Bloodgem

Sue Kelley

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Disclaimer: Duncan MacLeod, Connor MacLeod, Richie Ryan, Joe Dawson, Dr. Anne Lindsay, the city of Seacouver and the concept of Immortals and their Game are not my property or creation. They belong to other people and no harm is intended by the borrowing of them for this story. I am making no profit from this.

Any other characters are probably mine. If they are asked to guest star somewhere else, please let me know so I can find them when next I need them.

"The Bloodgem" was originally printed in the fanzine Rules of the Game 3, which is still available for purchase. You can reach the editor/publisher at WWW Fan@aol.com.

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London, England. November 27.

The Immortal stared down at the corpse in mingled fury and disappointment. It was over too soon. The hunger inside him screamed, unsated, filling his ears, his mind with the lust for blood, the need for that golden glow. Once again, he looked at the small crystal he held in his hand. Red, but not the deep crimson of a bloodglow, and worse, no shimmer of gold in the depths.

He'd waited two hours, hoping that maybe, somehow, the younger Immortal would regenerate, come back to life, give him another chance for the bloodglow. Deep inside he knew it wasn't going to happen, not this time. He'd overestimated the younger man, pushed too far, done too much, bled him too fast. "I thought you'd have more passion, Troy," he told the unheeding body. "More vitality." His words dropped like chunks of lead in the frigid air.

Giving into his fury, he kicked the body, kicked it hard, in the head, in the gut. It moved like a poorly stuffed pillow; a little trickle of residual blood oozed down the chin as the head rocked in reaction to the blows as the Immortal took out his rage against the younger man. The red mist of enraged disappointment obscured everything, and the Immortal didn't even see the young man whom he'd once been so fond of; all he felt was his own desperate need.

After a long time, he managed to control of himself and stepped back. He'd worked off some of his demon and he could think a little more clearly. First things first. He'd have to behead this corpse as he had the others, not for the Quickening, since that was gone now, but to hide the fact that there was anything different about this one. You never knew when another Immortal, or maybe one of those infuriating Watchers, would start putting two and two together. He reached for his sword.

And cursed, loudly and fluently, in his native tongue, a language that was no longer known to the modern world. He hadn't brought his sword. Driven by his bloodlust, he'd come to this dank place with only the short dagger he'd used for the bleeding. It was sharp enough for it's purpose, but no way would it slice through cartilage and vertebra. He glanced at his watch and cursed again. No time to go back to the house and then come back here; he had to catch that plane tonight. There was no help for it, he'd have to get rid of the body without beheading it. It should be all right; he'd told all the workers that Troy had taken some time off to get acquainted with London. Nobody, not even that infernal female Watcher, could know for sure that Troy was Immortal; the young American had grown up in an Oklahoma orphanage; his original "death" had been six months ago in a car accident on a deserted road in western Texas. No one knew.

He went over to the rusty iron door, unlocking the heavy bolt and pulling it open with difficulty. The dank musty smell of the Thames greeted him. Careless, getting more blood on himself in the process, he dragged Troy's body to the door and shoved it into the river. It was late at night; they might never know where the body had gone into the river, and even if they did find out, there was nothing to connect him to this place. He reached for the satchel that held his clean clothes and stopped, looking again at the bloodgem. Not enough. Not nearly enough. Returning to the river door, he flung the small stone against the current. He couldn't hear the splash or see it sink, but still he looked out for a long minute. Then, mastering himself with an icy calm, he started to dress. Two stones left, and not a clue where any more were. Two more chances. He stuffed his bloody clothes carelessly in the bag. He'd burn them later. For now, his mind was occupied with another problem: where could he find another young Immortal quickly?

London, England. November 29.

Martha Hattersly had worked at the Blue Duck pub for almost six months. Actually, her name wasn't Martha Hattersly at all, but that's another story. She liked the pub. It was far enough from London to be safe, but close enough to the tourist routes that they had some variety in clientele.

Take that man over there. He'd been coming in for a late supper for the last few nights, so he had to be staying somewhere close. He didn't have rooms in the village, though... that she did know.

He looked up and smiled as she came to the table with his steak and kidney pie. Once again she was struck at how incredibly blue his eyes were. "Good evening, Martha." His voice was pleasant; with some accent but she could never identify it. He winked at her. "How's the ale tonight?"

"I'll let you judge that for yourself. You'll be wanting the London paper, than?"

"'Fraid so. You can leave the city..."

"You're not from London!"

"I'm from a lot of places." He winked again. Sighing, her curiosity not appeased, the girl went for the paper.

The man smiled again. After all these years, he knew an interested woman when he saw one. In another time or place... he sighed as he idly glanced through the paper. His eye caught a familiar name and he frowned, going back to read the article again. "Body of American found in Thames" was the headline. The tone of the article was almost apologetic, as if it were the height of bad taste for visiting Americans to get themselves murdered (exsanguination was listed as the cause of death, the body having multiple stab wounds and incisions) and then thrown into the historic Thames. At the very end of the piece, the notation was made that the young man had been identified as Troy Nichols, who had been reported missing some days before by his employer, Caleb Russokoff. (Here the article took on an almost reverential air noting that Russokoff was the world-renowned artisan who created works of art from precious metals and gemstones). Russokoff, the paper further went on, was currently in Paris. Scotland Yard would be investigating the murder.

The man read the article again and again, his mind refusing to accept it. This was impossible. Impossible. Troy Nichols was an Immortal; the man was sure of that. He couldn't have been mistaken. Bodies of Immortals were not discovered with their heads still attached, several days after death, but this one apparently had been.

Caleb Russokoff. That one again. Something was wrong here. Making a sudden decision, the blue eyed man threw some money on the table and stood up. By the time Martha came back with ale, he was gone.

Paris, France. November 30.

Duncan MacLeod looked around the small gallery with interest. He liked these small places, one could often find some nice things in them. But there was a special reason he'd come this far across town today: the gallery was exhibiting several of Caleb Russokoff's works and Russokoff himself was supposed to be in attendance.

As he studied a breathtaking reproduction of London's Kew Garden, the whole thing not more than ten inches wide and the flowers formed of sapphires, rubies and amethyst, he felt the warning trill of another Immortal. Conscious of his sword hidden in the lining of his coat, he swung around to see the man watching him from across the room.

His observer smiled, and strode gracefully towards him, hand outstretched. "Duncan, my good friend. What a joy to see you!" Caleb Russokoff threw his arms around MacLeod in what could have easily been described as a bear hug. Russokoff had always reminded Duncan a little bit of a bear, even in the days in Russia so long ago when he wore caftans rather than expensively tailored suits. "So," the other man went on, finally releasing MacLeod, "What are you doing here in Paris? When last I heard you were still in... Seattle? Yes?" A shadow crossed his face and he gripped MacLeod's arm. "I was sorry to hear of the loss of your lady friend," he said, voice lower, his brown eyes showing honest regret. "She was a fine woman."

Tessa, a sculptor herself, had long been an admirer of Russokoff's work. A few months before her death, she had attended a showing of his in New York and had commissioned a piece from him. It had arrived shortly after the funeral and MacLeod had never even looked at it, leaving it to his young friend Richie Ryan to make sure the piece was undamaged and return it to the artist with a note of explanation. Richie had told him later that Russokoff had sent back the deposit Tessa had paid. Richie'd asked him what to do with the money. His emotions still raw, Mac had brusquely replied to do whatever he wanted, and had hurriedly left the room.

Now, over two years later, he could still feel the grief as he quietly acknowledged Russokoff's words. Grief was a familiar companion after four hundred years. He didn't want to go into a lot of details, so he responded rather evasively to Russokoff's earlier comment, "I've been in Paris for the last few months. I'm leaving tomorrow, though, so I'm glad I could see you today."

"Leaving tomorrow? Going back to Seattle, I hope?"

MacLeod gave the other Immortal rather a puzzled look as he replied, "No... well, not right away. I plan on being there for Christmas, but I need to spend a few days in London first, then Belgium and Toronto..."

Russokoff shook his head sorrowfully. "This is too bad. Duncan, I'm going to Seattle day after tomorrow!"

"No!"

"But yes. I have been commissioned to do a piece for a wedding gift, using the jewels from a family parure." Russokoff mentioned the name of the family; Duncan nodded. It was one of Seattle's oldest families, and the matriarch was originally from a Boston family that was even older and more wealthy. He knew the parure Russokoff was talking about; he'd done some documentation on its' history a few years ago. "I was looking forward to spending some time with you and possibly" Russokoff lowered his voice "getting in a little sword practice. I'm rusty, I fear, ripe for the taking!"

MacLeod snorted. "I've heard that before!" He hesitated, then went on, "Actually, I have a friend there. He could use some practice against somebody besides me."

Before Russokoff could respond, an elegant middle-aged woman in a black velvet dress came up. "Your pardon," she murmured. "Caleb, you really need to mingle with some more of your guests."

Russokoff rolled his eyes. "Yes, my dear. Duncan, meet Alice Rowes. She is my assistant, and, apparently, my social conscience as well." He patted her arm, then went on, "We must dine together tonight. You are free? Good. I'll be tied up with this tiresome reception --"

"Caleb, not so loudly!"

Russokoff winked at MacLeod. "There's a little Russian place I wanted to try." He gave the general area and MacLeod nodded; he knew the place. They arranged to meet there for a late supper.

In spite of several sojourns in Russia at various times during his long life, Russian food was not one of MacLeod's preferences. This did not pose a problem that evening because the restaurant Russokoff indicated specialized in pre-Revolutionary court cuisine, which was more French than Russian. After they had ordered and were left to enjoy the caviar, Russokoff commented, "This "friend" you referred to earlier... your protege, yes? I've heard... O'Neal? Something Irish."

MacLeod stared at him. "Uh... Ryan. Richard Ryan. How'd you know about him?"

The other man shrugged. "You and I have mutual friends. Amanda, I believe, told me about young Ryan. She said he had his Turning at the same time that your lady... died. And you knew him before?"

"He'd been living with us for almost two years." Duncan hesitated. He'd had an idea earlier in the day, after learning that Caleb would be going to Seattle. "Actually, Caleb, you could do me... and Richie, a favor, if you would."

The other man raised his eyebrows. "A favor? I suppose I do owe you a few! What do you need?"

MacLeod lay down his fork. "Richie doesn't heal very fast; he never did. Connor always said that the more Quickenings an Immortal took in, the faster his healing ability would become, but Richie's doesn't seem to work that way."

"I've never been sure that the number of Quickenings affect healing ability," Caleb commented. He looked at the Scotsman shrewdly. "So, what does this have to do with me?"

"There are other ways Immortals can speed up their healing ability. I don't know all of those meditations and things, I never needed them, but you do. You helped Mikael, remember? And that woman, the one from Australia..."

"Not that that did her much good," Russokoff grunted. "Talking about trusting the wrong people!" He frowned. "You're speaking of the Spiros method, Duncan? It is not easy, and it is not quick. I do not know this boy...." he paused, concentrating on sprinkling some more slivered onion on his caviar. Finally, he looked directly into MacLeod's eyes. "Forgive me, my friend, but I see trouble in your face, pain in your eyes. I thought at first it was due to the death of your lady, but it's more than that. It have something to do with young Ryan?"

Startled, MacLeod looked at the other Immortal. After a long moment, he cursed softly and forced a grin. "See what a hundred years does? I'd forgotten that about you. It's as if you can read minds!"

The Russian Immortal shrugged. "I've had many years of experience in mental disciplines, meditation... it gives one insight. But you, my friend, are not that hard to "read" -- you never have been, for me."

"I remember." MacLeod gave him a little salute with his glass before he drained its contents. His mind raced back over the past several months. He sighed. "You know," he commented slowly, "When I met Richie, when I realized what he was going to be... my only thought was that I wanted to be there, I wanted to make sure he had enough--" he paused, searching for a word, "I don't know, enough, stability, I guess, so that when the time came, he'd be able to handle being Immortal. The Game. I guess... I wanted to keep him...from turning out wrong." He snorted angrily. "Instead, I almost single-handedly turned him into the very thing I'd been trying to keep him from becoming!"

Russokoff looked confused. "My good friend... what are you talking about? Is your protege turning away from your teachings?"

MacLeod shook his head emphatically. "No. Not now." He sighed at the sight of Russokoff's confused expression. "Caleb," the Scotsman started, "Several months ago, I took the head of an Immortal named Koltek. He'd... been a friend of mine for.... well, a long time. I don't know if you knew him, but he was an Indian shaman. He tried to... he thought he could absorb evil, and dispel it." Mac paused to take another sip of his wine; he'd only discussed this with Methos, and, very briefly, with Richie. He took a deep breath. "He absorbed too much evil, and he became evil himself. I tried to help him. I couldn't so... I had to stop him. When I took his Quickening... it took control of me."

Russokoff's eyes widened. "Are you talking about a Dark Quickening?"

"'Fraid so." MacLeod fell silent as a waiter approached and refilled his wineglass. Then, low, he briefly sketched what had happened afterwards: going after Richie; someone interfering; the escape to France and subsequently being freed of the effects of the Dark Quickening. He didn't get into specifics about the role that either Joe Dawson or Methos the Immortal had played in the events. Most Immortals didn't know about Watchers and it was probably best that way for everybody. "When I went back to Seattle, I discovered Richie'd been challenging other Immortals, trying to build a reputation for himself... or maybe trying to get himself killed." The Highlander fell silent, remembering.

"I'm sure having your mentor try to take your head can be a little disturbing," Russokoff mused.

MacLeod snorted. "Yes, I'm sure it is! Anyway, we got past it. At least, I thought we did. We never really talked it out, though. Richie didn't seem to want to and... well, I didn't want to remember it even happened, to tell you the truth." He stopped abruptly as the waiter came by with the next course. When they were alone again with their steaming soup in front of them, he continued, "It changed things, of course. Richie's... he tries to put up a cynical front, but he's actually pretty innocent. Maybe too innocent for this life."

"As far as I know," the other Immortal interrupted him with a tinge of acid in his tone, "No one ever became Immortal because they were eminently qualified for the job!"

MacLeod ignored that. "He trusts the wrong people."

"By which," Russokoff said dryly, "I suppose he doesn't trust you?"

"It took a while, " MacLeod admitted. "He does... or he did. To tell you the truth, I'm not exactly sure what's going on in his head right now." His mind drifted over the last few months. When Regina Wyatt had come to town, MacLeod had been wary, remembering his last run-in with the beautiful auburn-haired Immortal. Not so Richie. The young man had fallen hard for the seductress, and they'd exchanged angry words.

"Just because she tried to take your head ninety years ago doesn't mean she's after either one of us now!" Richie's voice was impassioned.

"Don't be a fool!" MacLeod was worried about Richie, and his words came out ice-cold. "How many times do we have to go through this? Remember Pete, in Paris? And Kristen? Regina plays the Game. She always has."

"People can change!" Richie had fired back. MacLeod had answered with the same words he'd used to Tessa so many years before.

"Yes, they can. It takes centuries!" Duncan had paused, trying to control his temper. "Richie," he went on gently, "All I'm asking is for you to trust me. She's going to try for your head--"

"You tried for my head." The words were bitter. MacLeod had rocked back, feeling as if he'd been punched in the gut. Richie tried to say something else, but Mac found he couldn't listen. He'd walked out of the room.

Fortunately, Amanda had showed up the next day. Regina Wyatt had a history with the other woman, and she decided to leave town suddenly. The words they'd each spoken in anger had rested uneasily between MacLeod and Ryan, neither one knowing how to repair the damage that had been done. When Amanda decided to visit Venice, the Highlander impulsively decided to accompany her. From the canal city he'd come on to Paris.

Russokoff waited quietly. When MacLeod didn't say anything, he finally questioned, "Have you talked to young Ryan since you've been back in Paris?"

"Oh, aye, we've talked on the phone. But... the conversation never gets too... in-depth," Mac confessed. He shook his head impatiently. "But this is all getting off the subject. You'll be in Seattle... do you think you could work with him on the Spiros method?"

Russokoff raised his eyebrows considering. "I would be glad to help your friend, Duncan... but I'll only be in Seattle ten days or so. What you're talking about takes time, and trust..." he trailed off, thinking hard. A smile lit his face. "Possibly... if you could tell me all about young Ryan, what 'makes him tick', yes? Then I would know what approaches to use... I could establish rapport... gain his trust..." he smiled, satisfied. "Yes..." he took a sip of his soup. "Tell me all about Richard Ryan."

MacLeod stared at him. For just a second, he was uncomfortable. Something seemed wrong... but, then, in a flash, he remembered all the times Russokoff had helped him, all the other Immortals he'd heard about. The man had been his friend for two hundred years. With a long sigh, he started, "Well, I met him one night when he broke into my antique shop.."

Much later, in his hotel room, Russokoff chuckled as he played back the tape he'd surreptitiously made during his dinner with Duncan MacLeod. "Here, for your listening pleasure, the road map to the soul of one Richie Ryan, as presented by his Mentor, Duncan MacLeod!"

Caleb Russokoff had stopped believing in a Higher Power a long time ago, but there were times when things just worked out so neatly he had to wonder. This couldn't have happened any better if he'd planned it himself. MacLeod's young protege was alone, vulnerable; no other Immortals around to possibly catch on that something was wrong. MacLeod had said he wouldn't be back in Seattle until just before Christmas. Even if he talked to the young one on the telephone, Russokoff could allay any suspicions by insisting the weakness, the weight loss, all the other symptoms were due to the mental and emotional strain the young one was going through while he tried to improve his healing abilities. He knew how MacLeod's mind worked. The Highlander was suspicious and untrusting of those he didn't know, but once he did trust someone, he believed in them implicitly. And he trusted Russokoff. That had been established two hundred years before. They were friends.

Russokoff realized uneasily that he would lose more than just MacLeod friendship by killing his protege; instead, the Highlander would no doubt sear vengeance upon the Russian and come after him. The thought was brief, disturbing... but he soon forgot in the thought of the Bloodglow to come. Richie Ryan would be easy prey.

He went to the dresser and opened the drawer. Opening the velvet case, he clasped one of the remaining bloodgems in his hand, caressing it. It looked like an ordinary piece of white quartz, now, but soon... soon...

When dawn peeked into the room, he was still sitting on the bed stroking the gem.

2

Seattle, Washington. December 1.

Richie Ryan banged the phone down in disgust. "Great!" he proclaimed to the world at large. "Just wonderful! I really need this right now."

"Do you always talk to yourself?" a voice asked from the doorway.

Startled, Richie rocked the chair back down on four feet. He looked at the middle-aged man leaning on a cane in the doorway. "Joe! Give a guy some warning, will you!"

Dawson came into the office and sat down, unasked, in the chair across from the desk. "I thought you saw me," he said quietly. "I didn't want to come in while you were on the phone... problem?"

"Oh, yeah. You could say that!" Richie pointed at the phone in disgust. "That was Mac. Calling to let me know an old friend of his is coming to town, guy by the name of Caleb Russ... Russ something--"

"Russokoff?"

"Yeah. Him. Anyway, Mac asked him to help me--" abruptly, Richie fell silent and a closed look came down over his face. Joe Dawson, Watcher, waited patiently. He knew that look. Even with the recent changes in the Watchers, and even thought Joe Dawson was his friend, Richie was still leery of his whole life being recorded somewhere in a chronicle for all eternity. But Ryan's need to spill out his problem outweighed any other consideration, so he finally went on, "I don't heal that fast, y'know?"

"It looks fast enough to me," Dawson inserted dryly. His mind flashed back to the time he'd seen Richie die in Paris. He could still remember his own feelings: shock, guilt and even grief as the breath left the younger man's body for the last time. Even after years of Watching, a part of his mind still couldn't believe Richie would come back to life... until he'd seen the bullet holes close and Richie had sat up.

Ryan remembered, too. "Well, it's not fast enough for Mac. Anyway, the Russ guy supposedly is some kind of Immortal guru and he's going to help me, but he's only going to be in town for a few days... Mac says I need to drop everything and devote all my time and attention to it..." Richie's voice trailed off and he rested his head wearily in his hands. "His timing sucks," he muttered.

"I still don't see the problem," Dawson started, then his eyes fell on the textbooks piled on the desk. "Oh, I see now. Your final exams start in a few days, don't they?"

"Give the Watcher a gold star!" Ryan's voice was tired and he rubbed his hand across his face.

"Well, Richie, this isn't a tragedy. Just explain it to Mac. He'll understand. Maybe Russokoff could postpone his trip a few weeks, or you could meet up with him over Christmas break. He and Mac go back a long way, I'm sure he'd try to work something out."

Richie was staring at the Watcher. "And just what excuse can I give Mac for doing that?"

"I think final exams would be---" Dawson stopped suddenly, looking hard at the younger man. "Richie, you still haven't told Mac you've enrolled in college?"

Richie just shook his head. He didn't have any explanation, really; he wasn't sure himself why it had been so difficult for him to tell his mentor that he had enrolled at the local University several months previously. At first, he knew it had been because he was afraid he wouldn't be able make the grade in college. He'd been out of high school for years and studying had never exactly been a priority. He'd actually been shocked when he'd been admitted to the University. Telling Mac, and then having to face his evident disappointment when he flunked out... Richie just couldn't bring himself to do it. So he'd kept it a secret.

He'd only taken two classes that first semester, in the summer; they'd both been at night so he'd didn't miss any work. He hedged a little to Mac, let him think that he'd joined a baseball league and had games on those evenings. Mac thought baseball was boring in the extreme so he never questioned Richie too much about his mythical team or wanted to see any games. Between Mac's own teaching at the same University and his other interests and activities, he was absent from the dojo most of the day and never caught Richie studying in the office when things were slow. Much to Richie's surprise, he'd earned top grades in both classes and been encouraged by a guidance counselor to enroll full time for the fall. He'd been planning to tell Mac, but somehow the timing had never seemed right. Then had come Mac's abrupt departure for Paris.

In many ways, Richie's life was easier with Mac gone. With the Scotsman's blessing, he had given up his apartment and moved into the loft above the dojo. He didn't pay rent; the utilities were automatically deducted from one of Mac's checking accounts; all he had to buy was groceries and gas. The arrangement had made it infinitely easier to pay for tuition and books and he didn't have to worry about Mac walking in while he was studying. All in all, it had made the semester much easier, but Richie still longed for MacLeod to return. He had no idea when that would happen, although Mac was going to do some traveling, "make the rounds before New Year's" the older Immortal had put it on the phone one night. He'd not mentioned where he was going to spend Christmas and Richie hadn't asked.

"What's this Russ guy like?" he asked, changing the subject.

Dawson sighed, knowing full well what Richie was doing and why, but he answered him anyway. "I don't know that much about him; he doesn't come to the Northwest much. He's about six hundred years old... used to be a lot more active than he is now. He pretty much stays out of things these days." He frowned thoughtfully. "He has an impressive reputation, but most Headhunters leave him alone. That's always seemed kind of strange, given how many of them come after Mac, but maybe this business of being a "guru", as you put it, explains it." At Richie's puzzled look, he elaborated, "Some Immortals seem to be "Teachers"; not just to their proteges, as Mac is to you, but more like mentors to the whole community. Most Immortals leave them alone, almost as if that's another Rule. Darius was one. Of course, he stayed on Holy Ground most of the time..."

Richie nodded. "Mac talked about this guy like he used to talk about Darius..." he sighed and leaned back in the chair again. "So I guess I'll be this guy's newest disciple... I just hope he's easier to approach than Mac is."

Richie's tone was more wistful than bitter. Dawson looked at him searchingly. "Richie," he started, "I know things have been... well, difficult the last few months... but you know that MacLeod cares about you. He has your best interest at heart."

"Yeah, I know, I guess... oh God, look at the clock!" Richie threw himself to his feet and started frantically gathering his things together. "I'm going to be late to Psychology, and Dr. Taylor locks the doors after five minutes and you have to knock and then everybody stares..."

From his panicked manner, Dawson surmised that this had happened to the young Immortal more than once already during the semester. He stood up, pulling out his car keys. "Calm down," he said easily. "I can give you a ride to the University."

Seattle, Washington. December 6

Richie rubbed at his eyes impatiently. It didn't help. His vision was still blurry. Closing the psychology text he'd been attempting to study for the last hour, he let his head fall forward, then rotated it slowly, trying to work out the stiffness. He deliberately avoided looking at his wristwatch, or at the silver carriage clock on the corner of the desk, the grandfather clock a few feet away, the digital on the table next to the bed... "God, Mac," he said aloud to the loft apartment, "You have too many clocks! What's this obsession with time? You even gave me a watch for my birthday!"

Richie's eyes closed, and his mind drifted over the last four days. MacLeod had warned him that trying to quicken his healing ability would be difficult; Caleb Russokoff had been even more blunt. "The Spiros method hurts like hell," the older Immortal had said, that very first night, when he and Richie were having dinner together at his hotel. "Hurts in every way. Physically. You'll be begging to die before it's over. But worse than that: emotionally, mentally. We'll have to tap into memories you've buried, feelings you've never wanted to have. We have to do it. That's the only way these disciplines, the meditations will work."

"Nobody could accuse you of understatement," Richie told the Russokoff in his mind. In the past five days, the Russian had put him through such punishing workouts that every muscle in his body screamed for relief. Caleb couldn't fault Ryan for his physical effort, but he was less than pleased with his mental abilities. "You're not concentrating!" he'd yelled the night before. "You've got to empty your mind of everything but what I'm telling you to think about."

Feeling crappy, like he was letting everybody down, Richie had tried to explain about school, finals; how important it was to him to do well. The words had sounded lame even to his own ears; Russokoff had snorted and Richie had left the hotel feeling like a failure. He was sure Russokoff was going to wash his hands of him. He'd tried to study, given up, then tossed and turned in bed until dawn. He'd failed. Mac would find out and... he couldn't even think that through to a conclusion. Finally, he got out of bed and called Russokoff, intending to tell the Mentor he'd blow off the exams. He didn't have to, though. Much to his surprise, Caleb seemed happy to hear from him, said they'd try another way. "You're doing your best, young Ryan," the other man had comforted him. "There's more than one way to do this. I can give you something to help your concentration... make it easier for you to relax, to trust me. We'll do this together." Even the memory of his voice made Richie feel good.

Accordingly, after classes, Caleb had shown up at the dojo when it closed with three bottles of liquid.. He'd written out a schedule for Ryan to follow: so much of the green liquid at nine p.m., then an hour of workout, then the pink liquid, then meditation, then another workout... on and on until 2 a.m. The small blue bottle had a sleeping potion in it, he'd said, straight faced. Richie had protested; he didn't like drugs. Caleb laughed and assured him they were just herbal preparations, completely natural. Then he'd handed the younger man a strange, clear crystal. "This should help you meditate. Just look into it and empty your mind of all but one thought. When you see it change colors, glow red... you're totally concentrating. Keep pushing, gather up your feelings, your energy and put it in the crystal."

It sounded really New Age, but Richie was so grateful that Russokoff hadn't given up on him that he was committed to trying. Now it was nine o'clock, and Richie was nervous as he carefully measured out the green liquid and cautiously sipped. Surprisingly, it wasn't bad, if a little too sweet; Mac's herbal brews always tasted like swamp water. Richie drank the dose and then went down to his workout. Russokoff would be at the loft by eleven.

Caleb Russokoff packed his bag slowly, considering each item he added. Some epanat... he'd boil it in a pot; Richie would inhale the fumes and the herb would mix with the narcotics and hallucinogenic already in his bloodstream. Foxglove, just enough to give him a belly ache... Thoughtfully, almost lovingly he sorted through the vials and pouches until he had what he needed. Then, his heart quickening with excitement, he opened his small oak travel chest. His mouth was dry as he caressed the gleaming daggers, stroked the heavy hammer that could shatter a man's wrist with only the slightest effort. With trembling hands, he lifted the smallest, sharpest dagger of all and held it close, mesmerized as the light played along the razor edge. Not tonight, he told himself firmly. Ryan wasn't ready... but tomorrow night, surely...

By tomorrow night, the drugs would be invading Ryan's body, weakening him, altering his perceptions. What sleep he'd get tonight would be haunted by nightmares, then two tests tomorrow -- this school thing had actually turned out to be helpful instead of an impediment. Then, he'd put the young Immortal through a hellish workout late tomorrow afternoon, lace his dinner with some more of the drugs, and by tomorrow night... he'd be ready. Russokoff's body responded involuntarily as he thought of sliding the dagger along Ryan's forearm. He always liked to start that way. No major veins yet, he wasn't going make the same mistake he'd made with Troy, bleeding him too quickly and losing the bloodglow before the gem could capture it. He was learning that the preliminaries could be exciting themselves. But soon, surely by next week, he'd have it. He was going to get the bloodglow this time, he was sure.

Russokoff frowned. That brought to mind, he only had one more stone after Richie's. Of course, he had Alice looking for more. Give her her due, she was good at research, even if she hadn't the faintest idea what she was searching for. But then, he himself hadn't known what they were when he found the first five. He closed his eyes and could see the little shop in Istanbul... or whatever they called it these days. The small, wizened old man. There had been something about his eyes, green and slanted, almost like a cat's. What had Russokoff been looking for -- rubies? Yes. And the man didn't have any but then had brought out these five pieces of dull quartz. Old and dusty and one even cracked. And the price he'd wanted for them! Outrageous! But then he'd spun a tale of how the stones could be used to take the life force of Immortals -- as the blood spilled out of their bodies the gems could catch the force of it, hold it, absorb it. When the Immortal finally died, died for good, even if they still had their heads, there was no Quickening, but the one who controlled the bloodgem had something more thrilling and valuable than a thousand Quickenings.

Sometimes, Russokoff regretted that he'd killed the little man when he'd went back that night for the bloodgems. Mortals were so easily dispensed with. Oddly enough, it hadn't occurred to him at the time to wonder how the shop owner knew about Immortals, or knew that he was one. He'd searched the shop, finding an old parchment told how to use the bloodgems, but nothing else about them.

Caleb hadn't believed the story, of course; he'd put the five stones away in his safe with the other so- called unattainable gems he'd collected over the centuries, and forgotten about them. It was... thirty, forty years later, he'd been rummaging through the safe looking for something else when he'd found the parchment. That young Immortal, Kael was her name, her mentor'd sent her to him to learn how to speed up her healing. She was so irritating! Half as a joke, not really expecting anything, he'd used a bloodgem for her. She hadn't been much sport, but still... the sensation... his body reacted at the memory. Over the centuries, Russokoff had collected some fine Quickenings, but the thrill of this had obsessed him. It was like no Quickening he'd ever experienced! He craved more... he had to have the whole bloodglow. Unfortunately, the next young Immortal he'd stumbled across hadn't even lasted as long as Kael. He'd come closest with Troy... if he hadn't gotten so impatient, bled him too fast...

But he had Ryan now. Richie was a challenge, not nearly as easy as he'd originally thought. And the boy had taken Quickenings, unlike the others... oh, the second had one, but Russokoff figured the older Immortal had probably stumbled into the path of the other's blade. Even Troy had been an innocent, a sheep to the slaughter. Richie was different: he had fight, and spirit. He was not at all the easy pickings the others had been. Russokoff hadn't had to use drugs with the others - - their inner demons had been ready to overwhelm them even without his assistance. Richie had some ego protection in his makeup. But no problem. The drugs would open the doors, and Russokoff would take full advantage. Giving Ryan a bloodgem to meditate upon had been a brilliant idea. Every time the kid used it, he'd be one step closer to destroying himself.

"Breathe deeply."

Richie's limbs felt heavy. His eyes drifted closed as he inhaled deeply, then expelled the air. He could smell the herbs Russokoff had left simmering on the stove. A strange smell, but good, clean. Almost piney, but not quite. Reminded him of Mac's cabin. Sunlight on water. Sun on the pine trees. Pine smoke at night in the fire...

"Richie." Caleb's voice was soothing, wrapping around Ryan like a warm blanket. "Concentrate on my voice. Listen to my words. We are going to open a door. See the door, Richie, see it in your mind. Do you see it?"

"Yes... I see the door." Richie's voice sounded distant, far away. Like it was coming from somewhere else.

"Feel the door, Richie. Feel it. It's a solid door. A heavy door. It's closed. Locked. Bad things are there, Richie. Things you don't want to remember... but you must. You must open the door, Richie. You must see what is inside."

There was a long silence. Finally, Richie said hesitantly, "I'm opening the door now." His voice sounded very young, like a child. Russokoff frowned. This was the first time he'd gotten Richie this deep into a trance so that he could start accessing the hidden memories. He'd assumed this first painful memory would have to do with Richie's first "death", awakening as an Immortal. But if Richie's voice was any indication, this was an older memory. "How old are you, Richie?"

"... Twelve."

Interesting. "What do you see behind the door?"

"A car. Mike's car." Richie's face crumpled. He tossed his head from side to side, and his hands clenched. Russokoff hesitated. Even this deep in a trace, Richie was too agitated. He could bring himself out of it too soon, and the damage wasn't done yet. Regretfully, Caleb decided to leave that memory for another time.

"Richie, we're going to close this door. All right? You don't have to look into this room now. Close the door. Is it closed?"

He felt the younger Immortal's body relax. Richie was lying on the floor, his head leaning against Caleb's chest. "It's closed." His voice sounded calm again.

"That's good, Richie. Let's go along to another door. Here's another door. It's locked, too, but you can open it. Just touch it. It will open."

Richie's breathing quickened. "It's dark... oh, God, it hurts!" His hands went to his chest. "He shot me!"

Ahhh. That was more like it. MacLeod had said Richie had been shot the first time.

"I'm alive?" The voice was full of wonder. "I'm an Immortal? Mac... you knew all the time." Then a deep breath of horror, "Oh God. No. Not Tessa. Not Tessa. No!" His voice rose to a scream. Tears ran down his face but his eyes didn't open. "Mac... please. She's not dead... please, make her wake up! Tessa, wake up! God, please, don't let her die!"

"She is dead, Richie. She's dead. You're alive."

"Mac? Please, Mac. Don't look at me like that. I'm sorry. I couldn't stop him... I should have stopped him. Why? Why did I wake up? Please, Mac, I'm sorry, but don't look at me like that. I'm sorry. It should have been Tessa, not me..." Then Richie's face contorted, and he reached out pleadingly. "Mac, please! Don't send me away! Don't make me leave. I'm sorry I killed him, I'm sorry... but don't make me go away. You're all I have..."

A memory jump! Ryan was deeper into the trance than he'd thought. The opportunity was to good to be missed. Caleb leaned over the younger Immortal. "Richie, Mac is making you leave. You're bad, Richie. He hates you, he's filled with disgust when he looks at you." Russokoff's voice dripped with venom. "You lived, and his love, Tessa, she died. What gave you the right to live?"

Ryan gave a convulsive shudder, but he didn't protest. Inwardly, Russokoff smiled. He'd been right. Ryan not only blamed himself for this Tessa's death, he harbored the deep fear that MacLeod blamed him, too. Caleb went on, "He wishes you were the one that had died, that she'd been Immortal. He has to take care of you, but he doesn't want to. He hates you. You're a burden on him."

The words were striking home. With each word, Richie shivered. Tears were pouring down his face and his mouth was opened but only strangled sounds came out. Russokoff nodded, satisfied. Time to bring him out of it. "Richie, feel this. You're going to wake up soon, and you won't remember that we talked about this. But you're going to feel sad, and afraid. You can't close this door and these memories are out. When you go to sleep, you'll see it all again." That should be enough. Richie's own imagination, coupled with the drugs, could take it from there. "Now, you're going to go into a deep, dark sleep. You won't remember anything. In five minutes, I'm going to touch your shoulder and you will wake up. Richie, go to sleep."

Richie went limp. His head rolled to one side. Caleb pushed him carelessly aside as he struggled to his feet. Damn, his leg had fallen asleep!

It was worth it, though. He'd planted plenty of seeds to torture the young Immortal over the next several hours. Inflicting emotional agony was never as satiating to Russokoff as physical, but it was still exciting. Too exciting. He wanted to see blood. "No!" he told himself. "Tomorrow." His hands shook and his stomach churned with excitement. Suddenly, he went over to his satchel and pulled out the hammer. So he couldn't make Ryan bleed yet. He'd break some bones instead. That should tide him over until tomorrow.

3

Brussels, Belgium. December 9

The blue-eyed man slammed down the phone in disgust. Damn that Highlander, anyway! Couldn't the man stay in one place for more than a day? On the other hand, Duncan MacLeod wasn't making any effort to hide his tracks. Paris, London, Brussels, now he was supposedly on his way to Canada. Obviously he wasn't running from anyone... at least he didn't appear to be. But what was his connection with Caleb Russokoff, anyway? And where was Russokoff? He had seemingly disappeared without a trace.

Seattle

Richie hung up the phone, puzzled. That was the third call in the last couple of days for Duncan. The man never gave his name and Richie never gave him any information, except to offer to give Mac a message, but the man always declined. It could be another Immortal stalking Mac... but somehow Ryan doubted it. The voice... it was the voice. He'd heard it before.

Richie reluctantly got in bed. He was sleepy, exhausted but he knew he wouldn't sleep. The throbbing of his smashed hands, the pain of the deep cuts ... Russokoff had started out with shallow cuts, but over the last three days they'd gotten progressively longer, deeper. The pain of his smashed hands was making him sick to his stomach. He didn't seem to be healing any faster than he had been before he'd started the training, but Russokoff had warned him against trying to put time limits on things. "You can't compare healings like apples and oranges," he laughed. "Unfortunately, in order to heal faster, your body has to work at it."

Well, Richie's body was working, and hard, too, if the hot stabs and little flashes of blue lightening were any indication, but still, there was a lot to heal. Caleb had done the cutting, but he had ordered Richie to smash his own hands The pain had been unbearable and Richie had passed out. He'd woken in time to see Russokoff crash the hammer down on his breastbone. That pain had been unlike anything Richie had even imagined and he still had trouble breathing. It had been hard on Caleb as well; he hadn't even been able to look at Richie as he'd gathered his things and reminded the younger Immortal to go straight to bed, and to remember his tonic. Richie'd taken it, but so far it hadn't helped him sleep. For some reason, he was almost afraid to sleep.

Finally, it must have been hours later, the pains eased and he felt himself getting warm and drowsy. His eyes finally closed as he slid into sleep.

There was no one there to hear his terrified cries when the nightmares started.

Seattle, Washington. December 11

Russokoff picked up his messages as he was leaving the hotel lobby. He'd been out most of the morning, meeting with Corinna Bolt about the piece she had commissioned for her grandson's wedding. Russokoff's private opinion, after having met the earnest young man in question, to say nothing of his giggling fiance, was that the stones would be better left where they were. Corinna Bolt had disagreed. The parure had been handed down to her from her family of Boston patricians, but these days, it was difficult to imagine where a twenty year old girl was going to wear a tiara, necklace, bracelets and broach with any regularity. After some discussion, Russokoff agreed to do the piece; he'd thought at first about snagging the necklace at least, and using less quality stones, but after meeting her, he decided not to underestimate Corinna Bolt. He wouldn't put it past her to whip out a jeweler's glass at the wedding if she had any suspicions of the stones.

There were two messages from Richie; apparently he had finished his final and was waiting for Russokoff at the dojo. Caleb's face split into a delighted grin. Ryan was under his power. Russokoff had been bleeding him for the last five days and the young man was noticeably weak. His inner demons were torturing him quite thoroughly. It should end soon. Tonight, or at the latest, tomorrow night, he'd have the bloodglow.

There was still a third message in his hand, and as he read it he felt the blood drain from his face. It was from his assistant, Alice, back in London. She had located two more bloodgems.

Richie Ryan sat in the office and stared apathetically at the desk. There was a class going on out in the dojo proper but he didn't walk out and look as he normally would. The stack of billing piled on the corner taunted him; the bills should have been mailed by the tenth. His coffee had long gone cold but Richie didn't have the energy to get up and pour himself another cup.

His eyes drifted to the schedule Russokoff had drawn up for him. Right now, he should be working out on the weights. Then he was slated for another hour's meditation on that weird crystal the other Immortal had given him. He must be doing something right because the crystal was no longer clear; instead, it was a deep red. That should have been encouraging to Richie, but right now he was just too exhausted to care. His finals were almost over; the last, in Chemistry, was four hours away. What he really wanted to do was sleep, but he couldn't. Richie hadn't had more than an hours sleep in days. Tormented by nightmares, he'd given up trying to sleep altogether. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten, either; the mere thought of food sickened him.

The phone rang. After the third time, Richie forced himself to stir, to answer it. Russokoff's voice barreled from the speaker. "Richie. I have to go to San Francisco, right away. Meet me at the airport."

"Airport?" Richie repeated blankly.

"Yes." Russokoff was impatient. The bloodgems were being auctioned off first thing in the morning and there was only one flight left to San Francisco this evening. "You're going with me. You're training is at a critical point, we can't afford to slacken now."

From somewhere Richie found the energy to protest, "I can't go to San Francisco! Somebody's got to take care of the dojo, and my last final is tonight! We'll just have to wait until you get back. When --"

If Duncan MacLeod had been there, he could have warned Russokoff that what he did next was a big mistake. His voice sharp, cold, commanding, the older Immortal ordered, "Get your ass to the airport, damnit! Who cares about your stupid final! This is important. Do you want to lose everything you've gained?"

It was the wrong approach to take with Richie. His voice as angry, the younger Immortal fired back, "I don't know that I've gained anything, except a lot of pain! I'm not healing any faster than I ever did... I'm slower. That cut on my leg from last night is still bleeding!"

Cold chills went down Russokoff's spine at the younger Immortals words. Richie's healing had been slowed, and the incision over the femoral artery a deep one, but still, it should have at least partially healed by now. That it hadn't could only mean one thing: Richie's healing ability was gone altogether. The bloodglow was that close. If he made the wrong move now, he would lose it forever. Unfortunately, he had to get to the airport immediately; he couldn't lose the chance to get the stones at auction. With any luck he'd be back in Seattle tomorrow evening. He'd just have to back off Richie for a little bit, postpone the bloodglow. In the meantime, he'd have to do something to get that bleeding stopped, and allay any suspicions Richie might be harboring in the process.

"Okay," he said finally, forcing himself to speak calmly. "If you're not healing, that's a good sign. Really, I told you that when we first started. I have to go to San Francisco. You go ahead and take your final, and I'll be back tomorrow. Richie, don't do anything tonight, do you understand? You could hurt yourself badly. Keep off that leg, and eat something, something light... soup. When you get home from school, go straight to bed. I'll call later and check on you.

Richie's voice sounded plaintive. "I can't sleep. The nightmares..."

"Take a double dose of the cordial," Russokoff ordered. "Do you understand me? Promise me?" He'd already learned that if Ryan made a promise, he'd try to keep it. After a long pause, he heard, "Okay" over the phone. They exchanged a few more remarks, then the Immortal hung up, frustrated. He'd been so damn close to the bloodglow this time!

All was not lost, however. MacLeod wasn't due back for another eight or nine days... plenty of time to get Richie back under his control. With any luck, by the end of the week, he'd have two new bloodgems and Ryan's bloodglow.

Richie Ryan stepped off the elevator into the loft apartment. He dropped his books on the floor and made it to the couch, sinking down into the leather cushions. The Chemistry final was over; he'd probably failed it, he couldn't even remember the questions. But he'd written down an answer in every blank, finished it in the allotted time, and at least it was over.

He lay still for several minutes, trying to gather some energy. His leg throbbed under the thick bandage he'd wound around it to keep the blood from soaking his pants. He'd had to wear sweats to class because the bandages were too thick to get his jeans over, and the pain was bad. He needed to change the bandage, and he probably should try to eat something, too. No, he was too tired to eat.

Finally, he managed to stagger to his feet, and went into the bathroom. Peeling off the sweatpants, he was relieved to see that the top layer of bandage was clean. The bleeding must have finally stopped. Carefully, he unwound the gauze that he'd wrapped around several of the 4x4 gauze pads. The bottom layers were stiff with drying blood. Rather than trying to unstick them, Richie pulled off the rest of his clothes and stepped into the shower. He turned the water as hot as he could stand and stood under it for a long time, relishing the feeling as the needle-sharp spray eased his tortured muscles. The soaked bandages fell off, and he could see the wound clearly, a jagged, deep incision, high on the inside of his thigh and about nine inches long. Caleb had done that with a small, ruthlessly sharp dagger. He'd also done a long cut down the inside of one of Richie's arms but that hadn't been as deep. It was still an angry red mark and it hurt, too. Come to think about it, so did the two in his stomach.

A tingle of fear struck the young Immortal. Anxiously, he started looking at the rest of the cuts all over his body. None of the others were bleeding, but they all looked red and angry. Even the first ones, the shallow cuts that Caleb had done several nights ago; they'd healed without a trace but now there were dark marks, like bruises, where they had been.

Richie didn't know what to do. Russokoff was gone, in California; he couldn't ask him if this was normal, or if something had gone wrong. He looked at the phone and thought briefly of Mac, but dismissed the idea. He couldn't bother his mentor with something like this; Mac'd think he was even more worthless. Dawson? Maybe the Watchers knew something about the Spiros meditations. Maybe he should see a doctor... Mac's former love interest, Anne Lindsay, she knew about Immortals, about him... his thoughts skittered as panic coursed through him.

Calm down, he told himself firmly. Don't be such a baby. You told Caleb the wounds weren't healing right and he just told you to get some sleep. If there had been anything to panic about, he would have. Somewhat comforted by his thoughts, Ryan turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, grabbing one of MacLeod's thick, plush towels off the bar. Wrapping it around his waist, he sat on the toilet lid and decided to rebandage the leg wound: although it wasn't bleeding at the moment he was afraid it might open up again in his sleep. Then he reached for the bottle that held the sleeping potion. "Double the dose," he told himself firmly.

For a minute he hesitated, terrified although he wouldn't admit it, about the dreams he'd been having. Even though he couldn't remember them clearly, they filled him with an irrational terror. But surely, as tired as he was, a double dose of the blue liquid would make him sleep so soundly he wouldn't have any dreams. He lifted the bottle to his lips, and downed most of the liquid inside, not bothering to measure it. Then he turned out the light in the bathroom and staggered over to fall on the bed, curling up in a little ball. He was cold and pulled the blankets up close beneath his chin. His last thought before sleep claimed him was that he hoped he didn't get blood all over Mac's sheets.

San Francisco. December 12.

Duncan MacLeod had an early breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. He'd slept badly and he had a headache. The vague feelings of foreboding that had been growing in him for a few days had worsened. Part of the problem, he knew, was concern over being unable to reach Richie. The last time he'd talked to him the kid had sounded bad, exhaustion dragging his voice; Mac wasn't sure the younger Immortal even realized who he was talking to.

MacLeod wanted to go home, to see his young friend with his own eyes and make sure he was all right. Never mind that Richie was deep into the Spiros method; surely a little moral support from his mentor would help, not hinder what he was involved in.

Unfortunately, he couldn't go to Seattle right now. He'd been committed for months to attend this auction at Simpson and Green. Although he'd given up the antique shop after Tessa's death he still was a recognized dealer in the art/antique community. The University in Seattle wanted to purchase a rare illuminated manuscript that was slated to be auctioned, and MacLeod had agreed to serve as agent for them. Drinking a second cup of coffee, he glanced over the catalog of the auction. It was a large one; the manuscript was in the first third of offerings. He shouldn't have to attend the second day at all, but his flight to Seattle wasn't until three the next afternoon. Airline traffic was normally dead the first ten days in December, but now flights were starting to fill up more quickly.

MacLeod decided to walk to the auction. It wasn't being held at Simpson and Green but rather close by at a large fashionable hotel. MacLeod could have stayed there, but he preferred the older, more venerable establishment where there was a view of the Golden Gate. It was a really miserable day, but not actually raining and the Highlander was full of nervous energy. He worked some of it off in a brisk walk.

He stepped into the lavish lobby and immediately felt the familiar sensation that warned him Another was nearby. Slowly, his eyes scanned the crowded area, but he didn't see anyone he recognized, nor anyone who looked as if they were searching for him. Still wary, he moved down the hall and towards the double doors of the banquet room.

The other Immortal was standing at the end of the hall, near a bank of telephones. His blue eyes were scanning the people much as Duncan had, but when he caught sight of the Highlander his tense face lightened and he strode forward to greet the other man with a hearty handshake. "So, my cousin, I've been chasing you for the last three days and now you turn up here--after I'd given up hope of catching up with you!"

The crowd surging into the ballroom parted for this reunion. Duncan MacLeod grasped Connor MacLeod's hand in turn, frankly stunned. "Connor! I thought you were in Australia!"

The blond Immortal shook his head, amused. "That was last month," he said easily. He appeared casual but there was a tension about him; Mac could see it in the tight lines around his mouth. He knew that expression. Connor was head-hunting.

Although both Highlanders were considered to be "good" Immortals, they played the Game differently. Connor was more aggressive, actively seeking, and destroying, evil. Duncan usually waited until evil came to him. Richie had once termed him as a "defensive player". Since Richie had known him, that had been mostly true.

"So, what are you doing here?" both Immortals said at the same time. Then they smiled. "You go first," Duncan said mockingly. "Age before beauty!"

"You know what I'm doing here," Connor returned lightly, but with an undertone to his words. His clansman felt a warning tingle at the back of his neck. He was right then: Connor was after someone.

"Who is it?" he questioned quietly. Duncan didn't like the look his erstwhile Mentor was giving him, almost as if the older Immortal was wondering how much to tell him.

"Are you here alone? Or did Caleb Russokoff come with you?" Connor's tone was abrupt and Mac felt another knot of tension form in his neck.

"Caleb's not here; he's in Seattle. Why do you want him, Connor?" Mac spoke very slowly.

Connor's eyes met his, and Duncan saw something there he hadn't seen in many years. Rage. Real, blood rage. More than just a desire to rid the world of a bad Immortal: Connor was out for vengeance. The older Immortal shook his head impatiently. "I have information that he's going to be here. Duncan, do you have an invitation to this auction? Can you get me in with you? They're getting ready to close the doors."

"Probably. But I want to know why you're looking for Caleb!"

Connor MacLeod swore softly, in Gaelic. "My God, you're stubborn! I'll tell you, Duncan, but inside!" At the sight of the other man's set face he broke off with a little snarl of exasperation. "Duncan MacLeod, do you trust me?"

Mac didn't have to think about the answer. "I always have.

"Then trust me now, Kinsman. Get me into this auction."

Without a word, MacLeod turned on his heel and strode toward the registration desk. He was expected, and there was no problem with him bringing a guest. Duncan picked up the order of exhibits and a second copy of the catalog, and gestured for Connor to follow him through the doors.

The warning tingle hit both men as they entered the ballroom. Connor touched Mac's elbow. "Over there," he hissed, indicating a seat on the far right, near the back. "Isn't that Russokoff?"

The house lights had dimmed, to encourage people to take their seats, Mac supposed. He had to strain to see the figure that his cousin indicated. It did appear to be Russokoff, but if so, he wasn't reacting to the warning buzz. He was staring intently at his catalog. MacLeod looked around, spotted two unoccupied seats where they could easily observe Russokoff but from where he would have to lean back at an uncomfortable angle to see them. Jerking his head to indicate the seats, he sat down. Connor hesitated, staring at Russokoff with an unreadable expression on his face, but finally he subsided into the chair next to Duncan.

The auction got started with some words of welcome from a representative of Simpson and Green. MacLeod glanced down at the catalog. The first items were some Victorian trinkets; these went quickly and with a minimum of bidding. Connor was still watching Russokoff intently and he ignored his clansman's attempts to talk, so finally Duncan gave up. Connor wouldn't do anything in front of all these people, and Russokoff was apparently either oblivious or uncaring of their presence, so the Scotsman gave up and concentrated on the auction for awhile.

4

An hour went past, then two. Russokoff didn't move; Connor continued to watch him as a leopard does its prey. Duncan was uneasy. The vague feelings of doom he'd been having were gradually intensifying, and he kept having a creepy sensation, as if someone was sneaking up behind him.

Finally, he'd had enough. "Okay, Connor... I got you in here. Now tell me what the hell is going on!"

Connor elbowed him sharply in the ribs. "Shhh," the older Immortal whispered. "He just bid on something. It looks like some kind of lamp. What's the catalog description?"

MacLeod had lost his place in the presentation list and it took him a moment to find the lot number. In that time, two or three other bids were entered and Russokoff countered them. Glancing over at him, Duncan's bad feelings tripled at the sight of the other man's face. It was stressed, intent; the Russian leaned a little forward in his seat as if he couldn't restrain himself. The bids quickly shot up from five hundred to three thousand, and MacLeod frowned, studying the catalog description. Lot number 85 was a bedside oil lamp with an elaborate crystal shade. In the Highlander's opinion, it was the epitome of Victorian bad taste, right down to the heavy crystal teardrops suspended from the shade. The Russian Immortal seemed determined to win the lamp; twice he upped the bid when there was no other on the floor.

Connor had dropped his own catalog on the floor and rather than search for it he took Duncan's and was studying the description in his turn. As the bid reached seven thousand, four hundred dollars, he raised an eyebrow. "You're the antique dealer," he said quietly. "Is it worth this much?"

"To Caleb it is, apparently," Duncan answered, puzzled. Although the piece was undeniably antique, probably one hundred twenty years or so, there was no documented history to it. It was unusual for something like this to even be in an auction such as Simpson and Green's; that it was being bid up to these sums made no sense whatsoever. The auctioneer appeared surprised, too. As was the way of auctions, several other people had joined in the fray when it became obvious the piece was being bid up, and the figures mounted rapidly.

Remarkably, bidding went on for another ten minutes. By this time, all the other bidders had fallen out save for Russokoff and one other, Bidder number 112. The Highlanders could not see this bidder from where they were and neither, apparently, could Russokoff. His face was becoming flushed and sweaty even in the dim light, and he sat on the very edge of the chair. His knuckles were white on the paddle.

"This is insane," MacLeod murmured as Caleb's bid topped twenty five thousand dollars. He could see several Simpson and Green personnel in the front of the room, and they looked very worried. MacLeod knew they were concerned that they had missed something in their research on the piece, something that obviously Russokoff and the other bidder knew about. The auctioneer was starting to look as if he were at a tennis match, his face oscillating from Russokoff, in the back, left of the room, to the other bidder, somewhere on the right side of the room.

$27,000...27,000... 28,000...28,200,... 28,600...

At 30,000, a glitch appeared to develop. A discreet light at the side of the auctioneer's podium blinked on. The man hesitated, looking towards Russokoff, "Ceiling, Bidder 183."

"What does that mean?" Connor hissed.

"They check out your finances, and give you a credit limit," MacLeod answered. "Caleb has reached his. They won't accept any more bids from him."

"He doesn't appear too happy about that," Connor pointed out softly. That was an understatement. Russokoff had stood up, his face flushed an angry red. "I bid $30,000! You will accept my bid!"

"I'm sorry, sir, we cannot," the auctioneer answered politely. "Any other bids?... Lot number 85 sold to Bidder 112 for twenty-nine thousand, eight hundred fifty dollars..." His hammer crashed down. Before it lifted again, Russokoff was on his feet, yelling something in Russian. He started for the front of the room, but two security guards appeared out of nowhere and intercepted him. Russokoff didn't pause, giving one man a mighty shove and backhanding the other so that he flew back into a cluster of chairs. Then with a wild movement, the man tore off his long coat and pulled a sword out of the folds.

"That idiot!" MacLeod swore. "What does he think he's doing?" He leapt to his feet. Connor was already moving, shoving through the suddenly panicked crowd. The crush of people kept either MacLeod from reaching Russokoff before he got to the stage. Raising his sword, the enraged Immortal advanced on the cowering auctioneer.

"Stop right there!" A policeman had entered the room though the door closest to the stage. Unlike the security guards, this man was armed, and he held his service revolver in a rock-steady grip. "Drop the weapon!" His voice carried the unmistakable note of authority, but Russokoff didn't even act as if he heard. He was still raving at the top of his lungs in old Russian. MacLeod caught a few of the words and frowned. They didn't make sense. Then he felt Connor tense, and suddenly, Connor wasn't there anymore. Russokoff swung his sword at the auctioneer, but it didn't connect as the man pushed the podium over and made a hasty lunge backwards. Before Russokoff could try again, shots rang out. The policeman had fired, three shots into Russokoff's chest. Impossibly, the Immortal continued forward a few steps, then faltered. His sword slid from his hand, and he crumpled to his knees, then fell face down on the floor.

It was a moment of shattering silence.

Then the screaming started, as over two hundred people turned as one and started to fight for the exits. Connor had reached the stage, but before the policeman saw him he melted back into the crowd and was swept back towards Duncan. "Let's get out of here!" he hissed, grabbing the younger Immortal's arm to urge him out the doors.

"We can't!" Duncan pulled away from his mentor. "We've got to get him out of here. When he comes back--"

"And do you want to have to explain how we know him, or how he's going to come back to life after taking three .45 caliber bullets in the heart?" Yanking the other man along, Connor somehow got them free of the crowd and out of the room. The lobby was Pandemonium, too, and no one paid them any attention as they slipped into a side corridor. "They have our names on a list," MacLeod pointed out.

"I doubt the police will interview everybody in that room." Connor was heading for a side door into the parking garage. "I've a rental car. Let's just get out of here!"

"Not until you tell me why you wanted Caleb in the first place!"

Exasperated, the older Immortal turned, his hands on his hips, to face his younger counterpart. For just a second, the look on his face reminded Duncan of his own protege. "Dear God, Highlander! You do have a one track mind. I'll tell you once we get out of here."

"You tell me now!" MacLeod was bigger than his cousin, and angry now. He grasped Connor's arm, pulling him to a stop and yanking him around to face him. "Why are you after Caleb?"

Connor faced Duncan, his jaw working. When his glare failed to cow Duncan, he pointed out acidly, "Look, Kinsman... there's been a shooting in the lobby. This place is going to be crawling with cops. We need to get out of here. I promise you... we'll go somewhere private and I'll tell you everything I know, think, or suspect... but right now we have to get out of here!"

The "somewhere private" turned out to be Golden Gate Park. There were very few people about on this drizzly, cold day, and the two Immortals walked to the point overlooking the bridge. In spite of everything, Duncan smiled at the view. He'd always been fond of San Francisco. Then he looked at his kinsman and the smile vanished. "Well?"

Connor had been staring out to sea, lost in his own thoughts and memories. There was a brief silence before he said abruptly, "I didn't know the two of you were friends."

"He saved my life two hundred years ago," Duncan responded shortly.

"And the first time I saved your life was... what? Four hundred years ago? And the last time--"

"Damn it, Connor! Don't make this a choice between loyalties. Tell me what's going on! I know you. You don't go after someone unless there's a damn good reason. But Caleb? The man's devoted his whole life to teaching younger Immortals--"

"That may have been true, once," Connor interrupted, his voice very gentle. He shook his head impatiently. "I know it was true once. But it's not true now, and it hasn't been true in a long time. Up until six months ago, there were only two reasons Caleb Russokoff would help a young Immortal. One reason was to get the protection of the younger Immortal's Mentor, if it was someone powerful--"

"You can't fault him for that," Duncan argued. "Russokoff is out of the Game; there's nothing wrong with him trying to assure himself some protection."

"My God, you can be naive," Connor snorted. "Out of the Game? Hardly! He probably has more kills in the last five years than you and I do, combined, for the last ten! The other reason he takes on young Immortals is to get at their Mentors. A couple of months after a young Immortal would finish training with him, the Mentor would disappear. And oddly enough, most of the time Russokoff just happened to be in the neighborhood. Not in the Game? The man's an active player!"

"That's impossible," Duncan declared, but his voice lacked conviction. No matter how much he wanted to believe Connor had made a mistake, he knew his kinsman. Connor could be relentless, but he was scrupulously fair. "What's a bloodgem?" the younger Immortal asked suddenly.

"A bloodgem?" Connor stared at him. "At the end, there in the hotel, before he got shot... remember, Caleb was screaming some Russian words? That's what he was saying. At least," MacLeod amended, remembering how hysterical Russokoff had been, "that's what it sounded like. He was yelling, 'I must have the bloodgems!' You don't know?"

Connor frowned. "Bloodgem. It sounds familiar, somehow, but... Duncan, I swear to you, I wasn't expecting what happened in the hotel. I've been tracking Russokoff for several days. I traced him to Paris, found out he'd had dinner with you, then... poof! He seemed to vanish. I couldn't get a line on him, so then I went after you, thinking you'd maybe know where he'd gone." He snorted. "You don't cover your tracks nearly as well as he does!"

"I wasn't trying to hide--" Duncan started to protest, then let it drop. His kinsman wasn't listening to him, anyway.

"Yesterday, someone in his business in London tipped me off that he was going to be at this auction... that there was something he was desperate to have. I guess it was that lamp. So I came here. I wanted to watch him a while... before.." his voice trailed off and he turned to look back across the water. When he went on, his voice was very low. "Duncan, you're going to find this hard to believe-- hell, I can barely believe it!-- but... I think Russokoff has found someway to... steal an Immortal's healing abilities."

MacLeod stared at him, blood turning to ice water in his veins, as Connor went on, "There have been three young Immortals in the last six months. All three were training with him; two of them, Kael Marsh and Piotr Velonov, had been sent there by their mentors to learn the Spiros method to speed their healing. Kael was English. Very young." Connor's voice became very low, intent. The police found her headless body in Kew Gardens. Tambi Akura... remember him? was her mentor. Somehow, Akura got the idea that Kirov had killed her. He went after Kirov and got himself beheaded. He should have asked some questions before he lost his life: Kirov didn't even get to London until after they found Kael's body."

After a long silence, MacLeod asked, in a voice that didn't even sound like his own, "Are you saying that Caleb killed her? Why? What could he gain from that?"

"Duncan, there was no evidence of a Quickening. No freak local storms reported. There were wounds all over her body; evidence of torture. The head was removed after death! Same with the next one, Piotr Whatever his last name was."

Duncan licked his dry lips; tasted the salt from the wind. "You said there were three young Immortals."

Connor's face changed; the rage flooding back. Wordlessly, he fumbled for his wallet, pulling a newspaper clipping out and handing it to the other man. Duncan scanned it hastily, frowning. "The body of an American named Troy Nichols was found floating in the Thames, and he worked for Caleb. So?"

"He was an Immortal." Connor's voice was quiet, but resolute. "I knew him, Duncan. Or at least, I'd met him. Several times. The first time was in a little roadside cafe in Oklahoma. Never mind what I was doing there, but I walked in, and this kid came over to pour me a coffee, and I knew... it was a feeling. You know it. We both felt it, that night in your shop, with Richie."

"Oh," Duncan understood. Not all Immortals could sense an unborn one of their kind and MacLeod had had plenty of reason to be thankful for that. All of the Immortals Richie had run across before his first death... Felice Martins, Slan, Kiem Sun... Gregor had probably known; Michael might have realized the truth if he hadn't been so sick and twisted inside by his own demons. "So this kid was an unborn Immortal?"

"Yes. Then, later, I ran across him in London. He'd died by then," Connor added with unintentional irony. "Caleb was teaching him. I sometimes think-- well, that's not important now. Anyway," he went on in a brisker tone, "When I saw this article, I did some checking and found out about the others, and got hold of Troy's autopsy report. Duncan, he died from exsanguination. Blood loss. Somehow... I think... Russokoff has found a way to steal healing ability." Connor broke off at the sight of the other man's horrified face. "What are you thinking?" he demanded intently.

All of the feelings of dread that MacLeod had been feeling for the last few days whirled together in a rush in his brain. He felt the bile rise in his throat "Richie..."

Connor looked confused. "Richie? What about him" Then his eyes widened in horror. "Oh, my God. Duncan, earlier you said Caleb was in Seattle. He wasn't with Richie?"

"Caleb's been teaching Richie for over a week" Duncan said softly. His whole body was shaking and he didn't even recognize his voice as his own. "I asked him to go to Seattle... to teach Richie the Spiros method."

Seattle

Joe Dawson hung up the phone with an irritated clang. That was the third call in the last hour, all of them from men who worked out at Mac's dojo, calling Dawson to see if he knew why Richie had never opened up for business that morning. Richie hung around the club enough, and it was close enough to the dojo that a lot of the same people frequented both. All three of the callers regularly had early morning workouts at the dojo, and they all indicated that this was the first time Richie had failed to open the doors by 7:30 at the latest.

Dawson walked back to the phone, deciding he'd call the loft. Before he could do so, however, it rang, and he snatched it up, hoping it was Richie. Much to his surprise, it was Duncan. "Mac, where are you?"

"In San Francisco. Actually, we're on the way to the airport." Mac's voice was tense. "Listen, Joe. Richie may be in trouble. I've called the loft and the dojo, and all I get is the answering machine. Can you find him?"

"Trouble? What else is new?" Dawson's voice was dry. "Mac, you know I can't interfere--"

"Damn the Watcher code!" MacLeod exploded over the phone. "Joe, this doesn't have anything to do with the Game... Richie may have lost his healing ability. He could be badly hurt. For God's sake, Joe, he may be dead! Connor and I are on the way back, but you've got to find him!"

"He can't lose his healing ability... can he?" Dawson was remembering back a few days, remembering how Richie had looked when he had come into the club. Joe Dawson had been watching Immortals much of his adult life and he'd never seen one look so ill, so exhausted. With a rush of fear, he realized that he believed what Mac was saying. "Okay. Mac, I'll find him."

"Call me back," the Highlander instructed, giving Dawson his cell phone number.

San Francisco

There was a mob scene at the airport. Unusually early winter storms over the Rockies had diverted airline traffic, and a lot of people whose travel plans were not expected to take them anywhere near San Francisco were stranded there, desperate to get on their way. The woman at the ticket counter merely shook her head in a defeated manner when MacLeod tried to purchase two tickets on the next flight to Seattle. "I'm sorry, sir, but I won't be able to get you on a flight until this evening, maybe. Definitely first thing tomorrow morning."

All of MacLeod's fabled charm had deserted him. He snarled at the airline employee, "This is an emergency. Tonight or tomorrow just won't do. I need on the next flight. When is it?"

The woman -- her nametag identified her as "Shirley"-- sighed. "The next flight," she said patiently, "Is full."

"So you've said," MacLeod snapped, "But when does it take off? From what gate?"

Shirley glanced at her computer, considering. "Flight 906 departs in 34 minutes from Gate 45. But--"

"I know, it's full." MacLeod held up a hand to stop her from talking. "But if I can get someone to sell me their ticket, that's my business, isn't it? I mean, the airline doesn't have any regulations against that?"

Shirley looked as if she'd had a hard day, too, as she snapped a reply, "You can try. But I don't think you'll have much luck."

The smile that Mac bestowed on her then had the faint ghost of his usual charm in it. "I think I'll manage it," he said, almost cheerfully, setting off for Gate 45 with Connor in tow.

Manage it he did, and it wasn't even very difficult, just expensive. The second person he approached happened to be a giggling junior at the University of Arizona, on her way home to Seattle for Christmas vacation, who had gotten diverted to San Francisco when the airport in Denver had closed. She was more than happy to hand over her ticket in return for a round-trip, first-class ticket on the next day's flight, as well as enough cash for a night in one of the city's finer hotels with plenty left over for a shopping spree. She even produced the friend who had the seat next to hers, who was equally as thrilled with the idea of postponing her return to the nest for twenty-four hours. By the time they'd gotten tickets switched around and cash handed over, the loudspeaker was announcing boarding for Flight 906.

A crowded airplane is no place to have a conversation about Immortals, beheading and Quickenings. Neither Immortal said much on the trip. When the perky redheaded flight attendant asked him what he wanted for lunch, MacLeod was surprised. He felt like he'd been on the go for hours, but a peek at his wristwatch confirmed it was not yet noon. He settled for a chef salad. Connor, who looked as if he'd been up for days (and probably had been) drained his coffee cup, gobbled his mystery chicken dish, then adjusted his seat back and took a nap. He always had been able to sleep anywhere, under any circumstances. It was one thing he'd never been able to teach Duncan. Bereft of his company, Duncan spent the flight staring at his cell phone and waiting for it to ring.

It didn't.

5

Seattle

Richie Ryan woke slowly, summoned from the blessed relief of sleep by the persistent ringing of the phone. By the time he'd finally forced his eyes open, the answering machine picked up. Mac's voice, delivering the message Richie had never got around to changing, cut through the room. There was no return message, though, whoever had called had hung up before the message was over. "Damn people," Richie muttered, turning to bury his head back in the pillow. As he did so he caught sight of the clock. "What-- shit! That can't be right! Damn, I've got to open the dojo..." he tried to push back the covers. For some reason his hands didn't seem to be working well. The blankets were twisted under his legs and when he tried to pull them free, a shattering pain burst through his upper leg. Richie groaned, reaching instinctively towards the pain. He encountered something wet and sticky and he when he looked at it, his hand was covered with blood.

His mind was so fuzzy that for several minutes he just sat there and stared at his hand, unable to realize what the sight of the blood meant. His mind refused to accept that he had lost his healing ability. His head was pounding with the worst pain he'd ever felt, his eyes felt grainy, and his hands and feet were ice cold. In spite of the fact that he could now see his sweat pants were soaked with fresh blood, he was still so tired that all he wanted to do was lay down again and go back to sleep. "Maybe I have the flu," he said out loud. Then he frowned. Did Immortals get the flu? Maybe... or maybe not... his thoughts were fragmented and he slowly curled back up into a ball in the center of the bed.

Only to be jerked awake again by a harsh pounding on the door. Richie bolted upright, then fell back to the pillows as the room whirled around him. "Go away," he said weakly, more to the room in general since he knew his voice wasn't loud enough to be heard on the other side of the door. His unknown visitor pounded again, louder. "Richie! Richie, I know you're in there!"

Dawson's voice. Richie decided he'd let the Watcher in. Maybe Dawson knew if Immortals could catch the flu.

Easier said than done. He couldn't seem to get his feet underneath him. His leg still hurt, but the pain didn't seem so sharp now, or maybe it was just that his head was pounding so badly it blotted everything else out, but his legs felt like spaghetti. He managed only a few steps before collapsing to the floor. Afraid to try to stand up again, he dragged himself across the room.

He was still several feet short of his goal when the door crashed open and a blast of frigid outside air touched his face. Joe Dawson came in with the cold air, his facial expression half-irritated and half- concerned.

The irritation all but vanished when he spotted Richie on the floor. The young man looked up to see Dawson bending over him awkwardly, gripping his ever-present cane for support. "My God, Richie... you're bleeding."

"I am?" Richie repeated fuzzily. "Oh, right. I forgot. My leg."

"What about your leg? Richie, what did you do?"

The worry in Dawson's voice forced Richie to become a little more alert as he tried to reassure the other man. "I didn't do anything, Caleb cut me. It's part of the ritual, you know, I told you, the Spiros method..." Richie's voice trailed off and he lay his head down on the floor. "Mac's goin' to' be upset," he said dreamily, "Haven't been rubbing' the floors down with lemon oil..."

Dawson had been worried before, but now he was terrified. Richie wasn't making sense, and there was so much blood around the room... Joe didn't even understand how Richie could still be conscious. And Dawson knew something about the Spiros method, he'd been researching it since Russokoff had come to town, and nothing that he'd read had talked about ritual blood letting. Richie's shirt and sweat pants looked like they'd been covered in brownish-red paint, the sheets and blankets on the bed were streaked with blood too, and, most frightening, there was a puddle of blood rapidly enlarging beneath Richie on the floor. "Dear God, if you have lost your healing ability..." Joe started, then stopped his thoughts quickly. Instead, he looked around for the phone. "Richie," he said, forcing his voice to be calm, "I'm going to get you to the hospital."

"Hospital?" Richie repeated sleepily, forcing his eyes open. They were dull and glazed. "Dawson, Immortals don't go to hospitals." His voice trailed off. "I'm so cold..."

His voice was faint but Dawson heard him. The Watcher looked around for a blanket; he shrank from touching the bloody ones on the bed. The 911 operator came on the line just as he opened a massive armoire and pulled out a thick quilt. Spreading it over Richie's still form, Dawson urgently requested an ambulance be sent to the dojo. "The apartment's upstairs," he said, "The outside doors to the business are locked but if they come around to the alley, there's a staircase that comes straight up to the apartment."

The operator repeated the address and the phone number, assured him help was on the way, and rang off. Dawson tossed the phone aside, then knelt with difficulty on the floor next to Ryan. "Richie, you just hang in there, you hear me?" He covered one of Richie's icy hands with both of his. Please, God, don't do this. He's just a kid. If anything happens to him, I'll never be able to look MacLeod in the face again.

Dr. Anne Lindsay had changed hospitals after coming off maternity leave. Saints Peter and Paul Hospital wasn't in a better part of town than her previous one; the Emergency Room was still understaffed and always overcrowded. She was actually making slightly less than she had been at her previous job. But the benefits were better and Saints Hospital was associated with the University Medical school.

The most important reason, though, had to do with the fact that the new hospital had 24-hour day care. Housed in what had many years before been the Nursing Training School, it was close enough so that Anne could go spend time with her daughter several times during her shift.

Her pager went off as she was walking back across the grounds and she sighed. The season of good will was not a good one for Seattle. Already this morning she had admitted an elderly woman suffering from flu turned into pneumonia; a husband shot by his wife during a domestic argument over how to fix scrambled eggs, and a young man dying from complications of AIDS. The code on her pager indicated a critical case, so she picked up her pace and cut through the waiting room. At first glance, the room, which had actually been fairly empty when she'd left before, was full to the brim with small children and parents. The kids were acting as if this was a new playground and the parents, across the board, looked hysterical. Anne turned a stunned look on the receptionist. "What's all this?"

In her twenty years on the front desk in the Emergency Room, Sarah Fuller had seen it all; still, she couldn't keep a chuckle out of her voice as she reported, "The Kindergarten at Crescent Park Elementary is suffering a ... lice outbreak".

Anne stared at her, then felt the giggles rising up. Crescent Park was in one of the most wealthy parts of town, and sure enough, most of these parents looked as if they had been pulled out of the Boardroom or the Country Club. Lice was apparently not something they were prepared to deal with. Catching her breath with difficulty, she protested, "But they can't take up room here--"

"Don't worry," Sarah reassured her. "The University is sending over some third-year nursing students. And the Health Department is delivering a dozen cases of Kwell Shampoo." Her face sobered. "You've got a bad one back there. Ambulance just brought him in. A young guy, massive blood loss." She snorted. "No health insurance, of course!"

Without another word, Anne stepped back behind the desk and walked unerringly to Treatment Room C. It was the best equipped room and where they tried to put the most critical cases. Sure enough, the bed was occupied and Dr. Carpenter, the Resident this shift, was snapping orders at the two new nurses. There was another person in the room, a middle- aged man standing near the wall, obviously trying to keep out of the way. After a startled instant, Anne realized who he was. "Joe?" she questioned.

Dawson turned his head at the sound of his name. Before either of them could say anything, Carpenter had spotted her. "Oh, Dr. Lindsay, I'm glad you're here. We have a bit of a bad one here." Carpenter had been doing an internship at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City at the time of the Federal Building bombing. After seeing that disaster, everything else seemed mild by comparison. "A bit of a bad one" was his code for "Very critical, probably not going to make it."

Anne took another glance at Joe, then stepped closer to the examining table so she could see the victim. Her startled gasp was loud in the room and she whirled around to Dawson. "Richie?" Dawson just nodded. Carpenter was looking at her oddly. "You know him?"

"Yes." Ignoring the resident, Anne stepped close to Dawson. "What's going on? I thought Richie was... like Mac."

Dawson's eyes met hers. "He is." He shrugged, and there were volumes in that gesture. "Things seem to be different, now, Anne. I can't explain it. Just... help him, please?" There was desperation in the tone. Anne had always known that Dawson was Mac's friend, and Richie's, but now she realized just how deep that caring went.

Without another word, Anne stepped back to the table and went to work.

"You're really worried about him, aren't you?"

Startled, Duncan slowed his pace and looked at the other Immortal. They had been among the first passengers off the plane and now they were waiting for their bags to come down the conveyor belt. Security procedures made it necessary, these days, to put the swords in the baggage compartment.

"Wouldn't you be?" he responded.

Connor shrugged easily. "I am. But there may be no need. The other three, they were very new, inexperienced. Richie's smart. You've taught him well. I don't think Caleb would have had that easy a time with him."

Connor was startled by the expression that filled the Highlander's face, combined pain, anger, worry. There was something else there, too, almost like self-loathing. The older Immortal skidded to a stop, grabbing the arm of his taller friend. "What?"

Duncan gently pulled his arm away. Spotting a bench nearby, he sat down, heavily. Connor followed suit. After a long silence, the younger Immortal spoke haltingly. The last several months have been... pretty bad."

"I heard about Koltek," his kinsman said unexpectedly. He smiled a little at Duncan's startled face. "The world's not that big... at least, our world isn't that big. I keep track of you. And young Ryan, as well."

"So you know what happened?"

"I heard Richie got a little happy with his sword for a few months," Connor replied dryly. "He managed to rid the world of a considerable piece of vermin named Ty Massaro... remind me to congratulate him on that."

"Massaro? I didn't know about that one." Duncan sighed, then went back to the earlier topic, "What you don't know is that I tried to kill Richie."

Connor didn't look surprised; rather, he appeared to have been expecting the confession. "I supposed something like that had happened," he mused. "I don't know young Ryan that well, of course, but I know that challenging everyone in his path isn't normal behavior for him." He stopped, then went on carefully, "Duncan, I don't know he told you... but he didn't go after anyone who didn't accept the challenge he offered. One Immortal, I know of, just walked away, and Richie let him, even though he could have very easily taken his head."

Duncan was relieved, and surprised, to hear that. All these months, deep inside, he'd been afraid to find out any more of what Richie'd done during that time. It had been hard enough to get over learning about Alan... and Jennifer...

Connor gripped his shoulder fiercely, his blue eyes intense. "You've been blaming yourself all these months, haven't you? Kinsman, don't torture yourself. You weren't in control. Does Richie understand that?"

"Maybe. Oh, he probably does, he says he does. But how do you get over something like that? How do you... forgive?" Duncan's voice was ragged with anguish. Connor's face softened as he studied him.

"You've forgiven me a lot of things through the years."

"You never tried to kill me," Duncan responded bleakly. Seeing the light blink on that indicated the conveyor was about to start decanting baggage, he stood up.

"Mac."

Startled, both Immortals turned towards the voice. Connor didn't recognize the man with a cane who had drawn near them; Duncan, of course, did. "Joe," he breathed, "Did you find him? Is he..."

With difficulty, Dawson met the unwavering dark gaze of the man that had long ago ceased to be merely an assignment. "I found him. It's... bad, Mac."

Duncan MacLeod woke from his brief nap with a start. Rubbing his hands across his face, he looked at Richie anxiously, then glanced at the bank of monitors above him with eyes drawn tight from fatigue. Ryan was still alive; he knew that from the faint but reassuring beeping of the pulse- oxymeter. The Scotsman's face twisted with the irony. Twenty-four hours earlier, he wouldn't have known a "pulse-oxymeter" from a blood pressure cuff. Now, after the long night just past, he knew too much about it.

A pulse-oxymeter measured how much oxygen was getting into the bloodstream. Anne had explained that, before she'd gone off duty the night before and left Richie's care in the hands of a resident. In a normal healthy person, usually the measurement was between 95-99%, a little less while asleep. In Richie's case, they were having a hard time keeping it around 90% and the alarm was set to go off when it dropped below 85%. The alarm had gone off three times during the night. Twice there had been an anxious few minutes while the nurse had increased the oxygen flowing into Richie from a tube, before the "sats" improved. The third time, around 4 a.m... Richie had stopped breathing altogether. Mac shook his head impatiently, banishing the horrible memories of the moments that followed into the realm of nightmare.

The door opened and Anne came in, shaking her head and frowning as she saw MacLeod hunched in the chair by the bed. "They would have brought you a cot," she scolded gently, laying her hand on his shoulder. "Did you get any sleep?" She spoke in a normal tone of voice, but it seemed indecently loud in this room where the only other sounds were the drone of the oxygen and various beeps from the monitors. Anne walked back to the side of the bed and checked the IVs, then, with a little frown, glanced up at the bag of whole blood dripping into Richie's other arm.

"I napped a little," Mac answered her question. It was the truth, although it hadn't been intentional. He stood up and stretched. "Is there any improvement?" he questioned her anxiously. "He made it through the night... that's good, isn't it?"

"Duncan... let's step outside." Anne led the way. In the hall, they met Connor and Joe Dawson. The older Immortal took one look at his kinsman and slapped a cup of coffee into his hand. "You look like you need this. Be careful, it's hot."

Mac sipped gingerly, then, belatedly, remembered his social duties. "Oh... Anne, this is Connor MacLeod. Connor, Dr. Anne Lindsay."

Anne studied the fair man. "Cousins?"

"Something like that." Mac rubbed his hand across his grainy eyes. "How is he, Anne?"

Anne sighed, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear. She hadn't lost all of her weight from the pregnancy, but the added curves suited her. "I wish I had better news," she said quietly. "He suffered critical blood loss; he's still in shock and his blood count isn't coming back up. He's having a lot of difficulty breathing. His temperature is elevated." She stopped, looking into Duncan's eyes for some kind of response, but the only observable change in the impassive Highlander's face was a tightening of the muscles around his mouth and one curt nod. Reluctantly, she went on, "Also, there's some evidence of... foreign substances in his system."

Dawson was the first to break the silence, "You mean drugs?"

"Richie doesn't take drugs." Duncan's voice was emphatic.

"I doubt that he took these, willingly. I don't even know where he would get them... datura's not available in the US. I wouldn't even call these drugs, they were more like poisons, but in sub-lethal doses. The most serious concern right at this moment has to be the blood loss. We're giving him blood transfusions, but he's a rather rare type and this is a bad time of year, with the holidays..." her voice trailed off.

Connor stiffened. Before he could say anything, Joe broke in. "What type blood is he?"

"B negative."

Dawson nodded, once. "So am I," he said calmly. "Where can I go to donate?"

Anne smiled. "You are? That's good!" She looked around, then stepped away to the Nurses Desk, saying, "I'll make the arrangements."

Dawson glanced at the two Immortals, gave a slight grin. "I can't do anything else to help him," he pointed out. "I can give blood." He followed Anne.

6

"Good man, that," Connor commented. He shook his head wonderingly. "When you first told me about the Watchers, I really hated the whole idea. But... Dawson.... he and I talked last night, while you were with Richie. I actually like him!"

"He is a good man," Duncan's voice was curt. "So, has there been any sign of Caleb?"

"No," Connor answered slowly, studying his kinsmen. Duncan caught the look and snorted.

"Don't try to look innocent, Connor, I know what you're up to. You didn't come racing up here because you were concerned about Richie. You're using him as bait. You think Caleb's going to come after him."

There was anger in his tone but the other man didn't respond to it. "We'd better hope Caleb comes after Richie, Duncan. Like it or not, he's the only one who knows what he did to the kid, what he did to the others."

Duncan met the other man's eyes. "You do realize that you can't kill him until we get some information?"

"I understand that. Duncan, as much as I want Russokoff's head, I won't do anything to jeopardize Richie. You have my word on that. But I will take Caleb's head."

"Not if I get to him first," Duncan MacLeod vowed. "He used me to get Richie. I won't forgive that."

Connor changed the subject. "I need to show you something." He pulled a piece of paper out of his overcoat pocket and handed to Duncan. "Dawson and I searched the loft. We found this"

Duncan was studying the paper, frowning. "It looks like a schedule of some kind. My God! This is grueling. Two hours of sword practice... five hundred sit ups? Sleep from four to six a.m., study until ten... study what? And what's crystal meditation?"

"That's a good question." Connor pulled something small out of his pocket and pressed it into Duncan's hand. The other Immortal held it up to the light. It was a small red crystal... no, not red; on second look it was a clear crystal almost entirely filled with red liquid. Duncan shook it, and saw a slight gold radiance, almost like glitter.

"Where'd you find this?"

"In the pocket of Richie's jeans. At least," Connor corrected himself, "I assume they were Richie's. They were wadded up on the bathroom floor. Duncan, would you call that a "bloodgem?""

Mac drew in a shocked breath, then opened his palm to look at the little jewel. "Connor, it's about the same shape and size as those teardrops on the bottom of the lampshade."

"The lamp Caleb was trying to get at the auction? I noticed that. But what does it mean? You thought Caleb was yelling about "bloodgems" before the police shot him. Look at the schedule. Dawson said that wasn't Richie's writing--" Duncan glanced back at the paper and shook his head-- "So we can assume Caleb wrote it. Look how many times "crystal meditation" is mentioned. Duncan, I know the Spiros method. There're no crystals involved in--"

"Code Blue, Room 608. Repeat, Code Blue, Room 608."

608 was Richie's room.

Caleb Russokoff pulled the baseball cap lower on his forehead. The cap bore the logo of the Minnesota Vikings. Bless American merchandising! His picture had been splashed over the wire services the previous day; and even though as far as the world knew he was dead, it would be best not to have anything to closely identified with San Francisco. The Bay City Police Department, in common with most other law-enforcement agencies, was not likely to announce that a corpse in their morgue had disappeared. Finding suitable clothing had been a problem, but the purple sweatpants matched the cap and fit well enough. He'd registered at the auction under an alias, so it should be safe enough for him to return to his Seattle hotel and pick up his baggage.

Then what? The safest thing would be to get out of the country. Even if the police never figured out who he was, Duncan MacLeod knew. Russokoff had a vague memory of seeing the Highlander at the auction. MacLeod might be foolishly loyal, but he wasn't a fool. It was entirely possible the Highlander was after him, either for answers... or for vengeance. The smart thing would be to grab his baggage, including the last bloodgem, and get out.

But Russokoff wasn't going to do that. He couldn't. The two new bloodgems were gone and he'd been unable to trace the buyer. He was sure Richie was still alive... his best, maybe his only, chance for a bloodglow. He had to have Richie Ryan. He wasn't going to lose that bloodglow.

Caleb Russokoff left the Seattle Airport and caught a cab, giving the address of the dojo.

Anne's face was gray as she leaned against the wall. "We got him back, Duncan."

Mac closed his eyes as he felt the tension leave his body. Richie had stopped breathing, and this time his heart had stopped also. Anne had to shock him several times with the paddles before a weak, faltering heartbeat had appeared on the monitors. The oxygen tube had been replaced by a mask, and a respirator was nearby, ready in case it was needed. "Anne, he's not getting any better, is he?"

Silently, his former lover shook her head. Mac went on, "Why not? He's getting all this care, why isn't anything working?"

"Medicine's not an exact science. I don't know how to answer your question. Hypovolemic shock is a tricky thing, and there are a lot of variables involved here. Those drugs in his system, the injuries themselves..." she lowered her voice, "The fact that we don't know what happened to cause him to lose his healing ability in the first place! And, Duncan, his temperature is continuing to rise. We've started him on antibiotics, but I don't know how much more he can endure."

Duncan ran his fingers through his hair. "Anne, there's got to be something we can do! I... can't lose him."

"You can talk to him. Try to get his mind working, bring him back to alertness." Anne hesitated, glancing from Duncan to Connor, who had just stepped into the room. When she went on, her words were tentative. "Duncan, Richie told me once that he was a Catholic."

MacLeod frowned, not seeing where this was going. "Well, he was raised Catholic. I guess he considers himself... why?" Then he drew in a sharp breath, and his eyes met hers. Anne held the gaze.

"I think we should call Father David. He's the hospital chaplain."

For a moment, MacLeod couldn't say anything. His eyes fled back to the hospital bed and the deathly still figure in it. After a long pause, he nodded his head. Anne reached out, as if to grip his arm, but let her hand fall. She left the room quietly. Wordlessly, Connor gripped Duncan's shoulder encouragingly, then he too slipped out.

Alone, aware of the hum of the oxygen, the beeps of the machinery, the Highlander went back to the side of the bed, reaching through the railings to grip Richie's hand in a firm grip. "Damn it, Rich, don't do this. You're strong, kid. You've got to be strong now. Come on, fight!"

Joe Dawson caught up with Connor MacLeod outside the hospital. On a summer day, the rose gardens surrounding the building were a place of beauty and serenity; on this cold December day they were grey and miserable. The Watcher found the Immortal staring at a nativity scene with unseeing eyes. "I got a call..." Dawson started.

Connor spoke without looking at him. "They're giving Richie the last rights."

Dawson stopped in his tracks. "It's that serious? Connor, if he's lost his healing ability, does that mean, if he dies, he won't come back?"

"The others didn't." Connor's voice was bleak.

Dawson hesitated, not knowing what to say. His own fear and grief threatened to overwhelm him. Richie was a good kid, a good person, a good friend. More than that, he was one of the good ones... the ones that the hopes for mankind rested upon.

Connor glanced at him, seeming to know what the other man was thinking. "You started to say you got a call?" he inquired stiffly. "Is it about Russokoff?"

"Uh... yeah. One of my people saw him poking around the dojo about an hour ago. He went into the deli down the street, and I guess someone told him about Richie being taken away in an ambulance. Then my guy lost him in traffic."

Feeling flowing back to his numbed mind, Connor whirled around, heading back to the hospital. "He's on his way here," he threw over his shoulder to the Watcher. "He's after Richie. I know it!"

"I'll get Mac--"

"Tell him not to let Richie out of his sight!"

Duncan gripped Richie's slack hand, willing life back into the younger man. One part of his mind registered that there was a nurse moving quietly around the room; but he ignored her until she came close beside the bed. Glancing at her, he was struck by an odd feeling of recognition, even though as far as he knew, he'd never seen her before.

"What's this?" she asked, picking something off the bed and holding it flat on her palm.

Frowning, Mac saw that it was the crystal Connor had found. The Highlander supposed he had brought it into the room accidentally. He took it from her hand, startled at how warm it felt.

"Pretty thing," the nurse said lightly, going around to the other side of the bed to check the IV.

The afternoon wore on. Around three o'clock, still another storm front moved in, bringing inky black clouds and high winds. The drenching rain, lightening and thunder that had been forecast to go along with it held off. Darkness fell early, bringing with it a sense of smothering apprehension.

Eerily enough, the situation inside the hospital mirrored the weather outside. Richie's vital signs improved slightly, at least to the point where the hospital staff could replace the oxygen mask with the plug and tubing. He wasn't out of the woods; his temperature was still slowly rising, in spite of the addition of a second powerful antibiotic.

Anne's face was still set in worried lines, and there seemed to be even more activity in Richie's room: it appeared to Mac that every five minutes somebody came in to check a dial, a tube or a gauge, to take Richie's temperature, listen to his breathing, or replenish an IV. Mac had been trying to talk to Richie, but it was difficult to say the things he really felt he needed to say with all the interruptions.

From a hospital volunteer or somewhere, Joe had managed to find some old comic books. There were two stacks: Detective Comics, mostly from the late sixties, and a pile of X-Men which were newer, early eighties. Deciding that he wasn't up to intoning such erudite words as "Blap", "Foosh", and "Groovy", MacLeod set aside the Batman books and started resolutely reading the X-Men comics aloud. Mac had never read a comic book in his long life, but he seemed to remember Richie saying once that one of his foster parents had been a collector. At least, trying to figure out who the characters were, and how they were connected, and why half the group thought the other half was dead, kept him from hypnotically watching the monitors.

Rain started splattering against the windows in fat drops. The X-groups, having brilliantly deduced that they were alive, had just reunited in time to have the crap beat out of them by some lunatic named Proteus, when Anne came into the room. She looked exhausted. Some of her dark hair had pulled loose from its ponytail and was hanging in tendrils around her face. MacLeod put the comic book aside. "Shouldn't you be off duty?" he asked, keeping his tone neutral.

"Shouldn't you get some rest?" the doctor countered in turn, forcing a smile. "Actually, Carpenter is on a break. I thought I'd stay until he came back."

MacLeod looked at her sharply. "Why? What's going on?"

"I think he's building towards some kind of crisis," Anne responded slowly. She flashed a tired grin. "I've never been fond of that 'The next two hours are crucial' kind of talk... but I do think Richie could go one way or the other tonight. I'd just feel better if I was here." She met Mac's eyes challengingly. "Is that all right with you?"

MacLeod didn't bother answering that. Instead, he asked, "Is his temperature dropping?"

"No... but it's not rising, either. It's been steady for the last hour. Something's happening, Duncan. I just can't tell right now if it's good or not."

The Highlander didn't respond, being engrossed in studying Richie. The younger man was still so pale, and he lay unmoving. MacLeod reached over and lightly brushed the younger man's cheek with shaking fingers. Richie's skin was much too warm to the touch.

Anne watched, astonished, as the Highlander's stolid visage crumbled into anguish. "This is my fault," he told her, or maybe he was telling the silent Richie. "It's all my fault."

Anne had never seen MacLeod like this before and she didn't know just how to react. Finally, she let her instincts to help lead her. "Come on, Duncan," she put a gentle hand on his shoulder, trying to lead him to the door. "You need to take a break. Get something to eat--"

".....Mac..."

Both of them froze at the sound of the faint voice. MacLeod was the first to react. Whirling around, he moved quickly back to the bed, leaned over, gripping Richie's hand. "Rich?"

Ryan's eyelids fluttered, then slowly, heavily opened. Focused on MacLeod. His cracked lips moved, but no sound came out. "Richie?" Duncan said again, gently, "Do you know me? Can you say anything?"

"His throat's probably dry from the oxygen," Anne said quietly, coming to the other side of the bed. She poured a little water from the pitcher into the plastic tumbler. Mac took it from her and slipped his other arm around Richie's shoulders, raising him slightly. The younger man drank thirstily, then leaned back against the pillow. His eyes left Mac's face to drift idly around the room. His brow furrowed and he looked back at the Highlander. "Hospital?" he asked, his voice so faint that it could barely be heard. Mac nodded, suddenly unable to speak.

"Richie, how do you feel?" Anne rested the back of her hand against his forehead. The younger Immortal moved his eyes to her face. His lips moved in a faint, a very faint, grin. "Terrible," he mouthed. "Who... are you?"

Mac's startled eyes met Anne's across the bed. After a moment, he started, "Rich, you remem--"

Anne's voice cut him off. "I'm Anne Lindsay, your doctor. It's good to see you awake, Rich-- Mr. Ryan. You've had us all pretty worried."

"Sorry." Richie moved his head slightly so that he was looking at MacLeod. "What happened.. to me?"

MacLeod felt, rather than saw, Anne shake her head slightly at him. From somewhere the Highlander summoned the semblance of a smile. "You had an accident. Richie, what's the last thing you remember?"

Ryan frowned, then his eyes widened with something akin to panic. "I don't... " he looked around wildly, and his breathing changed, quickened. "Mac.." his voice was a harsh croak. One of the monitors beeped a warning signal.

"Richie, take it easy!" MacLeod gripped his friend's hand a little more tightly. "Just relax. I'm right here."

"I... can't remember..."

"That's nothing to worry about, Mr. Ryan," Anne broke in, her voice crisp and professional. Curious, Mac looked at her, to see that although her face looked relaxed her eyes were worried. "You've been through a bad time and some confusion is normal."

Richie looked at her doubtfully, then his eyes searched Mac's face. The Scotsman rested his hand on Richie's shoulder, reassuring him. "You heard her, kid. It's okay. Just go back to sleep. I'll be here when you wake up again."

Richie fought to keep his eyes open, but it was a losing struggle. He slid back to sleep, his hand still in Mac's. Gently MacLeod disengaged his fingers and rested Richie's hand on the blanket. "Anne--"

"It really is okay, Duncan," she interrupted. "Confusion is perfectly normal, even understandable. Plus, he's still running a fever--" she broke off as the door was flung open and a nurse, the blond, pretty one that had been there before, skidded into the room.

"Mr. MacLeod, your kinsman... there's some trouble in the South Corridor. I think he needs your help!"

Anne gave a frightened gasp. "The South corridor? That leads to the Day Care! Mary's there!" She started for the door, but MacLeod grabbed her and shoved her back into the room.

"You stay with Richie!" he ordered. "I mean it, Anne, don't leave this room. If it's Caleb, he's after Richie, not the babies. Connor and I can take care of it." With one anguished glance at Richie, he ran from the room. Anne hesitated, torn between her duty to her patient and her love for her daughter.

7

Motherhood won out. She snapped at the nurse, "Page Joe Dawson, then come back here and stay with this patient." Shoes sliding on the polished floor, she ran for the elevators. She had hit the call button twice before it dawned on her the lifts weren't running. She looked around, noticing through the windows how hard it was raining. The trees down in the parking lot were bent nearly double with the wind. It took several seconds for her to realize that the windows of other parts of the hospital were darkened. "Peggy," Anne called to the older woman at the Nurse's Station. "What's going on?"

The nurse looked up, startled. "Didn't you hear, Dr. Lindsay? Power failure all through this part of the city. Mistaking Anne's look of alarm, she went on cheerfully, "ICU has a special generator... we'll be okay for up to eight hours. The rest of the hospital's on the emergency generator... cuts the power to the hallways and non-essential areas. Not to worry, the power company... Dr. Lindsay?" She was talking to Anne's retreating back. The doctor headed for the stairs.

Duncan MacLeod crashed through the fire exit into the lobby. The heavy glass front doors had been padlocked closed, and an emergency light illuminated a sign saying "Power Failure. Enter and Exit through Emergency Room". The Information desk was unmanned, and the place was eerily silent. Someone had left a flashlight sitting on the desk; Mac picked up as he turned to the left and headed down the hallway to the cafeteria. He vaguely remembered seeing a sign down here-- there it was! He had remembered correctly, the sign said "South Corridor" and an arrow pointed to the left. This hallway was completely dark save for emergency floor lights spaced every twenty feet or so.

As Mac turned to go down the hall, he felt the sensation of another Immortal twist his gut. It was strong. Mac hesitated, then switched off the flashlight and pulled his sword out of his overcoat, discarding the coat on the floor. Carefully, with raised sword, he started down the passageway.

Whatever was housed in the South Corridor, the hospital couldn't be using it for patients. Offices, maybe. MacLeod passed several doors, all closed. He hesitated at a cross-corridor, wondering which way the day care center was. He sensed movement and heard the slight ring of a sword cutting through the air. With a yell, he leapt forward, his own sword lifted and ready to deflect a blow. There was a clang as the swords joined, then a light flicked on and a familiar voice yelled "Mac!"

"Dawson?" As his eyes adjusted to the glare of the flashlight Dawson held, Duncan recognized the other Immortal. "Connor!"

Cursing fluently in Gaelic, Connor MacLeod turned his sword so that the flat of the blade slapped Duncan across the arm. "I could have taken your head, lad! And what are you even doing here? You're supposed to be with Richie!"

Duncan gaped at his former mentor. "That nurse... she said you were in trouble--"

"What nurse!?" Connor demanded, befuddled.

A scream, high pitched, hysterical, echoed from deeper in the bowels of the building. Duncan felt cold chills down his spine. "That's Anne!" Grabbing his flashlight from where it had landed when the swords engaged, Mac disappeared down the corridor.

"Duncan!" Connor yelled after him. "Oh, damn!" He turned to Joe. "Get back to Richie's room and stay there. Barricade the door if you have to, but don't let anyone in unless it's me or Duncan." He followed the other Immortal into the darkness. Dawson hesitated, wanting to follow but knowing Connor was right. Finally, he turned and headed back toward the dim lights of the lobby.

Necessity had made Anne learn her way around the old hospital in a hurry. She was breast feeding, and Mary was a slow eater. Her first week on duty, she had visited the physical plant and obtained a copy of the blueprints. Years of remodeling and construction had left deserted hallways to nowhere, unexpected side doors and hidden staircases. She was able to map shortcuts from the day care center to Emergency, ICU, and the other parts of the hospital she frequented.

Thus, rather than going to the front lobby and working all the way down the South Corridor to the Center, she took another way, using a small staircase that had once been meant for the nursing students to get to their wards quickly. The narrow passage the staircase ended in on the first floor had been unused since the hospital had converted from steam heat three decades before. Breathless from running, Anne shoved open the heavy fire door and started towards the double doors that led to the Day Care Center.

Someone grabbed her and she before she could react he had her, his hand at her throat. She fought, but he was taller than she was, with muscles of finely-tempered steel. Something cold and metallic pressed under her chin, but it was not the sword she had half-expected, but a gun. "Dr. Lindsay, I presume?" The voice was cultured, slightly amused. "I am Caleb Russokoff. You've heard of me, perhaps? He started dragging her towards the double doors.

Anne screamed, kicking out at him. The gun flew from his grasp as she connected with his crotch. Gasping, the man let go, groaning. He recovered fast, though, and grabbed at her again, hissing "Bitch!" Then he stiffened and his head twisted around. Anne recognized the attitude. She'd seen it before, when she and Duncan were together.

Running feet. Duncan's voice. "Let her go, Caleb!"

"I don't think so, Highlander." Russokoff had her again, by the hair this time. His free hand pulled a sword from some hiding place in his clothing. His cold eyes studied Duncan, came to rest on the other man behind him. "I see we have company. And you are?"

"Connor MacLeod." The words were chips of iron.

"Ah... the other Highlander." He shook his head, mockingly. "Now, now... two against one? You both know that can't be."

"Leave him, Connor." Duncan's voice was cold with rage. "He's mine!"

"I don't think so," Connor returned, stepping in front of his kinsman.

Caleb Russokoff tightened his grip on Anne's neck, causing her to gasp. "This is none of your affair, Connor MacLeod," he intoned. "I have no quarrel with you."

"I have a quarrel with you." If Duncan's voice had been cold, his kinsman's was full of driven ice. "Justice for Troy Nichols."

"Troy?" Russokoff sounded confused. "He wasn't worth it." His face bleak with hate and venom, Connor stepped closer, only to halt when Russokoff raised his sword to Anne's neck. The threat was clear. Connor held his position. One step behind and two to the left, Duncan didn't lower his sword, but he didn't move forward, either. "Interesting situation we have here," the Russian Immortal mused. "I don't really want to kill her, you know, but I will."

"What do you want Caleb?" Duncan's voice. Lowering his sword, he stepped forward, ignoring Connor. "What did you want with Richie, or with Troy or the others?"

Russokoff raised his eyebrows. "I see you're better informed than I thought. Well, I don't mind telling you, Duncan. You are, after all, my friend. And I do owe you something for delivering Richard Ryan to me so neatly. Now, careful," he warned as Duncan lunged forward. Connor pulled the enraged Scotsman back. Russokoff went on, "I propose a trade. Your lady friend here for Ryan's bloodgem."

"What bloodgem? What are you talking about!" Duncan's voice was frustrated.

"Oh, please. Don't pretend you don't know! I saw you at the auction. You were in league with that blond woman who got the other bloodgems. Well, you won't get Ryan's bloodglow! It's mine!"

Connor pulled Duncan back again. The older Immortal's voice was calm, considering. "You don't have it yet, Caleb. And you're right... Duncan does have the bloodgem."

"I knew it!" Russokoff lurched forward, dragging Anne with him. "It's mine, Duncan. He's mine. Give it to me, or she dies now, right here!"

"Give it to me, Duncan," Connor said evenly, his eyes never leaving Russokoff's. Duncan stared at him. Connor snapped, "The red crystal we found at the loft. Give it to me!"

Confused, Duncan opened his mouth to argue, then remembered. He'd put the crystal in his pocket earlier. It was still there, and he drew it out slowly, placing it in his kinsman's outstretched palm. Connor held it up, the crystal appearing black in the dim light. "So, this is how you do it, Russokoff? This is how you take their healing?"

"Healing?" Caleb repeated the word, puzzled. "It takes the bloodglow.... the essence... of what makes us what we are." He laughed, hysterically. "It's the life and the soul and... and I need it. I have to taste it, Highlander! Give it to me!"

Connor held fast. "But Richie's not dead..."

"Of course he's not. Not yet. It's not glowing, is it? Don't you understand, MacLeod? I can't lose this bloodglow!" Abruptly, he lunged forward, grabbing at the crystal.

Everything happened fast. Anne stepped down hard on Caleb's instep. With a curse, he threw her to the floor, his sword raised over her. Yelling, "No!" Duncan charged forward, grabbing the doctor's arm and pulling her away. Anne's body slid along the marble floor. Without missing a beat, Caleb turned... and plunged his sword into Connor.

The blond gasped as the blade slid into his chest, stumbling forward, the crystal falling from his nerveless fingers to the floor. It was what Russokoff wanted. He grabbed the stone up and held it tightly in his hand as he warded off Duncan's sword with his own. "Let me go, Highlander," he hissed. "Save yourself, your cousin. Save the woman."

"At the cost of Richie's life?" Duncan demanded. His eyes flicked to Connor's still form. Behind him, Anne dragged herself to her knees.

"Is he worth the three of you? Oh, he's tough, Duncan, I grant you that. It wasn't easy to get him. I tried to turn him against you, but even in a hypnotic trance he was loyal to you. I had to destroy him from the soul out."

Fury tore through the Highlander. He clamped down the feeling. He couldn't afford rage now. Connor's life, Anne's... rested on him. "Give me the crystal, Caleb. Tell me how to undo whatever you've done. I'll let you leave here safely."

The other man emitted a harsh laugh. "You don't understand. I must have the bloodglow. That's the real Game, MacLeod! A Quickening is nothing. But a bloodglow... I wouldn't undo it even if I could. And I can't!" He gripped the crystal tighter. "Richard Ryan is mine!"

Grief overwhelmed Duncan as Caleb's words confirmed his worst fear. "I'm sorry, Richie," he said in the silence of his soul, his heart breaking. "I can't save you. But you'll die in peace. I'll be damned if I let this madman have whatever it is he wants from you." Slowly, he moved forward, sword raised. The Highlander swallowed, sickened by the other man's expression. Caleb, eyes burning with unholy lust, didn't even see the sword as it whistled through the air towards his neck.

Connor crawled to hands and knees as his relative dropped his sword and staggered under the onslaught of the Quickening. Several feet away, Anne curled up into a ball, protectively covering her head with her arms. The emergency lights flared, then popped. Blue lightening, coalescing around the figures, was the only illumination. The spillover of the Quickening knocked Connor flat again. Unable to move, he turned his head away from the intense glare.

Finally, it was over, leaving only the lingering smell of ozone in the air. Russokoff's body had disappeared in the maelstrom. Duncan collapsed to hands and knees, then curled on his side, tears spilling down his cheeks.

Connor clambered stiffly to his feet, staggering a little as he went to his cousin. His foot nudged something that skidded across the floor, coming to rest near Anne. Puzzled, she picked it up. "It's that... crystal," she said in a tiny voice. Then her head came up as someone started pounding on the double doors leading to the Day Care's courtyard. "Is someone there! My God! Did lightening hit the building?" Quickly, Connor took the crystal from Anne and returned to Duncan's side, helping the taller man up and sliding an arm around his shoulders. The banging on the door ceased.

"They may have gone for the key," Anne said tonelessly.

"It will take them awhile to find it." Connor's head jerked up at the strange voice. A woman came from the darkened corridor. Somehow, they could see her clearly even though the hall was dark. The woman was slender, tall, with silver-blond hair. She was wearing a nurse's uniform. Clinging to Connor's arm, Duncan murmured, "She's the one who said you were in trouble."

"A slight subterfuge," the woman said. "I knew it would take both of you to defeat Caleb Russokoff. And I had business with young Ryan. Unfinished business, I might add."

Duncan stiffened. "Leave him alone!" he roared. "He's not part of your Game, whatever it is."

"I'm not his enemy, Duncan MacLeod. Nor yours." It didn't seem strange to either MacLeod that she knew Duncan's name. "And you're right... Richard Ryan is not part of our Game. Neither was Troy Nichols, or Kael Marsh." She indicated the spot where Russokoff had died. "Neither was he. He didn't know the Rules."

"What are you talking about?" Duncan's voice was ragged.

"That's it, isn't it?" Connor mused. "Another Game. Like ours, but different, too..." his voice trailed off.

The woman nodded. "There are many Games in this universe. Yours is but one, mine is another. Russokoff blundered into our Game. He did not abide by the Rules, and for that he had to die. But he had to die by your Rules."

"I don't understand." Duncan's voice was ragged. "

"No, you don't. I'm not sure your kind can. You're really not that evolved yet." She held out her hand to Connor. "May I have the bloodgem, please?"

Slowly, Connor reached his hand forward, ignoring Duncan's gasp. "No, Connor, you canna give her Richie!"

"She doesn't want Richie, Duncan." Connor's voice was serene. The woman smiled, and took the gem in her hands, covering it. She said some words in a whispery tongue. Slowly, her hands lit up with a golden radiance. The light burned brightly for several seconds, then flickered and died. The woman sighed, somehow seeming smaller, reduced. She held out the crystal to Duncan. Numbly, he accepted it.

"The flow of energy is reversed. Just keep the crystal near young Ryan while he recovers. It will take a while. When the crystal is clear, he will be as he was."

"You mean, Immortal?" Duncan questioned, hope in his voice. The woman smiled.

"If that's what you call it." She started to walk away, then she stopped, and looked at both MacLeods. "It may be that you are not so far from us after all. Perhaps we will meet again." She turned away again.

"Wait!" Connor wasn't aware he'd spoken until he heard his own voice. She stopped, but didn't turn. "What's.. your name?"

A laugh, like silver bells, rippled through the air. "You may call me Shalanna." Then she walked away, swallowed up by the blackness.

Long moments passed and the three of them couldn't seem to move. Finally, Duncan pulled free from his kinsman and walked over to Anne, helping her to her feet. "We'd better get back to Richie."

8

Seattle. December 18.

One week before Christmas, the sun finally broke though the clouds that had hovered all over the city for days. Duncan MacLeod relished the brightness as he walked through the parking lot towards the front doors of the hospital. On the sixth floor he stepped off the elevator, trying desperately to juggle a duffel bag, several days accumulation of mail, books, a box of homemade cookies from one of Richie's girlfriends, and a bag of comics. (Reading all those comics to Richie while he'd been in a coma had created a monster!) Keeping Richie occupied while his mind and body healed was proving to be quite a challenge.

Connor was at the Nurse's Station, blatantly flirting with the middle- aged floor nurse. Mac drew close in time to hear her reprove him, "Young man, I'm old enough to be your mother!"

Connor winked, "You can't tell. I'm older than I look! Good skin runs in my family." He caught sight of Duncan, grinned evilly, "Consider my cousin there. You'd never know he was a day over... thirty five."

"Enough, Connor," Duncan interrupted. "Leave the poor woman alone. I think she has a higher standard that unemployed world travelers."

Connor fell into step with Duncan, protesting, "I'm not unemployed. I'm on vacation!"

"Long vacation. Besides, she's a nun!"

Connor stopped dead and Duncan almost burst into laughter at the expression the other's face. "A nun! Whatever happened to habits and coifs?" mourned the older Immortal. Duncan just shook his head and strode down the hall.

"How's Richie?" he asked over his shoulder.

"He's asleep," Connor reported, easily catching up with him again. "How was the house you saw?"

Duncan made a face. "Fine... if you don't count the roof, the plumbing, the rotten floors and the crumbling foundation! I told the real estate agent to find something else. I don't mind a fixer-upper, but a good wind would blow this place down before the check even cleared the bank."

"Speaking of money..." Connor trailed off meaningfully. Duncan stopped walking and turned stare at his kinsman.

"You don't need money?"

Connor gave him an ironic look. "No, of course not... but somebody from the hospital billing office came up this morning, trying to get Richie to work out a payment plan for this little visit. She was quite nasty about people who don't have health insurance. Richie kept trying to tell her he didn't think he'd ever need it, which of course is true, but she didn't understand that. I finally threw her out... politely, of course. I thought you were going to take care of that?"

"I thought I did," Duncan snarled. "With cash, no less... I'll go down there later and straighten it out. Did... Richie seem upset?"

The older Immortal frowned. "No... not upset. More like exhausted. I think he would have signed anything, to get her to leave him alone. Did he have a bad night?"

"He was restless. A lot of nightmares."

"We both know about those."

"Yeah." Duncan paused. "Connor, have you said anything to him about what we found in Caleb's hotel room?

The older Immortal held up both hands in symbolic protest. "That's your job." He fell silent, avoiding Duncan's gaze. The other man waited.

"Well?" Duncan finally prompted.

"Well... we did talk today. About you, mostly. We had quite a long talk, as a matter of fact."

Duncan waited again, but Connor didn't say anymore. They'd reached the door of Richie's room by now, but neither Immortal made any motion to go in. Duncan stared at his cousin.

"Well?" he repeated. "Did you learn anything?"

The older man gave a brief bark of laughter. "I learned you can be a fool! But then, I already knew that!"

"What are you talking about?" Mac reached out to grasp Connor's arm, but his kinsman evaded his grasp deftly. "Uh uh. You need to be talking to Richie, not me. Let's just say that the two of you have done a really wonderful job of not communicating. If you want the advice of someone much older and wiser... not to mention better looking, go in there and make him listen to you. I think you'll be very surprised... what you think he thinks is not actually what he thinks at all."

"Good God, Connor! That doesn't make sense!"

"Neither do the two of you!" Connor quickly changed the subject. "If I'm going to spend Christmas with you, I need to do some shopping. Feel like trusting me with your car?"

Still confused, Duncan pulled the keys out of his pocket "I trusted you with my horse once, remember where that got me?"

"The animal was poorly trained." Connor snatched the keys. "Besides, that was over three hundred years ago. Your problem is that you live in the past!" Cackling, the blond man bounced down the hall to the elevator, stopping to bestow another leering grin on Sister Mary Elaine at the desk. Duncan watched him fondly, laying odds how many blocks Connor would get before he was stopped for some traffic infraction. As long as the car didn't get towed. Although even that would be small price to pay for the comfort and help he'd been these past days.

Mac slipped into the room, hoping Richie still slept. The younger Immortal was awake, though, and propped up in bed. He managed a grin at the sight of MacLeod's loaded arms. "You run into Santa? What is all that, anyway?"

MacLeod started to unpack the duffel. "Clothes for you... unless you want to keep wearing your pajamas--"

"You mean Connor's pajamas, don't you?" Richie interrupted puckishly. "I don't own any, and if I did, they wouldn't be maroon silk!"

Duncan shrugged. "They fit you better than mine would!" he responded lightly, dropping into the chair beside the bed. He handed the younger man the comics, the books and the majority of the mail. "This should keep you busy for a little while, at least."

Curious, Richie glanced at the thickest book, making a face at the title. "Sword Lore Through the Centuries? Now, that sounds like a good alternative to those sleeping pills Anne keeps ordering for me."

Duncan tried to look hurt. "I need you to review it for me... I'm thinking about using it for my class next semester."

"Oh." Curious, Richie rifled through the pages. "Hey, is my sword in here?" He glanced up when Mac didn't answer.

"Connor says the two of you did some talking this morning."

Richie's expression became wary. "Yeah... I guess. Did he tell you... what we talked about?"

Duncan shook his head.

"Good." Richie reached over and stabbed the button that turned on the TV. He obviously didn't want to continue, so the older Immortal was surprised when, after several minutes, Richie hit the button again, abruptly quieting Jerry Springer in the middle of his "Final Thoughts". Looking at the ceiling, the younger man muttered, "Mac, I need to know something. But first, I want to apologize to you. Before you went to Paris this last time, when we were arguing about Regina... when I made the crack about "You tried to take my head"... that was out of line. I didn't mean it. I was just pissed." He smiled faintly. "I mean, Mac.... you always know everything! And you're always right! It's--"

"Annoying," the Highlander supplied.

"Infuriating is more like it! But that doesn't matter. I shouldn't have thrown that business with the Dark Quickening in your face." He stopped to take a deep breath. "But, I need to know... honestly.... why did you take off? Were you... that mad at me? Or did you go after Regina?"

MacLeod stared at his friend. "Richie, if anybody has the right to be "mad", it's you! All you said was the truth. I did try to kill you. I left because..." his voice trailed off. It took him several minutes to organize his thoughts enough to go on, "I left because I thought... you couldn't forgive me for trying to kill you. I left... before you could tell me to get out of your life." The words were hard to say over the sudden lump in his throat. Mac was surprised when he realized he was telling the truth. He had left, ran away, really, because he couldn't bear to see hatred and contempt in his young friend's eyes. He realized, too, that it was the same reason that had kept him from returning immediately from Paris after Methos had freed him from the effects of the Dark Quickening.

"Mac... do you remember what you said to me in the cemetery that day, when we were arguing over who was going to face Haresh Clay? You said that "This is about you seeing me for I you really am. I'm not your father and I'm not your guardian angel." Well, I stopped looking for a father a long time ago. And if I have a guardian angel, it's probably Tessa... and she's better suited for the part than you'll ever be!"

"You're could be right about that." Duncan smiled sadly.

Richie went on as if Mac hadn't spoken, "But there's something else you aren't. You aren't responsible for everything that's ever gone wrong in my life... the foster homes, or becoming Immortal. I've made mistakes... that whole mess with Jennifer was a mistake, but you aren't responsible for the mistakes I make."

"Richie... yes. You are responsible for your own actions, but I tried to kill you! That's why you--"

"Let it go, Mac." Richie's voice was very soft. "Let that go. Because I have."

Puzzled, the older Immortal looked at the young man in the hospital bed. "How can you forgive me for--"

"For trying to kill me? Would you have forgiven me, if the situation had been reversed, if I was the one that had taken the Dark Quickening?"

Mac answered promptly., "Of course. It wouldn't have been your fault--" his voice trailed off.

"Exactly!" Richie sat up in bed. "And it wasn't yours. Besides... I don't think you would have taken my head that night. Even if Joe hadn't shot you. You wouldn't have done it." Richie's tone was one of quiet faith.

MacLeod just stared at him. He realized, in spite of himself, that Richie was telling the truth. Finally, he just shook his head again. "Richie... I don't know if I can believe that," he confessed. He smiled suddenly, like sun breaking through after a rainstorm. "But I'll try my damndest to!"

"Good." Richie let out a long exhalation. "Because... I need you, Mac. Maybe more than I ever have before." His voice was shaky. "This whole thing with Caleb has my head so screwed up! I'm scared to sleep because of the dreams. And the worst of it is, I don't even remember them that clearly. I can't tell you if they're real memories, or... propaganda that Caleb put in my head. I'm scared, Mac! When I woke up this morning... for a few minutes I really thought I was going crazy. But... you were here, and somehow, I knew... even though you didn't wake up... that... as long as you were there I'd be okay. I need you, Mac, I need you to be my friend. But you have to absolve yourself of all this guilt you carry around. Or, you're no good to either one of us."

With everything inside him, Mac wanted to believe the younger Immortal. But something couldn't let it rest. "Richie... I turned you over to a madman!" He got up with a jerky movement and walked over to stare out the window.

"Caleb." Richie's voice was very soft. "Mac... what did he do to me? How did he do it? Am I that weak? Could somebody else..." Mac heard the plea underlying his tone and turned quickly back to the bed.

"You aren't weak." The Highlander's voice was forceful. "Before I killed him, he said he'd had to destroy you from soul out. Using the information I gave him! But he didn't destroy you, Rich. You fought him." Hesitating, he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and put it in Ryan's hand. Puzzled, Richie opened it and looked at the three cassette tapes held together with a rubber band. He glanced up at MacLeod, puzzled.

"Connor and I went to Caleb's hotel room," Mac said gently, responding to the look. "We... 'acquired' his things. He tape recorded his 'sessions'... the hypnosis sessions. I don't know... maybe he got a thrill listening to them." MacLeod's hands clenched involuntarily, remembering some of what he'd heard. He touched the tapes with his index finger. "Those... are from your sessions."

Richie's face went white. He regarded the tapes as if they were a striking cobra. Finally he asked, his voice shaking, "Did you listen to them?"

"I listened to the others. He even taped me, in Paris, the night I told him about you. But I didn't listen to yours." At Richie's incredulous stare, Mac had to smile. "Oh, I wanted to! But... you're a man, Richie. It's your decision, to listen to them or not. I couldn't hear them without your permission."

Tears welled up in Richie's eyes. He wiped them away impatiently. "Thanks, Mac," he said softly. He picked up the cassettes and leaned over to open the drawer of the bedside table, dropping them in next to the bloodgem. Idly, Mac noted that the liquid in the crystal was no longer as deep red and the golden radiance was gone. "So," Richie went on, his voice curious, "did you find out... how he did it?"

"No. He had a notebook computer, but the hard drive was clean." Duncan suspected Shalanna had beaten them to the hotel. "We found one other crystal, and we went straight down to the harbor and threw it in!" He paused. "Dawson told me that Caleb's studio in London burned down last night. The police apparently suspect arson, but... there was nothing left."

"So, we may never know... how?" Richie whispered.

MacLeod shook his head. "Maybe it's best that we don't know." Noting that Richie looked drained and was starting to blink sleepily, Mac started clearing the bed of all the stuff he'd dropped on it. He helped the younger Immortal to lie down, rearranged the pillows, then pulled the covers up around the younger man's shoulders. "Go to sleep," Duncan ordered. "I'll be right here."

Richie thought about protesting, but he still tired so easily, and the conversation with MacLeod had exhausted him. He closed his eyes. Sitting back down in the chair next to the bed, Mac quietly tore open his own mail and started reading. He thought Richie was asleep, when suddenly the younger Immortal surprised him by saying his name.

"Yes?"

"When I do... decide to listen to those tapes, would you... be with me?"

Mac had to swallow a lump in his throat. "If you want me to be," he promised softly.

Richie nodded. "I do."

Touched, Mac opened a letter from the University. He was sure it was a confirmation of his contract, but the actual contents of the letter were surprise. He'd read it twice before Richie spoke again. "Mac, there's something..."

"Richie, you need to sleep." MacLeod was distracted.

"I will, but there's something I want to tell you. I've been wanting to tell you for months, but... the time just never seemed right--"

"Would this have anything to do with you making the president's Honor Roll?" MacLeod interrupted, trying to hide a grin.

"No, it's that I'm-- wait a minute! President's Honor Roll? What are you talking about?"

For answer, Duncan handed him the letter from the University. "I'm sorry, Richie. I didn't even notice it was addressed to you. When I saw the letterhead I just assumed it was my contract--"

Richie wasn't listening, staring at the letter in something like awe. "A 4.0 average? Are they kidding? I don't even remember my chemistry final- -" he started digging though his own pile of mail, finding a flat carbon envelope with the University logo in the corner. His hands were shaking so badly that he had difficulty opening it, but he finally managed. "Damn!" he said breathlessly. "All A's. I did do it!"

"Apparently so." Mac wasn't trying to hide his delight now. "How long have you been in school, Rich?"

"This was my second semester." Richie grinned. "Boy, was I glad that you hated baseball!"

That remark made no sense to MacLeod but he let it go. Questions were running through his mind, like how was Richie paying for school what was he majoring in, and, why had he neglected to mention this little fact, but he knew not to ask the questions now. Instead, he waited until Richie looked at him, and ear-to-ear grin on his face.

"Congratulations, Richie," Duncan MacLeod said, quietly. "I'm very proud of you." He shook his head at Richie's inquiring look. "Oh, not just because of this. But because you're... who you are."

"Be proud of yourself, too, Mac. After all, I have one hell of a teacher."

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