FALLING WITH SHADOWS
He could move his right leg. Well that had to be good, right? Now if the rest of his limbs would just follow suit, he might be getting somewhere. He tested his left arm and discovered it present and correct. Well that was good again. A left arm was always a good thing to have around. Not quite as good as a right arm, admittedly, at least when one was right handed, but still most definitely a Good Thing. A heavy corpse lay across his left leg, defiantly refusing to get up and find somebody else's extremities to sprawl across, but with a bit of kicking and a lot of swearing he managed to get free. He stood up. His head felt decidedly mutinous, but it was still attached to his shoulders which was, most assuredly, what really mattered. All in all he felt pretty good, except for the fact that there was a hole in his chest big enough to put his fist through. He glanced down at it. Somehow there didn't really seem to be any point in saying "Ow." There was nobody alive to hear him say it anyway. Instead he pulled the ragged remains of his uniform shirt across the hole, growled at it to stop bleeding, and hoisted his rifle onto his shoulder. It was waterlogged, he could tell at a glance, and there was no way that it was going to fire. All the same, he felt better for its presence. It was a weapon, at least, and if nothing else it still had its bayonet attached. He was very fond of that bayonet. There was nothing quite like being that close to your victims as you impaled them; seeing the look in their eyes as they died; seeing the fear register as they finally realised that there was no hope, no mercy. Sometimes they cried, especially the very young ones. There had been a boy several months back who couldn't have been a day above sixteen. Tawny hair, freckles. Pale blue eyes that were wide and sad. He had stared down at the bayonet and muttered a quick prayer to whichever god protected foolhardy German boys stationed too far from home. Kronos had seen better prey ahead, and in one of the acts of magnanimity that surprised no one so much as himself, had left the boy behind. One of the British officers had shot him anyway, straight through the side of the head at close range. He had fallen at the feet of the Immortal warrior who had spared his life, and Kronos had, for once in his great, long life, been at a loss. He had intended to shoot down the British officer, but at that moment there had been a swelling forward of men, and the pair had been lost in the onslaught. Even later, when most of the others were dead and Kronos was wandering alone through the mud, he had not been able to find the officer. He hadn't been able to find the German boy either. Wherever he lay, his grave was now marked by the corpses of his enemies and friends, tangled together in the mud.
None of which was any help now. He glanced around, trying to spot some helpful bearings. He was in No Man's Land, he knew that much; but which way were the German trenches and which way the British ones? He didn't fancy staggering through all of the mud and rain just to find himself in the wrong trench, with the prospect of spending the rest of the war as a prisoner. On the other hand he wasn't terribly enamoured of the idea of fighting his way back to the British side, just to have to explain all over again how he came to be the only survivor. It certainly wouldn't do to have his fellow soldiers see the gaping wound in his chest. He glanced down at it to see how it was getting on. Certainly it was beginning to heal, but not nearly enough yet for him to risk letting anybody else see it. He scowled. He was cold and he was tired and he was completely wet through. It hadn't stopped raining for three days, and the water was coming out of the sky so fast right now that he could barely see his hand right in front of his face. His feet had already sunk right up to the ankles into thick grey mud, and there was deeper yet to fight his way through. In four thousand years and what felt like twice as many battle fields he didn't think he had ever seen a place more hellish than this. The mud sucked at his feet, trying to drag him off balance, apparently determined to haul him into its sticky embrace and leave him lying with his comrades, a lifeless relic in a mass grave. He tugged one foot free and promptly lost his balance, crashing backwards into a careless pile of blood-soaked corpses. There was the sound of a distinct moan.
"Who's there?" Useless rifle gripped tightly in his hands, Kronos made his way carefully back to his feet, tugging at the bodies with his free hand. They all looked the same, and in the mud and blood and varying shades of congealed gore it was impossible to tell one uniform from another. Pasty, mud-grey faces coated in grime; unreadable insignia; limbs without people and people without limbs. All lifeless, all mangled, all pointless now. All except one.
He was about forty in mortal years, Kronos guessed; brown hair greying at the temples, two days growth of beard that made him look like a grizzled tramp. He was tanned and evidently strong, thickly muscled especially around the shoulders, with a barrel chest and powerful looking arms. Definite survivor material. The ruins of an officer's uniform clung to his soaking body, and what remained of his boots - largely burnt away by incendiary fire - still showed the marks of a recent heavy polishing. Beneath the mud, and a fair sprinkling of what looked like someone else's blood, grey-green eyes blinked up at Kronos, sharing their colour with the uniform, with the mud, with the land spread about them. Even the sky seemed to have taken on the same depressing hue; what little of it could be seen through the sheets of torrential, grey-green rain. The face around the eyes was roughly square-shaped, intelligent and well-defined. The brows drew together into a sharp frown, and the straight, mud-flecked lips were pulled into a tight line.
"Who are you?" The question startled Kronos, for the tone of voice it was barked in was not that of a wounded man, nor even a man who was at all the worse for wear. Freed of the weight of dead comrades he sat up easily, making a vague and rather pointless attempt to straighten his uniform. What little there was of it left in one piece resisted his attempts to tidy it, preferring instead to hang in tattered pieces about his shoulders. He was British, that much was clear from the accent. English to narrow it down some. Kronos thought that he recognised the tell-tale signs of a public school education, which immediately put him on his guard. An officer then, without doubt; and probably an insufferable one at that. He considered putting the mortal out of his misery before anybody saw them, but already the other man was scrambling to his feet. The mud tried to haul him earthwards once more, but he fought it admirably, staggering to an unsteady but undeniably proud poise, head held high. Kronos didn't bother telling him that that was hardly the most sensible way to stand in the middle of No Man's Land. Besides; if somebody saw the fool, and started the shelling off again, it might give Kronos the hint he needed to direct him back towards his own trench.
"I asked you a question." The man squared his shoulders, glaring down at the Immortal before him. Kronos stared back up at him, unfazed, and saw a sparkling of confusion in the other man's eyes. What the former Leader of the Horsemen lacked in size he easily made up for in other ways; and even now, standing drenched in a stretch of the most inhospitable territory on Earth, virtually up to his eyeballs in mud, he possessed the kind of aura guaranteed to put most people in a severe state of unease. He recognised the questions passing unasked across the officer's face, and smirked in his most insubordinate fashion.
"Lieutenant Craig. Mark Craig." It was not a rank that the British army recognised, but he used it as a matter of course nonetheless. He had first won it on a battlefield in France, long before this soldier - and this war - had even been thought of. The name had come on the spur of the moment, as such things usually did. Even now, after thousands of years of aliases, it still annoyed him that the name he used couldn't be his own.
"Major Collgrove." The officer did not venture a first name. "Alright, lieutenant. Let's see where we are shall we?"
"If you like." Kronos turned away, leaving him to his mud and dead bodies. He heard a shout of irritation following him into the rain, but he shut his ears to it, focusing instead on finding some kind of a path. There had been one. He clearly remembered following something like a path out of the trench all those hours ago. Hours? It felt more like days, or even weeks. There was a timelessness to this whole war that suggested such mere measurements as hours and days no longer mattered. They had never mattered a whole lot to Kronos anyway, but here they did so even less.
"Lieutenant!" The voice followed him into the mists, and somewhere off to the right a lone gunshot answered it. Rifle, out of range. He identified the sound without thinking, and gave it no more thought than he might have given to a buzzing fly. The sound of fast feet pursuing him through the mud was much more of an immediate threat, and he swung around, rifle at the ready. It was with little surprise that he found himself face to face with Major Collgrove. The bigger man looked red-faced and breathless, gripping his service revolver in his right hand and the ruins of his cap in his left. A broken piece of insignia clung to the front of the cap, just above the shattered peak. If the major's righteous indignation was supposed to inspire thoughts of obedience and loyalty, however, it was being pointed at the wrong man.
"Keep your voice down." Ignoring the second rifle shot that echoed about the still plain, Kronos caught Collgrove's arm to steady him. The ground here was even more treacherous, beginning a faint slope downwards that made balance harder to obtain even without the wet. "There's a trench full of enemy soldiers out there, remember?"
"Don't take that tone of voice with me, lieutenant." Collgrove pulled away, determined to stand unaided. "What did you mean by walking away?" Kronos didn't bother answering, and Collgrove did not press the point. Maybe it was the hint of a smile on the face of the man before him; or maybe it was something that he saw impressed upon those lively, pale blue eyes. Either way he frowned, then shook himself back into something approaching a proper military stance. "Do you have a compass?"
"No." Kronos turned in a rough circle, still wondering why he didn't just kill the major and have done with it. He really must be tired. "Can't see the stars. We could wait until morning."
"Out here? You must be joking." Collgrove shivered, despite his earlier attempts to look staunch and determined. "I'd much rather get somewhere warm and dry, wouldn't you?"
"Fine." Pointing with his sodden rifle, Kronos indicated the likely directions. "The most recent gunshots came from over there. That's probably the closest trench. It won't be terribly warm and dry whichever side it's on, but if it's an enemy one they'll have you in a nice dry cell by nightfall tomorrow." He shrugged. "Or dead by sunrise." Another smile found its way onto his face. Perhaps that wasn't such a bad plan. He could lead the way to the nearest German trench and hand Collgrove over as a Prisoner Of War. It was no longer possible to tell what uniform either man was wearing, and given the old Immortal's fluent German he should have no trouble convincing the soldiers of his good faith. Admittedly it was some years now since he had last been in Germany, but he felt confident enough that he could make a good show of it. A change of sides might be just what he needed to brighten the war up a bit. When he had enlisted he had been looking for some fun; something to cheer up the long and boring evenings and dispel the depressing inactivity he had been stuck in since the end of the nineteenth century. Instead he had found nothing but mud, noise and incessant cold. Hardly an adventure, more a kind of punishment. There were plenty of opportunities to play the hero; many chances to win medals and gain glory - especially given his virtual indestructibility. But he had never fought wars for glory, just for adrenalin. Just for adventure and fun, and for the joy of the battle rage. That had worn off a long time ago. Modern wars, he had decided, lacked vision. Where was the fun in hiding in a muddy hole for weeks, looking at the enemy over a bit of barbed wire, and then running pointlessly at them every so often? The chances of hand-to-hand combat, of cold-blooded violence - even of well-planned victimisation - were virtually minimal. Usually the only ones to get killed were the ones Kronos was supposed to be fighting with, not against; and even though he had no real sense of comradeship, no desire to protect them or to save their lives, watching them dying in their droves just didn't have quite the same appeal. It all made for a very boring existence. Bloody mortals. None of them knew how to have a really good war.
"Do you have any idea which way we're supposed to be heading?" Collgrove no longer sounded like an irritable soldier. Even his cut-glass accent was starting to slip. Kronos shrugged.
"Depends how much you want to live." He shouldered his rifle. "Judging by the way most of these bodies are pointing, we want to head that way." He pointed. "But on the other hand, things got a little confusing for a while. Everybody started running every which way. Head in the wrong direction now, and get caught doing it, and you'll be up before a firing squad at dawn." He smiled again, and his eyes glittered. That, again, wasn't such a bad idea. If he was legally dead he could go and do whatever he wanted somewhere else. Join the renegades, or maybe leave Europe behind altogether. Trouble was brewing in Russia, or so he had heard. There was talk of Civil War. Now that was much more in his line. Everybody killing each other, nobody in charge, chaos and terror aplenty. He smiled to himself in the anonymity of the rain and the dark. Maybe Methos had been right, all those decades ago. Maybe he did have a one track mind. His smile became a smirk of evil pleasure. If mortals were to have a little more going for them - a little more flair and a lot less civilisation - maybe he wouldn't need to be quite so single-minded. It was hard to look for new entertainments, new ways of life, when you were four thousand years old. It was hard to begin again - particularly when you were happy enough with things as they were. Then quite without warning, a new century had come raising itself up on the horizon, and all of a sudden nobody carried swords anymore, and fewer people were riding horses. Nobody fought in the streets, except in the rougher ends of town, and only then usually on a Friday or a Saturday night. The populace, at one time hardened to all forms of violence and sin, had suddenly started gasping in shock and disbelief when murders were committed. They had started to side with the victims in robberies and such like, instead of with the perpetrators. Even when it came to war they held back on the cavalry and the swords, and started relying on boring old infantrymen armed with rifles. Rifles had no soul. You couldn't hack a man to death with a rifle. You couldn't slice off his head, and watch the blood fly in a picturesque arc. Any fool could shoot a gun. Swords had the power, the excitement, the romance. No - it was little wonder, thought Kronos, that he had to divert so much of his powerful brain towards thinking up new ways of causing trouble. There was little enough of it to be had anywhere else. The twentieth century, he was fast beginning to realise, was no place for the Leader of the Horsemen. Even if he had had any Horsemen to lead, he still would have been floundering in a world that found him an anachronism. There were still throwbacks to the old ways in London and in France and in the United States - but they were fast becoming outdated. If things continued the way they were he was going to have to go and hide himself in the middle of the wilderness somewhere - and even that probably wouldn't work. The damned missionaries were spreading their own special brand of civilisation faster than even Kronos could kill them. It was as though the twentieth century was some kind of a disease, infecting the planet with its presence. It was enough to make a self-respecting Horseman shudder in his boots.
"I don't fancy getting shot as a deserter." Collgrove was toying with his service revolver. "And I don't fancy waiting until it's light, when every damn soldier between here and the Somme will be able to see exactly where we are." He glanced up at the sky, but the stars were still obstinately refusing to be seen through the heavy cloud and impenetrable rain. Finally he reached into his pocket and extracted a coin. "Heads we go left, tails we go right." He tossed the coin, but as he reached out to catch it, it slipped through his wet fingers and vanished into the mud. "Great. Don't suppose you have any coins on you?"
"No." Kronos turned his back on the major, and instead focused his attentions on the invisible world about them. He could hear singing, very faintly above the sound of the persistent weather, and he recognised the song. It was something about a prostitute from London's East End who had been enamoured of King George the Whichever Number It Was. Some half a dozen voices were singing it together, in a muted chorus of jumbled, off-key notes and half-slurred words. In the darkness the song was like a beacon, however distant. He pointed. "It's that way."
"So it is." Collgrove looked oddly indecisive. "Bit of luck that."
"Yeah." Distinctly lacking in enthusiasm, Kronos stared off into the night. Last chance. Did he slice up the major, and then keep on walking until he hit somewhere rather more entertaining, or did he go on back to the trenches, and give the war another go? Collgrove decided for him, the loud click of his revolver's hammer cocking back making Kronos spin about in surprise. He found himself staring down the barrel of the gun, the major's bright, mud coloured eyes gleaming in the practically non-existent light.
"I'm sorry." Collgrove's voice was very calm and very level. "But I can't go back to the trenches. I'm sorry that we met, and I'm sorry that I've put you in this position. But I can't let you go back there and tell them you saw me."
"You're flattering yourself if you think they care." Kronos kept his own voice very level too. None of his anger showed in his face or in his eyes; although something that Collgrove saw in the latter made his stance falter slightly. The major flashed him a nervous smile.
"You're underestimating me if you think they don't." His public school accent was almost entirely gone now, and although he still spoke quite well, there was the distinct sound of London in his voice. "I'm not exactly who I appear to be."
"None of us are ever who we appear to be." Kronos pondered making an end of this now, with his bayonet, but something made him hold off. Maybe he wanted to see where this was going, or maybe Collgrove had interested him enough to warrant a stay of execution. Either way his hands did not move, and he kept an easy, relaxed hold on his waterlogged rifle. Collgrove frowned, looking distinctly uneasy.
"I'm sorry." He fingered the trigger of his revolver, although he did not increase the pressure enough to shoot. "I really don't want to do this."
"Don't feel too bad." Kronos weighed the rifle in his hands. "I'm sure we'll laugh about it later." The ghost of a cruel smile turned up the corners of his mouth, sending echoes of itself flickering about in the centres of his eyes. "Or at least, I will."
"No. You'll be dead." Collgrove took a step forward, his revolver no more than a few inches from the Immortal's chest. Kronos' smile became a full-fledged grin, as bright and as sparkling as some freshly cut jewel.
"One of us will be." His voice was soft. Collgrove blanched, and his hand shook as he tightened his finger on the trigger.
"You're nuts." He whispered the words as he fired the gun, watching as the other man spun about, clutching at the bloodied ruin of his uniform. Still shaking, the major stared down at the silent form for what seemed like several minutes, before finally he managed to gather together his wits. He turned to leave, breaking into a run, slipping and sliding across the muddy ground, stumbling over rough patches, cursing as his boots caught in mangled bodies. A shell exploded somewhere close by, showering him with pieces of slimy, semi-solid mud. He threw himself to the ground. Getting blown up now just would not be fair. He hugged the mud encrusted form of the body he had landed beside, staring into what he thought was a face. As his vision cleared with the fading of the initial shock, he realised that it was not a face at all, but a huge, tattered hole blown in the man's abdomen. He didn't seem to exist from the thighs down, and everything above that was a bloody mess. There was little left that seemed at all human. Collgrove closed his eyes briefly, then staggered to his feet and struggled on. He didn't want to think about dead people. He didn't want to think about horrific injuries and fatal woundings. He didn't want to think about the lines of trenches so horribly close to where he was now. Most of all, he didn't want to think about the lieutenant he had just murdered; a man who had stopped to help him, and whom he had shot down in cold blood. He remembered the look in the man's eyes as he had fallen. Anger; anger and cold malice. There had been no fear, no look of disbelief; not at all like most of the bodies Collgrove found himself amongst now. It was almost as if the man had had no fear of death. Collgrove didn't think he had ever met someone who could honestly claim that. To him it seemed that death was the one thing everybody feared. Just the thought of the lieutenant's face - of his burning, pale blue eyes - was enough to make the major's blood run cold. He clenched his fist more tightly around the service revolver, gritting his teeth firmly together. He had a long way still to go, and harder territory than this to negotiate. He had to think about something other than a dead man. He was never going to have to look into those disturbing eyes again. If he could just keep his head, he would have nothing more to worry about.
The mud was astonishingly persistent, and it took several tries to pull himself free of it entirely. Left alone amongst the living, Kronos sat up and stared into the night. It was his second return to life in less than an hour, and his chest hurt. He rubbed it, unsurprised to see that his hand came away covered with blood. He wiped it on his trousers, but wound up coating his hand with mud instead. Damn the bloody rain. Didn't it ever stop? The ground was awash now, running with water and mud, rising up past his ankles. He could feel the salt water driving new spears of pain into his chest, where it touched the raw wounds still gaping on either side of his breast bone. He wanted to wash the salt away, but there was no way to do that here. Instead he embraced the pain, greeting it, welcoming it. He closed his eyes and let the sweet agony tell him that he was alive. The pain stirred his senses, raising his temperature, stirring his anger and his desire for revenge. He smirked into the darkness, and shouldered his rifle. It shouldn't be too difficult to follow Major Collgrove, he told himself. He just had to keep walking in the most likely direction. It wasn't as though he was expected. His grin broadened.
"I'm com-iiing..." The sing-song whisper floated about him, mingling with the sound of the rain. He laughed, but there was nobody to hear it save the dead, and they had ceased to care for his games. He bent to the nearest body, running his hands through the blood that still ran from the horribly maimed body. Judging by what remained of the man's face, this soldier had been one of the young ones. Nineteen at the most, with blond curls matted by the rain and the mud, and by the blood from his own, almost completely destroyed head. Kronos had seen plenty of men like this one over the last nine or ten months or so; glory hunters who had been praying the war would last long enough to let them join up; kids who carried photographs of the sweethearts they had enlisted to impress. A mortal might have felt sorrow or sadness; a more sympathetic Immortal might have felt remorse or possibly regret. Kronos felt nothing at all. They were not his people, and if they wanted to kill themselves it wasn't his place to oppose their foolish wishes. He didn't understand their willingness to throw their lives away, but he wasn't about to grieve for them when they did. Instead he coated his hands in the boy's blood, then rose to his feet and turned to look after Collgrove. He ran his hands across his face, painting it in vertical stripes of half-congealed blood. His eyes glittered in the bright fire of another shell. The rain would soon wash his war paint away, but in the meantime it was there to identify him. He had no horse, and he had no Horsemen; but Kronos was hunting real game tonight nonetheless. He grinned into the blackness, and pulled the bayonet free from his rifle, casting the useless modern weapon away into the mud. The bayonet wasn't the same as his sword, but it would do for now. And as he started off into the night, he laughed; and his laugh was a demonic giggle of degenerate joy. From now on, the war was personal.
Dawn rose slowly, as though the sun had no wish to rise from its secure bed, and risk serious injury to itself on the warfields. A dull, grey light, gently infused with yellow, drifted above the mud-covered expanse of No Man's Land; but it brought no real improvement to Collgrove's field of vision. Everywhere, as far as he could see, the world was covered in water. It stretched out in every direction, covering many of the bodies, leaving occasional limbs and pieces of weaponry sticking up out of the mire like tiny islands. It rose above his ankles as he walked, slowing his stride; it sank into every fold of his clothing, weighing him down as though he were a giant sponge. And beneath the rain, the mud awaited him, drawing each boot down into its sucking embrace. Every time he took a step he had to fight for his balance, fight to keep walking onward, fight just to keep the boots on his feet. He had gone beyond exhaustion, beyond mere disillusionment, and wherever he was now, he didn't think there was a name for it. He began to sing, eyes half-closed from the need for sleep, head bowed through fatigue. The words were so distant, the voice so faint, that it seemed as though it were someone else singing; some distant stranger that he could not yet see. But he knew that the words were his. He didn't even recognise the song.
He walked for hours. All through the night and through the rising of the sun. Through the maturing of the day, when the trenches appeared through the mists, visible now to either side of him. He saw patrols in the distance; he heard the distant sound of engines and he hid before he was seen. He watched people in Red Cross uniforms struggling through the sucking mud, trying to reach those few people who might have survived the night. Most of them wouldn't survive another one. Collgrove imagined being found by some vision in a white uniform; imagined being taken to some dry field hospital, where there might be a bed with real sheets. Nurses to look after him, food that didn't have maggots in it. A roof that didn't leak, something other than six inches of mud beneath his feet. A horizon that wasn't filled with the mangled bodies of people he had been joking with hours earlier. A few short hours, maybe, before they found out who he was, and shipped him off for trial and a summary execution. Maybe it would be worth it, if he could just get some sleep.
"Snap out of it." He hissed the words in a guttural whisper, turning away from scenes of crusading doctors and nurses. He couldn't think that way. There was no point in letting himself be caught, in letting everything have been for nothing. If that was the outcome of it all, he might just as well have let the lieutenant take him back to the trenches the previous night, instead of killing the poor man. Collgrove still felt bad about that. He couldn't help wondering who the man had been. Some unfortunate innocent most likely, who if it hadn't been for the war would never have done anything to hurt anyone. The guilt increased, until he remembered the indescribable glitter in the pale blue eyes of his victim; and then a shudder replaced the onward creep of remorse. It was almost as if he were afraid of the man, but he could not quite put his finger on why that should be. What was it about him that had been so disturbing? And why should he still feel this way, even though he knew that the other man was dead? He tried not to shudder again, but he was so cold that the shiver came naturally. He rubbed his hands together, longing for some gloves, or just for some pockets to sink his hands into. He had pockets of course, but they were wet through like the rest of him, and probably filled with mud. It was almost enough to make him miss the trenches. At least there he could find some coffee, even though the milk had run out weeks previously, and even though it tasted revolting. It was hot, at least. He felt colder than he had ever been in his life, and that was saying a lot just recently. It was as though there were no longer the adjectives to describe just how cold he felt; just how miserable he was. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to visualise some pleasing landscape, some warm and still summer's day. Anywhere but here. The visions wouldn't come, and neither would the illusions of warmth he had hoped they would bring with them.
He walked on for several hours, hiding from patrols, almost blundering once into the waiting arms of a group of Germans. They had been standing around together - ten of them, slouched in groups of two and three, smoking home-rolled cigarettes that smelt as though the tobacco was being embellished with anything that would burn. Anything to make the real thing last that bit longer. Dirty grey smoke rose above their heads, spreading out in uneven clouds like smudges on the wind. They banged their hands together for warmth as they huddled up in their groups, unshaven faces pointing at the ground, collars on their overcoats turned up to protect them from the growing wind. Collgrove was envious. His own greatcoat was back in the trenches, probably already redistributed to somebody else, following the obvious conclusion that he was now dead. In his thin shirt and ragged trousers, to say nothing of his almost destroyed boots, he had very little protection from the cold. He had been able to think of little else all night, even as he walked. He watched the group for a while, almost as if trying to warm himself just on the rough conviviality of their company - then he walked on again, hurrying onward, desperate to reach the nowhere he was travelling to as soon as he could.
He reached some scattered farm buildings just as his battered watch, which had long ago given up the ghost, informed him for the fourth time in three hours that it was eight o'clock. It must have stopped the previous evening of course, and not moved an inch since then. He still looked at it, still timed himself by it. If the watch said that it was eight o'clock, then eight o'clock it was. Morning or evening wasn't important, but to judge by what he could see of the sun it was afternoon. Probably a little after lunchtime, although his stomach didn't care about details like that. The last thing he wanted was food. He stared up at the leaning stone walls of a large barn, listening intently. He could hear no voices, no angry shouts; no stentorian commands to throw down his gun and raise his hands. He couldn't even hear the barking of a dog. Abandoning all care, he tugged open the heavy wooden door of the barn and staggered into the room beyond. It was vast; a huge expanse of stone-flagged floor intermittently strewn with straw. Wooden rafters stretched up above his head, supporting a roof of almost cathedral-like proportions. There were stalls that might once have held cattle or horses, and a loft that might once have been filled with hay. It was all empty now, save for a few piles of ageing, dusty straw. He gathered them together, dragging them into one of the stalls. It was dry, and it was relatively warm. There were a few old sacks, empty and full of holes, and he pulled them around himself, drawing them in tight, trying to conserve the last few degrees of body heat that he still had. He knew that he should take his wet clothes off. Maybe build a fire. He should get rid of his partly melted boots, check that he had no open wounds. Clean them if there were any. He should... he should... His eyes drifted shut. Soon he was asleep, and the only sounds in the great, empty barn were the rhythmic noises of his breathing. The rest of the world had ceased to exist.
Kronos shut his mind to the cold. It affected him, as it might have affected any living creature; but he was not interested in its unpleasantries, or in the inconveniences that it caused. The rain frustrated him, for it left no traces of his quarry, no trail that he could easily follow. Occasionally he saw something; a gouge in a mudbank where a man might have fallen; a distinct footprint left by a partially melted boot where the water had not quite covered all the ground. Other than that there was nothing. He gritted his teeth against the increasingly biting wind, shut his mind to the pain of his still healing chest. He hid once, when the roving men and women of the Red Cross came uncomfortably close, and he gripped the bayonet more tightly in his hand. Killing them would serve no purpose; even a man who loved to kill could see that. Besides, getting involved in an unnecessary skirmish might lessen his chances of reaching his real prey, and he didn't want that to happen. He was looking forward to his reunion with Collgrove. There were so many interesting things that they could do together. So much... fun that they could have. He smiled into the rising sun, and didn't even feel the numbing of his fingers as they clenched so tightly around the bayonet. He had other things to think of. Much more pleasing things. Thoughts of the hunt; of throwing aside the cumbersome embrace of the twentieth century, and sinking back into the old ways that he loved so very much. Of creeping silently through the night, following a man that he planned to kill. Searching out revenge in this dark and inhospitable land of barbed wire and trackless mud. Sinking his blade deep into the body of a man he had decided to hate; be as one with the killing instinct again. It was his calling, his birthright. It was everything he had been born to do. Everything that he would always do, as long as his head was still on his shoulders. Maybe one Horseman could be as good as four, in spirit at least, as long as the feeling was there. He smiled at that thought. It had been a long time since he had really, honestly, felt the spirit of the Horsemen within him once again. Alone now in the darkness, with no way of knowing if his three brothers were even still alive, it seemed that he could hear their voices calling him onward. Maybe it was just the cold. Maybe the fatigue and the pain and the lack of food was making him hallucinate. He didn't care. Somewhere in the wind he heard the manic cackle of his brother Caspian, and he answered it with an evil grin of his own. Time to do someone some serious damage. The darkness demanded it.
Collgrove awoke to the smell of roasting meat, and the crackle of wood flames close by. He lifted his head from his cocoon of old sacks and tatty, flattened straw, listening carefully. Somewhere near to where he lay, a person was moving about, his body almost silent even against the rough stone of the floor. Collgrove froze. Farmer? Soldier? Either way it could prove fatal if he was discovered here. Whether he was shot as a trespasser, deserter or enemy soldier, the outcome would still be the same. Cautiously, he peered over the low fence that marked the boundary of the stall he had chosen as a bedroom. He saw the orange glow of the fire, and felt its heat on his face. There was a man crouching beside it, busily building up an even greater blaze. He glanced up at the fugitive soldier, ice-blue eyes flashing with all the radiance of the flames. He grinned. Collgrove felt the bottom drop out of chest.
"You... You're dead." His mouth was so dry that the words did not want to tumble from his throat, and even as they did so he was regretting having spoken them at all. His victim stared back at him, the hint of a smile lingering in those startlingly expressive eyes.
"I suppose I must be." He moved aside slightly, gesturing at the fire. "Breakfast?"
"I beg your pardon?" Collgrove couldn't help staring at the fire, or rather at the pleasantly crackling pieces of meat arranged beside it. The smell, especially to his cold and empty stomach, was almost irresistible, and he found himself licking his lips. All the same, there were more pressing matters on his mind. One thing in particular jammed in his cold brain. He frowned. "I... shot you." Rather than accepting or declining the invitation to eat, it was all that he could think of to say. The lieutenant - what had he said his name was? Craig? - merely gave a careless shrug.
"You think?" He pulled aside the pristine tunic he was wearing - a Red Cross tunic, marked by a neat, blood-edged hole in one side. Beneath it was his skin, pale brown in colour, un-scarred and unbroken. There was no sign of the bullet holes Collgrove knew he had caused. He rubbed his eyes. Craig was still smiling; a thin, oddly insinuating smile, which seemed to emphasise the bright insanity of those deeply unnerving eyes.
"This doesn't make any sense." The major began to take a step forward, hesitated, then aborted the action. Craig apparently found his uncertainty highly amusing. "I know I shot you. I saw the blood. I saw you fall." He shook his head, rubbing at his eyes again. "Are you dead?"
"If I am, you are too." The voice was soft, with a noticeably hard edge. "What do you think, Major? Do you feel dead?"
"I - I feel... Oh god." Collgrove took a step back, tangling his feet in one of the sacks he had been sleeping amongst. He fell back, crashing into the fence, catching himself a harsh blow on the back of his legs that left him gasping. He struggled to stay on his feet, unable to take his eyes off the man before him. "I don't think I want to know what's going on here."
"I think you could be right." Craig was still smiling that thin, mocking smile, his eyes still dancing with each flicker of every flame. "But while you're worrying, the food's going to burn." He turned back to the fire, using a bayonet to pull some of the best-cooked pieces of meat away from the edge of the fire. "Do you want some or don't you?"
"I haven't eaten in more than twenty-four hours." Collgrove walked forward, but again his steps ended in hesitant hovering. "It's not... poisoned. Is it?"
"It's not poisoned." The smile had gone. "It's not even undercooked." He stabbed the biggest piece of meat on the end of the bayonet, and held it out for the other man to take. "Mind your fingers. It's hot."
"Th-thanks." His hand shaking slightly, Collgrove reached out for the piece of meat. It was hot in his hand, almost painfully so, but he kept hold of it. Boiling juices scalded his fingers.
"Don't let it get cold. It'll congeal." Craig was expressionless now. Collgrove didn't like the look; didn't like the emptiness it brought to those watchful, steady eyes. He managed a nervous smile in response, and sank his teeth into the meat. It gave easily beneath the onslaught of his teeth, and to his hungry senses it tasted divine. He ate some more, trying to slow his chewing, trying not to appear too desperate. The last thing that he wanted was to show this bizarre figure how grateful he was to him; how relieved he was to receive his hospitality. The meat burnt his mouth, but the pain did not bother him. After the cold and the hunger, it came as a warped kind of relief.
"This tastes good." He spoke to relieve the silence, and to try and hide his own nervousness. He didn't care about the flavour, or about letting Craig see his appreciation of it. "What is it?"
"Just some German soldier. I ran into a group of them about a mile back." The eyes glittered, almost white as the flickering light blocked out the flashes of blue. Collgrove felt his chest tighten.
"I beg your pardon?" He wasn't sure that he heard himself speak, although he was certain that he must have spoken aloud. Craig shrugged.
"You heard." He seemed amused by the paling face of his guest; by the widening of his eyes and the look of utter revulsion that passed across his squared features. "It's okay. The meat's fresh. I killed the man myself, less than two hours ago. I couldn't feed you long dead meat could I. Not unless it was curried." His eyebrows raised slightly, bringing fresh amusement to his face. "Oh relax. It's rabbit. Can't you tell the difference?"
"R-rabbit?" The meat had turned to bitter dust in his mouth, but he forced himself to swallow it. He felt sick and weak all of a sudden, his teeth heavy and unwilling to chew, his throat painfully dry and his lips numb. He stared down at what remained of the meat in his hand, but couldn't quite bring himself to finish it. "You're sick."
"Of course I'm sick." Craig was toying with his bayonet, playing with the blade, testing the point. "You shot me. Twice, in the chest. That hurt, and I was only just getting my breath back after half the German army did the same thing. There's only so many times I can get shot in one day without getting very, very angry." He didn't sound angry. He sounded very calm - frighteningly calm. Collgrove's hand tightened on the revolver in his belt. He had no idea how many bullets were left in it. He didn't care. All that he wanted was the deterrent - the chance to get away and leave this insane man behind him. He pulled the gun free and held it up. At this range there could be no mistakes. He couldn't miss; but then he had thought that the last time, too.
"Keep away from me." He spoke softly, trying to keep his voice as steady and as even as Craig's. "I'll kill you."
"No you won't." Craig was smiling, the bayonet hanging loosely by his side, somehow giving the impression of utter readiness, despite the apparent carelessness of his stance. "You can't." He was smiling again, the mockery bright in his eyes. "I don't die easily."
"You think?" Collgrove swallowed hard, and let the muzzle of his gun fall against the other man's breastbone. He felt the solidity of bone and muscle. This man was real. He was no ghost - and that meant that he could die. "I don't want to kill you. I just want to get out of here. I want to get as far away from here as I can, and I don't plan on letting you stop me. I don't care who you are, or what you think you are. All I care about is saving myself, understand?"
"Oh I understand. Believe me, I understand." The smile was almost pleasant now. "I just don't care. So if you want to try shooting me again, you go right ahead. Just remember that I'll come back. I'll come back this time, and the next time, and how ever many times you want to shoot me. The only time you'll be able to close your eyes and not wonder if I'm coming for you is when you're dead." He pushed the gun away from his chest, but he made no move to disarm the other man. "I don't like it when people kill me, major. I have a habit of coming back to deal with them later. So you can die straight, or you can sit down and we can finish breakfast first. Maybe have a chat. Do you have any children, major? A wife? Maybe we can talk about your mother." The bayonet moved almost invisibly, appearing suddenly to take its place at Collgrove's throat. "But then what the hell. I'm only going to wind up killing you anyway. So why put it off? Save us both a lot of time, wouldn't it, if I just killed you now."
"You don't have to kill me." Despite the gun in his hand, and the determination of what was meant to be a threat in his stance, Collgrove now took a step back. He felt his eyes being drawn to the bayonet, now raised almost to the height of his head, pointing lazily towards his throat like a slothful snake poised to strike. The danger seemed to be minimal from so casual a stance, but Collgrove felt more afraid than he had in a long time.
"I don't have to kill anyone. Of course I don't." A playful smile painted a curve across the lieutenant's face, and the bayonet drifted closer to Collgrove's face. He didn't move away, although he had no idea why, and the point of the weapon tickled his cheek. He resisted the impulse to close his eyes, and struggled to show no emotion as the edge of the blade slid slowly down to touch his neck. He knew that it would take the barest pressure now for it to pierce his skin. "But then if we were all to do only what we have to do, the world was be such a boring place. And I don't like to be bored."
"I'll leave. I'll go now. You won't see me again." He managed a nervous smile to go with the suggestion, but it met no similar smile from his tormentor. "Please, I--"
"Shut up." The amusement had gone, and now there was merely ice in those bright, clear eyes. The voice had lost all trace of play, all suggestion of its earlier teasing. The sound of it chilled Collgrove's blood. Terrified, this time he did close his eyes, gritting his teeth in miserable acceptance. The gun in his hand was forgotten. For the first time in a long time he considered praying, but he wasn't sure who or what he should pray to. Who was there in Heaven or on Earth who could defend lost soldiers against men who came back from the dead? At his throat he felt the pressure from the blade increase, and he waited for the killing stroke. Too late to worry now about praying. He wouldn't get past the first words before it was far too late. In his mind's eye he saw the subtle changes in expression in the lieutenant's face, which told him that the moment had come. He saw the flash in those cold eyes, saw the jaw muscles tighten. And he heard the yell of a stranger's voice.
"Nobody move!" The voice spoke in English, although it was heavily accented with German. Cautiously, hardly daring to breathe, Collgrove opened his eyes. Three men stood in the doorway, rifles levelled at the pair in the middle of the barn. They were dressed in the uniform of the German army, and in their immaculate clothing and shiny, well-polished boots, they looked the very image of precise, determined efficiency. Collgrove felt his heart sing. he didn't think he had ever been so pleased to see anyone - much less representatives of the power with which he was supposed to be at war. He turned his eyes, staring now towards his companion, suddenly afraid that the appearance of these three enemy soldiers would have no effect on the madman. His eyes travelled along the blade of the weapon still held against his throat; and he saw that it was no longer a bayonet. He didn't know when, and he couldn't imagine how, but at some point when his eyes had been closed Craig had switched the short, almost stubby bayonet for what appeared to be a full length sword. Quite where about his person he had been concealing it up until now, Collgrove could not see; but now that it was in his hands, Craig's transformation from soldier to avenging angel was complete. He stared back into Collgrove's questioning eyes with a look of dark malice - like a child whose play had been interrupted. The lieutenant looked as though he might not obey the command from the new arrivals; as though he might kill Collgrove anyway, and then take his chances against the newly arrived three; but something made sense show again in his eyes. Slowly he lowered his sword arm, and Collgrove began to breathe once again. He saw the glimmer of amusement in Craig's eyes, and felt a shiver run down his spine. Somehow he couldn't help feeling that his score with this madman was far from settled.
"Keep your hands where I can see them." One of the three Germans - a major to judge by the insignia on his uniform - paced forward, service revolver held at arm's length. There was a brisk look about him; the look of a satisfaction dwelt upon only at speed. He wore a pencil-thin moustache of sandy brown precision, which might almost have been trained to grow to a ruler's edge. Flint grey eyes glittered appraisingly beneath brows that seemed to have been combed into smooth obedience, such was their almost obsessive neatness. He sucked on his cheeks and rocked thoughtfully back on his heels as he regarded the two men standing before him. The revolver lowered itself to hang by his side, tapping occasionally against the freshly-pressed material of his trousers.
"What do we have here?" He seemed disdainful of the tatters worn by Collgrove, and amused more than anything else by the appearance of Craig. Collgrove felt almost sorry for him. He didn't like to think what Craig might do were he to be offended by this almost foppish individual. He saw the end of the sword twitch upwards slightly, then freeze. Craig, clearly, did not want to reveal his hand too soon. The German's eyes flickered towards the sword, drawn by the tiny movement, and the corner of his mouth twitched upward.
"Not the kind of weapon I would expect a member of the Red Cross to carry. Or is it some new kind of surgical equipment?" He received no answer, and for a second his eyes narrowed. "Never mind. You're both prisoners of the German Army. You will throw down your weapons."
"Like hell we will." Craig's voice was so soft that Collgrove barely heard it - and immediately wished that he hadn't. He swallowed hard. What did the fool think he was doing? There might be a chance of escape later, if they played their cards right and did as they were told. Otherwise the outcome was more likely to be a swift bullet and a very permanent decommissioning. Craig, however, showed no sign of backing down. The glitter of a thousand deadly promises was alight in his eyes once again, and the red glow of the now dying fire did little to lessen the illusion of dangerous mental instability that seemed a permanent cloak wrapped around his slight form.
"My name is Major Hans Küller, Imperial German Army. You will surrender to me immediately." The German's eyes lingered for a second, as though trying to decide whether the threat gleaming from this man's eyes was in any way worth taking seriously. He seemed to decide straight away that it was not. "You are prisoners of war, gentlemen. Kindly act like it." He nodded politely at Collgrove. "A pleasure to meet you, major. My apologies that it should be in such inconvenient circumstances, but I'm sure that you understand my position."
"Of course." Collgrove's cut-glass English accent was back, and he saw that he had earned a raised eyebrow from his fellow countryman. Craig, clearly, was suspicious of him, which made his heart skip a beat. He was going to have to start being more careful if he wanted to stay alive. "I'm Major Philip Collgrove, and this is Lieutenant Craig."
"No." Craig was staring at him, the horribly expressionless look once again returned to his face. A cold look. A look filled with promises of things still to come. "My name is Kronos." He smirked, eyes teasing. "Just Kronos."
"That's not what you told me earlier." Collgrove shot him a sideways glance, which his companion met with a smile. His voice dropped to that same cold and deadly whisper with which he had so recently announced the major's present death.
"I didn't know that I was going to kill you then." His smile faded. Collgrove shivered. Küller frowned at them both in clear confusion. The two men were supposed to be on the same side, and yet here they were acting as though they were sworn enemies. Collgrove he was sure he had the measure of. He looked like a typical officer, if a little war-weary. The other man though... something about him was most definitely not right. It was a peculiar name too. The name of the father of Zeus if he remembered his classics correctly. Clearly one to watch carefully, or at the very least to remain wary of.
Independently of Küller's own reasoning, Collgrove had reached a very similar conclusion. Nervousness tugged at his heartstrings, and he wondered what to do next. Craig - or Kronos, or whatever his name was - had lowered his sword, and was staring past Küller to the two soldiers standing by the door. If he was judging his chances of making an escape, Collgrove did not want to be anywhere near him. He considered edging away, and wondered what the chances would be of receiving a bullet from a Luger if he did. He stayed where he was.
"I wouldn't bother trying to escape." Küller bent to the embers of the fire and picked up a piece of meat. He tasted it almost suspiciously, then chewed down the rest. "Very good. Not bad for a couple of deserters. In my army you would be shot; but as prisoners you at least have a chance to save your lives." He picked up another piece of meat, biting thoughtfully into it. "We're looking for a patrol; ten men who were sent to reconnoitre your lines. They never returned. If they have been captured or killed, I wish to know about it. My brother was a member of the expedition, and I should like to know his fate." He smiled, appearing almost friendly. "I'm sure that you understand."
"Ten men? I saw ten men on my way here." Eager to help, and therefore possibly avoid any unpleasantness, Collgrove thought back to his hard walk out of No Man's Land. "They were standing around, smoking cigarettes. I just thought they were an ordinary patrol."
"That's them." Küller seemed suddenly galvanised by this news; anxious to hear any information. Collgrove felt almost guilty that he could tell the man so little.
"They were still there when I moved on. All ten of them, together in a little hollow. They were out of the worst of the mud, and it looked like they'd sheltered there overnight to keep out of the rain. They were smoking cigarettes." He smiled, looking faintly embarrassed. "I was thinking of surrendering to them."
"They would have shot you dead on sight, surrender or no." Küller smiled at him. "There is no room for prisoners on a spying mission." A shrug. "I'm sure you understand."
"Very likely." Collgrove glanced away, then looked back at Kronos. "You came after me. You must have seen them."
"I saw them." The voice was still soft, the eyes still hooded by shadow. "They were still there."
"Then where are they now?" Taking a step towards him, Küller reached out, catching hold of the Immortal's wrist. Kronos made no move to stop him as the major pulled the sword from his grasp, but for a brief second his eyes narrowed. He watched the other man as he ran a hand down the blade, admiring the weapon's balance and design.
"They're dead." Kronos kept his voice level, and the expression on his face did not change. "I killed them."
"All of them?" Küller didn't sound as though he believed this, but Collgrove felt a cold stirring in his stomach. He believed it. In his heart of hearts he knew it to be true, and it reawakened the fear inside of him. This time he really did take a step away, distancing himself from his fellow prisoner as much as he could do with safety.
"All of them." A faint smile crossed the Immortal's face, sparking new lights in his eyes. "I killed them one by one. The last man begged for mercy as he watched his friends die. He looked a lot like you. Same colour hair. I cut his head off with my bayonet. It took a long time. He screamed almost until the end." He shrugged. "You should be able to find their bodies easily enough. I didn't bother hiding them. All except that last man."
"And what did you do with him?" Küller's voice was cold and dead, filled with the lingering hope of disbelief and something that sounded very like revulsion. Somehow he seemed less precise now; less efficient and correct. His shoulders were no longer quite so rigid, and the firm, straight line of his mouth was beginning to sag. Either Kronos was unaware of this, or he just didn't care. With the suggestion of brewing amusement in his face, he let his eyes drift to the pieces of meat by the fire. Everybody followed his gaze, from Major Küller himself to the two guards still standing some distance away. The same realisation hit each of them at once. Collgrove felt the bile rising in his throat. Küller didn't move.
"I don't believe you." The words barely made it from his mouth. The piece of meat that he still held in his hand was forgotten now, the cooling juices running down his fingers. "You're lying."
"If you say so." Keeping his eyes fixed almost hypnotically on those of the major, Kronos reached into his pocket. None of the three Germans made any move to stop him, despite the likelihood that he might have been reaching for a weapon. In the event it proved to be something small; something which fitted easily into the palm of his hand. He held it out. "Here."
With the hand of a man in a trance, Küller reached out for the object. He felt it in the palm of his hand; cold and hard, almost perfectly round. Slowly he uncurled his fingers from the object, staring down at it. It was a ring. A circle of smooth silver, it bore a piece of onyx cut into a rounded rectangle. There was a set of initials engraved into the stone. JPK. Küller's shoulders sagged.
"What is it?" Feeling some sympathy for the major, but needing to know the truth for himself as well, Collgrove stepped forward to take a look at the ring. Küller didn't try to stop him, and instead held the object out for him to get a proper look.
"My brother's," he said simply. "Johannes Paul Küller. He was given this the day of his twenty-first birthday, before the war." His eyes drifted away, perhaps to the occasion of that long ago birthday, or perhaps just to a place in the barn where he didn't have to see Kronos or Collgrove - or the pieces of roasted meat. "I gave it to him."
"He told me it was rabbit." Collgrove could still taste the meat. He could feel grease from it coating the roof of his mouth. He wanted to shudder, but the movement wouldn't come. Slowly he turned to look at Kronos. "What kind of a monster are you?"
"He's dead. Do you think he cares what happens to his body?" Kronos kicked at a couple of pieces of meat, sending them tumbling into the ashes of the fire. They began to sizzle and spit, spraying tiny droplets of fat into the air. Küller began to shake at the sound, his face turning a shade of ashen grey. He looked as though he were about to be violently sick, and Collgrove was sure that he would soon be joining him. "Dead, we're all just meat. Why let it go to waste when there's so little food to be had out here? You seemed happy enough to eat it when you didn't know what it was."
"Exactly. I didn't know what it was." Collgrove wasn't sure if he was speaking to settle his own conscience, or just to make sure that Küller knew he had had no part in the killing of the German patrol. If the major wanted revenge for his brother's untimely end, Collgrove wanted to make sure that everybody knew he himself was innocent of all blame. The apparently increasingly unstable Lieutenant Craig could take the blame all on his own. Kronos himself had clearly seen through this strategy, and was smirking in that by-now-familiar way. Collgrove felt his skin beginning to crawl.
"Rabbit." Küller didn't seem aware that he had spoken the word aloud. He was staring into the middle distance, seeing sights that were invisible to everyone else. His fingers tightened around the ring, and his two confederates moved forward, clearly concerned by the sudden inactivity of their commander.
"Sir?" One of the men, a youth of no more than twenty, whose clothes were considerably more rumpled than those of his superior, gestured at the two British officers with his rifle. "What do we do with them?"
"Hmm?" Küller looked up, clearly surprised by the question. He looked like a man fighting his way through thick fog in order to be a part of the conversation. "They're prisoners of war, sergeant. We take them for questioning."
"Yes sir." The second man did not sound convinced. He gestured to his companion who, with a very ginger air, stepped up to take Collgrove's revolver, still held in his hand. Major Küller handed the sword over as though he were hardly aware that he were doing it. Kronos followed the sword's journey with his eyes, the muscles in his right arm tensing, the fingers of his right hand moving slowly shut, as though around the weapon's hilt. Clearly its confiscation was a source of deep discomfort to him. Collgrove decided that he didn't want to know why. He raised his hands into the air.
"We're perfectly willing to surrender," he said brightly, trying to avoid the eyes of both Küller and Kronos. "Aren't we lieutenant?" The look that he received in response was not encouraging. The man who had taken the weapons stuck them both into his belt, then took Kronos by the arm and forcibly turned him around, pushing him against the nearest fence post to frisk him. Oddly there was no resistance. Collgrove had half expected - almost wanted - his companion to lash out. The soldier came up empty-handed, moving swiftly on to check Collgrove. Again his search proved fruitless.
"They're both disarmed sir." He stood to a very stiff attention beside Küller, staring intently at him as though in search of approval. Küller nodded, still looking distant. He raised his eyes, staring first at Collgrove, then at Kronos. Collgrove could see the emotions building in the German's face, and his pulse quickened. Fine words, to say that they were going to be taken in as prisoners; but could this man really hold onto his anger for that long? He glanced nervously at Kronos, searching for some kind of a response from the man. An apology would be pointless, and almost certainly too contrived - but surely there was something that the man would say, if only to ease the situation? Kronos, however, was merely smiling again, his ice-blue eyes catching the last light of the dying fire. It was little more than glowing wood now; broken pieces of orange fuel crackling occasionally. No amount of rebuilding was likely to save it.
"Your brother didn't die well," he said softly, his voice somehow carrying well, despite its low volume. "Nobody does these days."
"We're all tired." Küller stuck his own gun into his belt, apparently happy to rely on the rifles of his two confederates. "We've all seen far too much."
"I've seen a lot more." There was no boast behind the words; it was no statement designed to impress. Collgrove, looking now into eyes that seemed to span many centuries and many wars, believed very word. Küller gave a sardonic smile, tempered by a short laugh of bitter amusement.
"Then you should know that there are few enough men in this world who meet death without a sound. Or maybe you expected my brother to be glad to die? If you're trying to insult me it won't work. I don't think I'd face the end quietly either."
"When your times comes, you'll meet it without a sound." Unmolested by either of the two guards, Kronos took a step forward. Küller did not back away from his advance, and Kronos reached out to touch him, brushing some smudges of soot from the front of his tunic as though straightening the clothes of a small child. Despite the obvious gentility of his actions there was an underlying sense of menace that chilled the air. it seemed to flow from his every pore; to freeze everything he touched. The young sergeant shivered, then squared his shoulders and stepped forward, pushing Kronos back with his rifle.
"You stay where you are," he growled, his accent showing strongly with his fear. Kronos turned to look at him, seeing him as if for the first time. He smiled, and although Collgrove could not see his face, he saw the sergeant's change in response. It paled, a small, noticeable pulse beating just above his left eye. The end of a very dry, pink tongue pushed out between his lips in an attempt to moisten them and he swallowed, his smooth young face now several shades paler. His companion, suddenly galvanised into action, took a fast step forward. Before Küller could prevent him he had raised his rifle and swung it like a club, driving the butt into the Immortal's stomach. Kronos doubled over, forcing his head up despite the pain, staring deep into the eyes of his attacker. The agony was clearly written on his face; but so, indelibly, was his anger. It was cold and clear and as harsh as his laboured breathing. He smiled.
"You're next," he hissed, just before the rifle came down across the back of his head. He crashed to the ground and lay still.
"Stand easy, corporal." Küller barked the words out before the rifle could fall a second time. The soldier looked as though he might protest, but instead lowered the rifle to his side and nodded smartly. Collgrove stared down at the unconscious form slumped at his feet, and sighed inwardly. Somehow he got the feeling that he knew exactly who was going to be carrying it out of here. Some days every twist of fate was a pain in the neck.
They made camp a long way from the Front. Occasionally the sky showed traces of distant shellfire; sudden blazes of light that shot upward, flowering like huge fireworks before falling earthward once again. Their sound was muted by the distance, making the night quieter than any Collgrove had experienced in a long time. He turned his face away from them, trying to shut out all thought of the war. It wasn't easy. Even if he had been able to forget his current predicament, he would never have been able to block out the thoughts that haunted his mind. Pictures he could see behind his eyelids; noises he sometimes thought would echo inside his head for the rest of Time. Hampered by the ropes that bound his wrists and ankles, he struggled to turn so that he was facing Kronos, rather than the distant Front, or the figures of the three Germans beside their low built campfire. Bound as he was, the other prisoner seemed less frightening now. Maybe it was because Collgrove had seen him overpowered; maybe it was just because he was too tired now to be scared anymore. He reached out with his tied ankles, using them to kick the other man's feet. Pale blue eyes snapped open.
"What do you want?" The malice had gone from his face, and he seemed more or less human. Prison solidarity? wondered Collgrove - then promptly dismissed the thought. The only thing this madman was likely to show any solidarity towards was one of the gibbering residents in the nearest lunatic asylum.
"I want to talk." He shrugged, as far as he was able. "About escape."
"I thought you wanted to be captured. I thought you liked the idea of a safe, dry prison cell." The lights of mockery flashed in the shadowy eyes. Collgrove smiled thinly.
"Being a prisoner is better than being dead, at least temporarily. The thing is, I'd rather they didn't get me back to their headquarters. There are one or two things about myself that I'd much rather they didn't find out."
"Such as the fact that you're not really a major?" Kronos smiled, leaning back against the nearest tree. "What are you really? A civilian who caught the wrong train out of Paris?"
"Something like that, yes." Collgrove smiled awkwardly, lowering his voice. "Actually I'm sort of a black-marketeer. I smuggle things to the troops, on both sides of the Front. I don't care much for who's who out here. The governments themselves don't seem to know what this bloody war is all about, so why the hell should I give a damn?"
"Fair point I suppose. It certainly doesn't matter to me." Kronos stared back at the other man, fixing him with his piercing eyes. "So you borrowed a uniform to avoid the authorities, and wound up getting stuck in the rôle."
"That about sums it up." Collgrove shook his head. "If I get found out by the British, I'll get shot. If I get found out by the Germans, chances are that the same thing will happen. I'm wanted on both sides."
"So that's why you shot me?" Kronos smiled slightly, his eyes showing something approaching real humour. "You really were a fool for thinking that would work." For a second his eyes narrowed, and Collgrove felt a resurgence of the old fear; then the smile grew bigger and Kronos actually laughed. "Although I suppose I've done the same thing myself often enough."
"Then there's no hard feelings?" Collgrove didn't think that he would ever really get to like this man, but if they could work together they might both have a chance of getting out of this alive. His companion frowned at him.
"You shot me," he said, as though it were something that happened every day.
"Yeah, but I missed. I mean, I know I didn't mean to, but that's got to count for something, right? You weren't hurt. Just shaken up a little."
"Have you ever been shot in the chest?" The soft, dangerous edge had come back to that theatrical voice. "It hurts, major. It hurts a lot."
"Yeah, but I missed."
"No you didn't. And you know you didn't. You were closer to me than you are now. You saw the blood. You saw me fall. How do you explain that?"
"I suppose you must have been faking it. Pretending, so that I wouldn't finish you off."
"You really believe that? You honestly think that I would pretend?" There was a silence, uncomfortable and strained. Somewhere close by the young sergeant snored. Collgrove hesitated.
"I couldn't have shot you. I couldn't have. I mean - well you'd be - you'd be--"
"I would, wouldn't I." The ice-blue eyes drifted across the camp. "I'd have been dead. Just like I should have been when I told our dear friend Küller what I did to his brother. Dead - and out of it."
"I would never have taken you for the suicidal type." For a second Collgrove couldn't meet those burning blue eyes. Then his companion laughed.
"Suicidal? I never thought of it that way. Death doesn't mean the same to me as it means to you. If they'd shot me, the way that they were supposed to do, they'd have left me behind in that barn. And then I would have been free to do as I pleased; instead of lying here, tied like a common thief." A chill blew softly through the air. "I'd have been following on behind, with my sword still in my hand, waiting for the moment when I could send Küller to join his brother. Send all of you to join him."
"But we're supposed to be on the same side."
"I don't have sides. I'm here because war is a special interest of mine. It's a field I happen to excel in. I don't care about which Archduke got shot where and by whom. I don't care about longstanding rivalries between Britain and Germany, or about the Balance of Power. I care about developing my art."
"If you think there's any art to this nightmare you're crazier than you look." Unnerved somewhat by the words, Collgrove had to fight to keep his voice even. He might have joined the war purely by accident, and maybe the whole of his life in the trenches had been a lie; but he had come to care about the people. He had come to care about the lives he had seen destroyed, the people he had seen die. This man was belittling all of that - making out that it was nothing more than a game to him; a chance to have some fun in the middle of all the pain and chaos.
"Precisely. There's no art to any of this, not anymore. I've fought wars with some of the greatest generals in history. I've lived in centuries when men were trained throughout their lives to fight in wars that could last for generations. War was never meant to be fought by children with no experience, and it was never meant to be led by generals who never go near the front line. It's no wonder this war has been stagnating for so long. You people don't know how to fight it properly."
"Well I'm sorry it doesn't live up to all your expectations." Forgetting to keep his voice low, Collgrove almost shouted. "I'm sorry that you were looking for a good time out here, and that it all went wrong for you."
"Don't play the moral card with me, major. At least I volunteered for this war. You wouldn't even be here, if you hadn't needed a good disguise to save your own skin." He smirked in vicious mockery. "Or maybe you think they'll be willing to overlook that when we get to wherever it is we're being taken."
"Maybe I'm still hoping we won't get that far." Collgrove shook his head, turning away in disgust. Clearly he had been wrong to try and make friendly overtures to a man like this. "But you - you're just crazy. I don't know if it's this war that's made you that way, or if you were like this anyway. But I do know that all this talk of dying, and of fighting in wars hundreds of years ago... I wish I had shot you last night. We'd all have been better off for it."
Kronos laughed, letting the gentle sounds of his mirth freeze the blood in Collgrove's veins. "You're a fool, major. A fool who can't believe the evidence in front of his own eyes. You saw me die, and you still don't believe it. Before this is all over, you'll probably see it happen again - at least if things go the way I'm hoping they will. And after that the next person you'll see die might well be yourself." He shifted his position, the better to turn the full power of his stare towards the other man. "How do you want to die, major? Not that it makes a whole lot of difference."
"You're sick." Collgrove turned away, but even when he could no longer see the other man's smiling face, he could still hear his quiet chuckles. The sound made his skin crawl. Across the camp, near to where Küller was slumped in shadow, his brother's ring gripped tightly in his hands, the corporal levelled his rifle at the two bound men.
"Shut up, the pair of you," he growled. He spoke in German, but they both understood. Collgrove leant back against the tree roots he was resting beside, and forced himself to close his eyes. He didn't want any trouble. He just wanted to get through this. A stone's throw away Kronos' laugh grew louder, darker. There was a horrible kind of satisfaction behind the malice and the mirth, and it made Collgrove shudder just to hear it. He thought about the previous night, and about how he had seen the man die. He thought about everything he had heard him say since. Suddenly there was menace in the darkness behind his eyelids, and he snapped his eyes open, staring into the light of the distant fire. But there were nightmares in the shadows there too, and demons laughing at him in the flickering flames. At a loss, he pressed his eyes shut and tried not to think of Kronos. It didn't work. The ice-blue eyes of the madman shone even in his dreams, blinking steadily at him in the midst of the darkness.
The sun rose on a tableau of stunted trees and half-fallen walls - chunks of brick and stone piled up in uneven collections, scorched and battered by the passing battalions. Isolated farm buildings and the occasional cottage, destroyed by one army or the other. Some showed signs of habitation - empty food tins lying rusting in the sunlight, or pieces of waxed paper blowing in the breeze. Occasional piles of ash showed where a fire had been recently built, more than likely by some passing deserter whose desire for warmth had been greater than their desire to remain unseen. Everything bore signs of the ever-present mud, frozen in places, or bearing traces of the jack-knifing slashes of ice. A bitter wind blew everything together, spreading the mud over an even greater area, increasing the illusion that the whole landscape was some vast and inhospitable wasteland. Nothing seemed likely to survive in it for long. It seemed as though nothing ever had, and nothing ever would - except that the broken and burnt buildings proved that to be false. Whether or not people would move back quickly once the war was over remained to be seen. The ageing skeletons and decaying corpses dumped in collapsing doorways, or in overgrown yards, suggested that some of the inhabitants would not be coming back at all.
"Lovely place." Gazing around at the scene of devastation, Collgrove wondered which army had been responsible for the lion's share of the damage. He hoped that it was the Germans, but he wished that he could be sure. It was easy to believe the propaganda when you were safe beyond the reach of the shells and the bullets at the Front, but once you'd been there - seen it all for yourself - the propaganda became just a meaningless jumble of words and pictures. British soldiers could murder a bunch of farmers just as easily as anybody else. But then, in the current climate, just thinking that was probably enough to get you shot. He felt almost guilty, and his eyes flickered nervously over the faces of his companions. The young sergeant and the ageing corporal were more interested in watching Kronos than in surveying their surroundings. Kronos himself looked predictably unimpressed. Küller was all business, his pace brisk and his shoulders stiff. His brother's ring was forced onto the little finger of his right hand, the only digit small enough to hold it. He seemed to have put his weakness and grief behind him, but there was a coldness in his eyes now that Collgrove had not noticed before. It was as if something had been turned off in his mind - or as if something else had been turned on. A harshness, an unpleasantness. Collgrove thought about the meat he had eaten the day before, and tried to imagine how the major must be feeling. It didn't bear thinking about. His eyes drifted across to his fellow prisoner, although quite what he was looking for in that studiously impassive face he couldn't imagine. Kronos flicked his eyes towards the other man at the feel of his gaze, and the slightest of smiles turned up the corners of his mouth. He kicked at something lying in the dirt at his feet, sending it skimming away above the thin skin of frozen mud that covered the ground around him. Collgrove wasn't sure what the improvised football had been, but it had looked like a hand. A skeletal hand, to judge by the scattering of finger bones that were newly spread across the ground.
"Why are we here?" Gazing about at the fallen buildings with the cold, calculating face of a soldier checking out the lay of the land, Kronos turned in a rough circle. Despite the treacherous ground, with its double hazard of slippery mud and equally slippery ice, he seemed perfectly balanced, unhampered even by the fact that his hands were still bound behind his back. Collgrove, whose every step was cautious and halting, felt profoundly jealous. He watched the other man survey the territory, clearly spying out the best defensive positions, the best places from which to mount some kind of offensive. Somehow the counterfeit major could not stop his mind going back to their conversation the previous night; the talk of fighting wars under the command of long dead generals, famed throughout the centuries. Collgrove could almost believe that now, as he watched Kronos move, planning his strategy with the collected calm of a man out for a stroll on the beach. He was smiling all the while, his amusement partly in mockery and partly a demonstration of his easy confidence. Clearly it was infuriating both the corporal and the sergeant, but Collgrove wasn't sure who to place his sympathies with - Kronos, if he pushed them too far, or them, when Kronos eventually broke free and got his revenge. Somehow Collgrove couldn't help believing that that would happen eventually. It seemed somehow inevitable.
"Why we're here is no concern of yours." Küller had not spoken in a long time, and his voice was a shock now, loud and harsh and as cold as the frigid air. "All you have to worry about is doing as you're told."
"Whatever you say." The bright, all-seeing eyes of Kronos performed another lazy circuit of their surroundings, before coming to rest on a scattered collection of ruins some distance away. He grinned. "Very clever. But aren't you worried that deserters will ransack the place?" Küller glowered at him, as though planning to execute the lieutenant by glare alone.
"Any deserter or civilian who tries to interfere with that lot will be very sorry." He took off towards the collection of ruins, marching at a pace that Collgrove found heavy going. He could see nothing that might have caught Kronos' attention, and was surprised beyond all measure when they reached a jumbled pile of camouflage netting and carefully disguised crates, all neatly hidden away amongst the largest of the piles of rubble. Küller pointed around at the scattered bricks.
"Mines," he said loudly, as though daring them to step forward. Kronos did just that.
"One of modern warfare's more interesting developments," he announced, with the air of a connoisseur examining an interesting vintage. "Nobody knows that they're there, and then - bang! - they leap out and blow your legs off. Very sneaky. Positively depraved." He crouched beside the nearest disguised bomb, leaving Collgrove desperately relieved that his fellow prisoner was bound. Had Kronos had his hands free right then, the major was certain that he would have touched the mine, and sent all of them hurtling into the next world. The corporal caught the Immortal by the collar, hauling him to his feet and dragging him back, away from the mines. Küller looked on, his eyes narrow and his mouth a hard line.
"This way." Clearly certain of the safe route, he led the way through the mines. At the centre of the camouflaged area, under the cover of several nets, was a large open space very like a manmade cave. Parked in the middle of the space, surrounded by crates of food and ammunition, was a jeep. It looked rusty, the undercarriage plastered with mud and the tyres thick with it. The tread had almost entirely worn away from the tyres and there was a long crack across the windscreen. Küller climbed aboard, hunting under the front passenger seat for the ignition key.
"You expect us to go somewhere in that?" Collgrove performed a quick circuit of the vehicle, eyeing the bald tyres and rusty frame. "It looks like it couldn't make ten feet without an overhaul."
"It won't make more than ten feet anyway," Kronos pointed out with a gentle smile. "Or can it fly over the minefield?"
"Shut up." The corporal nudged him in the back with his rifle. Kronos turned slightly, eyeing him as though he were a worm wriggling helplessly on the end of a fishing line. When he moved there was no sign of an effort, or of any kind of strain - but suddenly his hands were free, and his fingers were gripping the bigger man's throat.
"I don't like to be pushed around." His voice was soft - so soft that the others could barely hear it, despite being close by. Collgrove froze, seeing the sergeant level his weapon. Could he stand by and let a fellow countryman be shot down by the enemy? He was standing close enough to Küller to make disarming the major a possibility, even though his hands were useless to him; and yet somehow risking his life for the insane lieutenant did not seem like a justifiable move. Seeing the sergeant raise his rifle, Kronos turned slightly, amusement yet again shining from his eyes. He altered his position so that the young soldier had a clear shot at him, at the same time tightening his grip on the corporal's neck. The unfortunate man seemed helpless in his grip, his eyes bulging and his face rapidly turning an ugly shade of fish belly grey. He tried to speak, but the only sound to come from his mouth was a strangled gasp. He struggled to lift his own gun, but clearly his arms did not want to obey him.
"Let him go." The sergeant had his rifle pointed directly at his prisoner's heart, but Kronos seemed entirely unfazed. His fingers tightened their grip. He was not a large man, but his strength was undeniable, and it did not seem that it could be long before his captive's windpipe gave in to the pressure. He was beginning to droop, the lack of oxygen stealing his consciousness. If Kronos found it hard to support the sudden weight of the bigger man, he did not let it show. Nervous, Collgrove edged nearer to Küller. The major did not seem to be paying him any attention, and instead his eyes were fixed on the drama now unfolding before him. Collgrove's muscles tensed. He did not want to do this - but he did not want to be taken in for questioning either. If he had to side with somebody in this mess, it might as well be a man from the same side of the trenches.
"Don't try it." Küller had turned his head without Collgrove really being aware of it. He found himself staring into eyes so cold that they took his breath away - saw a vicious intensity burning somewhere in the heart of the other man's mind. He froze. The major smiled, a horrible echo of the kind of malicious mirth that was so much a part of Kronos. "Just back off." His prisoner did so, taking two or three stumbling steps backward, until he banged into a pile of crates and sat down rather suddenly on the top of one. It sounded empty, but it held firm. He didn't try to get up again.
"Let him go." Küller was still speaking in that cold, soft voice, but clearly Kronos had heard him. "At this range I could blow your head clean off your shoulders. And don't think that I won't."
There was a silence. Collgrove stared towards Kronos, amazed by the expression on the other man's face. He saw surprise - the look of a man who had been foiled in some major undertaking. As Küller moved closer, his gun no more than a few inches from the Immortal's head, Kronos let the tension slide from his muscles. His limp captive fell from his grip, collapsing into little more than a pile of loose bones on the ground. A smile of triumph painted its smug way across Küller's face.
"So you are scared of something." He stepped out of the jeep, keeping his gun steady and level. "Not so tough after all."
"Is that so?" Kronos was smiling again, his eyes showing just a hint of their trademark glitter. The young sergeant was crouched at his feet, checking his colleague's injuries, and Kronos stared down at him. The sergeant returned his gaze, anger and hatred mixing in equal parts in his face.
"He's dead." He spoke the words in a dull voice, although there was nothing dull about the look in his eyes. Küller spared him but a short glance, anxious to keep his eyes on Kronos.
"Dead?" he asked, unwilling to accept that one of his men had just been killed before his very eyes. The sergeant nodded.
"His throat's a mess. He... he just crushed it." He leapt to his feet, snatching up his rifle. "I'm going to send you to hell you--"
"Hold it." Küller reached out with one hand, grabbing his subordinate by the arm. "Nobody is going to kill anybody unless I say so."
"I don't give a damn. I said we were going to take these two in, and I meant it." He sighed. "I know Brunner was a friend of yours, but I won't allow you to execute my prisoners." The sergeant remained stubbornly mute, and Kronos flashed him a smirk of brazen arrogance.
"Coward," he muttered, his voice dripping with insult. Darkness flashed across the sergeant's face, and with a sudden yell of incoherent rage he pushed Küller away and levelled his rifle. His hand shook on the trigger.
"Sergeant!" Küller's voice slashed through the sudden silence, but his subordinate paid him no heed. Instead he took a step towards Kronos, hands now shaking so much that the whole rifle was vibrating fiercely. Kronos also took a step forward, narrowing the distance between them so that the gun was all but touching his chest.
"Go on." He spoke the words in a deep whisper, his eyes and his words for the sergeant alone. The soldier looked up at him, entranced for a moment by the ice-blue eyes burning into his own. He was taller than Kronos, and yet he seemed to have to look up to meet his gaze. For the space of a heartbeat there was nothing else in the world save the man he intended to kill. There were no other people, no other sounds, no other thoughts - just Kronos, with his shining eyes and his insulting smile - and at his feet the dead body of Corporal Brunner. The sergeant couldn't breathe. He couldn't hear his superior calling him to order; he couldn't hear the frantic intake of breath from Collgrove. All that he heard was his own heart racing in his chest, and the loud - the deafening loud - click of the trigger as his fingers finally clenched. There was a roar, seemingly too powerful to be the single report of one lone rifle. The force of the blast took Kronos off his feet, throwing him backwards and slamming him into a pile of crates. His chest blossomed into a bright flower of unfurling red, which sprayed magnificently outward, before his lifeless figure slid to the ground. Seconds later the rifle also fell, hitting the hard mud with a solid thump. The sergeant began to shake, clearly aghast.
"I - I'm sorry." It seemed at first as though he might have been talking to Kronos, although it was more likely that his words were directed at Küller. "I... I couldn't..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry."
"It's too late for apologies." Küller strode over to the sprawled body, briefly checking it for any of life. There seemed little point in feeling for a pulse, but he did so anyway, touching his fingers against the warm neck. There was no beat, no rhythmical throbbing - nothing save a stillness that seemed somehow strange. He sighed.
"Well, he's dead."
"Very." The sergeant closed his eyes. "I will surrender my weapon to you, sir, if you feel--"
"I don't." Küller shook his head, straightening up and placing his hands firmly on the younger man's shoulders. "Do you really think I'm sorry to see the back of that - that--" He smiled weakly, words failing him. "He murdered my brother. He--" Somehow it felt like murder, even though it was war. "I would probably have killed him myself, before very much longer. Now come on. We have work to do."
"Clearing the mines away. Of course." The sergeant nodded, looking relieved. "If you have the map, I'll get right on it."
"Here." Küller felt around inside his shirt, producing a small, hand-drawn map; black ink on thick, yellow paper. "This tells you the location of every mine in the vicinity. Only disable those that you really need to."
"Sir." The sergeant snapped off a creditable salute, then turned smartly, snatched up his rifle and marched away. Collgrove stared after him, before standing up and wandering over to Kronos. Seeing the other man lying there, dead and silent, was a very strange experience indeed. Somehow he could not believe that that the danger was yet over.
"We should bury him." Küller sounded uneasy, and Collgrove looked up, meeting his eyes with a mixture of puzzlement and understanding. Burying the body seemed like a very good idea, and not just for reasons of hygiene and decency. If they buried the body, it would be gone - safely out of the way and somehow neutralised. Collgrove had a very powerful desire to get rid of the body once and for all. If it hadn't been for the need to avoid attracting attention to themselves, he would have suggested burning the dead man, and being sure that he was gone. As it was, none of it was his concern anyway. Not really. He shrugged.
"You want to bury him, you go ahead. I'm a prisoner of war, not a gravedigger." He smiled, then headed back to his crate and sat down once again. "And don't expect me to say any fancy words when you lay him to rest, either. I only met him a day or so back, and I really couldn't stand the man. Loudmouthed, arrogant--" He smirked. "And a lousy cook." Küller's mouth hardened into a thin line, which Collgrove found oddly satisfying. The German major narrowed his eyes.
"He may have been all those things - but he was also a man of some interest to me. I had good reasons for wanting to take him in for questioning. Personal reasons, as I'm sure you can understand. There are no such reasons why I should want to keep you around, so if I were you, I would be sure to be friendly. To be... compliant. Wouldn't you say? After all, if I'm to bury one prisoner today, I might just as well bury two." He smirked. "I doubt that my sergeant would have any objections." Collgrove met his gaze and held it, all the time feeling his resolve weaken. Finally he shrugged.
"Do you have any spades?"
"I'm sure we can find something." Küller smiled. "I'm glad to see that we understand each other."
"Oh we understand each other alright." Collgrove stood up, heading towards the major in order to have his hands freed. His eyes strayed to the body of Kronos, lying at his feet. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but he could have sworn that, just for a second, the supposedly still chest had started to rise. "I don't pretend to be anything other than a coward, major. I see no point in hiding it. But you - you haven't decided yet, have you. You still think you're a brave man." He shook his head. "If I was brave, I'd have been out of this war weeks ago - I'd never have got into it in the first place. So yeah, I'd say we understand each other. Question is, do you understand yourself?"
"I'm not sure I understand what you mean." Küller drew a long knife, using it to cut easily through the ropes binding his prisoner's hands. "But I don't like brave men. They make life far too difficult. You just carry on being a coward, and we'll get along just fine."
"That's just as well. I'm far too old to change now." Collgrove found to his surprise that he was smiling. "Now where will I find a spade?" Küller pointed, and he nodded in acknowledgement. "Thankyou." He turned around and headed off towards the pile of stores just indicated. It was strange, but as he turned to walk away, he could have sworn that Kronos' body was not lying in quite the same place as it had been. He frowned, and then dismissed the thought. He was jumpy. The sooner he buried the man the better. But as he found his spade and started to dig, he couldn't shake the feeling that somebody was watching him - somebody besides Major Küller. He shot an irritable glance towards the dead body nearby, and thought, just for a moment, that it was looking at him. A shiver ran down his spine before he managed to tell himself to grow up. Great. Hell of a time to start losing it. He turned his back on the body and redoubled his efforts at the deepening hole. Behind him Major Küller began to pace, his footsteps dry scratching noises on the edges of Collgrove's consciousness. Dry scratches, mingled with something else. It was hesitant and faint - as though it were supposed to be a secret - but somewhere close by somebody was breathing. And if there was one thing that Collgrove was absolutely certain of, it was that he didn't want to know who that person was. His hands now slick with sweat against the shaft of the spade, he gripped his fingers more tightly around the only weapon to which he currently had access. Right now he would have given everything he owned to be back in the trenches. Back there the only thing you needed to fear was death.
It was growing dark again by the time Sergeant Janner finished deactivating the necessary explosives. In the early night of winter the darkness was intense, and it was only by torchlight that he was able to disarm the final one in a series of mines, creating a short stretch of track wide enough for the jeep to make its exit from its hiding place. He was tired from his excursions when he rejoined the others, and was grateful for the mug of coffee that Küller had somehow contrived to prepare for him. It tasted more of water than of coffee - and even more like the tin mug it was served in than anything else - but its heat was welcome. He shivered noticeably as he drank, although he seemed oblivious to the uneasy atmosphere. Even Küller was shooting nervous glances at Kronos' body by now - hesitant glances, apparently in the hope that nobody else would notice his discomfort. Collgrove smirked to himself in warped glee. At least he wasn't alone in his fear. With his almost obsessive neatness and his unyielding aura of military efficiency, Küller gave the impression that nothing could faze him - and it was a great surprise to hear him order Janner to carry out the burial. Rather than take part himself, he left the tent, ordering the surprised and relieved Collgrove to accompany him. They sat outside in the freezing cold, watching a light drizzle try to turn into snow. Küller lit up a cigarette, breathing clouds of warm smoke into the chilled air. He offered one to Collgrove, but the Englishman refused. Instead he dug his hands deeply into the pockets of what was left of his uniform, and wondered if his captors would object to him taking the virtually unscathed tunic from the body of Corporal Brunner before Janner consigned it to the earth. It seemed like such a waste. One sneaked glance at the unusually tense major, however, convinced him to remain silent. There were worse things than being cold, after all - such as being shot down in cold blood and buried next to a completely mad soldier, who might or might not actually be dead. He clenched his fists, hugging himself in the darkness. He could feel the cold mud, with its hard, frozen topcoat, through the holes in his partially melted boots. He had never known it to be so cold. Like winters back home in the city, when they had all slept together to keep the heat in. Three children, sandwiched between their parents, trying not to shiver too much. He had done everything he could to get out of that house and out of that city - but he would have given just as much right now to be back there again. He leant against the nearest vaguely solid piece of wall, dying to sit down and rest - but the feel of the cold ground through the thin material of his trousers would be a hundred times worse than it was through the patchy leather of his boots. So he stayed on his feet, head drooping, and closed his eyes in the hope that it would all just go away.
In the tent, Janner threw the last spade full of dirt onto Brunner's body, then dropped the spade to the ground and turned to the second hole. It was not deep enough to be a proper grave, and the edges were jagged with loose stones and pieces of war debris - still, he figured it was good enough for the maniac who had killed his friend. He turned to the body, blinking slightly in the murky darkness. One candle was not light enough when one was engaged in burial duties, and he had taken several automatic steps towards the body before he realised that it was no longer there. A shiver ran up his spine, and he licked his dry lips. His eyes flickered about in the eerie, shadowy gloom. The body, which he had been convinced was close by, instead lay a few feet away, on the edges of the darkest sweep of shadows. He smiled. What a mistake to make - still, it wasn't as if the body could move about by itself. He shook his head, glad to feel the beating of his heart slow back to its normal rate, and the tightness in his chest subside. His breathing came easily again. Why was he so jumpy? He'd dealt with dead people before. He shook off his fear and headed towards the body. It was just as well that Küller had left him to handle this alone. It would have been far too embarrassing were the major - and especially the British prisoner - to have seen him behaving like this.
The body was framed in darkness, the facial features all but invisible. In death it was a young face, innocent perhaps and supremely inoffensive. There was no hint of madness, no suggestion of cruelty. Just smudges of mud and a thin trace of blood around the mouth. Harmless. Janner smiled, catching hold of the dead man's shoulders. What had he been so scared of? Could it really be that this man was the one who had driven him to such a rage? It seemed so silly now, looking at him. Grinning to himself he hauled the body over towards the hole, and dumped it on the very edge. Now, in the full glare of the candle flame, there was something vaguely Satanic about the man. He felt another shiver run down his spine, although he cursed himself for it. What was he? A child? A small girl, quaking with fear at the slightest hint of a scare? He reached out for the candle, drawing it near in the hope that the added light would prove to him that his fears were unfounded. A bright circle of warm yellow light shone around him, flooding the grave with its glow, and reflecting in the bright eyes of the dead man at his feet. Bright, ice-blue eyes. Eyes which had been closed just a second earlier.
Janner let out a strangled cry, dropping the candle and backing away. Somehow the flame burned on - until the dead man lying on the ground reached out and closed his fist around the candlewick. In the last of the belaboured flame's strangled flickering, Janner saw Kronos grinning at him, manic shadows tattooing his face with sharp and wicked shapes. The sergeant stumbled, mind filled with images of an advancing dead man, the sudden, complete darkness blinding him completely. He thought that he saw the doorway of the tent up ahead - the gateway to the rest of the world - to a place that was infinitely more sane, where there might be a chance of salvation. He reached out for it, certain that his fingers were grasping the coarse material of the camouflage netting. The feeling of utter dejection when he realised that he was clutching merely at the piles of stores was the last real feeling he ever had. He felt a blade cutting into the back of his neck - felt an explosion of utter, unbearable pain - and then felt nothing at all. He was aware that he was falling, but his mind no longer seemed to be attached to the rest of his thoughts. Some last shred of consciousness told him that he had been hit with his own spade - that he was about to be beheaded with a garden tool. Perhaps that was funny. He thought that he was looking up into the face of his attacker, but surely that couldn't be right? There was no light. He couldn't be looking at anything. And besides - the dead man who was killing him was wearing a red cross uniform, and wore his hair short. The strange half-hallucination that burned in the back of his eyes right now wore armour of metal squares sewn over a tunic of rough black leather. His hair was long, and his face was marked with black war paint. That didn't make any sense. Confused, the sergeant reached the dim realisation that he was going to die with tears rolling down his cheeks. That didn't feel right. It certainly didn't feel especially heroic. He had always planned to die gloriously, and with courage. Actually he had always rather hoped never to die at all. Hard luck, said some echoing demon inside his skull, and paralysed as he was with pain and fear, he didn't even notice when death came. But then, thought whatever was left of his consciousness, death hadn't had to come very far. It had been walking by his side since the moment he had first laid eyes on Kronos.
Outside, waiting together in the darkness, Küller and Collgrove heard Janner's strangled cry. They stared at each other, too terrified to think about running to the aid of their ill-fated companion. The cry broke off. Its end came in an unpleasant, gurgling scream that ground into nothing. There was no echo, no further sound. No footsteps coming their way, bringing Janner to tell them that he was okay, that there was nothing to worry about.
"Oh god." Collgrove felt his legs go weak. "It's him. He's alive." Küller didn't answer him, but instead turned slowly to stare back towards the camouflaged area. There was a jeep in there, ready and fuelled for a fast trip away to reinforcements. There was extra ammunition, there were grenades - there was anti-tank weaponry that would stop Kronos once and for all. All useless to him, unless he fancied going in there with the enemy. His eyes sought Collgrove's, looking for the other man's pale face in the space just inches from his own.
"What do you suggest?" he asked, only just remembering in time to speak in English. Collgrove gaped at him.
"Why are you asking me?"
"You know him. You were together when we found you. What is he like? What are his weaknesses?"
"Weaknesses? He doesn't have any bloody weaknesses. We killed him, and he's still alive. Does that sound to you like a man with many weaknesses?" He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Look, I don't know him any better than you do. All I know is, I met him, I killed him, he came after me. When you came into that barn and took us prisoner he was about to behead me. Remember?"
"I remember." Küller relit his cigarette, sucking hard on the end so that the red tip glowed fiercely. "He had a sword. Brunner took it."
"And now I'm willing to bet he's got it back. Plus any weaponry Brunner and Janner might have happened to have on them. You seriously want me to suggest a way to get hold of a heavily armed nut who keeps coming back from the dead?" He shook his head, his hands shaking even harder. "I'm sorry, but no. I'm out of here. Shoot me if you like. It's probably better than what he's got planned for me." He took a step away, staring nervously at the revolver he suddenly found pointed at his gut. Clearly his claim that he didn't mind being shot was something of a falsehood. Küller was frowning at him.
"You're not the average British officer," he observed. Collgrove's eyes widened.
"Could we leave the court martial until later? He's coming."
"No. He's watching, he's not coming. He's interested in effect as much as in action, hadn't you noticed? He wants to make us sweat." Küller glanced about, his sharp eyes looking for any sign of movement. "If we split up, we're done for. Our strength is in numbers."
"We don't have any strengths. We can't kill him."
"Yes we can. Temporarily. When Janner shot him it was some time before he revived. If we can shoot him, and then tie him up, we'll have him. German High Command will be fascinated to see him. Think of the effect his capture could have on the war. Imagine the scenes in the trenches if we could send wave after wave of immortal soldiers against the enemy. Victory would be ours in weeks. Maybe even less."
"Am I supposed to jump for joy?" Collgrove reached out with a very tentative hand and pushed the gun away from his stomach. "I don't think much of helping you win the war for Germany."
"Why not? You don't seem to be doing much to win it for Britain." Küller laughed. "I had thought you were a deserter, but you're not even that, are you. You're in a stolen uniform. You're not even a soldier."
"Not even a private, no." The impostor sighed. "Listen, major. I was in a jam, and the only way to avoid being shot by the British army was to steal a uniform from a dead officer. He was heading for the front line to take up a post there, and I got taken there instead. It was a way of staying alive just a little bit longer, but it turned into the greatest nightmare of my life. Being shot by that British patrol would have been paradise compared to what I got myself into instead. I'm sick of people pointing guns at me, and I'm sick of being scared for my life. Worst of all, I'm sick of me. I'm sick of watching kids half my age throw their lives away because somebody told them it was a grand gesture. I'm sick of always being glad that they're the ones dying and not me. Now I'm not going to stand here and be preached at by somebody who's supposed to be the enemy. I'm not going to stand here and wait for some inhuman maniac to wander out of the shadows and cut my head off. I'm getting out of here." His eyes travelled back to the gun. "And I mean it this time. If you're going to point that thing at me, you're going to have to fire it."
"I don't plan on doing that just yet. You might be useful." Küller's sharp eyes once again scanned the close horizon. "Alright. We'll make for that big wall over there. See it? The one with the window close to the top. It should provide us with plenty of shadows to hide in."
"We don't want shadows. We should look for somewhere well lit. Somewhere bright. If you have a torch, turn it on."
"Are you mad? This is no time to announce that you're afraid of the dark."
"I'm not mad. I'm serious. Listen, shadows are his friend. He works with them. Haven't you noticed how they follow him around? The last thing we want to do is hide in the bloody things. If we go over there, he'll come after us."
"And you're saying he won't if we light ourselves up?"
"No." Collgrove wasn't entirely sure what he was saying, if he was honest. He just knew that he was making sense, to himself at least. "No, that's not what I mean. But I know that standing around in shadows is asking for trouble. You might think that you'll see him coming, but you won't. He'll be there, and the first you'll be aware of it is when it's far too late. Did Janner ever strike you as a man who would take unnecessary risks? Do you think he was the careless type? Kronos got to him, whatever precautions he took, and he'll get to you too if you don't stop and think about it."
"I won't take orders from a civilian." There was a cold look in Küller's eyes; the same kind of look that he had had after Kronos' revelation about the death of his brother. "If I say we're going over there, we're going over there."
"No." Collgrove folded his arms. "It's suicide. Can't you see that?"
"It's not suicide. It's an acceptable military risk. We're not all cowards here." Küller gestured with his revolver. "Now are you going willingly, or do I have to carry you? You're not much use to me dead, but better that than running around the countryside jeopardising my survival."
"I'm not going with you." There was the beginnings of a nervous tick in the side of Collgrove's face. He had played the part of an officer for so long that there were times when the steadfastness came almost naturally to him - but now was not one of those times. He was terrified, and he didn't care who saw it. "I won't get in your way, and I won't take any risks. But I won't stand around in the shadows waiting for nightmares to come and get me. Just a few hours and it'll be dawn. Wait until then. Find somewhere to hide. Somewhere we can defend. At least then we'll have a fighting chance. We'll be able to see him coming."
"You're a coward." There was no contempt in Küller's voice. It was more as though he were stating a fact than attempting an insult.
"Yeah, I know. But I'm a coward that plans to make it to the end of the war. So what do you say?"
"I say that I have no interest in listening to your stupid theories." With a sudden, sharp movement, Küller holstered his revolver. "But see if I care. You go ahead, major. You see if you can survive the night. I plan to follow my strategy, and take this man in for questioning. Come with me, and help me, and maybe there won't be a bullet waiting for you when we report in."
"I'll take my chances." Collgrove looked around, nervous. He could feel Kronos peering at him from every patch of shadow - hear his breathing in every gust of wind. He could almost believe that he could hear the slicing sound of the sword, as it moved through the air in warm up exercises. He managed not to shiver, but every part of his body was tense with fear. His skin remembered the sensation of the sword blade against his throat, and he felt it again as he thought about it. The sharp edge moved across his neck, threatening, insinuating, stroking. He thought that he felt the warm trickle of blood, but there was nothing. He wanted to rub at his neck, but instead held out his hand. "Good luck."
"And you." There was a wry smile on Küller's face now, although the coldness was still there. They shared a brief handshake, then he turned and was gone. Left alone, Collgrove thought he heard a faint chuckle, blown to him on the breeze. He almost panicked and ran after Küller, but he stopped himself just in time. Instead he squared his shoulders, and walked as boldly and as brazenly as he was capable, heading for the centre of what remained of the settlement. There was a patch of moonlight there, strong and clear, and he sat down in the middle of it, hugged his knees, and drew himself into the smallest, tightest ball that he could manage. It was bitingly cold, and the night was alive with noises that he most definitely did not want to hear. They made his blood run cold, but he welcomed them. At least whilst he could hear them, he knew that he was still alive.
Küller's hands felt rough stone, telling him that he was close to the towering wall he had decided on as his cover. He pressed himself against it, feeling the breathtakingly cold touch of brick through his clothes. Shadows flickered on the periphery of his vision, and for the first time he wondered if maybe Collgrove had been right. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to hide where he could see nothing. Just because Kronos couldn't see him didn't necessarily make it a good choice of hiding place. He dismissed the thought. He was a major in the Imperial German Army. He had fifteen years distinguished service behind him. He had won medals, led campaigns, received commendations from leading statesmen. He had crawled through the mud and mines of No Man's Land to initiate brilliantly executed manoeuvres on enemy posts. Here, now, there was only one man to fight. One small, scrawny Englishman in a Red Cross tunic. What kind of a foe was that? He smiled to himself, toying absently with his brother's ring. Revenge. It warmed his chilled blood. Gave him a reason to smile. So intent were his thoughts on plans of glorious victory that he didn't hear the low chuckle which came forth from out of the night. He checked the load in his revolver, and turned to look towards the tent of camouflage netting where his enemy had last been seen. Everything was still, and horribly quiet.
"Chilly, isn't it." It took several moments before he realised that the soft, insinuating voice had spoken in German. By the time that simple fact had sunk in he was already whirling around, staring towards the sound, revolver pointing into the shadows like a hunting dog scenting a target. He could see nothing.
"Who's there?" He answered in German, hoping that the voice had belonged to an ally - someone who could help him, someone who would help to make the shadows less threatening. There was no answer. "I said, who's there?" Several hundred yards away Collgrove looked up, staring towards the faceless shadows for a brief moment. He couldn't see Küller. Küller didn't especially want him to. He didn't think that the Englishman had been the one who had spoken. He didn't seem the kind, and besides, it had sounded too close for that. He pressed his back against the wall and strained his eyes. If there was anybody out there, he had to see them. There was no way that anybody was going to sneak up on him unseen.
"I fought beside Caesar two thousand years ago, when he conquered your country. Long before anybody had even thought to give it a name." There was a low laugh. Küller spun around again, but try as he might he could not place the voice. The German was faultless, without a trace of an accent. He recognised the voice now, though. It belonged to Kronos. He turned the gun towards the most likely source of the sound, but when it came again, it came from an entirely different direction. It seemed to creep towards him, then break away and leap out from a new place. Always changing, always mobile.
"In the Dark Ages, people feared the Romans. They remembered them as terrible conquerors, merciless killers. They were all gone by then of course. People used to say that the ghost of Caesar walked across battlefields, stealing the souls of the dead and the dying. He was supposed to materialise in the thick of the battle, and throw victory to whichever side he favoured; but he'd take the souls of the warriors on both sides."
"Show yourself." Küller's stentorian voice might have had an effect on a solider, or on anybody likely to be impressed by authority and courage. It had no effect on the invisible madman currently tormenting him.
"I didn't like to tell them it wasn't Caesar. I could have done. I knew who it really was." There was a low, soft chuckle, like the sound of the wind. "He was one of my people, and he walked about on battlefields, taking the heads of the warriors who had turned out to be Immortals. He grew to be very strong that way. Very powerful. We fought once, but a group of mortals interrupted us."
"Shut up." Küller could feel his composure beginning to crack. "Just step out where I can see you, damn it."
"What's wrong, major? Don't you like my stories? I'm only trying to put us both in the mood..." For a second a dark shape flitted out of the shadows, and Küller spun about to face it. He fired off a shot, but there was no sign that it had hit any mark. He saw Collgrove give a mighty start. It looked as though the Englishman was having to fight not to run away.
"Unfriendly. Very unfriendly." Kronos spoke with the voice of ice. "You're not a nice host, major. In the old days - in my time - a host welcomed a stranger, heard his tales, gave him food and drink. It was his duty. Often the strangers would turn out to be foes, and would murder their hosts - but that was life back then. It didn't matter. The company was still so much more congenial. The fires were warmer, the food tasted better, and the stories never failed to make the hair on the back of your neck curl up in horror..." Another giggle danced in the darkness. Küller closed his eyes.
"Damn you! Just show yourself. Fight me in the open."
"But this is so much more fun." Again a shadow broke free from the rest, and again Küller tried to shoot it. Again he failed. His efforts were rewarded with a familiar laugh. Kronos sounded as though he was closer now, as though he were preparing to strike. His words were full of teasing laughter; cold mockery that made Küller's skin crawl and made his fingers feel desperately weak as they gripped his revolver.
"I saw Caesar's ghost again the other night. He's still up to his tricks. Of course nobody believes in him anymore, but that doesn't mean he's not there. Like every other nightmare you used to be scared of as a kid. The monster under your bed. Vampires. Demons. Anything that once brought a shiver to your spine. When you've lived for four thousand years you learn never to stop believing in anything." There was the laugh again, and this time Küller shuddered. Wherever Kronos was, he saw, and his laugh deepened. "Did you ever hear the tales of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? They're real too."
"This is crazy." Stepping away from the wall with a sudden burst of desperate energy, Küller stared ahead of him towards the last place that the voice had come from. "I refuse to be intimidated by a man who won't even let himself be seen."
"You want to see me?" The voice sounded as though it came from right behind him, but Küller did not want to believe that that was the case. He refused to whirl around again, instead forcing his body to be still. "Voices from nightmares are the last things mortals ever hear. And when mortal eyes look upon the creatures their ancestors cowered from... then they'll never look upon anything else ever again. Are you sure you want to see me, major?"
"Just show yourself." He raised the gun, sick of the sound of the insinuating, sibilant whisper. He felt very tired, and very ill. Maybe he was too old for this. Maybe he should have taken that desk job last month. Maybe... Too many maybes. He stiffened his back and straightened his shoulders, and turned towards the sound of the single, solitary footstep that crunched in the frozen soil just behind him. His blood ran cold.
It was Kronos, or something that looked like him. His Red Cross tunic, the mark of the harmless, of normalcy, had been shredded by strokes of a long, sharp knife. The shreds were woven and plaited, made rigid by streaks of drying blood. Mud streaked his hair, and there was blood on his face - broad strokes and delicate patterns, combining in a breathtaking sweep of horrific artistry that decorated the whole of the right side of his head in deranged illustration. In the midst of the swirling madness, his eyes burned with a light that was entirely inhuman. It seemed to be the glow from them alone which lit up the blade of the sword in his hands. There was no longer any moon to make the weapon flash, but flash it did, in a blaze of cold ice-blue. Küller gazed, and gaped, and didn't voice so much as a word. He didn't move as Kronos came closer, and didn't even try to get away. The sword was against his throat before he knew about it.
"I told you that you'd meet your end without a sound." There was no more whispering, and no more speaking in German. Kronos' voice was rich and deep and perfectly English, belying what he was - or what he appeared to be. He sounded like an actor. Oddly Küller was reminded of a performance he had once seen of Henry V, back in his days as a student, studying at Oxford. It seemed the strangest thought to think, but he didn't need to ponder it to know it was his last. The sword burst through his throat, travelling through up to the hilt. Kronos smiled his hard smile before pulling it free again, staring down at the body as it crumpled to his feet. He wiped the blade carefully on his trousers, then shouldered the sword and, heading once more towards the shadows, began to whistle. Sitting on his own in the midst of dreadful solitude, Collgrove heard the music. He knew who was making it, and he knew why. He clenched his fists and wished for a weapon - wished for daylight. He wished as hard as he could, but he knew that there was no chance yet for either.
Daybreak came in a gentle rising of steam from the frozen ground. It drifted upwards in thin tendrils, losing itself in the pale, watery sky. It seemed like weeks now since the world had been awash under so much suffocating mud, drenched by endless rain. It was just a couple of days. Collgrove lifted his head from where it had been hanging on his chest, and stared out at the tableau before him. The buildings were as deserted and as dejected as always. Küller lay sprawled out beside the towering wall he had thought would give him shelter. There was a huge splash of blood around the upper part of his body, parts of it no doubt already frozen over. The pale sun glinted off several red icicles, but Collgrove could not see any more detail. Of that small mercy he was glad. It struck him that he was no longer a prisoner - that the last of his captors was now dead. He could go anywhere he liked, get away from the trenches and the soldiers, and try to save his life from whatever fate had planned for it. If he could only get away from Kronos first. He hugged himself, trying to conserve what little warmth was left, wishing that he had something more substantial to wear than his war-ruined clothes. It was a wonder, really, that he had survived so long dressed like this. It would only get colder now. Soon, if Kronos didn't get to him first, he would meet his end frozen to the ground like an ice sculpture. The thought was hardly an inspiring one.
"Here." He hadn't heard footsteps, and he hadn't heard breathing. He hadn't heard anything until the voice. He jumped violently, heart almost erupting from his chest, but it was nothing more deadly than a greatcoat that came towards him, hitting the ground with a dull thud. It was a German one, Janner's most likely. Bones creaking from too long sitting still, from too long spent sitting in the icy cold, Collgrove staggered to his feet.
Kronos stood several feet away. He looked improbably neat and tidy, as though he had just emerged from a tailor's shop with a barber's attached. He was wearing a German uniform that could have been made especially for him, although it undoubtedly came from the boxes of stores in the camouflaged tent. There was no sign of a gun in his possession, and his sword was stuck into his belt.
"What do you want?" It was impossible to keep the shake from his voice. Collgrove didn't care if Kronos heard it. He stared fixedly as the other man came closer, and tried to will himself to run away. His legs didn't want to work.
"I thought you'd appreciate the coat." Kronos was almost upon him now, but rather than giving any indication of violent intent, he merely bent to pick up the heavy garment from the ground. He handed it over. "You'll freeze wandering around the countryside dressed like that. You can probably find some boots in the tent too. There's lots of stuff in there. Enough ammunition to throw somebody a real party."
"Why would you give this to me?" He held the coat for several moments, almost paralysed, before finally pulling it on. Kronos just smiled.
"Never let it be said that I'm a cruel man." His eyes glittered. Collgrove wanted to faint.
"What did you do to Janner?" he asked, hardly recognising the dull sound of his own voice. Kronos let his eyes drift towards the tent.
"Oh yes. Janner. He shot me, and like I said, I take rather a dim view of that." He shrugged. "Janner won't be coming back to join us, but I promise not to serve him up for breakfast." He grinned, and the manic glitter in his eyes faded away. In its place was the look of a man addressing a friend; someone that he might have happened to meet by chance in the street. He looked young and harmless. He looked almost kind. "There's plenty of food in the stores. Tinned stuff. Bread's mouldy, but then they don't make it like they used to. Time was it would last a month and only get a bit chewy, but then we used to eat all kinds of things in those days. I shudder to think what they put in the beer. There's some of that here too, but I wasn't too impressed. Inferior yeast, I'd say."
"I don't want to have breakfast. I don't want to eat with you." Collgrove had a hard time holding the other man's gaze, but he made himself do it, trying not to think about everything that this harmless-looking individual had done. "If you're going to kill me, just go ahead and do it. I've had enough of your games."
"Yeah, I know." Kronos actually looked sad. "Nobody plays by my rules anymore. Nobody wants to play the old games at all. A hundred years ago I could do what I wanted. A thousand years ago it was even better. Nowadays you don't even begin to understand the way it was."
"Very likely. And getting madder still." This time Kronos smiled, although somehow the expression made him seem even more sad than before. "I don't enjoy it like I used to, Philip. I can't find the fire. Nobody knows who I am anymore."
"I still think you're insane." Collgrove glanced about, wondering if he could make it to Küller's fallen gun before he was killed. He knew that he couldn't kill Kronos, but he could at least get himself a decent head start. Fire flashed in the other man's eyes for a second, but it was gone very quickly.
"Believe what you like," he said finally, and drew his sword. Collgrove blanched, but the blade came nowhere near him. "The truth is that I really did fight through the centuries, with the greatest leaders in history. I really did know Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan, and a hundred others you've probably never heard of. Methos would tell me that I dwell too much on the past, and I think he's right. But a man finds it hard to change after four thousand years."
"I... imagine so." Collgrove swallowed hard. For some reason he was finding it increasingly hard to disbelieve this peculiar man. Kronos just laughed.
"We have more in common that I thought, you and I. We're both lost - just in different places."
"Don't expect me to be all comradely."
"Oh, I don't." The eyes glittered again. "There's something that I want you to know."
"Oh yeah? That this isn't personal? That you don't hate me? That this is all just a game to you? Save it. I don't want to listen."
"That's not what I was going to say. It is personal, and it's never just a game." The smile came back out for an encore, warm now, if a little distant. "The meat really was rabbit. I never even saw Küller's brother."
"But the ring..."
"Pure chance - it might have belonged to anybody. I found it when I killed a group of Red Cross people not longer before I found your little hideaway. Küller's brother was probably killed by deserters, and the Red Cross picked up the pieces just before I arrived." His voice began to carry the tones of light amusement. "I didn't see any Germans, and I certainly didn't eat any of them."
"Because." He shrugged. "The mention of my name used to make half the population of the world quake with terror. Now they all laugh at it as a myth. If I can recapture a little of the old times, replay a little of the old games, then I will. And I make no apology for it."
"So that's why I have to die? Why Küller had to die? So some old warrior who doesn't know when to quit can recapture his lost youth?" Collgrove was beginning to reach far past exhaustion. His head hurt just with the strain of always being afraid. He reached out, grabbing the other man by the shirtfront before he had even realised what he was doing. "You chased me all that way, killed three innocent bystanders, terrorised us all night, just so that you could have a little fun? Well what now? Why tell me all of this? Is this just another part of your game?"
"No." Kronos did not try to pull free. "I'm telling you because I decided to let you live. I've had enough of this place, with its mud and its rain and its cold. I've had enough of this war. I thought, since you felt the same, I'd let you go too. Find somewhere else to be."
"Oh yeah." Sardonic disbelief dripped from Collgrove's voice. "And this change of heart came about because the sun came up? Or maybe you got a little chilly last night, waiting around for Küller to go crazy at your mind games. Maybe you were visited by a host of angels in the night, who made you see the error of your ways? The ghost of Christmas future gave you a scare?"
"No." As Kronos struggled now in his grip, Collgrove realised to his surprise that he was actually stronger than the smaller man. He hung on, wondering what his next move should be, whether he would dare to make a move at all. "No change of heart. No new dawn. No visitations." His voice was ice again, and a thrill of fear chased its way through Collgrove's system. "Centuries pass, Philip. And every time a new one comes the Apocalypse fails to fall. My time slips further away." With a sudden burst of strength he finally succeeded in breaking free, but Collgrove seized hold of his wrist at the last moment, twisting the sword from his grasp.
"It's all too late," he said coldly, aware of a new anger growing deep within him. "Did you expect me to be grateful? Did you expect me to say thankyou, and go running off on my way? After all that you've put me through, you can't just say you're ending it, and then turn around and walk away. That's not how it works. Not like this. I thought I was going to die!"
"I thought so too." Kronos shrugged. There was a casualness to his tone, but his eyes did not leave his sword. "Don't push your advantage, Philip. Don't lose your life to make a point. The game was fun. I enjoyed it. And now I'm letting you go. It's the way I work - when the mood takes me." His smile curled back across his face. "I once killed an entire family, and then let one of the daughters live because she amused me. Of course I had to kill her anyway later on, when she went mad and came after me, but then that's the way the world works, isn't it. She was barely fully grown, and her father's sword was too long for her to carry. She tried to kill me as I slept, but she made such a noise creeping about in my tent that half of the camp woke up. I almost felt guilty, killing her after that." He shrugged. "Actually I rather enjoyed it. I was very inventive. Even Methos was impressed, and believe me, nobody can torture people with more imagination and flair than Methos."
"You make me sick." Collgrove weighed the sword in his hand. "I should kill you now. Nobody would ever be any the wiser. Nobody would ever know either of us were here. And the only people likely to miss you are the residents of whichever hospital it was that you escaped from."
"Very droll." Kronos shrugged, still making no move on Collgrove, his stance still easy, his expression still placid and blank. "I was going to let you live. I really was. I was going to let you walk out of here a free man."
"I don't believe you." The sword shook in Collgrove's hand. He knew that if he didn't make a move with it soon, Kronos was become all too aware of his unwillingness to kill. He would lose his edge, his hold of the situation. If Kronos saw that he was not prepared to use the sword, his life wouldn't be worth a paper bullet.
"Fine. You know what? Believe what you like, see if I care." Kronos turned away, apparently giving no more thought to the man standing before him. "I was actually willing to grant you your life. I was willing to play the good guy for once. It doesn't happen often, so I like to make the most of it when I can. It's good for my soul, you know? It's good to keep my hand in, just in case any of these newfangled religions turns out to be right."
"I'm really supposed to believe that you give a damn about your soul?" He knew that sarcasm wasn't the healthiest stance to take, but somehow he just couldn't stop himself. Kronos lost the smile for a moment, his eyes narrowing. Collgrove tightened his grip on the sword.
"No, I don't give a damn. Of course I don't." He laughed, looking strangely young and innocent, and filled with a million contradictions that confused Collgrove even more. "But hey, who does? Listen Phil, I offered to give you your life. If you don't want it, fine. Do you really think it bothers me if I kill you or not? I can make the game last a little longer. I can string this out as long as you like. I'm immortal, remember? You can't kill me. I can go on, and on, and on. I can take your life, and I can crush it - I can do that any time I please. Any time. But if you'd rather I do that than walk away and leave you alone... it's your choice. It's down to you."
"You want to give me my life?" Collgrove couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You want to give it to me? What in Heaven's name makes you think you have that right? My life doesn't belong to you. It's not yours to give or take at will. Not my life, not Major Küller's life, not that young sergeant... It's not up to you. We don't belong to you, damn it. What is wrong with you?"
"It's not up to me?" Kronos' voice had dropped to a whisper. "What do you mean it's not up to me? Of course it's up to me." He stepped forward, eyes alive with something Collgrove could not interpret. He started to back away, but Kronos, although hardly seeming to move at all, was upon him before he could take more than a step. He felt an impossibly strong hand catch his wrist, and felt his fingers deaden. The sword dropped from his grip and splashed into the melting puddles of ice and mud at his feet. "Your life is nothing, Philip. Nothing. It means nothing. It represents nothing. It's just a flicker, like a candle flame. It burns for a few seconds, and when it goes out nobody notices. Maybe someone cries, for a few months - even a few years if you're lucky. But then? Who'll remember you in twenty years? Who'll remember you in a hundred years? Do you think anybody will know the name of Philip Collgrove in 1986? Or in 2086?" Collgrove felt himself being dragged closer to the madman - saw those terrifying eyes coming nearer and nearer to his own. They were hypnotic, staring, intense - filled with something utterly unspeakable, and yet utterly mesmerising. Overpowering charisma, and overpowering ferocity. "You're nothing Philip. But me - I'm everything. I terrorised whole nations. Entire civilisations feared me. My name is mentioned with apprehension and reverence in a thousand works of literature dating back millennia! School children still learn about me - still read about me in their text books. I was - am - will be the end of Time. So don't tell me that your life doesn't belong to me, Philip." His voice softened, and gradually, with surprising gentility, he slackened his grip on the other man's lapels. His crazed eyes lost their manic glare, and the tension in his muscles subsided. Slowly, tenderly, he straightened Collgrove's coat, then smiled and took a step back. "Don't tell me that Philip. Because your life does belong to me. It's mine to do with as I please. Just the same as the life of every mortal on this planet belongs to me, and to the others of my kind. We're your masters, Philip. Your rulers. We watch over you, we govern you, we fight each other for ultimate supremacy over you. Your lives are nothing compared to ours. I know - I know you don't understand. I know you don't appreciate how it is. But that's just hard luck." He smiled, looking a little breathless. "You see? Now what's it to be Philip? Do you let me play at being the merciful benefactor? I like to spare a life occasionally. One must never be... too predictable. Must one."
"You're - you're insane." Collgrove began to back away, having to will his legs to obey him at every step. "You're mad - completely mad."
"Mad." For a horrible moment true insanity burned in those ice-blue eyes - a rage more violent, more complete, than anything Collgrove had ever before witnessed. And with it came fear - a terrible, hot, raging fear that burned deep inside him. It grew up within him, bubbling into his mind, gaining new strength with every step that he took away from Kronos; and with every step that Kronos took towards him.
"I'm mad am I? Mad? I belong in a cell somewhere, locked away from the world, gazed at by scientists hoping to learn something, and rich benefactors who come by to gawp? I've been there, Philip. They tried that once before. Do you know the kinds of things that go on in those places? The kinds of experiments they try? The kinds of things they do to people's heads?" He gave a low, guttural laugh. "No, you don't know. And you don't care. You're a product of your time, aren't you Philip. You think you care. You think you're better than me, because you believe mortal lives are worth something. But just like everybody else you only think some of them are worth saving. How many Germans have you killed since you first put on that uniform? Have many men have you blasted from the face of this planet, either directly or indirectly? But what - that's okay? It's okay because they're the enemy? You didn't choose to fight in this war. You didn't sign up for any great reason. But it's still okay for you to kill the enemy, because the leaders of your country decided that you were going to go to war with them. Do you even know what this war is about Philip? And don't tell me it's because some kid shot an Archduke, because we both know that's a load of rubbish. Do you know why millions of your people are killing millions of theirs?" Collgrove felt his head shaking, felt what seemed like gallons of cold sweat running down his forehead, his cheeks, his chin. "But you're still a better man than I am? I'm the mad one, because I kill people. Well what does that make you Philip? What does that make every British man, every Frenchman, every German, every Australian and whoever the hell else is out here, or across the other side of the world, all fighting this war? Are we all mad? Every one of us?"
"I--" Collgrove felt his shoulders beginning to slump. "I don't know. I - I don't..." He rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear his vision, trying to straighten his thoughts. Nothing wanted to focus. "You're screwing up my head."
"It's what I do, Philip." Kronos was right in front of him now, leaving barely enough room between them for Collgrove's chest to rise and fall in breathing. He was speaking softly, sounding reflective, sounding gentle - sounding anything but dangerous. "I just want you to understand that I won't be judged. Not by you, not by your friends back in the trenches, not by the people who claim to rule this world - who claim to be civilised, who claim to be educated and enlightened. I knew men who lived in caves, who wore animal skins and had no written language - and they were more civilised than you, Philip. Than any of you." He turned away, staring into the distance, shaking his head. He sounded tired now, angry and disillusioned, like a thousand soldiers Collgrove had met in the trenches. But it wasn't this war that was making him that way - he could see that simple fact burning in those extraordinary blue eyes. It was something else - four thousand years of living a life in a world that no longer existed. Four thousand years of living a life that was falling out of control. "It's this century, damn it. I hate it. I hate the way it fights its wars. I hate the way it kills its legends. I hate the way it rewrites all the rules and leaves the rest of us standing in its wake. It's change or die - move with the times or get left behind. Well I don't want to move with the times, Philip. I plan to make the times move with me. If it's change or die, then it's the world that's going to have to change - or it's the world that's going to have to die. You think I'm screwing up your head, Phil? Well you try being me. You try watching the world change about you, leaving you behind - watch it change over centuries, over millennia. In another lifetime I was a god. Now I'm just a soldier fighting a war I don't care about, for a cause I don't understand. I've spent two years up to my neck in mud for a country that isn't even nearly my own. And it just isn't fun anymore." He smiled. "I gave you a chance to see life through my eyes. I gave you a chance to play my games the way we used to play them, in the good old days. Nobody else in this godforsaken century has had that chance. I gave you the chance to win your life, through pleasing me. I used to play that game with whole villages in the past. Hundreds of men and women and children. My brothers and I used to play this very game, with these very rules. You're a lucky man, Philip. Thousands - millions - have played this game. But only a handful ever got to walk away from it with their lives. Call it a parting gesture. Call it my one little nod to twentieth century civilisation. Call it anything you like."
"No." Collgrove was shaking with an uncontainable tension that racked every bone in his body. He could barely see now, the sweat and the tears and the rage making his vision a useless blur. "No. I can't let you do this. I can't let you stand there and give me my life. I can't let you walk away after taking Küller's life, Janner's life, Brunner's life. I won't let you act like you own us. I won't let you play at being God."
"Why not? We're fighting a war, Philip. Killing is what we do."
"No." He spat the word out, summoning it up from deep inside him, forcing it out with all of the anger and venom that was within him. "No, damn it. They're fighting a war. Those people out there, in the trenches. They're doing it because they think it's the right thing to do. Whether it is or it isn't, I don't know. History will have to decide that. But you and me, we don't have a right to take lives. We don't have a right to kill anyone. We're only here for our own ends. So I won't let you award me my life. I won't let you give me something that was always mine all along. I'm not going to let you walk away from here."
"No?" Kronos smiled at him, laughter leaping in his eyes. "Then stop me, Philip. Kill me. Shoot me. Go on."
"Is that what you want? Do you want to die?"
"No." The strange man with the even stranger eyes smiled more broadly than ever. "No. I want to set fire to London. I want to burn down the greatest buildings of Europe. I want to take the whole of the twentieth century and crush it in my fist. I don't want to die. But how about you?"
"Me?" Collgrove laughed. "No. No I won't let you kill me. I won't let you take my life. It's mine. I don't have anything else in this whole bloody world. I'll be damned if I'll let you take my life." His eyes flickered to the sword on the ground - the closest weapon to where he now stood. "You're not getting out of this place alive, and I don't care what it takes to kill you."
"Really?" Kronos had seen his interest in the sword, and Collgrove knew it. "So the twentieth century finds me guilty of crimes against humanity. So the twentieth century passes a sentence of death. Kind of poetic, don't you think? Because I swear one thing to you now, Philip. When the day comes that this century dies - and that day will come, just as it did for every other century. When we finally shake off its shackles, and it falls into the dustbin of history, I'll be here. I stand in this place, and I'll watch it go, and I'll know that I've outlived it. And where will you be then, Philip?"
"The only way you'll be here in 1999 is lying buried here, six feet down, where you'll have been since 1918." Collgrove smiled grimly. "You'd better get ready to make your peace with whatever god you believe in."
"Oh I'm ready, Phil. Believe me I'm ready."
He wasn't sure when he moved. He wasn't sure when the thoughts finally became actions, and when the tension in his body finally translated into movement. He wasn't aware of hurling himself through the air, or of crashing to the ground beside the sword. All that he was aware of was that Kronos was airborne too - flying towards him, hitting the ground beside him, reaching out for the sword at the same moment that he did the same thing. Their hands collided, fighting with each other, desperately trying to knock each other aside. Something hard hit Collgrove in the chest, but he struck back, feeling his hands, his feet, his elbows, all striking home into something warm, something alive. His heart raced in his chest. His fingers slid on mud, on blood that he wasn't aware of spilling, on water that was beginning to pour from the skies. The world was grey again. He was lost in a growing sea of mud and rain, just as he had been in the trenches, just as he had been when he had finally made his escape from them. He was sinking. Beside him Kronos was a whirlwind - a madman in a cloak of humanity - some insane, unleashed monstrosity that knew no reason. Collgrove knew in that moment that he couldn't win - that he couldn't beat this man. He felt the sword being torn away from him, saw the madness being torn away from Kronos' eyes. There was nothing then - just coldness. Coldness in the rain, coldness in the mud, coldness in the one solitary splash of colour that he could see in all the grey-green misery - ice-blue eyes, burning above him. Eyes that were filled with more intelligence than he thought he had ever seen in one man's face before. Eyes that were filled with more experience, more potential, more ability than anything he had ever been witness to. They were the eyes of a prince, or of a pauper. The eyes of a surgeon and the eyes of a killer. The eyes of a man who should have died four thousand years ago, and the eyes of a man who - just maybe - would never die at all. They were the last thing that Collgrove knew he was ever going to see.
"I was going to let you live, Philip." Kronos spoke from above him, but the rain was already filling the fallen man's widening eyes. He couldn't even see that hypnotic stare anymore, let alone anything else. "I really wanted to let you live. It didn't have to be this way."
"Just do it." He spat the words out, fighting to keep the rain from filling his mouth as he spoke. The dark shape that was Kronos loomed closer out of the growing storm.
"One last chance, Philip. Leave now. Walk away. I'll never follow you. I'll let you go."
"Because it's the rules of the game. I enjoyed it. I had a good time. You've won your freedom. I told you - it's the way I've always played it. It's the way the game is supposed to go. Methos made the rules up. It was a hot day, so long ago. We were bored. It was fun."
"I don't want to be a prize in some game, Kronos. I don't want to play by your rules."
"Nobody does anymore." He sounded sad, but through it there was anger. "See if I care. You'll see it all my way, sometime. All of you. Everybody in this whole cursed century will see it all my way eventually. They'll play by my rules again."
"Not in this world."
"Maybe not." The sword lifted up, and Philip thought he saw the rain and the sun glinting on the blade. For a second his vision cleared, but still the only thing that he could see was a pair of furious blue eyes just above him. "But there's always the next one." The sword fell.
Kronos took a long time cleaning the blade of his sword. He sat in the shelter of the fallen buildings, the shadows obscuring his face, turning his whole body into a darkened black shape that barely moved. Already the rain had washed the blood away from Collgrove's corpse. Already he was a nameless body, in a nameless place. Strangely the Immortal warrior felt no satisfaction. He rose to his feet, certain that his blade was perfect again. He stood in the shadows of his sheltering walls, so that the dimmed and muted sunlight lit only his eyes. His head hurt. He thought it was the scenery. He thought it was the rain, or maybe just the tedium of too long spent in one place. He fingered his sword. Once upon a time looking into the blade would have made his heart sing. Now it just made his soul burn. Maybe he should have let Collgrove get to the sword first - let the poor, unfortunate mortal end it all. Maybe he should have let Küller blow his head off the previous day.
"No." He felt himself smiling as he said it, and he felt the strength, the warmth, return to his limbs. His fingers tightened on the hilt of his beloved blade. "No." With a sudden, powerful strength, he slammed the sword into his belt and strode out of the shelter of the ruins. The rain greeted him, soaking his body in seconds, and he welcomed it, welcomed the cold, took it inside himself. It embraced him and he embraced it in return. Time was playing tricks with him, trying to make him lose the will to go on - but Time didn't make the rules, not for him. He was Kronos. He was the Leader of the Horsemen - for more than a thousand years he had ridden at the heart of the Apocalypse. He would find a way through this - find a way past this confounded century, with its rules that he didn't understand. He would find a path back to the old ways. When and how wasn't important. He didn't know what it was that he was looking for - what it was that his heart was crying out for - and he didn't understand how something that he had no comprehension of had made a part of him so empty, so lost. But he would find a way to make the world his own again, and if it took until the end of Time it didn't matter. Because that was where a piece of him had been waiting, masked in shadow and painted in blood, since the moment he had taken his first breath. He was the end of Time, and more - much more. If the moment called for it, or if it seemed to be the best way, then he would be the end of everything.