VISIONS OF THE END
It was dark and cold. A wind blew harshly over the plains and froze the single figure, lying staked out on the ground. He shivered involuntarily, unable to prevent his limbs from shaking with the chill. He knew that his body would begin to shut down soon; that before long there would be nothing but emptiness and silence; until he revived, to live through it all over again. He could die two or three times before dawn, if it got any colder than it was already; and then there would be the unbearable heat to contend with, and the feeling that he was being slowly cooked. Another day of trying to yell at the carrion eaters to keep them away; of struggling fiercely against the unbreakable bonds, just to prove that he was still alive. Just to prove that he was there; that he was still lying there, with blood still pumping through his veins, even though the others were all dead. He had heard them die one by one, sinking into despair and lethargy, and then finally into extinction. He had heard some of them cry, and some of them shout and scream. Others he hadn't heard at all. All of them lay alongside of him, arranged in a circle of mathematical precision; twenty-five dead mortals and one Immortal; one western face amongst his gang of Indian soldiers. Odd how they had abandoned their codes and their pride, when they had finally realised how useless it all was. He would have smiled at the thought, if he had still had the strength. He would have laughed at the uselessness of all the prides and passions of mortality as each of his comrades had died; except that he had actually found himself caring for them. He had actually wanted them to live. Strange how the first people in a long time that he had wanted to help, had been the first people in years he had had no power to save.
Had he been possessed of a mind more healthy, and less affected by the cold and the exhaustion, he might have thought over the events which had put him into this position. He might have considered the long trek that he had undertaken, walking through India and far into the Chinese provinces, leading the band of men sworn to serve him. He might have thought about the gifts they had carried, intending to build trade links that would have brought riches to the Chinese merchants and to the Indian prince whose colours he wore. He had been doubtful of the plan from the start; other points aside, the idea of being made a diplomat had amazed him. He was supposed to be a warrior, although he had done his best to keep his more violent tendencies in check. He hadn't beheaded the arrogant under-merchant who had tried telling him to leave his sword at the entrance to his master's home. He hadn't disembowelled the self-righteous daughter of the merchant he had first been introduced to; even though she had acted as if he were unworthy to stand on the same floor as her. He hadn't even garrotted her younger brother, an obnoxious twelve year old know-all, even though they had been alone together in a room for nearly an hour, with numerous garrotte-like objects hanging close to hand. He had been rather proud of himself; not that it had got him very far. Less than a day later he and his entire band were in prison, all thanks to some ancient proverb warning of dreadful events which were soon to unfold, and of untold miseries which would swamp the nation. Since he and his people had been the only strangers, public opinion in the town had demanded that they be executed, as the only likely instigators of such disaster. And all when he had been trying to be nice.
As the night grew darker and the cold intensified into an icy bleakness which swamped all, burning his very mind, the Immortal sank into emptiness and sleep. There was something beyond his sleep; something colder and more complete; but it meant nothing to his mind or his body, and he thought nothing of it. So far gone was he in this stupor that he did not hear the sound of horses, and the regular rumble of wheels. He did not hear the sound of footsteps, and the whisper of voices above him, or even feel the touch of warm fingers at his neck, checking to be sure that he was still alive. He dreamt, vaguely, of a knife cutting the ropes around his wrists and ankles, but he remembered nothing of the strong arms lifting him, and putting him down in the soft, warm embrace of a wagon. He felt nothing at all until he awoke; and as he opened his eyes and let consciousness return, he felt something else, besides this new comfort of his surroundings. He felt the buzz in his heart and soul that told him another Immortal was near. He sat up and turned around, reaching out with his hand for the sword that was not where it should be. He heard a laugh.
"Don't you ever trust anybody?"
He turned, his eyes bright and alert, his hand still poised over his empty belt. His eyes met with those of his companion - the only other person present, and clearly the source of the buzz of warning. He smiled.
"Hello brother." The other Immortal laughed at him, and threw him a wineskin which had been hanging beside his head.
"Here, you can drink my health," he said with feeling, "given what I just dragged you out of."
"Who else's health would I drink?" Laughing he tipped the container up, drinking long and deep of the refreshing liquid. When he had had his fill he threw the skin back. "There. And now you can drink to me."
"And why the bloody hell would I do that?" The other Immortal was staring back at him with amusement in his eyes. "I just found you as good as dead, tied up waiting for your bones to be stripped clean, and you think you deserve to be drunk to?" He laughed, and threw himself down beside his fellow swordsman. "It's good to see you again Kronos. I've missed you, you know, for all your big-headed arrogance. And stubbornness." He grinned. "And your plain bloody stupidity."
"Thanks." Kronos massaged his wrists, glad to see that the marks from the ropes had already faded almost completely from existence. "Well for all your irritating habits and stuck up attitude, brother, I've missed you too." He reached out to snatch the wineskin back. "It's good to see you again Methos."
"Huh. Well whatever it is, I don't want to get involved. I'm not going to help you, and I do not want to know anything about it." Even as he was saying the words he could feel himself giving in. One look at those bright eyes with their promise of brotherhood; one grin on that scarred and oddly loveable face, and he was willing to do just about anything. It was almost akin to a disease; a failing that he just couldn't shake. "I mean it Kronos; I'm not helping you this time." But all the while his mind was making decisions for him, and his warrior's heart was beginning to beat afresh. Kronos was already beginning to talk; telling him the tale of how he had come to need rescuing; and for all his assertions that he did not want to know, Methos found himself listening. He felt the adrenalin within him start to rise. Huh, his subconscious breathed in semi-genuine regret. Some things never change…
They slept for some time, inspired by the wine and too much conversation, waking only when the wagon jerked to a sudden halt. Methos groaned, unwilling to open his weary eyes, and eventually sat up. He could hear the sound of voices, and he frowned, surprised. There was no way that they could have reached the city yet. They had not been travelling for nearly long enough, and the sun had not yet completely risen.
"Why don't you go and find out what the fuss is about?" Kronos asked, seeing the questions written on his brother's face. Methos shook his head.
"No. It's okay, they'll sort it out."
"You're worried about something, so you're leaving it to mortals to sort out? Are you mad?" Kronos made a move to pull back the cloth sealing them inside the wagon, but stopped at Methos' touch on his arm. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He received a somewhat lopsided grin in place of a proper answer, and his frown deepened.
"Ssh. Not when they might be listening." Methos peered out of the wagon through a small tear in its cloth cover. "I'm not Methos here."
"Surprise surprise." Kronos rolled his eyes in the exasperation of long experience. "Just when was the last time you gave somebody your real name? This is becoming a disease, brother."
"Indulge me." Methos shrugged, looking typically innocent and harmless. "Just call me Leon, okay? I kind of let slip that I was Leon Walstein."
"Is that name supposed to mean something to me?" There was no sign of recognition in Kronos' eyes, and Methos sighed. He should have realised that the circles in which he was used to moving were not exactly the same as those of his brother. Kronos was more likely to recognise a famous warrior or scientist than a merchant.
"Leon Walstein is… well was… a rich bloke who lived near the coast. He was one of the few non-Chinese people allowed free movement in these parts, and he was reported to have amassed a fortune amounting to countless thousands of pounds in gold. He was European I think, although most people in these parts aren't even aware that there is such a place."
"What do mean, he was a rich bloke?" Kronos was frowning at him. "You mean he's dead, but these people still believe you're him?"
"Yeah, well…" Methos began to look decidedly hedgy. "They don't know that he's dead, obviously. I was in the area, and we were talking - about his money as it happens."
"You surprise me."
"Really." Methos shrugged. "Anyway, he dropped dead; heart attack or something, I don't know. He didn't have a family or anything, so I decided that his fortune should go to a good cause." He sighed. "But it was hidden a little better than I'd thought, and somebody came to the door when I was still looking for it. They, er… well they took a slightly dim view of my presence, and demanded to know what I was doing there."
"And you told them that you were Walstein."
"I didn't have a whole lot of choice. It was either that or get strung up from the nearest tree branch." There was true earnestness in the old Immortal's eyes. "You see, fortunately Walstein didn't mix with his neighbours very much; not that he had any. The closest house was three day's ride away, and the only people in the whole country who really know what the guy looks like are in Shanxi Province."
"I see." It was all becoming clear to the younger Immortal, and a knowing smile broke loose, dancing its way across his face. "So that's where they're taking you. They want to find somebody who can say for sure whether or not you're Leon Walstein."
"That's about the size of it." Methos flashed him a sheepish grin. "We'll be arriving in the main city any time soon; and after that it's anybody's guess what's going to happen."
"What's going to happen is that they'll find out you're not their man, and they'll hang you from the nearest tree branch." Kronos could not help smirking. "That's why you didn't get out of the wagon, isn't it. 'Cause if you do, they'll probably lop your stupid head off."
"Maybe." A haughty look flashed in the older man's eyes. "Anyway, you can hardly talk. Where were you when we found you? You weren't exactly king of the castle yourself, brother."
"A minor setback. I explained that." Kronos shook his head, still trying not to laugh. "I guess I'd better help you to sort out your problems, before you can help me with mine."
"I told you I didn't want to know about your problems. If you want to go after the people who tied you out there, just so that you can torture them unspeakably, you are on your own, brother. I don't like to get my hands dirty."
"That's not what you used to say." Grinning, Kronos held up his hands. "Okay, relax. I'm not going to demand that you help me. But I want to help you. You're my brother, and I can't leave you in a situation like this, now, can I. How many of them are there?"
"Seven." Methos was beginning to look hedgy again. "Look, Kronos, I appreciate the offer, but--"
"But nothing. Seven we can handle. Like that time in Constantinople, when the Russian Imperial Guard got a bit heavy-handed over the incident with the princess and that bear. I'll take a look out--"
"You will now disembark!" The voice sounded like the crack of a whip, or the explosion from a loud voiced blunderbuss. Kronos almost jumped at the sound, looking questioningly towards Methos.
"Brother…?" he asked, the danger clear in his tone. Methos smiled, looking both awkward and apologetic in one.
"Er, yeah…" He pushed aside the cloth covering the back of the wagon, revealing a row of armed men standing before them. It was clear from their stance, and the way in which they held their weapons, that their enmity was directed at Kronos as much as it was at Methos. He looked from them back to Methos, his frown growing.
"Brother…?" he repeated, this time with considerably more force. Methos shrugged.
"I guess I forgot to mention this bit, huh."
They climbed slowly from the wagon, stretching their muscles, cramped from the close quarters of the vehicle. Methos smiled broadly at the seven men, nodding a greeting to them.
"We've lost a wheel." One of the men nodded to a second wagon nearby. Sure enough, its rear left wheel was badly cracked, and in serious danger of tipping its load onto the ground. "You will fix it, both of you."
"We will?" Kronos raised his eyebrows, looking somewhat less than convinced. "Why would we want to do that?"
"To avoid death." A long spear lowered itself, almost as though by its own volition, and rested its tip against his chest. "Long, slow, painful death. By dismemberment."
"Now wait a minute." Kronos pushed the spear aside, his face beginning to show sure signs of his unfolding temper. Methos made a grab for his arm, although the look that he received in answer came close to chilling his blood. He knew Kronos as well as he knew himself; possibly better; and to try to hold back the impending storm was somewhat stupid, as well as very likely futile.
"Brother…" His voice was soft. "There are seven of them."
"I can take seven with one hand." Kronos too spoke in a soft voice, but in his case it was not for secrecy or silence. It was another sign of his growing rage. "Let go of my arm."
"No." Methos tried to inject some force into the look that he gave the younger Immortal. "Listen to me. These people are not the type to argue with. Do you think I would have stayed with them for this long if they were? We have to pick a better time than this. You haven't seen them fight."
"Nor them me." The fires in Kronos' eyes were smouldering, and Methos took some heart from the fact that they had not yet overwhelmed their host. "Brother, I--"
"Forget it, okay? - for the time being, that's all I ask. I won't see you hacked to pieces now, after all that we've been through together. These people don't play by our rules. There's no one-on-one, and they like beheading their victims. Believe me; we've never tangled with people who fight this well before. Their skills are unlike any I've ever seen; and I thought I had studied the ways of every warrior on the planet. I was wrong." He sighed. "Please, Kronos."
Slowly the dark head lowered, until the younger Immortal was staring at the ground; then he sighed and turned away. Methos could see the emotions fighting together as clearly when he could see just the back of his friend's head as he would had he been able to see the expressive face and bright eyes instead. He smiled, knowing the outcome through instinct. The shoulders of the other relaxed; and in response, one by one, so did the guards. The immortal pair headed towards the wagon, with no more need for words.
They mended the vehicle as quickly as they could, the need for the task to be finished quickly meaning much to them both. It hurt to be used as menial labour by their enemies, but neither man was fool enough to make the situation more than it needed to be. When the wheel was replaced, and the goods once more loaded upon the wagon, the pair were given the chance to rest, with water and a little food to improve their relaxation. Kronos leaned back against the new wheel, closing his eyes. It was becoming hot once again, as he had known it to be when staked out in the sunshine; but now that he was no longer at the mercy of the elements there was a pleasurable feel to the touch of the sunlight on his skin. He stretched, enjoying the feel of the rays.
"Don't get too comfortable," Methos told him. "We'll be on our way again soon. These people don't like to sit still for long."
"They weren't the ones fighting with that wheel." Kronos sat up a little straighter, eyeing the seven men, who were watching them with barely concealed distrust. "Look brother, I want a few answers here. We know why you're a prisoner - but why am I being treated like this too? I never claimed to be some merchant."
"No… but they know that you're a friend of mine. I asked them to bring you on board the wagon. Besides, you're clearly an outsider, and such things just aren't to be trusted. In the past they've meant nothing but trouble; disease, war, whatever. If an outsider is tied up and left to die, clearly by a local… well it makes you an enemy in the eyes of these people, even though they have no idea what the reason for your sentence was."
"Meaning that I'm to share your fate once we reach this city that we're heading for?" Kronos groaned, leaning back against the wheel once again. "Thankyou so much, my dear, dear brother. Next time just leave me staked out on the ground."
"I will, if this is the thanks I get for saving your miserable life." Methos rolled his eyes. "All it would have taken would have been for one wild animal to have found you there, defenceless, and you'd have been dead in no time, with no one to take your Quickening. Did you think I was going to leave you to that? This way we both have a chance, although I'll admit to not knowing what it might be."
"Alright brother. Okay, I apologise." These were rare words indeed coming from his inflammable brother, and Methos smiled to hear them. "Just don't expect me to take this lying down for much longer, okay? I would rather die in battle than be herded like a sheep to some unknown fate at the hands of a justice committee."
"I see your point." Seeing that their guards were heading towards them, clearly with the intention of securing them once more in the wagon, Methos rose to his feet. "Just… I don't know. Keep counting to ten or something. Take deep breaths."
"Take deep breaths?" The mere idea of Kronos doing anything to control his somewhat violent tendencies was bizarre enough to bring a smile to the older Immortal's face, without the perplexed look on his companion's face which broke out as soon as the suggestion was made. Methos had to suppress a sudden urge to giggle. He led the way back to their wagon, and climbed on board without waiting to be told. Kronos followed him.
"Take deep breaths?" he asked again, as soon as the cloth folds had swung back over the exit. Methos grinned. "Brother if I had 'taken deep breaths' a thousand years ago, you'd have spent the rest of your days on this planet as some contemptible scholar, who couldn't say boo to a goose. You wouldn't have known the madness of riding into battle against a hundred mortals, you wouldn't have known the glory of certain victory against insurmountable odds, you would never--"
"Leave it, Kronos." Methos threw himself down into the cushioned depths of the wagon, beginning to feel the morose tediousness of imprisonment sinking around him once again. Having his old friend with him was not helping to break up his mood as much as he had hoped it would. "Save it for when we're free, okay? I'll even help you to hack them all into little pieces." He folded his hands behind his head and gazed up at the ceiling, which was beginning to bounce and lurch above him as they made their way forward once again. Kronos sat down beside him.
"Is that a promise?" he asked, his eyes shining with a sudden enthusiasm. He looked almost childish at such promises of adventure, although Methos knew that this was mostly an act. He smiled.
"There are many more opportunities to abscond in a city, brother. When we get there, we'll escape - before you can say Leon Walstein. Then you can do whatever you like with our guards out there."
"Sounds good to me." Kronos also lay back in the embrace of their padded dungeon; but the expression on his face was nothing like the relaxed boredom displayed so clearly on the face of Methos. Instead, Kronos looked dark, and his bright eyes glittered as chips of cold blue glass. Kronos did not like to be imprisoned. Kronos did not like to be treated in this way. He would have his anger, and he would show these people who they were dealing with. He was the Undefeated; the embodiment of all that represented war and death. The thought filled his spirit, and he smiled a smile of ice.
They rode for the rest of the day, their boredom manifesting itself in sometime arguments, and sharp words that meant nothing to either of them. Neither man could exactly be called the sensitive type, and their close confinement caused more damage to their pride than to anything else. It was with some relief that they felt the wagon slow to a halt for a second time that day - much later than that first rest, when they had been forced to change the wheel on the second vehicle. This time neither man waited to be asked, but merely jumped to the ground the instant that their forward motion ceased. It felt good to stretch their legs again, and to feel solid ground beneath them. A cool, dry wind was blowing, and yet the air felt heavy, almost as though there were a thunderstorm approaching. Kronos frowned, his sharp, almost primal instincts making the hairs on the back of his neck raise themselves in threatening motion. The muscles in his neck danced.
"Relax, brother. They haven't even sentenced us yet." Interpreting his companion's unrest to be a sign of his unease about the whole situation of their imprisonment, Methos flashed his oldest friend a rough smile. "We might get lucky."
"And pigs might learn to fly, and roost in trees." Kronos gave a short laugh, then turned to look back towards their guards. The seven men were already arranged in a neat line nearby, their spears lowered meaningfully.
"Move forward," one of them ordered. Methos gave a nod of polite compliance, and stepped forward on cue. Around them, people were already beginning to turn and watch their approach. The old man caught snatches of half-whispered conversation, blown to him on the dry breeze. Children gaped, women stared. Somebody coughed, the sound loud in the artificial silence.
"Greetings." An old man, with a long white beard that seemed to possess a life of its own, stepped forward to meet the small party. He wore a grey robe with a withered hem, that swept the ground before and behind him as he walked. A cord was knotted around his waist, giving the robe a basic shape that his own, formless body lacked. Long bony fingers gripped a staff of polished wood, and bright, intense black eyes peered at the nine men from beneath thin, yet heavy, eyebrows. "My name is Lu Sung. What brings you here?"
"Greetings." The leader of the seven guards bowed his head in reverent acknowledgement of his elder. "I am General Di Sen. These outsiders are brought here to decide their fate." He pushed Methos forward slightly, either ignoring, or not seeing, the look of sudden anger that blazed through the old Immortal's eyes in response. "This one was found rifling through the possessions of a man named Leon Walstein. He claimed to be that man."
"Did he indeed?" Lu Sung moved closer to the Immortal, peering at him through the bright, beady eyes that seemed to see so much more than they should. "Really? Well my eyes aren't what they used to be, General, but I can tell you that Leon Walstein is a small man, with broad shoulders. His hair, I think, is yellow. It's what makes him stand out; what makes him a favourite with the people here. This is not Leon Walstein."
"I see." General Sen's eyes lit up, for clearly he was pleased by this piece of intelligence. He smiled a slow, meandering smile of obvious pleasure. "In that case, I must ask for immediate justice."
"If you wish." Sung did not seem concerned by the request, and instead turned his attention to Kronos. "What of this man? What has he done?"
"He is a friend of this other man." Sen nodded at Methos, who clearly no longer merited any form of proper identification. "We found him out there." A rough gesture of his hand was all the indication that he seemed to consider necessary. Sung's eyebrows raised.
"Out there?" he asked, much as a parrot might echo a human's words. Sen frowned.
"Staked out, on the ground, as a criminal. There were others there too, staked out with him; all dead. None were Chinese. I have heard the readings and the prophecies, Lu Sung. I know what is reported to be coming. They say that the end is near, and that it will be brought by outsiders seeking to do us harm." His eyes lingered on Kronos, and the Immortal felt them burning a passage through the back of his head. His right hand itched for his sword, and he almost felt the cold metal of the hilt against his palm. Some distant sense teased his mind with the suggested smell of blood.
"And so you ask that they be killed, to satisfy your fear." Lu Sung nodded slowly, his bright eyes surveying Methos and Kronos before moving on to study their seven captors. "If this is your will, it must be done, of course." He stared hard at Methos. "Do you still claim to be Leon Walstein?"
"Under the circumstances that would appear to be somewhat pointless." Methos frowned, staring back into the bright eyes upturned to his. "I'm only sorry that I've come all this way just to die. I would have liked to have seen more of Shanxi Province." He smiled. "I've heard some wonderful things about it."
"Then I am sorry that I shall be unable to satisfy your curiosity." Sung gave a short bow, then turned to the people gathered about him. More of them had appeared as the word had spread; and more were appearing all of the time, their eyes showing inquiries and age-old fears. He well knew that they had all heard the prophecies. The words of the Seers had been sweeping the region for a long time, awakening all manner of prejudices and superstitions amongst his people. If he tried to do anything other than have the two outsiders executed, he would only cause further, and far greater, unrest. Given the current tide of public opinion, if the taller outsider had been the real Leon Walstein he would probably still have to be executed; or at the very least driven out and told never to return. Sung felt a pang of regret. He was an old man, close to a hundred years of age, and fairly certain that there were very few who were much older. He no longer cared for the superstitions which had inspired him as a young man; or for the prophecies which had once so surely guided his path. He had seen too much to want to send two men to their deaths for the things that a few fortune-tellers had seen. Except that it was no longer a few. In recent weeks the prophecies had been growing more and more frequent, and more and more intense in their foretellings; and he would be lucky if the two executions came close to easing the fear of the locals. He nodded to General Sen.
"Do what you must," he agreed sharply, his tone of voice suggesting something of his true feelings. "See that it is done quickly, and without mess." He gestured to the people gathered around. "Listen to me." A few whispered murmurings ran through the crowd, and he held up his hands for silence. "You must take your children indoors. There is no need for them to see this."
"Let them see the outsiders die." A woman stepped forward, a small boy beside her. "Why shouldn't they?"
"Because I say not." He smiled at her, although she did not return the gesture. "Executions are not for children. They are not for our sport and not for our entertainment. Now take your children inside." There was a muted chorus of faint discontent, before the crowd began to move. Sung turned back to General Sen, waiting until the stirrings of the crowd had faded before he spoke.
"You have chosen the manner of execution?" he asked. Sen shrugged.
"It doesn't matter," he commented sourly, as though death were no great thing to him; presumably unless it was his own. He drew his sword. "Beheading, disembowelling… the outcome is the same."
"True." Sung's eyes danced brightly over the pair, seeing the flat disinterest in the eyes of the taller prisoner - eyes that had been filled, so recently, with so much life. The smaller man, he noted with some amusement, still seemed angry, as though somehow his fury itself could save him from death. Sung almost wished that it could. "Carry on."
"With pleasure." Even as Sung raised his sword, he heard a low laugh from Kronos. It chilled him, but he did not allow the sudden burst of irrational fear to slow his movement. Still poised for an attack that might prove to be fatal, Kronos was surprised to see a sword blade erupt through the chest of his brother, sending a fountain of blood gushing out from within the shirt. Methos stared down at the weapon, and at the new hole in his torso. It hurt. He tried to breathe, but the pain that it brought gushed through him in much the same way as did the relief, now that he was sure they were not to be beheaded. This was a painful method of escape, but one that he was fairly sure of. Dead bodies did not usually have armed guards, after all. He shuddered, then fell to the ground. Kronos stared down at him, feeling no emotion other than his cold, growing fury. He turned to face Sen, and as the general administered his brand of justice for the second time that day, he looked into the cold blue eyes that were facing him, and felt a shiver run through his frame. For some reason that he could not explain, the fear did not dispel - even as the body of his prisoner tumbled into lifelessness on the ground.
"Death gives you pleasure." It was a cold observation, and General Sen raised his eyebrows, surprised. Lu Sung was a strange man, whose silences had proven to be punctuated by the oddest of statements. It was old age, he supposed, himself determined never to live that long.
"Death is what must be." He bent to lift, with one of his men, the prone body of Methos in order to throw it onto a makeshift funeral pyre. Kronos already lay there, his body stretched out on the plain and bare sheets of wood. Unseen to those below, his hand twitched with the first signs of returning life. "These men were outsiders, and all the signs point to the dangers in allowing them to live." He shook his head. "My own father is a Seer, and he showed me all that he had seen. The death, the destruction; untold suffering. The kind of disruption to our lives that no man now alive can begin to imagine. It is all to come with the outsiders. First the earth will split open, and then the world will end. Read your words of prophecy, old man. It has been written for centuries."
"I know." Sung lowered his eyes, regret still clear within them. "I know what the prophecies say, and I know that all of the signs point to the danger time being upon us now. I know that these next few days seem to be the ones mentioned in the prophecies as the most likely time for the disaster to fall. That does not mean that I have to enjoy the deaths of men who might be innocent."
"Innocent?" Sen laughed. "A man already punished for one offence, and another found rifling through the possessions of a dead man - a man he might himself have killed? They are not innocent." He shook his head. "I am trying to be of assistance to you, Lu Sung. My father's seeings indicated that the greatest disasters were set to befall Shanxi Province. I thought it best that we deal with this here; to give you the best chance of breaking the chain, and being sure that the prophecies do not come true. Is this the thanks I get?"
"I can't speak of your motives, General." Sung lowered his head in gentle acknowledgement of the other man's words. "But I do know that if something is going to happen, there is nothing that we can do that will prevent it. Our Seers here have been gathering since the last full moon, from all over the province. They all say that they have seen great destruction, which may even mean the end of the world. I fail to see how the deaths of two men can alter that fate."
"Perhaps we need never find out." Sen stepped back from the funeral pyre, watching the remainder of his men as they built up the firewood beneath the platform. A growing pile of twigs and branches was being constructed, with the locals eager to assist where they could. Despite their eagerness, there was a dull atmosphere - a feeling of unease and unnatural silence amongst them - as though none of the town's people were altogether sure that this was the deliverance they had been hoping for since the prophecies had begun. "My father told me that the end would be marked by the appearance of men who could not be killed; whose indestructibility would be against all that nature teaches. I have seen no such men; so perhaps deliverance is upon us all."
"Perhaps." Sung turned to walk away, not wishing to wait for the final destruction of the two strangers. "But I still say that you enjoy death, General Sen; and in these times a man like that cannot hope for a long and constructive life."
"Amen to that." The voice was soft, and yet it carried far, taking with it an edge of cold humour and sarcasm. Sen froze, slowly turning his body away from Sung, to stare instead up towards the funeral pyre. As he watched, Kronos rose to his feet, a great bloody stain spread across his shirt in blatant indication of the fatal wounds he had received. He smiled.
"You're - you're dead." Sen took a step back, then snatched the burning brand from a man standing next to him. The funeral fire was not yet completely built, but it was big enough to do the job. He threw the torch into the pile of dry wood, and watched with satisfaction as the fuel caught instantly. The flames blazed up, temporarily obscuring Kronos, who seemed content to stand in the very heart of this new danger. From somewhere within the flames, the onlookers heard his laugh; a sound filled with both humour and delight.
"Nice try." He stepped forward, moving swiftly through the growing curtain of flame, leaping to the ground to land mere paces from the general. A second later Methos dropped down beside him. He was smiling, the expression on his face the very image of that shown by Kronos. Neither man moved, merely standing shoulder to shoulder, their bright eyes seeming to blink in unison.
"The men who cannot be killed." One of Sen's men gasped the words out, falling back with a look of abject terror. He stared about him. "Don't you know? Haven't you all heard? This is the end."
"The end of what?" Methos stepped forward, confused by the terror, although pleased by it on more than one level. Kronos stepped forward as well, a smile playing about his dark and shadowy features.
"I heard them, brother, while you were still waking up. Prophecies of the end of the world, brought by outsiders; men who can't die. They think we bring the Apocalypse in our pockets." He laughed, and the lights in his eyes danced. "Imagine it, brother. Us, having anything to do with the Apocalypse."
Methos smiled, although not quite sharing his companion's ability to see such humour in the situation. Some of the locals, the ones who were less afraid than their fellows, were already beginning to advance, and he saw weapons, some less makeshift than others, gripped in their hands. They seemed pale, but clearly determined. The old Immortal had the distinct impression that he had jumped straight into a metaphor - from the frying pan into the fire - and he turned to his old friend with the spark of a question in his eyes. But Kronos, all of a sudden, had become very still.
"Brother…" Methos kept his voice very low, not wishing the whole company to see his unease, but Kronos did not answer him. His head alone moved, tilting slightly in one direction, then in the other, his bright eyes burning with strange lights. Slowly his lips moved, the sounds which came from them barely audible to Methos.
"The birds," he whispered, his eyes still fixed on something that Methos himself did not think he could see. "They've stopped singing."
"Kronos, this isn't the time…" Methos shot a nervous look over his shoulder, to the inexorable advance of the townsfolk. "We have to get out of here…"
"Listen!" There was fire in the other Immortal's voice now; a cold, intense fire that demanded attention. Methos listened. Everywhere was strange and still, as though the animal population of the entire area had ceased to exist. The domesticated creatures in the town had halted their earlier noise, and now stood still, sniffing at the air just as Kronos seemed to do. Lu Sung too was motionless, his bright and beady eyes no longer focussed on General Sen.
"What is it?" Methos was taken by a feeling; a dreadful feeling that something was about to happen; a certainty that the sudden and desperate tension had to be broken. It seemed to him suddenly as though the feeling had been growing since their arrival; that he had never been relaxed here; that everything had been on edge for unknown reasons. It made his senses scream and his blood pump in fitful activity within him. The words that he had just heard Kronos say - the half-baked prophecies of the end of the world - suddenly chilled him in a way that he did not understand. His eyes met Lu Sung's, and something primal stirred within him. Fear. And in a sudden burst of motion, Kronos grabbed him by the wrist and ran.
In the instant at which they moved, the earth began to shake. It began as a low, steady quiver, accompanied by a rumbling sound of uncertain origin - but in moments it grew. The ground beneath their feet began to move with unbidden energy, shaking with greater and greater violence until the very act of remaining upright became difficult. Methos saw the ground where he had been standing so recently - the place from which Kronos had dragged him at the last second - suddenly disappear; the very rocks and earth - even the edges of the still blazing funeral pyre - collapsing in upon themselves and vanishing from sight as though they had never existed. One of the locals, clinging insanely to one of General Sen's men, vanished too, falling deep into the earth with a last scream that went unheard. Everyone it seemed was screaming. Everybody was yelling and shouting, and tearing across the market square in terror. And still the ground shook, tearing great rifts through itself that gaped wide and yawning, revealing passages into the very depths of the planet, showing expanses of rock and stone, the marks of mineral veins - and empty, far-reaching chasms of blackness that were certain death.
"What the hell-?" Methos had seen earthquakes before - he had even been in the midst of several - but he had never in all his thousands of years of life experienced anything like this. Around him the whole world seemed to be falling apart, and all that he was truly conscious of above the screams and the cries, and the constant, compelling motion was the hand of Kronos, gripping him by the wrist with a tenacity that challenged all. The younger Immortal seemed almost to be defying the Earth itself - daring it to try to tear the brothers apart.
"The end of the world…" It was Lu Sung who spoke, his words carrying to them with surprising volume. He stood a few feet away, his bright black eyes wide open and staring. He shook his head, clearly lost. "Just as it was written - just as the Seers told us. The end of the world." He frowned, and his eyes alighted on the immortal duo, standing so close to him. "You." He pointed at them, although his eyes did not seem to be entirely focussed upon them. "You. You did this."
"Not exactly." Kronos was smiling, despite the clear danger that they were all in. He was under no illusions that his superior strength and cunning - or even his immortality - could save him if the earth chose to swallow him whole. Even so, he was excited by what he was witnessing. The world that was his home held little in the way of secrets from him, for he had not wasted his time upon it in the way many thought he had. He was as sure as it was possible to be that he knew of the causes of an earthquake, and he was equally sure that this did not mean the end of the world. All that he had to do was survive the next few frantic hours.
"Look out!" Methos saw the next danger coming even before his brother did, and they moved as one away from the great rift, a jagged hole in the ground that was racing towards them, splitting wider and wider as it moved. Lu Sung watched it approaching, but made no move to escape from its advance. In seconds he was gone, vanishing into the darkness without a sound. Almost immediately the rift began to close again; the two sides forced back together as the ground shifted once more.
"This way!" Kronos, spying the wagons of General Sen close by, had a sudden idea. He began to move towards the vehicles, intent on the possibility of escape, but Methos held him back. Even as the thought of climbing onto one of the wagons came to him, the first of the two - the one on which they had made their journey to the city - fell into nothingness and ceased to exist.
"It's fading." Even as this loss was upon them, Methos was sure that he felt the ground lessen in its activity. He began to breathe a little more easily, but Kronos shook his head.
"Come on. We should get away from the buildings. We don't want to get caught up in the middle of the city for any longer than we have to."
"But it's over." There was a plaintive note in Methos' voice - a wish for it to be quiet and still again. His ears were ringing, and his head hurt from the noise and the confusion. His senses were in disarray from the assault of the quaking earth. Kronos shook his head.
"Round one," he muttered, already on the way to the second wagon. The motion of the ground had almost ceased by the time that they reached it, but even as they were climbing up towards the driving board it seemed that things were moving again. Methos groaned.
"We can't use the wagon," he said thickly, his throat filling with a dust that, having just begun to settle, was now starting to rise into the air once again. "We might not be able to stop in time, if the ground opens up again." He made as if to jump down, then smiled unexpectedly and snatched up a long, stylish object hidden beneath the driving board. It was a sheathed sword, wrapped in a belt. More importantly, it was his sword. He delved around again beneath the board, and produced a second weapon which he threw to his brother.
"Here. I knew it had to be around here somewhere. It was lying next to you when we found you." He shrugged. "Not that it's likely to be even remotely useful just now, but all the same…"
"Methos, I could kiss you." Kronos buckled the soft leather belt around his waist, taking heart and new strength from the familiar weight at his side. He had imagined the old and trusted weapon to have been lost forever. Methos made a face.
"Just concentrate on getting me out of here." He fixed on his own sword, now certain that the rumbling was growing again. Once more the ground began to tremble, growing in an intensity that was more powerful even than it had been before. Now it was greater - more impressive, more terrifying, more exciting - than it had ever been before. Neither man was certain where to run to, where to escape to before all escape became impossible. It seemed as though the whole of the city were destined to sink beneath the earth.
"Look at that." This time even Kronos sounded overawed. He was staring into the distance, where the ground, no longer content with merely moving from side to side, had begun to move up and down. Like the waves of a turbulent sea it crashed up and fell back down, undulating with a terrifying motion that threatened to swamp all. The immortal duo were thrown off their feet by the force of this unassailable land-sea, hurled up and down with its dizzying motion. All around them features of the landscape ceased to exist, dragged down, far down, into whatever it was that lay beneath the surface of the earth. People were taken as indiscriminately as the buildings, the rocks and the trees. Mountains sprung unbidden from the bowels of the earth, throwing themselves far, far up, then abruptly inverting themselves, forming valleys that tossed and turned, then levelled; only to be thrown, seconds later, skywards once more. Bruised and battered, and no longer completely sure whether they were really still alive, the Immortals lost sight of each other in the madness, catching glimpses of each other only through uncountable yards of dust and noise and unbreathable air. They struggled back towards each other, moving in the direction that each thought the other to lie in, only to lose each other once more as they waves of earth and rock rose and fell again to confuse them anew. All around them the screaming continued, and men and women fell and disappeared, screaming the names of saviours who never came. Panicking citizens ran in every conceivable direction, their hair streaming in the wind, their faces dirtied and bloodied from the relentless assault of the screaming planet. It felt unending. It seemed, for countless seconds, that this was all that had ever been; that the earthquake had lasted forever, and would continue for as long. There had been no world before the quake; there had never been anything except the quake, and there never would be. How, in the midst of all that there was now, could anything except madness and terror ever have existed before? When had there ever been anything but confusion and noise? There was nothing to cling onto, in a mental or a physical sense. There was nothing but the chaos.
Silence came slowly at first. It awakened somewhere amidst the chaos, and struggled to make itself heard above the noise. At the sound of its first cries, the world began to right itself, and the wild, frenetic shaking gradually ceased. There was stillness and stability. It lasted only a few seconds before other noises grew, to replace the peace.
It began as a gentle sobbing, which arose from the midst of all that remained of the city. A few survivors, consciousness regained or clung to desperately, giving voice to the fear which had held them for such an eternity. Above the sobs there were shouts, the disembodied screams of occasional pain, or of grief at some discovery of loss. There was the sound of scratching; of people trying to move; followed by the rumble and shudder of precariously balanced ruins collapsing and falling, searching for a stability of their own.
"Kronos?" Methos awoke slowly, his chest rising and falling with a jerky unwillingness that suggested he might have been dead. He couldn't remember. The last thing that he was clear about had been the rising and falling of the land about him, and the helpless, hopeless sensation of being as lost as the mortals. He remembered seeing Lu Sung being sucked into the depths of the earth, and wondered what fate had awaited the old man. Suffocation, the height of the fall, destruction in the molten depths… none were fates that he was tempted to share. He sat up, finally finding the strength within himself, and looked around.
He was sitting on a stretch of dry ground, not far from where he had first alighted from the wagon. All around and above him the ruins towered, bearing witness to the destruction which had gone on around them. The houses were gone. Piles of rubble were all that remained of most of them, the dust rising in grey clouds to mark anonymous graves. The Immortal could hear voices, many of them calling for help, lost deep within the stones of the fallen buildings. There was nothing that he could do for any of them. To attempt to free anybody else would risk killing everybody, for the tottering piles of masonry would need no more than a gust of wind to send them crashing down upon them all. Even as he watched one such pile unseated itself, sliding slowly, almost gracefully, down to earth. There was a bloodcurdling shriek, an almighty crash, and then just the dust, rising once more to mark the spot. Methos felt himself shuddering.
"Kronos." The name came back to his lips with the fear, and he stared around, climbing to his feet with care. He felt shaky and light-headed, as though he had not yet fully recovered from whatever injuries had apparently killed him. There were streaks of blood on his shirt, which were indications of some damage caused, but he put it aside. The pain was negligible, and he could live with the stiffness in his limbs. At least they were still there, to feel stiff.
He slid down a slope that he did not remember having existed before the quake, and picked his way carefully over the ground. He was unsure whether the shaking was really over, or whether it might be about to begin again. Each step was gingerly placed, cautious of renewing the tumble of masonry. Cracks in the ground still yawned open in some places, the jagged teeth of rocks giving them the appearance of giant mouths, open in fearful mirth. His eyes scanned the leaning trees, and the others completely uprooted; drifted over the bodies he could see, some lying in the open, others half trapped by all the mess. He scanned them all quickly, searching for anything that might identify any of them to him; but he could see nothing that was familiar.
"Methos." The voice sounded horribly healthy, annoying him for having wasted so much fear on a man who, clearly, was still as indestructible as always. "Are you alright?"
"Kronos." The relief was clear in the old man's voice, and he turned to greet his friend. The younger Immortal had appeared as if from nowhere, struggling perhaps from some pit of rubble, and stood now before him like a phantom from a more sane world. They gripped hands, each glad to see the other alive. Kronos looked a mess, equally decorated in both mud and blood, but the sight was joyfully familiar. Methos had once been more used to seeing him this way, when they had ridden into battle together and had recovered slowly, exhausted but filled with a mad sense of delight. It was with such a feeling that they greeted each other now.
"What the hell happened?" Methos asked, when they had passed the first, happy round of greetings. "I've never seen anything like that. It was…" Words failed him, and he shook his head. "I've never seen the ground move in that way."
"Wasn't it something?" There was a wicked light in Kronos' eyes, and he smiled at his old friend, guiding him down to sit beside him on a pile of rocks. "I have to confess, I have never seen the like before… but it was worth it." He shook his head, staring about at the rubble. "Just imagine, brother, having that kind of a power at your fingertips. To be that much in control. It's as if… as if the world really was about to end, just like those prophecies were supposed to predict." He leaned back against a pile of bricks which did not look as if they could support his weight. "This is one astounding rock that we live upon, brother."
"I'm glad it meets with your approval." Methos rubbed some of the grime from his forehead; or attempted to, at least, with a sleeve even more grimy than his head had been. "Whilst you dream, brother dearest, I intend to do something."
"Such as trying to help some of these people who may still be alive." The old man gazed about once more at the teetering towers of brickwork. "There's no telling when that lot will come down."
"A few hours, if the wind doesn't set it off first." Kronos followed his companion to his feet, looking about with a professional air. "Maybe six hours, if we're lucky. No more than that."
"Aftershocks?" The thought came to the old Immortal from the recesses of his mind. He had not thought about the phenomenon before, but he recalled it now with a cold dread. His brother was right; soon the ground would be rocking beneath their feet once again. Perhaps it would not be as powerful as the main earthquake, but with the rubble in the dangerous position that it currently stood in, many more lives would be lost. The danger made his mind up for him, and he started forward. Kronos had not moved.
"Methos…" His voice called down towards his friend. "You do realise what you're doing, don't you?"
"Yes." He stopped, staring back up towards his companion, already trying to work out the best way to begin the task he had set himself. However he attempted to do this, he was sure to be killing some people, in his eagerness to save others. It was a frightening responsibility, but one that he knew he had to take upon himself. "Are you going to help me, or are you going to stand up there and admire the view?"
"I was planning to stand up here." With a leap that frightened Methos in its clear disregard for the precarious position of the rubble, Kronos landed beside his brother. He shrugged. "But if you're really determined to do this, I'd be happy to help." He recognised the look on his companion's face, and smiled. "Really. Honestly. I love to help. I can clear rubble with the best of them."
"Yeah, well just remember we want to save at least some of the people here." Methos turned away, striding towards what appeared to be the safest stretch of ground. As he approached he could see that there were already survivors gathered there, huddled together in fear and confusion. They stared up at him, eyes wide, and he smiled encouragingly.
"My name is Methos. I want to help you."
"Help us…" One of the men rose to his feet, his fingers clenched into a bruised fist as he pointed one, quavering finger at the old Immortal. "You… It was you. You are the outsider that brought this down on us. You!"
"You!" Around him the other survivors were struggling to their feet, fingers pointing, arms outstretched. They had the appearance of so many frightened ghosts, but their anger was clear nonetheless. They began to advance, circling him before he was even aware that they were behind him. "This is your fault!"
"Kill him! Kill the outsider!" Hands grabbed the old man by the arms and held him tightly, and he felt his sword being pulled from its sheath. "Destroy him! Cut off his head!"
"Let him go!" The voice of Kronos rang out across the rubble, the mere sound of it enough to send more rubble collapsing in upon itself. Methos froze in the grip of his captors, turning his head to look towards his friend. The younger Immortal stood on a pile of fallen timbers, a child gripped in his hands of iron, his sword at the prisoner's throat. Methos looked up into the terrified eyes of the small boy, and his own eyes widened. Kronos was holding the child as though he were a rag doll; as though he were already dead. There was no emotion in the Immortal's face, no mark of thought or feeling. His cold blue eyes burned with a ruthlessness that even his old friend was appalled at.
"I said let him go." This time there was no anger in his voice, but his sword pressed itself closer to the boy's neck, digging into the skin. "He was trying to help you."
"We don't need your help." Rage burned in the voice of the man who spoke, and his eyes glowed with hatred. "Outsiders came, just as the prophecies said, and look what happened. This is the end of the world, and everybody is dead. All because of you." He pointed at Kronos as he spoke this last words, but the light smile on the face of the Immortal was clearly not the reaction he had been looking for. "Why threaten one boy when you've already killed thousands. Millions."
"I haven't killed anybody." There was disgust in the Immortal's voice now. "Well, not recently. And the world isn't over. Look around you - all this, this is just here. It's not like this everywhere. The damage will be widespread, but it doesn't cover the world. No earthquake could."
"You expect us to believe that?" The belligerent mortal shook his head. "Everything has been as the prophecies said. The outsiders who came, the men who could not be killed, the shaking of the earth and the destruction it caused. The world is over. Do we die here now, or do we live forever as the last survivors in the whole of the world?"
"I'd be happy to send you to join the others." Deadpan, Kronos did not smile, suggesting that his words had not been the joke they had appeared to be. "Now let my friend go, and we'll leave here. Your families might die without our help, but that's not our problem. Right?" His grip on the small boy tightened, lifting the child so that the small legs swung above the ground. He did not hear the footsteps coming towards him from behind. Methos saw the top of a head emerging over the pile of rubble upon which Kronos stood, and his mouth opened in a cry of warning, but a hand, swiftly employed, shut off his shout before it could begin.
"Even if we let your friend go, how do we know that you'll release the boy?" Another of the onlookers, stepping forward, shouted up at Kronos with a voice of blatant hatred. Kronos smiled at him.
"You don't," he said simply. In all honesty he was already frustrated enough to be quite enamoured of the idea of killing the child, and all his other miserable fellow city dwellers. He was fast coming to regret ever having set foot in Shanxi Province.
The movement that alerted him to the presence of another was sharp and swift, and clearly accidental. He swung about, spinning the boy in a wild circle in an attempt to strike this would-be attacker with the flailing feet of his captive. The approaching mortal ducked, his speed showing superior training and skill, and Kronos threw the boy at him, sword poised for the attack. Methos, down below, recognised General Sen long before Kronos did, seeing the supple body moving as only the general and his men could. Kronos feinted to one side, dodging easily as the other man attempted to take him from one side, but as fast as he could move, the general kept up. Methos saw another blur of movement and recognised it as a second man, coming towards Kronos from the other side. The Immortal dodged, his face a mask of concentration, but Sen, leaping aside after one strike from his enemy, moved in an extraordinary fashion, flipping backwards through the air as though the laws that caused all other objects to fall so naturally towards the earth had no effect on him. His body moved as an alien object might, like a dancer reacting to some unearthly music. He dodged and swung, leading Kronos further and further away, until the combatants in the strange fight were no longer within Methos' sight. He heard the occasional clash of metal, suggesting that Kronos was keeping up his defences, still fighting just as he had always done, and as he no doubt always would. A cry told the desperate Immortal that one of Sen's men had fallen, but how many of them might now be confronting Kronos, he had no way of telling.
On the other side of the rubble, Kronos was in serious trouble. He had killed two of the men attacking him, but their extraordinary method of fighting had confused him, and left him with little in the way of defence. Three men now moved around him, Sen included, and although he had faced worse odds before, something about this was very different. They anticipated his movements in a way that no other mortal had ever done. Usually it was only immortal warriors who had lived for long enough to rival Kronos in their knowledge of battle skills and tactical manoeuvres.
When the fight ended, it was with a suddenness that the Immortal had not been expecting. Led on by the movements of two of his assailants, which he had had no choice but to follow, he took his eyes momentarily from the third man. He knew that it was foolish to allow his opponents to split up, but there was no way to prevent them from doing so, particularly given their speed and unnerving ability to think as one. In only the fraction of a second that his eyes were removed from the third man, he knew that the fight was lost. He heard the scurry of movement, heard a strange sound that he was not familiar with, and turned just an instant too late. The third man, taking advantage of that brief moment, had flung a knife. It struck the Immortal just below the left shoulder, sticking firmly into his flesh with a stubbornness that suggested a barbed blade. Kronos staggered under the force of the blow, his eyes widening as he tried to turn. He heard the strange sound again, and this time saw its source - a net, withdrawn from some hidden pouch within the general's clothing. It descended upon him, entangling his furious limbs within its embrace, tightening its grip with his each obstinate attempt to be free of it. At the same time he thought that he detected some sweet, almost sickly aroma. It seemed to be a woven into the strands of the net, and he recognised it at once for what it was; a drug. Heavy-headed exhaustion took him and he struggled to sit up, determined to try to catch some breath of air that was not tainted with the smell of the net. Strength abandoned him, and he fell back to the ground.
General Sen, staring down at him with a smile of sardonic approval, bent down to retrieve the knife, seeming to take pleasure in tearing at the flesh of his prisoner as he tore the blade free. His enthusiastic ministrations were wasted on the unconscious man, but he appeared to enjoy them nonetheless. Pain was his watchword; his purpose in life, and any opportunity to practice his craft was something to be welcomed. He nodded to his men and they caught the unconscious Immortal up, beginning to make their way with him back to his friend.
"You have been found guilty of attempting to destroy this province." Speaking in a loud, clear voice, designed to carry as impressively as possible over the ruins of the broken city, General Sen stood on a tall pile of rubble to read out the charges. Methos could not help but hope that the tower of stone and wood would collapse under the general's weight; but chance, as always, was on the side of the Immortal's enemy. He glowered, listening to the list of his crimes. Ordinarily such a list was a source of pride; something to think back over and congratulate himself for; but on this occasion, when for once he hadn't actually done anything even remotely illegal - not counting his attempt to steal the hidden fortune of Leon Walstein, naturally - the charges were an annoyance to say the least. He caught the eye of Kronos, who was nearby, and saw that the other man seemed no less frustrated by the situation.
"You have come here, as outsiders, causing untold suffering to come upon the people of Shanxi Province. You have attempted to destroy not only this city, but all the world that lies beyond it. You must die for your crimes."
"Of course we must." Shifting his position uncomfortably, Methos rolled his eyes. He had already tried countless times to get through to these people that the rest of the world was still out there; but in all honesty, with a city as isolated as this one, it was easy to believe that the outer civilisations no longer existed. There was no evidence of them anywhere. No distant city spires were visible on the horizon, no twists of smoke rose into the air to mark some traveller's campfire.
"You will die slowly, and your agonies shall guide you to your next destination." Sen walked towards them, smiling all over his round, smug face. "Whatever your next stop is, I hope it befits your actions here today."
"I'm sure it will." Methos was fast losing what little patience he had left, and his current predicament was not of the kind best recommended to help him regain control of his temper. He was dangling by his wrists from a crude wooden framework of rafters salvaged from the ruins of the city, and was beginning to think that the operation to imprison him in such a fashion, and to do whatever these people were planning to do to him, was rather more important to them than rescuing their friends and neighbours from the mess of rubble stretching out around them. He was certain that there were survivors in all the jumble somewhere, and could only hope, for all their sakes, that the other cities in this province were inhabited by people rather more willing to listen to the voice of reason. If anybody deserved to be punished for what had happened that day, it was General Sen.
"The birds are awfully quiet." Kronos muttered the words to himself, as though he had not intended for anybody else to hear them; but they filtered their way through to the ears of his old friend. Methos scanned the skies. The last time that Kronos had made such an observation their whole world had been torn apart by the shaking earth. Sen saw the nervousness in his eyes, but misinterpreted the cause.
"Your fear makes no impression on us," he said darkly. "I doubt your gods will care much for it either." He raised his hand into the air and signalled to his men, who walked quickly from within the ruins. They had collected armfuls of wood, which they arranged beneath the dangling Immortals in brisk and businesslike fashion. Methos stared down at it.
"You're going to burn us?" he asked, anger mixing in equal parts with alarm as the implications of this sunk in. "You can't do that."
"I can do what I like." Sen was smirking, his eyes bright and intense. "These people follow my word, do my bidding."
"Well promise me one thing." Methos raised his voice, gazing around at all of the survivors that he could see. "When we're dead, and you've had your revenge, at least try to rescue the others. There's no telling how many of them are still buried; still alive. If you won't help them now, at least help them then."
"Shut up." Sen knelt beside the pile of wood beneath the Immortal's feet and began to strike two flints together. They smashed against each other with a sharp, hard sound, and sparks of hot light flew from between them, falling into the dry wood underneath. Nearby another man was performing a similar process for Kronos, and soon both Immortals could smell the rising smoke. Heat warmed the soles of Methos' feet, and he struggled briefly. The ropes rasped at his wrists, and refused to let go. Sen was smiling, his eyes filled with the lights of enjoyment and happiness as he took a few steps back, retreating to a safe distance where he could watch the two men burn. Sweat broke out on the old Immortal's face. He could not break free, and the gentle warmth at his feet was already starting to become distinctly uncomfortable. He knew that a fire was as dangerous to him as to a mortal, for if his body were to be burned away, death was certain; one way or another. With his legs gone he would have no chance in the Game, and might as well be dead; which he very likely would be if the flames reached high enough to threaten his head. He began to struggle harder. Pain touched his feet, his ankles. It charged through him with a sudden, blinding intensity that made his eyes water and his chest contract. He longed to scream out loud. It would do him no good, but at the very least it would help him to relieve some of the unbearable pressure now building within his lungs. He threw back his head, desperate to retain control, trying to catch a breath of air that was not tainted by hot smoke; but his throat filled with the rising curtain of hot air and dried out at a touch. His eyes began to sting.
"Methos…" The hoarse voice of Kronos came towards him from out of nowhere, but he wasn't sure if he had heard it at all. Maybe it was just the wind calling his name, telling him that he would be joining it soon, to be taken away to the other world he had once seen in his dreams. He tried to turn his head to see towards Kronos, but his eyes were too filled with tears to see anything save blurs of colours and shades of grey. He could feel his shoes melting around his feet, and the pain grew. A shudder ran through him; and all at once, he felt its reply in the movements of the earth. All around him the ground seemed to be answering his fear with shudders of its own, and he felt the wooden framework suspending him above the flames begin to tremble. A last, desperate smile broke out on his face. He began to struggle.
"Hold on! Hold on to something!" He heard the shouts through the curtains of smoke which barred his vision. Screams came from somewhere; shouts of fear that this time the end of the world was really upon them. He could appreciate the sentiment, but after some five thousand years of life, he was not about to be conned into attaching superstitions to the natural phenomena that liked to toy with his planet.
With a sudden, violent motion that made the wooden support beams above him crack, the ground jerked. He saw the glowing fuel beneath him lurch wildly, slipping away as though, suddenly possessed with a life of their own, the fires were anxious to run from the earthquake, and seek safety elsewhere. Almost immediately the Immortal's vision cleared. He felt his feet sway closer to the ground as the structure holding him collapsed. He pulled his wrists free of the loosening ropes and staggered away from the smoke. His feet were agony, and it took all of his willpower to make him stay upright. He saw Kronos moving through the writhing smoke, like some phantom brought to life by the fire. A scream sounded from somewhere close by, and Methos stumbled towards it. He saw the two fires moving like scared animals, running across the ground on legs of burning wood. He saw General Sen standing in their path. He looked up. Several yards away, Kronos was watching the scene. His face was blackened with the smoke, but his eyes - cold, blue and hard - burned with a fire all of their own. He was smiling. Methos turned his head, seeing Sen looking this way and that in an attempt to find a way to escape. He saw the huge rift that was opening in the ground, cutting off the only path to freedom. He saw the fires put on a sudden burst of speed, as though strangely determined to engulf this living being standing in their path. Sen's loose tunic caught instantly, and he let out a high, shrill shriek.
"General!" Somewhere, a voice answered the cry, and two men ran to their commander's aid. Kronos intercepted them before they could get close to them, and the threesome fell to the ground, struggling together whilst the rest of the world began to crash about them. Isolated by the growing fires and the gaping chasm in the ground, Methos stood back, watching as the towering piles of rubble began to crash earthwards. He thought that he heard a few screams; the last cries of those who were trapped beneath the mess; but the rumbling of the earth drowned it all out. It didn't matter anyway. There was no longer anything that he could do for them. They were lost.
The confusion ended swiftly, for the aftershock had nothing like the power of the quake which had preceded it. Methos stood alone in the smouldering remnants of the fires created to kill him, looking down on all that remained of the city he had been brought to so recently. General Sen was dead, his screams of pain having long ago faded away into silence. Of the two men who had tried to save him, the position of one showed that he was dead - his neck broken. The second was still breathing, but showed no signs of moving. Kronos sat beside them, wiping sweat and soot from his tired brow. For once he actually seemed to be affected by all that had been going on around him, and it was a ghost of his usual grin which was turned to Methos now. The older Immortal picked his way carefully towards his friend, able, now that the shaking had stopped and the air had clear somewhat, to see where it was safest to stand. He sunk to the ground, tearing away the last remains of his shoes.
"My feet hurt." He stared down at them. The damage was superficial, but it still had not yet healed. The cool air felt pleasant, and seemed to assist in his recovery. Kronos, who had already abandoned what remained of his footwear, gave a perfunctory shrug.
"Sen's dead," he commented brusquely, as though this made everything alright. To his mind it probably did, thought Methos with a rueful smile. The fire had hurt, but the man who had started it had died by its hand, and that was all the justice that Kronos sought.
"Yeah, Sen's dead." His eyes scanned the ruins of the city. A hell of a lot of other people were dead, too; and many more would remain forever trapped in the rubble. He was sure that there were survivors in all that stone and wood; but there was no way to get to them. Kronos seemed to guess his thoughts.
"Methos… it would take an army of elephants to clear all that lot. If any of them are still alive, there's nothing that we can do for them. I'm sorry."
"Yeah." The old man stood up, heading for the crest of the hill where they had been tied together in preparation for their burning. Their swords lay there, the blades crossed, and he picked them up. "Here, catch."
"Thanks." Kronos slid his beloved weapon into its sheath, then smiled. "Horses?" he asked. Methos nodded.
"If you can find a pair in good shape."
"No sooner said than done." He was as good as his word, and returned quickly, leading two animals. "Are we heading for somewhere special?"
"Away from here." It was all that the older man was prepared to say on the subject, and merely swung himself up onto the bare back of his mount. Nearby Kronos did likewise. They rode off together, with as much speed as the horses were able to give them, leaving the city behind them; with all its imprisoned and whimpering citizens in their living graves.
They passed many cities before they left the effects of the earthquake behind them. Shanxi Province had been hit hard, and it was easy to see why so many prophesies had foreseen the ending of the earth. Methos might have believed such a thing himself, at one time. The other towns, the other settlements, had all suffered similar damage, but the losses of life had not been so major. There had been, thought Methos grimly, no General Sen to prevent the rescue of the trapped before the aftershocks. Finally, with the shadows lengthening behind them on the sixth day since they had left Lu Sung's city behind them, they faced the mountains that were to lead them to pastures anew. Methos reined in his horse.
"This is it, brother." He gestured at the mountains. "There are other lands beyond these. Which way are you headed now?"
"Which way?" Kronos sounded surprised. "I never know which way I'm headed in. You should know that by now." He grinned. "It's been good to see you again though, brother. We should do this more often."
"Huh. Whenever we get together it causes disaster and destruction on a major scale. Perhaps we should avoid each other for a while."
"Perhaps." Kronos shrugged, then grinned. "I was looking for revenge when you found me, but I think I've had it in abundance; so I think I'm going to aim for Russia. I haven't been there in a while, and I hear that the hunting is good this time of year." He reached out to grip his brother's arm. "So long, Methos. Stay alive."
"Yeah." Methos stayed still, watching as his partner galloped away, bound for the dusty distance, which swallowed him up until he seemed no more than a tiny figure. The old man smiled. On reflection, Russia would be an attractive destination; and as Kronos vanished from his sight, he spurred his horse on and raced after his friend. It was only with the slightest hint of surprise that he found his brother waiting for him at the foot of the first hill.
"You have a high opinion of yourself, brother. Who's to say I was going to come after you?" Smiling, Methos slowed his horse, staring at the other Immortal with a challenge in his eyes. Kronos shrugged.
"You always follow me, brother," he said offhandedly. "Wherever I go, you're bound to follow. Eventually."
"Huh. More likely it's you that always follows me." The older Immortal smirked. "So what's happening in Russia right now?"
"A lot more once we're there." They grinned at each other. Maybe the horrors of Shanxi Province were already forgotten; or maybe they had just seen too much in their long lives to let the thoughts of such things destroy them. Either way, they were headed for new horizons. Together they headed into the hills, and behind them the day came to its close. History, undoubtedly, would soon forget all that had gone on in Shanxi; but if Methos ever passed that way again, he would remember. The city would have passed into dust, but he would still see it. It was just another part of who he was.
On the 24th January 1556, Shanxi Province in China was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever experienced by modern man. The Richter scale did not exist then, but the most powerful earthquake since its creation was about 8.5 (in Alaska (see Dark Skies!)) so presumably it was stronger than that. More than 830,000 people were killed.
As for what was going on in Russia back then, Czar Ivan IV (The Terrible) was on the throne, ruling from 1533 - 1584, so I think it's fair to say that Methos and Kronos were heading for trouble. But then what else is new?!