THE THOUSANDTH MAN
The sun barely reached him in his mountaintop lair. It was gloomy and damp, and the wind howled through the corridors of his lonely retreat, but Methos didn't feel the cold. He felt no fear from solitude, and he felt no sorrow at the silence; only merriment at the luck of finding such a place; and joy at the easy kill of its previous owners. They had been a pair of monks, dressed in brown robes with belts of rope; simple men of learning and wisdom who had begged and pleaded with him for their lives; just as so many men had done in the past. It had been so welcome to hear such begging again; to listen to such fear and desperation. It amused him. He had cut them down as they knelt before him, and he had taken their heads and fixed them to the gateposts. They hung there still, twisted in anguish, pecked at by the birds, turning brown in the wind and the rain. He had thrown the bodies themselves down the mountainside, watching as they bounced off the jagged rocks on the way down, laughing as alarmed mountain goats skipped speedily out of the way.
He burnt most of their books that first night, in a huge, violent fire that made a hole in the roof of the main hall. It scorched the walls and singed the curtains, and he fed it anew with the furnishings. Wooden chairs and shelves, ornaments and rugs; until there was little of the building left save the outer walls, and a few odds and ends. Some of the books he kept; those that were written in the older languages, and those that spoke of science and philosophy. He didn't mourn the passing of the others.
He found wine in the cellars; vast quantities of the stuff, brewed by the monks that he had killed, or by their predecessors. Crate after crate, jug after jug, of strong red wine resting in years of soft, protective dust. He drank until he could barely stand, he mixed it with the wild herbs that grew on the mountainside, he made stronger and more potent concoctions using plants that he had first experimented with many centuries before. His eyes shone with a feverish light as he drank his new liquor. It stung his throat, and made his mind buzz with new energy. It made him hungry for new blood, and anxious for battle. He lit new fires instead, watching the leaping, dancing flames, entranced by the lights and the fury. He stood too close, and watched the hairs on his arms shrivel and curl. He held his hands in the flames, watching in fascination as the skin changed colour, laughing as it healed itself and returned to its previous shade.
He descended out of the mountains as the sun sank, falling like a spectre on passing tourists; on backpackers and on wandering locals; slaughtering them without mercy and taking whatever they carried. Their money he left, along with their clothes. He was interested only in their food, or in anything that might be of value to him. Gold, silver, jewellery - all of which he added to his growing hoard, hidden beneath the chaise-longue that he slept on at night. It was a gruesome collection, of rings stained with the blood of their owners, of necklaces torn from headless stumps. He stared at it in the shifting light of his fire, watching in almost child-like fascination as the colours changed. This had been his life once; taking items like this, trading them in remote outposts, riding roughshod over whole continents with his brothers. Now he was alone in this ramshackle, burnt out old building, with only the doctored wine for company. It was a life, but only half of one. He wasn't complete without his brothers. One Horseman alone was a mighty force; but only when they were four were they truly gods.
So he wandered alone through the mountains, and let his wrath fall upon the few that he encountered there. He shouted threats from the highest peaks, so that the whole world would know he was there, and that his terror was ready to be unleashed.
But if anybody heard, there were none that seemed to care.
Peter Kerensky shouldered his heavy pack yet again, and set off up the latest mountain slope. He had been trekking through these infernal peaks for what seemed like months now, although he was sure that it was not yet three weeks. He had seen no sign of MacLeod and Dawson since leaving them behind, and he had no idea where they were now. Off hunting the mysterious Involution no doubt. He was worried about them, and worried about the lurking presence of the Involution too. He wasn't at all keen on their plans for him. But for now, he was sure, he was safe. They wouldn't kill him until they were certain that they had both MacLeod and Methos in their grip; and whilst it was possible that they might have the former, they most certainly did not have the latter. Methos was still at large somewhere in these hills, of that he was sure.
He had heard all manner of stories since setting out after the elusive Immortal. Everyone, it seemed, had a theory about who or what was out there, hiding in the mountains, descending from time to time to wreak its havoc. Nobody who had seen it had so far lived to tell the tale, and accordingly the theories were becoming more and more wild. Some said there was a wild beast living in the foothills, who killed people and stole anything shiny. The closest that Peter could understand, with his imperfect Polish, was that the locals believed there was something like a kind of huge, man-eating magpie, which fluttered out of the skies at odd moments. Others talked about wolves or madmen. Some even claimed to have seen the creature. He had heard at least one old man telling a devoted audience about a huge, snarling black wolf measuring a good twenty feet in length, with teeth the size of a man's hand, and eyes that glowed pure red in the dark. It was a creature that possessed the mind of a man, and fed on human blood. It stole silver and gold and jewels, and had a huge hoard somewhere up in the mountains that was just waiting to be found. Peter had seen a good many men head up into the mountains in search of that very hoard. Whether or not they believed the tales of the wolf he did not like to say; but at any rate they believed the suggestions of a treasure-trove hidden in the foothills. He had watched them set out, and he had wondered how many of them would return. He alone knew what was waiting for them up in the mountains.
He had been walking for some hours since leaving the last signs of civilisation when he came upon the twisted body of a man. The kill had been recent, for the blood around the stump of the unfortunate traveller's neck was not yet fully dry. The head lay a few feet distant, face down in a clump of grass. Somebody had attempted to set light to the body, but in the damp grass and the gentle sprinkling of snow the fire had not caught.
"Oh Methos..." Peter knelt beside the body and turned it over. He knew what the body would look like before he had seen it fully; a heavy red overcoat, atop a thick blue flannel shirt, and stout grey trousers. The head, had it been in its place on the shoulders, would have stared up at him through dark brown eyes beneath a fringe of greying brown-black hair. The man had had a moustache - a magnificent affair that curled up almost to his ears - and he had been wearing a furred, waterproofed hat. Peter had met him two days previously, on the slopes of another mountain. He was a local, out looking for the son who had never returned home. Peter was rather sure that the son in question had met a similar fate to his father, but he didn't want to think about that just now. Instead he cleared as much of a grave as he could, buried head and body together, and scraped the man's name on a piece of wood with his old penknife. Stefan Ozeki. He hoped that he had spelt it right, but his knowledge of the Polish alphabet was only marginally better than his grasp of the spoken language.
"Grim work," said a voice behind him, and he turned sharply. A man had come up behind him with barely a sound, and for a second his mere presence scared Peter so much that he stumbled on the uneven ground. If he was that easy to creep up on, he told himself, would he really have a chance against Methos? He blinked at the new arrival in confusion, and managed a faint nod.
"I couldn't just leave him there."
"So I see." The man came closer, tugging off his cap to reveal thinning grey hair that still bore traces of an occasional black streak. He was dressed from head to toe in blue and grey, which matched his eyes almost exactly. His hands were gloved, and he wore a heavy belt jammed full of axes, knives and other assorted accoutrements. "Any sign of claw marks?"
"Claw marks?" Peter was still confused, but he caught on at last. " Oh. You think the... the creature got him?"
"I know it did. I've seen this thing's work before, and I'm willing to bet that poor fool was another victim." The man scratched thoughtfully at what looked to be some ten days growth of ill-kempt beard. "You should be heading back down the mountain. No sense in staying around here to get yourself eaten."
"He wasn't eaten." Peter turned away to stare out at the view. Ozeki hadn't long died, so the chances were that Methos wasn't too far away. "And it wasn't a creature that killed him, it was a man."
"Man or beast, I intend to have him dead by nightfall." The older man gave a short laugh. "You think you can bring him down, is that it? Lead him back down the mountainside, and get him help from some psychiatrist?"
"Just forget it." Beginning to lose track of the conversation anyway, as it moved into territory that his phrase book had never covered, Peter turned to follow what looked like a goat track. "I'll be seeing you."
"Probably." The man watched him as he left, and Peter felt his eyes following him all the way. He didn't like the sensation. He was jumpy anyway, almost convinced that Methos was going to jump out at him from the nearest rocky outcrop. He drew the battered old handgun that he had bought from a farmer further down the mountain. It looked as though it had not been fired since at least 1945, but its solidity and weight was comforting. He didn't like to think about how many bullets it might take to knock down an Immortal, but he was counting on one thing to protect him. Right now, Methos didn't give a damn about Peter Kerensky; any more than he cared about Duncan MacLeod or Joe Dawson. But since the bizarre morning which had seen him first meet up with the ill-matched trio, Peter Kerensky had never been just plain Peter Kerensky. He had the body and the face and the voice of Kronos; and right now he was counting on that to save his life.
Methos watched him come. He sat in a comfortable hollow, worn by the passage of a long-dried stream across a jutting rock. Thick green-brown foliage hid him from sight, sheltering him from the latest scattering of snow, and sword in hand he watched the man approach. A smile twisted the corners of his mouth. He didn't understand entirely what this arrival meant to him. He certainly knew that this was not Kronos. But he also knew that it could be, if he played his cards right. Slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on the lone, advancing man, he edged himself out of cover, and onto the path.
"Kerensky!" His voice was cold and hard, like the edge of a razor-sharp blade. Peter turned to look in his direction. The man that he saw was not the man that he had travelled to Poland with; any and all shades of the mysterious Adam Pierson had gone. He had torn the sleeves from his shirt, and wound them round his wrists instead. From the knees down his trousers had been slashed almost to pieces, and the shoes that he had been wearing before were gone, replaced by heavy leather boots beset with straps and gleaming buckles; clearly liberated from some unfortunate victim. He had acquired a leather jacket from somewhere, and again had hacked the sleeves off. His hair seemed to have grown, albeit only a little, and he had woven several strips of blue cloth into its tangled tumble. It gave him a wild look, emphasising the paint that was streaked across his face, making him look for all the world like some creature of another age, or even another world. He looked as though he had been torn from the pages of history, and set upon this quiet Polish mountainside by some curious divine accident. Peter took a step back.
"Methos?" He recognised the face and the voice, but the setting and the appearance took him by surprise. He looked nervously towards the sword, and thought about the gun in his hand. One shot, and he could... well, not do a whole lot really. He had never actually fired a gun, and he had some serious doubts about his ability to actually hit anything with it; unless he used it as a club. It had all seemed so much easier when he had been buying the thing. Point and pull the trigger. Easy. He lifted the weapon, but Methos didn't seem to care.
"It's good to see you, Peter." Methos strolled closer, his newly-cleaned sword sending the sunlight back into his pursuer's eyes. Peter blinked involuntarily, and had to look away.
"Are you okay?" he asked, a little uncertain as to why he was so concerned about the welfare of a man who was quite clearly psychotic - or just plain evil. Methos flashed him a jaunty smile, his hard green eyes shining merrily through the broad swathe of paint, and through the overhang of matted fringe that covered his eyebrows. He looked as though he had been living in the outback for six months, thought Kerensky; not at all as though he had been gone for less than three weeks.
"Oh I'm fine, Peter." Methos grinned at him, and his blood went cold. "How are you?"
"I've... been better." Kerensky managed a somewhat wary, thin smile. "Methos... do you know what date it is?"
"You mean do I realise it's 1999?" Methos laughed, a curiously childish sound that did nothing to settle Peter's heart rate. "I'm not stuck in the Bronze Age. My brain hasn't travelled back in time. I just decided to bring my glory days back to life. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will; a chance to revisit the wonder years. On the other hand, it's 1999 - apocalypse time, if you believe all the hype. What better time for the Horsemen to ride again?"
"There's only one Horseman left." Kerensky shook his head. "Methos, you need help. The Involution have scrambled your brains, and I don't know how to fix it. With luck, by now MacLeod and Dawson will have dealt with Brenner and his cronies. They might know how to fix the conditioning you've been implanted with."
"It's not conditioning, Peter." Methos sauntered ever nearer, reaching out to brush some specks of dirt from Kerensky's shirt. He smiled, leaning close to speak in a confiding whisper. "It's a re-awakening. A rebirth. My heart and soul have been returned, and I'm myself again. It's like coming in from the wilderness!" He laughed, and his tone abruptly changed. "But screw the poetry. Whatever the reasons for this, Peter my boy, I'm happy. And I'll be damned if I'm going to let some half-baked mortal take me back down the mountain."
"I've got a gun," Peter reminded him, pressing the muzzle of the aforementioned weapon against Methos' chin. The Immortal laughed.
"Why so you do. Have you fired it yet? What calibre is it? Is it an automatic?" He sounded like a small boy being given a birthday present. "Let me look." Before Peter could stop him the weapon had been twisted away, and Methos flipped open the chamber. He looked disappointed. "Oh Peter. It's not even loaded."
"It is!" Peter took a step forward, but Methos snapped the chamber shut and pointed the gun straight at his chest.
"Is it?" He pulled the trigger, and Kerensky gulped an inadvertent gasp of air. There was no sound; merely a dull click. Methos scowled.
"I think I win that bet." He shrugged and turned the gun away, pointing it this time at Kerensky's feet. There was a loud bang, and a piece of stringy turf leapt from the ground in a shower of dry earth. Kerensky jumped. Methos shrugged. "On the other hand..."
"Put that damn thing down!" Angry now, Kerensky took another step forward. Methos emptied the gun in the blink of an eye, and tossed the weapon back.
"Calm down. You know I'm not going to kill you. Not until I have MacLeod in the palm of my hand..."
"You believe all that tripe?"
"Brenner does. And I'm willing to take the chance. After all, it's not as though I'm going to lose anything. My brother's already dead, and I can only stand to win. Even if I don't get Kronos back, I'll have killed MacLeod in the attempt. Just thinking about it is nice... No more Duncan MacLeod hanging over my shoulder, getting in the way and pretending to love everybody. Being around him is like living permanently in 1968. He even looks like a flower child with that hair."
"And you'll kill me too? I thought we were friends, Methos." Peter tried not to sound too afraid, but Methos merely shrugged at him.
"Oh we were, Peter. We were, honestly. I should hate for you to feel bad about that. But the truth is, that was a different me. That was the domesticated version. The new me is a whole different kettle of fish." He giggled suddenly. "You honestly came after me to appeal to my better side, didn't you. You thought I'd come with you; trot along at your heels and let MacLeod and his heart of gold set me back on the right track. Well I'm sorry, Pete. There's only one way to do that." He raised his sword, and laid the blade across his own neck. "You feel up to it? It's the only way I'm going with you down the mountain."
"I could shoot you."
"Yeah, you could. But your gun's not loaded."
"No, it isn't." The voice came from a few yards away, where stood the big man Kerensky had encountered earlier. A shotgun was raised to his shoulder, its ominous snout pointed straight at the Immortal. "But this one is."
Jason Brenner read his morning newspaper through a shiny, clear plastic coating that sealed its dry-cleaned pages in a protective atmosphere. He hated newspapers. They bred germs, in each crease of the paper. He couldn't watch television though; it was far too dangerous. Television emanated waves of harmful energy, and besides - they could track you that way. Follow the signal to the aerial or the satellite dish, and hunt you down. Radio was no better. Radio waves disrupted the mind, he had proof. Well, his kind of proof anyway. And the Internet certainly wasn't safe. Just sitting that close to the screen jumbled the mind and the brain patterns. It ruined the eyes. It sent out radiation that destroyed the internal organs. And what was the Internet anyway, but a world-wide connection of computers? He didn't want his computer connected to anybody else's. They could track you that way. Follow the signal. Do things to your files and your hard drive. Brenner was fairly sure that Bill Gates had been bought out by the CIA years earlier, and probably by the Watcher Hierarchy and a hundred other secret organisations too. So that left only newspapers, if he wanted to be sure of what was going on in the world. He didn't really trust them to print the truth - not given the stranglehold of the Murdoch Corporation anyway - but provided they were well disinfected and wrapped in clear plastic they at least couldn't do him any harm. At least, just so long as he could trust the people that he employed to disinfect them. A wave of paranoia washed over him, and he reached for the service list. Maybe he should shoot one or two of them, just to encourage a little extra loyalty.
"We have a report from our frontier guards, sir." The almost absurdly pompous aide employed by Brenner for the sole reason of making important announcements, snapped to an abrupt attention and snatched a sheet of paper from the nearby fax machine. It was on a closed circuit naturally. Otherwise there was no telling who would listen in, or follow the signals to hunt Brenner down. The aide had long ago stopped bothering to ask just who exactly it was that wanted to track him down. That was rather like asking Coyote why he was chasing Road Runner. Everybody had forgotten decades ago.
"What does it say?" Brenner, naturally, did not reach out a hand for the fax. There was no telling where the ink had been. His aide scanned the blotchy print with a practised eye, watching out for anything that might be inclined to upset his employer. Brenner had been known to shoot the messenger on more than one occasion in the past.
"Our men have got a lead on Methos. He's creating merry hell among the locals."
"The Horseman is reborn." Brenner chuckled to himself. "Maybe we could find a use for him. I have to confess, I never thought our techniques would work this well."
"Methos is an old man. Maybe he's losing his mind." The aide shrugged. "We can move in on him if you'd like. Killing MacLeod would be simple, and removing Kerensky has never been a problem. It might help tie up a few loose ends if we were to keep Methos around, instead of going for broke and only taking Kronos."
"And in the meantime, what happens if Methos regains control? There's no assurance that he'll stay lost in the Apocalypse for the rest of his life. No, Orlak. We'll stick with the plan as it is. Tell our men to bring in Methos and Kerensky."
"Certainly sir." Orlak printed a message in his immaculate, precise hand, using his native Austrian. The members of the Involution came from all over Europe, but most of them, pressured by Brenner, spoke English. It amused him to make them stumble over an unfamiliar tongue, and it amused Orlak just as much to send them a vital message in a language most of them wouldn't have a hope of being able to understand. If they didn't read it and carry out its orders quickly enough, they would be shot. But that was their hard luck. He fed the sheet of paper into the fax machine, banged the number onto the keypad, and hit the send button. The machine kicked into life, humming and chattering its way through its program. "Should I tell the guards to do something about MacLeod and Dawson?"
"No, not yet. There's no hurry." Brenner closed his newspaper and folded it up into an immaculate square. "I'll be in the Green Room. Call me if there's any news."
"Of course." Orlak snapped to attention, giving a short, sharp bow in salute to his departing leader. The door hissed shut on its hydraulic hinges, and he scowled. Brenner was a necessary evil, and being obliged to take orders from the man was a curse. Like many, if not all senior members of the Involution, Orlak wanted Brenner's job. He wanted to kill the warped, obsessed leader, and wasn't altogether certain why the hygiene-obsessed maniac hadn't been done away with years previously. One thing he did know was that the vast majority of his colleagues were too scared ever to try. They went along with the increasingly eccentric plans, indulging Brenner's failing sanity, and took out their frustrations on others when those plans failed. If it hadn't been for his concerns about the possible outcome of yet another failure, Orlak would have smiled at the thought of a plan to raise a dead Immortal, and bring him back to life inside the body of his mortal double. It was an absurd plan, and one that he had never had any faith in at all. With Brenner at the helm, this was yet another plan that was doomed to certain failure, and yet Orlak could not abandon all hope in its possible success. He had his own ideas; his own plans for Methos and for Kronos and for Duncan MacLeod; and his own reasons for wanting to see his leader's plans fail.
"Any sign of anybody?" Joe Dawson leaned back in his chair and rested his arms behind his head. His companion wandered over to the door and peered out.
"Nobody. Why, were you expecting guests?"
"No. I just thought they might be drop by for one of their regular little gloats. They usually do about now."
"Maybe it's Saturday, and they've all gone home." Duncan sighed, wandering over to the nearest chair to sit down. "I'm bored."
"Read a book."
"I don't want to read a book."
"Sharpen your sword."
"If I sharpen it any more there won't be any blade left."
"Then watch a video. There's a whole stack of them in the other room. I've learnt a fair bit of the local language watching them, and you never know what you're going to find on the tapes. I certainly never thought I'd see The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air dubbed into Polish."
"I don't want to watch a video. I don't want to do anything."
"Go for a ride on the exercise bike." Joe seemed determined to be cheerful, and Duncan's attempts to glare it out of him did not seem to be having any effect. "Come on, Mac. Cheer up. This place is like a hotel. We get silver service waiting, the best food I've ever tasted, and the sort of view most of the hotels I've stayed in would have killed for."
"We're prisoners, Joe."
"Yeah, we are. We're also not going to change that by wearing grooves in the carpet from too much pacing. Being miserable never broke anybody out of jail, Mac. We're in a comfortable suite of rooms, in pleasant surroundings. We haven't be hit, shot or tied up. They haven't even taken your sword away. Now I don't know about you, but I'm finding this fairly civilised. It could be a lot worse. Plus we still have two friends out there somewhere who will do anything they can to help us."
"One of which is completely insane right now, and wouldn't lift a finger to help. And Kerensky isn't going to be much use. What's one guy going to do on his own? He's an artist, not a freedom fighter."
"Wars have been fought by men like him. Don't lose faith." Joe shrugged. "Besides, since he happens to be the only ace currently up our sleeves, I thought I'd show a little confidence in him. He's managed to stay out of their hands so far."
"Yeah, I guess." Duncan shrugged. "I just don't want to be here anymore, Joe. I don't want to be locked behind these doors. I don't give a damn if they're carved oak, with fancy designs. I don't care if I have a four-poster bed to sleep in each night. I don't like being locked in, and I don't like being locked in with you. Sorry."
"No offence taken." Joe grinned at him. "I appreciate the difficulties that you're having, and I understand your feelings. Really. You think I wanted to be here? You think I enjoy being a prisoner? We're neither of us doing ourselves any good being here, but at least you're part of their grand scheme. I don't even have that much use to them. They could kill me tomorrow. You can take some comfort in knowing that they need you alive until they can get Methos and Peter Kerensky here too."
"Yeah, I know. And I'm sorry. It's just... The last two weeks haven't exactly flown by."
"You have been locked up in worse places, Mac."
"And we can watch The Fresh Prince in Polish while we're here. That at least has to be worth the hardship of prison."
"No, I just enjoy watching Will Smith rap in Polish. It's a cultural thing." Joe grinned at him again, his natural cheer restoring Duncan MacLeod's spirits just as it always did. The Highlander sighed, getting to his feet and heading over to the window. To be fair to Joe, it was a beautiful view. He hadn't tired of it, even though it was a reminder of his status as a prisoner. Joe was right; this was a good deal better than a lot of the places he had been locked up in.
"I wonder where Methos is," he commented idly. Joe shrugged.
"Hacking some innocent local to death?" He shook his head. "I couldn't believe the change I saw coming over him. It was happening right in front of my eyes, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was like... like watching a new person come into being, from the mind of somebody else."
"Yeah, I know. I could feel it happening to me." Duncan almost shivered at the memory. "Part of me knew that Methos was my friend, and yet I couldn't seem to get around the idea that he was dangerous; that he was working in league with Kronos in some way. I really would have killed him, and anybody else who stood in my way. I really thought that Kerensky was Kronos." He smiled, somewhat ruefully. "The poor guy must have thought he was done for."
"Handled it pretty well though, didn't he," Joe observed. MacLeod frowned.
"Given that he's managed to avoid getting himself locked up this past fortnight, I'm beginning to think he's handling it all rather better than we are. And we're supposed to be professionals where all of this of concerned. Right mess we've made of it so far." He rubbed his eyes, finally turning away from the view out of the window. "I wonder if he's found Methos yet."
"I kinda hope not." Joe was troubled, clearly, and the idea that Methos was out there somewhere, having been turned back into the man that he had been so long ago, was not helping to ease his concerns. He wanted to be out there, tracking his friend, doing something - anything - to remove the Involution's conditioning. But he couldn't get out of this suite; this fancy, comfortable, plush prison. It looked like a holiday retreat for an idle millionaire and his family. It was starting to feel like a cold, dark cellar full of rats. Still, the last thing that MacLeod needed right now was Joe sinking his spirits back into the pit they had only just climbed out of. He forced a smile. "I'll bet they're on their way here right now, looking for us."
"Yeah." Joe nodded, the very picture of confidence. "Kerensky will have found Methos, got through to him, got him thinking straight... He'll have told him that we set out to tackle Brenner, and then they'll find their way here together."
"And walk straight into the same trap we did?"
"No. Course not." Joe smiled at him. "Don't worry Mac. We'll be out of here in twenty-four hours. Trust me on this." Duncan nodded, returning Joe's smile with some of his usual vigour.
"I'll hold you to that."
"Put the gun down." Peter kept his voice steady, eyeing the shotgun with some considerable concern. The older man flashed him a breathless, uncompromising smile.
"Want half the credit? Be fair, I wouldn't have found him without you. Of course, if I tell the authorities what the pair of you were talking about when I walked in on you, they might be wanting to talk to both of you." He scratched his beard, somehow managing to keep his aim steady and level all the while. "Come to think of it, you do look pretty familiar. There's something missing..."
"The scar," put in Methos, helpfully. His would-be captor frowned, then nodded as though some great revelation had come to him.
"That's it! The scar! You're the guy who broke Caspari out of prison in Bucharest." He whistled through his teeth. "It really is my lucky day. The authorities are offering an impressive reward for you, my friend." His aim shifted slightly to include Peter. "Get over there with him."
"I can't. I can't go with you." Kerensky looked grey. "You have to listen to me. This isn't what you think..." He shook his head, struggling for the right words in a language that he just did not understand enough of. "I'm not the man that you're looking for, and Meth-- This man over here isn't the man you think he is. It's not as simple as all that."
"He doesn't understand you, Pete." Methos was grinning, switching between English and Polish with disturbing ease. He fixed their captor with a smile that was bordering on manic, and held his arms out from his sides, as though emphasising his harmlessness. He took a step forward, once again speaking in Polish, effectively cutting Kerensky out of the conversation altogether. "You see, my friend, we have a problem here. There's one of you, and quite clearly there's two of us. Question is, which one of us are you going to shoot? You'll never take both of us alive. Not if you want to stay that way too." He stopped suddenly, hands behind his back, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet like an excited child. "Go on. Choose. Do you shoot me, or do you shoot him?" His grin came back out for an encore, bright this time, and breezy. Like a small boy looking to an adult in wide-eyed innocence. "Him or me? Come on..."
"You're crazy." The ageing local glanced feverishly from Methos to Kerensky, panic showing in his face. He was beginning to think that this insane man might be right; both of these two were dangerous criminals, and he didn't think much of his chances of survival if he was to try taking both of them with him. All the same; could he really shoot one of them down in cold blood?
"He helped a cannibal to escape," Methos told him, as though trying to help him make his decision. "From was a mental hospital. They killed a doctor too, during the escape. He had kids. Three of them. And a pregnant wife. On the other hand..." His smile grew again, like an especially slimy and repulsive serpent insinuating its way across his face. "I was a cannibal once. Oh it was a long time ago, I'll admit, but I still did it. I still ate human flesh. And I didn't do it because I was starving, either. I did it for a joke. I did it because I liked the way it terrified people. I liked the stories I heard people telling their children, about how Methos would tear them from their beds at night, and devour them by starlight." He giggled, taking another step forward. "So go on. Choose. Him or me?"
"What are you saying?" Kerensky had followed only half of the speech, if that. He stepped forward, bothered; afraid for himself and for this gun-wielding local. The poor fool honestly believed that he had the upper hand.
"What do you think I'm saying?" Methos startled him by the abrupt switch back to English. The old Immortal's eyes spat daggers; green sparks of fury and flame. "We can't let him take us, Peter. Do you want to spend the rest of your life behind bars for a crime my brother committed? Do you think they'd believe that you have a double?"
"Shut up!" The Pole stepped forward, gun jabbing towards first one of them, then the other. "Don't talk together. Talk to me!"
"Sure." Methos smiled at him, a smile that was pure arrogance and obnoxious glee. "You want to take us down the mountain, don't you old man. Well go on then. Try." He folded his arms. "Make us go with you."
"I'll shoot you if I have to. Don't think I won't." The man levelled his gun at Methos, almost shutting Kerensky out of his aim altogether. The Immortal smiled at his mortal confederate and took yet another step forward. The end of the shotgun was almost brushing against his chest now.
"Go on then." He smirked, staring deep into the old man's eyes. "Pull the trigger. Dare you. Go on..."
"Shut up!" With a suddenness that took them all by surprise, Kerensky jumped forward. He seized the gun, twisting it sharply, sending a volley of pellets into the air just to the right of Methos' ear. The old mortal let out a shout of rage as he struggled to retain hold of his gun. Methos seemed to be keeping out of it, and Kerensky tried not to worry about where the other man had gone. He thought that he could hear footsteps, but he wasn't sure. There was the sound of a gunshot.
"What-?" The old man, still struggling with the shotgun, went limp very suddenly. He blinked a few times, staring at Kerensky, puzzled questions struggling to break free of his lips. All at once Methos was there, standing by Kerensky's shoulder. He fired twice, three times more, each bullet slamming into the old man's chest. The body crumpled to the ground, blood already staining the stringy, high-altitude grass. With a yell Kerensky stumbled back.
"Nice work. I'd never have got rid of him without you." Methos flashed him a brilliant smile, all friendship and merriment. Kerensky stared up at him, shocked and confused.
"I - I didn't mean--" He shook his head. "I didn't know you were going to kill him!"
"Rubbish. What the hell else was I supposed to do?" Methos waved his gun in the air - Peter's gun, reloaded during Kerensky's struggle and still ready for action. "And I still have enough bullets left for you, so you're going to do as I tell you, and everything will be happy and pleasant and nice."
"You didn't have to kill him." Kerensky knelt by the body, as though wondering if there might be something that he could do; if by some great miracle the hapless victim might still be alive. Methos caught him by the collar and dragged him to his feet.
"It's what I do." There was great sincerity in his words. "Don't play the moral card with me, Peter. You're as responsible for this as I am. Like it or not it was your distraction that killed him as much as it was my bullets." He grinned. "Hell, it was even your gun."
"I didn't know you--"
"Oh change the record, Peter!" Methos grinned at him again, as though they were old friends sharing a joke. "Now, we have to get going."
"Where to?" Kerensky had an unpleasant suspicion that he already knew. Methos beamed at him, all sweetness and light, filled with a childish enthusiasm that left the mortal cold.
"I have you. I have me. All I need now is MacLeod. You know where he is, don't you."
"No." The defiance felt good, even though he was only telling the truth. Methos sighed.
"Liar." He pressed the gun against Kerensky's neck. Although there was clear menace in his voice, his tone was still friendly, almost sing-song. "Where's MacLeod? It's a simple question. Simple question... simple answer. If you don't tell me, I'll rip your fingernails out one by one. Then I'll write my name in fire across your skin. I used to do that kind of thing a lot, you know, and I really kind of miss it. It was fun, being a feared torturer. Being a terror that walked the Earth, and left countless thousands in fear. Okay, I'll admit this is hardly the same scale, but a guy's got to start somewhere."
"You wouldn't do anything to me. You want my body for Kronos."
Methos grinned. "He's an Immortal, Peter. Anything I do to you, he'll heal soon as he takes over." His smile broadened for a second into an intensely happy expression. "So. Where's MacLeod?"
"Gone after Brenner. I don't know where."
"Brenner?" Methos looked thoughtful, rubbing his chin with the barrel of the handgun. Then he shrugged, smiled, and with a vicious downward stroke clubbed Kerensky to the ground. The mortal collapsed in an unconscious heap. "Fine. I think I'd like to meet him."
"We could make a rope out of blankets and use it to climb out of the window." Joe was leaning against the mantelpiece, staring at a china figurine of a milkmaid. Sprawled across a nearby chair, Duncan nodded.
"If we could open the windows, yeah."
"We could break one."
"Do you happen to have a diamond drill handy?"
"Okay... one of us could pretend to be ill, and then the other one can jump the guard when he comes in."
"Have you ever known that one to actually work?"
"Yeah. Once." Joe frowned, staring into the distance as though remembering something terribly far into his past. "I was in France, studying. I was... nineteen? Maybe twenty. A couple of us got arrested for getting drunk. I don't actually remember a very great deal about it, but I do seem to remember trying to dance around the Eiffel Tower. The gendarmes weren't too impressed with our choreography." He shrugged. "We couldn't miss the flight back to the States, but they were going to keep us prison until the Monday and our plane left early Saturday morning. So we broke out."
"You escaped? From a French prison?" MacLeod whistled. Joe looked vaguely wistful.
"We were still very drunk. To be honest I don't know how any of us made it to the airport. Needless to say, the police got to us before we got to the plane, but they were quite happy for us to leave their country. In fact they positively insisted."
MacLeod laughed. "I'll bet they did." He smiled at some secret thought, then folded his hands behind his head and stretched. It was easy to feel comfortably lazy in this opulent suite of rooms. Even he was feeling relaxed now. He was beginning to suspect that his 'hosts' were putting something into the food, or possibly into the water. Somehow he couldn't raise the energy to worry about it. "We have to get out of here now, though. This isn't some official prison, and those aren't gendarmes out there."
"We don't have the means to dig a tunnel; although admittedly that never stopped the POWs during the war." Joe laughed. It was odd, but after being so desperate to escape, he was now finding it terribly hard to be serious about the whole thing. "I guess we could build a wooden horse..."
"That's breaking in, not breaking out."
"No... I don't mean a Trojan Horse. I mean a gym horse; like the British POWs did in that camp back in the forties. They hid in it and dug, and everybody else jumped over it."
"That is probably your most pointless suggestion yet."
"Yeah, I know." Joe began pacing in a rough circle about the room, leaning heavily on his cane. "I was never any good on those things, even when I had both legs." He frowned, distracted. "Mac... do you feel right? I mean... do you really feel... right?"
"You think the Involution are up to their old tricks again?" MacLeod shrugged. "You could be right about that. Ignore it. Find a way past it. My guess is they're trying to keep us here."
"Because their plans are coming close to some kind of a conclusion?"
"At a guess, yeah." Slowly the Immortal rose to his feet. "Maybe Vierman can help us."
"Vierman's dead. He must be. He was caught trying to help us break into Involution HQ."
"Doesn't mean they've killed him." MacLeod dragged a hand across his forehead, trying to focus his wandering mind. He couldn't seem to make it concentrate on anything just now; right when it was most important that he concentrate it fully on escaping. "He seemed to know all about the plan; about how exactly they're planning to resurrect Kronos. We need to speak to him."
"Well how are we going to get in touch with him?" Joe sounded exasperated, which was more to do with his own inability to think straight than with MacLeod's suggestion. Duncan smiled, looking almost touchingly confident.
"For a start we have to get out of here."
"I thought that was our problem."
"Yeah." Duncan nodded, and headed over towards the thick oaken door that was their first and most obvious route of escape. "Which is why I'm open to suggestions."
Violent shaking awoke Peter Kerensky, and he raised his head in certainty that he was not going to like what he saw. He was right. He was sitting in the passenger seat of a car, racing at inadvisable speed along a winding mountain road. There was a vast, almost perpendicular drop about three inches away from his window, and as he stared out, horror-stricken, he could see the back wheels of the vehicle sliding off the road, hanging for brief, horrible seconds over large amounts of nothingness.
"Just sit still. Enjoy the tour." Methos was back to being his newly cheerful self. Peter stole a glance at him. He was wearing a baseball cap with a Euro-Disney symbol on the front, and taking swigs from a can of some fizzy soft drink as he drove. There were bloodstains on the back of the cap, and similar stains on the backs of his hands.
"Where did the car come from?" Kerensky asked, a terrible, cold feeling erupting inside him. Methos grinned, turning his eyes away from the road for so long that Peter could not stop his stomach turning fast successions of somersaults. He swallowed hard.
"Some guy. He was nice enough to lend it to us." Methos pushed the cap back on his head, his grin never wavering for a minute. "Not that I gave him much choice, to be fair. I think he said he was a journalist, out here to report on something, for someone. I wasn't paying much attention to the details."
"You killed him?"
"Me?" Methos laughed. "Are you kidding? Actually he's tied up in the back." He nodded over his shoulder, and Peter stole an unwilling glance as indicated. He was almost afraid of what he might see; but Methos, as it transpired, was telling the truth. A man, aged about forty-five, was spread out along the back seat of the car, arms and legs tied, a large Mickey Mouse handkerchief tied tightly about his mouth. His skin was faintly purple, and although his eyes were bulging, Peter didn't think it was through fear. It didn't seem to be through imminent suffocation either, which was something to be glad about.
"How come he gets mercy?" he asked, turning back to face the front, and almost wishing that he hadn't. They were approaching a stretch of road that was even worse than it had been before, and Methos seemed to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The Immortal turned to look at him, eyes alive with the glitter of cold evil.
"The Horsemen have no mercy, Peter. Never forget that."
"Then why is he still alive?"
"Him? That's tactics, same as with you. You can't see it right now, but there's a tattoo on his wrist." The Immortal held up his own tattooed arm and waved it in the air, making the car veer horribly close to the edge once again. Peter almost grabbed the steering wheel. "Like this, but different."
"You mean he's Involution?" Kerensky stole another glance back at the man in the back seat. Certainly he looked enraged rather than afraid, which was only to be expected of a member of the secret society, but somehow he hadn't even considered the possibility. Not with a man in possession of a Euro-Disney baseball cap and a Mickey Mouse handkerchief. "Are you sure?"
"Oh definitely. The car isn't his. He stole it to follow us. Told me everything when I threatened to do to him what he did to this old rattle-trap's last owners."
"And what did he do to them?" Peter suddenly, definitely, was certain that he did not want to know. Methos grinned.
"It was quite inventive actually. The bodies are still in the boot. I didn't see the point in dumping them where they'd be found so quickly, so you can take a look later." He chuckled. "Mind you, there are two adults and a child, and it's a very small boot, so you won't see a whole lot. I'm quite impressed that he got them to fit in there." His grin broadened into one of vast merriment. "You know, I could work with this guy. He's got potential."
"Sick?" All of a sudden Methos' expression was dark; then just as suddenly he was smiling again. "Yeah well. I guess you could call it that. Coming from where and when you do. But to me, Peter," he leant over, stroking the mortal's cheek with a surprisingly gentle touch, "it's you people who are sick. Modern man, the great disease. It wasn't my people who invented the nuclear bomb, or who taught each other to drop genetically engineered chemical weapons on each other. What we did, we did for fun. We did it in hot-blood. Can you say the same?"
"Don't try justifying yourself." Peter pulled away, his sudden movement jerking Methos' hand on the steering wheel, so that once again the car seemed in imminent danger of toppling over the edge of the cliff. The mortal found himself wondering what would happen to Methos if the car burst into flames on its way down. Would he survive? Would he have to be burnt into ash before his immortal powers ceased? The thought made him shudder, and Methos saw. He laughed.
"I'm not trying to justify myself, Peter. I don't have to. To me there's nothing to justify. But you; you have to find justification, don't you. You still think you know me; still think that I'm your friend. Well ask yourself this, mortal. Did the man you used to know kill people while he laughed? Does the Methos you think you know like to hack people to death whilst their relatives scream and beg for mercy? Would your Methos - your Adam - cut a man's hands off, and then his feet, and then leave him to bleed to death, just to see what he looks like when it happens? That's the man I am now, Peter. The other me is dead. So the question remains, do you still want to take me home? Can you really, honestly, bear to be near me anymore? Wouldn't it just be better for all of us if you were to kill me? End it? Remove the big bad Horseman for good?"
"That's not what I'm thinking." Kerensky turned away, staring down the cliff, trying to shut the Immortal out of his vision. Methos laughed.
"Liar." He pushed down on the accelerator, making the back wheels skid in loose earth and stone as they took a sharp bend. "There's another question of course. If you can't kill me, do you have the guts to do the next best thing? Can you kill yourself, in such a way that I can't reuse your body for Kronos? Can you sacrifice yourself to stop one Horseman becoming two?" He laughed softly, beginning to whistle a merry tune. Oddly it was one that Kerensky was sure he recognised. Some recent British chart hit. He closed his eyes, resting his head against the window glass, feeling the violent bumping and shaking of the car against his skull. Methos' words echoed in every rumble, every skitter of loose stone striking the tyres. Could he kill the Immortal? Could he kill himself? Could he justify not attempting either? He thought that he heard the bound man in the backseat laughing through his gag, and he screwed his eyes shut tighter still. Why had he left MacLeod and Dawson? Why in Heaven's name had he come out here, all alone, to attempt this? And why hadn't MacLeod finished with Brenner and come after him to help out? This wasn't going to plan.
"Looking for answers?" Methos' voice sounded distant, the noises of the car much louder now, transmitted straight into his ears by the vibrations of the glass. "There aren't any." Peter didn't answer. He was thinking about Duncan MacLeod, and about whether, if it came down to it, he would have the strength to ask the Highlander to take his head.
Frederick Orlak took the stairs three at a time, almost bouncing off the walls as he turned the corners. He was not in any particular hurry, but he wanted to get down the stairs before he changed his mind; before he decided that his current course of action was stupid, and before he turned around and went back up the steps. A number of guards stood to attention as he went past them, but he didn't bother to acknowledge any of the salutes. Knowing them, they would still be there, standing straight and stiff, when the next officer came along this way. The rules did say, quite specifically, that a junior officer couldn't move on about his duties until a senior officer had returned his salute. Some people had the initiative to interpret that with a little moderation. Others... well. Orlak despaired of some of them. Maybe it was years of living and working around Jason Brenner, but they interpreted laws and rules - even minor ones - so literally that it was a wonder the place still functioned.
"Mr Orlak, sir!" The single guard on duty at the entrance to the prison section snapped to attention as though jerked by a unseen puppeteer. Orlak nodded at him, returning the salute with an air of oily superiority.
"Corporal... Barocek, isn't it?"
"Yes sir." The man almost visibly preened at this sign of recognition. "How can I help you sir?"
"I want to speak to the prisoners. Immediately."
"I was given strict orders, sir, that nobody except--"
"Well I'm bringing you different orders, Barocek. Let me through."
"Yes sir." Barocek pressed a sequence of numbers on a keypad beside him. Orlak only saw the first three numbers, but he didn't think it would matter. The door hissed open. "Will you be long, sir?"
"I shouldn't think so." Orlak stepped through the doors into the long, smooth corridor beyond. "I'll see you in a few minutes, Barocek."
"Yes sir." The corporal saluted again, this time not looking nearly so happy. The door slid shut, and in answer Orlak's smile slid from his face. He frowned, then turned about and ran down the corridor. A number of doors greeted him in stony silence, but he ignored them all. He was looking for door number thirteen.
He found it at the end of the third corridor; a large, imposing barrier of oak, decorated with massive metal studs. It was a twin door; two identical arches of wood that he knew from experience were several inches thick. He paused to run his hands over the designs carved into the wood; to feel the contrasting coldness of the studs. Then he pulled a key from his pocket and slid it into the lock. The metal studs began to flash, lighting up in a racing, random succession. He waited precisely three seconds, then turned the key. The metal studs flashed once in unison, then blinked out. The doors opened.
Duncan MacLeod lay sprawled on a settee, his hands folded behind his head, his feet trailing over the arm. A German opera was playing with the volume turned down, making it almost inaudible. MacLeod was singing along silently, an expression of the deepest bliss plastered across his face.
"Duncan MacLeod?" Orlak strode into the room, staring about as though expecting somebody to leap out at him from behind the doors. MacLeod opened one eye, peering at him as though he were a trainee waiter who had just made some cardinal error in the basic rules of servitude.
"What?" The voice was quiet, sleepy; disinterested. It carried overtones of American, or Canadian possibly; an accent that Orlak could not quite place. He thought about how old this man was, and of all the places he had very likely lived in, and he smiled. No wonder his accent gave away no secrets of his origins.
"My name is Frederick Orlak. I am the personal aide of Mr Jason Brenner."
"Really?" This seemed to interest MacLeod, and he sat up. He scratched his head, frowning so deeply that it seemed likely the creases in his forehead would leave scars. "I'm pleased to meet you, but if you don't mind, Joe and I are escaping. We don't have much time left before the guards bring us our next meal."
"You're not escaping, Mr MacLeod. You're listening to an opera. You've been drugged." Orlak spied a jug of fruit juice on a nearby shelf, and went over to it. He sniffed at the contents of the jug. "It's a mind-altering substance, used to control difficult prisoners."
"Ssh. The guards'll hear you." Duncan glanced around. "Joe? Joe, where are you?"
"Here." The greying mortal, cane gripped tightly in his left hand, was lurking behind a nearby chair. "I don't think they heard anything."
"You better be right. We need to get out of here quickly. Kerensky and Methos are going to need our help."
"Well they're not going to get it like this." Orlak stepped forward, making a grab for Dawson's wrist. He clung on tightly. "Listen to me. You've been drugged. You're seeing things, hearing things; you don't know where you are."
"If you don't shut up I'm going to feed you your feet." MacLeod gestured to Dawson to join him. "Quiet here Joe. That looks like a barracks over there. It might be full of men."
"Right with you, Mac." Dawson sounded excited and tense. Orlak groaned.
"You don't understand."
"No, you don't understand. We've been locked up for a fortnight, and quite frankly we're bored. We want out. Our friends are waiting for us, probably needing our assistance. We have to get to them before the Involution gets there first. Otherwise they're going to behead Methos and use Kerensky's body to resurrect a dead psychopath." Duncan smiled, and patted Orlak on the shoulder. "Now get lost, before I break your neck. We don't have the time to sit down and discuss this over tea and biscuits."
"You have to listen to me Mr MacLeod. I'm here because I want to help you. I want to do a deal."
"Such as?" Keeping low, so that he would not be seen by anybody who happened to be walking past the window - an unlikely eventuality since the window overlooked a cliff-face of some eighty feet in height - MacLeod stole a brief glance back. Dawson was still standing, docile and apparently unconcerned, in Orlak's grip. The aide released him, frustrated.
"I'll help you get out of here, if you'll help me find Methos. If you promise to let me keep him, as he is - to leave our conditioning in place - I'll see to it personally that you and Mr Dawson here leave the country unharmed, and live the rest of your lives without interruption from the members of the Involution."
"Until your boss presses the Game, in order to allow his pet Immortal to become the One as quickly as possible." Joe looked unimpressed by the terms of the deal. "You'll still be trying to resurrect Kronos I take it?"
"There are ways to do that without it being fatal to MacLeod. With Kronos and Methos working for the Involution there'll be no more Game. They would never kill each other, so there will never be a One. You would be left in peace, Mr MacLeod."
"And what do you get out of it?" MacLeod had crawled past the window now, and was stealing urgent glances through the open doors. Quite what he was seeing through them, Orlak didn't want to know.
"All that I do, I do for the Involution. With Methos and Kronos working for us we would be supreme. Mr Brenner is only looking to get Kronos. He thinks that the One would be able to grant him immortality. I don't think that's such a good idea."
"Are you not a fan?" Dawson had joined MacLeod, and was peering around the doorframe, holding his cane rather like a sword.
"On the contrary. I would die for Mr Brenner, a hundred times over. But I also have to think about what's best for the Involution; and that doesn't mean having Jason Brenner in command for the rest of Time."
"You want a shot at leadership yourself, huh?" MacLeod edged around the door, and Orlak had to run to catch him up before his prisoner liberated himself right into an alarm trigger.
"No, Mr MacLeod. Once it's discovered what I've done - and it will be discovered - I'll be shot. If I'm lucky. As I said, everything I do, I do for the Involution."
"Somehow I find it hard to believe that." MacLeod sighed, finally turning to face Orlak properly. "Can you get us past these guards?"
"What guar-? Oh." Orlak nodded. "Sure, no problem. Just stick with me, and I can get you out of here in no time."
"And Vierman?" put in Joe.
"Vierman? I have no idea where they're keeping him. I can't even say whether he's still alive. Look, I don't have long before I'm missed. Brenner will be looking for me, and someone will tell him that I was seen coming down here."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute." MacLeod took him by the shoulders. "We're in the same building as Jason Brenner? He's here; now?"
"You're in the Annex; a huge, mostly underground complex beneath the hunting lodge where he lives. Technically speaking you're in the same building, yes; but Mr Brenner himself is fifteen miles away. Getting you to him would be next to impossible, even if I was prepared to try it. Just follow me, and I'll get you out of here."
"If you say so." MacLeod frowned, his grip tightening on the other man's arms. "Didn't we make some kind of a deal?"
"About Methos?" prompted Joe. Orlak smiled.
"Yes, we did. Nothing major. I help you and you help me, that's all. Just trust me."
"I can't seem to do anything else." MacLeod released him, rubbing his forehead in vague agitation. "I've been feeling weird all day..."
"I shouldn't let it worry you. It's probably just an after effect of the drug they've given you. It dulls the senses."
"Figures." The Highlander managed a distant, somewhat detached smile. "What were we talking about?"
"You. Trusting me." Orlak smiled, linking an arm through MacLeod's. "You do trust me, don't you?"
"Implicitly." Joe beamed at him. The mortal's eyes were troubled, but Orlak was certain that he would be even less trouble than MacLeod himself. Clearly the drug had previously unforeseen benefits.
"Good. Now just do exactly as I tell you, and you'll be out of here in no time. I'll soon have you back with your friends."
"Do exactly as you tell us." MacLeod didn't seem to like the idea very much, but he gave no sign of any real disagreement. Instead he shrugged, and turned on an innocent, unconcerned smile. "Okay."
Orlak smiled back, and hurried them away down the corridor. He had to work fast, before the drug began to wear off.
"Brennerland." Methos stood at the top of a pinnacle of rock, and waved imperiously with one hand. Suppressing the urge to push his companion off, Peter stared down from his high vantage point. He saw a white lodge, almost scrupulously neat, resting on a squared-off area of rock. He let his eyes run over the odd shapes cut into the ground around the main building, and frowned.
"Looks like there's a lot more of it underground."
"Does, doesn't it. No telling how much more there is to that place than meets the eye." Methos frowned, tapping thoughtfully with his fingers on the hilt of his sword. "I wonder if MacLeod and the ever-faithful Dawson have beaten us to it."
"Only one way to find out." Kerensky moved forward, as though planning to begin the descent. Methos caught him by the arm.
"Somebody is forgetting their place," he said, an air of good-humour filling his voice with something very like a sense of amused displeasure. "You move only when I tell you to."
"Fine." Kerensky turned away, instead heading back to where they had left the car. Their unwilling passenger had been hauled out, and dumped without ceremony on the ground beside the vehicle. Judging by what Peter could see of his face around the gag, he was not at all comfortable. Peter was in no mood to be sympathetic. He knelt down beside the man, and pulled his gag off.
"How do we get into Brenner's place?" he asked. The man glared at him, and spat something in a language that Kerensky didn't recognise. He repeated his question in Polish, as best he could, and then in bad French. Methos laughed at his mangled attempts at speaking the languages.
"I know what you're saying and I didn't understand a word of that." He caught the prisoner by the shirt front and dragged him to his feet. "He understands English just fine, don't you my friend."
"You are both dead men." Speaking in heavily-accented English, the Involution man stared straight into Methos' eyes as he spoke. If he was at all unnerved by what he saw there, it did not show. Kerensky almost admired him.
"Ah. The determined type." Methos looked happy, which gave Peter the distinct impression that he himself wanted to be somewhere else, very quickly. He took a step away, but Methos shot him a glare that froze his feet to the ground. "Did I ever tell you, Peter, how I once tortured a man for two days straight? It was quite a surprise, but then he was very stubborn. Kronos bet that he would make it to three days, but the poor fool died quite suddenly at nightfall on the second day. It was a shame, because he really was a pleasure to work with. I had only just begun to remove his skin, and I was making a very neat job of it." As if by magic, a dagger had appeared in one of his hands. He ran the tip of the blade very delicately around his prisoner's left ear. "I begin by making an incision just here, and then I run around here with the blade," he demonstrated by dragging the knife under his unwilling assistant's chin, "and then on around to the other ear. It's quite easy, when you know how, to remove the face whilst leaving the victim fully conscious. I used to insist on it in fact. I was inclined to become somewhat impatient with the ones who fainted on me. They spoilt the game."
"You can't do this." Peter was almost too horrified to move. The Immortal's only response was a gentle smile.
"Sometimes, Peter, I find it hard to believe that you can look so like my brother, and yet be so very, very different. Surely there has to be something inside you - something that cries out for blood and carnage?"
"I'm sorry to be such a disappointment."
"Oh, you're no disappointment. Not really. It's just a surprise." Quite suddenly, the expression on his face not so much as flickering, Methos jammed the knife into his prisoner's side. The bound man went rigid, and he struggled to move his tied hands, as though desperate to press them against the wound. Blood ran onto the ground.
"Tell me how to get into Brenner's place, and I'll untie you. I'll even let you use the phone in the car to call for assistance. That wound shouldn't be fatal for another hour or so yet, so there's plenty of time for you to get help. What do you say?"
"Main gates..." The Involution man was gasping the words out, his eyes bulging. "Keypad... code number... five-eight-four-six-two. Reverse that for the main door."
"Good man." Methos let go of him, allowing him to fall to the ground. The man yelled aloud with pain at the impact, only for the Immortal to kick him sharply the ribs. Peter moved instinctively to go to his assistance, but Methos caught him by the collar, jerking him away. "Come along, Peter. We have better things to do."
"But you promised to untie him." Peter struggled, but Methos was too strong for him. The lithe Immortal did not look particularly strong, but looks, clearly, were deceiving.
"So I did." He sighed theatrically, then shrugged and pushed Kerensky away. The mortal stumbled and fell, watching as Methos raised his knife. For a second it looked as though he might just use it to cut his prisoner free; but at the last second he turned the blade away and drove it deeply into the fallen man's chest. There was a choked gargle, then silence. Peter climbed back to his feet.
"You didn't have to do that," he said darkly. Methos flashed him a grin.
"Come on. We have to see a man about a resurrection."
"We're dead if we go into that building."
"No, you're dead. But then I'm planning to kill you anyway, so it really doesn't make a whole lot of difference." The Immortal drew his sword and pointed it at Kerensky. "Shall we be going?"
"You're sick, Methos. You need help."
"You need help, Peter. Trouble is, there isn't anybody who's going to give it to you." He smiled, and gestured with the sword. "Get going. It'll be dark soon."
"You're not going to get away with this." It was a lame rejoinder, but all that he could think of. Methos laughed.
"You know, I almost wish that you could meet Kronos. It's a shame that I have to kill you to get him back."
"No deal." They began to head back in the direction of the lodge. "Kronos is coming back. I'll see him walk again or I'll die trying; and nobody is going to stop me."
"Maybe I will." Peter knew that he sounded small and somewhat insignificant, especially in the face of a five thousand year-old madman who was currently holding all the cards. Methos, perhaps surprisingly, did not laugh. Instead his reaction made Kerensky frown.
"I think I'd like that, Peter. I think it might be fun."
Jason Brenner turned his chair in a rough circle, watching the banks of security monitors in front of him. Vast screens showed him the terrain up to twenty miles in every direction; a vast circle of land stretching out around him. His kingdom, in which he was truly the king.
"We've located Orlak, sir." The errant aide's immediate replacement, an impressively slimy fellow dressed in a beige suit with a lemon yellow tie, leaned dangerously close to the controlled environment of his commander's chair. "He's with MacLeod and Dawson, as we suspected." Brenner didn't mention the fact that his new aide had actually suspected almost the exact opposite. "We can move to intercept them at any time."
"There's no hurry." Brenner moved his chair closer to the relevant screen, peering at the tiny images of MacLeod, Dawson and Orlak as they emerged from the tunnels of the Annex and headed off into the hills. "I'd like to see what they're planning."
"We don't want them to get away from us, sir." The aide's insipid voice succeeded in sounding both obsequious and patronising, which was quite a feat. Brenner raised an eyebrow in response. "What I mean is--"
"I know what you mean, Hardcastle. But Mr Orlak was with me for a long time. I've always considered him to be highly loyal. I want to know his reasons for betraying me." He rubbed his chin with a long, pale finger that looked very much like an uncooked sausage. "He has a girlfriend doesn't he? She works for me I believe."
"Anya Vordik, sir. She's one of the physical instructors in the self-defence section. She's in charge of training new recruits in Immortal Destruction. Would you like me to send for her?"
"No." Brenner played with the controls of his monitor screens until he found a picture of one of the self-defence rooms. It was a huge, white gym built from solid rock, and was situated some five miles to his approximate right. Anya Vordik was wielding a large sword that most people would not have been able to lift. As he watched she beheaded a large mannequin with a spectacular one-handed stroke that took his breath away. He could easily understand why she had managed to turn the head of the usually clinical Orlak. "Have her shot, would you? As soon as possible, I don't like to put these things off. See that her body is discovered by the authorities in the next day or two." He turned the chair away, pausing to glance back at the last moment. "Oh, and Hardcastle?"
"Yes sir?" Interrupted in the act of reaching for the telephone, Hardcastle glanced up.
"Send a team out to recover Mr Calder's body. He's just over the ridge on the west side. I'd prefer it if the authorities didn't find him. He's wanted for a couple of killings in France last year, and it's a messy death. I don't want people coming round here asking awkward questions."
"Yes sir, of course. I'm sorry, I didn't realise Mr Calder was dead."
"If he isn't yet, he will be by the time the team reaches him. Oh, and prepare a welcoming committee for Methos. He's on his way."
"No, a welcoming committee. From what I've seen he doesn't appear to be armed, except for that ridiculous sword, so I'll meet him in the parlour. Tea I think; he seems to have adopted the British way of life of late. I shall be in attendance of course. I'll speak to you later."
"Certainly sir." Hardcastle watched as his commander left the room, then he tapped out a number on the nearest phone. It was Anya Vordik's deputy, North, who answered, but the thin, serious-faced young man showed no sign of emotion on receiving the order to execute his boss. Hardcastle watched on the monitor screen as North shot Vordik down, and was almost disappointed when she fell without a sound. He nodded his satisfaction, then dialled another number, this time receiving his answer from a tall, rotund woman of about forty. He used his most supercilious tone as he passed on the order to fetch the body of the unfortunate Mr Calder, and she answered in much the same vein. Hardcastle's blood boiled. He hated being spoken to like that, especially by a woman who was several ranks below him. In childish retaliation he hung up whilst she was still talking, and tried to block her from his mind as he set about arranging the welcoming committee for Methos. He had more important things to worry about now than insubordinate associates. He was Chief Aide to the great Jason Brenner. He was in charge of the next step of the Plan. Soon Methos would be in the hands of the Involution, and then everything would fall into place. It was the way it had to be. Hardcastle smiled in satisfaction, and wondered if he would be allowed to kill Methos himself; if he would be able to play a rôle in the final resurrection of Kronos. The beginning of the end for Immortality, and it all began right here. He smiled at that, and unconsciously his chest puffed up in happy expectation. It would be quite something, to be Chief Aide to the ruler of the world.
"Do you think they know we're coming?" Slipping and sliding on the uneven slope, Peter struggled to keep up with Methos. The Immortal was striding easily ahead, as though he had been born to walk in such rough terrain. He glanced back momentarily, a faint smile showing on his otherwise expressionless face.
"I'm counting on it."
"But they'll kill us."
"Only if they have MacLeod."
"And if they do?"
"If they do, they do." He shrugged. "Come on, hurry it up back there. We don't have all day."
"Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?"
"Only to my brother's rebirth." Methos stopped for a second, turning back to face Peter. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, mortal. I certainly don't expect you to appreciate how much your death means to me. I need Kronos. I need him to make me whole. I lived without him for so long, and I honestly believed that he was dead; but his return meant more to me than I would ever have dared admit. That's what it means when you share your life with someone for thousands of years."
"You're right. I don't understand." Peter had caught him up now, and moved to take over the lead. "And I also don't give a damn. So Kronos is the perfect friend. So he means more to you that anything else. I'm very happy for you both. But I have my reasons for coming here too, remember? I got into all of this because the Involution murdered my sister-in-law. I told you at the time that I didn't give a damn about you or your problems. I still don't. If it wasn't for the fact that, thanks to you, I'm wanted in the States right now, I'd still be over there. I wouldn't even have come to Poland. Where would your plans be then?"
"The Involution would have ensured your presence." Methos' smile was derogatory. "Now shut up and walk. I couldn't be bothered to deal with your problems right now. Not that they'll be your problems for much longer."
"I hope Brenner takes your head." Peter put on an extra burst of speed, striding ahead. Methos grabbed at him, puling him back.
"Keep down." In response to his own whispered order, Methos ducked sharply, dragging his companion down to the ground. Together they peered over the ridge, looking down towards the lodge that was intended to be the end of their journey.
"What is it?" Angry at the way that Methos was yanking him around of late, Kerensky tried to stand up. Methos jerked him back down again.
"I said keep down." He was watching something; something that Peter himself could not see. "There's somebody down there."
"Of course there's somebody down there. That's Enemy HQ. Did you expect to be able to just walk in?"
"No." Rolling his eyes, Methos seemed to be struggling to keep hold of his patience. "But the last thing I want is for a bunch of trigger-happy guards to blow your head off when we're this close to reaching our goal."
"Your goal," pointed out Kerensky. Methos didn't bother answering. "And I'm touched at your concern. Really."
"Your life means only one thing to me." Without warning Methos stood up. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"To introduce ourselves."
"But I thought you said--"
"I know what I said. Just keep up." Putting on a burst of speed, Methos began to slide down the slope. Rocks skittered away from under his feet, causing mini-landslides of pebbles that ricocheted off one another and bounced out of sight. Kerensky watched him for a moment, marvelling at the way that he managed to stay upright. For a second he could see how this man must have looked, three and a half thousand years before, as he led the way into battle. His eyes, drawn by his thoughts, travelled away to the horizon. He thought about running; getting away from here now, whilst Methos was busy playing Conqueror and was not even looking at him; but he dismissed the thought almost immediately. He couldn't leave now. Whether it was through some desire to get Methos back - his Methos, the one who had been infuriating him since their first meeting at a warehouse back in Seacouver - or just a desire to see that this marauding Horseman was stopped, he knew that he had to stay. Slipping and sliding, he set off after the Immortal. Methos was waiting for him at the bottom of the slope. Apparently it had never even occurred to him that Peter might not be coming after.
"Down there," he said simply. Peter followed the direction of his gaze. Six people were coming towards them, vague shapes in a swirl of snow that periodically camouflaged their approach. Quite how the Immortal had spotted them from the top of the slope he couldn't imagine.
"Involution?" he asked. Methos shrugged.
"Probably. They're using security cameras I should think. Satellite surveillance most likely." He looked up at the sky, as though trying to spot the hardware in question. "You know, I might have underestimated our Mr Brenner a little."
"Now you tell me."
"I'm not obliged to tell you anything." The Immortal took a firm hold of Kerensky's arm, taking his drawn sword in his other hand. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"To welcome the welcoming party." Methos pushed him ahead, walking with a measured stride towards the advancing group, coming to an eventual halt when they were still some fifty yards away. The six also stopped. All of them were armed, carrying the sort of heavy duty weaponry likely to stop elephants with a single shot. Peter swallowed nervously.
"Good morning gentlemen!" His tone filled with false cheer, Methos sounded rather like a confused English tourist who had got lost in the hills. The transformation from sword-wielding maniac was almost too much to cope with, and Peter didn't like to point out that it was actually late evening. That minor detail didn't seem to have worried the six people now confronting them either.
"Methos." The first of the six stepped forward, coming to meet the fugitive pair with a gun in one hand and what looked like a mobile phone in the other. Direct line to the boss, decided Kerensky.
"That's close enough." Methos laid his sword blade across Peter's throat. "Any closer and I'll behead him. Your boss's plans are scuppered then."
"You won't kill him. You want Kronos back as much as Mr Brenner does." There was cool confidence in the man's voice. Methos smiled coldly at him.
"My survival comes above everything else. Everything else."
"Then we'll use a different body. We can resurrect Kronos using anyone."
"Kronos doesn't want just any body." Methos pressed the sword a little harder against his prisoner's neck. "Do you want to take the responsibility for what happens if I make this body useless to you?"
"What do you want?" Taking a step back, the man lowered his gun. Methos grinned.
"I want to speak to Brenner."
"Mr Brenner is waiting for you as we speak. I was sent to bring you to him."
"Yeah, I'll bet. But I want to meet with him on my terms, understand?"
"I understand." The man raised both hands slightly into the air, as though showing compliance. "My orders are--"
"Screw your orders. I want a clear path into the lodge. I want Brenner alone. And I want to know where Duncan MacLeod is."
"We had him." The man looked momentarily angry, as though this was a sore point. "He escaped less than an hour ago. Right now I have no idea where he is."
"He escaped?" Methos sounded disgusted. "One man, and you can't keep hold of him? I thought you were supposed to be the very image of efficiency."
"He'll be recaptured. As a matter of fact, our satellite is tracking him as we speak. Mr Brenner believes that his escape may be part of a bigger scheme, perhaps to usurp his own position."
"I don't care about your internal politics." Methos took a step forward, pushing Kerensky before him. "All that I care about is getting the bits of my brother that that infernal Highlander is carrying about in his head. I don't give a damn who leads the Involution."
"Well Mr Brenner does." The man tried a placating smile. "If you'd like to come with us, Mr Methos, we'd be happy to escort you straight to our leader. Perhaps you'd like to take the lead?"
"And end up with a bullet in my back?" Methos shook his head. "No, you go first. Slowly. All of you."
"Whatever you say." With infinite patience the man turned about, heading away down the slope. Slowly his five compatriots fell in around him, leaving Methos and Kerensky to take up the rear. Kerensky did not feel the pressure at his throat ease in the slightest, and when he tried to lessen it himself he only felt it increase. Clearly the sword was not just there to keep these six members of the Involution in hand. It was almost as though Methos were growing more determined, more single-minded, with every step that took him closer to his goal. Quite why Brenner and Involution HQ was that goal, Kerensky himself couldn't imagine. He tried to relax; to allow himself to move with the flow; to trust in fate to bring him an opportunity to escape. It was impossible. He was tense and afraid, tired out from the hardships of recent weeks and beginning to feel his reserves of adrenalin backing out on him. His throat hurt. The ground was rough under his feet, and he was afraid that he would slip; afraid that such a movement would finish Methos' threat without any input from the Immortal himself. Being beheaded by accident was a stupid way to die.
"Don't try anything." The whisper in his ear was so cold, so harsh, that it carried almost nothing of the Methos that Peter had once known. For the briefest second he closed his eyes. At least he could be grateful that the Involution did not currently have Duncan MacLeod within their grasp; that his life was therefore not yet over. But he couldn't help wondering how long it would be before the frighteningly long arms of this secret society reached out to snatch the Highlander once again; and ended this hopeless struggle for all of them.
Joe Dawson watched MacLeod as he slept. He slept the sleep of the restless; the sleep of a man with far too much weighing far too heavily on his mind. His lips moved, whispering words that his mortal friend could not catch. Beads of sweat broke free from his brow and trickled down his cheeks, looking for all the world like tears. His eyelids flickered rapidly, and Dawson could not help but wonder what he was dreaming about. Whatever it was it did not look like much fun. Where Orlak was Joe had no idea. Their strange guide had not wanted to stop. He had wanted to put as much distance between himself and the rest of the Involution as he could, but Dawson had put his foot down. They needed the rest, and they also needed the time to take stock of their situation. Joe didn't want to travel too far just yet; not without making some attempt to track down Methos. Orlak had poured scorn on that idea. Whilst Joe and MacLeod had been locked away as guests of the Involution, he had been listening to the news, hearing the talk of the locals. Orlak believed that if Methos was still out in the mountains, there was not going to be any chance of getting through to him; not, at least, by any conventional means. He wanted Methos for some reason - there was something that the supercilious Involution man had planned both for the oldest Immortal and for Peter Kerensky - but Joe couldn't remember what it was. In point of fact, he couldn't remember much at all; not even leaving the room where he had been locked up for so long; and that was beginning to weigh rather heavily on his mind. It hurt his head to think too much about it, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was as much a prisoner now as he had been when he had been locked in that fancy suite in the Annex. He was being used, as a way for Orlak to find Methos. But then hadn't Orlak promised to let Methos go? Hadn't he promised to help Joe take his immortal friend back to Seacouver, and to see that none of them - Kerensky included - were ever harmed by the Involution again? It seemed wrong somehow, that a man like Orlak would have made such a deal, and yet Joe was convinced that he had. He was sure that he remembered shaking hands in agreement over it. He was sure that he remembered Duncan grinning, laughing with Orlak over the terms of the deal. Something inside him trusted the Involution man implicitly. He only wished that he understood it completely, and that he remembered it all in a little more detail.
"No..." Moaning softly in his sleep, MacLeod rolled onto his back. His fists clenched, whitening the knuckles. "Dammit, no!"
"Mac?" Joe leaned closer to his friend, but the Highlander did not seem able to hear him. "Are you okay?"
"Just leave me alone." For a second MacLeod's eyes snapped open, staring wildly up at Joe; then just as suddenly they were closed again, and he was whispering to himself in short snatches of heated whispers. He did not seem to have awoken from his sleep.
"Mac?" Shaking the Highlander with an insistent but gentle hand, Dawson tried to get him to wake up. There was no response. MacLeod was still whispering in earnest. As the mortal listened, the Highlander's voice rose in volume, changing to a firm, harsh sound that was almost a shout. He still spoke in bursts of staccato gibberish, but gradually, with increasing certainty, Joe managed to make sense of his ramblings. He was speaking of things he had seen, or things that he thought he had. Places he had been to, people he had met. He spoke of cities and civilisations that Joe had never heard of; peoples long consigned to the pages of history. And slowly, inexorably, his voice was changing. The accent was different. It was no longer American, but British - English to be precise. It was well-spoken and soft, like the perfectly enunciated tones of somebody who belonged on the stage. There was a touch of real drama to the voice; the sound of a man enwrapped in intrigue and excitement. He sounded as though he might be about to burst into a soliloquy from Macbeth, so powerful, so insane was the timbre of his voice. Joe Dawson felt a shiver run up and down his spine.
"Stand aside, mortal," the voice whispered, and in his deep sleep MacLeod ceased to stir. His body had become rigid, and an expression that was entirely alien took over his face. He was smiling, but the smile was one of ice and evil. "Stand aside, or I'll cut you down where you stand."
"Er... Mac?" Resisting the urge to back off, Dawson swallowed hard. He recognised the voice, but he could not quite say where from. "Mac, are you okay?"
"I said stand aside, mortal!" MacLeod was rigid now, his voice as harsh as any that Dawson had ever heard. "Step back, or face the wrath of the Horsemen! Do you know who I am?"
"You're Duncan MacLeod. Listen to me, Mac, I don't know what--"
"I said do you know who I am?" The Highlander didn't seem able to hear him. His voice dropped until it was so quiet that Joe had to lean right over him to hear his words. "I am the Apocalypse. I am the bringer of madness and destruction. I am the dawn of chaos and the heart of the storm. I bring fire, and blood, and death." Without warning his eyes snapped open, and one hand leapt into life. Joe felt cold fingers bite into his throat, and he stared down, horror-stricken, into ice-blue eyes. Duncan MacLeod was staring up at him, through the eyes of Peter Kerensky; and Joe knew now why he had recognised the voice. He had heard Kerensky speak in those very tones; had heard that exact accent, those very resonances escape his lips. But it was not Peter Kerensky that stared up at him now from the face of Duncan MacLeod. It was not Peter Kerensky's cruel smile that played about on the lips of the Highlander. It was Kronos.
"Why it's Joe Dawson." Kronos, in the midst of the face of Duncan MacLeod, grinned unpleasantly. "I've always wanted to meet you."
"M-M-Mac?" Dawson wanted to move back, but the grip on his throat was too tight. He could feel steely fingers pressing against his windpipe, and his vision swum. He heard the laugh of the Leader of the Horsemen.
"No. I'm afraid that friend Duncan had to take a break." As Joe watched, it seemed that MacLeod's face was changing. The cheekbones became more pronounced, and the skin became paler. Perhaps it was just an illusion, but it seemed to Joe that Duncan's long hair, held back in its customary ponytail, was suddenly much shorter. Yet through it all he could still see Duncan; could still see his friend just as he had always looked. All except for those fearsome blue eyes, staring out of the familiar face as though put there by some supernatural hand.
"What's going on?" Joe tried to pull back. For a second the hand at his throat held him there; pressed tighter until he thought that his head must surely come loose. Then slowly the fingers released their hold, and the pressure ceased. He almost fell back, so great was his desire to be free. Deep within Duncan, Kronos laughed.
"What do you think is going on? I'm tired of being a backseat driver. MacLeod's mind is tired, and whilst his guard is down, I can come out to play." He stood up, testing the limbs and muscles as though trying out a new car - or a new weapon. "Do you really think this is the first time, Dawson? Do you really think that MacLeod has been free of me all this time? He's carried me within him for more than two years now. In all that time, do you really think this is the first time I've managed to make my voice get heard?" He laughed, and the sound of his mirth made Dawson want to run away and hide. "You don't behead the Leader of the Horsemen without taking a little of the Apocalypse into your soul."
"What are you going to do?" It was with a terrible kind of fear that Dawson asked the question, so certain was he that there was nothing he could do to slow this man down. Kronos smiled.
"Now there's a question. And I have one for you too, mortal. How long do you suppose it will be before your shining-armoured friend can reassert himself? How many people can I kill, how many lives can I destroy, before Duncan MacLeod sends me back to hell?" Once again he laughed, and once again Dawson felt a finger of ice trace its way down his spine. "Maybe I should start the count now, by killing you."
"Dawson?" Orlak's voice, so sudden and unexpected, made both mortal and immortal jump in surprise. The hand of Duncan MacLeod, powered by the mind of Kronos, leapt for the sword lying on the ground nearby. And using all of his strength, all of his speed, and all of the edge given to him by his closer proximity to it, Dawson also leapt for the weapon. His fingers scrabbled on the hard ground, grasping at the edges of the hilt. He felt its cold touch, just as he felt strong fingers scrape at the backs of his hands. Driven by fury, Kronos pulled at him, tried to drag him back, tried to get to the sword before he had a chance to use it. But in the heat of his own desperation, Joe Dawson was quicker. He spun, using his body weight to turn him around, using the weight of his false legs as an anchor by which to swing the sword about. He watched the blade cut its way into MacLeod's chest, saw the blood fountain forth, felt it spray across his own face and momentarily obliterate his vision. He dashed at his eyes with one hand, and with the other he tried to drag the sword free. It slashed deeper into MacLeod's body, cutting through his ribcage, making Kronos yell aloud in pain and rage. Through the blood that marred his vision, through the haze from the confusion and fear, Dawson saw the face above him change. No longer was he staring up at Duncan MacLeod, and no longer was the figure above him taller than he was. He was staring up at a small man, with a lithe and wiry build; a man with short hair and ice-blue eyes and the compact physique of a man born to fight. The body that tumbled from him and collapsed to the ground was the body of Kronos, in every respect; but as Joe stumbled to his feet and stared down at the raging, furious eyes of the Horseman, and as the life faded from those very eyes, he could once again see Duncan MacLeod. Once again the hair was long. Once again the body was that of a tall and graceful man. And as the eyes flickered open once again, they were brown and soft, and filled with confusion and pain.
"J-Joe?" Duncan's voice caught in his throat, filled with questions that Joe himself could not answer. The Highlander knew only that he was lying wounded on the ground, and that his closest friend was standing over him with a blood-drenched sword in his hands. "Joe, w-w-why?"
"No! No, Mac I swear it isn't--" But it was too late, for MacLeod's head rolled to one side, and his eyes closed. In a fit of shuddering convulsions, he ceased to breathe.
"What the hell...?" Standing nearby, staring down at the scene with wide open, staring eyes, was Frederick Orlak. He rubbed his face with his hands, shaking his head from side to side. "There's something going on here, and I want to know what it is."
"I don't know. Involution conditioning?" Somehow Joe didn't believe that, but he had to ask. Orlak shook his head.
"Involution conditioning could never have that kind of an effect. It could make MacLeod believe that Kronos was inside his mind, trying to break out; but it could never make us see that..." He frowned. "We did both see that. Didn't we?"
"I think so." Joe sank back down onto the ground, and he didn't object when Orlak came up to him, taking the sword away. He watched with a sense of detachment as the other mortal cleaned the weapon, then stuck it firmly into his own belt.
"How long will it take for MacLeod to heal?" he asked, as he checked the load in his gun and then stowed it away next to the sword. Joe shrugged.
"Usually not long. Sometimes no time at all. But he's tired... This isn't like normal. I don't know."
"We have to get going. If we keep moving, we're safe."
"I'm not sure that we're ever going to be safe again!" Joe could not take his eyes off MacLeod's still form. He couldn't shake the fear that, when those eyes opened once again, they would be ice-blue and glowing with all the madness of Kronos. "One minute Mac's hallucinating every which way thanks to your people and their mind games, and then just as I start thinking he's recovered, suddenly we get Return Of The Living Dead played out for real! No wonder Mac's had so many issues to sort out these last few years. His head is full of some four thousand year-old Immortal with an attitude problem!" Gently he wiped some specks of blood away from the Highlander's forehead. "Kronos is in there with him, and we have to get him out."
"That's just what the Involution wants. All you have to do is go along with our plans. With my plan." Orlak was smiling, and Dawson was still finding it impossible to remember just why the man made him so uneasy. He didn't trust Orlak, and yet he could not help trusting him implicitly.
"Your plan..." He shook his head. "You want to kill Peter Kerensky."
"No. I want to save Duncan MacLeod. How long do you think he can go on with this kind of madness inside him? You must have seen the way it's been affecting him in recent times. The Involution knows. We know about Richie Ryan. Was that MacLeod that killed him, or was it MacLeod's sword guided by the hand of Kronos? How long before he kills others too? Or maybe he already has? He's gone off by himself before. He could have gone anywhere, done anything. Can you really take the risk of leaving him with this kind of darkness in his soul?"
"No." Joe felt the word tumble from his mouth before he was really aware of having said it. Some whisper within his mind was telling him not to trust Orlak, and yet still, despite his better judgement, another voice was telling him that Orlak was his friend. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to get the thoughts to come into some kind of focus; but still any sort of clarity remained elusive. He sighed. He was remembering Kerensky, and how he had liked the young mortal. He was remembering being impressed with the man's determination and courage. He felt terrible, and yet he also felt strangely focussed. Finally he nodded, and raised his eyes to stare up at Orlak.
"You're right," he said finally, although he hated himself for it. "Help me with Duncan, and I'll help you to get Kerensky." Orlak grinned at him, and nodded his head in satisfaction.
"It's a deal," he said, and his eyes shone with cold determination. Joe sat very still, and waited for MacLeod to recover. Right now there didn't seem to be anything else to do.
"And so you, I presume, are the great Methos." As his electric wheelchair rolled grandly through the huge doors of his favourite parlour, Jason Brenner raised a hand in welcome. "Please, sit down. You've had a long journey to get here. And I see you come bearing gifts."
"Not a gift. A bargaining tool." Methos pushed Kerensky into a chair, but did not sit down himself. "If we're bringing back Kronos, I want it done on my terms. You get Kerensky only if I get to live."
"An understandable demand. We all want to live." Brenner wheeled closer, until Methos could see the yellow tinge to the man's skin; could see the deadness of his eyes, and the crooked set of his intensely white teeth. The mortal smiled, revealing a pinkish-grey tongue that seemed somehow bloated and dry. "Life is the one goal that motivates us all, is it not? But why should I let you live, when my plan calls for just one - the One. How can I hope to hold sway over Kronos unless I can promise him the Prize - superiority over all? You must understand my dilemma, Mr Methos."
"It's just Methos." The old Immortal folded his arms, his lithe and unimpressive body towering over the seated Brenner. Somehow, despite his slight build and almost gangly appearance, the Immortal gave the impression of great strength. Below him the wasted and shrunken body of Jason Brenner looked pathetic; as though he were an insect upon which Methos could so easily have stepped. "And I don't understand any dilemma. Kronos won't follow you, no matter what you promise him. The Game never meant anything to him; not when he was alive, and certainly not now that he's been dead. Kronos likes to kill, and he takes joy from a Quickening just as the rest of us do, but winning the Prize was never the goal that he strove for. If my death is the tool you use to bring him back, he'll kill the lot of you before you can even offer him your deal. Kronos would rather stay dead than profit from my misfortune." A vague smile played about on his cruel lips. "My fatal misfortune, at any rate."
"You're very sure of yourself." Brenner was smiling, an unpleasant spectacle at the best of times. He wheeled himself over to the table and began pouring tea into three cups from a large, Wedgwood teapot. His pale hands caressed the soft delicacy of the matching cups, running lightly over the raised white designs on the pale blue china as he handed the drinks round. His smile as he handed one of the cups to Kerensky was like the grin on the face of a vampire about to drink its fill. His lips pulled themselves back from his crooked teeth, revealing yellowed gums with pronounced blood vessels. Kerensky tried not to recoil. He held the cup awkwardly, looking from Methos to Brenner and back again, wondering if he dare speak. His life was not in danger yet; but there was plenty else that this pair of madmen could do to him.
"I was already a thousand years old when I met Kronos. I spent another four thousand years as his closest friend. I know him, and I know the place I have in his life. I know things you'll only ever imagine at, mortal." A smile of infinite arrogance spread its way across the face of the oldest man. "I'm not offering you options here; I'm offering you a deal that you can either accept or decline. But it's all or nothing, there's no half way."
"You underestimate me, Methos." Brenner was still smiling, the light shining on his pale gums. "I could have you shot down where you stand. By the time you revive I could have you locked up in a cell that you would never escape from. Duncan MacLeod will be within my grasp again, and when that moment comes, my plan will be implemented. You'll be dead and gone, and there's nothing that anybody can do to change that - you included. Nobody will miss you. The only people who ever cared about your life were dead before the Great Pyramid was built." He chuckled softly, an obscene sound born in the back of his throat. "You're in my lair now, Immortal. In this place, a thousand men will do my bidding or die in the attempt."
"And you underestimate me, Brenner." Methos' voice was soft, and if Brenner did not recognise the glimmer in the eyes of his guest, Kerensky did. He felt the breath chill in his lungs, and found himself pressing back into his chair. The delicate teacup in his hands shook slightly, and he pressed it against his leg to stop it rattling in its saucer. The brown liquid inside was already going cold, and so far he hadn't touched a drop. Methos had never even bothered taking his, and the only one of them who had drunk any at all was Brenner himself. He took another small sip now, before nibbling slowly at the edge of a digestive biscuit. There was an indulgent smile on his face, which did not waver as Methos took a step towards him.
"You underestimate the ties that bind. You underestimate the level of friendship that exists between men after four thousand years living in each others shadow. I spent a thousand years subjugating the world in the company of Kronos. I spent a thousand years berating him for never leaving those days behind. I loved him and I hated him, and I came damned close to killing him. And I'll see that he stays dead if that's what it takes to stop you from killing me. I'll even kill myself if it'll stop you trying to turn him into something he never wanted to be. That's the way that it is between us."
"I'm touched." Brenner's sardonic smile suggested that he was anything but. "And just how do you propose to keep these ambitious promises? I hold all the cards. I'm the one with the house full of faithful followers. Or do you plan on fighting your way through a thousand armed men? You've stepped right into the middle of my web, just like some brainless fly lured by the shine of spider-silk. Let's see you work your way out of this one."
"I don't even need to try." Methos held up his sword, letting the tip of the blade touch the arm of Brenner's chair. He stroked the joystick that nestled there, not hard enough to operate it, but firmly enough to prevent Brenner from being able to manoeuvre himself away. "I'm not fool enough to step into the web without having something up my sleeve. So go ahead, mortal. Spin your trap. Give the order to fire." For a second the certainty on Brenner's face wavered. Methos smiled down at him, eyebrows raised. "What's wrong, Brenner? Lost your voice?"
"You're bluffing," Brenner told him, the faintest suggestion of panic showing in his cold and watery eyes. Methos just smirked. In his hand, hidden before by the sword, Brenner saw something else; something black and metallic that was pointed straight at him. The gun was old, but he was sure that it was serviceable; and whether it was or not, he was not prepared to take the risk. Not, at the very least, when it was his own life that was at stake. Methos' grin grew larger.
"What's wrong? Your guards not tell you about the gun? It's nothing special, I'll admit, so I guess I can understand how they managed to overlook it; but it's loaded, and it does work. Just ask Peter here. He's seen it in action. And from this range, old or not, I'm willing to bet it could take out your stomach. Maybe a few other organs." He grinned, and weighed the weapon in his hand. "Shall we try?"
"You'll never get away with this." Brenner hissed the words between clenched teeth. Methos laughed.
"Oh I don't know. I seem to be doing rather well so far. You honestly didn't know about the gun, did you. You really believed that I'd come here with just a sword and a bit of war paint. You like to play at being the infallible leader of men, but when it comes to the crunch you're just another psycho with big ambitions." The Immortal took a step forward, pressing the barrel of the gun against the material of Brenner's shirt. Anger flashed for a second across the face of the leader of the Involution, but it was more to do with this violation of his sterile personal space than through any real reaction to his apparent immediate danger. "Now supposing we talk business."
"Methos... the guards." Kerensky had noticed the movement of the armed men by the door. So it seemed at Methos, who didn't even bother to look up.
"Not my concern, Peter," he said gently. For a second his voice sounded almost as it had when they had first met, but Peter could still see the wild flash in the Immortal's eyes, belying the friendliness of his tone. "They won't try anything once Jason here has given them the order." The gun pressed more firmly against Brenner's chest, knocking against the more prominent of his ribs. "Right, Jase?"
"Stand down." Brenner's voice was coldly level. Slowly the men fell back. Kerensky started to breathe again, but his heart still hammered in his chest. He could see no reason for their presence here, and it disturbed him greatly to be right in the heart of the lion's den, with no apparent escape route. Methos was merely smiling, as unconcerned now as he had been when they were still up on the mountain.
"Good." He gave a satisfied nod. "Now let's start with MacLeod, shall we? Where is he?"
"Gone." Brenner's grin became more like a leer, the lips drawing even further back from his teeth. He looked like a grinning skull in some fairground horror collection. "We had him, but he escaped... sort of. One of my men is helping him."
"Betrayal? In the Involution? Standards must be slipping, Jase. I never expected it of a group like yours."
Brenner's expression changed in the blink of an eye, and his mouth twisted into a vicious snarl. His brow darkened, and his hands clenched and unclenched around the arms of his chair.
"He will be dealt with," he hissed, the words spitting themselves out between his tightly clenched teeth. Methos laughed, lowering himself down onto the arm of a nearby easy chair, in order to face his host on a more equal level. There was an apparent carelessness to his movements; an easy, casual appearance that was clearly beginning to infuriate the leader of the Involution.
"Hmm. Indeed." He shrugged. "I'm not much of one for politics, Jase. Truth is I don't give a damn about your boy out there, and I'm willing to bet that he won't get very far before you have him shot, or disembowelled, or whatever the punishment for treachery is with you people." He frowned suddenly, rubbing at his chin with the barrel of his gun. "Probably something very clinical. No one has any real theatrical flair now." He shook off the reverie, and the gun strayed back to stroke at Brenner's neck. "My point is, there's a lot of land out there. I could wander for days and never find MacLeod. For all I know he could be on his way out of the country by now, and I can't let that happen. I need him here, in Poland, for the ritual to work. Even if he happens to be looking for me, we could go for days out there without a sight of each other. Truth is, I need you." He shrugged, and grinned. "Well, not you exactly. What I really need is your surveillance system. I need to find Duncan MacLeod, and I think that you can help me to do that."
"And in return?" Brenner asked, his eyes spitting flame. Methos raised his eyebrows.
"In return, I may just let you live. I may not burn this place to the ground. Face it, Jase, it's the best deal you're really likely to get from a Horseman. We're not known for our integrity, or our sense of fair play."
"I won't help you." Brenner looked away, his eyes seeming to steam with his barely repressed rage. "I have my plans for you, and they do not include allowing you to escape. I want Kronos to be the One; the last Immortal left alive on the face of the Earth. I do not intend allowing you to join him."
"Ah well. See, there's where we hit a problem, Jase." Methos grinned at him, the sort of smile that he had once used to charm Joe Dawson, in the days when the Watcher had still believed that he was just a mortal grad student. It had once been a smile of innocence and immaturity, but now it was backed with malice. "We're not playing this by your rules. We're not doing what you say. I have the gun. So what we're going to do is really rather simple. You're going to show me to your surveillance department, and let me get a line on MacLeod. Then you're going to let me and Peter here go off out into the wild blue yonder, and finish what we started. I don't want Kronos to be the One. See, that would require me to be dead, and I'm not big on that idea."
"Well I am. In fact I'm getting more and more fond of the idea with every passing moment." Brenner's eyes were positively glowing with malicious intent. "I'll tear your head off with my bare hands if I have to, but I swear by what ever gods your people prayed to that I won't let you leave this place alive."
"I like you when you're angry, Jase." Methos smiled at him, eyes wide and round with fresh merriment. "I might just shoot you anyway, just to see the look on your face." For a second the leader of the Involution paled, and Methos smiled still further.
"Methos..." If Brenner was nervous, Kerensky was terrified. "What the hell are you playing at?"
"Anything I choose." Methos' voice still smacked of arrogance. It was starting to get on Kerensky's nerves.
"Yeah? Well how the hell are we going to get out of here if he's dead, huh? Will you start thinking with your brain and not your bloody sword?"
"Shut up." Methos eyes flashed with green fire as he swung his head around to glare at his prisoner. "Don't question me."
"Somebody's got to." Kerensky slumped back in the chair. "What the hell are we doing here, Methos? Did you really come here to exchange insults with this guy just because you can? Are you really that self-possessed?"
"I said shut up!" Methos almost turned the gun to point at Kerensky instead of Brenner, but he stopped himself just in time. The gleam in Brenner's eye did nothing to lessen his mood. "We came here to get a line on MacLeod. I need him, remember?"
"You bloody didn't." Aware that he was counting rather too much on the theory that Methos wanted Kronos back more than he wanted Kerensky himself dead, the mortal shook his head in clear disgust. "You came here for the hell of it. Well don't expect me to sit here and wait to get shot by the Involution just so that you can play games of one-upmanship with this shrivelled little madman. I thought this was supposed to be about Kronos. I thought this was supposed to be about risking all to resurrect the greatest friend you ever had. But it's not, is it."
"You don't know anything!" With sudden, violent anger, Methos spun around, the gun falling from his hand as he reached for Kerensky's throat. He caught the mortal under the chin, lifting his head, snapping it back until his spine protested. Kerensky stared into the fierce green eyes, and in that second, he saw something else within them. Something brighter, something clearer, than he had ever seen in there before. Something that was definitely not Methos.
"This is about Kronos. This is about bringing him back. This is about being reborn, about walking around out there again. About touching and feeling and breathing and living. Can you imagine what it's like to be alive only as an echo in the minds of others? Maybe this is what it's like for all dead Immortals, or maybe this is just because of that damned ritual. Either way I have had enough. I want freedom. I want life."
"Kronos?" For a second, as he stared into the green eyes of the man who had once been his friend, Kerensky could see his own eyes staring back at him, reflected in the pupils of Methos' eyes; or maybe that ice-blue gleam came from somewhere - someone - else. He didn't know. "Is that you?"
"I... don't... know." Each word seemed to force its way up through infinitesimal distances in order to be heard. The bright eyes staring back at him were filled with confusion. "Can't be heard... Methos... Methos is more powerful than I am." For a second the eyes screwed up tight, and the voice, when it eventually broke free from the tightly clenched jaw, was one that was all too familiar to Kerensky. It was his own voice, and yet it was different on some very basic level. "I... am... inside."
"How much of you is Methos? How much of this person is him and how much is you? Speak to me!" It was easy to knock aside the hand holding his throat. Methos laughed the laugh of Kronos, but it broke apart into a racking cough.
"Methos... is... all. He controls me. MacLeod can't." This time the laugh was stronger, more evil. "But I had to leave MacLeod... Dawson killed him. He might just end it all, to stop me coming back. You can never tell... with a Watcher." His eyes were glazing over, and Kerensky caught him by the shoulders, shaking him hard. Methos' eyes flickered open again, staring down at him, burning with a hot intensity that seemed to sting Kerensky's mind. "That's why I have to find him. That's why I need Brenner's surveillance equipment. I have to get to him. Have to get to MacLeod before it's too late. Need their equipment... helicopter... anything. You have to help me. Please."
"How very touching." Brenner's voice was brittle, and touched with ice. Kerensky stole a look in his direction, and was not surprised to see that the Involution man had recovered the fallen gun. It was pointed at both men, mortal and immortal, and the smile on his face was one of infinite satisfaction. "Whom exactly do I have the pleasure of addressing now? Methos or Kronos?"
"I'm... Methos." It was all that the tall figure could get out before he crumpled into Kerensky's startled embrace. Peter struggled to hold him, anxious not to drop him onto the hard, cold floor.
"Really." Brenner clearly didn't care much either way. He signalled to the guards, and Kerensky felt the Immortal body being torn from his arms. More guards grabbed at him, pinning him, tearing his hands behind his back. "Well I don't suppose it matters now. I've plans for you both, whoever you happen to be." He smiled, and gestured to his guards. Peter felt himself being dragged towards the nearest door. "Soon I'll have MacLeod too, and then we can get this over with." His voice hardened. "And if you ask me, it won't be a moment too soon."
MacLeod had woken slowly, almost unwillingly, and had not spoken to Joe Dawson since. The mortal could see the pain of betrayal in the eyes of his friend, but he had no idea how to confront it. MacLeod wasn't in the mood to talk. He turned away when Joe tried to explain his actions, and Joe's own lingering confusion was not helping matters. It seemed that every time their mysterious guide, Orlak, made any kind of suggestion, he was filled with a bizarre need to comply. MacLeod seemed no different, and when Orlak told them to forget about their differences and follow him, strangely the pair found themselves doing just that. Joe wanted to explain about Kronos, and about his moment of supremacy when MacLeod had been weak. He wanted to explain that it had been Kronos he had attacked with the sword, and not Duncan; but he couldn't get the words out, and could only follow along in Orlak's shadow, keeping silent. He had no idea where they were going, or why. He knew that they were looking for Methos, and he knew that he had to help Orlak kill Kerensky. He knew that it was the only way to free MacLeod from whatever it was that was left of Kronos inside his mind. He had thought that this knowledge would disturb him, but Orlak had told him to forget about it, and to think of other things. And so it was that he found himself doing just that, and smiling to himself as he walked along. His heart was heavy with the myriad of troubles that were bothering him; and yet his mind was light with thoughts that somebody else had told him to think.
"Where are we going?" He wasn't sure when he first asked the question aloud. He had been asking it in his head for so long that it had become part of the rhythm of his walking. Up ahead Orlak's stride faltered.
"Are you thirsty Joe?" he asked, holding up the flask that he had brought with him from the Annex. Joe shook his head.
"I don't want a drink. I want to know where we're going."
"Oh." Orlak trudged on. Behind them both MacLeod's own step did not waver. He was still locked in his own moody silence, the others were shut out of his thoughts completely.
"Well?" pressed Joe, vaguely irritated. Orlak slowed, then turned to face him.
"I'm sorry. I suppose an explanation is long overdue. It's just that it was so much easier avoiding the issue." He smiled, looking strangely awkward. "We're going to the place where you were locked up with Methos. The hut that Brenner had built on the spot where the original ritual took place."
"The place where Methos and MacLeod have to be in order to resurrect Kronos?" Joe was disturbed by that thought, much more than he had thought he would be. "But isn't that a bit obvious? Methos will be heading there himself, surely; and Brenner knows all about it. If he suspects your motives, he'll know exactly where to find us."
"He suspects that anyway. With all his surveillance equipment I'd be surprised if he hasn't been tracking us since the moment we left your suite back in the Annex." Orlak shrugged. "I'm sorry Joe. This was never about avoiding Brenner. It was just about getting you out of his grasp so that he couldn't implement his own version of the Plan. He wants Kronos alive and Methos dead. I want them both alive. You promised me that you'd help, and I'm not planning to let you go back on that now."
"I didn't say that I would. But I do want to know how you're going to make this work without Brenner cutting us off at the pass. You say that he knows where we are, and that he'll know where we're going before we get there; that it's likely he'll be there with a welcoming committee? How exactly does this translate into a workable plan?"
"It doesn't matter." MacLeod's voice was thick, as though he were awakening from a long, deep sleep. "All we need is a chance to get in there and grab Methos and Kerensky. Get them out of there before anything can happen. I don't care about you, but I don't plan on letting Kronos walk the Earth again. The man's well past certifiable."
"It's not as simple as that Mac. Not anymore." Joe wasn't sure how to finish that comment; how to tell his friend that they were going to have to kill an innocent mortal in order to save MacLeod himself. The Highlander would not think much of that idea.
"You don't understand. It never was that simple." Orlak sounded frustrated. "Look, we don't have the time for this. Brenner knows where we are. He's bound to. If he hasn't already got people after us it's because he wants to see what kind of a move we're planning to make, and once he does decide to come and get us there's very little we can do about it; not unless we can reach the hut first and make a stand. Methos will be there, I'm sure of it. In his current state of mind he'll be even more amenable to the idea of bringing Kronos back than he would be at any other time. So let's just keep walking, okay? Just another couple of miles and we'll be there."
"Wait a minute." MacLeod's expression was fast changing into one of disbelief. "You really expect us to go along with this? To help you bring that madman back to life? You expect us to help you to kill Peter Kerensky?" He turned to Joe, and his eyes burned with rage. "I trusted you. I've trusted you for years. And now I find that not only are you willing to turn my own sword against me, but you're happy to be a part of - of this? Peter Kerensky is our friend. He risked everything for us. He's wanted by the police back home, his sister-in-law is dead and all because of us. And you want to stab him in the back? Give his body to the most evil son of a bitch who ever wielded a sword in the name of Immortality? What has happened to you Joe?"
"You can't blame him. Not entirely." Orlak sounded oddly quiet, almost sorry. "Haven't you stopped to wonder why you've come with me this far? We've been walking for hours since your escape. I don't know how long exactly. Doesn't it worry you that you're only raising these questions now? I'm sorry, but I had to get you here, and the only way I knew of to do that was to use the same trick Brenner was using to get you to behave yourself in that prison. I guess the drug he gave you is just starting to wear off." He shrugged, looking terribly sheepish. "I rather hoped that it wouldn't happen until we were at the hut; when it was all a fait accompli, as it were. Truth is that I do have a gun, and I can make you obey me, if I have to. It's just that I'd rather not. That sort of thing's never really been my style. I was hoping Methos would do all the messy stuff for me."
"Drugged." Joe turned away, his brow creasing in concern. "More Involution mind games. I should have guessed."
"It wasn't all a mind game, Mr Dawson. What you saw back there was for real."
"And I'm supposed to believe that?" Joe shook his head. "Mac, I'm sorry. Really sorry."
"Forget it." MacLeod did not look as though he meant it, but his smile looked almost genuine. "Let's just get out of here. I know a guy who lives in Warsaw. He's a mercenary of sorts. He'll help us get Methos without any more bloodshed, and then we can all go home. No more talk of Kronos."
"Until the next time you fall asleep. Tell him, Dawson - think about it. Is it really worth the risk? Can you really let him go walking around amongst all those civilians, all those mortal innocents, when there's a dead Immortal living inside his mind?" Orlak stepped forward, his eyes alight with a challenge. "Have you ever had a blackout, Mr MacLeod? Have you ever found yourself somewhere, and wondered how you got there? Have you ever wondered why you were doing something, or doubted who you were, why you made certain choices? He's in there with you, MacLeod. He has been ever since the day you took his head. How many times has he taken control of your body; made you do things you weren't even aware of having done? Dawson saw it. Ask him. Ask him about the way your eyes changed; about the way your whole body seemed to change. He's in there with you, and there's no denying it. It's just a question of how long you can stay in control. How long before he takes over, and you don't ever get control back?"
"What are you talking about?" MacLeod turned away, not caring anymore; not even for the fact that he was about to leave without his precious sword. "Forget it. Just leave me alone."
"Mac?" Joe took a step after him. "I think he may be right."
"You too, huh." MacLeod's voice was very soft, and he did not turn around to look at the Watcher. "Well so what if he is. So what if I have wondered, if I have thought that maybe--" He shook his head. "You're asking me to kill a man, on the strength of some mad ancient ritual that might not work anyway; just to get somebody out of my head when they might not even be in there in the first place. How can I justify taking away Kerensky's life - or anybody else's for that matter - just to save mine?"
"Because it's not just your life that you'd be saving." Orlak was looking at the ground. "You asked the question yourself, MacLeod. I heard you. Poor old Vierman was wired for sound. I heard everything you said to him, everything he said to you. You asked him why it was Kronos we were so desperate to get, when there were so many other evil Immortals in the world; living Immortals, which has got to be easier than bringing a dead one back to life. Well there is a reason. Kronos has a history with the Involution. Way back in the thirties he and Brenner's predecessor had... dealings. A string of robberies in fact. Kronos was the mastermind, and the Involution supplied the manpower. They stole millions. Countless millions. With inflation the way it is there's no telling what all that loot would be worth today."
"And Kronos is the only person who knows where it is?" Joe was being sarcastic when he made the comment, but Orlak nodded in the definite affirmative.
"Yes. The last leader - William Hurde - would have known as well, almost certainly. But Jason Brenner was just a young man then - a very ambitious young man - and he knew nothing at all about any of it. He killed Hurde, in order to take over the leadership of the Involution, and it was years before any of this came to light. We tried to track Kronos down, but the man is - was - a genius at staying hidden. The next we heard about him was from a Watcher report that we intercepted. That, of course, told us that Kronos was dead. It wasn't until some time later that our researchers told us of a possible way to bring him back."
"Bring him back... and reclaim the money." Joe shook his head. "Anybody could have found it in the interim. Kronos himself could have taken it. There was sixty years between his hiding it and his dying, and for all you know he could have spent the lot."
"I doubt it. And at any rate, Brenner believes that he can make Kronos hand it over. Brenner hates Kronos. He's not interested in making him the One; he's only saying that to get the rest of the Involution to follow him in this. He's not going to tell them the truth. Even if he could confess to having killed Hurde, he would never confess to having quite possibly lost the Involution countless millions just so that he could better his own position." Orlak sighed, rubbing his eyes in obvious fatigue. "Look, I don't expect you to leap to my assistance over the question of missing millions. I just want you to know what's really at stake here. Brenner wants to resurrect Kronos so that he can make him hand over all that money. Quite how he plans to do that I don't want to know. He intends to use the money on weaponry. Nuclear weaponry, chemical weaponry - I don't know the details. I'm his most senior aide and he wouldn't let me in on that kind of information. I don't know what he's planning to do with the stuff once he's got it, either. But can you imagine Jason Brenner with that kind of firepower? The Involution wouldn't be a secret society anymore. Limitless funds, limitless weaponry. Nobody would be safe. The return of Kronos would be the least of your worries. I'm not trying to pull the wool over your eyes anymore, or make myself out to be in this purely for humanitarian reasons. I'm sorry that I didn't let on that you were drugged, and I'm sorry that I used that to get you to follow me. But whatever my thoughts are about Brenner and his plans for Kronos, I'm Involution through and through. I'm loyal to my oath of office. I want Kronos alive, and Methos too. I want to use them, the way that they should be used; as the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That's why I'm here. I don't expect you to approve of that any more than you approve of Brenner's motives. I just want to be open with you, let you know what's what."
"Fine." MacLeod turned away. "But after all that I've hard, Mr Orlak, I'm only even more certain that Kronos can never be brought back to life. If I'm going to stop Brenner getting his hands on his own little nuclear arsenal, I'll do it by making sure that Kronos stays dead. And you're right; I don't care for your motives either. And I don't plan to let you get away with your scheme any more than I intend to let Brenner get away with his. Come on Joe. We're leaving."
"That isn't the answer, Mr MacLeod. I understand why you're doing this, but believe me this is not the way. You can't run from the Involution. There's nowhere you can go that they - that we - can't get at you. You can't hide from them. Wherever you go they'll track you down. They'll kill anyone they have to in order to get at you. They only way you can make sure that Brenner doesn't succeed is to play this my way; or to kill yourself or Methos so that Kronos can't ever be brought back. Even killing Brenner himself probably wouldn't work. There's always somebody else who's willing to carry on his work."
"He might be right Mac." Joe didn't want to meet MacLeod's gaze after such a traitorous observation. "Think about it. They found you before. Look at what they did to you. They got inside your head. You could never be sure that they wouldn't try it again. You could never trust anybody again, never relax, never be safe."
"So you want me to help him kill Kerensky, just so that we can go back to living normal lives?" MacLeod shook his head. "Don't talk that way Joe. It doesn't suit you."
"I know it doesn't. This isn't exactly my proudest moment, Mac. I like Peter Kerensky, dammit. I probably owe him my life. But you have to think about this logically. You have to balance out the different sides of the argument. Can you really run for the rest of your life? Can you really be sure of staying one step ahead of the Involution? And can you really be sure that you can keep Kronos under control? You know he's inside you, and from what I've seen he's getting stronger. If you're not careful he might just get to live again anyway; by taking over your body."
"That's got to be better than letting him have Peter Kerensky's."
"Maybe." Joe looked away, trying to think of something that would clinch the argument for him; but there was nothing, and he knew it only too well. "At least come to the hut, Mac. At least be there. There's no point in running, not anymore. Not if Brenner really does know where to find us. If the worst comes to the worst, there's always the other option."
"Killing myself? Or Methos?" MacLeod's smile was bitter. "If the worst comes to the worst, Joe, I only hope I'm strong enough to do just that."
"Then you'll come?" Orlak looked anxious. MacLeod ignored him.
"I'll come with you Joe, for now. I'll see what's going on; whether it looks like our guide here really is telling the truth. But I won't help Kronos be reborn. I don't care if I have to take my own head to stop Brenner. If that's what it takes, that's what I'll do."
"And if that's what you want, I'll do what I can to help you." Again Joe could not meet MacLeod's eyes, but this time it was for a different reason. MacLeod gripped his hand.
"Thanks Joe." The words were simple, but the sentiment behind them was not. For a second Joe returned the gesture, then their hands fell away, and they both turned to face Orlak. He still had not drawn his gun, even though he had taken no pains to hide it from them. It didn't look as though he was intending to try forcing them to do anything. Silently MacLeod thanked him for that at least.
"Lead on," he said brusquely. Orlak looked from one to the other of them, then gave a short nod and turned about. Whatever was going through his mind, MacLeod could not read it on his face. And right now, he really didn't care.
"Ow. Bloody hell." There was a sharp intake of breath, followed by a long, low groan. "I feel like I just went sixteen rounds with Wild Jack McGilligraw in Tucson City." There was another groan. "And I don't think I won."
"Wild Jack McGilligraw?" Kerensky didn't really want to know, but anything was better than staring into silence for any longer than was necessary. He heard scuffling, then Methos' voice again, much stronger than before.
"A little before your time. He did free-for-all bare-fist fighting in the Painted Lady Saloon back in Tucson. 1875 or thereabouts. We had a minor disagreement over a lady named Henrietta. He won, needless to say."
"You do surprise me."
"Not half as much as Henrietta surprised me. Turned out her real name was Gary, and he was a gold miner from 'Frisco who'd hit a hard patch." There was the sound of a faint whistle. "What I wouldn't have given to have been a fly on Wild Jack's bedroom wall that night."
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"Never better. Why?"
Kerensky sighed. Where to start? "Do you remember anything of the last few weeks?"
"Yeah... We were in Seacouver. The police were after us because they thought we killed your sister-in-law, and so we set out to find Joe." There was a rustling, then a sudden flare as Methos lit a match. "Why am I dressed like this?"
"I've been meaning to ask you that myself. I think it's an example of Bronze Age fashion. Do you really not remember?"
"I remember... I don't know. A couple of monks? A big house, with lots of books? It's all a little jumbled." Methos gave a little yelp of pain as the match flame reached his fingers, and he promptly dropped the light. It went out, plunging them once more into darkness. "I remember arguing with Joe. Fighting with MacLeod. I think I tried to kill him."
"It was the Involution. They screwed with your mind." Kerensky rubbed his eyes. It was a surprising strain on his patience, to sit here now and be polite to this man, after everything that he had done so recently. "You're probably better off not remembering. Either way, you thought you were The Destroyer or something. You took us right into Involution HQ for a chat with Brenner."
"Brenner? Who the bloody hell is--" There was a silence. "Hang on. I think I remember... There was a sneaky little guy called Vierman. Looked like a politician from the last Tory government. I remember a car crash, and... Oh hell."
"Forget it. There's nothing you can do about it now." Kerensky tried not to remember burying Stefan Ozeki in the mountains. He tried not to remember seeing the look in the eyes of the Involution man Methos had stabbed in the chest before going to meet with Brenner. "You seemed to have a good reason for being there, until your brother turned up and scrambled your brain even further. But if it's any consolation, at least he seems to have destroyed the Involution re-programming."
"Kronos?" Methos struck another match, and this time Kerensky could see a deeply haunted look in the eyes of the Immortal. "What do you mean?"
"He seemed to take over for a while. Muttered something about MacLeod. At least I think that was him talking, he didn't seem to be entirely sure either. He sounded pretty desperate; even asked me to help him. Like I'm honestly going to help him take over my body."
"Then it's true." Methos rubbed his head, forgetting all about the match that was still resting between his fingers. Fortunately it went out before it managed to do any harm. The last sight that Kerensky had of the Immortal was of him half curled into a ball, arms resting on his knees, his sunken green eyes staring soullessly into nothingness. "He is inside me. I've thought sometimes... once or twice... that I'd heard his voice. New Year's Eve was a bit peculiar. I wasn't sure." There was such a long silence that for a minute Kerensky thought Methos had fallen asleep. He had certainly looked as though he needed to. "He must know... he must be desperate. It can't be much fun, being dead."
"Well it looks like he might be getting his chance at rebirth." Bitterness filled Peter's voice now. "We're in a truck, on our way to that log cabin, and I don't hold much hope for my chances when we get there. I'd swear Kronos burned your mind out so he could make sure this would happen."
"No. No, he wouldn't do that. He must know that Brenner plans to kill me." Methos sounded very certain, which was no cause for comfort as far as Kerensky was concerned. Whether or not Methos survived this, he was still destined to die. "I would never have believed that he even had the strength to possess me like that. MacLeod, yes. I've been worried about that ever since he took Kronos' head. But me? It must have been the Involution mind games. They weakened my resistance." He lit another match, gazing steadily into the flame until Peter felt sure that he must be in danger of damaging his eyes. "I wonder how capable he is of independent thought."
"I really couldn't give a damn." Peter shifted restlessly. "We'll be there soon. We've been travelling for ages. Brenner seemed to think that MacLeod's on his way too; and when he arrives it's all up for me whether or not you manage to survive." He smiled bitterly into the darkness which had already consumed them once again. Methos seemed to have run out of matches. "I only hope Kronos is really worth all of this. I hope he really is the be all and end all of everything, the way you've been making him out to be. I know he's your brother, Methos, and I know you probably didn't plan on having it work out this way, but I wish to God that you'd never tried out that bloody ritual. Why the hell should I hand my body over to some dead guy I've never even met?"
"I'm sorry." Methos' words sounded disembodied, coming as they did from the darkness. "I really am."
"Are you? Are you really sorry that you're going to get your brother back? Or are you just sorry that you might end up dying in the process? I'm sorry Methos. You'll have to forgive me, but I'm rather losing faith in your integrity just lately. I've heard enough stories to make me believe that you're the last man on Earth I want to put any trust in. I've seen you kill men in cold blood. I've seen you laugh at other people's pain. Why should I believe you now when you say that you don't want me to die?"
"You shouldn't. I can't make you believe anything. I just want you to know that I am sorry, whether you believe it or not." Something in the sound of his voice made Kerensky think that Methos was staring at him very hard. He could almost believe that the Immortal could see him, despite the impenetrable blackness. "I don't know how to tell you how sorry I am that you saw... what you saw. But please understand that that was a different version of me."
"And how can any of us ever be sure which version of you they're dealing with? How can anyone ever be sure that that other version won't come back?"
"That's a question I live with every day of my life." This time the desolation in his voice was almost painful to hear. As if rounding off his words, there was a convulsive shudder from the confining world about them, and the truck came to an abrupt halt. "Looks like we've arrived."
"Yes, it does."
"Maybe MacLeod will come dashing to our assistance. He's pretty good at that."
"Yeah." As the back of the truck was opened up, and torchlight flooded the container, Kerensky did not even bother looking at Methos. Instead he went to the door and jumped down to the ground. A couple of guards grabbed his arms. Methos stayed where he was for a moment, staring at the mortal standing so still, so silent, in the grip of his captors; then he too stood up and went to the doors. Brenner was waiting there, grinning up at him.
"The great Methos," he said happily, with more than a touch of pride and self-glory in his voice. "I can't believe it was this easy."
"Neither can I." Slowly Methos climbed down, avoiding the guards who stepped up to take hold of him. He wanted to think of escape; to come up with one of the schemes for self-preservation which had become so much a part of his life in the last few hundred years. He couldn't think of anything at all. He could hardly even see straight. The whole of his head burned and whirled, filled with memories he wasn't certain of, and half-hallucinations that he thought might be real. He wondered if it was some echo of Kronos, excited at the possibility of life. Maybe it was just a reaction to the last however many weeks that he had spent lost in the darker places of his own mind. "Is MacLeod here?"
"He will be." Brenner sounded very confident, which sunk the old Immortal's spirits further. "My people have been tracking him since he left my care the first time. He did me a favour there; helped me to uncover a dangerous split in my forces. Traitors must be removed, if the Involution is to become truly powerful." He smiled the smile of the blissfully content. "I didn't even need to bother trying to recapture him. He's coming to the very place I was planning to bring him to anyway. Self-sacrifice is like a disease to you people, isn't it. MacLeod could have escaped. There was always a chance he could have got away. And instead he chose to come here, and walk straight into my grasp."
"I shouldn't think it's as simple as that." Methos turned away from Brenner, looking instead to the hut that was their destination. As a place to die in, it was woefully unimpressive. Somehow he couldn't help thinking that his death - the death of the oldest man alive - should have a little more ceremony about it. People with flags perhaps, and a solemn master of ceremonies to preside over it all. Ranks of mourners would have been nice, except that there really was nobody left to mourn him. He couldn't even imagine Joe Dawson being all that upset; and Dawson himself would soon be dead anyway.
"MacLeod, Dawson and one pitiful traitor. What threat can they pose to me?" Brenner shook his head, before powering his chair over the rough ground leading to the hut. He looked horribly pale and wizened in the light of the headlamps and the torches. Clearly he hadn't been in the outside world for a long time, and as he guided his chair, he used his free hand to pull his silver blanket closer around his thin shoulders. His chin tucked its way into his chest. He looked like the last man on Earth that a Horseman should be afraid of, and yet the hairs on the back of Methos' neck tingled with unease. He didn't resist when a pair of guards caught hold of him, and even though they twisted his arms painfully behind his back, he made no move to escape. They pushed him towards the hut. He stole a quick glance at the surrounding area before he was flung through the door. There was nothing familiar about it. He had hoped that there would be; something that he could point to and say 'I remember that.' Something that would unlock the memories of the first time he had been here, when he and Kronos had unwittingly put this whole thing into motion. He might just as well have never been in these mountains before. A light flurry of snow blew into his eyes, for a moment transforming the whole scene, but still it rang no bells. It could have been the moon for all he knew or cared.
"Welcome back." Brenner spun his chair to face the old Immortal. Methos did not bother looking at him, and instead allowed his guards to push him further into the room. Somebody hit him hard, and the ground came up to meet him. A few seconds later Kerensky landed heavily nearby.
"Still think Kronos is coming to save you?" the mortal asked, his voice a bitter whisper. Methos looked away.
"I'm hoping that MacLeod will," he said softly. Kerensky made a disparaging noise.
"Sure. MacLeod's coming, because he's as bad as you. He can't see that he'd be better off just running. So he's going to come here and walk himself straight into a waiting sword. I shouldn't have come either. I'm as bad as you are."
"What do you mean?" Startled, Methos turned to look at him. Kerensky shook his head, clearly exasperated - but whether that was with himself or with Methos it was impossible to tell.
"I mean I should have gone back to America. Faced the music with the police there - or even just gone home to the UK. I should have forgotten about the whole lot of you, but I had to try and play the hero; try and save the very guy who's destroyed my entire life. I had to come after you, to see if I could help. And look where it got me. I get a trip round the mountains courtesy of Apocalypse Tours, followed by this. It's one of those lessons you never get a chance to learn from."
"You came after me?" Methos lowered his eyes. He had never thought about that possibility before. He had never even considered why Kerensky had turned up; had just taken advantage of his presence. He shook his head. "For what it's worth, thanks."
"Don't mention it." Kerensky was looking even more afraid now, although he was doing an admirable job of disguising it. "Methos--"
"I hope it works out okay for you. I hope you manage to make it through this alive, and I hope you and your brother make out okay when he gets back."
"He might not come back. We're dealing with legends here; it might all turn out to be nothing but make-believe. Kronos may just stay dead."
"No he won't. He can't do." Kerensky's eyes travelled nervously to the armed men standing nearby. He couldn't help wondering what it would feel like to die. He couldn't help wondering how much pain he would feel; whether he would actually be aware of dying, or if it was something that would just happen. "Promise me something, Methos?"
"What?" A couple of the armed men were walking towards them now. Methos didn't want to think about why.
"If you make it out of here - if you do survive and I don't - bring Kronos back. I'll be damned if I'm going to die for nothing. I know Kronos isn't exactly the boy next door, but I can see how much he means to you. I wouldn't trust the pair of you as far as I could throw you, but - but homicidal tendencies aside, you're a good guy Methos. Somewhere inside you there's a really good guy who's trying not to let himself get seen. That's why I know that MacLeod is going to come here to try and save you."
"Thanks." The guards were there now, reaching out for Kerensky, dragging him into the middle of the room. He didn't resist, but he didn't look especially heroic. Few things looked that way to Methos these days. Brenner manoeuvred his chair up to the young mortal, staring up into the ice-blue eyes that Methos knew so well. He couldn't see the expression in those eyes anymore, but he knew exactly what it would be. He knew it not because he knew them as the eyes of Kronos, but because he had come to know them so well as the eyes of Peter Kerensky.
"Any last words?" Brenner asked. There was levity in his voice, as though this were all just some great joke. Kerensky stared back at him, unable to disguise either his contempt or his fear.
"I hope Kronos cuts your head off."
Brenner gave a cold laugh. "By the time I'm through with Kronos he'll be trying to cut his own head off." He gave a low, repulsive laugh, then moved his chair back. "Shoot clean. I don't want it to be too hard for Kronos to recover once he's in there." He glanced towards the guards by the door. "Any report yet on MacLeod and Orlak?"
"Nothing sir." One of the guards was holding what looked like a satellite tracking device. Methos wondered how far away MacLeod still was. He had been so sure that this would work out, just the way it always did. A heroic entrance by the Highlander, a quick fight; and then escape and happy endings all round. He didn't want to look at Kerensky, but he didn't seem able to look away. The Englishman flashed him a small, nervous smile. Methos thought of the many deaths he had witnessed, remembering some of the foolish words of comfort he had offered to some of his mortal compatriots in the past. It'll be quick. You won't feel a thing. It's easy. Just let yourself go. Truth was, in all that he had seen and done, this was the one thing that he still knew nothing about. It was the one thing in all the world that still had the power to truly terrify him; and nothing that he could think of was going to change that. Nothing was going to make this any easier for Peter Kerensky. His eyes strayed towards the door. Where the hell was MacLeod? Maybe he could act alone; throw himself in front of the bullets? But that would only buy Kerensky another second or two. He saw the mortal's feet shifting nervously, heard one of the guards by the door call out that MacLeod was coming. His eyes flickered to the door, listening for the sound of the Highlander's voice. He tensed his muscles, ready for action, heard Brenner's shout to get ready to fire. Seconds turned into minutes. A pair of guards grabbed his arms, wrestling him back to the floor. He felt a sword blade rest itself across his neck. He heard footsteps. Brenner's shout to take aim. The guard at the door shouting that MacLeod was almost there. He heard his own heartbeat, ragged and insistent. One of the lamps nearby went out, and shadows rushed past him. He shouted something himself, although he wasn't sure what it was. Brenner's own shout answered him, and a volley of gunshots rang out. The door splintered, as though under the assault of many bullets. There was a loud, heavy crash; the sound of many voices. The hands on his arms fell away.
"Kerensky!" He recognised his own voice shouting, but in the sudden noise, the sudden confusion, he couldn't be sure of the answer. He tried to run towards the place where he had last seen his friend, but gunfire ate up the wooden floor around him. Splinters blew high, and he felt them eat into his leg. He stumbled. Someone nearby cursed, and one of the lamps exploded. Fire leapt forth from the broken glass, making short work of the room's single, hand-woven rug. Somebody stamped ineffectually at it, then collapsed into its flaming embrace as a line of lead burst across his chest. Methos made a dash for the door. There was only moonlight out there, and that was muted by the lightly falling snow, but it made better tactical light than the flicker and glow of angry flames. Smoke caught in his throat, and he tripped over a body. It groaned in Peter Kerensky's voice.
"Peter?" He dropped to his knees, ignoring the pain of his still healing shrapnel wounds. Through a haze of smoke he saw pale eyes blinking up at him. Kerensky was trying to speak, but in the chaos Methos couldn't hear a word. He leant closer, trying to listen.
"Gotta get out of here..." The words were indistinct, but Methos recognised them. He tried to get hold of Kerensky, to drag him clear of the hut, but the dead weight of one of the Involution lay across the mortal's legs. Methos could not pull him clear. He tried to tug the body away, but even as he moved into a better position, he felt cold metal touch his throat. Brenner's repellent laugh echoed in his ears.
"Trying to leave us Methos?" He sounded angry, as though it were unthinkable that anyone should try to foil his plans. Methos tried to turn his head to see the other man, but the sword blade pressed deeper. A thin trickle of warm blood ran down the hollow of his neck. "What do you suppose would happen, if I were to take your head right now? Would MacLeod collapse under the weight of the Quickening? I would have you both..."
"You don't want to do that, Brenner." The words had to fight to be heard through his fiercely clenched teeth. "My Quickening would tear this whole place apart, and anybody who's in it."
"Lies." He could feel the mortal's breath on the back of his head, and his own body cried out with the desire to get away from it. It made his skin crawl and his heart pound. Nearby someone died noisily, and Methos jumped. The sword pressed harder against him, and he felt his skin give. More blood escaped, and his shirt clung to his chest with its wetness.
"Try it and see." His breathing hurt, and it brought the salty, metallic taste of blood into his mouth. A grim smile forced its way onto his face. Brenner thought Kerensky was dead, clearly. If he killed Methos now, and if MacLeod was also killed, it would all be over. Kronos could not fully take possession of a living body. The host's own mind would still be on hand to stop him. Or at least, that was the theory. "Go on." His heart was raging wildly, slamming against his ribs. Part of his mind was screaming to be set free, desperate that it shouldn't end like this, here and now; but another part was all too willing to make this final sacrifice. He didn't want Kronos here, alone and in the hands of this madman. If his death was what was needed to save his brother, then that was a risk he was prepared to take. Visions of Kronos floated into his mind. Fear made them indistinct, but his vision was wavering even without his emotions also taking their toll. Loss of blood was beginning to get to him. He could feel a steady flow now, could feel the floor slick beneath his knees. He wondered how much longer he had, and he tried to pretend that he didn't care.
"Methos!" Through the haze, he heard a voice that he recognised. Duncan MacLeod, a vision from some surrealist version of hell, was emerging from the fire and the smoke. His image wavered in the heat haze, and his hair seemed to smoulder in the growing flames. Methos could barely hear the shouts for his attention. His head was spinning, and he was beginning to slump back against Brenner's chair. He needed his enemy's presence now, just so that he could stay upright. One knee skidded in a wetness that he knew had to be blood. Beside him he felt Kerensky stir, and prayed that he would stay silent. One movement, that was all that it would take; he could behead himself against Brenner's sword. His Quickening, as Brenner had so recently pointed out, would floor MacLeod. Somebody here would take his head, and then it would all be over. No more MacLeod, no more Methos, and no more opportunities to resurrect the Leader of the Horsemen. They could all be dead together.
"Methos!" Suddenly MacLeod was before him, staring down at him, eyes wide. He was holding his sword, nothing more; no guns to shoot down Brenner, no impressive weaponry with which to win the day. He seemed to take in the situation at a glance, and his dark, intense eyes sought those of Methos. Brenner gave a gurgling laugh.
"MacLeod. Nice of you to join us. And at just the right moment too." He gave a tug on the back of Methos' shirt, forcing his head up, holding it there. "I was just about to send your friend here to join his forefathers."
"Go ahead." Methos could barely get the words out. His throat no longer appeared to be in its proper place, and he almost choked on his own blood. If it was possible, the sword pressed even harder against his skin.
"Don't rush me, Immortal." Brenner's words were filled with a grotesque sense of victory. He sniggered softly, pulling Methos closer to him. Methos forced himself to hold his head up, even though all it seemed to want to do was to fall off. Painstakingly, using every ounce of strength and concentration that he had left, he made his eyes focus on MacLeod. He saw the expression on his friend's face, and he hardened his own. MacLeod saw it all. In one, simple second of silence, he could see the old Immortal's intentions, and he seemed to understand. Methos thought he saw a flash of sorrow, maybe even a burst of regret. He wanted to smile, but the strength was no longer there. With all the power that he possessed, he dragged himself forward, and threw all of his weight against the sword. He saw nothing more.
"No!" Lying on the ground, seeing everything and understanding almost nothing, Kerensky saw this final act of sacrifice, and recognised it for what it was. His whole body burned with the pain of bullet wounds, but with a superhuman effort he forced himself into action, even as Methos was doing the same thing. He slammed into the Immortal, throwing Methos aside, sending him crashing into the ground with a stunning force. Brenner's sword bounced away across the floorboards, and in the same instant MacLeod's own weapon left his hand. It flew through the air on a straight and steady course, and stuck quivering in the chest of the shrunken leader. Brenner let out a shriek of mortal pain, and his pale hands scrabbled desperately at the sword blade. It pinned him to his chair, holding him back, but still he clawed at it. Incoherent sounds of rage and disbelief burst forth from his throat. He was still muttering as his hands ceased their motion, and his head began to tip forward. Finally, eventually, he was still. MacLeod ignored him, and dropped to his knees beside Kerensky.
"You okay?" he asked. Peter laughed, although he wasn't sure why, or where he had found the energy from.
"Of course I'm not bloody okay. I think I'm missing at least three internal organs."
"Just hold steady." The Highlander rose to his feet again, staring about at the carnage around him. Half of the Involution members present seemed to be dead. In the madness following his violent entrance to the cabin, most of them seemed to have shot each other. A few men, loyal it seemed to Orlak, were gathering by the door. Orlak was acknowledging their presence with the sort of calm assurance which suggested to MacLeod that he had landed himself in the middle of an orchestrated coup. These people seemed to have been expecting the attack. Somehow that didn't surprise him. He was beginning to get used to the idea of being just some pawn in an Involution game. A few men were fighting the fire, which was beginning to die down now, into a half-hearted, rapidly paling sputter. Smoke rose in plumes from the ground, and nearby Methos was beginning to stir. His arms moved weakly, and his throat was far from healed, but he looked nearly alive.
"Hey, MacLeod." Ignoring Kerensky, Orlak crouched beside the fallen Horseman. "Is he going to be alright?"
"He's immortal, remember?" MacLeod gave his compatriot a rather cursory once-over. "He'll be fine. But he's not the man you want anymore."
"What do you mean?" Suddenly, for all his earlier camaraderie and gentle coaxing, Orlak looked dark. MacLeod found it a pleasure to smile at him in snide triumph.
"He's come back. He's not under the control of your re-programming anymore. I don't know what happened, but I can't say as I'm sorry." He folded his arms. "Or are you planning to hypnotise him again? Something tells me it won't be quite so easy this time around."
"Won't it?" Orlak kicked at the fallen Immortal with one, heavily booted foot. Somewhere in the depths of confused semi-consciousness, Methos moaned. "I can do what I like, MacLeod. I can control who I like, make anybody do anything. With Brenner out of the way I can control all the resources of the Involution. Methos will do exactly what I tell him, and so will Kronos. No one will deny me the right to lead the Involution when I have those two standing by my side.
"I think you're forgetting something." It was Kerensky who spoke, lying on the floor, staring up at the others from a face gone deathly pale. His eyes glimmered in the half-light. "Kronos isn't here yet. I am." He smiled, and his hand, caked in blood that might have been his, or Methos', or that of half a dozen others spread about the floor, closed around an object that lay beside him. He raised it slowly, and the last, flickering light of the flames played about on its dark metal body. It was a gun, and it was pointed straight at Orlak.
"Drop it," the Involution rebel told him, his voice dripping with disdain. Kerensky smiled.
"Tell me why," he said softly, and his eyes flashed with a spark that was reminiscent of Kronos. "Tell me what I've got to lose? You're going to kill me anyway." For just a moment, Orlak looked uncertain.
"Just drop it," he said, taking a step forward. Around him the two or three men who seemed to be on his side also closed in. Kerensky's eyes moved calmly to look at each of them. He seemed to be counting them slowly, as though calculating his chances of success. MacLeod considered making a move to back him up, but right now the ball was entirely in Peter's court. The mortal was still smiling.
"Get out of here," he said, the words making him wince as each movement strained his much-abused body. "Just go. Forget about us, and about Kronos and Methos and all the rest of this. We just want to go home."
"It's too late for that." Orlak took another step forward. So did MacLeod, although he still wasn't sure what, if anything, he could do. Kerensky shook his head.
"I don't want to hurt you."
"You don't understand." Slowly the confusion in the Englishman's eyes faded, and in its place was a sudden burst of hard, bright light. "You see, I keep asking myself why I'm worth so much to all of you people. But it isn't because of who I am, or what I am, or what I know. It's about who I look like. Who I sound like. And so I've got to ask myself a question now. It's not about what Peter Kerensky wants to do anymore. It's not about what Peter Kerensky is. Not anymore. It comes down to one thing. What would Kronos do?" His smile changed suddenly, becoming as hard and as brittle as ice. "And Kronos doesn't want to come with you. He doesn't want to be your lap dog, or whatever else it is you've got planned for him. And he doesn't want you to get your hands on Methos either." The smile vanished. "Time to make your peace." The gun fired.
With a piercing scream, Orlak collapsed, falling backwards into the arms of one of his fellows. Kerensky turned straight away, firing again, once, twice, three times. Another Involution man collapsed, another stumbled. A third fired. Peter's body twitched unnaturally, and the gun fell from his hand. MacLeod caught it even before it hit the ground, and with his teeth clenched tightly and his eyes wanting to close, he shot down the last few men. Even as the last bullet fired he was dropping the gun. It echoed hollowly on the floor, and at last he really did let his eyes fall shut. He could hear his own ragged breathing, and he could still hear the gunshots echoing wildly. He felt sick.
"MacLeod?" It was Kerensky, and he turned his thoughts to the mortal. Pale blue eyes blinked rapidly up at him. He had to lean close to hear the words. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologise. It was the only way." He believed it too, although he didn't want to. What other choice had there been?
"M-Methos? And Joe?"
"Methos is here. He's okay. Joe's outside. I didn't want him involved in all of this." A mortal's place was out of the line of fire. MacLeod wished that he could have been as careful with Kerensky's life.
"I'm... glad." There was a silence. "MacLeod?"
"Am I going to die?" Briefly MacLeod closed his eyes. He wanted to turn away. He felt a hand on his wrist, and looked down. Methos was staring up at him. He looked like death warmed up, or maybe not even that good. Blood still ran from his throat, although not nearly so readily as before. Gently MacLeod helped him closer to the weakened mortal. Kerensky was trying to follow their movements with his eyes, but he no longer seemed entirely able to do so. "MacLeod?"
"It's alright." Methos sought out his hand, pressing it tightly. Kerensky turned his head to look at him, and managed a faint smile.
"Hey Methos. Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine. It looks like we've made it."
"Yeah." A frown crossed the familiar face. "The Involution?"
"Have been discouraged. I don't think we're going to be hearing from them again." Not for a while, at least. "Just take it easy now, okay?"
"Is--" A cough racked the mortal's body, and Methos felt a deep, sharp pain inside his own body. "Is there any point? I'm not making it back to Seacouver, am I."
"It doesn't look like it, no." He had seen enough of the dead and the dying in his life to know the answer to that one. He didn't need his ancient and well-used medical training to tell him that Kerensky had seen his last sunset. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Be Methos." A ragged smile. "It's not your fault."
"Yes it is. This - all of this - it only happened because of some stupid game I played with Kronos half a lifetime ago. More than half a lifetime. If we hadn't--"
"It's not your fault that you love your brother, Methos. Never feel sorry for that. I know--" There was another cough, and this time it brought blood to Kerensky's lips. "I know that, if my brother was still alive, I'd have done all of this and more to keep him that way. I know that, if I found a way, I'd do it all a hundred times over just to bring him back." He smiled and turned his head away, staring up at the ceiling. A bitter laugh sent a trickle of blood running down his chin. "There was so much I wanted to ask you Methos. You - you're all I ever wanted to know about. All those years studying history. All those questions I always wanted the answers to. And now there isn't enough time." He closed his eyes for a second, then snapped them open again. "Five thousand years... You could have told me so much."
"There's nothing I can tell you. I've lived five thousand years and I haven't learnt a bloody thing." He tightened his hold on the mortal's hand, but Kerensky no longer had the strength to return the grip.
"No words of wisdom? No final thoughts to send me on my way?" Wry humour had replaced the weakness. He almost seemed to be getting stronger now. "No great philosophy? How about the meaning of life?"
"I haven't even begun to work that one out."
"No?" Kerensky actually seemed surprised. "I think I have. I think you know it too, and it's why you've got to do what we talked about earlier." His eyes drifted shut again, and this time they didn't open. "The meaning of life is life. No mystery. No philosophies. Promise me, Methos. Promise me you'll do it."
Methos lowered his head and closed his own eyes, and smiled a miserable smile. The pulse in the hand he still held had ceased to beat. He took a deep, shuddering breath and managed a jerking sort of nod.
"I promise," he whispered softly, and let the tears fall.
"Promise what?" Duncan asked him. Methos didn't meet his gaze.
"Trust me MacLeod," he said, and with a sudden effort he lifted his head and stared into the Highlander's eyes. "You have to trust me."
"For my sins, old man, I've always trusted you. I think I always will."
Methos nodded. The movement still hurt his neck. "Good." He flashed his friend a breathless, humourless smile and reached for the sword that still lay where Brenner had dropped it. It felt disproportionately heavy in his hands. "Then maybe you won't hate me so much later." This time his smile was nervous. "If there is a later."
"What do you mean?" Duncan reached out for him, trying to steady him. It was obvious that the older Immortal was still desperately weak. Methos pulled away from him, eyes wild, an insane figure in smudged war paint and tattered and blood soaked clothes.
"Close your eyes Duncan."
"I said close your eyes." Shakily he raised the sword above his head. MacLeod looked too stunned to try moving out of the way. His dark eyes widened.
"I'm sorry." Shutting his own eyes as tightly as they would go, the oldest Immortal drove the sword deep into the Highlander's throat.
Duncan MacLeod stirred painfully, then rolled over onto his back. He blinked up at the ceiling, surprised to be able to see the dark sky through holes with charred edges. There was still snow in the air. Stars winked at him through drifting clouds. He raised his hand to his neck. It felt tender, but there was no hole there. The blood seemed to have dried. He let out an eloquent groan and rolled over, looking about. Methos was slumped nearby, lying face down in a pool of congealed blood. His hands gripped one of Kerensky's. Duncan pulled him away, looking the dead mortal over. He was still mortal, and he was still very dead.
"Oh Methos." He shook his head, then heaved his associate into a sitting position, using a piece torn from the shirt of the nearest dead body to wipe the blood and most of the war paint from the old Immortal's face. Methos' eyelids fluttered, then snapped suddenly open. His breath quivered in his lungs.
"MacLeod--" The word brought a violent coughing fit, and he rubbed at his neck in evident pain. MacLeod didn't feel a whole lot of sympathy. Quite evidently the Immortal had cut his own throat after doing the same to his friend, and it had barely healed from its first wounding. "Kerensky--"
"Do you really need to ask?" The Highlander turned him so that he could see the still form. "Nothing. I'm sorry Methos. I really am."
"No you're not." Pulling away, Methos made his way to his feet. He wavered unsteadily, but MacLeod did not move to help him. "The last thing you want is to have Kronos back."
"But it's what you wanted, and for some insane reason it's what Peter wanted too." MacLeod shrugged. "I'm sorry it didn't work out, but you always knew there was a chance it wouldn't."
"Yeah. I guess." He frowned, his eyes apparently fixed to the blood-soaked corpse. "I guess I was hoping..." He shook his head. "What a waste. All of this for nothing."
"Not quite nothing. We got rid of Brenner, and I think we've given the Involution rather a lot to think about. They're going to have to do quite a bit of reorganising. And I plan on telling the authorities right where to find their headquarters."
"Oh yeah? And what are you going to say they're guilty of? Forget it MacLeod. Let's just go home." Pain flashed across his face. "If we can get back in the country."
"It's Peter that the police are really after. We can always come up with a cover story." MacLeod crouched beside the fallen figure, staring down at the closed eyes. This man, with his unchosen appearance, had haunted his dreams and helped twist his mind; and yet the Highlander knew that he would miss him. For all the difficulties that it caused him, seeing that face, and that smile, and hearing that voice, he was sorry that it was gone now for good. He had come to like the smile, and he had come to enjoy the sound of the voice. He had even come to like those ice-blue eyes with their air of gentle mockery. "Right now he's the perfect scapegoat."
"Fine." Methos did not bother trying to hide the bitterness in his tone. "Then let's just get the hell out of here. We'll pick up Joe and--" He frowned. "Where is Joe?"
"Down the mountain, complaining like crazy. I wouldn't let him come here." MacLeod smiled. "He may never speak to me again, but at least he's safe. I couldn't risk him as well."
"Good." Methos smiled, and the expression looked genuine. "I, er... I guess we'd better get going then."
"Are you really okay?" MacLeod reached out for his arm as the other Immortal seemed about to stagger. Methos shot him a fierce glare.
"Of course I'm alright." His eyes told a different story, but MacLeod did not argue again. "I may need Brenner's wheelchair to make it down the mountain, but I'll be fine." His eyes drifted back to Kerensky. "I'll be fine."
"Good." MacLeod retrieved his sword and gave the blade a cursory wipe. "Then let's get clear before somebody comes along. Your sword's outside. We can't leave anything like that lying around for the authorities to get their hands on."
"No. Of course not." As MacLeod made for the door, Methos' eyes drifted to the sword Brenner had used, and which he had then used himself to attack MacLeod. He bent to pick it up. It still weighed heavily on his hands, and he stared into its dull, stained blade. He was horrified by the pale, drawn face that stared back at him. The face in the reflection smiled grimly. He, of course, would recover. Bouncing back was what he did best. Gently he laid the sword down beside Kerensky's body, and let the dead hand rest against the hilt. It was the last, the only gesture that he could make.
"Come on old man." MacLeod hadn't noticed his actions, and was busy clearing a dead body from the entrance to the hut. Methos joined him.
"Is it a long walk?" he asked. MacLeod shrugged.
"I really don't know."
"Fine." Forcing another smile onto his face, Methos took a few steps down the mountainside, staring out into the thick, black night. Snow swirled into his eyes, blinding him further. He didn't care. Right now he wasn't much interesting in seeing. It struck him that he was going to get very cold very quickly, but he didn't care much about that either. He didn't even notice when MacLeod handed him his sword.
"Maybe we should stay in the hut until morning," the Highlander suggested. Methos, oblivious, walked on.
"Come on MacLeod," he said softly, and the snow-touched wind nearly blew the words away. "I just want to go home." MacLeod did not argue. There seemed little point.
Alone in the cabin, the dead body of Peter Kerensky lay undisturbed as the night moved on. Snow had covered his face in a fine coating, frozen and colourless, lifeless and still. There was silence in the room; the silence of death. Empty silence. Nothing had changed since Methos' departure, save maybe for the depth of the snow. That at least would keep the flies away.
With the changing of the hours and the lightening of the skies the snow came to halt, petering out entirely as dawn broke forth through the wintry clouds. A single shaft of light shone through the broken roof, sending a beam of pale brilliance across Kerensky's frozen features. It rested for a second on those dead, still eyes, closed to the world forever.
And they snapped open.