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Seven Venoms

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Imagine the usual disclaimers. Rationale: this story starts from the premise that immortals begin to have children once they have taken a certain number of quickenings (that is, beheaded enough of their fellow immortals); that they call this coming of age or else coming into fire, and they call their lives the Secret Game. Further rationale: the character of Kellistra was kindly lent to me by Nicolas, and he has let me play with her; and the story itself was also handed to me, by him, from the movie Kill Bill. And Nicolas has let me play with it. Imagine that!





Nihil durare potest tempore pertuo, cum bene sol nituit, redditur oceano, decrescit Phoebe quae modo plena fuit, sic venerum feritas saepe fit aura levis.

Nothing can endure forever; when the sun has well shone, it returns to the ocean; and the moon, however full it was, wanes. Thus often is the wildness of Venus transformed into thin air.

Seven Venoms



The city of Pompeii was ancient, filled with temples; still, oldest of all temples in it (so the market-stall women in the forum claimed) was the Temple of the Cornerstone, peculiar to that city. It was a very small place, a single cell with walls and floor of brick, tucked into a corner of the last remaining fragment of the original city wall. Almost a secret place. One solitary priestess tended it; she had been a slave, but had been manumitted by a wealthy patron and invested with the temple's care. But she was mute, and a madwoman besides, and spent all her days elsewhere--usually in a wineshop, sunk in some amphora or other. Meanwhile the temple lay forgotten. Only women went in.

It was a haunted place. Strange cries echoed from it at night.

Seventeen years before, at the time of the catastrophe (which everyone still remembered) the whole city had been leveled, and that temple too. All had been rebuilt, since then. There had been a flourish of trade and industry, and the newly rich had built villas where only patricians had lived before. Those orphaned by the disaster were not so lucky. They had grown up like wild creatures on the streets . . . like the girl, Daena.

She was sixteen, and should have been married years ago, but still she ran loose as a doe of the field, knowing not the hand or authority of man. When she had been small, she had lived by charity. Her bread had come from every hand, she had been every woman's daughter. Time had changed things. Now, Daena still sported the rags of a beggarly Persephone, too small, outworn, threadbare--clinging to the ripe curves of a Demeter of the marketplace.

She gathered the herbs of the field to sell for coin, walking far beyond the walls in the early mornings, and coming back with her arms laden with greenery. Little bunches of chicory, of borage and wild onion and cabbage, and flowers too in their season, roses and daisies. In the hot summer when green things withered, she hunted snails to sell for soup, and caught eels and crabs and frogs. She ate her fill of what she caught, and sold the remainder. Men hunted her as she hunted the small creatures of the fields, hungering for her; but she fled them or fought them off.

She was the child of the calamity. It had been a great earthquake, a portent of something perhaps. Daena was its offspring, like many others. No one had ever discovered her real father and mother.

She was also a notorious thief.

"Stop! Stop her!"

She ran like a doe, indeed--twisting, leaping, long legs flashing, too swift for anyone to catch. She laughed as she went, a crazy crash of sweet sound; her voice was very melodious. Even when a fleet-footed pursuer managed to catch her arm, and bruised it to the bone before she wrenched free, the curse she uttered was lovely, like music. Nor was she breathless, though she had run a long way already. She had run all the way from the harbor, up that steep road, barely flagging.

She shot like an arrow through the Stabian Gate, down the via Stabiana, with sailors after her. Egyptian sailors, puffing and cursing. They had been confident, when they began the chase--over an hour ago. Daena fled before them, light as air. Their bare feet slogged on the pavement of the via Stabiana's sidewalks, raised high above the street; her bare feet danced, she ran down the middle of the street, over filthy basalt paving-blocks, dodging among donkeys and ox-wagons and slave-porters bent double beneath burdens. Toes splashing in ordure. "You can't get me!" she cried once, hurling the challenge at the world, "I'm Atalanta, Atalanta!"

A baker's slave, doing his master's daily rounds, shied away and almost overturned his delivery cart piled high with loaves. He screamed at Daena, naming the god of merchants: "May Mercury curse you!" She feinted left, right, and ducked under his arm. "Mercury will preserve me!" she said, naming the god of thieves, and laughed in his face, and fled.

Then she put on a burst of speed, and left everyone in her dust.

She had lost them. She wasn't even winded. She slowed to a floating walk, and her head was high; she was still bubbling with that wellspring of nightingale laughter. In the breast of her ragged tunic, she nursed her stolen goods.

"Daena?"

A party of passers-by had noticed her, and halted, barring Daena's path. They were all girls: a bevy of girls, a small army in fact, with every color of skin--like marble, ebony, ivory and pale-polished bronze--and brave with every color of drapery--like flowers, butterflies, precious gems--and armed with sunshades, cosmetic-boxes, drying-clothes and bundles of diaphanous fabric. Slave-girls. It was a trio of wealthy women proceeding to the baths, attended by their households. One of the women spoke, and all the slave-girls stood back. "Daena?" said the woman.

Daena shied away from her. "You don't know me!"

"Child," said the woman, and her voice was caressing. A second woman came to stand at her right hand, and another at her left. "The trouble is that you don't know us, no, no. Yet we, we know you well. What's that you've got, Daena?"

The second woman, an exquisite Egyptian, said, "Beloved child, you grow more beautiful every day."

The third, a Greek whose beauty was marred by a patch over one eye, spoke: "Your father sent us."

"He's not my father!" said Daena. "He's a filthy slave-trader."

"He would be as a father to you, yes, yes--"

"--Or else a master--"

"Dear child," said the Greek woman. "Every woman needs a paterfamilias. You know you can come to us whenever you want. Sleep on fine linen, and wear finer. Scarlet and purple like a young goddess. Eat at a citrus-wood table, drink the best wine--yes, from a golden cup. Whenever it pleases you . . . in your master's house."

She backed away from them, head hanging. When she was far enough off, she cried, "My kind has no masters!" and whirled and ran.

She rushed right through the forum, round the old Doric Temple which was a half-ruined wilderness of builder's tools and stone blocks--seventeen years since the earthquake, and the repairs were still underway!--and ended up huddling in the Temple of the Cornerstone.

It was as small and snug as a honey-comb, barely four paces across inside, and almost completely bare. There was no altar, nor offerings. Only a few flowers, withered pale as moonbeams, lay on the floor; Daena trod the dry straw of their stems, flicked them aside with her heel. She crouched in a corner, nursing her bundle of ill-gotten gains--a scrap of ragged cloth with an Egyptian pattern. "Pretty," she crooned, "pretty present, you're my present, you didn't deserve the master I stole you from--oh no, he was a filthy Egyptian from Alexandria, and would have you sacrificed and mummified. Oh, I know his kind . . ." And many more such remarks, interspersed with curses directed at Egyptians. She bent over the small bundle, and rubbed her cheek lovingly against it. "And those women? Forget them! They call themselves serpents--serpens septemfluus, the seven-mouthed serpent!--but never mind them now, everyone in the whole world fears them, but they wouldn't dare lay a hand on me . . ." Daena hugged the bundle of cloth, breathing raggedly. "They wouldn't dare," she repeated, and her voice was breathy with fear.

Then, at last, she turned back the corners of the cloth.

Within was a kitten, curled like a flower-bud.

She had stolen it from a merchant's ship. It was a long-legged big-eared Egyptian kitten, its fur like coarse sand striped with the russet tan of the desert. Daena cuddled it to her cheek, and it scratched her, at which she laughed. Then she heard a noise outside.

It was a man's footfall. Daena bounded up, clutching her kitten. She lunged for the doorway, emerged into the light; no one was there, but she swerved headlong round a corner, and--

She ran smack into a man in an Egyptian kilt. And recoiled with lights behind her eyes, her head ringing from the impact. For once in her life, she had been too slow. Before she could run again, he had her by one wrist, his prisoner. The kitten squalled. Daena cried out, wrenched at his hold in a frenzy of wild panic. She fell to the ground, landing on her back. The kitten leaped from her arms with a hiss, and fled. Daena scrabbled herself backwards, her hair tumbling over her face. The man's hand shut on her ankle, and then she flipped over and landed threshing, scraping her chin on the ground--

She screamed and was up and running, ten crazy swerving paces away before she realized there was no pursuit. The man had released her. Released her! Daena stopped short. She gasped breath into aching lungs; her throat was raw from shrieking. And turned, and found herself facing the man.

He was no Egyptian, though he wore Egyptian clothing and had come to Pompeii on an Egyptian ship, in possession of an Egyptian kitten (which she had stolen). His face was big-nosed, bony yet handsome, and he was taller than any Egyptian, even the ruling Egyptians of Greek descent who were sprung from the army of Ptolemy.

He stared at her, she stared back; something passed between them. The look in his eyes was astonishment and pity.

"Who are you?" said Daena.

An instant later he was gone, gone into the Temple of the Cornerstone. She blinked and took a few steps in that direction, witlessly following him. Then she started, whirled--and found herself facing an army of women.

The women Daena had met before, with all their entourage, had come up silently and surrounded the entrance of the little temple; they were like a forest of pillars, still as marble columns, cartyadids of a mystery as yet unguessed. Every one of them was staring at the temple . . . where the man, the stranger, could just be glimpsed, standing motionless just inside the doorway. His back was to them. He was looking down at his feet, ignoring them completely--and that was the strangest thing of all. "Daena," whispered the Greek woman with the missing eye, "you don't know where you've led this man." Then, raising her voice: "You! Get out of there!"

Slowly, he raised his gaze.

"That place is forbidden--"

One long step, a blur of action, and he was framed in the dark doorway, a drawn bow in his hands, an arrow on the bowstring . . . frozen in the moment of menace. He spoke, and his voice was so serene, so tranquil, that it made Daena's jaw drop. "The living," he said with the cadence of poetry, "when the dead wood of the bow flexes into life, must die. Who are you?"

The Greek woman made a small gesture, a hand-signal to her slaves. "Leave us," she added, and the slave-women silently bowed their heads and filed away. "Tell us your name first," she said to the stranger.

"Methos," said the man.

"Elene," said the Greek woman.

"Sitkamoses," said one of her companions.

"Mell, of the seven serpents," said her other companion. "I hope you follow the laws, yes? We do not fight among ourselves, yes yes? We are all grown here, come of age--yes?" She slid a foot forward, slid a hand into her mantle. "Yes?"

He cast his bow aside. Just like that: it fell to the ground with a thrum, the arrow falling beside it, and the man was walking straight forward, his chin arrogantly lifted. He strode between Elene and Sitkamoses, and they moved aside to let him pass. Daena watched all this in a glaze of incomprehension. Then the three women turned with a single accord to her. Elene began, "Now, dear child--"

Daena had had enough. She took off, sprinting after her vanished kitten.

She found the kitten crouched in the waste ground by the gladiator's school, not far away. It mewed when it saw her, perhaps already knowing her, or maybe ready in this foreign, frightening place to run to anyone who seemed friendly. Daena snatched the kitten up, and curled her body protectively around it. She looked about. Then, holding her kitten, she took three steps, and swarmed up the ladder of a commemorative statue (the plinth said SVSPIRIVM PVELLARVM) and onto the low roof of the school's kitchen. Here was a hiding-place she had resorted to many times, somewhere that only a light agile creature could climb to. From it, atop the building, she had a perfect view of the whole vicinity . . . so that nobody could sneak up and catch her. Daena scanned her surroundings, looking for trouble. Then, finding none, she sat down on the roof; she stroked the kitten, cuddled it to her, kissed its rough fur; and wept for fright of the incomprehensible world.

The voices of the women carried up to her:

"Do we know him, do we know about him, this Methos?"

"I've heard of a Methos. Very old. Formidable. He rode with Kronos once--"

"Be silent," said Elene, "the child is listening."

Daena rose and ventured a step forward, stood peering over the edge of the roof.

"You know what I mean," Sitkamoses concluded.

"We need to do something about him. Yes! Yes! But later, later, later, sisters. He's a coward, it seems. For now, forget him--whatever his name, he's harmless--"

There was a roar. From the direction of the half-rebuilt Doric Temple, bounding out of a blaze of sunlight, came the man. He whirled as he came, like a tempest whipping off the sea. Around and around, careening out of control--he had armed himself with a mason's sledgehammer. The women scattered, screaming, swords appearing in their hands; he was in their midst, the sledgehammer spinning in a vast wheel around him. He was past them. Releasing the sledgehammer. And the hammer sailed away like a discus, straight though the doorway of the little Temple of the Cornerstone, in an explosion of breaking bricks.

In the instant that the sledgehammer struck, it seemed that the earth shook too.

The entrance to the destroyed temple hung in a haze of brick-dust. Pulverized fragments were still gently pattering to earth, the women were still screaming; the man Methos stood frozen, the one still thing in the wild strange scene. He was watching the temple entrance.

Then something stepped out of the temple, out of the haze of dust.

It stepped out, shaking out its hair, which was matted into muddy locks like coarse rope, plastered with red brick-dust; stepped out, shreds of moldy fabric falling off its naked shoulders, falling in pieces behind where its bare heels trod; stepped out, covered with filth. Its hands rose and pawed the air. Its face lifted to the sun. It advanced in lurches, feet striking the ground as if every step would be its last; and it uttered a sound like a . . . like a volcano erupting.

"You fool!" Mell was shouting at Methos, "you don't know what you've done--you don't know--" She ran forward (but both Sitkamoses and Elene retreated a step) and caught at the shoulder of the monstrous figure. "You'll get back in there, yes, yes--"

Then the thing that had come from the temple took her by the throat.

She fell, and the thing lurched over, falling onto her. Mell's sword, jarred out of her grip when she was knocked to the ground, skittered across stones and dirt and lay out of reach, bright-edged and sharp, useless. Mell's hand flapped in that direction and struck the ground, empty-palmed, once. Twice. Falling short, each time. "No no no--don't, ah no, sister, you're hurting me, remember the law, the law--and the child is watching--ahhh, ahhghh argghh--"

Behind them, the last sparkles of brick-dust were just settling out of the air; it had happened that quickly.

Great splashes of red blood now painted the dust. Then the thing that Methos had released rose from its prey--red from its clay-streaked belly to its dirt-streaked forehead. Out of the mask of nameless muck and blood, two living eyes looked. The thing opened its mouth, and barked out words.

"Leave . . . Pompeii!" it shouted, and Mell rose, splattered with blood, staggering; she seemed to throw off the pain of her injuries, and when the creature that had come from the temple slid a step closer to her, Mell screamed, "I go, yes yes!" and ran.

Elene said to Sitkamoses, "Come!" and the two remaining women also fled.

Across the short distance separating them, Methos looked at the thing he had set free.

"Kellistra?" he said.

#

In the ancient world, time was mutable. Every city had sundials for its clocks, and the day and the night were divided, twelve hours for each. In winter, the twelve hours of the day ran short; in the long days of summer, the hours were long too. Pompeii was a small city; you could walk right across it in half of one short winter hour. Over the city, like the gnomon of the sundial of the gods, mighty Vesuvius thrust its blade toward the sky, and its shadow over the city shortened . . but no one in Pompeii understood the omen.

The earth trembled under Elene's feet as she dismissed her slaves, left the city.

She went out secretly, in veils--disguised as a proper modest Greek wife. It was only a short walk to her destination, a villa outside the walls. Once there, Elene left the road and entered from an oblique direction. She was over twelve hundred years old, and had played hide and seek with challengers all over the world; she was sure no one had followed. Nevertheless, caution was indicated. She did not put down her veil till she was safe in the house. Then she called, tentatively, "Master?"

The man she sought was in the master's quarters, elegant apartments adjacent to the peristyle and atrium.

Elene put back her veils and prostrated herself to him, as if before a king. "Master," she said, "the black Pontic viper has escaped."

#

Methos wrapped her in his cloak, and took her to the inn he was staying at, holding her up as they walked--she was almost unable to take two steps in a row--and, once there, he helping her to his room and letting her slump on his unimpressive bed. He brought a pitcher of water, dipped a linen cloth in and washed her face and feet. At first she resisted his kindness, twisting away and staring blindly as if she could barely recognize him. Then, with a sudden movement, she groped in his direction--missing badly, her hand falling empty, thwarted.

"Kellistra?"

His face swam in and out of focus in her sight. Her eyes kept filling with tears, brimming over; it was foolish, maddening; she had never, in a life centuries long, been one to weep. "Methos. It's you. I can't . . . see properly. Too long--"

Too long in the dark.

Everything hurt: her skin, her arms, every limb, even her fingers seemed swollen and stiff as winter-rotted twigs. But somehow she made her hand move, wavering, and reach out and fasten to the hem of Methos' white Egyptian kilt.

"How long was I there?"

But she saw, when she looked into his calm eyes, that he had no way to answer. And how could he? He hadn't been there when she . . . when she had been bricked up in the temple. The fine-woven linen of his kilt was ripping, splotched with the dust and filth of her tomb, in the grip of her twisting fingers. "Claudius," she said, naming the emperor. "Is this . . . the twelfth year of his reign? Or the thirteenth? Or--" but that was impossible, she thought; she could not have been buried more than a year or two, "--maybe, the fourteenth?"

"Claudius is dead," said Methos. "Titus Vespasianus Augustus is Caesar over Rome now. Claudius died in his twelfth year after assuming the purple." She looked at him with wild hope in her eyes, and he went on mercilessly, "Kellistra, that was fifteen years ago. This is the eight hundred and twelfth year since the founding of Rome, and the feast of the Volcanalia is seven days away."

Silence.

"Abellona." It was her birth-name; she didn't know of anyone except Methos who remembered that name anymore. Kronos and a few others had known it once, but she was sure that they had forgotten it long ago. Methos went on, "Kells, what happened?"

"It was just after . . . the earthquake, and--and someone, he--" Her voice became ragged. It was absurd; she no more stammered than she could weep, such things were for weaklings. And she was an immortal. "Bricked me up beneath the city wall, into the cornerstone. After . . . the earthquake. He walled me in."

"He," said Methos. His eyebrows rose. "Love-madness doesn't usually lead even your suitors to brick you up in walls, Kells." She cursed him, and he smiled faintly. "That sounds more like you. Who were those women, rivals of yours, or--?"

"The serpent sisterhood. Seven venoms. I was--one of them, once." Suddenly she drew her hand away, stood wavering on uncertain feet. The numbness was wearing off. She could stand upright--straighten her crooked back, for the first time in years. "Methos. You were my teacher when I was young. You must be my teacher in this again."

Methos looked mildly at her, and she gazed back with secrets in her eyes.

"Why must I do that?" he asked.

"Because I need help." Yes--she could stand straight. She could plan. "They buried me--my lover, and his other women. My sisters. We all ruled over Pompeii together, till he turned on me and buried me. Well, he'll rue that day. Because you'll help me, Methos, and I will make them pay."

#

It was quiet in the villa, away from the hubbub of the city. A strange place: before the earthquake, so many years earlier, this had been one of the most luxurious estates to be found anywhere. The building was fashionable--or it had been--being built from handsome limestone contrasted with light-grey tufa blocks, with painted walls and mosaic floors, beautifully made. But renovations begun on it had never been completed, being called off and re-planned many times . . . something that grieved and perplexed Elene, who had never understood. The master had not been himself for many years. All the ornaments had been taken away and stored, and his own noble quarters denuded of furnishings; even the decorative columns around the peristyle had been removed, set temporarily aside, and never returned to their places.

Whenever Elene set foot in the place, all-too-clear memories of the joys of yesteryear rose before her eyes, blinded her, and filled her heart with grief.

"Why did everything have to change?" she whispered now. "We ruled this city once! You and I, and the others--all of us--when we were your brides, we stalked the streets and no mortal dared look higher than our feet. We held them in terror! I could go into any tavern in the city, drink what I pleased, strike any man, and laugh at the fear in their faces. And they crawled to me. They crawled to me."

Her voice quavered.

"That's all ruined now. Because of her."

Her master moved in the shadows, and an edge of light--like the blade of a sword--sliced across one-half of his face, showing the beauty of bone and flesh. He had always been beautiful, a god among men. Dionysus. His lovers had always called him Dionysus . . . in his beauty, he wore the name of a god.

He was perfect in every way; desire warmed her merely when he showed his face. Even the timbre of his voice stirred her.

"She wanted to leave me," he said, and Elene ground her teeth in fury.

"She deserved death for that! The fool."

"No. To kill her would have been against the rules."

"So you bricked her into the temple! Was that wiser? Look at the result!"

"And what of you, Elene, my heart? What about what you did?"

"I did it at your command. As I would . . . do anything you command. Even though it made my skin creep--"

"Go on. Say it."

"Euripides himself could have written nothing so tragic," said Elene. "Or so macabre. Yes, it demands to be acted out on a stage, perhaps with condemned criminals playing the parts, so that the beheadings would be real! Like Laureolus. The immortal bride seeking to flee her immortal bridegroom. The bridegroom avenging the slight, by taking her--a lovely woman!--and walling her alive into her tomb. And then--and then--"

"Say it."

"Sending one of his other women to kill her, months afterward," said Elene. "Why did you need me to do that, Devius?"

#

"I can't tell you everything that happened," Kellistra said. "It is . . . a sacred secret."

"Let me guess," said Methos. "You've come into your fire? Is that it?"

Her look of surprise and shock made him laugh; it was so unlike her. "You know about coming of age?" she said uncertainly. "About--"

"About the Secret Game? Yes, of course. For many centuries, Kells."

"Oh."

"Let me guess again: this lover who buried you--and I dislike him already, his taste is abysmal--"

"Thank you," she said. Then after a moment, "I think."

"--he was your first? He was your husband?"

"Yes, he is!"

"Oh. Is he? Still?"

"My man, yes," said Kellistra. The flash of pride and anger in her eyes dulled; she was too weak to keep it up. But after a moment's rest, she did manage to smile faintly. "Don't let your dislike of this rival blind you--"

"Rival. Rival, is it? Really? Kellistra," with his hand over his heart, "I had no idea you felt--"

"I would strike you, if I had the ambition. This man has skills that . . . well, let's say no woman could resist him, save perhaps a virgin martyr of the Christians. And I am not that." She looked aside, added, "With him, it was--"

Methos stopped her with a gesture. "I know how it is. And these other women you spoke of? Your fellow venoms. Were they similarly deluded?"

"We killed for him, Methos. Until I regained my sanity," Kellistra said in a tone of deep irony, "and decided to step out of Devius' paradise."

#

"You always taught us that those in on the Secret Game were sacred flesh," said Elene. She had drawn as close to Devius as she dared. He would drive her away if she came any nearer; this had happened to her before. "And that it was a sin to fight among ourselves. To harm another of our own kind."

"She turned on us first. Betrayed our trust. Destroyed the family."

"Dev, you know I have never disobeyed you. But when you sent me to the temple that night--"

She had never understood why he had sent her, instead of just doing it himself--was he reluctant? There was nothing in her experience of him that pointed to any fears or weaknesses. But she had always obeyed him. So she had taken tools and gone out to the Temple of the Cornerstone, doing her master's bidding.

At midnight.

In the dark of the moon.

She had stolen into the temple, unseen as a thief, and with an iron bar, she had chiseled out the mortar in the new brickwork, loosening it. And then, with the point of her tool, she had pried out some bricks. Just enough (she planned) to slide her sword-blade through, and then slice once--through Kellistra's neck. As her lord and master commanded. She did have regrets. As she worked, she muttered under her breath, and once she paused to address the wall itself. "Sister. We are sisters, aren't we? Though we never loved one another. But perhaps we could truly be sisters--who knows?--we look alike, Kellistra, and love the same man, and . . . If I could have it otherwise, I would. But you obsess him: Devius. That I might have Devius, Kellistra, you must die."

No answer came from the wall. But when the first brick had juddered free and sliding from its place, fell to the floor and smashed in two--then, a thin unearthly cry had piped out of the chink.

Elene had nerves of steel; nevertheless, she had almost broken and fled at the eerie sound. When she had lifted her lantern at last and peered into Kellistra's prison, she had seen the woman entombed, gaunt and skeletal and covered with dust, and her hair grown over her like a mummy's winding of grey spider-web. Just stirring, like some rooted thing of earth, that turns its flowers by slow instinct toward the light. When the lantern's dim beam struck her, she moved so that the dust cracked that coated her and a fine swirling haze filled the air; and there came a noise like dry leaves breaking underfoot. It had been the husk of her clothing, breaking apart and falling. Then her hands had groped vaguely outward, and settled again on what they held.

Her face had been drawn by starvation, but at her sunken breast, a rosy infant nursed. A living child.

Kellistra in her crypt must have died a thousand deaths, but she had given birth and was nourishing her child with the substance of her body. When Elene had seen this, her will to destroy had ebbed. She had found herself weeping till the tears splashed the imprisoning brickwork; and against her own will, she had broken away more bricks--enough to reach through--and rescued the baby. Kellistra's arms had not been strong enough to resist, though she had stirred in her coma and almost wakened--and in the moment when her eyelids had flickered, Elene had recoiled in shame and dread. But the moment had passed, Kellistra's grip had slackened . . . and Elene had stolen the child, replaced the bricks, fled the place. And that had been sixteen years ago.

"Mell is gone," she said now, in the present day, downcast. "When Kellistra rose from that tomb, she was like a great daemon of vengeance, bearing destruction in the trail of its wings. Like something from beyond the river Lethe. A monster, sister to the Gorgons, Cerberus and the chimera. She attacked Mell, and put her in fear . . . 'Leave Pompeii!' she said."

Devius did not even react. But then, Elene thought, he had not cared about Mell for many years now.

"And that's not all," she added. "There was a stranger there, he was the one who broke her free--he called himself Methos--"

The wine-cup slipped from Devius' hand, smashed on the floor with a great noise. Elene recoiled.

"Death," said Devius. "His true name is Death."

#

"Devius?" said Methos. "Wait. Does he come from beyond Persia, and is his name Dev?"

"Oh, by Athena and Kronos, don't tell me. You know him? Methos, you know everyone. It is an insufferable trait."

"Yes, I know him," said Methos.

#

"Call the others! Elene, I command you. You and your sisters will find Kellistra and--and this man Methos. Find him, I tell you!" After a long pause: "When you do . . . kill them both."

#

"Enough," said Methos. "I've known Dev since--well, it doesn't matter, not really. What matters is I will not help you break the laws and kill him. Even if you want him dead." He rose, backing away from her. "There are too few of us. And the law is clear. I'll leave money with the innkeeper, so you can keep the room for a day or two. Goodbye, Kellistra."

"Wait." She took had risen, shaking off the dust and cobwebs from her head and shoulders. She was still a monument of grime--like the first woman to be fashioned by the architecture of the gods, from the living clay of the earth. Only her eyes gleamed forth, brilliant and compelling. "If--if we were friends once, Methos, you must do this. You must! Only realize what Devius himself did: laid hands on me in violence--" Her voice shook; she wiped at her face with the back of one hand, steeled herself and went on. "He broke the laws. Believe me. He has to pay."

"The penalty will not come from your hand," said Methos, "or mine. The crime will not be punished if you commit it again, Kells!"

"I tell you I will have his head!"

"Then don't expect me to help you take it!"

But as he stepped out of the room, he paused for a moment, drew his sword--it was a good Spanish weapon, true steel with a grain-pattern of northern rod-welding in the blade--and cast it toward her. It fell ringing on the floor at her feet.

"They'll come after you," he said, again as mild as honey. "I do believe your story, you see. Defend yourself with this, but Kellistra . . . by all that's holy, do not attack your own kind."

#

A Roman lady's ornatrices were an army in themselves.

Sitkamoses, late of the seven venoms, was living testimonial to this. Very great ladies would not dream of setting foot out of doors without employing all manner of highly specialized cosmetician-slaves. Not for them the simple barbers of simple households! No--Sitkamoses, who fancied herself the loveliest lady in Pompeii, was served by a masseur and a manicurist and a pedicurist . . . not to mention an unctoriste to rub her skin with expensive imported oils, a depilariste to pluck her eyebrows, and a pictrice to brush her hair. And a calamiste to ply her tortoiseshell combs, to luster her hair with dust of real gold, and to curl it with hot irons. She kept a phialige who painted her face, a psecacie who perfumed her face, and a ponceuse who powdered her face; she kept a catoptrice who was a true expert in the exact art of holding a mirror, and a flambarie who plied her fan in a manner beyond price. And, of course, one needed a slave to arrange the wardrobe too; Sitkamoses' cosmete had been stolen (literally) from no less than the sister-in-law of a cousin of the third wife of the late, unlamented Claudius, emperor and god.

One finished off this small yet essential suite of attendants with one's lorarie, who whipped her sister-slaves if they neglected their tasks, and finally one's appraciatrice who supervised and organized the whole crew . . . and, having all these, a Roman lady could consider herself ready to sally forth to the baths.

So with Sitkamoses, once the wife of Devius.

She patronized the newest and most expensive of Pompeii's bath-houses. This was a place of luxury to suit her tastes. It was located near the forum, overlooking the harbor road (and overlooked by looming Vesuvius) and it was lush, and it had everything. Trendy little shops set up under awnings sold tidbits to eat, scented soaps, and jewelry. Hot baths. Tepid baths. Cold baths. Steam rooms. Artwork, in little galleries appending to the shopping portico, and a library for those who wished to read. Nor was that all. Surrounding the bath-house was a shady esplanade, upon whose lawns Pompeii's citizens could frolic and play games--a good thing for the sake of their health--while dressed in their brief underwear--a good thing for the sake of their love-lives, because a Roman woman's underwear much resembled the bathing-suits of future days. And bathing was mixed-company, which meant that men could come and watch them play. They played with balls stuffed with feathers, ran around on the grass, and lifted little weights.

Sitkamoses, shrouded in a cloud of pretty slave-girls, moved from hot calderium to tepidarium to frigidarium, steaming herself clean by degrees. Her flambarie, a black African with melting brown eyes and round red mouth, fanned her devotedly. Her attendants fanned each other, a garden of fans fluttering in mid-air; she had bought them fans like bright-winged butterflies, each fan a different color. Such fancies pleased her. Other rich women were taking up the fashion, following the trend she had set. When she had finished with her steaming and her massage, the women spread a carpet on the grass of the esplanade. They heaped it with pillows, and Sitkamoses sat upright in this nest. A bright-eyed idol, still as stone, but with dewy lips and a blush of life to her cheeks.

They combed her hair, and pinned it up. It fell in artificial curls, spreading in a blue-black flood on the pillows around Sitkamoses' hips, and they tied ribbons in it. The ribbons were strung with leaping turquoise fish, and leaping crystal fish and amethyst fish too--along with a few tiny boats of filigree gold. Little Egyptian ships, flying golden flags. All sailing away, on the blue-black cascades of Sitkamoses' hair.

Her phialige knelt at her knee, and ground up pigments on a tiny stone pallette. These went to paint her eyelids: the upper eyelid with black galena, the lower with green malachite. The mineral pigments had been made into paste by adding perfumed oil, sweetly scented. Sitkamoses' lips and cheeks were painted with red alkanet perfume, a thick essence applied with an ivory wand; more dabs of essence went on her cheeks, at the corners of her eyes, behind her ears. Iris-perfume, and orange blossom. Then the scents for the rest of her body!

Attar of roses for the backs of her hands.

Attar of lilies for the nape of her neck.

Attar of majoram at the small of her back. Dabs of expensive scent everywhere. And the diaphanous silk of her stola? That had been perfumed too.

She smelled like a whole flower garden.

She sat like a blossom-bush in the buzzing bee-cloud of her slaves, and let them pluck and prink and primp. When all this was done, exhausted, she rested.

Her women settled around her, with a final lazy flutter of fans. The sun warmed their skin, and the grass was soft and pillowy. Like their mistress, they drifted into sleep. It was siesta. An idyllic scene.

Kellistra burst in on it like grim doom.

The first warning was a thrum under Sitkamoses' elegantly pillowed seat. She opened her weary eyes a slit, surprised. "These little earthquakes," she began, "they come more and more often--" Then there were screams. They came from the further end of the baths, the exit from the frigidarium. Shrieking mortal women leaped out, trailing towels behind them. Their menfolk, mostly already done with ablutions and sunning themselves like Sitkamoses' slaves on the grass, leaped up and grabbed their weapons or walking-sticks, and rushed in.

Then they came reeling back out, and fell down with bloody skulls and broken limbs.

Out of the bathhouse strode a woman shrouded in rusty black. She was a column of funeral-black cloth--it was wound round her from head to foot, covering even her face--carrying an upright sword. This too was shrouded. She had wrapped the cutting edges of the blade in someone's leather cloak, to render the weapon harmless. Relatively harmless. She gripped it reversed, with the hilt forward; it was a blunt instrument, and every time a man rushed at her, she struck out with it . . . and every time she struck, a mortal fell. And the crow-black ghost glided past. Once someone got almost past her guard with a knife, and cut a fluttering strip in her mummy-wrappings--and she turned on him and the sword swung--jabbed--reversed, and came down on his head--and he dropped as if poleaxed, out cold.

But a fold of cloth had fallen, trailing round her throat. She halted, caught the loose end, and jerked it free. She dropped the torn strip, discarding it, her face now revealed. And she shouted. "Sitkamoses!"

She was Kellistra.

Around Sitkamoses, her pretty slave-girls sprang up, fans flung aside. Sitkamoses herself snapped her fingers. "Weapons, my darlings!" she ordered, and her attendants--her army of bodyguards--reached into their fluttering draperies and came out with knives and nail-studded planks and short iron military swords, the favored weapon of the Roman legionaries.

The last of the men in Kellistra's way dropped, lay moaning with a couple of broken ribs. Kellistra stepped over him, and said conversationally, to her mortal audience, "Go away." And they went. Fleeing, in disorder. Kellistra folded her arms and waited till they were gone. Then she said again, loud as thunder: "Sitkamoses!"

And Sitkamoses yawned with boredom.

"Take her," she said, waving one perfumed hand. "This is ridiculous. Are we in some play? Go, my darlings. Kill the wretch."

The slave-bodyguards fanned out, forming a half-moon between Kellistra and Sitkamoses. Sitkamoses was now examining her fingernails. She frowned and nibbled daintily at a nail, then called, "Zenobia, sweet, come back here. You must redo my manicure."

And she smiled to herself, and shifted on her cushions to better watch the massacre.

Every one of her slave-girls was a young immortal.

Twelve, against one. She had dressed them all in different colors. To Sitkamoses' half-open eyes, they seemed like a fluttering cloud of butterflies, that swooped and sailed and were armed with lethal crude-iron swords. Swords that could strike like clubs, breaking bones equally well as cleaving flesh. She had trained all her girls to fight herself, having her immortal agents purchase them in the slave-markets of cities across the ancient world: Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Ephesus. They were shipped to her newly immortal, ignorant, and she molded them to her liking. What she had taught them was that they were to die for her.

The butterflies skimmed over the bright green grass, swords flashing through the air. Sitkamoses admired the picture, and thought of having a mosaic made. Or perhaps a fresco, for the back wall of her atrium? She knew a skilled fresco-painter from the isle of Cyprus . . . She became distracted by thoughts of redecoration.

Zenobia, who should have been concentrating on her mistress' nails, tugged distractedly at her finger, and Sitkamoses gave her a slap. "Pay attention! What is it?"

"Mistress! She's killing them!"

"Nonsense. This is a public place, and she's just a barbarian from beyond Pontus. Besides, they are twelve to her one." Nevertheless, Sitkamoses looked again. Then she said, "Oh, no."

Kellistra had taken several steps back as the young immortals rushed at her. Then she had halted where she was, eyes going slitted. Ramrod straight, she waited for them to surround her: a funereal statue in the strick black of an antique Roman matron, ringed in the colorful flutter of their butterfly dance. A solitary column of black . Then she said just two words: "Back away," and then she was leaping forward, she was upon them, and her wrapped blade made a great arc. One of the girls lunged, her short sword striking Kellistra's. The iron sword grated down the Spanish steel, with a whine that pained the ear. Then Kellistra disengaged, lightly, turning away with a smile and a shrug and whipping her blade sideways, as if cleansing it--and all the leather wrappings fell from her sword and lay shorn across the ground.

"Back away," she repeated. "This is not your fight."

They all came at her as one.

Then she began the dance.

She danced it. Twelve against one. Twelve times, her sword connected. Twelve opponents died.

When they all lay strewn around her, bleeding, Kellistra dropped to one knee in a position almost of repose--but with her blade held upright, so that her narrowed eyes were reflected in the bright steel. Her breathing was unhurried.

Sitkamoses sat frozen, with pinpoints of glitter showing in her own eyes. "Asp of Egypt," Kellistra called. "Stand and face me. Or do you have any honest blood in your veins, asp--asp--stinging asp, made to lie broken-backed beneath my heel. An asp prefers a warm dung-heap on the roadside to a golden throne."

"It is forbidden for us to fight," said Sitkamoses virtuously. "And besides--" She smiled. "My little ones are already coming back to life. You should have beheaded them, Kellistra. Because they will have no qualms about beheading you."

"I have no quarrel with them," said Kellistra. Then the twelve young immortals were back on their feet, and Kellistra rose and returned her attention to them. She said, mildly but with tremendous force, "Back away, I said. I won't make allowances for you forever--" and then they came at her again. And she let the dance take her.

Twelve blows. Twelve dead foes, falling around her like flower petals torn away by the wind.

She waited again, leaning patiently on her sword now, like a workman taking a breather. They wavered upright, jerkily, hands groping for their weapons. Sitkamoses sat rigid, with Zenobia cowering behind her. Kellistra said, for the third time, "You must back away," and saw that her message was beginning to hit home. One or two of the maidens were edging off, hoping their mistress' eye was elsewhere. Then five or six of them were. "Wait," said another maiden suddenly, "we can make a bargain--"

"Give her your heads." Sitkamoses was now on her feet, her voice rising. "Once she beheads someone, the quickening will slow her down and the rest of you can rush her--"

Kellistra made a small threatening movement with her sword, one eyebrow quirked.

"Zenobia!" Sitkamoses said. "Get in there, go!" She shoved Zenobia bodily in that direction, putting herself behind her, saying, "I said, one of you must give her your head. Zenobia? Do you want to be the one for this? I think you deserve it, you coward!" Then, completely losing her own head, she went on, "Yes, give her your head--it's all I ask--and if Zenobia's head doesn't work, then yours next, Miriam--or yours, Chryse--"

Sitkamoses' slave-bodyguards dropped their weapons. They collided with each other in their haste, and one tripped over her long fancy yellow draperies and left them lying like rags in her wake. They fled in a whirlwind of colors.

"Aha," said Kellistra. She bent momentarily to pick up the length of yellow silk, which was so sheer that Kellistra could see her hand through it. She crumpled it in her fist and used it to wipe sweat and dust off her face. And tossed it disdainfully, to land at Sitkamoses' feet. "Alone at last."

"Those stupid frauds." Sitkamoses averted her face, breathed deeply, then collected herself. "Very well, I admit it: you may be a challenge worth my time." She sidled sideways, unarmed yet presenting a facade of confidence and nonchalance. "But I hope your long burial has not left you slow and creaky. Otherwise I will be bored. I am often bored."

"And often boring."

Sitkamoses tossed back her hair, so that the leaping fish and little filigree ships all clashed and rang. "Perhaps I have no time for this. I have a dinner engagement tonight--" Then she whipped into action, fast as an asp. The jewels in her hair chimed. Her draperies all swirled. She skimmed across the grass, snatching up a fallen blade in either hand, and swinging them in a lightning double cut--one high, one low.

And froze like that, facing a frozen Kellistra: Kellistra's single blade was held at an angle, blocking both of Sitkamoses'. Kellistra herself was sighing. "No, no," she said, shaking her head, "I remember that little trick of yours, I fear."

Sitkamoses laughed like a cascade of water, said, "Clever woman. I shall take your head along to give my hostess--" and again, she moved in a blur. She went in with that chiming laugh, Kellistra leaped to meet her with a shout--and when they separated, Sitkamoses was purring with triumph. "Not so invincible after all!" she cried. Kellistra's loose black clothing now hung in tatters off her hip, and Kellistra herself was retreating with a lurching limp . . . and her whole thigh slashed open, scarlet with blood. Sitkamoses pursued her, not hurrying, saying, "You should never have taken up arms against me--"

She halted. So had Kellistra. The smirk faded off Sitkamoses' face; a smile appeared on Kellistra's. Then Kellistra--the near-fatal wound along her thigh already closed, healed and gone--sprang toward her like a tigress, and it was Sitkamoses' turn to retreat in dismay.

"That's impossible!"

"I've always recovered from injuries faster than other immortals. And since I came of age, well--you've seen for yourself . . ." Kellistra wore the trace of a look of irony. "Healed, sometimes," she said, "almost before the blade can leave the wound. Darling, you can't imagine the advantages."

Sitkamoses' shoulders were hunched and her face was pinched, her mouth fallen open a little. "You don't dare behead me!" she said, on a whining note. "It's against the law."

"Where was the law when you bricked me into the grave?"

"I'm the greatest fighter ever to come out of Egypt!" Sitkamoses shouted without warning, "I'm better than any Pontic witch, I always was!" She attacked, cutting from two directions, and slashed Kellistra's right shoulder to the bone--but the wound vanished almost before it was made, and Kellistra merely narrowed her eyes and counter-attacked. Sitkamoses, foiled, fell back with a long cut across her own shoulder streaming blood. "Oh! You've wrecked my best afternoon dress! Do you know why we always called you the horned viper? Because of the horns, Kellistra! You thought our Dev had eyes only for you, but when he was with me, he would laugh and say you were no better than a five-as tavern woman--"

"That's a lie!" Kellistra shouted.

"Aha," said Sitkamoses. "Now I know what gets under your skin. If he had loved you, horned viper, would he have--"

"--don't say it!"

"--turned on you? The way he did."

Kellistra showed her teeth. "Come at me," she said, "with everything you have."

They ran at each other, heads down, charging full-speed--blades whirling.

There came a dull double thud. Kellistra lowered the steel sword she had got from Methos, and Sitkamoses let hers drop. Both Sitkamoses' swords had been sheared in half, the soft iron sliced clean through. All she had been left with were the hilts.

She flung herself full-length on the ground. "Don't kill me!" she said.

"But I will. I'll--"

"It's against all the laws! Kellistra--sister--even we obeyed the laws, we spared you when--"

"--kill you--" But there was a hesitation in the way Kellistra said it.

"I beg you!" Sitkamoses cried, groveling. "Sister! By our sisterhood, spare me!"

Kellistra raised her sword . . . and then the resolution went out of her stance. "Ah, curse it," she said. "I think I must be law-abiding after all. All right, live then. But--" When she dropped to one knee, Sitkamoses screamed out loud and rolled into a little ball. Kellistra made a face of disgust. "Get out of Pompeii," she said, "before I change my mind."

#

Daena was enticing her stolen kitten, luring it to her with bits of fish (which she had also stolen) and soft cajoling words, and when she could get within reach, soft tickles and pokes and pats. It liked being scratched around the throat, she found. It was susceptible to words of praise, in the throatiest purring tone Daena could summon; and once, it let her rub its lean brown belly. But every time she got her hands almost around it, it was away in a flash of teeth and tail. But she persevered. Hunger was her ally and patience her foremost weapon. Till at last, she got it to sniff her fingertip in a friendly fashion, and when she purred and held out her hands, the kitten walked into her embrace, and suffered itself to be drawn slowly to her, till its forehead--soft as rabbit-fur--butted against Daena's eager cheek.

Then she couldn't help but tighten her hold--and the instant she did, it let out a screech that make her fall over backwards, slashed her arm with its claws, and leaped off.

She sat on the ground and uttered a string of curses. Then she started all over again.

Methos was stalking her all this while, though she didn't know it--stalking her exactly as she was stalking the kitten. He had found her stealing fish in the marketplace that morning, and shadowed her ever since. He had let her see him, and when she stared in wild suspicion, he had spoken to her calmly. And offered her candy. Enticing her to him with tidbits and patience, exactly as she enticed the kitten. Daena was blind to the irony, but couldn't help but be attracted to Methos' smile. A smile on the verge of constant laughter, as if at a joke she didn't understand. He didn't seem like the other men who tried to lure her to them: some were her own age, and some were old, but this man had an air that defied guesses at his age. This man was different.

Eventually she turned in disgust from her kitten-hunt . . . and then, of course, the kitten reversed its role and began to follow her. It dogged her footsteps, hoping for more food. Meanwhile, grown curious, Daena began to follow Methos. She kept to a safe distance, and watched everything he did. Methos pretended not to notice her. He strolled through the forum market, ignoring Daena dodging behind market-stalls in his wake, and the kitten followed her, and she followed him. Hopefully.

Methos finally paused by a jeweler's display. He made small talk with the jeweler, picked up the gaudiest bits on the man's table and held them at arm's-length to flash and dazzle in the sunshine. Every time he admired something especially colorful, Daena in the distance bobbed into view, her mouth falling open. Her eyes were round with helpless greed. She got a little closer every time.

At last she hovered within arm's-length, and then he turned around and looked openly at her. Their gazes met. Daena twisted her toe in the dust. Then she jabbed out with a finger. "That one?" she said.

He bought the bracelet she had admired, tossed it toward her--and began to talk.

"The word of the god proves," he said, to nobody in particular, "those who hear it, as numb to understanding as those who do not hear." Daena, gawking lovingly over the bracelet of faience beads she had just tied round her dirty brown wrist, glanced up and blinked. Methos threw her a smile, bought a loaf of fresh bread from a baker's stall, divided it and handed three-quarters to her. Then he sauntered off, talking. "That's Heraclitus, child. A prince from Ephesus, who died five hundred years ago. He also said, 'Those unmindful of what they hear, for all they make of their good wits, are really the walking dead.' More, he said, 'The prophet's voice possessed of god, requires no rhetoric, no flute or music, but will still be heard in a thousand years.'"

"That's rot," said Daena, stuffing her mouth with bread.

"Is it? 'Things keep their secrets,' he said. You could be living in a world full of secrets and never know it, child . . ." She followed him, dropping bits of bread, and the kitten trailed after her, pouncing on the crumbs and wolfing them down. Methos clucked at the kitten, and wandered away. Talking. He told her riddles, sang a song or two, and threw in some stories that made her eyes stretch wide; then where he had first found her, up in the lonely place near the Temple of the Cornerstone, he sat at ease on a builder's stone, stretched out his long legs and propped his back against a wall. Daena hunkered just out of reach, listening hungrily.

". . . There once was a Persian king who procured two infants, a boy and a girl-child, and had them raised in a box and fed by servants forbidden ever to utter a word to them . . . but can you guess why? To see what language they would eventually speak. Because that would be mankind's first language, the speech used by the gods at the creation. So tell me, Daena. What language do you think they spoke?"

"Latin?" she guessed.

"No, child. They grew to maturity no better than barking dogs, knowing no human speech. They were as wild as the jackals of the desert, and had to be collared and chained to keep them from turning on their nurses. They could not be tamed, and when at last they grew too savage to be kept, the king was forced to have them put to death."

He still had a heel of the loaf. Holding it out, he chirruped--and the kitten leaped into his lap, purring noisily. Methos kneaded the nape of its neck, lifted it and settled it on his shoulder; it dangled its paws down, patting at the beads of his Egyptian collar. "There, little Isis. You see? Even kittens come to the lure of a human voice."

"Were . . . were you there? When the king put the children in the box?"

"Yes, child. I was. No child should be raised like a beast. We all need the company of our own kind."

Not looking at her, he held out his hand. Daena stole closer. She stretched her arm out, and almost . . .

Just as her fingertips touched his, she heard a sound. Up she leaped, exploding into flight. Her blind charge for freedom almost bowled over Kellistra--and then she was gone.

"Methos," said Kellistra. "I see you can still seduce with your voice. Who was that girl?"

The kitten had fled too. Methos, who had dropped his face into his hands, raised it and said, "Don't you know? Kells, I told you to stay away from me."

"I failed." She stood before him, shoulders stooped, her head hanging. "I thought I could kill Sitkamoses . . . but couldn't bring myself to strike her head off. I was weak. What evil demon made me weak? I was never that way before."

Her knees gave out. She dropped, there in front of Methos, and knelt with her arms wrapped around herself and her head bowed. "Ah, Kells," said Methos, and opened his arms. And she leaned into his hold, and shivered.

"You've been buried for almost seventeen years. Why wonder that your heart has ripened?"

"Methos . . . I'm not a cheese, you know."

"Close enough," said Methos, and stroked her hair. "Beloved . . . can't even a wild thing raised unknowing its own kind, still feel the call of its native language resounding?"

"Next time I won't be weak," she said, eyes shut. "When I come to face Dev-- I won't. Never mind your stupid rules--I won't!"

"Maybe."

After a little while, though, she pushed at his chest, and when his arms loosened, she freed herself and looked at him with her best sarcastic expression. "Charity to the widow and orphan? Methos, I would never have guessed it of Death. And who was that child, anyway?"

"Well," said Methos, a little perplexed, "I suppose some of us are good mothers, and some are not. But I'd have bet on you to be among the good mothers, Kellistra. How strange."

"You don't mean . . ." She broke off. "No," she said flatly. "That's impossible!"

"But is it? Kellistra--don't you know your own daughter?"





Part Two



The world shook.

It trembled under Kellistra's heels, where she crouched on the edge of the old forum grounds; there was a sound like teeth grinding deep in the stones of the city wall, puffs of dust rising. Another earth-shock. Shouts came faintly to her ears, from the gladiators' school beyond the half-ruined temple. This shock was stronger than those before, strong enough to alarm the mortals of Pompeii. Kellistra merely shook her head.

Beneath the surface of the world, according to the philosophers of Rome, was water--an ocean of the underworld--and the proof of it was in upwelling springs everywhere, and rivers that vanished beneath hills only to resurface in far distant places, and strange fish that appeared in muddy farmlands, in wet years, far from any lakes or ponds. Beneath the surface of the world was water. Beneath the surface of the world, according to the philosophers of Asia where Kellistra had been born, was fire . . . and the proof of it was in the fire-temples of the Zoroastrians, and the fire-springs of Pontus that burned upon windy mountaintops where no fuel could be found. Naphtha welled up from cracks in the earth, asphalt came bubbling to the surfaces of lakes, amidst stenches of sulphur and poison exhalations, and when one tossed a torch down on the surface of the Hyrcanian Sea, the resulting wash of fire might burn for a day and a night. Kellistra had seen this with her own eyes. Beneath the surface of the world was fire.

Beneath the surface of the world, she thought, bowing her head as another tremor ran through her body from below . . . beneath the surface of the world, was death.

Mortal death. Immortals suffered it too, but theirs was transitory--but then they were all dead anyway, according to Kellistra's beliefs. Hadn't she herself died many centuries ago, and existed in a strange supernatural world ever since? In the realm of the dead and damned. Ah, but many of her fellow immortals believed themselves not demons but divine, the very get of the gods and their blessed successors; but Kellistra had come to an opposite conclusion. In return for living many lives, one had to suffer many deaths. Seventeen years dead and buried--

She sucked in a deep breath, wrapped her arms around her own shoulders, crouched hunched with her hair dripping down before her. Better that every limb be hewn from her body, than suffer that again!

The girl Daena, in her rags and tatters, crept close and stretched out a timid hand toward her. But when Kellistra ventured a smile in her direction, the girl leaped back as if scalded and burst out in a flood of curses. It was gutter-filth, so graphic that Kellistra (a veteran of military campaigns from Greece to distant Chin) was shocked and even secretly impressed. Gutter-filth from a voice like music, from a young immortal-to-be with eyes like bright stars--from a child of the age of innocence. Gazing into the child's face was like consulting a mirror: she had been that age when she met first death. They didn't look alike--not like mother and daughter--but sisters, they could have been that. Loving sisters. One dark, one fair. But to Daena, she was nothing but a stranger. A threat.

And rage filled her.

"Methos. I want money. I know you've got some stashed somewhere, you always do. Give some to me!"

"What would you do with my money?" said Methos suspiciously.

"You know what."

"No, Kells. I'm not going to help you--"

"--break our laws? I think you will. Methos, you know his crimes--"

"They don't matter. What matters is that there are too few of us."

"Yes. Methos, what is the moon of our generation?"

"What?"

"For mortals it is thirty years, because a newborn girl can bear a daughter and that daughter grow to bear daughters in that time. Do our generations creep as slowly as those of the gods themselves? How long does it take, for one of us to grow to adulthood?"

"The immortals I see winning their first swords--before I turn around twice, they're holding their children in their arms." Like Kellistra, Methos spoke in Greek, so that Daena would not understand. "How long did it take you, child? You're not that old."

"But Dev had me bricked up in the tomb, Methos. A woman who could bear . . . oh, hundreds of young immortals to carry on our kind. That the Gathering may be infinitely delayed." With these ritual words, she meant to strike a chord in him. "What sort of crime is that? What is the punishment for breaking our laws?"

"It's not your part to sit in judgement over him."

"Justice is strife," said Kellistra. "War makes us what we are. The money, Methos. If you don't give me some, I'll just get it elsewhere."

She had grown up, like every other immortal, believing she could never have children. And yearning for them. The prize denied, was twice as precious; wasn't that the way things always were? But when Dev had initiated her, she had thought the secret fire of her adulthood was just for pleasure. All-consuming pleasure, Venus' gift.

Devius had taken her into his bed and made her love him, but he had kept her from learning the biggest secret of all.

He had never bothered to tell her that there might be a child.

#

Pompeii itself was the city of Venus.

She was its patron goddess: Venus physica. Its citizens wrote her praises on the walls of every street: love and politics were their all-consuming passions. Venus also wrote back, and graffiti signed with her name could be found scrawled in every lupinar and all the higher classes of brothels too, in every inn and at every gate. Love and politics. In the name of love (and politics), house-owners allowed their walls to be written on, and when a wall was completely covered with notices, one merely plastered the whole thing over and there it was, ready to be covered with writing again.

Venus felix, another face of the great goddess, was worshiped throughout Campania, in all the lush farmlands surrounding Pompeii. Venus had many faces. Within Pompeii, the immortals of the city worshiped Mars, or Mitra, or the god of Abraham, or the moon and sun of the Arabs, and some of them worshiped Isis at the forum temple--it was the finest temple in the whole city--but there was a secret coterie of immortal women who kept shrines in their inner chambers, shuttered aside in locked cupboards well-hidden, and in those shrines they set up statues to Venus felix. Venus of fertility.

Beautiful Pompeii, nestled in the vineyards and rose-fields of Campania. The roses of Campania were famous; from them came the most valuable perfume in the world. The waters of Pompeii were also famous. Venus had blessed them, they were medicinal and people came from everywhere to drink them. Came from everywhere, and stayed to enjoy the beauties of Venus' city, amidst her vineyards and her lush rose-fields.

The volcano had not erupted in known history. Those who built their pleasure villas under the mountain's forested green shadow, never dreamed of the cauldron bubbling beneath their feet.

All over the city, mortals swarmed and talked, read their own poetry aloud on street corners and at the baths, visited their clients or patrons, did business, made wine and made perfume and made garum, a gourmet sauce composed of fermented fish intestines. They cursed the recent earthquakes, that had cracked foundation-walls and damaged frescos throughout the district, not just in Pompeii itself but in a myriad country pleasure villas; they cursed the earth-tremors, all save those who were painters or repairmen by trade, and those merely raked in money, working day and night. The citizens of Pompeii wrote on their walls, and visitors from the staid farming-town of Herculeum, just half a day down the road, looked at the graffiti and clucked their tongues in reproof; their own town was immaculate. But Pompeii swarmed with activity. Soldiers, sailors, merchants, thieves . . . and a passel of slave-girls trained in the cosmetic arts, who believed that their mistress had been beheaded.

They had all descended on Sitkamoses' luxurious house, and looted it. Everything small and saleable went into their pockets in a trice, and Zenobia, who was clever and quick, stripped the gold-leaf off the alabaster statue in the peristyle (Fortuna arrayed as the spirit of the city of Alexandria, representing her mistress' household genius) to sell to the jeweler down the street. She also rifled Sitkamoses' hidden treasure-hoard, a book-chest in the library whose secret was a false bottom. One dug down beneath an endless well of scrolls--Philodemus, his collected books on philosophy, dozens and dozens of volumes, and every one deadly dull--and pulled a braided cord; then a lid opened, and there was the glitter of gems. One could only do this, of course, if (unlike all the other eager young immortals in the house) one had studiously spied on one's mistress while ignoring the chests full of scroll-books on military history and fighting strategy. And the complete treatises of Tacitus, that almost-irresistible lure. As Zenobia had.

She sniffled as she filled a leather bag with a fortune in Egyptian jewels; the sapphires of the Saharan sands, the turquoise from the mines of Sinai, were small consolation to her. Sitkamoses' solid-gold serpent bracelets, each heavy enough to brain a man, made a tear roll down her face. It was while she was rifling through the Tacitus collection, picking out her favorite scrolls, that the first thought of vengeance came to her.

Zenobia rose, hugging the scrolls to her breast, and then she groaned deeply and let them scatter. One of her sisters came into the library and looked at her. She had evidently been ransacking the strong-box in the atrium, for she carried a large leather coin-bag--that, and an entire set of ivory-and-silver bath implements, still strung on their big bronze ring. When she saw the Tacitus, her face crumpled. "He was her favorite," she managed to say.

"No, no, Ovid was her favorite, he always was. What will we do, Chryse," said Zenobia helplessly, "what shall we do without her?"

Chryse's eyes welled with tears. She sank down onto the mosaic, and began to bawl.

The other girls came in one by one, straggling together from all corners of the house: Miriam, little Clodia Prisca, Psacas from the slave-markets of the pirates of distant Daria, and all the rest. Three of them were reeling drunk, having gotten into the wine-store and drunk a whole amphora of the best Massic wine. One or two came prowling like young leopards, their glittering eyes drawn around with soot-black kohl, which had run in tear-streaks down their cheeks. They walked like trouble waiting to happen, they were nervous and grief-maddened and dangerous. Any man who had intruded on them that day, would have died screaming, torn apart; indeed, every mortal servant of the household had long since fled for fear of his life. But all of the young immortals came, drawn by the sound of Chryse's heartbroken sobbing. They spoke together, holding hands, sitting on the mosaic floor with their ill-gotten gains strewn about them. "Mistress said the stranger killed Mell too," one of them said, and another said, "The woman's name was Kellistra, Kellistra from Pontus!" And by the end of an hour, they had decided what to do.

They went out through the streets of the city, gripping knives in their fists, and wherever they found a bare space on a wall, they wrote.

They wrote messages. No mortals would ever take note, for their scrawled words were lost in a whole city full of more innocent graffiti. But beside a message saying Salve lucru, and another that told the world Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are, may you sneeze sweetly, a girl with a dagger scratched Serpensina sodales salutem: Greetings, Serpensina, from her sisterhood . . . and an immortal woman named Zakiyah, reading these words an hour later, threw down her market basket and checked the draw of her sword, then strode away in obvious haste. In the street of the lupine-merchants, Zenobia dug into a wall the words Serpentigenae hic fuit, underneath the charming legend Romala tarried here with Staphylus. Elsewhere, in the street of the garlic-sellers, Psacas wrote Serpentigenae salutem next to Here Staphylus tarried with Quieta. And halfway across the city, another girl swiftly drew a design of two serpents intertwined. But the message meant was the same as all the other messages. Serpents. Serpens hic.

Here be serpents.

Other women, all over the city, read these new messages and hurried off. And wrote messages of their own, passing the word along. They did not know in whose service they were writing--no more than Sitkamoses' girls had understood their mistress' secret. But they knew what they were supposed to do, in the name of the seven serpents, who were holy.

And certain immortal women, coming upon the messages at last, read them and understood. Grecian Elene was only one of their number. There were four of them, all told.

All of them kept shrines to Venus felix. All of them loved Dev.

But Zenobia, who felt guiltier than her sisters (because she had not even drawn a sword in Sitkamoses' defence), walked farther and wrote more messages than anyone else. She gouged words into walls till her knife's blade was powdered white with the soft plaster of the buildings of Pompeii. She ended up in one of the blind twisting alleys behind the warehouses near the gate leading to the road to Herculaneum, which was also the road to the salt-mines; wagons full of rock salt came this way every day. She was still tirelessly writing her message. This was a district of low-class inns and lupinars, of narrow streets and passages. Night was falling, it was twilight. It was almost too dim for Zenobia to make out the words she wrote. Then she felt the warning--just before another immortal appeared out of the black shadows of the alley.

It was a child. No, a woman, an immortal woman, but with the petite build and round face of a child. She came from the direction of the inns, and was dressed and painted like a prostitute--a very young prostitute, though Zenobia had seen younger--out trolling for clients. Her eyes were slanted, shining black; her skin was the color of peach-blossom. These outstanding traits were exotic enough to double her price . . . but the blood splashed on her arms would have scared any customer off.

She strolled into the light, pulling at a skin of wine tipped up to her mouth, grinning as she did, and licking red stains off her lips. In her free hand, she tossed a purse with fresh-cut strings. A moan sounded from the alley behind her, and a cry. Zenobia saw a man crawling out of the shadows, a mortal man leaving a trail of smeared blood in his wake; he dragged himself along by his arms, his face agonized. At the mouth of the alley, he slumped down with a final groan, and blood spread in a pool over the ground. The immortal woman glanced back indifferently in his direction, seemed to remember him with a start. And she giggled.

Zenobia, who recognized her, began to back away. "Mother of lightnings!" she blurted out. "I was just--"

The woman drained her wine-skin, let it drop, let out another string of lewd giggles. "Tian-mu, mother of lightnings? I'd almost forgotten that name. No one has called me that in, oh, sixteen years. Has it been that long? Yes, sixteen years." Zenobia was calculating her chances of making a bolt for safety. "Try it," said the newcomer, "and I'll show you why they call me 'little golden water-snake'."

Zenobia, losing her nerve, stood very still.

"Call me Tiannia. All you foreign demons do. I don't like to hear good words of Chin mangled in your flat ugly foreign-demon voices." She opened the purse she had stolen, peered inside and grinned wolfishly. "Eight denarii. The only thing good about you is your money. I know you, don't I? Sitkamoses' slave girl." She wandered over to the wall, and looked at the bright-gouged writing there with mild curiosity and incomprehension; she did not read any western language. "What's this? Is it time to fight, Sitkamoses' slave girl?"

Trembling, Zenobia held her hands out well away from her weapons.

"No, Tiannia. We're calling the seven venoms to vengeance. Sitkamoses is d-dead."

The immortal Tian-mu stiffened. "What?"

Zenobia told her.

Tian-mu screamed. Then she plunged forward, the stolen purse flung aside and the stolen denarii scattering like bright copper moons--rolling, bouncing, catching the last light of the long summer day. Within minutes it would be dead-dark. But that gleam of polished white was the cutting edge of a curved knife. Tian-mu screamed again, high and shrill as a vixen, a fox-spirit out of distant China. Zenobia screamed too and tried to run. She was not fast enough.

Pain sliced across the long tendons in the backs of her thighs. Her skirts fluttered, cut clear across. Zenobia fell. Something landed hard on her back, and she screamed again, knowing no help would come. It was night now--pitch-black night in the narrow streets of the city--and sensible people did not venture out at night. Tian-mu had sprung upon her and now knelt on her back. She bent forward and her voice came low to Zenobia's ears: "I was the bride of a god, you know."

Zenobia writhed.

"I was brought up on the banks of the Huang Ho, when Ch'i and Chin and Ch'in and Ch'u were all fighting to rule over great China. I was taken in battle from my family's farm, stolen away to be a slave. My lord was traveling in China then. He came to me in the mountain city where I was an evil old general's third concubine, and he said, I am the God from Nysys, I am the god Dionysus, I am Daeva, lord of the west, and you will be my handmaiden. Then he freed me. With this knife he freed me. Do you feel this knife?"

She drew the flat of the knife along the back of Zenobia's right arm, then raised the blade and kissed it. "He freed me when he put this knife into my hand and said, If you believe in me, kill your master, never again will any man own you--if you believe in me. That was the first test. When I had passed the first test, then he freed me of my mortal life. With this knife he freed me." Tian-mu touched her breast. "Then he gave me the knife that had freed me twice and said, With this, you will reap the heads of men. See?"

The knife plunged down.

"These are the god's rites," were the last words Zenobia heard; then she died.

"More immortal than you, Sitkamoses' slave girl," Tian-mu went on, speaking into Zenobia's dead ear. "For I am the bride of the god. One day you too, if you had been lucky, could have been his woman. Then he would take you into the inner room with the paintings on the walls, initiate you into the Mysteries. You too like me would know the rapture of the god's touch. No pleasure on earth is more piercing. But no more, poor slave girl. Because today, your luck runs out."

As she spoke, she was hiking up her skirts like a butcher girdling his robes aside. Readying herself to go to work.

"Because you spoke an accursed name." Tian-mu moaned it, on a minor key: "Kellistra. The Pontic horned viper, the evil one. Because she . . . she unmanned our Lord. As good as castrated him. Never has he touched a single one of us, since the wicked day we put her in the grave. Better that she had rotted in that wall, than broken free like a vengeful ghost to attack our beloved again!"

Zenobia's body convulsed under her, coming back to life, and Tian-mu grinned madly, seized her long hair at the nape of her neck, and began to saw with the knife.

Blood sprayed. Blood splattered. Blood spread, soaking into the earth of the road, and it ran black over Tian-mu's dainty bare feet as she crouched upon her victim's back. When the quickening came, she crouched atop Zenobia's body, her own back hunched and her hands clawing at Zenobia's tattered gown, and shrieked like a fox-spirit mourning its dead kin.

"Take this death for Sitkamoses, O Daeva, my god! Know by it that I will protect you with my life!"

Then she sighed deeply, gathered herself, and stood. "Now's the time for divine madness," she said.

#

When it was excavated, it would be renamed the Villa of the Mysteries.

That time was centuries in the future, though. Almost twenty centuries away. Methos would still be alive then, and so would Kellistra, a bitter quarrel centuries old dividing them. Almost twenty centuries of division. This was Devius' villa; he had owned it since long before the earthquake. It was his holy ground, upon which his children were begotten.

He had possessed seven wives, an extraordinary achievement; one woman and one man was the rule in the Secret Game. The woman dwelt in the holy place, and the man held it (and her) against all comers. But Dev had collected seven wives, and the seventh had been Kellistra. Another had been Mell, and Sitkamoses had been another. Four more remained for Kellistra to face.

He had collected them, and enslaved them. An immortal man of breeding age could give a woman pleasures beyond description.

Dev's holy ground was a single room, hidden away in the villa. The frescos on its walls would give the villa its latter-day name--centuries in the future, after Vesuvius had buried the whole of Pompeii in a grave of ash and cinders. Archeologists would call it the Villa of the Mysteries. Dev spent most of his time here, though he would never let Elene--or anyone else--catch him at it . . . sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, arms wrapped around himself, with the frescoes glowing down upon him from above. Even in the dimness that filled his days, the images in the frescoes shone vivid: women and girls, shaggy Pans playing panpipes, and their female counterparts--the Panisks--nursing their goat-legged young. A woman ran forward in terror, flinging her veils aside; a winged demoness raised a whip. These paintings showed the initiation rite of a mystery religion . . . though mortal archeologists would never, ever find out what kind of initiation.

On the walls of other houses in Pompeii, verses celebrated the same mysteries: Nothing can endure forever; when the sun has well shone, it returns to the ocean; and the moon, however full it was, wanes. Thus is the wildness of Venus transformed into thin air.

Dev in the half-lit room glowed more vividly than the paintings. The gleam of his candle lay on his cheek like gilding, and the yellow of his hair was like an artist's tint, lying in beautiful slightly disheveled lines, more perfect than the hair of a living man. He wore only a loin-cloth, Indian-style. There was no flaw in his body, no scar, no unsightliness, no mar; there was nothing about him that was not more perfect than life. Even before he became immortal--before a thousand years of seductions honed his skills--women had always found him irresistible. Kellistra was the only one who had ever broken the spell.

Dionysus was Bacchus, and Bacchus was Dionysus, and he was the god of wine and frenzy, of generation and the dead. His initiates became maenads and Bacchantes, the brides of the god.

He tilted his face to the light, and his long unkempt hair made the beauty of the frescos look faded, though they were embellished with leaf of gold.

"Kellistra," he said aloud. That was the only word he ever uttered in this room. In this house, he had--she had--and then the earthquake had-- Devius growled deep in his chest. He rose, glared at the walls, stalked out of the room. In the master's bedchambers, he halted and breathed deep; there was the bed, in which he had slept alone for sixteen years. Kellistra had been the last woman to share that bed with him . . .

A sound like a roar broke out of his throat. He whirled, made for the store-rooms. He went through chest after chest of forgotten belongings, throwing things on the floor, snarling as he searched. He was looking for a weapon.

But he had no sword anymore. He had not needed to carry weapons for longer than he could remember. Like a lion in golden majesty, he had lolled in the sunlight, and his immortal brides had hunted and killed for him. There were no weapons anywhere in the entire villa.

He flung on a tunic, stood looking down at its long hem; moths had eaten holes in the cloth, and there were stains from wine too. Dev picked up a countryman's pallium to wrap over the tunic. The threadbare wool ripped in his hands. He threw it down, and took a leopard-skin from a chest and tossed it over his shoulders. When he stepped out of his quiet peristyle, through the vestibule and onto the public road, the fresh air and sunlight hit him like blows in the face. How long had it been since he had gone out in the daytime? Years. Years. Devius shielded his eyes, blinked away tears, and waited till what seemed like a roar of birdsong and wind died down to background noise. A simple cart rumbled along the road; the grunts of its oxen, as they pulled in the traces, frightened him till he saw what they were. He judged the height of the sun; it was twilight. Soon night would fall.

In the city, Sitkamoses' girls were spreading through every quarter, writing their summons for the seven venoms. Devius strode down the road, bound for Pompeii.

He reached the city just before night did. The soldiers standing guard at the gate pointed at him after he passed, and laughed at his outlandish leopard-skin; he ignored them. Instead he glanced up at the image of Minerva enshrined above the gate itself, and spoke to it as if it was a living woman, "Sister, do you love me? If you do, send me what I want," and nodded, as if the statue had answered.

Immediately after, he saw a circle of raffish men playing dice, and one of them beckoned him over.

Their rags were as wine-stained and disreputable as his, but there was a woman with them, and it was the woman who had called him. The moment he was within reach, she slid her arm around his waist, saying, "Handsome stranger, you look like a man who enjoys a good time, have you an hour to spend with me?" but though Dev grinned and kissed her laughing mouth, he was really eyeing her two bodyguards--bully-boys with broken noses and tough, battered faces, men who had the mark of former gladiators stamped on them. Both of them carried swords. Dev petted the woman's bottom, and knelt down in the circle of drunken men. "Give us a swig from that," he said, "and let's see how your dice fall, sweetheart."

It seemed to be the woman's dice-box, and her game, and even her wine-skin. "Before we begin," she said instantly, crisply, "let's see your money, man."

He took off the gold chain around his neck--every link of it was worth ten denarii--and his heavy gold earrings, and his ring with its sardonyx Venus, and let them fall in the dust. Dicing was illegal, but this lot of gamers obviously had no fear of the guards at the gate. In fact, Devius spotted the woman making a secret sign to the guards--tipping them off to potential trouble? Yes. When she totted up the value of his jewelry, her eyes became feverishly bright. She said, "One earring is the price for entry to my game," and gestured for her bodyguards to confiscate the fee. Then she nestled close to Dev, pressing against him and wetting her lips with greed. "The wager is fifty denarii a throw," she told him, "when we have a man like you at the table."

"Give me a swig of wine, then, to make me bold."

"The price of my wine is twenty denarii for a taste."

He tightened his lips, then nodded. "Double or nothing," he said.

He won every throw of the dice-box.

Within five throws the ruffians around him were growling and reaching for hidden weapons. The woman said, "Stop!" and Dev raised his eyebrows at her. "It's your dice-box," he said, "and your tali--I haven't touched them, haven't even helped pick them up after you've thrown. What, do you think I can cheat?" He added, "I've always been lucky in love and games."

"No one is that lucky," she said sullenly. The soldiers from the gate had strolled over to get in on the excitement, and were now standing at her shoulders, hands on their sword-hilts. Her bodyguards had circled around behind Dev. "I don't know what you're doing, but--"

"What, can't you pay me my winnings?" he jeered.

She hurled down a purse of money. "There! You're too lucky for me, handsome. Don't go away yet. Shall we play a different kind of game, to even the odds? Don't be a miser, give me a chance to win back what I've lost. How about a round of micatio? Prove to me you're as trustworthy as the man in the old saying, 'you could play macatio with him in the dark'. I've never been beaten at micatio, not since I was a little girl--and I'm older than I look, stranger."

Dev smiled, but no one understood the danger in the glint of his eyes. "Neither have I," he said, "and I'm older than I look, too."

Micatio was an old game, played everywhere by everyone, from children to senators. The players each raised their right hands, some fingers curled under and some stuck up. Simultaneously they called out a guess at the other player's hand, and the first one to guess right, won the match. It was a sport where the ability to bluff and outwit mattered. The woman smiled as she swaggered round to a position opposite Dev, and bent down with hands on knees to breath wine-fumes into his face. "When I shake my fist thrice," she said, "guess. One--two--three--"

"Two and three," Dev said, showing his right hand: four fingers up, one curled under.

"One and four!" She flashed her own hand: one up and four under, like her guess. "Try again. Two and three--"

"Three and two. Try again--what is your name, by the way?"

"Lucretia," she answered. "Three and two!"

"Four and one," he said, failing his guess again; then he leaned forward and kissed her softly, lingeringly on the mouth. "Once more, my love." He kissed her again, then raised his hand (as she did) and opened it (as she did) and guessed (as she did), breathing the words against her lips: "Three and two." And won his guess. As she did not.

"Salve lucre," he finished, rising and grinning into her furious face. "Our bet was still double or nothing, wasn't it, love? Give me my winnings. Oh, wait--" As all the men around him drew their swords, Dev shrugged. "It's amusing," he said softly, "watching others gamble with their lives and never even know they're doing it."

"Don't kill him," the woman ordered. "But get that money. Every last coin, from eggs to apples. And cut off all his fingers afterward--that'll teach him."

The fight was very brief.

When it was over, Devius toed one of the fallen swords, kicked it away disdainfully. "Not worth the hammer that made it," he remarked. "Yours, on the other hand, my dear . . ." She had grabbed up the best of the weapons, snatching it from the hand of its owner, as her bodyguards and soldiers fell at Dev's hands. He had been unarmed, one against four, and he had killed them all without breaking a sweat. Everyone else had already run away. "Yours is finer than the rest."

"Come closer and I'll stick it in your nuts!"

"No you won't, you have the coward's glassiness in your eye, and I know you . . ." He circled toward her, eyebrows raised. "I know you . . ." She jabbed the sword at him, and then screamed as he took hold of her wrist, swung around behind her and pulled her arm up behind her back, bending her against his shoulder. The sword fell, clattering on the stones of the street. "I know you by your game-playing, sweet. You run a gutless game. Too greedy. No style, no grace. I never kill anyone," he said softly into her ear from behind, "unless they walk up to me, and ask for it. But I only ever found one woman who shared my philosophy."

"Who is she?" She twisted desperately against him, babbling. "Tell me her name, if you want her I can get her for you--I can get her if you just tell me her name--"

"Kellistra," said Dev, showing his teeth. He took hold of her jaw from both sides, and wrenched her head around. Crack. Then he let go, and watched her crumple. And fall. And splat. "And you can't, darling." He picked up her fallen sword. "No one owns Kellistra."

He swung around, unhurriedly, holding the sword. "As for you, whoever you are, get out of hiding. Did you think you could sneak up on me--?" Then his voice failed him.

Methos, also with a sword, had just stepped into sight. Daena lurked behind him. Methos said, "I've been looking for you, Dev."

"I came here looking for you too," said Dev, lowering his sword. "Brother."

#

Kellistra had stolen a shovel from the forum temple works, and gone to the necropolis, Pompeii's graveyard.

It was outside the gates; by ancient custom, graves were not allowed within the sacred bounds of a city's walls, in any Roman urbs or Greek polis. The dead were unwelcome in the cities of the living. So people buried their loved ones by the roadsides instead, beyond the gates and the holy pomerium of Pompeii, and built kiosks over the graves, to house their family altars. Then they built niches in the outer walls of these tomb-kiosks. And marble benches in the niches, so that the living, visiting the dead, could sit and watch the world go by; for wasn't it natural, to want to visit one's beloved predecessors? And then have picnics, or buy food from stands set up by enterprising merchants. And laze in comfort at the family tomb, and drink wine and enjoy the view. It was almost as relaxing as going to the baths.

The grave she sought was almost buried under wild grass and rose-briars, in a corner where few went. It was one of the oldest graves in Pompeii's eastern necropolis: just a stela topped with a worn knob for a marker, some chisel marks suggesting the curls which indicated a woman's ash-urn interred below. If there had been a name written there, it was long ago worn away. Kellistra went behind the stela, and began to dig.

She dug in the dark, with no moonlight and barely a star, and some carters, bringing a late-night delivery of salt up the road that ran through the necropolis, noticed the noise she made and came hurrying over, thinking to surprise tomb-robbers at work. But when they saw the whites of her eyes floating in the dark, they took fright, and Kellistra rose and came toward them, laughing to herself, and talking loudly in Assyrian. They ran away, leaving their wagon on the roadside, with the mules that drew it happily cropping the grass. And she went back to her work, amused.

She dug till she heard a noise like sand hissing. The earth was sliding away under the base of the stela, sifting into a crevice. She tossed the shovel aside, crouched, and thrust her arm into the cranny. When she drew out the leather bag hidden there, the earth shook.

Through the palms of her hands, Kellistra felt the deep shivering far below her; she felt it in her feet and her knees. She was crouching in the hole she herself had dug. And she frowned, remembering other places, other times . . . other earthquakes. "The mountain is shaking," she muttered--but the language was Sanskrit, not Latin, and her mind's eye placed her in the far eastern reaches of India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. "Is the mountain angry?" This time she spoke in an ancient Hurrian dialect, eight hundred years out of date, and the mountains she was thinking of were in the volcanic northern regions of the Hittite empire.

No matter, she thought. She shook the bag, and heard a muffled chime. She smiled faintly and undid the cord at the neck; inside was a treasure of gold coins.

Then, suddenly and without warning, she found herself clenching the bag, digging her fingernails in till it felt as if they bled. The choke of breath in her throat was harsh, like a scream bitten off. She doubled over, groaned a question through grinding teeth: "How--how to escape a fire that never sinks or sets? How to cease wanting him?"

She scrambled up and out of the grave, gasping for air and sobbing. There she crouched, hammering her fists on the ground, till the anger that was in her ebbed away.

It was while she was still crouching there, that the women came and surrounded her from every side.

Kellistra felt them coming. The instant she did, she was on her feet, humming with eagerness, her sword in her hand. Did that matter? It didn't matter. She would take on anyone who came, empty-handed. They were all around her; she could count them in the dark by feel, over two dozen immortals closing in on her. She bared her teeth in the pitch-black night. Let them come! The rage in her heart demanded an army against her at least. And she would take them all on, gladly, and destroy them--

She took a few steps forward, springing wolf-faced across the grass. Then she halted. Kellistra tilted her head and seemed to listen to some obscure inward note. "Elene?" she said. "Elene. And . . . curses, no. Tian-mu."

When all the young immortals came like ghosts between the tombs and surrounded her, she was standing quite still, waiting for them, with her face turned unerringly in the direction from which Elene and Tian-mu walked.

Elene ordered, "Light the torches," and five of the young ones did so. Leaping flames lit the necropolis and the immortals--the risen dead--who filled it. There were so many of them! Kellistra counted them quickly and was appalled. She was not afraid--very little had the power to frighten her--but there were so many . . . more than she had ever seen in one place before . . . more than any city ought to hold. More than thirty young immortals, like an army at the disposal of the old ones, Tian-mu and Elene.

"This is holy ground," she said.

"This place is for the dead," said Elene. Tian-mu was hiding behind her, but now she tittered and sidled rapidly forward. She came on in a crouching stalk, arms spread, knife glittering in the torchlight, and Kellistra sighed and wheeled to keep face-front to her.

"If this place is for the dead, then all of us belong here. I won't fight you, Elene," she said firmly. "We can't fight here, and I refuse to fight you at all. Anywhere."

Tian-mu darted forward like a flying swallow, skimmed past, uttered a thin shrill noise and swung her knife at Kellistra's throat. Kellistra fell to one knee; the cut did not reach her. She rose, slid aside from a second cut, smiled slightly and leaned over backward, barely moving, to escape a third. She was untouched, her breathing unhurried and calm. "I won't fight you," she said again.

"We know that's your weakness," Elene said. "You didn't have it in your heart to behead Sitkamoses' girls, mm? So these all know you wouldn't take their heads either. Too tender-hearted. Poor Kellistra. They're safe from you. They know it."

Kellistra opened her mouth to argue--and felt a stinging prick in the side of her neck.

She slapped the spot, and a dart came loose and fell to the grass. Behind her, Elene was smiling. She spread her empty hands. And a half-dozen mortal men fanned out, grinning brutally. From their rags and their white-stained head-cloths, Kellistra knew them for salt-work slaves, low men--brutes who would do anything for coin. One of them lowering a reed blow-pipe.

"I thought it wise to bring along a little hired help," Elene said.

The world began to spin and stumble and reel. Everything was whirling. And the flames of the torches were stretching out sideways streaming flaring blinding Kellistra, while a black flutter began to beat in her breast. The light. The black. Nothing between. The shadows were raven wings buffeting the thick air, smashing her suddenly in the heart so she almost fell and then everything began to. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat--

"Do you remember how our lord taught us all to brew poisons?" the Chinese immortal said in her tinkling voice. "This one is called Domus adflictus. House broken through."

She bowed ceremoniously. Then she swooped forward, giggling. Kellistra coughed harshly, let her come--then allowed herself to stumble sideways. It looked like a fall in progress. But a simple shift of balance caught her, brought her sword around--her arm barely had to move. It was enough. Tian-mu shrilled in alarm, slammed her knife upward to parry, fearing the blow. But Kellistra pulled her stroke; their weapons never so much as touched; and by the time Tian-mu reacted, Kellistra had lurched a long step past and was standing out of reach, blade held with its tip dragging the ground.

Tian-mu swore in the language of Chin. Again, she flew at Kellistra, and again, Kellistra let her come, standing crooked, her face contorted with pain. Her pupils were so huge that they filled her eyes entirely; she was almost blind. But at the last moment, without seeming effort, she swayed aside. Threatened an attack. Evaded Tian-mu's counterattack. And their weapons sliced past each other in seeming disorder, never touching. "Stand and fight, coward!" Tian-mu cried.

Kellistra's voice came faint. "--I won't fight you--it's forbidden."

"Because of holy ground? Ha, that caught you last time, black viper. Wouldn't fight us on holy ground." Tian-mu shrugged with an appearance of giving up in disgust, backed away. Over her shoulder she sneered and said, "Our master had no such superstitions. He is the only holiness. Didn't he subdue you then?"

"And how is he these days?" Kellistra managed to say.

But Elene had given a signal. The mortals all moved in on her then, and they had ropes. And clubs.

This was breaking the spirit of the rules, the laws of the Game. Kellistra said, "Won't fight," though she yearned to take them all on, leave them beaten on the ground-- The bite of the poison was already lessening, she was throwing it off. But of course they would have her bound before she was strong enough to run. No one knew the immense effort it took to loosen her grip on her sword, toss it aside.

"You dipped your hands in poison then," she said, as they reached her. "Wash them in filth tonight, that won't make them cleaner."

The last thing she heard was Elene's purring voice. "You're always going on about how we are the dead. But you're the one we're going to bury now."

#

"The seven-fingers heart-strike blow," said Devius. "Ever hear of it?"

He and Methos stalked one another, moving in ever-tightening circles, bare-handed--but with both ready to draw in a heartbeat. But it was unlawful for them to fight here. By the rules of the Secret Game, they were permitted to challenge only on holy ground, only bare-handed. Whichever one was better able to stand up to the pain of fighting on holy ground, would win the match . . . and the woman, whoever she was. Seven women? If Methos defeated Dev in the challenge, he could claim all of them.

If they allowed it. Immortal women were notably fractious. No man could possess them unless they consented.

Graffiti was scrawled across the walls around them, in praise of Venus: Today anger is still close to me; keep well away; believe me, if she wept, love would return and You have never seen Venus? No need: look on my fair one, she is as exquisite. Mottos celebrating the twists and turns of love. Daena hovered in the background, scarlet flags of excitement blazing in her cheeks. Half-wild, half-tame, and full of suspicion. Dev kept glancing at her. Methos said, "Daena! Stay well back from this man. If he gets close to you, run."

"You're the one who should stay away from her," Dev said, clearly disturbed. "All the young of our kind in Pompeii are mine--"

"What, all of them?"

"All the young ones in this city are mine, Methos."

Methos inclined his head. "Daena. You see this man? What do you say to his claim on you?"

She spat out a stream of obscenities.

"As for you," Methos went on, returning his full attention to Dev, "are you threatening me? The way you threatened Kellistra?"

"This is my city. What are you doing here, in my city? If you come into my city, that's a challenge and you will be sorry, Death, even though you once called yourself my brother--foolish Methos, who wants to be everyone's brother!--and yes, I know you claim to have turned aside from the old ways, brother. But the old ways persist. Challenge me and I will bury you. Do you know the seven-finger heart-strike blow? Indra my ancient master taught me the technique, when we rode together on chariots to conquer India. It's a secret I alone know--all his other students are dead. Seven stabs of my fingers, at seven separate points--" He raised his hands, spread his fingers, jabbed them toward Methos. "--and it's over. You will die as if I bit you with poison fangs. Your heart will erupt, burst in your chest. You won't take five steps before falling over, dead."

When I write, it is love that dictates was written over Devius' head, the Latin gouged into a whitewashed wall, and Cupid himself guides my hand. I could die, though I were a god, bereft of you. And behind and above Methos was written: Prosperity to him who loves; woe betide him who knows not how to love; doubly woe to him who stands in the way of love.

"You talk too much," said Methos.

"I've been told," Dev went on, "by those who return from this death, that the agony is like no other they have ever experienced."

Methos halted in his circling. "Is that," he asked, "how you took Kellistra down? Before you buried her?"

Devius halted, opposite him. "It was the first time I had used it in centuries." He smiled then. He added, "But I think you have overstayed your welcome."

Methos looked left, and there were women filling the far end of the road. He looked right, and there were women there too. They had appeared without a sound, moving shoulder to shoulder like a wall--a wall jeweled with eyes. Torches lifted above their heads tossed flame into the black night. Immortal women. Too many to count. All the young ones in the city are mine, Dev had boasted--and here they were.

Two elder immortals led them, women of age. Abarrane and Zakiyah were their names, and they were Devius' last two wives.

"You knew they were coming," Dev mocked Methos gently, "why didn't you run while you could?"

Methos looked behind him, hearing a cut-off squall like a kitten's yowl. More immortal women were in the gate, filling it, and one of them had come forward on velvet feet and captured Daena in her arms. Dev bowed and spread his hands in amusement. "Elene, my love. And did you--?"

"We have her," said Elene. Daena struggled and tried to bite, and Elene clouted her over one ear. Daena slumped. Elene handed her to Tian-mu, who cradled her and crooned nonsense. "We have them both," Elene continued, "beloved."

Tian-mu retreated rapidly behind the wall of armed maenads, dragging Daena. The other old ones--Elene, Abarrane, Zakiyah--moved in on Methos. Dev said, "All clear, Methos? Come--fight my wives."

Methos' mind was blank with fury. Then he shook it off, breathing hard, eyes glittering with anger. And raised his hands, yielding to the women. "I won't fight them," he said between clenched teeth.

The young immortals surrounded him, closing in like a wolf-pack on the prey. Their voices rose in a high excited yip-yip-yip. The older women drove them back, when some of them got too eager and raised their swords above their heads, braving themselves to go for Methos' throat; he was too tempting a target. Zahiyah struck them down with fists like iron, laying several out full-length on the road. Abarrane helped too, but not till Tian-mu moved serpentine into the pack, giggling and swinging her long knife, did the girls back away, intimidated. Then they joined the other women, they produced ropes and cords, and they bound Methos hand and foot, searched him and disarmed him, and forced him to his knees. And they didn't lower their swords till this was done.

Elene was next to Devius by then. She wound her arms around him, laid her head on his shoulder. "My king, command us. What shall we do with them?"

Devius reflected. "Let them suffer an eternity of torment."

#

It was Elene who took charge, directed the pack of girls to bring Methos through the gates. The mortal guards there had run away, as had every mortal witness who might have interfered. The image of Minerva above looked down in marble indifference. Neither mortals nor gods would stand in their way.

The salt-workers were waiting outside the gates, with Kellistra. They were hard men, but Elene was faintly surprised to find they had stood their ground. Before she took her small army away to join Dev, she had knocked Kellistra down, laid her flat on the hard earth of the roadside. For a moment she had stood over her rival, gloating: to have Kellistra at her feet, bound and helpless, was a sweet delight. Then she had reversed Kellistra's sword, and slammed it down--through the heart, and deep into the ground. Afterward, she had ordered the salt-workers to stand guard over the corpse; and on no account were they to remove the sword.

"What will we do with them, Elene?" Zakiyah asked her, and Elene answered, "I have the perfect punishment already in mind."

There was a salt-cart abandoned on the necropolis road. She had her girls heave Kellistra and Methos into it, and get the oxen moving.

Elene paced beside the cart. Her black hair streamed down in long curls, blown back from her pale forehead; her black dress was Greek in style, as was the black veil she wore wrapped around her head and shoulders. With her full mouth and bold dark good looks--notwithstanding the patch over one of her eyes--she could have been mistaken for Kellistra. They looked alike, almost like sisters. Life was strange. She remembered her first meeting with Dev, hundreds of years before.

Her teacher had been Myrtle of Kos, an immortal woman ancient beyond Elene's comprehension. She claimed to have been born in a land long since perished--in Babys on the shores of the Euxine, drowned in a flood that swallowed a hundred great cities in the space of a single year. Land became sea, and the towers of Babys had sunk beneath the waves of the wicked Euxine, of all oceans the most hostile to man; great Babylon had been named after Babys by refugees fleeing the disaster, so long ago had all this happened. Ages agone, in a world remembered only by immortals.

Every day of their life together, Myrtle had mocked Elene with strange hints and mysteries. Elene had loved her anyway. When eventually Myrtle left her, a cuckoo-chick abandoned in a harsh world full of battle, Elene had been a lost child for centuries, and she had searched over the entire world, knowing only the name of the man who had stolen Myrtle away. Daeva. Daeva, who called himself Dionysus. She had searched for Daeva, vowing that when she found him, she would take his head--though she had to go to the ends of the earth, she would have his head.

In the fullness of time she had hunted him down, and fallen prey. With him, she had mourned for Myrtle, dead long before at the hand of a passing stranger who knew nothing of the Secret Game. But Dev had initiated her into his own particular mysteries, snared her in a fiery net of love.

Though he gathered other wives through the centuries, Elene had been proud to walk in his shadow--knowing that she was the woman nearest to his heel, with all the others trailing far behind her. She had been secure in this place. She had never known jealousy till he took Kellistra for his own. Then bitterness had consumed her like poison. For on the night that Dev first took Kellistra to his bed, the earthquake had come, and half Pompeii had been shaken down. How could an old wife fight against a new one--against a woman with such weapons?

That Kellistra had then spurned Dev, tried to leave him, had been the final twist of the knife in Elene's heart.

To have Kellistra in her power . . .

Elene rejoiced. A tide of women moved around her, guarding the cart with its captives. Kellistra and Methos lay on the cart's load, coarse grey sea-salt heaped in flakes as rough-edged as gravel. Elene hoped that the bitter salt stung Kellistra to the bone in every wound. She laid a hand caressingly on the side of the cart, and began to sing low in her throat. She sang in Greek.

"Oh for the nightingale's pure song and a fate like hers.
With fashion of beating wings the gods clothed her about
And a sweet life gave her, without lamentation.
But mine is the sheer edge of the tearing iron."

The other immortals understood her; Pompeii was a polyglot city, and every tongue from Egyptian to Persian could be heard in its streets. The song came from an old tragedy, Klytemnestra and the House of Atreus. Most of them knew it well. One by one they joined in, echoing Elene, till the night echoed softly with their chorus:

"Once a man fostered in his house
A cub lioness, from the mother's milk
Torn, craving the breast given.
In the first steps of its young life
Mild, it played with children
And delighted the old.
Caught in the arm's cradle
They pampered it like a newborn daughter
Shining eyed and broken to the hand
To stay the stress of its hunger.

"But it grew with time, and the lioness
In the blood strain came out; it paid
Grace to those who had fostered it
In blood and death for the sheep flocks,
A grim feast forbidden.
The house reeked with blood run
Nor could its people beat down the bane,
The huge murderer's onslaught.
This thing they raised in their house was blessed
By God to be the priestess of destruction."

Elene herself fell silent, bent to look closely into her fallen enemy's dead face. Then, beneath the silver song of the women, she heard a man's voice reciting.

"This is the woman-lioness, who goes to bed
With the wolf, when her proud lion ranges far away,
And she will cut me down; as a wife mixing drugs
She wills to shred the virtue of my punishment
Into her bowl of wrath as she makes sharp the blade
Against her man, death that he brought a mistress home."

She looked into Methos' open eyes gleaming in the night.

The others, women and girls, had been listening too. Their song had died away to nothing, and many of them had moved closer to the cart--closer to the man. His tunic had been torn off one shoulder, all the way down to his waist. Now he lay bound in the cart, with his brown hair spread in a tangle over the grey-white crystals of salt, and his long legs sprawled out, his kilt rucked halfway up his thighs. When they had heaved him into the cart, he had brushed against Elene and the bare skin of his shoulder had been silky to the touch.

She could tell he was of age. She could feel it in her bones.

He was only the second man of breeding age she had ever seen. Devius had never spoken openly of such things, but he had implied there were no others. Without thinking much about this, Elene had fallen into the way of believing it. After all, she and her sister-wives had been seven grown women to Dev's one . . . didn't that mean the men of age must be far rarer than the women? But here was another man who could give her children.

She struck her fist against the side of the cart, leaned over and hissed in his ear. "How dare you call me Klytemnestra!"

"What does he call you, then?" Methos said, his voice low.

"His black serpent queen."

He rolled toward her, with a twist of his body, an arch of his spine. "Is that your name?" Elene took a torch from one of the girls, noticed as she did how the girl stared with mindless hunger at Methos. She dipped the torch close to Methos, gloating when sweat made a sheen on his skin. Droplets ran into the hollow of his throat, the torchlight reflecting in them. He sighed, and hid his face from her.

But she could feel the heat of him from where she was; she could see his whole body. Where his tunic had ripped, the untanned skin beneath was a color as warm as cream. He smelled good, of man-flesh and sunshine. She could imagine how he would taste.

Throughout her youth she had heard of how men ruled the world, but women held the real power because they held power over men--because there was no man alive but that a woman had to birth him. It was true; she had learned how to enslave men. Now she realized that the opposite also held true. In Pompeii, the immortal women ruled, like a pride of lionesses hunting for their mate. But men had power over them, just as they held power over men. She could not have children, unless a man fathered them. A man like Dev, or this man.

She doubled her fist and sank it into his side, and he whoofed and rolled up in a ball in pain. "My name is Elene," she told him. "Don't think you can seduce me from my vengeance. And look--we have arrived." Raising her voice: "Take the sword out, let Kellistra revive. She must see her fate, before we give her to it."

They had gone down the long hill road all the way to the seaside. The harbor and wharfs lay westward. This was the salt-producing district, one of the mainstays of Pompeii's wealth. Here, in dozens of lagoons, salt-water evaporated into crystal flowers, which were gathered with long-handled rakes and carted away up the mountain. Some salt was destined to be ground by the people of Pompeii, and used to flavor the lupins and onions that graced every table. All the Italianate peoples wanted their vegetables salty. Some salt would go to treat olives, making them edible; some would go to salt fish, preserving it. Huge amounts went to make garum sauce--the garum of Pompeii was famous. The salt trade was vital to the city; there was no commerce without salt.

Two women came along a path between salt-lagoons, one with a rake over her shoulder. Kellistra had healed, and opened her eyes, looking around with a frown. Elene reached into the cart and heaved her up, propping her so she could get a good view of the women. "Remember them?" she said. "You thought you frightened them away. Too bad, Kellistra. They came back, and I found them."

The women were Sitkamoses and Mell. Egyptian Sitkamoses held out her arms, and her slave-girls wailed with joy and surprise, and rushed toward her. Mell, still with the rake over her shoulder, strolled up to the cart and grinned. "We did as you asked, Elene," she said. "Everything's ready."

Elene and Abarrane, Sitkamoses and Mell, Tian-mu and Zakiyah all joined hands, the six wives who had not betrayed their husband. They stood that way for a long moment, taking heart from each other. Then they went about their task.

Under their direction, the younger girls took tow-ropes over their shoulders, moved off along the narrow path between salt-lagoons. They dragged the two captives behind them. One of the other girls had a whip, with which she played at driving the others along like cart-mules, and when she was tired of snapping it loudly over their heads, she began to flick at Kellistra's legs, stinging them. Flick. Flick. Flick. "This isn't holy ground," Elene commented, throwing the words in Kellistra's direction. She was strolling along behind, arm in arm with Tian-mu. Sitkamoses then came back from leading the way, asked for the whip with a pretty smile. When she had it, she kissed its handle. Then she raised it over Kellistra.

Elene reached out and took the whip from her. "We are not barbarians," she warned. Sitkamoses spat on the ground, and Elene patted her to console her. "Just wait," she promised, "she will suffer enough," and Sitkamoses thought of what was to come, and cheered up. Elene gave her one last pat, and went on ahead.

At the end of the long pathway was a new salt-lagoon. It had just been excavated, and would be flooded next. Then the salt-water that filled it would bake in the sun, with salt rising in crystals to the top of the brine. The canal that would fill it was all dug, except for the last few hand-spans. In the deepest part of the raw-dug excavation, a deeper hole had been made. "Take him down to the hole, there," Elene ordered. "See those chains that our sisters made ready for us? Put him in chains first." Zakiyah crouched down suddenly, mockingly, and kissed the man's mouth, lingering over the act. "Stop that!" said Elene. "Sister, stop." Because Abarrane, laughing, had just seized the moment and done the same. She stroked his body too, and stood up breathing deeply. "Take him away," Elene repeated. "And throw him in."

The others had brought up Kellistra by now.

The fury in her eyes, when she saw what was happening to Methos, was like magma, corrosive, burning.

They had gotten her onto her feet, but every time she caught her balance, someone yanked on her ropes and sent her staggering; she was all covered with mud and grey salt. "You've already healed," Elene said in disbelief. No immortal healed that fast. "Never mind. Take out that gag, someone--careful of her teeth!" The ring of girls around them yelled, and the one who had pulled out the rag reeled away, clutching a bloody hand. Kellistra glared. She took a step, and all the girls jumped back. "I want to hear you beg for mercy," said Elene, "before we put you in--"

"This is against the law," Kellistra said.

Sitkamoses and Tian-mu, Abarrane and Mell all came and took hold of her, smiling. Kellistra tossed her head like a goaded mare, set her teeth, and did not fight. Sitkamoses slapped her, said happily, "If that's against the law, where's my punishment?" But Kellistra let them drag her onward toward the lagoon. Down there, Methos had already been put into the hole.

Curious, Elene went closer and said, "Don't you understand? This time when we bury you, you'll be weighed down with chains and stones. And then we will let in the sea over your grave, sister. You won't escape this time, why don't you fight?"

Kellistra said something. The words were ground out of her, all but inaudible. Elene leaned near to listen. "If I begin now, I won't stop till you're all dead," was what she said.

"Do it to her," said Elene, "as our lord commanded."

They did.

Vesuvius the mountain loomed black against a brilliant starry sky, overlooking the women at their work. Birds flew up disturbed from the long grass beyond the lagoons. Something stirred under Elene's feet, a tremor that made her pause and frown. Then the earth muttered, groaned long and deep. They put Methos and Kellistra into the ground, shoveled earth over them and tamped it down with great slabs of stone. As they dug out the last little bit of the canal and let the salt sea spill into the lagoon, the earth rolled, one long loud thunder of sound--like the drums of doom, warning them. Then they scattered, fleeing up the road toward the city--leaving Methos and Kellistra to their doom.

It was midnight on the eighteenth of August, 79 AD. In just seven days, Vesuvius would erupt and all Pompeii would be buried in a similar grave.





Part Three



Drowning. Buried alive.

Buried alive, drowning deep.

She lay tangled in chains and Methos' limbs, under the weight of slabs of broken stone, under the sea-brine. It stung her like tears in thin cuts, when she tore her hands raw fighting, at first, before she drowned. Buried alive.

She revived moments later, heart bursting into action, mouth opening on a gasp of salt-water. Water filled her lungs, and she fought the weights that held her under--briefly--till she drowned again. It took only a few moments. Over and over it happened.

What lay under the surface of the earth was the sea, and death.

But all the while, Methos lay against her, dying and reviving and struggling as she struggled. His hand, pushed into her face. Her arm, sliding across his body. Their legs, tangled together. She turned beneath him, fighting free of his weight. He gripped her by the ribs, helping her to shift away. Then she put her hand up to his face and patted urgently at it, fumbling at his lips with blind fingertips. His mouth shaped words that her fingers could not read. Her fingers were numb and swollen from the freezing-cold water. Kellistra stroked his face, awkwardly. His cold hands found hers, gripped them hard. They died, the two of them, like that.

They were convulsing against each other in brief moments--the moments of life, fleeting past--always dying together, only to revive with a double gasp of pain, try to breath, fight their chains, and die again.

We are the dead, she thought. Her kind were dead men, dead women, and though they stalked the earth like angry ghosts, they had no place there; death was always calling them home. They were the dead who had forgotten how to stay in their graves. (But Methos, she thought vaguely, would say the opposite. He would call them the living--the living, who had forgotten how to die.) Oh, why forget the way to the river of Lethe, with its gift of oblivion and deliverance? Why did her heart always rebel, bring her back to life?

Life was pain, life was war, life was betrayal and loss. Life was not the realm of the dead.

But now the slabs of stone were moving above them, sliding aside--sinking into the deep mud. Methos got his hands braced flat against the largest--with Kellistra groping and guiding him along, bracing his arms with her own--and then he shoved. They died like that. And revived, and shoved. And died. It happened too many times to tell.

With a great swirl of choking mud, the last stone shifted to one side. Light struck muddy-green through the thick soup of the salt lagoon. Kellistra swallowed brine and mud, reached up toward the light, and drowned.

Now for times beyond count she revived, threshed briefly in the bright-green sun-filled water, yearned toward the surface--and died, pulled down by her chains. She wasn't alone, though. Not this time. Methos was with her.

She had been bricked into the wall, now she was entombed in the sea itself. For over sixteen years, she had struggled like this in her grave . . . It had begun with the earthquake, which had come on the first night they had slept together--she and Dev. Their first time had been so potent, it seemed no coincidence that the earth itself stirred. But afterward, she had rejected Dev's philosophy--even while still loving him--and turned her back on him, only to be caught and buried in the Temple of the Cornerstone. She still loved Dev, she thought--knowing it dimly, in her bones, even as she died over and over. Maybe she always would.

The sunlit lagoon darkened. Endless hours passed. The brine brightened again. Days were sliding by, above in the world of the living.

Methos' fingers found Kellistra's, entwined with them. He tugged at her hand, pulling it somewhere. She touched cold hard chain-links; white-hot anger flared through her mind, and she beat on the chain with her bare hands, broke the bones of her fingers between the links. Blood blossomed in the water, dispersing as she healed. Kellistra had a glimpse of Methos' face; he was shaking his head at her. She loosened her grip. Methos brought her hand to his mouth, spoke against it. This time she read the words as his lips moved: ". . . older . . . stronger . . ." Of course: he was older than she was, more powerful. Able to last longer, do more, before dying.

She asked a question with her eyes, saw the calm determination in his. Again he mouthed words against her fingertips. They died like that.

When she woke, they were already making love.

The cold chains slithered over them, a dead weight, as they turned, moving together at last, and she forgot about dying. And began drowning in him. She understood at once. Methos led her in it, but Kellistra helped him--sliding into position, opening her arms to him--and then they were shuddering as one. Earthquakes in the flesh. Warm again. The shivering deep chill in her bones vanished. She caught at his floating hair, wound her fingers in it and smiled into his dimly-seen face; then their mouths sealed together, hard and wild. Quickening blazed out of their joined bodies. The water filled with a golden glow. Light from underneath, and electricity sizzling out of the waves of the lagoon; the waves raced, raising small whitecaps, slapping the shore. Methos and Kellistra kissed, kissed, kissed, and she felt his strength glowing into her. Then they arched together--she heard him groan, felt quickening arc out of them--and power ran along their chains, dancing over them. Eating at them. The links giving way, warping and twisting, till they began to pop open and fall to pieces, scattering across the bed of the lagoon.

The surface of the water erupted in a fountain of light.

Across Vesuvius, there went a vast shudder in the roots of the mountain. Rapture captured Kellistra, shook her as the earth quaked; she drew in a heave of fresh air, fell to coughing, and was reborn with a cry of shock. As Methos was. They rolled apart. And found themselves free.

The whole lagoon had emptied, and all the salt-slaves working on nearby lagoons had taken fright, running for their lives. Water sluiced off Kellistra. She lurched a step, wobbly-legged as a newborn fawn. The aftershocks of quickening still dazzled her. She looked at Methos and he was white-haired with the salt rime, festooned with drowned grass-blades and painted with mud, a supernatural creature. Only his brown eyes looked out of the mask, brilliant, blinking, human. Half-dazed. Then slowly filling with absolute rage.

Kellistra reached out and drew her fingers across his face, wiping away the mud in four long pale streaks. It looked like war-paint. "They'll die for this," she said.

"Yes," said Methos, Death.

The sun stood at its zenith. It was noon.

Seven days had passed while they lay buried.

#

Daena had been kept in the Villa of the Mysteries for seven days. Her prison was the villa's crypt, a storage chamber beneath the peristyle; a stair led down to it from a trapdoor. Young immortal women guarded her, Sitkamoses' girls. They stayed with her day and night, never leaving her for a moment. Daena screamed and threw things, and made herself as unpleasant as she could, till they gave up speaking to her and even pretended not to notice her at all--but she couldn't make them leave, even when she flung wine over them.

A man with a twisted face came down the stair and stared wordlessly at her almost every day. Daena screamed and threw things at him too, each time he appeared, and he would go away without saying a thing to her, though his throat worked and it seemed as if he was struggling to speak.

On the seventh day, two girls--not Sitkamoses'--came into the crypt and told her, "Come, brat."

Her other guards went silently out; so did these new ones. They left the trapdoor open behind them. Daena stared, and then bolted up the stair. Above was daylight, dazzling her, and the two girls, one saying to the other, "I don't care what you say, I'm two hundred years old and I've been round the whole world, and I'm not going to be one of His Majesty's harem. Jupiter himself couldn't make me. I like a man I don't have to share, thank you."

This was the peristyle, the inner courtyard of the villa, open to the sky. The sun stood high above; there were dead trees in painted pots, and a fish-pond with a fountain. Lumber and trash were stacked against the walls. There was even an old statue propped up in a corner, the polish of its marble dull with time--but the head had been knocked off and replaced with a new one, macabrely lustrous. Daena wavered at the brink of the trapdoor, not knowing which way to run. She took a hesitant step.

The second girl said, "But have you seen him?"

"The Master? He'd be pretty, if he ever washed. I like a man who doesn't stink of latrines."

"The old ones say he's like a god in bed."

"That's if you can get him there. I hear he can't, you know--" The first girl made a graphic gesture. "I like a man who can get it up. What else is a man for?"

"They say he can do such things, though. Tricks you'll never forget."

"They can have him!" Daena was sidling around the peristyle by now, heading for a door. The first girl glanced at her, said briefly, "No way out, brat, every doorway is guarded," and then they both walked off, still arguing. The last thing she heard was the first girl continuing: "I like a man who--"

She had started hopefully in their wake, when the man with the twisted face appeared.

A woman accompanied him: Grecian Elene with the patch over her missing eye, and the other eye staring solemnly at Daena. Daena spat a curse at them. "Don't you come near me! Or I'll bite you."

The man stared at Daena without speaking, though he swallowed several times, and then he turned his face aside with a convulsive motion, wiped surreptitiously at his eyes. He had a leopardskin thrown over one shoulder, and gold chains were round his neck and arms and ankles--an outlandish costume. And though his hair was unwashed, gold dust powdered it thickly, making it glitter as if gilded. She had moved so that the pond was between them. She said in disgust, "You just look and look and never say a thing. What, was your tongue cut out?"

Elene began, "Show a proper respect, or--" but the man glanced her way, and she held her tongue.

He said to Daena, "My throat strangles on all the things that I would say to you. If once I began, I'd never stop."

"You're mad," Daena said.

He only blinked, and moved up to the edge of the pond. She crouched on the other side in her filthy rags, her hair dangling in her face--watching him with a wild thing's wariness. "Do you like my fish?" said the man. "I raise them for the table. If you feed them, they come like pets to the hand. See?" He took something from a pot and scattered it on the water, and the fish rose, gobbling. "Do you know what we are?" he asked. "We are your own kind. Your kith and kin." Behind the man, Elene began to speak, but he waved her silent again. "The woman you were with, did she tell you lies about me?"

"She was as mad as you are," Daena said, "the whole world is crazy."

Something in her words seemed to strike him. "Elene," he said sharply, "you did away with her, didn't you? You got rid of Kellistra? You promised me you would!"

He was breathing hard, showing the whites of his eyes like a blood horse taken with panic. "Do I ever break my promises?" asked Elene, laying a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "Daeva, husband, be easy in your heart. We put her back in the earth. Didn't I tell you the tale of it?"

"And Methos? Is he dead?"

"He's gone. I swear he is."

He seemed to relax. "The grave is where they belong," he muttered. "We're all safe if Elene says so," he added, to Daena. "Here, feed my fish, try it." Daena sidled closer, keeping her eyes on his every moment, but all he did was thrust his pot of fish-food at her, motioning for her to scatter some. Reassured, she strewed bits of chopped meat over the water, then bent and tickled the fish as they rose to feast. All her life she had fished with her fingers, catching frogs and tadpoles and eels in the springs on the mountainside. "We are your kind," said Daeva softly, tenderly, ardent as a nightingale wooing, "and like a fish born to drink water yet raised in air, you have been poisoned all your life by the very stuff you breath. You are made for another life, little one. Initiate of the mysteries. Let us baptize you, lead you to your rebirth." Not listening, she closed her fingers round the firm cool body of a fish, gently caging it--then froze with her gaze on Dev. He had slid one hand under his leopardskin, and the glint of sunlight showed a knife.

"Time to be reborn," he said.

Daena's arm flashed. She snatched the fish right out of the water, and hurled it at him. He dodged. "Die like it, flopping!" she shouted, and ran for the door.

He caught her there, brought her down on the mosaic floor. She screamed with fright. Tiny fragments of colored glass and stone, tessarae, were right under her nose; her cheek was pressed against them. Not very far off, the fish convulsed and leaped on the mosaic, jack-knifing over and over . . . till it lay still, and its round eye glazed in death. A woman's shouts rang in her ears. Elene was hauling on Daeva's arm, trying to get the knife away. "This is holy ground!" she cried, "unlawful, unlawful," but he showed his teeth, cracked his hand across her face, and she was hurled across the peristyle, to land in a heap near the fish-pool. She lay unconscious there. And Dev groaned once, deeply. He crouched crookedly over Daena, seeming in pain. "We are--above--every law," he panted, and when Daena twisted round to look at him, his eyes were swimming in broken blood vessels--like scarlet bowls--and there was red trickling out of the corner of his mouth. He clutched his hand to his chest--the hand that had struck Elene, and then he raised it to his lips and bit and chewed at it till the blood gushed.

She went limp in utter terror.

"Look," he commanded, and pressed the maimed hand against her face, that she might watch it heal. Blood smeared her cheek, and she came close to passing out--but not quite. She saw it all: the wound closing without a mark, the brief dazzle of quickening. "This is what you are." Dev bent and kissed the unprotected back of Daena's neck. His big hard hand still held her down. "You are my daughter," he said thickly, his breath hot on her ear, "and I name you Kellistra."

He plunged the knife into her back.

She died; she lived. She came back to life, flailing, kicking out her heels. She felt herself heal--the shock went straight through her--and then Dev lifted her to her feet and kissed her again, this time on both eyelids and then on her trembling mouth. "The fish goes out of water, and dies," said Dev, "but you are of divine origin, initiate, and have been reborn." He cupped her face in his hands and gazed lovingly at her. "We must dye your hair black, so you look like her." She remembered the fish flopping in its death-throes, and the agony of the knife. And shut her eyes, believing herself in hell.

Elene was hovering over them, her mouth grim. "Look at her," Dev commanded, "my immortal child new-born. She will honor and love me all her days, as befits a dutiful daughter." Then he doubled over and vomited on the mosaic floor, and Daena fled into a corner, where she crouched with both arms wrapped around her head. "No more," she cried, when he touched her, "no more!"

He lifted her to her feet; she flinched away from his touch. He had to drag her, to get her out of the room.

In the triclinium, the summer dining chamber, the floor had been cleared and swept, the rubbish carted away, and the table had been set for a banquet. Three broad couches surrounded it, in the Roman style. Girls in veils were laying a meal on the table, carrying golden dishes. The aroma of the food hit Daena and made her reel with sudden hunger. Five women waited, hovering in a clump near the doorway. Daena heard one of them whisper to Elene, "Barely midmorning, yet he wants a feast--" and Elene shushed her. But one of the veiled girls, the younger immortals, made a hex-sign at Dev as he strode past.

"The child," said Mell suddenly. "Is she, is she--?" Then all the women were staring at Daena, aghast.

"He did that," said Elene bitterly. "Made her one of us. Did it on holy ground, against every law."

"Quiet!" Abarrane said--though Dev took no notice of them. "We all broke the law before, and did we care about it then?" And she shrugged.

"You don't understand."

"Who cares about the law?" Tian-mu said.

"Go to your places," Elene said, "and hold your tongues!"

The five women scattered to the lower couches, watching Dev hungrily, greedily. But Dev ushered Daena to the high couch, and made her lie there with him; he would not release her hand. When Elene made a move to join them, he waved her away. "You hover like a nursemaid--serve me then, with the other slaves," Dev commanded. High color rose in her cheeks, and the serving-girls all froze proudly in their places. Then Elene lowered her head and went to pour the wine. The serving-girls sprang back to life, the five wives on their couches began to chatter feverishly; the room filled with their babble. Dev ignored them. "Eat, eat, daughter." He held a wine-cup to Daena's mouth. It juddered in his hold so the purple wine splashed her from chin to lap. Revolted, she managed a single swallow, and then he jerked it away, splashed it over his face and beard. Elene was trying in distress to steady his hand. Daena turned her face away. Her head spun. The feast began.

From eggs to apples was the byword for a proper Roman feast. It began with an egg dish--this was the custom--and proceeded till every imaginable kind of food had been offered, regardless of the cost. There were mushrooms steeped in honey, pickled peaches and jeweled pomegranates; there were figs stuffed with seafood, a pate of song-birds' tongues and a stew of the livers of hummingbirds. Pigeons were passed round, in a sweet-sour stew of melons and dates and honey, vinegar and mustard. From the belly of a roast goose, as one of the serving-girls slit the gold cord that bound it, burst a pair of larks calling wildly, and careened madly round the triclinium till they found a window and flashed through.

Dev fed Daena, forcing food between her lips. She barely tasted it for horror; she could not pull her gaze from his twisted face. His mouth dragged at the corners like a very old man's, and one of his eyes sagged half-shut. Elene said in her ear, "See what your father did for you? Gutter brat--he suffered to bring you into your immortality, see how the marks are on him."

"I did not dream," said Dev, overhearing, "the pain there is in giving birth. I am her mother and father both."

"What are we?" Daena demanded. "Are we gods?" The feast spread on the table was like some luxury from Olympus to her, a child of the streets; the painted walls of the triclinum seemed rich as paradise, and the dresses and jewels of the women made them look just like goddesses. When Dev thumped the table and called for more wine, the earth trembled underfoot, and the serving-girls (who looked, to Daena, just like divinities) cowered before him. And yet they were mad. They were all mad; she could see it in their eyes.

"These tremors, they come constantly now, yes?" said Mell nervously. "It is like the time of the earthquake before, we all remember it, yes, seventeen years before? It is the Pontic viper's fault?"

"Kellistra," Dev said suddenly, seeming to recall something. "Elene--when you caught her, she was in the necropolis? Digging up a grave, you said. Whose grave?" Elene shook her head. "Did you ever find what she was after?" Seized by the thought, he pushed Daena away and sat up. "We must go to the place, dig it up for ourselves. Perhaps it was a sword."

"Beloved," said Elene. "She was probably only looting gold from the dead. Forget her, be calm. Look, I'll pour more wine."

"You did kill them, didn't you? You didn't lie about it?"

"Of course I didn't. I have told you a hundred times."

"No man can kill them," Dev went on. "How can you kill Death? As for her, I heard her say, many times, that she was a dead thing walking, no living woman, not divine like us, but a demonic being from the underworld . . . death herself, the goddess of the fetter, and had been so for centuries. And her names are Kolyo, Sarva, Kalypso, Kali--for she is the strangler of souls." He looked at Daena. "We aren't like that, little one. We are the living. The fire of the gods runs in our veins, and its fury scorches our wounds shut, heals us and gives us life long beyond mortal years. In ancient days we ruled the world. We were many then, and mortals were few. And weak. I am too young to have known those days, but Methos knew them and he told me, as did my teacher Indra. And other old ones. And I have imagined . . . living in the open, all our Secret Game known, and nothing forbidden to us. Even the secrets of our generation, known to all--"

"You!" Abarrane snapped at the serving-girls, who had halted in their tasks and were listening avidly. "Our Master is sick from his old injury, pay no attention, go away now. You are excused. Go!"

"--we lived our daily lives in holy places like this one, because we were the sons and daughters of the gods and wherever we laid our heads, was holy ground. Did we even know how we could kill one another? Did we even know we could die?"

"We can die?" said Daena in a small voice.

"In those days," he said dreamily, "we raised our own children. We kept them safe on holy ground, and when they were grown, wouldn't it have been a father's duty to bring them into their true lives? Even if it meant killing them with his own hands."

"How can we die?" Daena said.

"I shall show you," said Dev.

Elene, of all the company there, looked at him and felt apprehension. Her vision had suddenly sharpened, one eye missing or not; all the rest of them, what did they see? Their husband of old, handsome, strong, vital--so much life in him, he could have sired a thousand young immortals. The man they worshiped as a god. Perhaps the only man who could father their children.

". . . Sometimes I dream of it," he was saying, "the ancient forests, the standing stones, the holy caves with their painted walls--I see them behind my eyes. A beloved daughter would be raised on holy ground. Never allowed off it till she was safely made immortal, able to defend herself. Taught the ways of our kind. Whatever her father could do. No matter if her father was hurt in the doing . . ." His gaze focused; his voice suddenly became loud, strong. "A loving father would--" All the others were leaning forward, rapt--breathing in his words. "--a loving father would sacrifice for his daughter."

Seventeen years before, he had buried Kellistra, and it had had struck him mad. The others imagined he had healed? Only Elene saw the truth, she realized. She saw a madman, raving.

He hurled his cup down, precious murrhine from the exotic east; it smashed in a splatter of wine. He was on his feet by now, his head tossed high, the gold dust scattering in a haze from his fair hair. And he was beautiful, despite his uneven voice and twisted features. He had the beauty of an athlete in his prime, a man of action who was also a magnificent lover of women. "Which of you loves me?" His finger stabbed out. "If any of you do, you must prove it today. With sacrifice. Which of you--" Softly, suddenly wheedling: "Who will prove their faith in me?"

"W-what?" That was Sitkamoses, singled out by his glare. She clutched instinctively at her golden necklace. "How do you m-mean, sacrifice?"

"It has to be on holy ground," Dev explained reasonably. "My daughter cannot leave this place yet--not till she's learned how we die." He turned from her, leaving her stricken, one hand faltering toward him. "And you, Mell? My little Tiannia? Zakiyah? Abarrane?" He paused. "My magnificent Elene--surely you, at least--"

She backed toward the door, appalled. Her hand was at her throat. "I didn't know," she managed to say, "seventeen years before, and I--I won't, I won't, I can't--" Her voice broke. "No," she finished. "Beloved. I can't."

But the other women had already decided. They scrambled to his side, stammering out protests of faith--faith no matter what--and Tian-mu drew her own knife and put it into Dev's hand. "My life is yours," she breathed. "I believe in you." Even Sitkamoses regained her courage--or else lust overcame her native caution--and flung herself at his feet, crying out that she would do anything, anything, because she loved him. Even as she did, Dev turned toward Elene again, holding out his arms to her. Elene was in the doorway. Her shoulder bumped something; she flicked a glance over, saw two or three of the young serving-girls crowded together, eavesdropping, mouths fallen open at the mystery.

"Leave this house!" she spat at them. "For your lives--run!"

Elene stepped backwards through the doorway, shouldering the girls aside. Once through, she turned and fled.

The sun stood at its zenith. It was noon.

#

Kellistra had seen Methos really angry before--once. It had been during Alexander's campaign in India. They had both been with the Macedonians, then: one with the army scouts, and one working in the medical tents. They had skirted shy of each other, they hadn't been together. It had been ticklish enough for her to call herself Persian, feign the necessary modesty--Persian modesty was proverbial, thank the gods--and never let anyone see her naked. How else could she pass for a man? She, whose silhouette would scream woman even to a blind man in the dark. And yet she knew herself too good at riding and fighting to be content among the women; it would have been a crime to deprive Alexander of her skills.

And Methos had made a good surgeon's assistant.

And of course Methos had known who and what she was, but if he had come creeping round to her tent, she would not have turned him away. She enjoyed having a man in her bed, she had not been made to sleep alone. And who else could she have trusted with her secret? Since he already knew it. But he hadn't. In India he had taken a mortal wife. Her name had been Kama--desire, it meant--and she had been a doe, dark-eyed, long-lashed, fragile as a jungle-blossom; and her mouth had been red like the garnets of Bactria. An impossibly beautiful flower. So modest that she never spoke aloud save to Methos, so backward that she never learned a word of Macedonian. So shy, that when four or five drunken soldiers cornered her in a dark place, she panicked instead of facing them down.

Kellistra had heard the tale of it second-hand: how Methos himself had been the first to find the body, how the girl must have resisted to the last, thwarting her attackers so once she was dead, they hacked and defaced her corpse out of frustration. The rest was an even grimmer tale. Worried, Kellistra had gone round to Methos' tent and found him there, honing his sword. She had offered to help him hunt down the killers. But he had turned on her, reversed his sword, flung it at her like a knife--and while she dodged and confiscated the blade, Methos had run out of the tent. Before he did, though, he scooped up the scalpels he used for surgery.

He went straight round and slaughtered all the offenders; he fought through their entire troop to get at them, killed everyone who got in his way. In broad daylight he had done it. He had died doing it. Alexander's officers had buried him and Kama and all the other dead in a single mass grave, and Methos had dug himself out sometime afterward and vanished, satisfied.

That was the fire in him. Deep-buried, slow to show itself, but devastating when aroused. It burned hottest, when someone mistreated a woman. Kronos had said it best, speaking of him: "When his fire is up, he kills like a starving man gulping down a feast."

Now Kellistra let him take the lead, going up from the salt-lagoons into Pompeii. "We need weapons," he had growled, flexing his fingers, and he had picked up a long-handled rake from the lagoons and broken it, converting it into a staff. He carried this as confidently as if it was a sword well-tested. "Kellistra. Where will we find him?"

"I know where he used to live," said Kellistra grimly, "it's a villa on the far side of the city. Holy ground, Methos."

"His holy place?" Methos inquired. When she nodded, he only shrugged. "All those women, doing his bidding like slaves," he said.

Kellistra looked at his expression, and almost felt a qualm. She hurried along after him. "Still, it's holy ground--Methos, it's risky, what if--"

It was then that the top of Mount Vesuvius blew off.

It began with an earth-tremor, like all the previous tremors but longer, louder. The mountain shook itself underfoot, and growled. Kellistra halted in her tracks, vaguely alarmed. She saw something out of the corner of her eye, glanced upward at the pinnacle of Vesuvius wreathed in forests and vineyards and low fluffy clouds.

She heard a single titanic boom, and then the pinnacle shivered, opened itself, and fell outward, downward. A pillar of cloud rose toward the noon sun. It was dirty white, spreading as it ascended, like an umbrella pine of many branches. A column of boiling cloud, wide as the column of a temple upon Olympus. In the space of two breaths, it covered the sky, blotted out the sun. Grey half-light fell upon Kellistra. Round the shoulders of Vesuvius, a few specks of blue sky were still to be seen; nowhere else. The earth quaked, quaked, quaked. A great rumble rolled over her, deafening, and there was a gust of wind. It began to hail.

No. Not hail. Stones plinked on the rocks of the pathway, falling in a wave. They were pebbles, light and scorching-hot, and pale as ashes. They resembled spent white cinders, cinders all hollowed out. They steamed as they bounced on the trodden earth of the path, steamed like red-hot coals laved with water, and Kellistra gasped. Instinctively, she had stuck out her palm to catch some of the stones; and they had burned her.

Another gust of wind blew ashes into her face. Hot ashes, and when she breathed them in, they stung her throat, bitter as poison.

She covered her head with both arms, cowering beneath the rain of stones. It was falling pumice--light as dried sponge, filled with air-bubbles--molten rock blown into the heavens, solidifying within the eruption-cloud and falling like a Biblical scourge. An eruption of the mountain. That was what this was. She had witnessed eruptions before, but none of them had been like this. Where was the lava, dissolving the cone of the mountaintop and rolling downward in waves of muddy fire? This was worse. Lava flowed slowly, could be fled from. She stumbled, too busy shielding her head to watch her feet. She had never been caught in a shower of stones like this.

When she risked a look upward--hot stones dashing themselves at her face--the smoke-column above Vesuvius was thicker, boiling with sudden fire.

Methos came back, held his mantle above her head. Kellistra huddled gratefully beneath it. They sheltered, the two of them, under his mantle.

"I've never seen the like of this," Kellistra said. "Methos, we'd better hurry, this could get bad." She looked to him for confirmation. He was, after all, still her elder.

But what he said made her blood run cold. He wasn't looking at the volcano; his head turned, he was gazing away past the city. There, the sudden gloom was broken by a flickering glow. Like firelight, like the campfires of an army, like lightning flashing beyond the shoulder of the mountain . . . a radiance like the moon waxed beyond Pompeii. Like quickening.

"What has Dev done?" Methos said.

#

When they reached the Salt Gate, they found it choked with people. The road was jammed solid with them, whole families fleeing Pompeii. They scuttled along the roadway like mice, mantles held over their heads for protection, cowering under the rain of stones. The hubbub was deafening--there were children screaming in fear or overexcitement, mothers scolding at the top of their lungs, and the soldiers who guarded the gate were shouting, loud enough for the battlefield. It sounded like war, or the sack of a city. Overburdened donkeys were braying in the midst of the crowd, but here was the measure of the panic around them: they could scarcely be heard for the din.

It was a rout. Kellistra slowed and stared grimly, all her worst expectations confirmed. She was calculating ways to fight past the mob. And the hail of pumice fell upon them all. The pebbles lay in drifts at the sides of the road, lay like snowfall about the stelae and tombs of the necropolis; the road was ankle-deep with them. The good wives of Pompeii in their light summer sandals trod on them with burnt feet, weeping. A crying child limped in its family's wake, and its father came shouldering through the throng, two more children riding his hips, and bent to take it piggy-back onto his shoulders.

The light like quickening--the light that lay in the direction of the city--had brightened, and now its source was easier to pinpoint. It was somewhere past Pompeii, higher up the mountain. "Let me guess," said Methos, "that's the villa you spoke of?" and Kellistra, gazing in that direction--toward the Villa of the Mysteries, blazing--nodded shortly.

Above the cone of the mountain, the eruption column rose unweakened. Fire billowed in its depths, rolling crimson flames. It was twilight dark, and true lightning was beginning to flash in the skirts of the clouds. Wind blew in blasts. A great storm was brewing, drawn by the eruption.

And it was getting harder to see. The air remained thick with ashes, choking, hot. Kellistra doubled over, wracked by a paroxysm of coughing. Close by her hand, she saw a dead bird lying on its side, perhaps asphyxiated; and more birds flashed over, flying like arrows toward the sea. The dead one was already half-buried in gravel. A gust of wind, a rattle of stones, and it vanished. Entombed.

Methos had gone ahead, and was having words with a man he had pulled out of the crowd; he had gripped the man's arm, and was evidently arguing with him. More people pushed past them. "There's no fighting upstream into the city," Kellistra called over to him, "we'll go round, and up the mountain," and Methos lifted one hand in acknowledgment. Then he showed the man some money.

It served to buy a goatskin of water, and a bolt of wool. The man himself came to give Kellistra the water to drink, and his little daughter--a baby barely able to toddle--labored after him, all but engulfed by the billows of fabric which she bore hoisted above her curly head. Kellistra had the impression that Methos had paid them enough gold to buy a chariot-team. Last of all, the man drew his sword, and handed it over.

It was a battered old campaigner's weapon, but still serviceable. Kellistra cut the length of wool, sopped it in water, wound it round her head and shoulders; then she stooped and kissed the little girl. In answer to her question, the man said, "We go to Stabiae, domina--my dead wife's family has a house there," and she said, imagining the baby girl entombed like the dead bird--like herself, entombed by Dev, "Stranger, once you reach the port, don't stop. Buy places on the first ship you come to, and never look back!"

The man picked up his daughter, and hurried away with her, rejoining the river of fleeing Pompeiians. Methos and Kellistra watched them go.

"We should be going with them."

"Not till we're finished here."

After a moment she reached out, and just barely touched the back of his hand. He turned to her, they leaned together, Methos rested his forehead against hers. Lightly, with her fingertips, she traced the contours of his mouth.

"When this is over--"

"Yes. When it's over," she said.

#

By the time they worked their way around the city and reached the mountain road, a blackness like night lay upon Pompeii.

It had taken them hours to cross that little distance--hours like eternities. Perhaps the whole afternoon. There was no telling. The hail of stones fell unceasing all that time, out of a shroud of a sky. Great rattling stones, that cascaded in waves on the wind. When they hit the ground, they leaped and bounced and skittered; they hissed and drummed. The crash and boom of thunder from above was now as unceasing as the unnatural hail. Kellistra caught sight of the volcano at one point. It was an ash-grey cone, under a black sky--the darkest thunderheads ever known had nothing on those clouds--and at the summit were rolling clouds, wracked with lightning and fire. The fire rose in scarlet gleams through the clouds, and it was the only color left in the world. Everything else was grey.

During the first hour, the flights of birds overhead had been constant. They had been careening seaward, in a frenzy of terror. Now all the birds were either gone or dead. Kellistra and Methos passed a sheepfold; the flock had taken shelter within its stone walls, and now they were just an expanse of huddles of wool, drifted over by ash and pebbles. All dead, poor things. They had been suffocated by their own numbers as they tried to burrow under each other, desperate to hide from the sky.

It was like the end of the world.

But by the time they reached a road again, the crowds were a little thinner. Everyone who was going to flee had fled, Kellistra calculated; perhaps some fools in the city had stayed, too fond of their homes to leave them, or maybe reckless enough to take their chances. She and Methos stood on an embankment above the roadway, swathed in cloth for protection like the desert peoples of Africa swathed against sandstorms. Below them, the width of the road was all bent backs: people toiling against the storm, hauling laden mules along, or pulling handcarts. They had tied enormous pillows onto the tops of their heads, or bundles of clothing, or even small footstools and tables--anything that would protect them against the falling stones. Even the littlest children wore pots, like miniature soldiers with helmets. It would have been laughable . . . if it hadn't been horrible.

A wagon rolled slowly forward through the throng. It was heaped with ox-hides, and a man walked alongside it, busy handing out his wares and stowing away coins by the handful. The price he shouted was ten times the usual. "O enterprise," Kellistra remarked, "thy name is Rome."

"Heaven help these people," Methos said, "if this goes on much longer."

It was the first time he had spoken in hours.

They turned with one accord toward the distant Villa of the Mysteries. But the light from that quarter had died away. "I wonder," Methos began, and then stopped, shaking his head.

She knew what he was thinking, because it was what she was thinking too. Of Dev, and what they were going to do when they caught up with him. Of what sort of fight might be ahead. And of Daena . . . young Daena, captured by her madman of a father, and what might have happened to her while Methos and Kellistra were bound under the lagoon.

My daughter. Kellistra's heart ached. My daughter, my only daughter. My miracle, born out of fire; into what fire has the world cast you now, Daena?

They went down into the roadway and joined the stream of people, traveling with them for a time, and then working their way across and taking to the fields. Kellistra had to look carefully at the local landmarks--everything had changed since she had last walked this road, seventeen years before; everything had changed even more since noon had come, this very day. When they reached the villa, she almost took them past it without recognizing it.

There was no light shining from its doorways, no eerie glow in the air. No signs of a quickening, now. All gone.

#

They found Elene in the innermost chamber, the holy place.

The ringing within their minds had led them here, the warning of an immortal's proximity. Elene was poised in the center of the room, a sword gripped in her hands--there, in that holy place!--in readiness to attack, frozen in the still calm moment that awaits an explosive uncoiling. The blade of the sword trembled perceptibly, and the line of her back was as rigid as a ship's anchor-chain. It was Methos' sword, forged from Spanish steel; she had taken it from him before burying him. The baffling thing, though, was that her back was turned. She was facing a painted wall, not the doorway.

The stench of blood in the room was sickening. The whole house reeked of it, but this was the source. And yet there was no blood, there were no bodies. Only ashes, heaped thick on the floor. Piles of ash, seemingly strewn at random. Kellistra scuffed her foot through them, drew breath and was stunned by the stench that rose--and then she understood.

There had been quickening here, indeed, but in its freakish way it had consumed only the bodies (and the heads) and left everything else untouched.

She had made a noise. Elene's taut back jerked. "Who's there!" It was almost a shout. As she spoke, she lunged forward a step, and slashed at neck-level--attacking nobody.

Then she snapped back into immobility, now in three-quarters view. It was the blind side of her face that was visible to Kellistra and Methos. Red blood painted it, half-dry and darkening. The patch over her left eye was askew, and the maimed eye itself showed, a milky grey globe.

"Sacrilege," she said.

Her voice was jarring--like wild laughter at some bloody arena spectacle. "Who's there? I know you're there, you can't fool me--" As she spoke, she slashed out with her sword again, at nothing. The paintings on the walls seemed to scream down at her.

"The most bloody sin--sins that can never be paid for--" Then, almost in a whisper: "We did not know the price of our crimes."

She was now facing almost fully toward the doorway. Her milky left eye blinked, opaque. Her right eye was the source of the blood that had run down her face.

She said, "The maenads." Her voice lurched and staggered. Quickening played over her right eye, cleansing away the wounds that had left her blind. Blood welled fresh out of the hole of her eye-socket, and then new flesh sealed the gap. The sword dropped from her hands, clattered on the floor. Both her hands went to her eye, fingernails clawing.

"The maenads!" she cried. She was tearing out her eye again.

The next few instants were confused, ever after, in Kellistra's mind. When they ended, she found herself bending over Elene, holding her up; Elene crouched in a corner, almost fallen, gabbling nonsense words. They were close that their breaths mingled. Sounds of pain ripped through Elene's voice. At last her hands fell, and she rested--breasts heaving, shuddering with shock, as she leaned against the wall. Her voice was now a raw whisper, all but spent. The only way Kellistra could understand was with her ear almost against Elene's bloody mouth.

"The maenads . . . are loosed."

Methos stood over them. Kellistra looked up at him. He had picked up the soldier's sword--when had she dropped it? But he held it as if he was prepared to use it, holy ground or no holy ground. His expression was--he looked like--like the Horseman, Death, whom Kronos had described to her. But she had never met this man before; she had only known the other Methos, the gentle one . . . the kind man who outgrown the killer's skin. He was the other half of the Methos with her now; his was the eye blinded to all human goodness, the killer's eye.

"Madness," whispered Elene. Then: "Bacchantes." Then, weakly: "There is no greater sin, none." She gestured in no particular direction, but it was plain that she spoke of Vesuvius. "It's the vengeance of the gods." She added, "Appear, appear, whatso thy shape or name," and Kellistra recognized lines from Euripides. "O god, beast, mystery, come! For--I have--held the great mother's mountain-flame--"

Her eye was healing again, even as Kellistra watched.

"When I lost my left eye . . . it was to an enemy who kept me imprisoned a whole year. Every day he instructed his slaves to cut--" Elene shuddered. "--cut it out. Eventually it ceased to heal. I have looked upon evil, and now my other eye is forfeit."

Her hands made vague clawing motions, rising toward her face. Methos said, "Where are the others?"

"It was holy ground," said Elene, too low for him to make out; he looked a question at Kellistra, and Kellistra made a warning sign. Elene might not know Methos' voice, but she would certainly recognize Kellistra's.

She went on, unevenly, "He took Tien-mu's head here, and we all--we all went mad. With the quickening. It touched us all. I--I am . . ." A garbled sound came out, and Kellistra bent closer. "And bull-voices roar--fearful semblances, and from a drum, as it were of thunder underground--is borne on the air--heavy with dread. They all went away to the city," said Elene. "I am Klytemnestra."

Her right eye opened wide, healed; and she saw who was questioning her.

She started to her feet, snatching up the sword. But she didn't attack. Instead she tossed the weapon, pitching it toward Kellistra, and Kellistra grabbed instinctively and found it in her hands: Methos' sword. "Go," said Elene. "Find the maenads. Leave me here!" as Kellistra made a move toward her. "They are bringing the mountain down. Forget me. Stop them. Stop them. Stop them!"

#

From Vesuvius to the sea, all the birds had died. They had been felled by poison gases from the mountain . . . like coal-mine canaries of an age as yet unknown, they had been the first to die. Next to perish were the small beasts of the countryside: the frogs Daena had harvested for sale, mice and rabbits and voles and shrews and the grass-snakes that darted along the stone walls of vineyards. And cats, and dogs, hens and sheep in the farmyards. While cattle ran in wild circles in the fields, driven mad with fear, and horses battered at their stall-doors in villa stables. And in fish-ponds, the stock floated belly-up--roasted where they had swum.

Pompeii itself was empty--all but empty, anyway. As were the roads leading away from the city. Most of its citizens had fled to the harbor towns, where some had escaped on boats across the bay--those were the lucky ones--but thousands more had counted their coins, calculated the cost, and decided to wait till morning. Others had been unable to get aboard ships. In every town along the shore of the Bay of Naples, every building was thronged with frightened, angry people. To camp outside was impossible. The hail of stones went on, till they had fallen in drifts knee-deep everywhere on the mountainside . . . and then waist-deep . . . and then chin-deep, before midnight came. The people crowded under every roof that would hold against the weight. Before nightfall, the flimsier buildings were starting to collapse outright. Every ceiling that caved in under the weight of stones, sent a flood of refugees scurrying into all the neighboring buildings.

Above Vesuvius' cone, the thunderstorm was now continuous.

Red-hot mud was rolling into the streets of the town of nearby Herculaneum.

But the worst was yet to come. At the summit of Vesuvius, the volcano gave a gasp and poison gas blew out, choking-thick with feathery ashes, and as hot as the inside of a baker's oven. It came on a blast of wind, strong enough to blow down doors, blast window-shutters open; no barrier stood before it. It blew halfway to the walls of Pompeii, and every living thing in its path, perished.

Methos and Kellistra, just leaving the Villa of the Mysteries, knew nothing of this. They only knew that a gust of red-hot air filled the world with whirling ash; both of them fell to their knees and covered their faces. Because they were just beyond the edge of the killing blast, they were spared more. Still, for an uncounted time they cowered beneath the wind. When it slackened at last, Kellistra spat out a mouthful of ashes, scrubbed at her stinging eyes, coughed painfully. "What was that?" Her hand, as she raised it, was caked thick with ash.

The air cleared.

"Like the hand of a god over them," Kellistra breathed. "What bitter magic is this?"

A light like quickening waxed in the sky above Pompeii.

#

By the time they fought their way back to the city, the light there was a rival for the volcano.

In the endless night, it leaped up past the city walls, a twisting vortex, and it was cold fire: blue flames, white flames, ghostly phosphorescence spiraling up from some point in the city. It was a beacon. It ebbed and it flowed, and it flashed, and when the noise of the hail abated, it could be heard--a low eerie crackling of the air. It made the hair rise on the back of Kellistra's neck.

The ground shook underfoot, shuddering up through the soles of her sandals. A pulse beat through Vesuvius; it throbbed in time with the lights leaping up out of Pompeii; the stronger it became, the worse the eruption. All landmarks were going, now. It was hard to tell the road from the fields; thick drifts of stone and ash lay over them all, blurring one into the other. It was very easy to founder in the drifts.

Twice more, while they labored across the countryside--getting lost, going in circles--the light over Pompeii flared high, and a fresh blast of poison air gusted from the volcano. It suffocated everything in its path. Men, horses, cattle, all fell before it. Their noses and throats were force-filled with ash, and they died. In the harbor towns along the Bay of Naples, refugees looked out-of-doors and said hopefully, "When dawn comes, we'll find a boat and escape this place," never knowing it was already almost too late.

At the third blast, the ashes and tempest wind had reached right to the walls of Pompeii. Methos and Kellistra had taken shelter against the city wall--like stranded souls in a blizzard. They choked and coughed, and when it ended, Kellistra blinked thick soft greyness out of her eyes and looked at Methos, and he was grey-white from head to foot, painted like a statue with ashes.

They had come out of the salt lagoon to this, to this; they had come out of the salt to this. She put a hand on his shoulder, consolingly, and he bowed his head against hers and rubbed his grey cheek against her grey hair.

They followed the wall till they reached a gate, though which one they could not tell. It was unattended, its arch filled waist-deep with a tide of pumice-pebbles--more lapili, falling hard, filled it further every moment. It was very hard to see, except that the glow overhead lit everything; the air was thick with haze. Kellistra, forging forward with her head down, stumbled over something, and halted. She grabbed forward, snatched hold of Methos' mantle, drew him back. Together they stood gazing down.

A Roman soldier's corpse lay at their feet, all but buried. His back and the line of one arm and open hand alone were visible. He had been decapitated, and the head was gone.

Other soldiers lay, headless, beyond him.

"I feel something," said Kellistra. Then she shouted, "Methos, watch--!"

An immortal came at them, out of the shadows of the gate and the glooms of the air. She laughed and cried together as she came, leaping and dancing, and she spun in a circle, with her sword in one hand, and a man's head, gripped by its streaming bloody hair, in the other. She whirled head and sword madly around her, released the head. It flew straight at Kellistra, who threw herself forward, avoiding it. Another immortal girl appeared, and a third. None of them were known to Kellistra. "Man!" cried the first one, going for Methos' throat, "man, die, man--" and the other made noises like wolves and ravens, gobbling and howling. One of them fell to all fours and bounded forward, animal-like; she still gripped her sword, which clattered on the stones. They were streaked with red from head to foot, and they reeked of blood and wine.

They converged on Methos. One fell, and then another--killed cleanly, with two economical stabs of Methos' gladius. Kellistra lunged and took the one on all fours through the shoulder from behind. Then she cut with the Spanish sword, leaving the girl felled with disabling wounds, writhing but conscious. "Where is your master?" she said fiercely, but the girl only gabbled animal noises. Then she began to bark like a wild goose. "This is no good," Kellistra began to say, looking toward Methos in frustration, "they can't tell us anything--" and she saw Methos, standing over the first of his two victims, behead her. On the backstroke, he beheaded the other one. Making an angry sound, knowing he was right, she turned and took the third girl's head.

The quickening blinded her momentarily, and when her vision cleared, Methos took her hand and helped her to her feet. "Yes," said Kellistra, nodding curtly. "Sometimes it's good to kill."

They went on without looking back.

#

Pompeii was a necropolis.

Perhaps two thousand citizens were still within the walls, still alive. Some had fled with everyone else, and then turned back, re-entered the city, and were looting their neighbors' homes. In one house, a frightened family had barred all the doors and windows, and were gathered round a bed where a woman lay weeping in childbirth--too far gone in her labor-pains to be moved. In others, men were shoving their gold dinner-plates into sacks, and calculating the danger if they waited till morning to travel.

But it was a city of the dead. It was fitting, then, in Kellistra's view--because she never forgot she was one of the dead--that the next moving thing they saw was another immortal. It was one of Sitkamoses' maidens. She came at them out of a side alley, lurching and staggering like a drunkard; her laughter shrilled above the drums of the thunder and the rolling sistrum-clatter of falling stones. She was dragging her blade point-down in her wake, making it bounce and crack on the street's stepping-stones. Then she swung it up and broke into a charge, running straight at Methos.

"Kill all the men!" she shouted as she came. "Kill them all!"

Methos walked steadily onward, and when she was close enough, he made one long step and took off her head.

Her corpse toppled forward. He continued on past. Her quickening hit him and he stiffened, broke step; an instant later it was all over. The quickening had seethed out of her, and Methos had drunk it down like nothing. The corpse lay on the street, little fires burning around it. "What are you waiting for?" said Methos over his shoulder, and Kellistra started, stepped carefully over the dead girl's head, and hurried after him.

The girl's hair had been tied full of severed human fingers; they had bounced and jounced as she came, and her garments had been so sodden with blood that she left boot-prints like black pools on the ashy street.

#

At the forum entrance, they found Sitkamoses.

The air had lightened; perhaps dawn had come and passed, unmarked, and it was morning; who could tell? She crouched on a stone, blood dripping slowly from her face and hands. Her hair, hanging down befouled to the ground, concealed the details. But the noises she was making were clear: whooping cries of laughter, over and over. They alternated with insane giggling, till her voice would die away hoarse and she would fall silent. Then she would begin to laugh again.

Five or six bodies lay strewn around her. Some were mortal men, looters perhaps or gladiators from the school nearby, and some were immortal women. All beheaded. And quickening crawled over them, writhing dragons of light: it was spectral blue cold lightning, rising in thin streaks from the stone pavement, welling up out of the ground. More quickening issued from the forum gates, electrical snakes and serpentine fingers of blue haze that glowed; a blue light lit everything. A harsh loud hiss rang in Kellistra's ears. Her hair stood on end. The bodies on the ground were falling to ashes, wherever the quickening sought them out and fingered them greedily; it was like a living thing, hungry. A tendril of it walked toward her, touched her foot and ankle and knee before she could step back, and it stung her like acid. Just for an instant, something moved in her mind: a dark befuddled madness. She bit back an insane impulse to giggle, staggered and then the connection was broken; she was left shaking her head in shock and denial. "What was that?" she breathed incredulously, "what--?"

Sitkamoses laughed.

There was something in her arms; she cradled it like a child, tenderly, rocking it in the curve of one arm. It was a severed head. "My baby," she said clearly, as Kellistra and Methos moved toward her. "It was Dev who did this." Another gust of crazy laughter shook her; she threw back her long blood-stippled hair. "I recognized him--my lord, my god. It was most certainly Dev." She raised the head, ugly now as a gorgon's; it was the head of the immortal Abarrane. "He did it," she said. "Not me."

Something snapped in Kellistra. She let out a roar, and plunged forward. She had hesitated before, and--and-- No longer. Sitkamoses fell before her, still giggling madly; Abarrane's head went flying, rolled away across the ground, and Sitkamoses pointed at it and cackled. "Look what you made me do!"

Someone had hold of Kellistra's sword-arm, was pulling her back, and she cursed and struggled, wild to get at Sitkamoses. "I don't care!" she shrieked at Methos, who was the one trying to hold her back. "This time I'll kill her!"

"Forbidden," said Methos, shaking her, "forbidden--"

Sitkamoses lay now on the rubble. She stretched herself, arched her back, yawned and showed her pale-pink pointed tongue. "We are like gods," she said.

Kellistra broke free. She plunged at Sitkamoses, sword foremost. A long wordless scream ripped out of her throat. Sitkamoses was up, in a flurry of tattered finery; little bright jewels of finest goldwork swung as she darted away. "It's Dev in there, Dev," she cried wildly, "come and see him!" and she fled full-tilt, with Kellistra charging on her heels.

Straight into the mouth of the forum.

Ever after, Kellistra was haunted by the next few moments. By pictures: Sitkamoses running into the maelstrom, gorgeous blood-splashed drapery rippling like smoke in her wake. How quickening leapt out of her footprints and splashed on the ground, fiery water. All around, everything, everywhere, was quickening. The ground shook with it. The air roared with it. It filled Sitkamoses, blazed out of her. Rainbow lightning flashed in her wake. She swerved, and raced toward a temple, flying up its steps. It was the temple of Isis.

Kellistra knew it of old. The forgotten Temple of the Cornerstone was at the other end of the forum, its entrance certainly sealed by now--sealed for all time. The Isis temple was far larger. Shipping from Pompeii crossed to Alexandria regularly, many Egyptians lived in the city. This was their temple, lovingly kept. Within, all was painted in clear bright colors, the greens and blues loved by all Egyptians; there was an altar, a double flight of stairs mounting the wall behind it, and at the summit was the sanctuary where the statue of the goddess stood. All this was holy ground.

Sitkamoses darted into it. Kellistra was right behind her.

The roof had fallen, shattered from beneath. Black sky showed through. Quickening rose in pillars, shining, with crackles of lightning spinning out; they snaked away into the tempest clouds, bending toward the summit of Vesuvius. Quickening crawled across the broken floor. Fallen immortals lay strewn there: headless girls half-buried in rubble and hail-stones, their severed heads rolled into the corners, to lie at the feet of painted Egyptian images. Quickening shone out of their flesh. As Kellistra charged forward, a girl's corpse, lying to her right, trembled and hitched into motion--pebbles streaming off it, bouncing and skittering away--and rose, rotating, levitating, to eye-level. Its dangling fingertips jittered. The head rose, hideously, to join it. It tilted, and its dead eyes seemed to blink at Kellistra. Then it burst into flames--wreathed with fire from head to toe--burned to ash in an eyeblink, and the ashes went whirling off, sucked away into the sky.

On every side, other corpses rose, bobbing, igniting.

There were living immortals, Bacchante girls, dancing in ecstacy before the altar. Their torches wove ribbons of flame. Sitkamoses fled through their midst. Kellistra ran straight at them, and they held out their arms to her, crying, "Join us, sister!" She swerved to avoid them. As she passed, she saw that they were fighting, not dancing: fighting a pitched melee, in which those who struck blows screamed louder than those who were struck. The ground was slippery with blood. To her left, a girl went down, and another took her head; both whooped with agonized laughter even as the sword fell. They were killing each other. They were killing each other, and singing as they did.

With every beheading, the ground shook harder. More quickening sheeted skyward. And Vesuvius roared.

Sitkamoses screamed, "This is his doing!" With Kellistra right behind her, she took the sanctuary stairs in great leaps--perhaps too maddened to know fear. "You won't catch me!" she cried.

As she reached the top of the steps, a figure in a leopard-skin stepped forward and beheaded her.

Kellistra was halfway up. Sitkamoses fell toward her, seeming to fall forever, time stretching frozen. Her head bounced to the bottom of the steps. A vast blaze of quickening shone from it, and then it exploded in flames and crumbled to nothing. Kellistra swung her arm over her face to shield it, and the ashes of Sitkamoses blew over her in one hot gust.

Behind her, Methos was coming on at the run, shouting--but she couldn't hear what. And there was a tumult as if all the young mad women were turning on him at once. Kellistra flinched beneath the flail of hot ashes, then plunged through it. At the top of the stair, she came face to face with the figure in the leopard-skin, the one who stood calmly waiting. It was Daena.

The sword fell from her hand and clattered down the stairs.

She had come ready to kill, in spite of all the laws--to kill Dev, though she loved him--though she damned herself ever after for doing it, she meant to take his head. But the sight of Daena undid her. She skidded, almost fell after her sword. She was unable to look away from the girl in the leopard-skin.

"Beloved," Daena said, and it was Daeva's voice.

"Daughter," whispered Kellistra.

Daena reached out and touched her, a soft pat of fingers on her cheek; Methos had touched her that way too, so gently, with such love. "Hush," she said. Where was her gutter-accent? Where was her wildness, her suspicion of every human being? All gone. Her words were educated Latin now, with a whisper of foreign inflection that spoke of Persia, India--faraway lands. Then she bent and spoke sweetly into Kellistra's ear. "See what's become of my vine-covered mountain? All afire," she said. "One or two more beheadings, and--" And she snapped her fingers. "The world ends."

Her head jerked up. "I thought--" Something shattered in her voice: suddenly she was shouting. "That man-- Elene promised me, she promised me he was dead! Kill him! Kill him now!"

Methos was coming, fighting the women--fighting his way to the foot of the stair. He was a whirlwind, striking with knees and elbows, hands and blade. Striking to remove them from his way, and when that wasn't quick enough, he began striking to kill. With every blow he landed, one of them was out of the fight, but with every blow he landed, the backlash hurt him more than the one he killed. Kellistra watched the impact of it in his face--the wincing anguish, the slow blurring of inner injury in his eyes. The fire going out.

Daena touched her cheek again, then kissed her. Shockingly, she put her sword into Kellistra's grip, folding her fingers around the hilt. "If you can, take my head," she whispered. "As I took his, back in that house. He showed me how we die, you know. How we live forever. Kill me, and become me."

Kellistra gasped something, jerked her hand away from the weapon. And Daena nodded solemnly and raised it, resting it against Kellistra's throat.

But Methos reached her first.

The point of his gladius sliced into her, from over Kellistra's shoulder. She jerked upright, Daeva's expression torn away; her sword fell, and for an instant, her eyes opened wide and her face was that of a very young bewildered girl. "No, no," she protested, one hand going toward the wound in her ribs.

Methos drew the sword out, brought it around. He stood below Kellistra on the stair; but he was still tall enough.

"I want my kitten," said Daena, with tears in her voice.

He made the beheading stroke.

#

That was the fourth, last surge.

Vesuvius gasped its final gasp. The blast of superheated gas came down the mountain, a furnace wind thick as soup. Every door on every street of Pompeii was blown open. What came in was suffocating heat, a gust of acid-hot effluvia that forced its way down every throat, choked every living thing in the city, plugged their windpipes solid with ash. Till they were overcome, and curling up as if in sleep, gasped themselves to death like the volcano itself . . . and died, men and women and beasts. And the falling gravel buried them forty feet deep.

As far as the shore of the bay, men and women died by the hundreds--felled by the poison vapors.

It was two days more before the sky could be seen. Then, the sun looked down on the raw slopes of a new Vesuvius, deep with ashes like snowdrifts, no landmark left anywhere: Pompeii was gone, Herculaneum too, and all the tiny towns and villas of what had been a sweet land, tangled with vines and roses. And as far away as the streets of Rome, a thin rain of ash fell, till the Emperor himself came out and wondered; but no one ever learned the true story of Pompeii's end.

#

The gravel stirred, in the dead ground that had been Pompeii.

A hand broke free--like breaking out of a grave.

She clawed her way out of the ground. First one hand, broken fingernails scrabbling; red blood ran from lava-cuts and livid scratches. The hand clawed at the gravel surface, and then a second hand broke free. The gravel upwelled. Someone screamed. Then she broke surface: Kellistra, grim and grey with ash. She flailed her way up till she was free almost to the waist, and then she collapsed and lay panting, hair trailing in matted elf-locks over her grime-covered face. Out of this mask, her eyes looked, bright and living. Tears ran from them, and streaked her cheeks.

Methos' arms were round her waist.

She had tied his wrists together with strips torn from her gown, to keep him with her. Now she dug wearily down into the gravel and found his limp forearm, and excavated it. By the time she finished this, the drag of her palm through the stones left long shiny streaks of blood. She rested for a while longer, before struggling the rest of the way free.

When she was out, on hands and knees on the gravel, blinking in the sunshine, he was half on her back with his arms still tied around her waist, a dead weight. She had no knife, no sword anymore, no way to cut him loose. They were bound together.

She was chewing at her lips, biting them furiously; she closed her teeth on her underlip and worried it. She didn't know this till blood ran freely down her chin and dripped, and then she started and looked down in surprise, seeing the droplets splatter on the ground. Her voice surprised her too: "One . . . last effort." Was he waking? He stirred against her back. It made her explode into desperate action.

When her strength failed, all she had managed was to turn herself around, so she was face to face with him, and he was awake. She was struggling to push him away. His face was upturned to hers. His eyes were open. He said something in a slurred voice.

She thought of dark quickening. She thought of Daeva. She thought of Daena.

Her fists beat at his face and shoulders, and then he roared and they were fighting, rolling over on the gravel, till the cloth ripped that bound them, and she hit him and kicked him and surged up, leaping to her feet, free, free. She was screaming, not thinking, only blind with an outrage that made no sense: "You killed my daughter! My daughter!" And she kicked him again, with every iota of the rage she felt.

He lay motionless. She stood over him, chest heaving, and she saw ahead to the future: she thought of the madness that came to immortals who fought on holy ground, of the many blows he had struck and the way each one would have hurt him, of how long it would take him to heal--if he ever did--of Daeva's soul perhaps possessing him. He wouldn't be sane again for a hundred years, perhaps. A hundred years more, crippled by blind terror of every human being. A few hundred more, defenseless before the swords of other immortals, those in whom the fire of the quickening still burned strong. He would be forced to flee from every challenge, just to stay alive. How long before he could fight again with confidence? Certainly, it would be many centuries before he was fit to win and hold some holy place, and share it with some woman . . . And he probably wouldn't know why, he probably wouldn't remember. Vesuvius would be only a word to him. All he would know was that he was maimed. Fighting on holy ground--it left the rarest of wounds for immortals: injuries of the soul, of the memory. How many centuries, before he healed completely? And she thought of the fire--the fire that had been in him, snuffed out by his own act.

Her mind winced away from the thought that he had saved her. She only saw what he had done, and how it would maim him. She saw, again, her daughter--her daughter, her first-born daughter-- Dead under the stroke of his sword.

Kellistra spat at Methos. Then she turned and walked deliberately away.

He didn't see her again for hundreds of years. The first time their paths crossed, he didn't remember Pompeii, and wondered why she fled him. Later his memories returned and he understood. But Kellistra didn't speak to him till the Dark Ages were over, and then it was to condemn him and retreat; and she didn't approach him again till after the Renaissance, and then they ended up coming to blows. That time, she almost killed him. The next time they met, he almost killed her. After that, they kept apart. Other immortals told him how jealously she guarded her children; he knew exactly why. And she was a different woman by then, as he was a different man.

Hundreds of years, spent climbing out of the grave that was Pompeii. But the fire in him, the fire which made immortals eager for the fight?

It was almost two thousand years before he found that again.

















Note on the play Laureolus: it was a Roman mimus, a mime play. These were farces, realistic dramas and comedies, played by actors and actresses in everyday costume and without masks. Laureolus, very popular between 20 and 200 AD, told the story of a bandit protagonist, a murderer and incendiary, who was eventually captured and put to death. Mimes were uncensored and eventually became perverse spectacles full of sex and violence. In the case of Laureolus, the emperor Domitian allowed the play to end with a condemned criminal being brought onstage in lieu of the main actor . . . so that the audience could watch the 'hero' being tortured to death. With real torture. Including being nailed to a cross, with real nails. To the applause of contemporary Roman commentators.

All this is according to Jerome Carcopino, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome.