TO THE DEATH
The surface of the lake was like glass; as calm and as still as it was possible for water to be. Joe Dawson envied it. To attain such a state of calm must be, he felt, the most wonderful thing in the world. He imagined being able to relax; take long, soothing breaths. Just to sit down and let some of the tension fade from his stuff muscles would be a start; but he knew that he could not sit down. There could be no resting, no relaxing - his body would not let him so much as contemplate easing up on his state of agitation. Instead he paced, back and forth, wearing down the soft earth and crushing the dew-damp grass. His cane churned up the ground, creating furrows and holes that were as irregular and disturbed as the state of his mind. Even the birdsong annoyed him, and the sound of the water, lapping gently against the rocks at the edges of the lake, was beginning to drive him crazy.
"Kronos?" Turning from his worn-down piece of soil, where he had been pacing for some half an hour without respite, Joe marched back down to the water's edge where his Immortal companion was standing. He had been there for three hours now, silent as the rocks beneath his feet, throwing stones into the deep, clear waters. He skimmed each one, watching it fly, watching it land, watching each of its tiny ripples until they had been swallowed back up into the water's quiet surface - then he threw another stone and repeated the process. Joe hadn't been able to get any sense out of him since he had thrown the first of these missiles, and it didn't seem as though he was likely to have a change of luck now.
"Kronos?" He refrained from putting a hand on the other man's arm, although he was unwilling to admit that it was because he was in any way afraid of the consequences. It was unsettling to be in a position where one's only ally was a man whose very existence left one terrified; but that was exactly the position in which Joe now found himself. With all of his friends indisposed, one way or another, Kronos was the only person he could turn to; a mass murderer, born of chaos, who by his own admission would like nothing more than to see the entire world fall backwards in Time, to a dark age of terror and war. Joe could do nothing but endeavour not to think of such things, and for want of anything better to do he scrambled up the rocks to stand beside his unholy ally.
"There anybody home?" He meant it as a joke, but the answer was not a laugh - nor even a smile. Instead cold eyes turned to look at him, reflecting the surface of the lake, the sky, and every scudding cloud that floated above them. Joe saw himself in the eyes too, and wondered if he really did look quite that scared. He tried out a nervous smile. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Kronos turned away again, the last of his current cache of stones gripped tightly in his right hand. The knuckles were white, and there was a slight tremble in his fingertips. Joe frowned.
"Yeah." It was not exactly an enthralling conversation, but it was, thought Joe, rather better than the previous all-consuming silence. He tried another smile, less nervous this time.
"Yeah." There had, perhaps, been a slight change in the tone of voice this time, although Joe was not sure that there had been any accompanying change of expression. Instead of elaborating further, Kronos swung back his fist and let his last stone fly. It bounced sixteen times across the surface of the water, a feat that made Dawson feel positively jealous, before disappearing beneath the waves of its own making. Kronos stared after it, and Joe wondered if he had sunk back into his previous, unresponsive state.
"Er... you were saying?" The dark face, with its iceberg eyes, turned back to him again, and he tried not to look too uncertain. What was he so worried about? After all, they were allies weren't they? They both wanted to save Methos. All the same, he could not help taking a half step back. Kronos took his arm, but instead of making any kind of violent move, he offered Dawson a hand in climbing back down from the rocks.
"I was saying that I have an idea." He sighed, letting go of the Watcher as suddenly as he had taken hold, leaving the other man floundering momentarily in the soft sand around the rocks. "I think."
"You think you have an idea?" This, decided Joe, did not sound too encouraging, particularly since it reminded him rather too much of Methos. Hadn't Methos once mentioned knowing Kronos at the time of his emergence into Immortality? He had probably taught the younger man everything he knew - which suggested that any plan Kronos had would be just as unworkable, badly thrown together, and generally inadvisable as anything the oldest Immortal himself had ever tried. The Watcher frowned.
"Please don't tell me you're planning on improvising." Kronos grinned in response, a surprisingly warm and good-humoured grin that suggested to Joe that he knew all about Methos and his 'improvising'. He shrugged.
"Sometimes improvising is the best you can do. Makes it harder for the enemy to second guess you." He frowned, his expression turning serious again as he turned to look back up towards the mountainside cliffs they so recently had left. "Although this time I think the situation calls for something rather more concrete."
"Then you do have a plan?" Joe wanted to be told that it was all in hand, and that his companion had thought of something guaranteed to get them Methos back, unharmed and all in one piece. If he had happened to think of something that would win back the heart of Duncan MacLeod at the same time, that would be even better. Instead of a reassuring smile, or a word of comfort however, he received only a cold stare.
"Yes. I have a plan." The old Immortal turned away, beginning to walk off across the dew-covered grass. Joe stared after him, frustration now mingling with the worries and fears. Next time, he told himself, he was going to get captured. At least then there'd be somebody to talk to.
"Where do you suppose they are?" Chin on hands, Methos was staring at his feet, currently dangling over the edge of the bunk upon which he was uncomfortably perched. He scowled as he spoke, swinging his legs with even more force, and inadvertently kicked Costas Reuben on the top of the head. The Involution head of security looked up from his position on the lower bunk and glared.
"They're probably in just the same place as they were the last time you asked." He looked rather pointedly at his watch. "Which was about two minutes ago."
"I wonder what they're doing?" Lying on his own bunk on the adjacent wall, Andros Thane folded his hands behind his head and stared reflectively at the ceiling. Reuben glowered at him.
"Don't you start."
"I was only thinking aloud." He sat up, looking back at his commanding officer with suddenly renewed interest. "They could be on their way here now, to break us out."
"Don't be daft, boy." Reuben punched the wall, which was made of solid stone. "Look at this place. Solid as rock, because that's exactly what it is. It was tunnelled out of a cliff face, and it's stood for several hundred years without having so much as a cave-in. The security is practically the best in the world, and I know that because I designed it. I planned every alarm, every surveillance system. I trained every bloody guard. Nobody is breaking into this place, and certainly not two men on their own, without any inside knowledge."
"There's nothing like bringing our hopes down, is there." Methos swung his legs again, rather more carefully this time. "And don't underestimate them. Kronos and Joe are--"
"Yeah, I know. You've told me seventeen times already." In his frustration the Greek in Reuben's accent strengthened perceptibly. "Joe is a very clever man, a Watcher for several decades. He knows his job, and he's good at it. And Kronos is the greatest warrior, who even manages to die and come back to life. Well that's not going to do him much good here."
"It's all we've got to count on." Methos sounded sulky, as though Reuben were somehow spoiling his fun. "I'd rather think about the possibility of escape than dwell on the hopelessness of our position, if that's all the same with you. A certain Immortal not a million miles away from here has something rather unpleasant planned for me and my friends, in case you'd forgotten."
"I hadn't forgotten." Reuben shrugged his massive shoulders. "But I'm afraid that's the least of my concerns right now. I'm more worried about a certain mortal, and what his plans are for me and my friends."
"He probably wants to make an example of you. You were supposed to be his loyal man, and yet you and half your people jumped ship at the first sign of a spanner in the works." Methos did not sound even remotely comforting, and probably hadn't been trying to. Andros rubbed his eyes, gazing at the ceiling from his position stretched out on the bunk nearby.
"Thanks. That makes me feel a lot better."
"It wasn't supposed to." Methos sighed, trying to put as much heartfelt anguish into the short sound as he possibly could. "If they're going to keep us here much longer they could at least give us something to read."
"The Count of Monte Cristo?" Reuben grinned as he made this suggestion, but his smile faded at the glare he received in reply. Half of the time he really couldn't figure Methos out at all. "I guess not."
"That joke was old when that book was only a month off the presses." Methos slumped back onto the bunk, resting against the cold and uncomfortable wall behind him. "And I didn't laugh at it then."
"Sorry I spoke." It was Reuben's turn to sigh. "I didn't realise captivity was supposed to be so boring. I never thought of it that way."
"You never see James Bond pacing his cell looking for something to do." Andros refrained from joining in with the sighing, but his tone of voice suggested equal boredom. "I'm sick of this place. The ceiling is boring. The floor is boring. I've never seen such boring walls in all my life."
"I have." Methos was beginning to relax a little, in the company of men who were so obviously unimpressed by his identity. Thane, the very embodiment of dedication and duty when on the opposing side, seemed to make quite a passably amiable ally, and as a cellmate he was certainly far from being the worst. "Russia, turn of the century." He frowned. "No, sorry. Turn of the last century. Pre-revolution, just about. Now that was a boring cell."
"If it was square, grey and made of stone. I fail to see the difference." Reuben dodged the swinging legs of his bunkmate once again, and finally decided to settle at the other end of the bed. Methos did not seem to notice this evasive manoeuvre, and his swinging legs did not miss a beat.
"There's square, grey and made of stone, and then there's square, grey and made of stone. Believe me, there's a difference. Maybe it was the stone they used. Maybe it was being dangled from the ceiling by my wrists. There's certainly something to be said for being able to pace up and down to help pass the time." Methos scowled. "Three days I spent dangling there, before I managed to get out."
"What did you do to get put in there in the first place?" Andros sounded interested, although that might just have been his relief at this promise of something to quell the boredom for a minute or two. Methos shrugged.
"Something pretty innocuous. Didn't see the harm in it myself. They locked me up for a minor political offence, and I escaped practically as soon as the door was locked. Chains broke actually. It made a pleasant change from all the usual lock-picking and guard-bribing."
"And you were caught trying to escape?"
"No. Actually I was caught leading a band of other prisoners to the armoury. They kept a store of gold there, as well as some rather attractive weapons. Practically antiques even then. Worth a fortune now. Anyway, the head officer in charge of the prison failed to see the funny side." He smiled. "So did the guy who made the faulty chains. He was shot at dawn."
Reuben grunted. "Huh. Happy days, hey?" He was favoured with a particularly withering look in response.
"They were pretty happy, actually, yes. Provided you were at the right end of the bread queue, anyway. Funny thing, pre-Revolutionary Russia. All those starving millions, like a powder keg ready to blow, and yet the guy that blew it was a dowdy little fellow who spoke like a chartered accountant. Old Lenin was a genius, but he was the world's most boring dinner guest. Economics, all the time. Like a broken record with a massive IQ. I'd have put my money on practically anyone but him to topple the Romanovs. Still, when you start making chains that faulty, your dynasty's doomed to fall. I've seen it happen a hundred times."
"No chance of it happening around here then." Thane nodded towards the steel-backed door, with its electrified field. "Nothing is faulty in this place."
"Except the entertainment." This time Methos avoided the usual sigh. "I wonder where the others are?"
"I think we've exhausted the possibilities of that conversation." Cupping his chin in his hands, Reuben leant back against the wall and stared up at the gently swinging legs above him. "But they're probably out of the country, if they've got any sense."
"They're not out of the country." A certain pride gleamed in the Immortal's ancient eyes. "I know Kronos, and he's on his way here, I'm sure of it. He'll have some great plan, and he'll have us out of here in no time. You wait and see."
"Great plan?" Andros smiled to himself. "Sounds good to me. You really believe it?"
"I believe it." Methos' smile had grown, and with it his pride. "He'll be here in no time. You just mark my words."
"I thought you said we'd be there in no time?" Tramping along several yards behind Kronos, Joe was finding the going increasingly hard. "I didn't think we'd got this far away from the place. We've been walking for hours."
"We're not going back to the same place we left. What would be the sense in trying to sneak in through a doorway they'll be watching?"
"They'll have second-guessed you on that one, if your friend Geddes is as good as he's supposed to be. They'll be watching all the doorways."
"True." Kronos did not reduce his speed. Joe glowered.
"Can't we move just a little slower? I'm finding it hard to keep up."
"Shame." The pace still did not slacken. "We're on limited time here Joe. We can't wait around."
"Limited time? They're not going to kill Methos. They want him alive until they get hold of the rest of you."
"Which only gives us as long as it takes the MacLeods to get to Greece. Once they're here we'll be having to dodge them as well as the Involution. I'd prefer to have this dealt with by then."
"And then what? What happens when the Involution are finished, and Methos is free? What happens to Duncan MacLeod?"
"That depends on who sees him first." Kronos seemed to speed up a little, and Joe groaned. At this rate the old Immortal was going to be storming Involution HQ on his own, although admittedly that was only marginally more insane than attacking it with Joe to back him up. "If he tries to kill me, I'll defend myself. I don't plan on letting him take my head a second time."
"I suppose I can't argue with that." Joe leaned heavily on his stick for a few moments, trying to pretend that he was enjoying the view. In reality he could feel his strength beginning to flag, and he didn't want to have to admit that to Kronos. He couldn't help thinking that the Immortal would just leave him behind. Joe could think of no reason why Kronos should need him, and therefore there would be no reason to wait for him, if it proved that he couldn't keep up. In the event, Kronos did not wait for him, and Joe had to abandon his pretence at sightseeing in order to catch up. They strolled along in silence together for some time before the mortal decided to have another go at conversation. Anything to break up the boredom and the anxiety, and endeavour to lighten the mood a little.
"Do you have a plan yet?" Kronos glanced back at him as he asked the question, but whether the look in his eyes was one of impatience, indignation, or just plain anger, Joe couldn't tell. He hadn't yet learnt to read the old Immortal, and the shadows in his eyes were still a mystery. It didn't help that the Leader of the Horsemen still terrified him, and made him so nervous that he seemed to spend every moment ready to jump out of his skin.
"A plan?" The soft, English voice was just as it always was, with its hint of drama and menace, and its gleam of provocation. "I've always had a plan."
"Yeah, but charging in with your sword whirling, just to see how many people you can maim, doesn't always work."
"It always has so far." There was another silence. "And anyway, who said that was my plan?"
A gentle laugh. "It might be. But then again, it might not."
"It might be nice to know the plan, so that I can join in when the time comes." Joe put on an effort to catch up with Kronos, wishing that the infernal Immortal would break the habit of a lifetime and actually display a little of the fatigue that by now he must have been feeling. Wishing, though, had no effect whatsoever - as it was apt to do when there were no ancient magic lamps in the vicinity. If anything Kronos seemed to quicken his step still further.
"When the time comes, if there's anything for you to do you'll know it. You're not exactly new to this game, Dawson. I've seen the way you handle yourself, and you know what to do in a fight."
"True." Joe was taken aback, wondering if he had actually been complimented. Then he had to wonder if, if he had, it was actually a good thing. Was it really desirable to have one's fighting skills complimented by a warmongering maniac? Surely that meant that he was a warmongering maniac too? He sighed, and started wondering if the heat had got to him. "How about you tell me anyway, so we can discuss it? Talk it through? Debate its weaker points?"
"It doesn't have any weaker points."
"If it has strong points, it must have weaker ones. I want to get Methos out of there, not watch him lose his head."
"It doesn't really have any strong points either." Marching on ahead, Kronos was once again doing his favourite trick of avoiding all eye contact, and yet somehow seeming to stare straight into Dawson's soul. "It's a plan. It'll work. And it's not open to debate."
"Fine. Good to be working with you too." Joe sighed loudly, and gave up trying to match the Immortal's speed. Kronos was soon moving ahead and, left behind, the ageing mortal stuck his cane into the soft ground and leant on it heavily. He was going to admire the view for a while, and to hell with the consequences.
Up ahead Kronos was aware that the mortal was no longer with him, but gave no thought to waiting. He couldn't. He had too much to do. He had Methos to find and rescue; Anthony Geddes to kill; some mysterious Immortal named Kollias to deal with - and all before Duncan MacLeod arrived to take his head. It was good to have a few minutes alone, without Dawson's incessant chatter, so that he could think about the necessity of that conflict. Duncan was a good swordsman, and had already proved that he could be the match of a Horseman. The last time that they had met, Kronos had been less than himself, just as he was now. Then it had been disillusionment which had slowed his sword; now it was the need to hone his new body, and be sure that it was at full strength. In his mind's eye he saw MacLeod, and replayed some of the clearer moments of their last encounter. He almost remembered his own beheading, although it was too vague to be anything more than just an echo in his memory. Kronos didn't want to die again, but he knew that his fight with MacLeod, should it come, was hardly going to be easy. It could go either way - and this time resurrection wasn't an option for the loser.
"This is stupid." Pacing up and down the cliff-face office belonging to Anthony Geddes, Richard Kollias was in a raging fury. "It's getting us nowhere. We should be out there right now, looking for him. I'll go myself, and to hell with the consequences. Anything's got to be better than sitting around here waiting for your useless soldiers to bring him back."
"Mr Kollias..." Geddes held up one immaculate, manicured hand in an attempt to calm his Immortal comrade. "Kronos will be found, I assure you. He's got nowhere to run to, no one to help him. He hasn't got a chance."
"Then why have you not found him yet? It's been two days. You said you'd get him in an hour, and I haven't seen hide nor hair of him since. How did your people manage to bring Methos back here, and not notice that the other one was missing? Are they blind?"
"Hardly." Geddes allowed a little irritation to colour his normally quiet and polite voice. "There was some confusion. After the treachery of my head of security, I was lucky to have those few men at my disposal. Recapturing Methos was a bonus we might otherwise have had to do without. As it is we were able to get Reuben and Thane, who both--"
"I don't give a damn about your traitorous security staff." Leaning close to Geddes, Kollias made a grab for his shirt, hauling him closer still. "I'm only interested in Methos and Kronos, and in the MacLeods. I want them here, and you're more concerned with arresting your head of security. It's time you got those neat hands of yours dirty, Geddes. You know Kronos. You've met him before. Come with me now and help me to find him."
"Rash behaviour is not going to get us anywhere." Geddes detached himself from the powerful hands on his collar, and set about trying to salvage the material. The creases didn't look too drastic, which was something to be thankful for at least. He hated to look untidy, particularly in front of guests. "I've told you that I'll deliver Kronos, and I intend to do just that. In case you weren't aware, the MacLeods are in the country now. If they get hold of Kronos before we do, the chances are that none of them will be any good to me. If one dies my plan fails - so I can assure you that my men are working very fast, and very thoroughly indeed."
"Really." Kollias didn't sound convinced. Geddes sighed.
"Really." Despite his frustration, and despite the powerful sense of antagonism that still lingered in the air, the leader of the Greek branch of the Involution had managed to turn his face back into its mask of honest affability, and was even able to summon up a smile for the violent man still glaring down at him. Geddes was a strikingly handsome man, with the smooth appearance of an actor who spent much of his time before a mirror, and expressions of calm and good humour were easy for him to summon - whatever the circumstances - a talent that stood him in good stead with many of his business acquaintances. Kollias, however, found it deeply annoying. His frown deepened and darkened, and then, with a flash in his eyes that suggested he would have been happy to turn his sword on Geddes himself, he spun on his heel and marched out. The door closed behind him and Geddes breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow he felt that he had just had a very close shave. With this in mind he switched on the intercom unit on his desk, and waited to hear an answer at the other end. His newest head of security sounded harassed, but as usual was polite to a fault.
"Yes Mr Geddes?"
"Find Kronos for me Paul." Geddes could see the head of security in his mind's eye, tired and impatient after two days of failure. "I want him by this time tomorrow. Understood?"
"Yes sir." Paul tried to keep the fatigue from his voice, but wasn't really succeeding. "I'll join one of the patrols myself. Is there any word on the MacLeods yet?"
"Not much. But if they find Kronos before you do, and one of them loses a head in the process, I'll have your head myself." Geddes switched off the intercom before the answer came, and then leant back in his chair to contemplate the far wall. He wondered where the MacLeod cousins were. They had even less knowledge than he did of the whereabouts of Kronos - and yet he was sure that they were closer to the Leader of the Horsemen than any of his men were. The thought worried him. Kollias worried him. Scowling intently he rose to his feet, heading for the extensive mini-bar to pour himself some whisky. It wasn't fair. So many wonderful plans, all thrown into turmoil because of one minor slip-up - and because his former head of security had turned against him. Frowning darkly at the pattern in the carpet, he poured himself a second whisky and took it back to his desk. He had to re-capture Kronos. Failure simply could not be allowed. He drained his glass, then after a brief hesitation decided to refill it again. The way things were going, he needed all the extra courage he could get.
They saw them first as shapes on the horizon; small black figures that showed up under the powerful magnification of Duncan's binoculars. He focussed in on them, trailing them with his eyes, whispering quietly to himself about distance and speed. Connor heard him, but he made no sounds of his own. He could see the tiny figures without the binoculars, although not in nearly as much detail. He knew who they were. Duncan's homing beacon, hidden in Joe Dawson's cane, had done its job in leading the two MacLeods to this place, and now their quarry was within sight. The dark blond Immortal toyed with the sword at his belt, letting his hand brush against it. Connor MacLeod did not fight often these days, and those heads that he took were few and far between - but he was prepared to take one now if it proved necessary. He hoped that it wouldn't - for if that Immortal head he could see in the distance was to be his today, it would be because Duncan had already been killed.
"What are you thinking about?" Duncan's dark brown eyes, usually so soft and gentle, had been growing increasingly hard these last few days, and now they had an edge more familiar to Connor's own countenance than to that of his cousin. The older MacLeod wasn't sure that he liked the change, but he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. Not yet.
"I was thinking about what we have to do now." His voice, soft but with a razor-sharp edge, was coloured with echoes of France. Many well-travelled Immortals ended up with accents that did not in any way reflect their original cultural origins, or even the parts of the world where they had spent the lion's share of their lives - the reason why Methos and Kronos both appeared British. Connor MacLeod, Scot born and raised though he was, had spoken with the voice of a Frenchman for more than a hundred years. That was life. He didn't question it.
"The battle is mine. You don't have to worry yourself with it." Duncan raised the binoculars back to his eyes and stared through them once again. "I think they're slowing down."
"Then we should catch them pretty soon." Connor stared at Duncan for a long time, unsure what, if anything, he should say next. "I know it's your battle. I don't plan to get in your way. But I am here."
"And I know you'll try to finish the job for me if I can't. I thank you for that." Duncan's eyes, hidden behind the glasses, were harder than ever. Through his powerful binoculars he could see that Kronos and Joe had now come to a halt; and with a brisk, determined motion he lowered his arms and turned back to face his cousin. "Time to go."
"Are you sure you're ready for this, Duncan?" Connor, who had always been possessed of a voice more serious than those of most men, sounded even more serious still. "Kronos is one of the greatest swordsmen our people have ever known. So many years of experience..."
"I beat him once." Duncan drew his sword, giving the blade a preliminary check. Connor nodded slowly.
"Yes - which puts you both in an unprecedented position. You've fought to the death once before, and you each know the way that the other works. He won't be looking to let you win this time."
"Everybody seems to think that he let me win last time. Maybe that's not the case. Maybe I won on merit." His mouth, usually ready to curve at short order into a pleasant smile, was now hard and tight in a line that hid his lips. "Maybe now's the time to find out."
"One way or another." Connor shouldered his sword, watching with grim eyes as Duncan did the same.
"One way or another." Duncan smiled at him, for a second looking the way he always had, before the cares of a situation that had grown beyond him had begun to wear him down. "We'd better be going."
"Yes." Very slowly Connor turned to head towards the distant figures of Kronos and Joe. Somehow, without him being aware of it, Duncan had already taken the lead. His tall, athletic frame stood out against the windblown, rocky grassiness of the hillsides. Connor could not see so much as a hesitation in his kinsman's step. He wanted that to be reason for confidence, and certainty that the younger MacLeod was sure to win - and yet he could derive no comfort from it at all. Instead he found his own step slowing, as surely as Duncan's was speeding up. The distance between them increased, and soon Duncan MacLeod was striding on alone, ready once again to face his foe. All that his cousin could do was follow, and hope that the pieces would not be his to pick up.
"Have you seen this sir?" In the computer-zone at Involution Headquarters, a young man stared at a monitor, and at a tiny white dot flashing madly in the centre. The head of the division, a stocky Australian named Jay Craven, leaned over his shoulder to peer at the screen.
"What is it?"
"Some kind of a transmission. We've been picking it up on and off for a couple of days, but the reception wasn't good. I've been trying to boost it, and I think I've finally managed to track it down."
"And it's moving very slowly across the mountains near here. Close to the coast, perhaps three hours walk from the main entrance to our tunnels. I'd say it's moving at human walking speed, more or less. The transmission is very like that used in homing beacons."
"Homing beacons? We certainly haven't used any of those recently." Craven frowned at the screen. He could read the data rolling up the screen alongside the image as fluently as he could read any words, and he knew that his assistant was right. "Who else might be using one?"
"I don't know." His assistant, a highly-strung Englishman named William Hendon, gave a tense, typically thin-shouldered shrug. "I was thinking that it might be Dawson and Kronos. I know it's a long shot, but it's the best one we've got."
"True." Craven shrugged. "Okay, keep on tracking it. See what's happening, and try to get an absolute fix. I want to be able to submit a full report before we take our next step."
"Yes sir." The young man at the screen turned back to his workstation. "It looks like they're stopping."
"Fine. Get to work on fixing the exact location." Craven frowned and rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. He didn't know why Kronos or Joe Dawson would be carrying a transmitting homing beacon, but he was beginning to think that they must be the ones responsible for this strange signal. Who else could it be? He had to smile at that - there were any number of possibilities. All the same, he had a hunch; and right now that was enough for him. He turned to his own workstation, and set about trying to boost the signal still further. He was determined not to lose it now.
"Are you alright?" It was hardly the first time that Kronos had startled Joe with his sudden moments of thoughtfulness, but still the moments, when they came, left him almost reeling. He managed an uncertain smile.
"I'll be fine. Just let me have a few minutes rest. These slopes are hard going."
"Three minutes. No more." The Immortal seemed more tense than he had been before, as though some strange inner turmoil was forcing him onwards. Joe didn't like the edginess in the other man's voice, or the constant irregular flickering of his eyes. The nimble right hand twitched around the hilt of the sheathed sword, as though Kronos were anxious to draw the weapon and make use of it. That scared Joe too, for he could not help believing that the Immortal was seeking to use that razor-sharp weapon on him. It was too hard to trust a man who loved to kill. There was nothing about Kronos to trust at all, for even now, when it appeared that they were allies, he stared coldly at the mortal and smirked with hidden intent. Whenever he moved he seemed to spur icy chills, that twisted and uncurled themselves in Joe's mind, and traced silent patterns down his spine. He had been trying for two days to concentrate on the thought of Methos' rescue - that he and Kronos were after the same thing, heading for the same goal - but it was all that he could do to turn his back on the other man when it became necessary. All that he could do to convince himself that he was not about to receive a sword blade between the shoulders, spurring him on to the gory end he was certain Kronos had planned for him. He was nervous now, as he stood leaning on his cane, watching the other man pace up and down in restless frustration. Joe didn't need to be a psychiatrist to see that the Immortal needed some outlet for his building tension - and it was not hard to guess what that outlet needed to be. Kronos wanted violence, and blood, and killing - and he needed it quickly, the way an alcoholic needed whisky, or a smoker needed his cigarettes. The shadowed blue eyes were dreaming of carnage and brutality; and increasingly uneasy, Joe forced himself to smile just in order to breathe. If this wasn't the world's most awkward alliance, he really wasn't sure what was.
Kronos was not aware of Joe's concern, being, as was his wont, rather detached from the feelings of others. Even if he had picked up on the mortal's fears he would not have done anything to lessen them, but would rather have played upon them to an even greater effect, another of his favourite pastimes. In the event he did not even do that, and instead waited on his own a short distance from the other man. So far his plans were not going well, inasmuch as he had had any plans to begin with. Being accompanied by a man who could not keep up was bad enough, but so far his hopes had been dashed at every corner. He had intended to find some member of the Involution in order to help him gain access to the group's underground headquarters; but instead of finding the hills alive, so to speak, with guards out searching for him, he had found no sign of anyone anywhere. There were not even any stray tourists to terrorise in the interim. Instead of finding a quick passport to Methos he had found nothing but silence, empty hillsides, and a growing sense of trepidation. His instincts were telling him that things were not right - that brewing clouds were about to burst. He knew it in just the way that he could always tell of coming violence. War coloured the air with a special sensation all of its own; and he could feel it now. Something was coming, and it bothered him - for he was beginning to grow horribly certain that he knew just what that something was. It was just as Joe's three minute break was coming to an end that the crackling energies of tension finally broke. The suspicions became clear, just as he had known that they would.
It began as a flutter in his mind; a glimmer of insight that told him something was coming. After that it grew until he knew that there was no doubt - another of his kind was close by, and was getting closer. Possibilities scrolled through the tactical part of his brain. Kollias was top of the list, MacLeod came second - but there were any number of other likelihoods. Any number of other Immortals who might be in Greece, and hadn't even known of his presence until now. He was about to call out to Joe, and tell him of this latest development - when it began to develop still further. A second presence buzzed itself into his consciousness; different to the first; older, although not necessarily as strong. The sensation of each Immortal was different, if one only had the time and the inclination to notice. Each one like the stripes on the coat of a zebra, or the markings on the hide of a leopard. Kronos did not know either of the MacLeods well enough to be able to tell them by Quickening alone - but he knew the identity of these two approaching Immortals as well as he would have known Methos himself. With scarcely a sound he drew his sword.
"Kronos?" Joe quickened his step, drawing level as the Immortal came to a halt. "What's up?"
"Guess." Slowly he turned in a circle, sword at the ready. "You'd better get out of sight."
"It's a little late for that." The voice of Duncan MacLeod, so often light and filled with humour, sounded darker than Kronos' own. Joe swallowed hard.
"Mac!" He took a step towards the voice, seeing the Highlander as he approached. Duncan looked rough, two days growth of beard giving him the appearance of a truly dangerous man. His eyes were flat and dead, with no hint of sparkle or welcome. Joe froze.
"I'll deal with you later, Dawson." MacLeod barely looked at the mortal, instead keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Kronos. The smaller Immortal was watching him with equal care, although his gaze was ready to dance aside at a moment's notice. Somewhere beyond the periphery of his vision was Connor MacLeod, and he wasn't entirely sure that either Highlander was going to play this Game by the Rules.
"Dawson isn't a part of this." Kronos kept his voice soft and level, or as level as it ever was. "Leave him alone."
"Kronos begging for leniency in the name of another man?" Duncan sounded mocking, and the tone did not suit him. His was a voice made for gentle joking or firm rebuke, not for unpleasant insinuations. Dawson was looking shocked at the mere sound of his old friend's voice.
"Are you okay Mac?" He would have taken another step forward, but Kronos caught his elbow, leading him back out of harm's reach. Joe began to protest, but the old Immortal stopped him, and something in his cold eyes made the Watcher understand. This wasn't something he could be a part of - not in any way at all.
"So." Striding forward, Kronos gave his sword a casual swing. "How have you been, MacLeod?"
"Very well. Until you came back." MacLeod had not yet raised his own sword, and let it hang down low so that the tip nearly touched the grass. "What is it with you? Haunting my nightmares wasn't enough?"
"I've always been in your nightmares MacLeod. I was there before you even heard of my existence. I was in the dreams of men long before the first of your Highland race was born - before Scotland even knew its name."
"You always were one for dramatic posturing." MacLeod raised his sword a little, just enough to show that he meant business. "Still planning on being the End of Time?"
"You have to admit, as last words go that was a stroke of genius." Kronos allowed himself a small smile, although it was one with little humour. "It certainly beats a plea for mercy."
"There was never going to be any mercy on show between us, was there." MacLeod raised his sword a little more. "You're evil. You have to die."
"Or kill you in defence." Kronos smiled more warmly this time. "I know which option I prefer."
"So do I." The sword swished the air; a practice swing too far away from Kronos to pose any real threat. The older Immortal did not flinch at the movement of the deadly weapon.
"I've already been dead, MacLeod. This time it's your turn."
"If it is, then so be it. But I didn't come alone."
"I know." Without taking his eyes from the younger MacLeod, Kronos raised his voice. "Where are you, Connor? I like to see my enemies before I fight them."
"I'm here." The voice was soft, as ever; a whisper with an edge of steel; all leant extra menace by the mysterious accent. Every threatening nuance conspired to make the voice almost as theatrical as that of Kronos himself. "Hello old friend."
"Old friend? I wasn't aware that we were ever that close." Kronos stole a look at the older of the Highlanders, seeing the never-changing face with its strange youthfulness; the slightly untidy dark blond hair; the fathomless dark eyes. The pair shared a brief smile. They had fought together once, and had worked together as allies. That, of course, was now all in the past.
"Let's get this over with." Even the hardness had gone from Duncan's voice, and in its place was nothing but a flat emptiness. He sounded tired, thought Joe - exhausted, drained. He sounded like a man who hated himself and his actions; a man who was not likely to give his best in any situation, let alone in a fight to the death. "I've killed you once, and now it's time for me to kill you again. Properly this time."
"Because that's what you do." The mocking tone of Kronos' voice stabbed at Duncan's pride. "You judge. You pass sentence. You see what you think you see, you understand what you think you want to understand - and because of all of that, my brother is in a prison and is probably about to die. If you kill me, or I kill you - either way it doesn't matter. He'll die." This time it was he who moved his sword in a preliminary gesture, the tip knocking against the very end of MacLeod's weapon. There was a tiny sound of striking metal, but that was all. Neither man made any move to follow through as yet. "But then that's what you want, isn't it. You want to kill Methos, because you think he betrayed you. You think that gives you the right to pass judgement. Good old MacLeod. The Immortal Avenger."
"Shut up and fight me, Kronos." MacLeod's words were white hot, and even Joe, standing at a distance, could see the terrible fury building up in the eyes he had always known as warm lights of welcome.
"Believe it or not MacLeod, I honestly have no wish to do that. Under different circumstances I'd see you dead in a heartbeat - especially if it was a very painful heartbeat. But this time I need you. Alive."
"I plan to be alive. I just plan to be that way without you." MacLeod flicked out with his sword, this time catching his opponent's weapon a proper blow. "Enough talk. If you don't fight me I'll kill you in cold blood."
"You know something?" A light, wicked grin had taken up residence on the older Immortal's expressive face. "You're starting to sound like me. I approve."
"I'll never be like you." MacLeod's voice had dropped to an acid whisper audible only to Kronos. The Leader of the Horsemen grinned, his words coming in answer as he lifted his weapon to bring it into position for the imminent battle.
"You already are, MacLeod. The only thing that separates us is motive - and yours is none too noble right now. All it'll take is a few more kills, Highlander - and you'll practically be my heir apparent."
"No." MacLeod was shaking his head, his eyes reflecting his growing fury. Kronos merely smiled.
"You know it as well as I do, Highlander. Your time of glory is gone. You're a killer, and nothing more - just like me. It's who we are." He moved closer, his sword seeming to caress MacLeod's own as his voice deepened and softened and painted itself into the Highlander's mind. "Don't fight it... feel it."
"No!" With a roar of fury that seemed to make his very sword vibrate, MacLeod flung himself forward. Joe saw him as a blur, and in a moment of desperate concern he tried to run to the assistance of his old friend. His path was immediately blocked.
"Stay where you are." Connor did not threaten him, nor raise his sword, but there was enough meaning in his voice to make Joe freeze. He stared towards the two Immortal enemies, now locked in fierce combat some distance away.
"But--" He pointed, unsure, uncertain, confused. Connor nodded.
"I know." His soft voice carried something that suggested at understanding and sympathy. "But we leave them."
"Kronos didn't think you'd play by the Rules." Joe couldn't drag his eyes away from the fight, and therefore didn't see the look that passed before Connor's eyes. It was a look that would have told him Connor did not want to play by any rules; but where such things were concerned, there was simply no choice. He made no attempt to answer Joe's accusation, and instead stood by to watch the fight.
Duncan was strong. Kronos, taking the brunt of the Highlander's opening strokes, had forgotten just how strong the other man could be. It returned to him in pieces as they fought, and the confused brain that had once belonged to a mortal returned pieces of memory to him from the last encounter. He remembered the dark spaces, the pain of treachery - Methos, standing alone and uncertain of which way to go. He remembered Silas, fighting the oldest Immortal; and then the last seconds of realisation that it was all over. Silas was dead. Caspian was dead. The Horsemen were gone. He remembered the fight, the anger of MacLeod. It was a different anger now, and much more intense. It carried greater danger, and greater malice; but it also meant that MacLeod was an easier target. His fine mind was slowed by the rage, and his instincts could not be as sharp as they had been that last time, in Seacouver in 1997. The strength was still there though, and the speed. There was still the agility and the skill. It was all that Kronos could do to keep his sword in his hands.
Duncan knew from the first crossing of the swords that his opponent was a master - knew it now as he had known it before, in 1997. He felt the counterattacks sending shock waves up his arms, and he concentrated on the pain and intensity of the assault. He too saw the past as he fought, and the struggles of their last encounter - but not for him were the memories restricted to that dark hulk of a building three years previously. He saw his fearsome encounters with the Ahriman Demon, his struggles against a monster that was not as real nor as certain as the foe that faced him now. He saw the laughing eyes of the demon as it took the face of Kronos, and he heard the last dying breath of Richie. It was all confused in his mind now. So many whirlwind memories, so much devastating madness. He barely knew who he was fighting, as he swung his sword against Kronos one more time. All the uncertainties he had faced these last few years - all leading to this. One final encounter with a man he had already killed once, and had killed a thousand times more in his dreams and his nightmares. He lashed out with his weapon, and saw the other man retreat; he saw his opponent coming at him, and was forced to retreat himself. He heard gasps and shouts and the clanging of metal on metal, and he felt his own rushing, warming fury. It carried him on, long after the time when he would usually have begun to flag.
And so they fought on, as the sun continued to pass across the hills. The heat increased, growing in strength until Joe and Connor felt it, and began to wilt under its power, even though they were standing quiet and still. It moved on further, casting its tiny noon shadows, catching the furious figures of Kronos and MacLeod as they battled together, neither one of them acknowledging the pains and weariness that they must have been feeling. And it passed on further still, the shadows lengthening, the heat fading, the cooler breezes of evening taking hold across the world. Joe stared on, still fascinated. Every stab, every thrust, took his breath away; every parry and riposte shook him to the core. He could not hear Connor, and was not even aware of the other man breathing. The older of the Highlanders had not moved a muscle since warning Dawson into non-action.
Kronos was tired. He had been aware of it for some time now, growing over him like a blanket being pulled over his head. The world around him had ceased to exist, and the memories were gone from his thoughts. There was nothing now save the sword in his hands, and the sword of MacLeod. Two weapons, each trying to unseat the other. The hilt of his own blade had begun to take the skin from his hands, and his shoulders were stiff and heavy. He could feel his feet becoming less sure upon the ground. MacLeod, at a similar disadvantage, was moving with less speed than before - but still his strength remained undaunted. If anything it was growing with his fatigue; his fierce, mad desire for blood dragging his spirits onward. Kronos knew those desires himself, and felt them more strongly than any other creature alive - and yet today he did not feel them at all. Today he was fighting to stay alive. Nothing else was of consequence.
"You were mad to think you could come back." The words burst forth from MacLeod's lips like vengeful curses; each one requiring a ridiculous amount of energy in his flagging state. Kronos managed a thin, half smile.
"Haven't you heard? I am mad. I've always been mad." He whirled his sword, striking a blow powerful enough to cause MacLeod to stagger. "And now you're mad too. I can see it in your eyes..."
"If I'm mad it's because you've made me this way."
"No." Their fighting brought them closer together, so that each could see into the other's eyes. There was little difference between them now; just the level of experience behind the exhaustion and the bloodlust. "You've made yourself what you are, MacLeod. There's nobody else to blame."
"Then maybe I have to exorcise a few ghosts." Bitterness gave the words a terrible strength. "I've lost too many years to guilt and reflection. Too much time spent fighting nightmares."
"And you think my death will cure you of that?" Kronos broke off momentarily as he dodged a flurry of ill-prepared blows. "You're probably right. Death cures all manner of ills. I've always found other people's deaths particularly bracing."
"You think you're funny, don't you." Hatred rang loud in MacLeod's tired voice. Kronos, who seemed on the point of reaching his second wind, shook his head.
"No. Believe it or not, MacLeod, I see nothing funny in any of this. You're trying to kill me. I don't find that especially hilarious."
"You've changed, you know that? Last time we fought it was all manic giggling and mad speeches. You thought everything was hilarious, or you seemed to. What's so different now?"
"I died. It had a profound effect." Another manic grin, accompanied this time by a sword thrust that nearly ended the fight for good. "Close one there, MacLeod. Anybody would think you were tired."
"Then they'd be wrong." With a sudden twist and a lunge, MacLeod spun his sword in hands that were almost too slowed with exhaustion to be of any use. He saw the weapon almost as an alien object, as though it had no connection to his own tired frame. He watched its path; saw it almost as a dream as it collided with the sword of Kronos, and sent it spinning, whirling, flying through the air. Kronos watched it too, staring after his blade as it cartwheeled out of sight. He thought he heard Joe Dawson yell out - and then there was nothing to hear in the whole world, save Duncan MacLeod's coldly determined voice.
"Time to end it, Kronos."
"Looks that way, doesn't it." He was standing very still, staring up at the other man - and at the sword poised ready above his head. "Does it feel good?"
"It feels right. That's enough for me." MacLeod shifted his grip on the hilt, his eyes never leaving Kronos' face. "So where are today's deranged last words? You're disappointing me."
"I'm sorry." The lengthening shadows stole the old Immortal's expression, hiding all save his eyes as he raised his head to look up at the hovering sword. "I never meant to dispel your illusions." He took a lazy step forward, making MacLeod take a hasty step back. The sword leapt in his hands as his muscles tensed, ready to begin that final sweep down. "Why don't you let me take away your pain?"
He moved before MacLeod was even sure what was happening, and once it became clear to him he swung the sword down. He felt it strike something, but clearly it did not take Kronos' head. Instead the wiry Immortal dodged aside, sprang and rolled, hitting the ground hard and moving with a speed that made fear unfold within the Highlander's stout heart. He spun in a desperate attempt to keep the other man in his view, seeing only a blur as the Horseman made a dash for his fallen sword. MacLeod raised his own weapon. Only one chance now - that much was as clear to him as anything had ever been in all his long life. With every bit of strength that remained within his body he drew back his arm, gave himself a second's preparation and aim; and then let the sword fly. In the same moment, as Joe and Connor looked on, Kronos threw his own blade. The two swords flew together; so straight, so true, that it seemed as though they must collide. MacLeod could do nothing but stand and watch, just as Kronos, sprawled on the ground, did the same. Their eyes met across the grassy hillside, sliding across each other, linking, locking. Perhaps it was some absurd sense of warrior pride that kept them both rooted to the spot, or perhaps there was just not enough time for them to move. Perhaps they were too tired anyway. Joe was never sure of the answer, but he saw the inevitable conclusion just a fraction of a second before it came about. MacLeod's sword, driven by its greater weight, hit its target first, slamming home into Kronos' chest with enough force to hurl him backwards into the hillside. The point was driven into the soft turf, pinning the old Immortal to the ground. The ghost of a smile crossed MacLeod's face - just before the other sword pierced his heart. He stood for a moment, wavering on feet incapable of holding him up. An expression of loss and surprise passed across his face for just a few seconds as he began to fall. He gripped the sword before him, holding on hard enough for the sharp blades to cut his fingers and palms - and then he toppled forward onto the ground and lay still. Joe let out a long and extremely shaky breath.
"What happens now?" He might as well have been asking it to the wind, for Connor was no longer there to hear him. He was running for his cousin, faster than Joe could ever have managed. He tried all the same, hurrying along in the Immortal's dusty wake, struggling to keep his footing as his legs swung frantically on the uneven ground. He reached Kronos long after Connor had reached Duncan; and then stood very still as he stared down at the fallen warrior, wondering why he had come to this Immortal rather than the other. He had wanted MacLeod to win, if one of them had had to win at all. It had been Duncan's name on his lips throughout - and yet he stood now above Kronos, willing him back onto his feet. The Immortal was half sitting and half lying, held up rather awkwardly by the sword fastening him to the ground, and it seemed more than just unlikely that he would be capable of movement soon. As if coming in answer to these desperate thoughts, the cold blue eyes flickered open.
"Dawson." Kronos sounded terrible, which was hardly surprising. "M-MacLeod?"
"Out of it, for the time being." Joe cast a glance back at the two Highlanders, the one bent anxiously over the other, trying to pull free the murderous sword without causing any more damage. "I think his second is trying to revive him."
"Naughty naughty." Kronos tried to touch his chest to assess the damage, but had to give up as his hand struck the jagged wound around the blade of the sword. "No interferences on the battlefield until after the war is won."
"Does that include me?"
"You don't count." The words were spoken with such a sense of dismissal that Joe felt stung - although the sense of hurt was soon washed away by a new sense of awe, as Kronos, with a mighty effort that seemed incredible even for an Immortal, forced himself slowly and surely to his feet. The sword came free from the ground with a jerk that nearly cost him his footing, and yet he managed to maintain his balance, taking hold of the weapon's hilt and drawing the blade back out through his body. The whole of its great length slid out from his chest, slick with blood, spilling what seemed to Joe to be gallons of the stuff as it finally came free. Redness spattered on his shoes and he took a step back. So much for the glamour and glory of the battlefield.
"What now?" He asked it almost as he had asked Connor - to ears empty of his existence. The expression on the hard face before him was the only answer that he needed. Ideas fluttered past him in clouds that made no sense. Kill him now. Stop him before he goes any further. He can't put up much of a fight... Instead he stood aside, and watched as the half-dead Immortal struggled across the slanting ground, heading for the place where Duncan lay motionless. Connor looked up at him as he arrived, and the tottering Horseman stared back at him through eyes that were too cold for forgiveness.
"Get out of my way, MacLeod." Holding Duncan's sword out before him, Kronos barely managed to keep his balance. "The battle isn't over yet."
"I can stop you." Connor made no move to do as he had been asked. "You're not strong enough to fight. Nobody's here to see me break the Rules."
"That doesn't mean a thing. You're not the kind of man who'd ignore the Rules without the heat of battle to take the sting away." Kronos let a weak and tired smile take over his face. "That's my territory."
"I can't let you take Duncan's head."
"Then let me take yours as well." Kronos placed the edge of the blade against the older Highlander's neck. The unfathomable eyes of the warrior burned back into his. "Two Highlanders or one; it makes little difference to me."
"I promised him." Connor stared down at the fallen figure of his comrade. "I told him I wouldn't get in the way, and that I'd let you fight. And I promised him that if he lost, I'd finish it. Be aware of that - because you can't fight us both."
"I know." Kronos watched him as he rose to his feet to step aside. "I've known that all along."
"Because." The voice was as hard as it had ever been, and the eyes as cold. "Now stay back."
"Only until the Quickening dies. After that your head is mine."
"And then we'll all have killed each other." Kronos gave him a look that might have been sad, had he been someone else, and more inclined to feelings of sorrow and reflection. "And will the world breathe a sigh of relief?"
"The world won't know."
"Exactly." With all the strength that he had left, Kronos lowered the blade of the sword - Duncan's own - against the neck of the fallen Highlander. "All this, and nothing to show for it. We haven't even beaten the Involution."
"If I didn't know you better, I'd swear you were being meaningful."
"Then it's just as well you don't know me better." The Horseman adjusted the position of the sword, searching for some way of holding it that wasn't going to make his chest feel as though it was about to fall out. "Better stand back."
"I'm not sure that I want to."
"And I'm not sure that I care." He stared down at the body before him. Duncan was beginning to stir, realisations of his danger reaching him long before consciousness did. His eyes pulled themselves open just as Kronos took his firmest hold of the sword hilt. Just as before the two warriors stared at each other, and just as before each man saw himself reflected in the other's eyes. Madness and glory; hatred and desire. MacLeod clenched his jaw. He wasn't sure if it was fear that he felt, as he realised that his life was about to end - but it might have been sorrow. Sorrow for a hundred things, not least the way that he had chosen to use the many long years of his life. Sorrow for the mistakes; sorrow for the things he had never managed to put right; sorrow for all the men and women that he had put in the very same position he was in now. Above him the cold blue eyes told him that the moment had come. The sword began to rise and rise, reaching up into the darkening sky like an arrow pointing the way to Heaven. Duncan's eyes sought Connor's - saw the pain in them, the memories, the upsets. Saw the promises of what would come next. He summoned a smile, but it was not answered by his cousin. The only answer came from Kronos.
"Is this it, MacLeod, for you and I? With no way off this battlefield for either of us?"
"Nobody's going to care. End it."
"Nobody? What about Methos? He'll die too."
"I don't care."
This time Kronos smiled in a way that MacLeod had never seen him smile in before - a gentle expression that for once carried no shadows; no threats and implications. "Yes you do. You care for everybody, MacLeod. That's your curse. Mine is only that I care for my brother." He hesitated, sudden indecision lending his features a vulnerability and sense of humanity to which they were usually immune. "I've lived for four thousand years. I've fought warriors that history remembers as the greatest heroes who ever lived. I've won wars single-handed, and been worshipped as a god. But for the first time in my life, I don't know what to do next. More than anything in the world, I want to see you die, MacLeod. I want to see your blood flow, your head fall. I want to see your Quickening thrown to the four winds, and watch your body crumble to dust. You killed everything I ever knew."
"I did what I had to do."
"I know." The voice was so soft as to be practically inaudible. "And you'll do what you have to do now, too."
"I don't understand."
"No?" The voice was surprised. Behind him Kronos could hear the distinctive sound of Joe's footsteps as the mortal came to join them. "Then maybe Dawson can explain. I certainly can't." He shrugged; then with a sudden, strange appearance of emptiness, he hurled the sword to the ground. It bounced once, turning and spinning on its hilt, before it became still. Kronos focussed his eyes on those of Duncan MacLeod. "I'm giving you your life, Highlander. All I ask is that you give my brother his." He stumbled, the strain of his exhaustion and his injury clearly beginning to take over. Blood was beginning to froth from his lips.
"Kronos?" Duncan's voice came from far away now, echoing in his head like some surreal image gained from an illicit narcotic. The Horseman didn't bother answering. Somehow last words never quite came out the way you wanted them to anyway. Gripping his chest he watched new blood fountain forth from between his fingers. The last thing he thought was that death was truly a messy business. Then the ground rushed up to meet him and his consciousness flew away.
"Any news on that transmission we detected?" Craning his neck to see over his assistant's shoulder, Jay Craven caught sight of a flashing dot on the viewer screen before him. Hendon glanced back up at him.
"It's been in the same place for some time now. We lost it for a bit around noon, but it's been strong ever since."
"Then I think it's time to get some guards out there." Craven reached for the intercom and pressed the signal switch. It wasn't long before the strained voice of the new head of security came back to him over the airwaves. Paul Deltos had clearly been having a hard day.
"What is it?" There was a lot of interference on the line. "I'm a little busy right now."
"Are you still looking for that escaped Immortal?" Craven played with the tuning to try and get a better reception. Deltos snorted.
"Why do you think the line is so bad? I'm halfway up a mountain right now, trying to look for some clues. This guy is with a mortal who walks with a cane. How hard can that be to trace?" There was a pause, filled with a burst of static. "What did you want, anyway?"
"We've found something. Some kind of a transmission. I thought you might want to check it out."
"A transmission?" For a second interest flared in the security chief's voice, and then he sighed. "Kronos is hardly going to be sending out signals. He's got nobody to send them to."
"All the same... There's something weird about this one. The frequency suggests it's some kind of direction finder - like a homing beacon. We didn't plant one of those on Kronos or Dawson did we?"
"You think I'd be combing the mountains like this if we had?" Irritation exploded through the bad transmission. "Sorry. Mr Geddes is leaning on me pretty hard. Whatever it is that he's up to, he needs Kronos pretty soon."
"Then check out the transmission. I know it's a long shot, and call it a hunch if you want - but I think there's something in it. I can give you the co-ordinates down to the last square millimetre on a map. Whoever these guys are, you can't miss them." There was a pause. "Paul?"
"I hear you." Paul sounded indecisive. "And I suppose it can't hurt. Okay, give me the co-ordinates. I'm long past ready to snatch at faint hopes."
"Do you have enough men to do anything if this does turn out to be Kronos?"
"Are you kidding? I've got enough men out here with me to take over a small country. Just get me those co-ordinates."
"Fine." Craven turned back to the viewer screen and watched as his assistant began tapping out commands on his keyboard. "Stand by."
"I'm standing." On his mountainside, Paul stared at the tiny hand-held transmitter/receiver before him, and felt his first surge of hope all day. Maybe this was finally where his luck began to change.
"It seems pointless to ask what happens now." Staring down at the prone form of the incapacitated Horseman, Connor glanced down at Duncan. The younger Immortal didn't respond.
"You're not going to kill him?" Joe could not believe that the man he considered his greatest friend in all the world would be capable of killing somebody so cold-bloodedly. "You can't."
"Can't I?" It took a moment for Duncan to stand, his lingering fatigue from the long fight slowing his usual speedy ability to heal. "It's why I came here. It's why I called Connor to come from half the world away."
"He could have killed you, but he didn't. Think about that for a moment at least." Joe was aware that his own opinion cut little ice here. Not only was he an outsider in terms of his mortality - but he was also considered to be something of a traitor. MacLeod believed that he was working with Methos and Kronos, and that he was in some way connected with their evil Horseman instincts. Joe could appreciate the sense of betrayal that the Highlander must have been experiencing, but he wished that there was some way he could make the stubborn fool see that his suspicions were unfounded.
"He didn't kill Duncan because he knew that I would then kill him." Connor had drawn his own sword, and handed it to Duncan in lieu of his cousin's own, still lying some distance away. Duncan hesitated, his eyes drawn to the slumped figure lying before him. Connor frowned.
"I thought this was what you wanted. This man has haunted you for three years."
"I know." Duncan still couldn't drag his eyes away from the helpless form. It would be so easy to end it. So easy to kill Kronos now, and have it all over and done with. There would be no more threat of the chaos the man could so easily cause. Something, however, held him back. He remembered the cold blue eyes as they had stared down at him, and the indecision he had seen within them. Kronos had wanted him dead just as much as he now wanted to kill Kronos; but for some reason the Horseman had spared him. Kronos was not given to mercy as a rule - in fact just the opposite. He killed for simple pleasure, and from the enjoyment of inspiring fear in others. He lived for bloodlust and the thrill of mortal pain. Duncan shook his head. Why worry about it? Why not just get it over with? Reaching out he grabbed for the sword still being held towards him, and then raised it into the air. His arms felt stiff and tired, and the sword did not rest easily in his grasp. An alien sword, belonging to another. He knew that the weapon was a good one though, and he knew that the edge was keen. It would do the work for him, if he would only let it - just as it had done so much for his cousin, and before that for his cousin's aged mentor.
"Mac..." Joe's voice was hushed, a gentle fear fluttering through the single syllable. "Please."
"Sentence has been delivered." MacLeod met his gaze, and for a second he seemed his old self again. Joe didn't protest any further, and instead merely shook his head in sorrow. On the ground at their feet Kronos stirred, the pale iciness of his remarkable eyes flickering into focus as he turned his head to look up at the hovering sword. The returning strength seemed to fade from his body in a rush.
"You can't kill him." Perhaps the old Immortal's reanimation had inspired new desperation in Dawson, but the mortal put added determination into his voice. Duncan's arms and shoulders stiffened.
"Give me one reason why not. Give me one reason why a man like him should be allowed to live."
"Will you enjoy killing him?" Dawson's softening voice made Connor's steady gaze falter, and Duncan's eyes seemed to blink and jump in shock and realisation. His voice came out cautiously, as though it had no wish to be heard; a pale whisper that shook in his throat.
"Then that's the only reason you should need." Very gently Joe reached out, putting his hands on the Highlander's wrist. Gradually, in stops and starts, the sword lowered itself. Kronos, staring up at the assembled gathering, let a strangely bitter smile float across his face.
"So," he said, in his curiously theatrical voice, "there is a difference between us after all."
"Yeah." Duncan threw the sword aside, then reached down to haul his enemy to his feet. "And for that simple fact I thank every god who ever graced the heavens." Kronos shrugged, and began to dust himself off.
"Suit yourself," he muttered nonchalantly. "Everyone's a critic..."
"Coming up on the co-ordinates now, sir." Glancing up from the small, portable satellite navigation system gripped in his sweating hands, Paul Deltos' second-in-command tried to keep his nervousness from his voice. Louis Hero did not in any way suit his name, and was painfully aware that any kind of failure in this mission would be very bad for him. "It should be just over this rise."
"Weapons at the ready." Deltos made a small, almost insignificant hand gesture that warned his assembled forces to be silent and still. Alone he edged forward, peering over the lip of the hill, looking down into the sloping valley beneath him. He could see four figures, all grouped together, one of them holding a raised sword above another's head. Deltos gulped. He didn't like to think what Geddes would say if he brought one of the targets in without a head. It didn't bear thinking about. He reached for his gun, wondering if he could make the shot from here, and if it would matter. Perhaps the mere sound of his gun going off would cause the man to drop his weapon. Any exhilaration Deltos might have felt from the knowledge that he appeared to have found those he had been ordered to seek was lost in the realisation that he might be about to lose one of them. He lifted his rifle and sighted along the telescopic lens. Duncan MacLeod's head came into view, too far away to be sure of making the shot count for anything at all.
"Drop the sword..." He hissed it between clenched teeth as he tried to calculate wind speed and error margins. Instead MacLeod seemed to be raising the weapon higher. Deltos swallowed hard, wondering what a Quickening looked like. He had heard of them, but had never seen one. He hoped that he didn't get to see one now. "Just drop the damn sword..." He shifted the rifle on his shoulder, sighted along it one more time, and then forced his tense muscles to relax a little. He had to make the shot, or he was going to be dead before the growing night became complete. His finger felt slick on the trigger, but he tried to ignore the inconvenience, and instead focus on the drama unfolding beneath him. He saw the sword move in MacLeod's hands; and then, almost unbelievably, he saw one of the others reach out and force the weapon to the ground. MacLeod bent and dragged his intended victim upright. They seemed to be talking about something. Deltos didn't much care what.
"Hero." He kept his voice low, even though there was no possibility of being overheard. "Get the men together. We're going down."
Methos looked about in interest, although it was an interest born of trepidation. He had no idea where he was; a jumbled and hassled journey along a corridor had ended in a short fall into what he assumed was the back of a truck - there had been no way out, no way to see where he was or where he was going - and the only clue he had had to go by had been the sudden lurch of a vehicle starting up and getting underway. The ground had swayed beneath him, indicating corners. He wasn't sure how long the journey had lasted, or what direction he had been travelling in. It had not been a long journey, he knew that much. It had come to an end as sudden as its beginning, and behind him a door had slid open. He had seen no sign of life, but using the door seemed preferable to spending the rest of his life sitting in a sealed black box, so he had wandered down a short ramp onto a rough, tiled floor. Almost immediately the ramp had gone, the door had gone - everything, it seemed, had gone - and he was alone, on the tiled floor, staring about at his new surroundings. His sword lay on the ground by his feet, but other than that the room seemed featureless. It was too dark to make out the walls or the ceiling, or to see much of the pattern painted on the stone tiles beneath his feet. He caught up the sword and gave the blade an affectionate rub with his sleeve. It shone back up at him, its faint light apparently self-contained. If nothing else it gave him confidence, and the knowledge that he had something, at least, with which to make his stand.
"Methos!" The voice, improbably friendly and polite, could only have belonged to Anthony Geddes. Methos turned. Sure enough, on the other side of a sheet of glass that seemed to form part, or all, of the wall, stood the leader of the Greek branch of the Involution. As ever he was immaculately dressed, a silk shirt in deep blue reflecting streaks of the faint orange light that seemed to surround him. Methos took a swing with his sword at the glass separating him from his foe, but the sheet did not so much as bend or crack. Geddes flinched.
"Really Methos. Is that any way to say hello?" He smiled, his air of amiability undaunted despite the Immortal's indifference. Methos glared.
"What do you want? And where the hell am I?"
"In a special place." Geddes nodded to someone that Methos could not see, and all at once the spaces around him were alive with light and colour. For the first time this new prison was revealed to the old Immortal in all its glory, and he stared around him in amazement.
It was a perfect circle, the walls made entirely of the toughened glass he had already tried, and failed, to crack. The floor, a giant mosaic, depicted scenes of the gods going about their Olympian endeavours. There were mortal heroes and monsters as well, some too large to properly comprehend from ground level. Methos recognised Hercules and the Hydra, Jason bearing the Golden Fleece, and Perseus confronting Medusa. He couldn't prevent a low whistle of awe escaping from his lips. Geddes seemed pleased by his wonderment.
"Pretty, isn't it. My design. My... associate seemed somewhat indifferent about the décor, so I took it upon myself to arrange the details. What do you think?"
"I think you're mad." Methos wandered further from the glass in order to study the floor a little better. He had to admit, to himself if not to Geddes, that the artwork was exquisite. He traced the lines of a beautifully rendered Aphrodite with his foot, almost expecting her to turn her head to face him. Instead she merely pointed one reclining hand, in eternal, fixed pose, at the sandalled foot of Agamemnon. He seemed unaware of her presence, which showed great lack of taste on his part. Methos didn't remember him being that cool and detached in life. He tore his thoughts from the magnificent floor, and waved an arm around the grand glass enclosure.
"I take it that this is where I'm supposed to fight Duncan? And Connor? What is it - a space age amphitheatre?"
"You know about that?" Geddes let his amiable façade slip a little in his surprise, but he shrugged it off in no time, and was soon smiling again. "Who told you?"
"Didn't you ever wonder where your nephew went?" Methos smirked unpleasantly. "Kronos rather enjoyed his time playing with him. What was his name again? Taylor? Timothy?"
"Thomas." Distaste flickered through Geddes' words. "Where is he?"
"Search me." Methos grinned. "Although I don't have him on me. Kronos might have kept a bit. He used to have a fairly extensive tooth collection - had a sister who carved them into mythical creatures to hang from his horse's halter. Later he moved into eyeballs, but he had to stop that." He licked his lips in unconsciously comic relish. "Caspian used to put them in his stews, in his curries - if he could cook it, he put eyeballs in it. Of course Caspian is dead, and his recipe book is long lost... but Kronos might have kept the eyeballs anyway, just for old time's sakes." There was no immediate answer, and he frowned, wondering if he could see a faint hint of grey colouring the mortal's usually tanned and perfectly composed face. A hint of real feeling behind the ever-present image of Gentleman's Quarterly exactness. It was gone as soon as it had appeared, and Geddes summoned another perfect smile.
"If Thomas is dead, you'll soon join him. It doesn't matter if you survive the Games or not - Kollias will have the winner's head."
"You know, even the Romans let their winning gladiators go free on occasions. You'd expect the Greeks to show a little more humanity, given the way they were always flaunting their moral superiorities at the rest of us."
"This is a very different age, and you're not gladiators. Winning your freedom was never going to be an option." Geddes folded his arms and smiled somewhat superciliously. "I'm going to rather enjoy watching you lose your head. Although I somehow doubt that even that will shut you up."
"Resorting to insults now are we?" Methos folded his arms. Geddes' presence was beginning to tire him, although he enjoyed the growing feeling of self-satisfied conceit that their sparring seemed to inspire within him. It warmed the inner Horseman, and gave him gratifying encouragements about the gory end he hoped to see Geddes endure. Such thoughts made him wonder about Kronos, and about why he himself had been brought to this 'amphitheatre' now, after two days kept somewhere else. Was his brother - and, presumably, the MacLeods - now within Geddes' grasp? New fear stirred within him, knocking down the Horseman yearnings even as they began to arise. Perhaps this was not the time for self-congratulation after all. Apparently his redoubtable 'host' was aware of his sudden discomfiture, for he let his smile return in all its straight-toothed glory. Once again Anthony Geddes was a square-jawed hero of the small screen, with dazzling white teeth on show, and crystal blue eyes aglint with measured humour. He leant against the glass that separated him from his guest, letting the faint orange light that illuminated the enclosure catch his eyes, his teeth, and the perfect sapphire in the ring on his finger, which so exactly matched the shade of his wide blue irises.
"Who do you think will win, Methos? Will your instincts as a Horseman take over, and allow you to kill Duncan MacLeod? Or will you let him kill you, in order to defend his life? But then the great Methos has never been known for his acts of self-sacrifice, has he. Have these years living with MacLeod's influence taken away your old focus on self-preservation? And what about our mutual friend Kronos? I don't think there's any denying his killer instincts, but I'll be interested to see how your presence in the equation changes things for him. He does actually rather care for you, if appearances aren't too deceiving. Question is, can you kill one friend in order to save another?"
"I won't fight at all. And I think you're underestimating Kronos and MacLeod. They might hate each other, and there's no doubt in my mind that they'd be happy to kill each other - but they won't do it for your entertainment. They certainly won't do it for some Immortal we don't even know, who only wants us to kill each other so that he can take the winner's head. Your plan doesn't work if we don't agree to fight."
"True enough." Geddes sounded unperturbed, which worried Methos. If the leader of the Involution had some other ace hiding up his sleeves, the old Immortal wanted to know what it was. Geddes recognised the glint of curiosity and concern in the other man's face, and laughed out loud.
"You want to know everything, don't you. Well you'll find out, soon enough." He glanced at his watch. "Very soon indeed, if things go according to plan."
"You think that you've got Kronos and the others where you want them." Methos walked purposefully back to the glass, until he and his enemy were standing just inches apart. Geddes did not allow his smile to waver in the slightest, for clearly he had the utmost faith in the transparent barrier. He folded his arms instead, drawing himself up to his full height and smiling indulgently at the captive Immortal.
"I have got them just where I want them. And very soon indeed I'll have them right here, with you. After that, I think you'll find that you'll be willing to fight this little battle. You should consider it your duty. The four most famous Immortals in the world, all gathered together in one place, to do battle against one another in a venue that - even if I do say so myself - is quite without equal anywhere in the modern world. Limitless funds, limitless ingenuity - that's the path of the modern Involution. And without you and your friends getting in the way our options become even more limitless still." He paused for effect, his blue eyes filled with mockery and conceit. "Don't you have anything to say to me, Methos? No stout remarks, no brave ripostes? No determined statements of Immortal supremacy?"
"I don't waste my breath on dead men." Methos weighed his sword in his hand, eyeing up the glass shield. Geddes, for the first time in the course of the conversation, blanched noticeably.
"I think you're mistaking your fate for mine. You'll be dead before the end of the day - but I shall go on to greater and greater things."
"You reckon?" Methos smiled at him, a bright and gentle smile that carried echoes of a far darker emotive impulse. "We'll see."
"Sooner than you think." Geddes had taken a few steps back without apparently being aware of it. Methos took a step forward, the only step he could take thanks to the glass.
"Like I said. We'll see." He hefted the sword once again. "Which of us are you putting your money on, Tony?"
"This isn't a betting game. It's a necessity." Geddes was watching the sword with an obvious nervousness, despite his earlier conviction in the strength of the glass that protected him. "I want you out of the way."
"So I heard. You and your friend Kollias, who obviously doesn't have the guts to come down here and confront me himself. I don't usually look for fights, Tony, but I want to see him now. Ask him if he's got what it takes to meet face to face with a Horseman. Ask him if he can cross swords with part of the Apocalypse."
"You can ask him yourself - if you live through the Games." Geddes smiled. "Kollias is no fool, Methos. He's not going to risk his neck when he's got a foolproof way of getting four powerful Quickenings rolled into one. Why should he? Would you?"
"No." Methos was thinking back, to the Quickenings he had taken, and the other Immortals he had fought with through the years. More than once he had taken the head of a man who could not fight back - but that had all been so very different. Other Immortals hadn't counted, and the Horsemen had been all that had mattered to him then. There was a whole different code to play by now, when it was somebody else who was playing his old game. "But that doesn't mean that I plan on letting him get away with this. He won't win this easily."
"You forget - we've come with the means to make sure that you play." Geddes folded his arms, looking for all the world as though he were about to begin whistling to show his contentment. "Maybe you'd like a clue to help you figure out what it is. Think about a beard, and a cane. A pair of false legs?" Methos, trying to appear unconcerned, must have allowed a little of his anger to show on his face, for the mortal smiled in response. "And there's two other trump cards as well, sitting in the jail cell you so recently vacated. So you see, you will do as I ask, Methos - and you and your friends will fight each other. You know the code of conduct that the MacLeods live by. Neither of them will allow innocent men to die for them, especially when one of those men is Joe Dawson. Kronos will fight back if somebody is fighting him - and that only leaves you. I don't much care if you refuse to fight - I'll have my battle even if you just stand in the middle of the floor like a lemon. And Kollias will have his most spectacular Quickening yet. I can assure you, my plans are well thought out. Very well thought out." He clapped his hands together, apparently motivating himself into movement. "But I've spent long enough standing here talking to you. I have better things to be doing - guests to greet for starters, and a tournament to prepare for. I have to play the part of the host, standing at the end of the red carpet, handing around glasses of expensive champagne..." He grinned. "I'm sure you understand."
"Oh absolutely." They shared a brief, entirely false smile. "Please don't let me keep you."
"I won't." Geddes turned about, heading towards the door Methos could just see, which appeared to lead out of the glass-fronted spectator's enclosure. "I'd sit down if I were you, Methos. Take a nap. Relax. Believe me, you're going to need it." He pulled open the door and glanced back. "The clock's ticking."
"Get stuffed." Methos watched the mortal as he strolled cheerfully through the door, disappearing into whatever room lay beyond. After a second the orange-tinted lights clicked out, and the old Immortal was left alone in utter darkness. He stood still for a moment, feeling nothing but the weight of the sword in his hand, seeing nothing save the faint echo of his reflection in the impossibly strong glass barrier. The ingenuous dark green eyes that stared back at him bore no hope of escape, and offered no plans for deliverance, but as he stared into them they began to glare back at him in something approaching mute rage. Anger exploded in his chest, and with an almighty roar of frustration he hurled his sword at the equally furious reflection. The weapon bounced away harmlessly as it struck its glass twin, and the barrier itself showed not so much as a scratch. Methos slumped against it, shoulders pressed against the cool smoothness. Slowly, moving in tandem with his thoroughly dejected likeness, he slid down the glass to the patterned stone floor. Somewhere off to his right were the bowed shoulders of Atlas, bearing up a tiled image of the Earth. Methos couldn't see them in the dark, but he knew that they were there. He stared unseeingly towards them, in his mind's eye picking out the straining muscles and sagging back; the tired god carrying impossible burdens. Sitting in his prison with his own burdens weighing him down, Methos was not inclined to be sympathetic. Right now he was sure that he knew exactly how Atlas felt. If anything the weight of the Earth must be an easy load to bear. The tired and straining Atlas just didn't know how lucky he was.
"What's the plan?" Kristov, Deltos' deputy in everything save name, crouched beside his chief on the crest of the hill, staring down at the foursome standing below. Paul pointed to a cleft in the hillside that appeared to be the sloping bed of a long dried out stream.
"We make our way down there, in single file. With a bit of luck we'll be on them before they know we're there. I'm going to take half of the men down, and you stay up here with the other half. Join us if it looks as though we're getting into trouble."
"You expect trouble from four men?" Kristov sounded surprised, but Deltos did not appear to be joking.
"Three of them are Immortals - warriors with thousands of years of experience between them. Yes, I expect trouble. I also expect to be able to deal with it. Watch us carefully, because if we do get into trouble I may not be able to signal for you. I don't need to remind you what Geddes will do if we fail."
"Yeah." Kristov looked less than impressed. "Kill you and appoint that useless twit Hero in your place. Don't worry about it. We'll get those men."
"We'd better." Deltos sighed. "I suppose I'd better get moving. Split the men into two groups. You can keep Hero."
"He's your deputy." Kristov smirked. Deltos scowled.
"I suppose you're right. I should have him where I can keep an eye on him. Just... just be watching us."
"I will." Kristov snapped off a creditable salute. "Good luck sir."
"Luck doesn't enter into it." Deltos shifted the rifle on his shoulder. "Not in this." Around them the men were beginning to gather, and he watched as the able Kristov sorted them into two groups. Louis Hero, looking less than impressed to have been chosen for the group going straight into the thick of things, hung about on the periphery, apparently trying to come up with a convincing excuse as to why he should stay behind. Deltos hoped that he managed to come up with one, but whether he did or didn't was something nobody ever got the chance to find out. Unsurprisingly, Hero could never summon up the courage to voice his excuses.
"The men are ready sir." Kristov had just finished a muted display of arms, conducted very carefully in the cramped quarters. "Any orders?"
"Yes. No gunfire. There's a mortal down there, and our orders are to capture him alive along with the others. Anybody who fires a gun will be shot. If any of you have knives or other bladed weapons, you keep them under wraps too. Those are the only weapons that will kill an Immortal, and if any of those three Immortals die, so do you. Anybody who uses a sword or a knife will be shot. Does anybody have any questions?" There was no sound from the troops and he nodded curtly. "Good. My section will move out now. The rest of you wait here for orders from Mr Kristov." He nodded at Hero, who moved towards him in evident dismay. "Let's go."
They moved forward like the well-trained group that they were, capitalising on the years of hard training under Costas Reuben. Locked in their own conversations, arguing amongst themselves, the little group on the hillside did not see them coming, and it was not until Connor MacLeod turned away from the gathering that he spied the trail of men emerging from the cover of the dried-up stream.
"We're under attack!" He called the warning as he drew his sword, spinning towards the approaching men with all the speed and grace that was so much a part of him. Kronos, who appeared to light up at this promise of battle, seemed ready even before the Highlander's warning had been uttered. Joe stepped up to draw level with the Immortal trio.
"Get back Joe." Duncan had taken control of the situation, as he had a way of doing. Dawson protested, even though he was unarmed, and therefore not in the best position to mount any kind of defence.
"I can fight too, you know. Probably better given that sixty-six percent of our warrior contingent is still recovering from fatal injuries."
"Have you got your gun?" Duncan chose to ignore the suggestion that he was at less than full strength. Joe hesitated. He had brought his gun with him to Greece, but it was in his luggage back at the car - and he had no idea where that was at all. He shook his head.
"Then stay out of the way." Duncan's voice softened. "I'm sorry Joe, but nobody here wants to see you get hurt."
"Speak for yourself." Since the arrival of the MacLeods, Kronos seemed to have abandoned his previous - admittedly somewhat erratic - affability, and had reverted to type with gusto. Duncan shot him a withering look that did nothing to diminish the sour look in the Horseman's eyes.
"Are you fighting with us?" The long-haired Highlander voiced it less as a question than as a threat, and Kronos did not bother giving any kind of a reply. Instead he merely swung his sword, newly retrieved and given a cursory polish.
"I'll take that as a yes." Glancing back at Connor, Duncan gestured towards the approaching hordes. "Do you want to lead?"
"There's no time for leaders, Duncan." Connor's eyes flickered towards Kronos, as though he did not trust the evil Immortal to remember who his allies were when lost in the heat of the battle. Either that or he didn't think Kronos could be trusted not to use the anonymity of such an encounter to gain his long-awaited revenge. Clearly such thoughts had not escaped Duncan's mind, for he was already putting some distance between himself and the Horseman, apparently determined to ensure that they were never fighting together in close quarters. Joe, who had never considered such possibilities, merely frowned. It seemed to him that there was far too much internal rivalry here, and not nearly enough concentration on the issue at hand. Even Kronos had not mentioned rescuing Methos for some time now, and was apparently far more interested in winding up Duncan. He appeared to have some strange and unvoiced respect for Connor, but didn't seem at all adverse to aggravating him as well. It was not until the approaching mortal army was nearly upon them that the obnoxious miscreant turned himself about and was once again his terrible, all-powerful self. Kept back by Duncan, Joe caught a brief glimpse of the Horseman at the centre of the action, and had to marvel at the audacity of the man. For some reason the attacking Involution guard were not using their guns, and were instead attempting to fight the Immortals with fist and staff. Some were using sticks they had caught up, others swung rifles like clubs - but wherever they were, Kronos was too, cleaving limbs and heads with equal abandon. Both MacLeods had abandoned their weapons, fighting their attackers on equal ground and apparently facing imminent downfall. Had Joe not been caught up in the sudden necessity to defend himself, he would have rolled his eyes and cursed Duncan for his damnable sense of honour. It was beyond him to attack an unarmed mortal - or Immortal for that matter - with such a weapon as a sword, and in the determination to protect that sense of virtue he was risking his own capture. Rather less morally upstanding, but no less honourable, Connor had snatched away one of the rifles and was using it with a dreadful ferocity, clubbing and battering his many opponents without pause for thought - and yet still he showed barely a fraction of the savagery displayed by the Leader of the Horsemen. Certainly he showed none of the unbounded delight.
Kronos was enjoying himself. It was a realisation that struck him as he relieved a particularly burly assailant of his right arm - a neat cut, just below the elbow, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was able to change the direction of the blade just in time to avoid causing further damage to the man in question, and instead disarm another attacker coming from a different angle. The first victim slumped to the ground in a cascade of blood, whilst the second collapsed on top of him, stone dead. Kronos did not so much as stop to take breath, but instead continued on in much the same vein. The sword slashed, the enemy fell. Lingering echoes that might have been whispers of the ghost of Peter Kerensky drifted away into a mist of fine red spray and showers of rising dust.
"Withdraw!" The terrified voice of Louis Hero rose above the mad battle in a stilted falsetto, only to be immediately overridden by Paul Deltos. The men, too preoccupied to worry about obeying either order, fought on regardless of their superiors, leaving Hero shivering in confusion and Deltos breathing a sigh of relief. If they had abandoned the struggle this close to possible victory, Anthony Geddes would have had him executed. He knew that with the same horrible certainty that told him he was probably going to die anyway. In just a few short seconds Kronos would have cut a path through to the place where Deltos stood, attempting to wave on the second group of men. He was already cursing himself for having split his forces, but it had never crossed his mind that four men, one of whom was not even armed, would be able to hold their own against close to thirty men equipped with clubs and rifles. He had thought it overkill to send in all of his men at once, but now he was beginning to think that it might be his undoing.
In the event it was Hero who brought victory to the attacking Involution, albeit unexpectedly and without any real intention. In trying to avoid the fracas he found himself face to face with Joe, conducting his own laboured rear-guard action a short distance from the main body of the fight. Hero, considering even this small-scale skirmish to be beyond his delicate constitution, attempted to change his trajectory in favour of the wide open spaces and violence-free zones all around him. Connor saw him passing by, and misinterpreted his slinking approach as an attempt to make some sneak attack. Hero, seeing the avenging Highlander bearing down upon him, made a desperate and panic-stricken attempt to save his own skin - and snatching the almost forgotten revolver from his belt, he spun around and pointed the weapon directly at Joe. Connor froze.
"Put the gun down." His soft, gently accented voice carried further than seemed possible, his slight frame appearing larger than life - more powerful than it could possibly have been. Hero faltered, but fearing the consequences should he do as he was told he kept the gun pointed at its mortal target. Frozen in mid-struggle, Dawson felt his arms seized rather suddenly by a pair of men over whom he had just been on the verge of exerting some control. His cane was torn from his grasp, and he lost sight of it.
"Don't come any closer!" Inordinately terrified of the strange Immortal, with his boyish face and ancient eyes, Hero babbled foolishly in Connor's general direction. "If you move, I'll kill him."
"No you won't." So certain, so authoritative, did Connor sound that Hero found himself almost believing the statement. His hand wavered, and then found its target again. Whether it was simple fear keeping his finger on the trigger, or whether he was simply determined not to let too much of his cowardice show itself when his men were watching, Hero did not know. He only knew that he had to make Connor believe his threats, and then force the soft-voiced Immortal to do his bidding.
"You really want to take the chance on this guy's life?" Waving the gun somewhat erratically, Hero nearly pulled the trigger, but caught himself just in time. Firing random shots into the empty air would not help prove his resolve either to Connor or to those members of the Involution who were watching. It would also probably get him shot by Deltos. Connor hesitated, and Hero took heart from that victory.
"Drop your weapon." He hoped that his nervous sounding voice did not lose him too much credibility. Some distance away Duncan had noticed him, and had seen Dawson's predicament. Already his own struggles seemed to have slowed in speed, and he had begun to move in Hero's direction. Connor was still hesitating, unwilling to give up the fight just yet. The battle's own momentum, however, eventually made the decision for him. Caught between the chaos strewn in the wake of Kronos, and the combined forces of those men trying to avoid a messy death under the blade of the Horseman's sword, Connor and Duncan found themselves suddenly surrounded by growing odds. Too many men were confronting them, with too much combined strength and skill. As Hero brandished his gun at Joe's head, both Highlanders came to an unspoken agreement to end their struggles. In seconds they were overwhelmed. Fighting alone, even Kronos was no match for such a sheer volume of numbers. Coming at him from the rear whilst he was still locked in combat with some half a dozen club wielding attackers, a pair of silent marauders seized a firm hold of him and dragged the sword from his grasp. Soon he too was helpless. Deltos breathed a long sigh of relief.
"Get them out of here." He leant on his rifle, as exhausted by lingering tensions concerning the fear of failure as he was by the fight itself. "Dawson's to go to the prison at headquarters. You know where to take the others."
"Hey!" Protesting loudly as his mortal comrade was dragged away, Duncan MacLeod received nothing for his struggles save a solid blow to the chin. He sagged into his captors' arms. Connor struggled furiously, but to no avail.
"Where are you taking us?" His soft voice rose above the sounds of the muttering masses surrounding them, but nobody chose to answer him. Instead the threesome were bound, and then hassled and harried up the steeply sloping side of the hill upon which they stood. "What are you going to do with Dawson?"
"Shut up." Too tired to wish to listen to the angry Immortals, Deltos waved one of the three captured swords in what he hoped was a threatening manner. "It's a long walk. Save your energy."
"We want some answers." Connor's persuasive voice cut through the highly-charged atmosphere, his strange eyes greatly unnerving the Involution head of security. "What do you want from us?"
"You'll find out." Suddenly unable to maintain eye-contact, Deltos turned away, turning his attentions instead to his men. Beside Connor, Duncan was still shaking his head to clear it of the stunning effects of the recent blow.
"I guess we're being taken to meet whoever's behind all of this." His eyes sought out Kronos. "Do you know anything?"
"Of course." The Leader of the Horsemen did not, however, venture any further information. "I think this means Methos is still alive, so I imagine we're being taken to join him."
"I don't give a damn about Methos. I want to know where Joe is being taken." Duncan was beginning to wish fervently that he had not stayed his hand earlier, and instead had sent Kronos hurtling back to whichever netherworld he had so recently escaped from. His irritation only increased as the old Immortal smiled placidly up at him.
"I thought you hated Dawson too now? You lack the strength of your convictions, Highlander."
"There's one conviction I'm never going to lose sight of." Glaring fiercely at the smaller Immortal, and wishing above all else that his hands were free, Duncan tried, and failed, to intimidate his fellow prisoner. "I killed you once, and I'm going to do it again."
"Yeah?" A push in the back from one of the Involution guards encouraged Kronos to begin marching forwards - otherwise, Connor was sure, the Horseman and the Highlander would have remained locked in their glaring, staring contest for the rest of the night. "You've got to work on your technique. Next time try your threats when you're not tied up."
"It's not a threat, Kronos. Next time I have a sword in my hand, you're a dead man."
"Really." As the assorted group continued to march forward, Kronos did not bother even looking at Duncan MacLeod. "Well I can't say that that was the shortest truce of my life, but it's getting there." He smirked to himself, staring into his dark and devilish thoughts. "And I'm certainly not complaining."
Methos awoke to the sound of scratching, followed by a powerful sensation that warned him he had Immortal company. He began to stand up, one hand reaching for the sword that lay across his lap.
"Watch where you're pointing that thing." Duncan MacLeod's voice, probably the most welcome sound Methos had ever heard in his entire life - or in the last thousand years or so anyway - caught the oldest Immortal completely by surprise. He gaped at the moving shadows, unable to distinguish the place where a door might be.
"Mac?" He took a couple of steps forward, straining his eyes in desperation. "Who's with you?"
"I like that." Striding out of the darkness like a demon stalking from the depths of hell, Kronos pushed aside the still-raised sword with an impatient hand. "If you can't recognise me yet, brother dearest..."
"I didn't mean you." Clasping his brother's hand momentarily, Methos turned to look back towards the shadows. "Is that Connor?"
"It is." He wandered out of the darkness with much the same sense of mystery as had Kronos, save that with the Highlander the sense of menace was entirely in the eye of the beholder. Connor had the ability to look just as dangerous as the Leader of the Horsemen, but in his case it was purely coincidence. Few men were as gentle as Connor MacLeod. Methos smiled at the young-faced Immortal, seeing everything that he remembered so well about the older Highlander in the distant half-smile that came in answer. It had been a long time since he had met Connor, but the younger man did not seem to have changed. His face was still that of the eighteen-year-old boy he had been at First Death, changed only by seasons and experience, and never by age. His unfathomable eyes showed echoes of the faint orange light that was all that existed to see each other by.
"Hello Methos." He didn't sound especially welcoming, but then Methos had not expected anything else. He knew Duncan's feelings towards him just lately, and he could only imagine that Connor felt the same way. The pair might not have been related in blood, but they were cousins in just the same way that Methos and Kronos were brothers. They shared much, and that included enemies.
"It's good to see you." Methos meant it, although given the circumstances he would have preferred not to see any of them. Duncan smiled ironically.
"No doubt. So now that you've seen us, how about explaining why we're here."
"You don't know?" Methos looked to Kronos in surprise. "You haven't told them?"
"They didn't ask nicely." The younger Immortal was already distracted, examining the place in which he now found himself. "Any word from Kollias?"
"No. I haven't seen him. Geddes came by a little while ago, but I haven't seen anybody else."
"And who the hell is Geddes?" Duncan sounded impatient, something that was not improving his mood any. "And Kollias? Are we talking Immortals here, or is this something else?"
"Don't you know anything?" Methos' frustration was almost comical. "What have you been doing all this time? Sightseeing?"
"I beg your pardon?" Duncan's own frustrations were beginning to erupt, and his voice rose accordingly. "I've been in this country less than two days, and I've spent all that time wandering about in circles trying to get a fix on you people. I came here expecting a pleasant little confrontation. A chance to beat the living daylights out of you for being such an insufferable jerk, before I took your head. I didn't expect to get kidnapped by a fully fledged army running about in the foothills." One of his large, powerful hands gripped the older man by the neck. "What is it with you? If it's not one major catastrophe it's another."
"Oh, right. 'Cause this is my fault." Trying and failing to free himself from the other man's grip, Methos had to content himself with merely rolling his eyes in irritation. "This is about you as much as it's about me, MacLeod. Somebody knows what an insufferable hero you are, and decided to find a nicely poetical way of getting rid of the whole bunch of us. You, me, Kronos and Connor." He sighed, and shook his head. "Oh what's the bloody point. I couldn't be bothered to explain it all to you anyway. Suffice to say that the way we're all feeling about each other right now is going to help their cause no end."
"We've been brought here to fight each other?" Connor glanced about, as though able to see the room in its entirety despite the darkness. "There are people watching us in here?"
"The walls are made of glass. Get close enough to them and you'll see that. How many spectators we're talking about I don't know, but I do know that they're here to watch us fight. This is supposed to be the greatest spectacle in Immortal history - the Horsemen verses the Highlanders."
"Good verses evil." Duncan looked as though he was almost intrigued by the idea of such a confrontation. Methos merely gave him the most withering of stares.
"If that's how you want to put it, fine. But this is no joke, MacLeod. Whichever of us wins this is in line for a nice efficient beheading courtesy of some man named Richard Kollias. He's a Greek, so far as I know. Also goes by the name of Thanatos."
"Thanatos?" Connor glanced up rather sharply, earning a look of surprise from his cousin.
"You know him?"
"I think so." Frowning slightly the older Highlander began to pace. "It was a long time ago. I was perhaps a hundred-years-old or so. He was the leader of a group of insurrectionists causing trouble wherever they went. Rumour had it that he was the oldest Immortal - or at least that was what he laid claim to. I suppose we now know that he was lying, but all the same, I'd imagine that he is old. At least three thousand years perhaps." His narrowed eyes stared appraisingly at Methos. "Old enough to truly be the eldest if something should happen to you."
"I'm not planning on giving up my title any time soon." Methos let his eyes trail away to the glass walls of their splendid enclosure. "Although it's probably not as simple as that."
"If they've found a way to make you fight, I take my hat off to them." Sarcasm coloured Kronos' voice deeply with its tones. "Or I would if I was wearing a hat that is..."
"They have Joe." Duncan turned his own attentions to the walls, seeking them out with his hands. "I imagine that that's their insurance, to be sure that we'll fight?"
"Yeah." Methos stepped forward, putting one hand on Duncan's shoulder. "So what's it to be, MacLeod?"
"What do you think?" The Highlander avoided his gaze, and Methos sighed. He sounded tired, MacLeod thought, which was hardly surprising. Presumably the last few days had not been easy for him. "Listen Methos, I don't much care what your reasons were for bringing Kronos back to life, or what you thought you were doing in keeping it a secret. I don't even want to know how you got Joe to back you up in that. What I don't understand; what I can't seem to figure out at all; is where you stand in all of this? I don't know if I can trust you, or even if I want to. I don't know how much of you is the Methos I've worked with these last few years - or even if that Methos ever really existed at all. I've seen you with him, remember. I've watched the way you change whenever he's around; whether he's alive, dead, or hanging about in the ether somewhere, driving us all mad. He makes you into someone that I don't like very much, and I just can't live with that kind of uncertainty. So maybe I'll fight you to save Joe, or maybe I'll fight you because I want to. I really don't know what other way there is."
"And if we get out of here now, and we can be sure that Joe's safe? Would you fight me then?"
"Can you promise me that you'll turn your back on Kronos, and give up on this stupid blood-brother loyalty there is between you? Can you honestly choose me over him, for good?"
"That's too much to ask, MacLeod. Far too much."
"Then it's too much to ask me for a decision either."
"I thought we were friends." Methos' voice sounded flat, but Duncan's sounded flatter.
"So did I. You were the one that changed all of that, with your secrets and your stupid behaviour. You only have yourself to blame."
"And so do you. How could I come to you? How could I tell you the truth? You would never have given Kronos any kind of a chance. You've proved that with the blinkered way that you've acted during all of this. Walking out on Joe and me, announcing to anybody who'd listen that we'd let you down, turned into monsters, decided to destroy the world and murder the innocent."
"Sounds fun to me," Kronos piped up from nearby. Methos glared at him, but MacLeod, somewhat surprisingly, began to laugh.
"Look at us. All of us. Four rats caught in a trap, arguing over which of us most deserves to die. I brought my cousin halfway round the world to try and help me kill my best friend. And the worse of it is, it must have been pretty bloody predictable if some Immortal I've never even met managed to guess that I'd do it."
"What can I say, Mr MacLeod. Your reputation has preceded you." As the voice of Anthony Geddes filled the room, the orange lights brightened, and the room was flooded with their ethereal glow. Once again Methos could see the majestic splendour of the arena, and his eyes picked out the glorious detail of the tiled floor. Aphrodite seemed to be winking seductively at him, although the look on the face of Zeus was not nearly so welcoming. Kronos smiled at the sound of the voice, noting the direction it had come from despite the disorientating echo effects of the glass walls. He was striding towards the wall in question long before the smooth and smiling face of the leader of the Involution was visible through it. Blue eyes stared into blue eyes.
"Hello again Anthony." The Horseman seemed almost pleased to see his old acquaintance. "It's good to see you."
"And it's a relief to see you. I was beginning to think that you were going to elude us forever."
"Who? Me?" Kronos shook his head. "Not at all. I aim to please. It's always my pleasure to die for someone else's entertainment. I thought you knew that."
"I'm glad to hear it." Geddes seemed to be looking at someone who was not visible to those in the arena. "I have some people here who have come to watch the show, so I'd be obliged if you'd put on a good performance. Sooner rather than later."
"We're not going to fight for your entertainment." Duncan knew that this was very likely an empty defiance given the circumstances - and that Joe's plight was more than enough to make him eat his words. Nonetheless, it seemed that he had to say something, and appear as something rather more than a helpless puppet. Geddes just laughed.
"Duncan MacLeod I presume. I'm sorry that I've never had the pleasure, but I suppose I've left it rather late. I've had the dubious honour of meeting with several of your friends, though, so perhaps I'm better off not making your acquaintance as well. It's been my experience that Immortals are a decidedly insufferable bunch in the main. Big-headed. Conceited."
"Indubitably." Connor was watching the Involution leader with all the quiet scrutiny of his unnerving eyes. "Are we to fight with one sword between the four of us, or do we get some weapons of our own?"
"Look behind you." Straightening his tie slightly, Geddes made a vague nod in indication. The three unarmed Immortals turned about, seeing that their swords lay heaped in a tangle on the floor. Apparently they had been thrown in by some unseen guard. Kronos was the first to reach the pile, tossing Connor his sword before snatching up his own. He left Duncan's where it was, so that the Highlander had to fetch it himself. Still the air of antagonism between them was strong. Geddes could see that as well as could Connor and Methos, and a smile of unrestrained delight lit up his handsome features.
"Have you two not managed to mend any fences yet?" He was grinning broadly, his blue eyes alight with warm humour. It was very annoying, Duncan couldn't help thinking, to find that your captor and obvious enemy was so extremely easy to like. He tried to ignore the highly infectious smile.
"What were you expecting? For us to be inseparable?"
"I was hoping for you to be trying to tear each other apart. Looks like I'm not going to be disappointed." He folded his arms, his smile growing more smug by the moment. "Any time you want to begin is fine with me."
"Where's Joe?" Methos demanded it with remarkable force, but he received no verbal answer. Instead Geddes merely stared at him, the warm smile ghosting about in the corners of his mouth. He raised a hand, and at the clicking of his fingers the orange light illuminating the spectator's gallery vanished. Only the arena was now lit, sealing the four Immortals into a surreal world that no longer seemed to include the reality that lay beyond the glass-framed limits of their breathtaking theatre. Connor raised his sword, uncertain of what should be the next step. Neither Duncan nor Methos seemed inclined to make that first move, and for an uncertain time the captive group remained very still. The eerie lighting conjured an image of a world somehow suspended in the ether, the lack of movement or event prolonging the sensation of otherworldly confusion. Methos almost felt uncomfortable at the lack of certain action.
"So are we going to get this over with, or are we going to stand around here all day thinking about it?" If Kronos felt anything for the circumstances that had brought them to the arena, he did not seem to show it. Instead he was as carefree as ever, and apparently eager to begin the fight. He swung his sword in gentle strokes. "Do we get to choose sides, or do we just go with the obvious?"
"I'm certainly not taking up sides with you." Duncan refrained from swinging back with his sword, but stepped noticeably into range. Kronos feigned a sarcastic kind of disappointment.
"Oh. And I was hoping--"
"Shut up Kronos." Methos took a deep breath, the sword in his hands hanging limp and disinterested. "This isn't exactly my idea of great entertainment."
"Rubbish. I'd pay to watch me kill Duncan MacLeod." Kronos flashed the Immortal in question a surprisingly warm and bright smile. For once the glitter of his eyes was muted, as though he were not quite as filled with the joys of battle as he might ordinarily have been. The Highlander returned the smile, albeit in a similarly muted fashion.
"You're not going to kill me." He flicked out with the tip of his sword, catching the older Immortal's weapon on the hilt, coming close to cutting at the fingers that gripped the metal handle.
"This is getting repetitive, MacLeod." Kronos did not flinch away, despite the nearness of the blade to his hands. "It seems we're forever destined to meet in battle, and leave the issue unresolved."
"I let you live last time because I couldn't take your life in cold blood."
"You let me live the last time because I granted you the same favour. I could have taken your head."
"If you had, Connor would have killed you."
"No." Kronos raised his sword, laying it against MacLeod's in the air, so that the two weapons were fixed as in a frozen image of a battle already underway. "I didn't kill you because if I had done so, there would have been no more need for this place, and therefore no more reason for these people to keep Methos alive. If I had killed you, I would also have killed him."
"I'm touched." Methos sounded sarcastic, but his eyes suggested otherwise. He appreciated, perhaps more than the others, just how difficult it must have been for Kronos to withhold from administering the killing blow. Kronos shrugged.
"So was I, momentarily. By compassion. It won't happen again." He slid his sword along the length of MacLeod's own weapon, eliciting a metallic scratching noise that bordered on the musically grotesque. From somewhere off to his right he heard the dull sound of slow hand-clapping.
"Get on with it." It was a Greek-accented voice that he did not recognise, but where it came from, and who was the source, were questions that did not interest him in the slightest. He understood the meaning behind the words, and the sentiment motivating them. With a sly grin that did not reveal anything of his feelings, he glanced back at Methos.
"Ready for what?" In his mind's eye, Methos could not help thinking of the myriad desperate nightmares that had kept him awake since learning of his wayward brother's return from death. The idea of Duncan and Kronos fighting, and of losing one or both of his closest friends. Now he was going to have to witness that very battle; and in witnessing it, also take an active part in its outcome.
"I'm ready." Connor, whose motives and feelings in any enterprise were practically unascertainable, pointed his own sword towards Methos. "I am Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod. I challenge you."
"Always the proper way." Methos eyed the ready weapon of his friend's kinsman. "Very well. I am Methos of..." His gaze met with that of Kronos. "Of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I meet your challenge."
"And I am Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod." Duncan, who had travelled thousands of miles in order to seek out this very confrontation, now found that he did not want it at all. "I challenge you both."
"May the best man win." Kronos swung his sword without warning, almost knocking Duncan's weapon from his hand. "And by the looks of things he soon will."
"I'm sorry." Duncan, who had chosen to ignore this advancement, sought Methos out with his steady, meaningful stare. "I said that I wanted to kill you, but when it comes to the crunch..."
"Forget it." Methos, his eyes now focussed solely on Connor, did not even bother returning Duncan's gaze. "We're doing this for Joe."
"I'm not." Kronos had apparently called upon all his old reserves of Horseman energy, for his eyes now gleamed and glittered with everything he had ever unleashed upon his many victims. "I'm doing this for me."
"And in that case," MacLeod told him, meeting his sudden onslaught with a crash of metal blades, "so am I." Beside him Connor took just a moment to watch the fight as it began to get underway.
"I don't even know Joe Dawson," he announced to the room at large - or, more precisely, to Methos, who still stood before him. "Is he really worth dying for?"
"I've never believed anything to be worth that." Methos pointed his sword at a man who had once been something of a friend, and wondered why he couldn't stop the feeling of burgeoning excitement from swelling inside his chest. Beneath his feet the mighty figure of Ares held aloft his own powerful sword. Methos had been mistaken for Ares once, in another world and another lifetime. He could almost feel the ancient god's legendary warlike powers flowing through him. A ghost of the smile of Kronos passed across his lips.
"Last chance." Connor was ready to fight, however unwillingly. He stole no further glances at his cousin, now locked in steady combat with the Leader of the Horsemen. Methos flashed a hard smile that lit his harsh eyes.
"This isn't about chances. This is about spectacle."
"And about going out in style." Connor smiled one of his astonishingly boyish smiles. "That I can sympathise with."
"Good." Methos swung his sword, getting the measure of the terrain, and the measure of the man, in one swift practice movement. "Then let's get this show on the road."
"There isn't the turn out I'd expected." Lounging back on a chaise-longue that was covered in silks of his favourite shade of blue, Anthony Geddes glanced about him at the glass-fronted spectator's gallery. There were some thirty people there, most draped over similarly ostentatious furniture, some taking full advantage of the scantily-clad waiting girls who walked amongst them carrying bowls of grapes. Everywhere was an air of opulence, as though the battle now going on in the vast tiled room was the entertainment laid on for visiting royalty in the days of Ancient Greece. A girl dressed in white silks poured blood-red champagne into Geddes' solid gold goblet, then turned to perform the same small service for Kollias. He alone amongst the guests was not seated, and instead stood behind Geddes' chaise-longue with a restless, hunted expression on his face.
"You're sure they can't get out?" He waved the girl away before she could fill his bone-dry goblet. Geddes raised an eyebrow. For so long now Kollias had been the solid one, putting on the brave face in front of scared associates. Now he seemed to be racked with nervousness.
"Quite sure." He sipped his champagne, and wondered where the local girl with the tray of goat's cheese on crackers was hiding herself. Probably with James O'Reilly, who had somehow contrived to keep most of the food up at his end of the gallery. O'Reilly was a mammoth-sized man with an appetite that might have put a sperm whale to shame, and who seemed to think of nothing beyond his next meal. He was also one of the highest ranking members of the Australian Watchers' Council, who had allied himself with James Horton back in the nineteen nineties, and had somehow managed to avoid being detected during the purge of Horton sympathisers which had followed. Geddes had invited him in the hope that he might bring some of his phenomenal intelligence to the Involution, but all that had happened so far was the spending of a small fortune in keeping the serving girls' trays replenished.
"It's only glass." Kollias wandered further, rapping on the barrier with his knuckles. "I can't feel them on the other side of it. Why is that?"
"An interesting side-effect, obviously. The glass has been reinforced with lead. Even a diamond would have trouble cutting its way through it. Certainly no man armed with a simple metal sword is going to get through, even if he has a fortnight in which to try. It's impenetrable."
"Good." Kollias hesitated, clearly unwilling to turn his back on the barrier in spite of the assurances; and then finally began pacing about. He did not seem in the slightest bit interested in the way the fight was going, and did not even bother glancing up to see which, if any, of the foursome seemed to be in the lead. Geddes peered past him, wishing that, if he did not want to watch, he would at least go and pace in front of somebody else. Kollias was oblivious to his irritation.
"It didn't work the way it was supposed to." He was staring fixedly at the ground as he paced, clearly bothered by something, and unsure what to do about it. "It didn't work out nearly the way it was meant to."
"I can't say that I'm all that bothered by technicalities." In the box, MacLeod tripped, his left foot skidding unexpectedly in an awkward direction. Kronos nearly disarmed him in that moment, and somebody nearby let out a whoop of excitement. Geddes wondered if it was O'Reilly, which would at least suggest that the big man had lifted his eyes from the trays of food that surrounded him. So far the atmosphere in the gallery was far from being as he had expected. MacLeod recovered his footing, and Kronos missed his chance. The battle carried on.
"You should be. Technicalities are important here." Kollias had ceased his pacing, standing directly between Geddes and the lion's share of his view. "They didn't even seem to want to fight. Why is that? You were supposed to make sure that they hated each other."
"Does it matter? They're fighting aren't they?" Geddes frowned. "At least I think they are. I can't really see..."
"So they're fighting! You promised me chaos, Geddes. You promised that they hated each other, and that they'd barely be able to restrain from killing each other. They didn't seem to do anything more than talk, until you got their Watcher friend. It's just not right. They could still decide to work together."
"And risk getting their friend killed? I doubt it. And so what if they do? They can't get out of that arena unless I turn the key in the lock. One lock, one door, one key. And I have it." He tapped his pocket significantly, then finally gave a short, irritable sigh and leaned over to bodily force Kollias from out of his way. The Immortal moved, but gave no indication of having noticed that he had done so.
"I just don't like it. It's too..."
"Too good to be true?" Geddes simply did not understand his lack of enthusiasm. "Listen, you want to be the One. I can understand that. Unlimited power and knowledge is a tool any man would be willing to kill for. I want you to be the One. The Involution wants you to be the One - or will do, once I can assert my control over them more fully. What's the one major stepping block in that plan?"
"Duncan MacLeod." Kollias did not look up from the floor. "Him and his friends, always running about in the world doing good."
"Precisely. And right here, right now, we're dealing both with Duncan MacLeod and his closest ally in his never-ending battle to be nice to people. And at the same time you get to see the end of your two greatest rivals for the title of oldest Immortal in existence.. The two great Quickenings going. Everything I promised you is here, at this moment. Duncan and Connor MacLeod, no longer able to stop you from achieving your goals. Methos and Kronos, about to hand you their heads on a silver platter. So why the long face? Why all the soul-searching? Everything is going according to plan."
"Is it." Kollias couldn't help shaking his head. "I'm not convinced. I'm sure there's something we're missing here. Something we've forgotten about."
"Such as? The only people who know we're here are all here themselves, watching this battle to see how it turns out. Sit back and enjoy it yourself. A spectacle like this only comes along once in a lifetime."
"Then why have so few people come to watch it? You've been boasting about this for months. About how every major figure in the Involution was going to be here, along with every Watcher who ever threw in their lot with the Horton brothers. You said that everybody who knows about the Immortals, and wants to see the evil ones rise to supremacy in the Game, would be here today to watch this battle. So where are they all? Why do you have barely thirty people sitting around here, and why are most of them more interested in drinking your champagne, and chasing your serving girls, than they are in watching the battle unfold?" For the first time since the fight had begun, Kollias turned his head to stare into the arena. It was a spectacular sight, that much he couldn't deny. The orange-tinted light caught the mosaic of the floor in just the right places to add a three-dimensional illusion to the majesty of the stone-worked gods. The frothing waves that surrounded the huge chest of Poseidon seemed about to crash down and flood the room, and he could truly believe that Aphrodite's perfect lips were poised to touch his own, even with the glass shield standing in the way. The fight raged just as he would have imagined it to, Duncan MacLeod and Kronos more than making up for the lack of real violence between Methos and Connor. As he watched, the latter performed a spectacularly acrobatic manoeuvre that carried him momentarily into the heart of his cousin's struggle with the Leader of the Horsemen. One of the serving girls gasped in appreciation, and Kollias almost echoed the sound, as Connor deflected Kronos' blade as it began to crash down on him, twisting aside with an almost balletic dexterity, and timing his movements with those of Duncan so that the pair could avoid each other, and ensure that the battle did not miss a beat. For a few frenetic moments Kronos faced both of the MacLeods at once, turning on Connor with as much vicious energy as he had already displayed in his confrontation with Duncan, fighting the pair as if they had been just one single opponent. Connor said something, earning a breathless smile from his cousin - and then in a moment was gone, as though he had never been there. Methos was waiting for him, sucking him back into another unbroken combat. It was almost with difficulty that Kollias turned away again, and returned his attentions to Geddes.
"You certainly know how to put on entertainment for the people you want to impress."
"Of course I do." Geddes smiled wryly, apparently as awed by the performance as was Kollias himself. "Which is why I fail to understand your concerns here. Dawson is out of the way, and will be dead before you take the head of the survivor. Likewise Thane and Reuben, who are only alive now because I thought they might make useful bargaining tools if my men failed to capture Dawson. There is no reason for concern."
"There might be." Kollias had turned back to the glass shield, but this time was staring at it rather than at the fight going on beyond it. Something had just occurred to him, and it was enough to destroy his recently resurrected good cheer. "What happens when the first Quickening is unleashed? You've tested this barrier against swords and brute force, and everything you could think of - but have you tested it against a Quickening? One flash of that light, Geddes, and this whole wall could go up. And then what happens to you and me, and all of your onlookers? Kronos won't even spare the serving girls, if he's one of the three still alive - and he will be, you can count on that."
"I--" Geddes frowned, clearly showing that he hadn't given such a matter any consideration. "That's not likely to happen."
"Not likely to happen? You don't mean to tell me that you brought them here to kill each other, but that you didn't bother to think about what might happen when one of them dies? We don't end our lives the way you people do. So long as there's another of our kind present we don't get any quiet drift into sleep, like nothing's happened. We get explosions, and light shows, and power cuts that black out whole blocks. We get explosions that take out every piece of electrical and mechanical equipment in sight, and shatter every window and other piece of glass that happens to be nearby. I've seen mortals killed just by standing too close. I've seen whole buildings fall down from the power of the assault." He shook his head. "Maybe that's why your guests have all declined the chance to come and watch. They all know how useless you are at organising anything."
"You'd be wise to take that back." Rising to his feet, Geddes cut a picture of sudden malevolence, his usual smooth good nature dissipating in a second. "I don't appreciate criticism, especially from my employees."
"Is that what you think I am? An employee?" Kollias laughed out loud. "You've got another think coming. I'm an Immortal, and I plan on being the last of my kind left alive on this earth. Perhaps you don't understand what that means, or perhaps you think it doesn't matter. Either way, I'm the one with the big sword that can cut you into little pieces, and you're the one with the gun that can't do a thing to me." He pushed Geddes in the chest, slamming him back into the soft curves of his silk-bedecked chaise-longue.
"You're going to regret doing that." The blue eyes that were usually so filled with warmth and amiability now flashed with anger and hatred. Kollias shook his head.
"Are you trying to say that I might have to do without your help to be the One? 'Cause I'm not sure that I want your help. I'm not even sure I want to be in this building any longer, because pretty soon one of those men in that arena is going to die; and if your glass isn't as strong as you like to think it is, right after that everybody in this gallery is going to be showing just how immortal they aren't."
"You don't know that. That glass is strong enough to resist every attack we tried putting it through. It's tough enough to prevent you from being able to detect the presence of those four Immortals, and they're just a few feet away. For all you know it's tough enough to stand up to a Quickening." Geddes stood up again, his hand playing about near to where he kept his gun, even though he knew that the weapon meant little against a man like Kollias. "Now sit down and enjoy the fight. You try being polite enough, and I might even forget the way you've spoken to me."
"How about if I choose not to forget the way you've spoken to me." Kollias still sounded decidedly belligerent. "This is a joke, and it looks like it has been from the start. The great Anthony Geddes, about as much use as the Horton brothers turned out to be. They were always full of grand plans and ventures, and always claimed to have got Duncan MacLeod where they wanted him - and they always failed dismally. Looks like you were no better. All hot air and pointlessness. I was a fool to ever have thrown in with you."
"But you did throw in with me. You're here now, for better or for worse - and you're going to stay here."
"Or what? You'll kill Joe Dawson? Sorry Anthony, but you're looking at the wrong Immortal if you want to play that card. There isn't anything alive that you can dangle over me to lure me into your traps. I'm getting out of here while I still can."
"Why you--" With a sudden outpouring of rage, Geddes tore his gun free from his jacket. "You conceited bastard. This was your dream as much as mine. How dare you denounce it and walk away. This was your idea, every bit of it."
"It was my idea to kill the MacLeods. It was my idea to try and kill Methos, because his Quickening would make an interesting experience. It was never my idea to bring them to this place and make them fight each other for your entertainment, and it sure as hell was never my idea to use that to help improve your standing in the Involution. Not that anything is likely to do that, judging by the turn out at this hopeless excuse for an event."
"Why you-- You're asking for trouble, you immortal--" Now livid with rage, Geddes' entire poise had changed. Gone was the gentle countenance, the pleasantry and the smile; the blue eyes were storm-filled and enlarged; the deep tan had paled as the blood withdrew from the skin. Quite suddenly Anthony Geddes was no longer a handsome man, and instead seemed to be anything but. Kollias, who might have been unnerved by this tremendous change, instead seemed to be fortified by it. He had found Geddes' flawless features and clean-cut appearance to be off-putting, but to see now that it was only skin deep gave him added confidence. He smiled.
"You're attracting unnecessary attention, Tony. Goodness knows there are few enough of your guests watching the entertainment anyway. Surely you'd rather they were looking at your battle than at you?"
"What?" Startled, the Involution leader spun in a half circle, seeing the handful of guests staring at him in amazement. He struggled to rebuild his shattered façade, smiling shakily at anyone who seemed that they might be interested. "Please. Everybody, the fight is just getting interesting..."
"This fight has never been interesting. I'd rather watch the wrestling on television." O'Reilly, shifting his massive bulk rather awkwardly in his chair, turned his attention firmly away from the battle going on beyond the glass walls. Kronos and Duncan were still locked in their seemingly unbreakable impasse, and Connor and Methos appeared to be doing more dodging than actual fighting. Rather than confronting each other headlong, they were apparently trying to avoid doing so at all costs. Even Geddes would have had to have admitted that proceedings were less than enthralling. All the same he felt bound to protect his much lauded attraction.
"Things are a little slow. We can soon make them pick up. I'll get Joe Dawson sent down here. They'll do something when they see him here. They'll have to. And Reuben and Thane. Traitors the both of them; not good for anything. I've a feeling that Methos cares about them though, and you know the MacLeods and their desperate wish to protect the innocent. That'll make this fight more interesting. They'll have to fight for the survival of three mortals as well as themselves."
"You're clutching at straws." O'Reilly forced himself to his feet, staring coldly at Geddes all the while. "Got big plans, haven't you. Determined to win your way in the Involution. Planning, scheming. Think you can win the lot." His voice, although curiously wheezy, was strong and carried far. Think you're something special, with your money and your fancy education. But you can't see that other people have a different opinion of you." He smiled, his face reddening with the strain of his recent exertions. "The fancy clothes, the smooth looks. Always smiling, always being friendly and welcoming. It doesn't fool anybody, Geddes. Nobody is prepared to throw in with an Involution man who's more involuted than the whole bloody organisation. Most of the people you invited to come and watch this little charade didn't bother to turn up. In some cases it was through contempt. In a lot of others it was something else." He hooked his thumbs into the lapels of his cavernous grey flannel suit. It had a look about it of the nineteen twenties somehow, as though it should be accompanied by a straw hat and a tennis racquet, and the lingering echoes of a band playing the Charleston.
"And I suppose you're planning to tell me exactly what." Geddes seemed to have forgotten the gun in his hand, and certainly O'Reilly did not seem at all bothered by it. The big man pulled out a huge red handkerchief that bore designs of tiny thistles in pink and green.
"Do I need to? You're the only man keeping the Involution going at the moment. Oh there are movements. Mutterings. And they'll grow I have no doubt. But really, right now, who else is there in all of the world that could turn heads away from you?"
"There isn't anybody." It was not just conceit that had Geddes so convinced. He genuinely believed that there was nobody who could organise the disbanded masses of renegade Watchers and dispossessed Involution devotees. Nobody save him, with his limitless bankroll and boundless intellect. O'Reilly smiled, the red of his skin gradually changing to a pink blotched with a pale, creamy white.
"You were doing pretty well, I'll give you that. If you'd managed to get everybody on your guest list to turn up, you'd probably have succeeded. Everybody loves a leader, and you lead better than most. It wouldn't have mattered that the fight has been such a non-invent, because it's the outcome that we're interested in, rather than the fight itself." He wagged a finger in the air, much like a teacher admonishing a child. "But you made that one fatal mistake. You invited Watchers to your get-together. Watchers who had long ago thrown in their lot with James Horton. People like me, who still have that old, lingering Watcher pride, that makes us hate the Involution and everything connected to it. And more than that - we already have a leader. We don't need you, because we're not the aimless souls you think we are."
"James Horton is dead." Geddes spat it out as though death were a frightful insult. "Or are you proposing yourself as this oh so great leader? You may have the brain for it, O'Reilly, but you certainly don't have the stomach or the charisma. Nobody would follow you, even if you could manage to lead them past the front door."
"I'd watch my mouth if I were you." O'Reilly's usually slack face had stiffened at this insult. "But as it happens, I don't need to offer myself as leader, because like I said, we already have one. Yes, James Horton is dead. But like so many countless other people around the world, he had a brother. Frank Horton may not have the experience of James, and he might lack a little of the practical knowledge, but he's the figurehead that a thousand Watchers around the world are happy to take their orders from. We can make a strike today, or tomorrow, or the next day... any strike, anywhere in the word. If we want to."
Geddes' voice was deeply derisive. "You waiting for something?"
"Maybe." O'Reilly smirked. "But that's just it, isn't it. We don't have to wait, but we can if we want to. We're in no hurry. The Immortals aren't going anywhere. Why should we? You're looking at this problem from an entirely wrong direction, Anthony. It isn't about manipulating the Game, and putting your man in the front running for the Prize. It's about making sure that the Prize never gets won. Why let any one man govern all of that potential power? Always assuming of course that there's any power going. We don't actually know that there is a Prize - but we're damned determined to make sure that we never find out. And for that to happen we have to make sure that some of the Immortals stay alive - certain handpicked ones naturally - for as long as possible. There's no governing the Game, and no controlling the Prize once it's won. How are you planning to control the most powerful man in the world? What are you going to do to make him follow your plans once the Prize is his?"
"I have my ways. I have my plans." As though suddenly remembering the gun in his hand, Geddes raised it to point at O'Reilly's chest. "And this is my place, my set-up. In here we follow my rules. I've met your Frank Horton, and believe me, he's nothing special. He's certainly never spoken about plans like that in the past, either. Always seemed to me that he wanted to eradicate everybody, Watchers and Immortals."
"Who said we'd changed our attitude towards the Watchers? But Immortals... Immortals can be useful, especially when it's other Immortals that you're planning to fight. You see, we're ready to admit that certain of our plans may need to change, especially in the light of recent failure. Maybe that's something the Involution needs to learn." O'Reilly was smirking, looking increasingly pleased with himself with each and every passing second. Kollias, silent for long enough to catch the gist of the conversation, moved forwards at this point, reaching out with one cautious yet firm hand, in order to guide Geddes' pistol towards the ground.
"Where do I stand in all of this?" He asked it to O'Reilly, which made Geddes bristle. He tried to raise the gun again, but Kollias was too strong for him. "If you don't want anybody to win the Prize, where does that leave somebody who wants it?"
"In a very interesting position." O'Reilly let a lazy eye drift back to the fight going on in the magnificent arena. It seemed to him that it was starting to slow. The first death, he was sure, could not be very far away. "It suits us to have that lot in there eradicate each other. As a matter of fact we're counting on it. Now if you want to mop up what's left, and get yourself whatever it is you people get out of the Quickening, that's fine with us. We don't mind you doing that. Just as long as you don't try to interfere."
"Interfere with what? The way you're talking, you're just like the Watchers. What's the difference between them and you?"
"Plenty." Without seeming to move at all, so casual and offhand were his actions, O'Reilly reached into his copious jacket and pulled out a gun. He didn't even need to aim it, so close was he to his target. As Kollias still held Geddes by the wrists, forcing his gun to point at the tiled floor, O'Reilly's own gun leapt in his hands. There was the sound of a single shot, echoing in the small gallery, sending sound waves bouncing and leaping off the glass walls. Geddes stiffened, his large blue eyes widening and brightening, and then finally glazing over altogether. He slumped to the ground, dead before his body hit the tiles. Kollias blinked.
"What's your point?" He was startled by the move, but was far too used to death for it to have affected him in any way other than just through surprise. O'Reilly smirked, his fat wet lips glistening in the orange light filtering through from the arena.
"You figure it out." He stuck the gun away, forcing it back into his tightly fastened belt, then turned about to watch the battle still raging in the magnificent theatre just a few feet away. "Poor old Geddes. This really wasn't such a bad idea."
"The Horsemen verses the MacLeods." Kollias leant on the glass wall, relaxed and easy with O'Reilly through mutual consent. A man didn't survive for four thousand years without learning to work with others on occasions. "Who do you reckon will win?"
"Don't really give a damn." Turning back to the bevy of well-laden serving girls, O'Reilly grabbed a goblet of Geddes' special blood-red champagne. "Never did. That was another of dear Anthony's mistakes. Who the hell wants to come here, to watch a fight like this one? Two terminal heroes battling it out with a couple of ancient warriors most people have never heard of." Draining the glass he turned about and headed for the door that led out of the gallery. Only now did Kollias realise that most of the other guests had already departed. He found himself standing almost alone, accompanied only by a pair of men he did not recognise, both of whom were drunk to the point of oblivion. Beyond them there were only the serving girls. They alone were watching the battle, and they alone had been watching it all along. It made Kollias smile. The four of them were in there, fighting for their lives, ready to kill their closest friends; and all for no reason. There wasn't even anybody left to order Joe's execution if the battle stopped. Kollias wondered again which of them would be the first to die. He didn't have to think hard before he realised that he honestly didn't care. Stepping over Geddes' ungainly, sprawled form, he headed towards the door. Time to leave the pawns to die in peace.
Methos was tiring. It had been coming upon him for some time, but he was aware of it now as never before. Never the greatest of fighters he had found himself completely outclassed by Connor MacLeod. The older Highlander had a speed and grace to his movements that put even Duncan to shame, using his smaller, slighter build to great advantage, performing manoeuvres that were almost impossible for Methos to keep up with. In fights in the past he had always relied on trickery - bluffs, the occasional sleight of hand, a hidden dagger for moments when his opponent got too close. He hid rather than fought, slipped away rather than stood his ground. That was his style; and that, far more than any great skill with his sword, was how he had managed to stay alive for five thousand years. Now, however, he was not only fighting a man he knew that he could not possibly beat, but he also found himself fighting a battle that he could not run away from. Not only was he trapped in a room with no apparent exits, but he was also fighting for the life of a friend. He didn't want the responsibility for Joe's life, but he had it anyway; and he knew that it was his more significantly now than it might ever have been before. Perhaps, six months ago, he could have slipped away and left Dawson to die. He might have felt some guilt, but he would have hidden it, and buried it, and carried on as though nothing had happened. All that was in the past now. Ever since the day that Dawson had agreed to keep the return of Kronos a secret from Duncan, there had been a bond between the mortal and the oldest man alive. A bond that, no matter how much Methos now wanted to break, was going to hold him in the arena, fighting a losing battle, until the moment came when he could fight no more. He knew it painfully; knew it absolutely. Nearby, despite his preoccupation with his battle with Duncan, Kronos knew it too. He had seen the slowing of his brother's movements, and had recognised the new sluggishness to his defences and attacks. When once, briefly, their eyes locked in the midst of battle, Kronos saw something in the eyes of his fellow Horseman that he had never seen before; and it scared him. It was the look of defeat, and it told him that Methos could not fight for much longer. It told him that his brother was going to lose.
Connor seemed to realise the extent of the situation almost as Methos was realising it himself. Perhaps he had seen the look that passed between the two Horsemen, or perhaps he had just seen the expression on the old man's face. Whatever the explanation, he redoubled his own assault, swinging his sword with a newer and stronger zeal. He had never meant Methos any harm - but if killing the Horsemen was what it took to keep himself and his cousin alive, then that was a price that he was more than willing to pay.
They came at each other from different angles, twisting and turning about in their efforts to stay clear of the hacking blades. Methos was flagging, the weight of his sword beginning to slow him down, beginning to drag his arms lower than the optimum height for the battle. It was becoming clear, even to the otherwise engaged Duncan, that something was soon going to give. The younger Highlander cast a look at the oldest Immortal, wondering, deep in his heart, if perhaps he was about to witness the death of his greatest friend. Nearby he could sense Kronos beginning to smoulder, the anger he usually focussed on his fighting now beginning to erupt forth into a new avenue. With a complete loss of his usual finesse, he swung his sword at Duncan, making the Highlander jump aside in surprise.
"You could yield." Connor spoke in a soft voice, as though afraid that his usual tones might carry through the glass walls, and be heard by the onlookers. "I could pretend to take your head..."
"Pretend? How are you going to fake the Quickening?" Methos was exhausted, and the words did not want to speak themselves. "Forget it Connor, and keep back. I may be tired, but I'm not beaten yet."
"You soon will be." Lacking Duncan's attachment to Methos, Connor was inclined to see the older Immortal in much the same way that he had known him in the past - as an associate of the cruel and malicious Kronos, who did nothing to stop his brother's worst excesses. Connor was not one for the administering of summary justice, but he had a ruthlessness of his own that set him apart from his fellow MacLeod. Killing Methos was not something that would bother him very much, and Methos knew that only too well.
"Perhaps." He took a moment to catch his breath, managing to put enough distance between himself and his opponent to allow such a brief space for thought. His neck was tingling fiercely, as though it could already feel the blade. Connor smiled.
"Perhaps you're ready to sacrifice yourself? Your Quickening will probably bring these glass walls crashing down on our heads. We can get out of here then, and perhaps stand a chance of freeing Joe Dawson."
"Not something that had escaped by thoughts." Methos winced at a sudden, rapier-like pain in his side. Cramp was beginning to dog his movements now, and the build up of lactic acid in his muscles was making every movement a torture. "But then self-sacrifice was never one of my favourite hobbies. I don't do it very well. It's more your cousin's department."
"And I should imagine that he's considered it. But the truth is that we don't know how strong these walls are. Before they brought us in here we couldn't feel your presence. The glass is that resilient at least. It could be that Duncan's Quickening, or mine, isn't going to be strong enough to help us break out."
"But mine could be?" It was a thought that Methos could not stop himself from thinking, even though it went against everything that he was, and everything that he ever had been. In his current state of exhaustion it might have been that any end to the fighting seemed acceptable; or perhaps, in his heart of hearts, he already knew that there was no other way out. "Do I have your word on that? If you kill me, and if that does provide you with a way out... you'll take it. No hanging around to finish the fight? No last man standing, for Kollias and the Involution to execute? You, Duncan and Kronos will get out of here together, and rescue Joe."
"I can't promise anything. Not for them." It seemed to Connor, glancing across at the other two, that they were fighting with a greater intensity in every second that passed. Fury filled the air around them. He thought for a minute that Kronos was trying to work the direction of the fight around, so that his path would intersect with that of Connor himself - but Duncan was stronger, and was keeping the other man in roughly the same position. It was almost hard to see light between them now, so locked together were they in the intricacies of their combat. The tiles beneath their feet seemed to shudder, and it seemed impossible to believe that any promise of comradeship would be able to bind them. How could they ever work together to free their friend Dawson? He wanted to make the promise for Methos, but he knew that either Duncan or Kronos was sure to break it - probably even before the old man's Quickening had begun to fade.
"You have to." Methos had stopped fighting now, or had finally decided to give up pretending. He stood half-slumped, his weight resting on his sword, which he used as a stick to support him. He didn't remember ever having been so tired, or ever having felt so lost. "You have to promise me that if I die, you'll rescue Joe. I have to know that."
"You don't have to know anything. You can't turn the tables, Methos. If I kill you, I kill you outright. You're not in any position to bargain."
"And you're no cold-blooded killer." Methos tried to raise his sword, but did not succeed in looking anywhere near prepared for a renewal of hostilities. "You may not be as white-on-white as Duncan, but you're no Kurgan. You don't kill for the sake of it."
"I'm not here for the sake of it." Connor came forward, sword upraised. His own fatigue was evident in his eyes, but they both knew that that would be gone soon - washed away in the flood of the Quickening, and the unleashing of the greatest form of energy known to man. "I'm here because I was brought here. I'm here to help my cousin survive."
"Noble intentions, Highlander."
"Perhaps." Connor stopped advancing, sword still raised. "But a very ignoble end."
"Yeah." Methos looked up at the sword blade, hovering now mere inches above his head. He was not sure what he felt. Fear certainly, although in a much more distant sense than he would have imagined. Regret perhaps, and sadness. Sadness that it should have to end, and even greater sadness that it should have to end like this. He raised his eyes, staring towards the glass barriers, wondering if, by some lucky chance, his gaze might seek out Geddes, or the unseen Kollias. Perhaps then he could stare at them, despite being unable to see them, and let them sense a little of all that he truly was. It seemed a shame to die without ever letting them see that. It seemed a shame to die at all. He took a deep breath and steeled himself, wondering if his life was going to rush before his eyes. If it did, what would he see? Would he see the faces of his mortal parents again, and remember them for the first time in thousands of years? Would he finally recall the moment of his First Death, and remember the name of the first Immortal he had ever killed? Or would he just remember Cassandra, and Alexa, and a thousand other regrets? He swallowed hard. Easy to think of Alexa now, when death was as certain for him as it had once been for her. Easy to remember her quiet strength, and his own desperate helplessness. He felt none of her strength now, and none of her conviction. He felt only that same sorry state of helplessness, and the deep, deep sorrow that came with inevitability. Five thousand years - leading to this. Connor began to swing his sword.
On the other side of the room, with a vast distance of empty air and stone tiling between them, Kronos saw the weapon as it began to drop. The sword stilled in his hands, and Duncan, surprised, came close to impaling him. He stopped just in time, confused as to why exactly he had stopped; and then confused as to why he did not renew his attack whilst he still had the time. Kronos, however, did not remain in the same place long enough for the Highlander to correct this inexplicable mistake.
The sword came closer. Methos could feel the draught on his neck, and felt the uppermost hairs on his head sway in the growing breeze. He concentrated on not closing his eyes, and tried not to hold his breath. He thought that his hands were shaking. Somewhere nearby he heard footsteps, but he thought that they were just the sounds of his brother's fight nearby. Kronos and Duncan MacLeod, battling it out to the death. Bitterness flooded through the old man's mind. In all of his nightmares he had been awake to see the ending of that battle, and to watch the headless body of one or the other of his friends as it crumpled to the ground. Now that it was finally happening, he was not going to be around to see that outcome. He wasn't sure if he was glad about that. He didn't really have the time to consider it further.
"Methos!" Kronos was shouting from what seemed like a very long distance away. Methos started to turn his head, acting on instinct. He caught a brief glimpse of Connor's sword descending, so close to his neck now that he knew his life was truly at its end. There was no time to dodge even if he had been of a mind to do so. He caught a brief, glancing reflection in the sword blade - Aries, smirking in his painted stone mosaic - and then something hit him, hard and fast and powerful, and he found that he could no longer breathe. He was falling to the ground, the air leaving him, the world rushing by in slow motion. He waited for the end, unsure how it would come. What would it feel like? Not a moment too soon, his thoughts were interrupted by the clash of steel on steel.
"What-?" He tried to move, but found that he couldn't. There was a weight on top of him, explaining, however insubstantially, exactly why it was that he could not breathe; and a sharp, intense pain in his neck that made speech difficult. Movement, he now found, was an agony. He tried to focus his eyes. Kronos was lying across him, sword raised at an awkward angle, attempting to deflect the second blow of Connor MacLeod, who was trying to continue the fight that had been so rudely interrupted. Methos frowned. Somehow Kronos had come between them, putting his own sword - or possibly himself - between Connor's sword and Methos' neck. He lay awkwardly now, struggling to raise his weapon to fend off the righteous fury of the elder Highlander. For some reason he did not entirely seem to have the strength.
"Connor!" Duncan was running closer, his own sword upraised, ready to defend his apparently beleaguered cousin. Methos struggled, trying to push Kronos away from him so that he could stand. His muscles protested, and his neck screamed in silent agony. He put up a hand to his throat, only now realising that his neck was awash with blood. His hand came away wet and sticky, and the familiar salty, metallic smell rose through the heated air. He coughed, and more blood came out of his mouth. Perhaps Kronos had not been quite in time after all.
"Keep back MacLeod." Kronos had managed to get to his knees, but his movements still seemed sluggish and ungainly. Methos could see fresh blood adorning his brother's clothes, and he did not think that all of it could have come from his own injured neck. Sure enough, as his vision improved a little, he saw that the younger Horseman was holding his sword awkwardly. His right shoulder was slashed open, cut to the bone, flaps of black leather hanging open and ragged amidst similar flaps of torn skin. The orange light made it all seem so much more gruesome, reflecting off the exposed bone like the lights in a horror movie, or the fire-strewn recesses of a mediaeval torture chamber.
"Two on one is against the Rules, Kronos." Duncan towered above the Horseman, staring down at him in white-hot fury. "You shouldn't have interfered. Immortal Rules aside, you've probably just cost Dawson his life."
"I - don't - care." Forcing himself to his feet cost Kronos a tremendous amount of energy, but it was worth it to no longer be on his knees before his greatest enemy. "I won't... stand by and... watch my brother killed. Not when there's anything I can do to stop it."
"That's not the way it works. You can't interfere." Duncan pointed his sword at the other man, tapping at the ruined shoulder with the tip of his razor sharp weapon. Kronos gasped, and his legs gave way from the pain. He crashed back down to his knees, and MacLeod placed the sharp edge of his blade against the exposed neck. "Penalty's death."
"So I've heard." Kronos couldn't resist a crooked grin, despite the dire circumstances. "That's... the penalty... for a lot of things with you. Especially... where I'm concerned."
"You got that right." The sword dragged across the waiting neck, drawing blood. "Enough, Kronos. Just... enough."
"You can't interfere." Kronos was smiling, his eyes lit with the deranged light that Methos knew meant trouble, and the oldest Immortal tried to get to his feet. Connor held him back. "I challenged your cousin. If you kill me, you're breaking the Rules too."
"There are no Rules here. Not anymore." Duncan glanced towards the glass walls, where he expected their unseen observers still to be. "Damn you. If Dawson's dead..."
"What? You'll kill me?" Kronos took a deep breath, the faint laughter rattling in his lungs. "Guess again. Horsemen don't die easily, MacLeod." He pushed upwards suddenly, knocking the sword aside with his left hand, swinging his own weapon up with his right, ignoring the pain that lanced through his shoulder. "And even when we do die, we always come back."
"I--" MacLeod broke off, staring at the hilt that was sticking out of his chest. Kronos smiled at him, expression dark, and with an easy, almost casual movement, he pulled the Highlander's weapon from his hand. Weakening fingers relinquished their hold easily. "You can't do this."
"Why not? You did." He readied MacLeod's own weapon to take the Highlander's head.
"Duncan..." Methos was struggling weakly against Connor's grip, wishing for his strength to return. How much of the killing blow had Kronos deflected onto his own shoulder, and how much truly had been directed against Methos' neck? He didn't know the answer, but he didn't feel his healing powers doing their work very quickly. Deep inside himself he could feel uncertainty, and a certain lingering sense of fear. He had never heard of such a breach of the Rules before. Even when he had ridden at the head of the Apocalypse, he had never stood between an Immortal and his death. Half-remembered tales of ancient myths returned to his numbed brain in stops and starts. There was talk of retribution and punishment, although nobody seemed to know who would mete out such things.
"Duncan?" Kronos turned his head, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. "I save your life, and it's his name you call out?"
"Don't kill him, Kronos." Pushing against Connor's hold, Methos made it to his feet at last. His exhaustion crashed over him in waves, and a new wash of blood drenched his shirt. He put his hand up to his neck, no longer able to resist the need to know how extensive the damage was, and found a cut that was nearly wide enough to swallow the tips of his fingers. Deep, then; but not deep enough to be fatal.
"And what about your friend Dawson?"
"They're going to kill him anyway." It came like a revelation; a truth he had been trying to hide from. "He's probably already dead." He stumbled forward, struggling to raise his sword to meet his brother's. "Don't do it."
"You're interfering, brother. You're breaking the Rules."
"I'm a Horseman." It hurt to speak, but somehow speaking a line like that took a little of the pain away. "I make the Rules. Now drop your sword."
There was a long silence. Kronos hesitated, looking from MacLeod to Methos, and then back again. Behind him Connor came up, his own sword ready to intervene, should Kronos choose to decline. The Rules, it seemed, were broken completely; lying about them, scattered to whatever winds might happen to penetrate this magnificent prison. Finally, after what seemed like an age, Kronos threw the borrowed sword aside. Duncan toppled over and lay still. Methos let out a deep, shaking breath.
"Celebrate brother. You saved a life." Kronos pulled his sword from Duncan's chest, and wiped the blood on his jacket sleeve. He looked unsteady on his feet, and his entire body seemed to be shaking from the effort of remaining upright, but still the pride of the Horsemen was visible in his eyes. So, even more clearly, was the sting of the lost kill.
"What's to celebrate? I just killed Joe Dawson, and probably condemned every one of us to a summary execution. I helped destroy the fundamental Rule of Immortal combat." Methos slumped suddenly against the near wall, leaving a trail of blood against the glass. "I feel dreadful."
"Near death'll do that to you." The occasional gentleness that even Kronos was not immune to showed in the Horseman's voice as he helped his friend to sit. "Real death is even worse. Trust me."
"I... learnt four thousand years ago... never to trust you." Methos was smiling through the pain. Kronos sat down beside him, looking just as exhausted, and just as drained by his injuries. "But I will take your word on that." Slowly he reached out a hand. "Thankyou brother."
"You know what for. If you'd mistimed it, you might have saved my head, but you'd have lost your own. Or you might have lost both our heads."
"But I didn't."
"No, you didn't. After breaking the Rules like that, though, you may be about to bring the wrath of the gods down upon all of us..."
"Yeah." The promise of chaos sparked in the ice blue eyes. "If we're lucky."
"Hey." It was Connor, coming towards them with an irritating flush of energy. The only one of them not injured, he seemed unfairly healthy and erect. "I don't mean to interrupt this touching moment, but why is nobody coming to get us?"
"What do you mean?" Methos didn't understand for a moment, and then the meaning of the question struck him. Why had nobody come to tell them that Dawson had been executed for their failure to do as they had been told? Why had nobody come to take them away, or at the very least tell them what their fate was now to be? Kronos forced himself to his feet, leaning down to help Methos to rise.
"Something's not right." He turned to the glass wall beside him, staring at it as though able to penetrate the darkness on the other side. "Where is everybody?"
"Do you think we've been left to our own devices?" Methos also tried to stare into the gallery, but was unable to do so. "Why would they do that?"
"Why would they do anything? Perhaps things are not going in quite the way dear Anthony had hoped." Kronos rapped on the glass with his sword hilt, but to no avail. "If they've all gone, we could be here a long time."
"Not necessarily." Duncan, reviving where he had fallen, sounded hoarse and rough. "There has to be somebody out there. There's no reason why they would leave us. Kollias at the very least..."
"If Kollias has any sense, he's nowhere near this place. He must have realised just like we did that a decent Quickening would shatter these walls. Geddes miscalculated on that one." Methos could at last feel his strength returning, although his throat still felt sharp and raw. The blood at least had stopped flooding his mouth, and its lingering taste was beginning to fade. He hammered on the glass. "That doesn't explain where everybody else is though."
"Geddes did this as a publicity exercise. Maybe his public wasn't interested." Kronos was smirking, happy as ever to relish in the misfortunes of his enemies, despite the dire position that he was in himself.
"I hope not. I was rather looking forward to meeting your friend Geddes." MacLeod set about cleaning his sword, looking as though he was considering a frontal assault on the glass barrier. There was a decisiveness to his movements that inspired the others, even if they did not believe that any action would be successful. "I have one or two things I'd like to discuss with him."
"Get in line, MacLeod." Methos headed towards the door, unable to see it, so flush was it in its setting, but certain nonetheless that he was looking in the right place. "Perhaps there's somebody out there who'll let us in."
"And perhaps there's somebody out there who'll take our heads as we walk through the door." Duncan joined him, looking the wall over, wishing that the light was better, so that he had a chance of seeing some proper detail.
"Yeah, we must look on the bright side." Kronos strolled over to join them, Connor lingering nearby as if readying himself to defend his cousin should it become necessary. "Lead on Highlander. I promise to catch your head before it hits the floor."
"We're not getting out that way. Not unless somebody opens the door." Duncan hit the barrier hard, but felt not the slightest amount of give in the rigid material. "Damn it! They could be doing God knows what to Joe right now. I have to get out of here!"
"Do you think he's still alive?" Methos ran his hands around the outside of what appeared to be the door.
"He has to be. If I hadn't been so bloody-minded about all of this, he probably wouldn't even be in this position." Duncan shot Kronos a poisonous sideways glance. "Of course if the ever returning dead guy over there would actually stay dead for once, none of us would be in this position."
"That's a matter of opinion." Kronos toyed with his sword edge in a manner that was at once both comical and shockingly malicious. "Could be you'd still be here. You'd just have died a whole lot quicker."
"The day I wind up owing my life to you--"
"Shut up." Connor held up his hand for silence, his natural authority stilling them all. "Do you hear that?"
"I don't hear anything." Methos was frowning. Duncan scowled.
"You always did have unnatural hearing. What do you think it is?"
"People. Footsteps perhaps. A voice certainly." The dark-eyed Immortal moved closer to the door, the other three stepping out of his path without needing to be asked. He frowned. "Women I think. The voices sound soft."
"Can you tell how many?" Even Kronos seemed prepared to defer to Connor's authority, such was the power of the soft-voiced Immortal's mere presence.
"Two perhaps." Connor cocked his head on one side. "Maybe three."
"Best keep back." Duncan gestured for them to move away from the door. They could all hear something now, although quite what it was they were not sure. From somewhere came a faint scratching noise - the unmistakable sound of a key in a lock. Methos gave a broad, confident grin. Escape was a lovely word.
"Hello?" The voice was cautious and musical. It took a moment for Methos' mind to realise that the word was spoken in Greek, and a moment more to realise that this was no longer the way he usually spoke himself. A head peered around the door frame, and then, seconds later, a woman came slowly into the room.
She was astonishing, especially against the backdrop of the stone-floored arena, with its painted gods and mythical heroes. Clearly a local, she was dressed in a white silk toga, with a string of white beads around her throat. Her feet were encased in the criss-crossed thongs of leather sandals, and she carried in her arms a stone jug of wine. Had it not been for the modern setting of her necklace, she might have stepped straight out of the pages of history.
"Hello?" She was still speaking Greek, and Methos' mind still compensated for that only with time. He spoke so many languages so fluently that he rarely thought about the one that was being spoken at any particular time.
"Hello." He answered her in her own tongue, albeit a quite dated version, uncaring if the two MacLeods were unable to follow the conversation. "Who are you?"
"I work for Mr Geddes." Her voice trailed away. "He's... he's dead. I took the key from his body. I didn't know what to do. Everybody's gone now, except for a few of us."
"We're killing ourselves in here, and nobody's watching?" Indignation filled Methos' voice. "Where did they go?"
"Most of them didn't turn up. It was something to do with a man named Horton. I didn't follow much of the conversation." She looked terribly apologetic. "There was a big man called O'Reilly who shot Mr Geddes. He said that he had different plans. I think they're going back to Mr Geddes' offices. I don't know where those are."
"Dawson." Duncan grabbed her arm, startling her. He spoke English, which confused her momentarily. "Did they say anything about a man called Dawson?"
"Not that I remember. Not then anyway. I know that there was a man by that name..." She frowned. "But I don't know where he is."
"There was no order given to kill him?"
"Kill him?" She looked shocked. "No. Of course not. I'm sorry, I don't know very much."
"Never mind." Duncan released her, then turned automatically to Connor. "We have to get after them. If Dawson is where we think he is, and whoever killed Geddes has gone there too, Joe might not have very long left."
"Yes, of course. Perhaps this lady could tell us how we can get there quickly?" Connor tried a gentle smile on the girl, who seemed to glow in the face of such attention. The sound of his accent had charmed her as much as had his manner, and she all but fluttered her eyelashes at him.
"You can't leave here. Mr Geddes was very clear about that. I don't understand it all, but I can't let you leave. I only came here to tell you what was happening. I thought that you deserved to know. I could get into terrible trouble if I let you leave."
"Don't let that bother you." Smiling his own gentle smile, Kronos strolled towards her, his sword held casually behind his back, point towards the ground. "We're not going anywhere. Just answer our questions, and we'll be happy to do as you say. That's fair isn't it?"
"I suppose so." She glanced back, conferring with the gaggle of similarly clad women who stood just outside the little room. "What is it that you want to know?"
"Kollias." Kronos spoke the name as though it were a powerful spell. Certainly the soft, sharp sound seemed to suck all of the warmth from the room, and fill the wide, enclosed space with cold air in return. "Where is he?"
"Mr Kollias left. I don't know where he went. Is it important?"
"Oh no." He moved closer towards her, Methos seeing what was coming before anybody else did. The oldest Immortal opened his mouth to shout a warning, and then closed it again. Kronos lifted his sword in the blink of an eye. "Don't worry about it."
"I won't." She was still looking towards Connor, who was still standing nearby, soft brown eyes as distant and as mysterious as ever. Perhaps it was her preoccupation with this strange, possibly French, young man, but she did not even notice when Kronos pointed his sword at her throat.
"Kronos, no!" Duncan moved forward with the speed of lightning, but was too far away to be of any use as the long sword buried itself deep in the pretty girl's neck. Her eyes opened wide with shock, glistening bright and huge for one brief second. Then coldness and emptiness filled them instead, and her body slumped to the ground. There was a rush of activity from outside the door, but the Horseman was too quick for the serving girls. In barely a moment all three of them were dead. Kronos cleaned his sword with icy precision.
"You bastard. You cold, heartless--" With a hard blow, Duncan struck Kronos across the head with the flat of his sword. "There was no reason to do that. You didn't have to kill them!"
"No, I didn't." Kronos, who had been thrown against the wall with the force of the blow, straightened up as though unconcerned by the attack. "But I did. Live with it." He sheathed his sword. "We seem to be free. I plan on taking advantage of that, before somebody turns up to try and change the situation."
"I'm not going anywhere with you." Duncan had not sheathed his sword, and still waved it threateningly. Methos stepped up to push it aside.
"We need to get out of this place, MacLeod. There's no telling how many people know that we're here. Horton was mentioned, remember? I'd rather not be here if he turns up mob-handed. He doesn't like us very much."
"Yeah." Very slowly MacLeod turned his back on the dead serving girls. "I suppose you're right."
"He usually is. It's one of his more annoying traits." Kronos turned his back, apparently trusting that MacLeod was not going to kill him. "Now let's get going. Much against my better judgement I suddenly find myself wanting to make sure that Dawson is okay." He almost winced at the admission. Methos had to try hard not to smile.
"Come on." He pushed on past all of them, striding through the largely empty gallery, not sparing so much as a glance for the fallen Geddes. In death the impossibly handsome face looked more like a mask than ever, the clear blue eyes staring heavenwards in a manner that made them appear like the glass eyes of a shop window mannequin. With the smile gone, and the carefully composed façade of amiability stripped away, there was only the good looks left. It made Geddes appear to be rather weak. He had fallen badly, and his usually immaculate clothing was crumpled. Had he been alive to see it he would undoubtedly have been shocked. As it was, nobody even noticed. Nobody even looked.
Outside the dawn was breaking, although Methos would have been hard put to say which dawn it was, and which day he was now witnessing the birth of. He didn't know how long he had been in the arena, but he felt a curious sense of displacement. It affected his senses, and confused his state of mind. The others seemed a little disorientated as well, although that might just have been the exhaustion. It had been a long night.
"What do we do now?" Connor was watching the horizon, ever ready in case of the return of their enemies. In that respect he reminded Methos so much of Kronos that it was almost hard not to laugh.
"We have to rescue Joe." Duncan sounded adamant. "Goodness knows I've been hard enough on him just lately. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't have the chance to apologise. If anything ever happened to him..."
"Yeah." Methos clapped him on the shoulder. "I understand. But it's not just Joe we have to rescue. The Involution also have Costas Reuben, and Andros Thane. I kind of feel responsible for them." A small movement off to his right caught his eye, and he sighed. "And don't look like that, Kronos. I like to feel responsible every once in a while. It's good for the soul."
"You don't have a soul." The younger Immortal's expression was dark and dangerous, his words heavy and menacing, but Methos knew him well enough to be sure that there was jest beneath the drama. "You're Death. Pretty soon you'd better start acting like it, or I'm going to have to find new avenues to haunt."
"I'm just one big contradiction." Methos slung an arm across his brother's wiry shoulders. "Just try and pretend that you don't love me more that way."
"Get off." The younger Horseman pushed the arm away, then drew his sword. "Are we going to go and find ourselves a battle, or am I going to leave you lily-livered Watchers' boys to handle this alone?"
"We're going." Methos suddenly sounded serious. "Er... does anybody know where we're going?"
"That way." Kronos pointed with total conviction, his sense of direction undiminished by the fatigue that he would never have admitted to. "A day's walk perhaps; at my speed that is. Make it two days with the way you dawdle, brother."
"We have to find some transport." Methos ignored the jibe, caught between a desire to join in with the familiar banter, and a hard sense of urgency that made him interested only in being on his way. "Any cars?"
"Down there." Connor nodded, but when the other three turned it was not cars that they saw, but horses; a group of them set out to graze in a steeply sloped hillside field filled with long grass. Duncan groaned.
"Horses? You've got to be kidding. There's a reason why the internal combustion engine is considered such an important invention, you know."
"Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud." Connor slapped him on the back. "Would you rather walk?"
"I'd rather drive. In a nice comfortable ATV with power steering. Unlike some people around here, I like to move with the times."
"So do I." Connor couldn't keep the smile from his face. "Come on... go with the flow." The American speech sounded odd coming from his inescapably un-American voice. "It'll be like old times."
"Yeah. That's what I'm worried about." Duncan sighed. "Come on then. Let's get this over with; but just for the record, I'm doing this under protest."
"I'd never have guessed." Methos was already striding ahead, and missed the half-muttered insult thrown at his retreating back by the irate Highlander. Connor laughed.
"I thought you two had agreed to be friends again."
"Me? Friends with Methos?" Duncan couldn't help smiling. "Sometimes I wonder why I'd want that kind of responsibility."
"Go boil your head, MacLeod." Methos' voice, filtered by distance, drifted back to them on the growing breeze. MacLeod scowled.
"And then I remember how bloody irritating he is, and I know that I don't want that kind of responsibility." He sighed, rather theatrically. "Sadly, Fate would seem to have other ideas."
"Fate usually knows what she's doing." Connor, pulling slightly ahead, climbed the fence leading to the horses' field, and then gestured about at the casual, unconcerned quadrupeds. "Which one do you fancy?"
"The one with the diesel engine and twin exhausts." Duncan made a grab for a passing bay, missed, and wondered how Methos and Kronos had managed to capture a pair of beasts so quickly. It was almost tempting to ask for their assistance.
"Get a move on MacLeod, or we'll go without you." So effortless was the movement that swung Kronos onto the saddle-less back of his chosen steed that MacLeod found himself praying for some kind of mishap. There was none of course. Glowering hard enough to make most of the horses flee his ill-contented shadow, he snatched at the mane of the nearest beast, and this time managed to hold on. The animal slowed, waiting for him to mount, and he did so, pleased that he could still manage the manoeuvre without looking too out of practice. The last thing that he wanted was to be shown up by Kronos.
"Which way?" Methos asked the question to Kronos, trusting his judgement implicitly, as ever. The one time Leader of the Horsemen pointed into the west, still untouched by the shards of growing sunlight in the east. He couldn't help but smirk.
"If we time it right we should be coming at them from out of the sun. Always the connoisseur's choice for an attack."
"Yeah." There was an indescribable look on Methos' face. Without further words on the subject, however, he turned to look back at the two Highlanders. The pair were coming up behind, moving into position so that they could ride four abreast. The oldest Immortal felt a powerful surging of something very like joy well from deep within him, and he couldn't stop a broad grin from growing across his face. Duncan looked suspicious.
"What's the joke?"
"Well... not a joke exactly." The grin was growing as though with a life all of its own. "But am I the only one seeing the irony in all of this?"
"Irony?" Duncan glanced about, for the first time seeing the four of them, mounted up and ready to ride into battle. His face flushed a decidedly unhealthy colour. "I'll give you irony, you--"
"Now now, MacLeod." Methos moved his horse out of harm's reach, still unable to keep from smiling. "Horsemen never fight."
"Not with each other, anyway." Kronos was staring into the west, ignoring the shenanigans going on around him.
"Not all the time, at least." Methos drew his sword and held it out. Kronos, as though acting out an old and timeless ritual, copied the action. The two swords crossed at the blades, the sound of clanging metal striking notes across the ancient hillsides, like echoes of a melody unheard for three thousand years.
"For each other," Kronos announced, in the dramatic voice of doom that he spoke so well.
"To the death." Methos copied the tone of voice almost exactly, speaking as one who was letting a little of himself show through the disguise behind which he kept himself eternally hidden. The two old warriors looked askance at each other, and Methos gave a slow nod.
"The Four Horsemen ride again." He spoke it almost as a mantra, in a voice soft and deep, and touched with menace. Duncan MacLeod rolled his eyes.
"And may the Lord help us all."
"It's certain that nobody else will." Kronos sheathed his sword, sitting high and tall and for all the world as though civilisation were truly about to crumble before him. "And I wouldn't have it any other way." He urged his horse forward, Methos moving beside him as though their mounts were joined at the hip. Duncan glanced at his cousin, an expression of deepest regret etched across his expressive face.
"Is it too late to turn back?"
"Where's your sense of adventure Duncan?" Spurring his horse onwards, Connor galloped after the others. The younger MacLeod gave a heavy sigh.
"They say fortune favours the bold." He shook his head, wishing that he could ignore the exhilaration already beginning to build in his chest. Was this how it felt to be one of the Horsemen? Was this how it might have been, thousands of years ago, when such things were the way of life, and when four men on horseback were a symbol more powerful than death? He kicked his horse after the others, and felt the pounding of its hooves beginning to echo the pounding of his heart. Wind whistled in his ears, and around him his three companions began to spread out. They were riding abreast, perfectly level as though placed in formation by a magical hand; and yet still it seemed that Kronos had taken the lead. They were equally spaced almost to the point of mathematical precision, and yet still it appeared as though Methos and Kronos were closer together, and riding practically side by side. For the first time since that terrible afternoon, early in 1997, when he had finally discovered the truth about the old man's past, Duncan MacLeod found that he understood all that his friend had once been. It was as though some dreadful weight had been lifted from his heart, and it made him want to shout aloud. The oath that the two old Immortals had sworn echoed and re-echoed in his head. For each other. To the death... It clung to his very soul.
"I hope you know what you're doing, MacLeod." He muttered it into the wind, almost as if he expected an answer. There was none of course, save for the growing excitement that he could not staunch. He wanted to be at his destination already, riding into battle to free his friend, searching for revenge for all that he had been forced to endure. What he really wanted, he realised with a jolt, was blood and chaos, and a chance to bask in violence. What he wanted was to ride out of the sun, whirling his sword in the air, and yelling at the top of his voice. He found himself smiling. Time to give over to instinct; time to be one with the chaos. He could be a boy scout again tomorrow - today he was a Horseman. Methos' words kept repeating themselves in his head, and he found himself whispering them to the racing wind.
"To the death..." It felt like rebirth. It felt... apocalyptic. He laughed aloud, and wondered if the scenery recognised the two old warriors leading the charge. Perhaps they did, for it sounded to him as though the hooves of his horse were pounding that old mantra into the hard ground of the hillside.
The Four Horsemen ride again... Over and over it thundered its simple message in the hard sound of relentless hoof beats. The Four Horsemen ride again...
And Duncan gave his heart to the rhythm, and let it carry him on.