped up, "syth then, a has mused occluded i' the tomb, brooding on erthe and axen, felle and bone. Gnawing his canker like a rat starving i-hole o' winter, till its skin turns inside-out entirely."

Methos sat gazing blindly away into distant memories.

MacLeod spoke. "He's a thousand years out of date, now. That may help. Methos, what aren't you telling us here?"

"Master Methos says true! And who denies it, I'll give 'em the fico with this thumb in my mouth." Jacob was now in front of Methos, bristling defensively; his strawberry-blond hair stood on end as he glared at Mac. "Don't ye esclaunder my good master. You'll find me fighting farand, full of pepper, yes, and wexing i' my wroth--"

"Hold thy clavers," said MacLeod harshly. "Methos?"

Methos sighed. "Mac, may I borrow your phone?"

"What? I left it at the castle--take Joe's. Methos, I know when you're lying. It's taken me a few years to learn how to spot the signs, but I know them now. Why aren't you giving us the whole story?"

"Mac, I've told you what I know--"

"Have it your way, then." Over and over, Mac's gaze returned to the reflection in the porthole. "So he's sticking to holy ground, Joe?"

"Yeah. Still can't believe he attacked you right in the chapel."

"On holy ground," Amanda agreed. "Brrr."

"Duncan?" said Methos. "This isn't like an ordinary challenge. You can't fight him."

"I have to." The words came out harshly, between clenched teeth. "I have to, Methos. He has my sword!"

Amanda eyed MacLeod, and then suddenly bounced to her feet, saying, "Well, there's something else that has to be done, now that we're on the subject of necessity. Jacob, I can't stand to look at those rags you're wearing for one moment longer. You're coming with me. I'm going to see you properly dressed, or die trying."

"You're going shopping?"

"Yes, Mac, I am. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."

"All right, all right! Go. Just don't get arrested."

She snatched up her little purse, grabbed Jacob's hand, and dragged him toward the door. The last thing the three men heard was the boy's voice, raised in a final comment: "--the Almighty when He made your friend, put in shortening aplenty!"

The door slammed.

In the quiet moment which followed their departure, Methos sighed again, shoved himself off the table and strolled over to investigate Mac's refrigerator. "I'm going to have to buy you some more lager . . . Tea, Joe?"

"I want something stiffer," said Joe. "No, don't bother--I know where it is."

He stumped across the room, splashed whiskey into three shot glasses. Methos watched him, shaking his head. "You'll drink yourself into an early grave if you keep knocking it back like that. Thanks Joe." Methos drank. "Not bad," he remarked. "Mac?"

MacLeod shot him a darkling glance.

"Are you going to help me?"

"That depends," said Methos. "When I see a lemming rushing off a cliff, it doesn't mean I want to leap after him. Do you have a plan?"

"No," said MacLeod. "But I know a strategist. What would he suggest?"

Joe's cell phone sat forgotten on the tabletop. Methos picked it up, and pitched it to Mac. Mac caught it and stood looking at it in surprise.

"The first rule of good generalship: gather information."

"What?"

"You know your number, Mac. Reach out and touch someone."

#

Rebecca's chapel looked as if it had been hit by a rocket.

All the flagstones had been pried up, overturned, smashed and left carelessly lying; to cross the floor now would be like crossing a rock-field. Or the aftermath of an earthquake, a whirlwind, an avalanche. Malik had hammered on every wall, found her old hidey-hole and smashed his way in. Her Mishnah and Gemara, alchemical and cabalistic documents were flung to the seven winds. Last of all, he had shredded the abandoned sleeping bags that had belonged to Amanda and her friends. Fragments of cotton wadding had fallen in blizzards. He had ripped Methos' duffle-bag apart, he had demolished Joe's overcoat. He had destroyed everything, and now he sat slumped in a corner, his knees drawn up and his hands hanging useless.

Talking to himself.

Strangling upon memories.

He saw Rebecca in her alchemist's smock, sitting at a rude trestle table, reading from an enormous book. In a house in Baghdad, in the year 4464--which was to say, 704 AD. He had stepped through a doorway, his sword bare in his hand, wary for a fight . . . and she had turned her head, saying, "Malik, look! Here is the Book of the Quinte Essence, which is to say, Man's Heaven. For this is the burning water that restores man's youth--so sovereign a medicine, it is called the joy of paradise."

In his mind's eye, the memories were swirling images: fragments of sight mixed with fragmented sounds.

. . . "But who is this?" he had demanded, pointing with the tip of his sword. And the man who had been reading over Rebecca's shoulder had shrugged at him, lazily, raising one eyebrow. He was dark-haired, but not black-avised; clever and bookish and bony of face, with eyes so bright that they seemed to twinkle with mirth and cheer. He had been Methos, and this had been their first meeting.

"Hush!" Rebecca had said. "Dear heart, this is a well-beloved friend, known to me of old. He has many names. But you may call him Magister Kerogin."

Malik had lowered his sword, stepped closer--gaging the stranger with a hard glance. "That is the name of a fool."

"Or Doctor Loqman," said the stranger, pleasantly. "A harmless wandering physician."

"And that," Malik had said, "is the name of a trickster."

"Or perhaps Killidge Ak-Saghal?"

"'The old man with the sword'? Well, well. I suppose that next, you'll tell me you're the first of us all?"

"I see you know more legends than are told in Baghdad," the stranger had remarked. "You are a Jew?"

"The Exilarch of the Talmudic Academy. Yes. I am a good Jew." Malik had sheathed his sword. They were, all three, conversing in Hebrew. "Are you one of those immortals who claims we must have no truck with mortals--that we have our own battle, and no part in their history? Well, if you are, you are a grievous fool. True enough, we are warriors born, while they--next to us, they are gentle as nestling doves, helpless as chrisome lambs. Made for better things than war. While we were created with lion-claws and dragon-fangs. How could it be other, than that we are meant to protect them? But the day will come when we shall witness the lion standing guard over the lamb."

The stranger had gazed at him. Then he had extended his hand. "Methos," he had said. "My name is Methos. Not the first, but the fourth."

". . . what?"

"The first of us lives in Chang'an, in the country of Cathay. His name is Dimitri and he has not left holy ground for four hundred years. The second-oldest and third-oldest are in Byzantium. I," Methos had said, with a sparkle of mischief in his eyes, "am the fourth."

And Malik had taken Methos' hand, while Rebecca looked on in astonishment.

In the present day, Malik blinked. The twentieth century around him seemed less real than the lost moments of the past. MacLeod's cell phone dangled forgotten from his fingertips; he had examined it, but found no clue as to its use.

Then he felt another immortal.

He rose to his feet--jerkily, like an ill-jointed puppet. With the phone in one hand and Mac's katana in the other, he walked out of the chapel.

There was a young immortal standing halfway across the lawn. He wore a black leather jacket, with wraparound sunshades that were glossy and streamlined and cool; there were rings on his gloved fingers and rings in his ears and three golden rings in a row, piercing the flesh of his right cheek. A sword was in his fist, the point aimed straight at Malik. A revolver dangled by its trigger guard from the forefinger of his other hand.

"Bon-joor," he spat.

Malik shrugged, barely understanding. He set one hand on his hip and waited.

"Guess you're not a Frenchie. Congratulations, anyway!" said the other immortal. "You've hit the jackpot. You're going to contribute to my round-the-world tour."

Malik said nothing. His face was blank, his grasp on MacLeod's katana negligent, and the gaze of his blue eyes--empty of thought--strayed at random, never settling on anything for long. On the outside, he looked half-witted. On the inside, a thousand conflicting impulses held sway in his imagination; his thoughts ran wild; he dwelt in a fragmented dreamscape, a nightmare of foreign memories. As though a myriad of personalities jostled within him.

This was the nature of the dark quickening: that every immortal he had ever beheaded fought within Malik's mind.

"One head," the other was saying. "In every country. Antarctica excepted, natch. And you, chump--" raising his sword "--are gonna be France."

The words were gibberish, English though they seemed. But the gist was obvious. Even now, the foe was sidling closer, brandishing the odd weapon in his hand--holding it as if it was more dangerous than a sword. Some infernal machine, some automaton of clockwork and cunning springs it must surely be. Malik, remembering the mystery of the cell phone, lifted it (it was still in his hold) and subjected it to a hard, suspicious scrutiny . . . but it seemed quite different from the stranger's apparatus.

Perhaps it was something Rebecca would understand . . .

. . . but Rebecca was nowhere to be found . . .

"Hey, is there something wrong with you? Quit staring at that thing. We're fighting here!"

. . . Rebecca surrounded by flasks and alembics and bubbling bain-maries, her brow creased and her glorious light-red hair bound up in a kerchief--measuring, mixing, muttering. Consulting her copy of the Key of Solomon. Chanting a magic word or two.

"I'm talking to you, dummy!"

. . . Rebecca, saying, "Look now! Here it is writ, if a man be travailed with a fiend and may not be delivered, he will be freed by a draught of this quintessence, with distillation of gold and pearls, and a little of the herb hypericon; then anon the demon will fly away out of him. Malik, do you know aught of devising the quintessence?" And he had answered, "But haven't you discovered it already?"

Malik came to life. Animation lit his face. He asked the other man, "Where pykes Rebecca Horne?"

"Oh, you're a dead man, mister," said the immortal in the wraparound sunglasses, loudly. He shoved the gun into his belt, and attacked.

He came at Malik on a crosswise tangent, his sword slicing at Malik's waist. Malik took a half-step backward and put himself out of harm's way, turning as he did. He thrust with the katana, letting his opponent knock the blow aside. And while the young immortal was busy deflecting his sword, Malik swung the hand that held the cell phone. The back of the phone bashed into Sunglasses' face. Sunglasses made an ugly strangled sound, his chin knocked up and sideways, and blood sprayed from the corner of his mouth. But by then Malik was behind him, resting the edge of the katana against the hollow of his throat.

Sunglasses stood on tiptoe, very still, the tendons of his throat standing out in clenched cords; he swallowed convulsively, and the razor-edge of the katana's blade cut a tiny bloody line on his adam's apple. Malik lifted the blade, raising his opponent's chin, and Sunglasses uttered a strangled cry and twitched all over. "Kend ye Mistress Rebecca?" murmured Malik. "Speak, fiz a putain!"

". . . huh?"

"Be still, man! Alse the erres of your wounds sall speak agayne thee, and of thee ask wreke."

"Uh," said Sunglasses, in anguish, with his throat bleeding.

The phone rang.

Malik looked down in perplexity. He raised the phone slightly and peered at it. It rang again. He shook it. There was a flashing red light, a string of numerals shining in a tiny window; what did this portend?

"Aintcha going to answer it?" said Sunglasses, grasping at straws.

"Eh?"

"Look, just press that button! That button--that little thing, right there! You see?"

Malik pressed the button.

Together, he and Sunglasses stood as close as lovers: Malik behind the younger immortal, holding him as if with an iron grip, controlling him through the medium of the katana pressed to his throat. The activated phone gave forth a faint, unearthly din. Curious, Malik tilted the thing this way and that. "Most strange," he remarked. "A trick?"

"You have to answer it--uhhh! Oww, man, ease up on that thing, will you? I'm trying to help!"

"What means this light?"

"That's the call-back function--"

"Answer it," Malik ordered, and he held up the phone to Sunglasses' face.

"Hello?" said Sunglasses, cautiously. "Hello!"

And the phone spoke. Malik started, and then merely watched in wonderment.

"Who are you?" it asked.

"Um . . ."

More loudly, with impatience, the phone demanded, "Who is this?"

Malik came to a decision. He released Sunglasses--who sagged instantly to his knees, both hands going to his neck--and simultaneously, stamped one foot down atop Sunglasses' dropped sword, pinning it in place, and spoke into the phone. "I hight Malik Exilarch. I seek Rebecca Horne. Are you her leman, her foeman, her slaughterer or her new prentice?"

Sunglasses was scrambling away, on all fours, panting with relief. He spun wildly and came to his feet, drawing his gun.

"I'm Duncan MacLeod," said the phone. "Rebecca is dead."

The barrel of Sunglasses' gun stared Malik in the eye. Slowly, Malik looked into the black maw of the gun, and slowly he lifted his gaze and glared at Sunglasses--right in the candle of his eyes. An infinity of promises spoke in Malik's face. Sunglasses shivered. His nerve broke. He dropped the gun, and ran.

The phone was speaking again.

"Hist," said Malik, into the mouthpiece. He set the phone gently down on the grass, straightened, and hurled the katana.

There was a scream of pain as Sunglasses pitched earthward, the katana standing upright in his back--buried seven inches deep through his severed spine.

"Oh let your dead revive," Malik murmured, in antique Biblical Hebrew. "Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust!"

He strolled across, pulled out the katana, lifted it over his head, and swung.

The quickening was brief, but enlightening.

Malik sauntered back toward the phone, picked it up and examined it with a new, eerie look of comprehension. ". . . still there?" the phone was saying. "Answer me!"

"Yes, I'm still here," said Malik. "Who the hell are you, when you're home?"

There was a pause. Then the voice on the other end of the line said, "Is that Malik?"

"Get a life," said Malik. "I just did, and it was very tasty."

He severed the connection.

. . . in his mind's eye, he saw a moment long ago. He saw himself and Methos, astride their horses, upon a hillside overlooking a city called Itil. Itil, which would one day be the capital of Khazaria. And now it was the year 4489. With the summer sun hot upon Malik's chain-mail coif, with the summer sun bright upon Methos' wide-brimmed traveler's hat. With the river Volga shining in the distance. And the light gilding the houses of Itil, which were many, but strangely-shaped and rude: low round houses like the round felt tents of their nomadic builders.

"Is this not a lovely land?" he remembered asking Methos. "In this clement climate, the grape and corn alike prosper, and the sheep never lack for fodder; it is so pleasant in the summer, that the people abandon their houses and camp in their vineyards until harvest-time. There is such treasure that the King thinks nothing of taking fifty thousand sables annually in tribute, while as for his gold and silver, no man can count it. Nor are his subjects less wealthy than he is. They know no God, worshiping only the sky and the beasts and the seasons, like savages . . . but they fight as fiercely as if they already know themselves a chosen people. Jews from Byzantium have been welcomed here for a generation now. All that is needed is a guiding hand."

"You'll rule them?" Methos had asked.

"I'll be their champion! Even now, the King and his court have accepted Judaism. They asked me to stay, Methos. They call me their Bek--the Great Prince." And Malik remembered how the sun had seemed to shine down a blessing; all the world had seemed to place itself in his hands. "It's not just the royal court, either. Some trick of enlightenment has made this land of Khazar ripe for conversion. Within another generation, this will be the Jewish kingdom foretold by the prophets."

"Ironic," Methos had said, after some thought. "For a thousand years, more civilized lands have looked north-east to the Caucasus and the Caspian Gate, and shuddered in fear. The stories they've told! They call this the land of wicked giants, wild men with hideous faces and the manners of wild beasts. Eaters of blood. Don't Jewish mothers in Baghdad frighten their children with threats of the evil one--Gog, prince of the ends of the earth?"

"Yes. They do."

"'But on that day, when Gog shall come against the land of Israel, my wrath will be roused.'" Methos quoted Ezekiel softly, his gaze upon the city of Itil. "So says the Lord God."

"Gog of the land of Magog--nemesis of the Jews," Malik murmured. "Are these the hosts of Gog and Magog? But from them, we will forge Zion's salvation." He had clenched his mailed fists, raising them heavenward. "Methos, I've sworn to guard them with my life."

Methos had said nothing, then.

But Malik remembered turning to him, catching hold of his hand, smiling into his face. "And you'll help me, Methos. Who else could I turn to, if not you--the dearest friend I know? This is my life's work. Tell me you stand beside me, and I can take it up with a clear conscience."

All this had been before Methos had betrayed him.

All this had been before Chichak was born.

#

"Well, he's on the move," said Joe, about an hour later. He looked up from his phone. "Just left on the other guy's motorcycle. Our guys are on him, though."

Mac knelt before his antique chest, which was enormous, and heavy, and built to reflect the taste of an era that did not value bodily comfort. It was a Gothic piece--made of oak planks, roughly chiseled and unpolished, but finished with a fantastic ornamentation of wrought-iron angels. And its lock was the face of a grimacing demon, with the keyhole to be found behind the teeth of the mouth. Within the chest were a dozen long thin rolls of oilcloth, wrapped around various swords. These were MacLeod's spare weapons.

He said without looking up, "Sometimes it pays to know Watchers."

"He's a stranger here," Methos said. "Do they have any idea where he's going?"

"Pelletier is following him now. He says, there's no knowing . . . The immortal he killed was a kid from Las Vegas, name of Henry Quathe. A nasty customer, with a bad reputation." Joe shrugged. "Did he really speak to you afterward in Quathe's voice?"

"That's the dark quickening," said MacLeod. "Methos?"

"Yes?"

"Are you ready to help me yet?"

"Well." Methos came and crouched beside him--watching him pick up sword after sword, examine each one and discard it. "I can show you his style, how he fights. If you want me to. Are you picking out a weapon to carry against him?"

"Yes." MacLeod unwrapped a two-hundred-year-old claymore, looked silently down at it and laid it aside. He touched a spare katana, then lifted a medieval broadsword from the chest. And wrapped his fists around the broadsword's hilt, angling the blade to the light. The sword was immensely heavy--almost eight pounds of solid metal, its hilt disproportionately long to balance the huge blade. It was a two-handed sword. "This is what he's used to, isn't it? A weapon so massive, it can cleave right through plate armor. Almost no point. No finesse or fingering, no modern swordplay at all. He comes from an era when even sword-and-dagger fighting was unknown."

"Yeah, we used to charge 'em on the battlefield and hack away till the other guy's head came off. No real skill involved, but it worked fine at the time. And he was good at it." Methos picked up a second broadsword, one some two hundred years later in date than the first. There was only one difference to it: the first five inches of its blade had been forged into a ricasso, a square-sectioned length with no edge. He held it with one hand on the hilt and the other fist gripping the ricasso, and tapped it gently against MacLeod's. "So you plan to have a go at him with modern methods? Maybe using another katana?"

"What I ought to do is to take in a claymore and smash his blade right in two." Mac sighed. He dropped his broadsword, reached over and took the one Methos held. The steel was infinitely less well-forged than that of a Japanese blade. But it was the difference in weight that made the European weapon brutal--like a club to the katana's twig. "But I can't do that! I'd be wrecking my own sword."

He held the broadsword upright: vertically, fisting the hilt. Then he changed his grip.

His index and second fingers extended across the guard, wrapping around the ricasso. As his hand shifted, the tip of the broadsword fell, until the weapon was horizontal. Pointed for thrusting, rather than raised for hacking.

And the big sword rested in his hand like an extension of his fingertips.

"But that's not what I meant," he added. "Are you ready to tell me whatever you're holding back?"

Methos reached out and touched the claymore, drawing the tip of his finger along the oily sheen of the blade. "If I seem to fight shy of speaking, it may be because I have nothing important to say. I knew Malik well, he was my--my dear friend and I never wanted to hurt him. The rest of the story is long, and complicated."

MacLeod laid the broadsword aside and rose to his feet. Gazing down upon Methos, he said, "I just want to know where we stand."

"What does that mean?"

"Whose side are you on, Methos--ours, or Malik's? If it comes down to a choice, who would you choose? Us--or Malik?"

Methos tilted his head sideways. "Make your meaning clearer, Duncan."

Joe was watching them curiously.

Mac thought. Then he put out his hand, lifting Methos to his feet so that the two of them stood at equal levels. "When I was enslaved by the dark quickening, you helped me, you saved my life. No friend could have done more. I almost killed you, Methos! I--but you didn't help Malik. Couldn't you help Malik? What was the difference, between him and me?"

His look was as direct as a child's. Methos looked back with equal affection. He said, "I didn't know then what I know now. I had never seen the dark quickening closely before. I tried to help Malik. Rebecca tried too. But we couldn't do anything, except wall him up and hope he healed with time."

"And now?"

Methos ducked his head, starting to grin, with a faint flush coming into his cheeks. It was an oddly boyish expression. "Well. I liked Malik. But of course, it isn't really love that makes the world go round."

"And . . . ?"

"And if you want to wield one of these swords--" he pointed at the chest "--against him, choose the claymore. You have an advantage--he always preferred a heavy blade, he doesn't like anything as light as your katana. Not that he doesn't know how to use one, of course! And get ready for the fight of your life."

Mac picked up the claymore. Methos picked up the spare katana. They glanced at one another, and both of them broke into simultaneous grins. Methos twitched the katana's point, Mac made a small gesture of mock-defense. Then they lunged.

The warning sounded in their minds.

MacLeod and Methos froze with swords crossed, momentarily arrested in the appearance of mortal combat. The barge door opened, and Amanda stepped through. And a vision in fresh-brought clothing shouted and threw himself past her.

It was Jacob. Amanda ran after him, snatching at his arm. He flung her off, brandishing his own sword. "What! Scots murtherer, stand down! Touch one hair of my dear master's head--"

"Jacob, Jacob, Jacob! Down boy, down!"

Methos sprang back, raising one eyebrow. MacLeod, baffled, put up his weapon. Meanwhile Jacob--his hair abristle, his eyes rolling, his teeth bared--stood up to MacLeod like a terrier dog.

"Leave Master Methos be!"

"Take that thing out of my face," said MacLeod stiffly. "And calm down. Now!"

"So you won't? Then have at you! Here, piefinch, shall we wag? Shall we wag?"

"I'll wag you--!" Mac lowered the broadsword slightly. Jacob (now restrained by Amanda's arms wrapped around him from behind) let out a roar and twitched all over.

"I'll stick you smack i' the pin-of-your-throat," he threatened. "Ye braid of the miller's dog! Wi' wild whay-worms in your head--"

"And look at ye," Mac retorted. "You're my elder? Then act your age."

"Mac! Jacob! Both of you, behave like grownups!" Amanda shouted. "Duncan, cool down. Jacob, learn to take a moment's thought."

"I'll take naught from yon bowdikite save agnition of fault! And give naught, but rare hurribobs--"

"Jacob," Methos warned.

". . . bowdled like a hen . . . !"

"Jacob," said Amanda in a motherly tone.

"Oh very well," Jacob muttered. He shrugged away her encircling arms, made his sword vanish. "But for your clemency, he'd now be a shorter and sorrier wretch. Let him thank providence I let your rede rule me, Amanda. Sweet maid of Paris. Angel of mercy!"

Amanda pressed her hands to her heart. "Oh, sir!"

"Are you quite finished?" asked MacLeod.

"Oh, don't be such a grouch, Mac." She gave Mac a quick kiss. "Look at him! The very model of a modern teenage gentleman. Have you three been plotting and planning?"

"And planning and plotting," Joe agreed. "That is, those two have been plotting and planning. I've just been making coffee and phone calls. And I take it you've have been shopping up a storm?"

"Well, let's just say that the economy of Paris has been saved till the turn of the century." Amanda exhibited her credit card with a flourish, and flashed Joe her gorgeous smile. "But just look at Jacob here. Does he do me proud, or does he?"

Jacob bobbed a bow, showing off his new clothes: German jeans, soccer t-shirt and Jordan sneakers. Even his hair had been trimmed in a modern cut. "Sweet Amanda is my alchemist, she hath wrought my fermentation." And he lifted Amanda's hand to his lips, and began to declaim.

"When she was fifteen winter old,

In all that land nas there non y-hold

so seemly on to see;

For she was douce as almandin

Her name was clept sweet Amanda,

As ye may lithe at me."

MacLeod rolled his eyes. He collected his spare katana from Methos, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat, and stowed both swords away in the chest. "Look, it's late and we're all punchy. Methos, maybe we can meet tomorrow and you can show me something about Malik's style." With a hard look: "And talk. If you want to talk."

"Mac," said Methos mildly, "I always want to talk. Make conversation, not war--that's my motto. I just never want to talk about anything important. Call on me before dawn and we'll find a secluded place, maybe the Jardin des Tuileries? That's usually deserted around 4:00 AM."

"Good choice," Mac agreed; the Tuileries gardens were one of the best spots in Paris to fight a challenge.

"I'll take Jacob home with me, if he likes," Methos added. "Unless Amanda wants to keep him overnight? No? Okay then. Jacob, young hotspur, let's get you out of here. If we hustle, we can just catch the last half of Baywatch."

"Baywatch?" said Jacob, doubtfully.

"It'll update your vocabulary. Bye, Mac. Be good!"

"Well," Joe announced; all this while he had been sitting quietly watching, "I ought to be on my way too--leave you two alone--"

He left. Methos left. Jacob left.

MacLeod and Amanda were left alone.

A pause developed. They stood at opposite ends of the barge; Amanda, uncharacteristically subdued, was studying the floor. Once she looked up and smiled--bright as a doll, with her vivid red lips and vivid black eyes and short, vivid white hair--but her hands fidgeted with each other, and she said nothing. After a moment, Mac crossed to her and took her hands, forcing them to be still.

"Amanda, is something wrong?"

"No. No, but I have to be off too--you know, places to go, safes to crack, jewels to steal, nightclubs to run . . ."

"Oh, yes. Your nightclub. You haven't invited me to see it yet."

"No."

"Amanda. I mean to face Malik tomorrow. I know you have your own place in Paris now, but . . . will you stay here tonight?"

"I don't think I ought to," said Amanda. She freed her hands, and then blushed to the eyebrows and kissed him on the cheek. "I--I--talk to you later, huh? Sleep well, Duncan."

After she had gone, MacLeod stood alone in the quiet barge; the empty expanses of the floor, the lack of furniture and company, seemed to mock at him. This was what he had chosen to make of his life. What had become of all the good things he had prized? All that was left was a chest full of swords, a mind rich with memories.

And the love of his friends, who stayed with him no matter how badly he behaved. But Methos and Amanda had other friends, other pursuits; their lives didn't revolve around his. Nor should they. For in the end, there could be only one.

It was late. He was tired. He told himself, "Never again," and went to turn off the lights.

He wondered what Malik was doing now.

#

Malik was underwater.

Six feet down, in a freezing cold river. He swam along the bottom, groping over misplaced auto parts, slimy stones, tin cans . . . while his fingers slowly numbed, while his lungs burned and his open eyes began to sting. The current moved him forward, as if he was part and parcel of the water-wrack, the flotsam and jetsam. Lost in the current of history, floating on the river of time. When his hand happened across a broken beer-bottle and the palm was gnashed to the bone, he barely felt the pain.

. . . He saw the city of Itil in the year four thousand twenty-two. In springtime, when the ice broke on the Volga, and mares and cows came into milk. It was more than two hundred years after Khazaria converted to Judaism, and Itil had been transformed. Once, it had been a tiny rustic city, all round timber dwellings, with cattle-pens on every street. Now it spanned the Volga with a dozen bridges, and held a castle of burnt brick and palaces with roofs of teak; there were a hundred synagogues, and a tall-steepled Christian church or two, and several mosques in the quarter where the Muslim merchants dwelt. Khazaria's empire stretched from the Caspian to the Crimea, from the Iron Gate of Derbend to the Bulgar tribal fiefs of the north. Its standing army was twelve thousand strong, with catapults and artillery. Its fairest flower was the daughter of the King. Chichak.

. . . Chichak. Riding into Itil of a spring morning, with his horse's hooves sucking and slapping in the mud. The jingle of bridle and bit, and the sharp scent of wet leather. Rain falling on his hair. Dismounting at the door of his house, and his young bride springing headlong into his arms.

. . . Chichak.

He surfaced with a rush and a splash, shaking wet hair out of his eyes. He gasped, raised his hand. Blood and water streamed down his wrist. But the cut was already healing.

He dived again.

. . . Chichak skipping to the well like a little girl--returning with slow swaying steps, a sloshing bucket balanced atop her head. Chichak rushing into the house, after a day spent helping pluck the sheep. She ran, she leaped, like a young ewe in a green pasture, like a white goat upon the mountaintop. Chichak carding the spring wool, combing burrs out with her fingertips--spinning it into thread, dying it with madder--her hands rough and prickly from it, pale red across the palms as if dipped in strawberries. Chichak.

Night after night on my bed I have sought my true love.

Chichak he had called her: little Flower. She was a king's daughter, and had grown up in the stifled religious pomp of the royal court. As soon as the flower bloomed, he had demanded her hand in marriage.

A good wife means a good life. She is one of the gifts of God to those who fear Him.

It was long after nightfall, too dark to see; he found his way by touch. Stone after stone tumbled beneath his wet fingers. He fumbled them over, poked beneath them, explored all the junk that decorated the river-bottom. It was like a college-level course in modern urban pollution. The dead voice of Sunglasses in Malik's mind told him about Coca-cola cans, condoms, hypodermic needles, plastic Barbie dolls and lost car-keys.

Each time he dived, he stayed down longer. He was growing tired, and weak.

. . . Chichak! (Ah, how his lungs ached.) Carrying her in his embrace, her arms wound around his neck, while her puppy yipped excitedly at his feet. Dragging off her garments one by one, while she had squirmed and protested, and bits of clothing had strewed the floor behind them. Her girdle and one gold-embroidered slipper, her silk damask over-robe, her long jingling earrings. Her mouth had tasted sweet, of fresh ewe's-milk. Her skin had smelt sweet, of puppies and lambs.

Stars burst like tears behind his eyes. He had stayed under too long, and was drowning.

. . . but he saw Chichak. Chichak with her eyes shut, blinded by his kisses, her face screwed up in breathless giggles. Carrying her around a corner, stopping short. A shout of laughter, and Chichak had tumbled right out of his arms, weeping with mirth. She ran away to his friends: Rebecca and Methos and Jacob, newly returned from England. Malik had stood looking on, unable to suppress his smile, as Methos grinned back--with mockery in his face, and his arm brazenly around Chichak. And they had all sat up long past midnight, talking of the science alconomye, of almicantaraths and the uses of almodza, of alchochodens, almutes, and altification.

In the present day, Malik gasped out a sob. He breathed in water. His eyes dulled, and he drifted along the bottom of the river with a stone clutched in his hand.

When he came back to life, he was half out of the water--lying on his back on the bank, while a woman's frightened voice babbled in the dark. "--just leave him, Irving, we can't help him now, someone'll find the body later. I've heard things about the French police, and we have to be at Eurodisney by the time the gates open tomorrow--"

"You know we gotta call help, Ruthie. Well, damn. Guess we picked the wrong spot to get romantic."

"But we only have five days left on our holiday!"

"Ah, quit your whining. Wonder if they have 911 in France?"

"What's this in his hand? A clue?"

"Let me look." Pause. "That's weird."

No. It was not dark. A flashlight's beam glared into Malik's face, and he stirred feebly, throwing an arm up to shield his eyes. He coughed, and polluted water ran over his chin.

"Ohmigawd, Irving, look! He's alive!"

"Huh? Come on, Ruth. Get real. The guy's deader than Tyson's career." Pause. "Hey." Pause. "Hey-hey! You might be right."

"It's a miracle," said the voice of Ruth, overjoyed.

Malik sat up, and found himself empty-handed

Irving and Ruth, two luckless tourists from Atlantic City, saw the man they had saved from the river look down at the empty palm of his hand. They saw him look up, and see them. They saw the raw anger in his eyes. Then they saw his face begin to distort, working, bulging . . . as if a myriad of other faces were pushing their way through his skin.

But a thousand werewolf movies had made them wise to this sort of situation. One good look at Malik, and they were scrambling headlong up the river-bank. The flashlight swung wildly in Irving's grasp, poor Ruth skidded and slid and fell and scraped her hand; in her other fist, instinctively, she held tight to the object she had taken from the dead man. Behind her, she heard Irving's gasping breaths. His feet thudded through the grass and leaves. And she heard the other footfalls coming up fast: light, swift, easy as an Olympic athlete's.

The beam of the flashlight suddenly skewed wildly, and went out. There was a thud. There was a hideous bubbling noise.

Ruth screamed, and fled on. She ran headlong into a tree in the dark, sat down, and saw stars. Then she was folding herself into a little ball, covered by a shelter of twigs and fallen leaves--like a rabbit cowering behind a bush while the hunter stalks by. With her arms hugged round her knees, one foot covering the other and her stockinged toes dug into leaf-mold; with one long-lashed eye blinking fearfully behind a screen of tangled hair. Her dark slacks and jacket and her black hair made her invisible. For the first time in her life, she was glad she had resisted the temptation to go blonde.

He came to her as if magic led him to the object she still held.

She was dead silent as her wrist was wrenched up, her whole body lifted dangling from one arm. But her mouth gasped ajar, and when he pried at her fingers, she opened her hand submissively. Ruth was flung aside. She landed hard. She blacked out. She was blessedly unconscious when Malik used the katana on her.

All became still, with the peace of the tomb.

Malik in the midnight woods, pulling Irving's flashlight out of Sunglasses' coat-pocket, switched on the light and examined the stone from the river. He smiled. He knew what he held; he had handled it many, many times; he was attuned to it, as a bird in migration is tuned to a distant goal.

He had been drawn instinctively to this place, where the magic stones lay scattered on the river-bottom. This was the first. The others were waiting. They looked like common shards of quartz . . . but Malik knew their power.

Though he died a hundred deaths, he would find them all.

. . . and he remembered a moment long gone. Before Methos and Chichak had betrayed him. When he had walked into the house in Itil, and found Chichak weeping. Weeping with her head bent, her heavy golden curls falling about her face and her hands clasped behind her; she had looked like a chastened child. Between sobs, she had told him that Rebecca and Methos were gone--bound for Trebizond, taking Jacob with them. How she had missed them! - especially Methos, her playmate. But they were not to return for three long years.

What had she said then--and in such a strange voice!--that Methos and Rebecca had left a present? She had been hiding it behind her back. So she had held out her cupped hands, and there it was.

The Malik of the present day threw back his head, and howled like a wolf. "Chichak!!" He saw her, in his mind's eye: his annual flower, blooming for a single summer, doomed to wither and die at the touch of frost. Her troubled face uplifted to his, her blue-violet eyes blinking back tears of bedazzlement--and in her hands, she had held a great faceted globe that flashed and shone, white as a fallen star.

It had been the philosopher's stone.

The Methuselah crystal.

#

In the Jardin des Tuileries, 4:57 AM:

This, the Tuileries district, was the ideal venue for a pre-dawn swordfight. There was nothing in the vicinity but expensive shopping arcades, museums, and the Seine. Both the shops of the Rue de Rivoli and the musees of haute couture and arts decoratifs--not to mention the Louvre, just a block away!--were securely locked up and would remain so for hours. And the tall trees of the formal garden blocked off the view from the river.

The two men lunged and thrust, hacked and cut, retreated and advanced. One attacked with a stalwart claymore. The other defended himself with a quicksilver katana. Though both were in their shirtsleeves, neither shivered in the cold night air; the three spectators huddled under the trees, though, blew on their hands and clutched thermoses of coffee. The combatants glowed with heat and dripped with sweat, and when there was a pause in the action, they swiped their foreheads dry with the backs of their hands. Methos was also hoarse. He deserved to be. He had been talking continuously--as he and Mac had been fighting continuously--for more than forty-five minutes.

Now, suddenly, his voice ran out. He lowered the katana he had borrowed from MacLeod, and the silence in the Jardin des Tuileries was deafening as the two of them stepped apart. Methos shook himself, and his whole stance altered, shrugging back to his habitual slouch. His shoulders slumped, his face changed. It was as if he was throwing off a disguise. For the past hour, he had been Malik Exilarch; now he was Methos again.

"What now?" asked MacLeod.

"We're finished. You know what I know. Are you ready?"

MacLeod lowered his claymore and looked at it as if it was foreign to his soul. "I thought I'd taken myself out of all this, Methos, I thought . . . the Game will continue without me, the world will turn, and for a few years, I'll be spared the task of killing. Never again, I told myself."

"You were wrong."

"Yes. Yes, I'm ready, Methos."

Methos took his arm, turned him, and began to walk him across the long lawn, toward Joe and Amanda and Jacob. "Will you try to take the head?"

Mac looked sidelong at him. "Is there any reason I shouldn't?"

"Your sanity and good sense?" Methos suggested. "Or do you still think I'm harboring some sort of dire secret?"

"Maybe. Yes. I mean to fight to win, Methos. After that--well, I've fought off the dark quickening before. That may mean I have a chance to do it again."

"Yes," said Methos skeptically. "Maybe."

They reached the others. Jacob, who had been dozing, woke with a snuffle and a start; Amanda and Joe merely offered Mac his coat and a cup of steaming-hot coffee. "Time to go," Mac told them. "No more waiting. Joe, where is he now?"

"South of the castle. He's killed again--two poor joes, tourists apparently. The Watchers are with him." Joe looked away, fighting an inward bafflement; the reports he got from Pelletier made no sense. Why should Malik be diving in a river? But since Mac had never told him about Rebecca's crystal, this detail was meaningless to him. He never thought of mentioning it to his friends.

"Mac?" said Amanda in a tiny voice.

Mac drew close to her. The other three went on ahead, giving them a moment of privacy; Amanda put her hand out and just flicked the hilt of the claymore with her polished fingernail, shrugging down at it. "Rebecca said to me once, choose your weapon. Choose your ground." She looked up. "You're more than good enough."

He sighed.

"Mac I thought I ought to, you know, give you some token to take into battle, like a scarf or a guerdon or a sprig of rosemary, or something--" She laughed nervously. "Or my crystal. Rebecca's crystal." Her hand went up to the stylish chain around her neck. "To bring you luck."

"Maybe a goodbye kiss?" Mac asked.

"I . . . You know?"

"That you've fallen in love? Amanda, it's obvious. You've never refused an invitation to sleep over before, you're more likely to wrestle me down to the bed. Or invite me into my own home, to look at your etchings."

"My forged hundred-dollar-bill etchings?"

"Your stolen treasury plates and faked Durers," he said gravely. "Who is he, Amanda?"

Amanda hemmed and hawed and twisted one heel on the ground in embarrassment. When finally she glanced up, her face had become as shy as a little girl's. "He's a mortal."

MacLeod blinked. Then he leaned forward, until their noses were almost touching, and he smiled mockingly into her eyes and crooned, almost singing the words: "He'll get old and ug-ly . . . !"

She sang back: "I don't ca-are . . . !" There came the brilliant flash of her smile, the loveliest smile in creation. "Duncan, I don't know where I'm going, I only know I have no choice. Will you--will you carry these for me?"

She gave him the crystal from around her neck, and also her sword with its Oroboros hilt.

He put the crystal in his pocket and the sword in his coat, and gave her the claymore in return. Then, without speaking, they went to join the other three.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .