Elena and the Priest

Vi Moreau

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Standard disclaimer: the concept of Immortality and the character of Darius belong to Rysher and are copyrighted by them. This story is for fun, not for profit; no money is derived from it.

The other characters are copyrighted by me, Vi Moreau. This is my first Elena Duran story chronologically. It takes place in 1970, before she meets the MacLeods, but does include the canonical Immortal Darius.

There are no adult scenes, but the story does have strong language, violence and religious situations and questions which might offend someone.

PROLOGUE

ORPHANAGE OF SAN MATEO IN SALADILLO, NEAR BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA OCTOBER 15, 1936

Elena Duran sighed. She shifted in her chair, then stood and walked to the window. She and [Padre] Roberto Carreras were having an argument. A real one, this time, not one of their usual friendly philosophical discussions.

She had told him she was going to Spain, to fight against Generalissimo Francisco Franco. He had told her she should stay out of this war the way she had stayed out of the previous "war to end all wars," which had failed to end anything, especially other wars.

"This is not a large war, like the other one," Elena argued, pacing. Outside, two older children were weeding the orphanage's vegetable garden, while another three or four younger ones shared the swings under the watchful eye of a nun.

Elena turned back to the priest. Tall, black cassock, thinning hair, in his sixties, he looked like a typical country [parroco.] One would never guess that he'd been born in 1852 and could not die unless his head was separated from his body.

"This is a civil war," she said. "And Spain is...special to me. My father, Don Alvaro, was a Spaniard, and as much as I've hated the Spanish sometimes, I can't just turn away, watch them kill each other, and do nothing."

"It's half a world away, and it has nothing to do with you." He was obviously distressed. "In fact, you should not be fighting in wars at all, senorita. You should not kill mortals. Isn't it bad enough that you kill Immortals?!"

"Not that again." She shook her head, then sat and picked up her wineglass. "Padre, this is pointless. You can't convince me to change my whole life. You just don't want me to go."

"No, I do not want you to go. I will...I will miss you."

"Yes. I will miss you too, [Padrecito]," she murmured.

On that relatively conciliatory note, she left the orphanage. And walked outside to the waiting arms--more precisely, the waiting blade--of Antonio Mentori.

And Padre Carreras' arguments, his logic, his piety, and finally his pleas from the other side of the gate, the safe side, the Holy Ground side, ultimately counted for nothing. How in God's name can you turn the other cheek to someone who's trying to cut your head off? she wondered, as she fought for her life.

The sounds of steel on steel were loud in the night, finally giving way to the sound of harsh breathing as the woman stood over the defeated man.

"No, Senorita Duran!" Padre Carreras called out, one last try. "You have him on his knees. Let him go, senorita. Please, in Christ's name, be merciful. Remember Luke, from the Bible. This can be a start. Let him live and he will let the next one live. Ask him. Give him a choice. Give him a chance."

Panting, breathless, bleeding, she asked Mentori, "Is that right, Antonio?" finding a small trace of hope in her heart, in spite of herself. She used the tip of her blade to lift his head up, then put it against his jugular, alert for any movement on his part, any sign that he might attack her. She was ready to cut him down, but willing, maybe, just maybe, to let him live. If. "If I let you go, will you let the next Immortal you meet live?"

Mentori's face was savage, covered in sweat and flecks of blood, contorted with pain and rage and fear. He ground out, "The next Immortal I meet, signorina, will be you. And I will carve out your own heart and feed it to you!"

"No!" Padre Carreras exclaimed. "This is a chance for a new beginning. Listen to me, senor Mento--"

Her blade swept down, singing a dirge. And as the lightning overtook her, Elena struggled to hide from the priest the joyful part of the Quickening, the part that filled her soul and her heart to bursting with power, with lust, with pleasure.

With life.

It was a victory for Elena Duran. And a defeat.

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Translations: (all Spanish)

parroco - parish priest

Padre, Padrecito - father (in religious terms)

ORPHANAGE OF SAN MATEO IN SALADILLO, NEAR BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

FEBRUARY 10, 1970, 6:00 p.m.

Elena Duran put her hands inside the old priest's. She still thought of him as old, even though she had been born two centuries before he had.

"It is so good to have you safely back, Senorita Duran," he whispered, his voice rough with emotion. "My prayers have been answered."

"It is good to be home, Padre Carreras. And so good to see you again, [mi amigo.]" She could feel the roughness of veins and wrinkles, the boniness of age, and the calluses on his hands, from hard work, not from a sword. The only blade Padre Roberto Carreras had ever used was a sharp whittling knife, to pursue his passion. He spent every spare moment either reading or carving, turning small chunks of wood into almost-animate animals, sometimes wolves or other canines, sometimes a particular animal one of the children would ask him for. But mostly, it was birds. Roberto Carreras knew every bird there was, and as she let go of his hands he reached into the voluminous pocket of his worn black cassock and pulled out a small, carved wooden figure of a bird.

The smile was already on her face as she looked up into warm brown eyes. But she was surprised by the look on his face, and the little internal voice that spoke to her, that said, "danger," whispered to her now. For a moment, she thought his wrinkles were deeper, more visible. It wasn't that he'd aged, she knew. He looked nervous, tired; he had little beads of sweat on his upper lip and on his temples. Perhaps the heat was oppressing him in that full black habit, or something was worrying him. She'd ask him about that later, but first things first. "Gracias, Padre," she said, inclining her head. But this was only the beginning of their usual little guessing game.

"Senorita Duran." Formal, he had always been formal. "What is it?" he asked her. He was smiling now, all traces of his former concern gone.

She turned her attention to the carving, examining it closely. In truth, she could just barely tell one bird from another, and only the well-known ones at that. This one looked like an owl...but even if she'd known the exact name of this bird, she'd never say it, never take away his little satisfaction, never deprive him of his little "lesson." And Padre Carreras knew it. "An owl?" she guessed.

"Very good. You're getting more observant in your old age, senorita." His eyes were merry.

Time for the lecture.

"Beauty is all around you. I'm glad to see you're finally taking the time to look at God's creatures, Senorita Duran. Especially someone with as much time on your hands as you have."

"And you too, Padre."

He smiled again. "I always take the time." With a slightly victorious grin, he informed her, "Of course it's an owl--you can tell by the little tuft on its head, the horns. But do you know what kind?" He continued without waiting for her negative answer. "It's an Oriental Scops owl, [otus sunia,] found in southern Asia, Ceylon, Indonesia and..." Here he paused, and Elena finished for him.

"Japan." She rose to bow in the formal Japanese style, and he returned the bow, one hand over his heart, the other arm out at his side, with typical European flair. Smiling, they both sat down again.

"In honor of your recent stay there. You might have seen this owl in the woods. It's about one hundred and seventy millimeters long, has streaks and a short tail, and nests in holes in tree trunks and walls. It eats the usual assortment of insects, small rodents, and especially loves spiders. Its voice is a three-note song that sounds something like," he pursed his lips, "'wuk-tuk-tah.' Sound familiar?"

"No, I spent most of my time in Tokyo. Sorry. No owls." She'd listened closely to his explanation, knowing she'd eventually forget--the Chinese said the mind learned quickly and forgot quickly, but the body learned slowly and forgot slowly. Which is why she'd forget the name of the bird but remember how to riposte. Later she would print its name and the year underneath and put this little one on the windowsills of her bedroom, beside the others. This morning she had counted them, one for each year she'd visited him, each one exquisite in its detail, each one looking like it could start to fly or sing at any moment. And each one a different bird. She wondered when he'd run out of birds.

A soft step behind them--and Elena saw Padre Carreras startle a little, saw his face, his mouth open slightly, his eyes go round with -- [!que diablos!] fear! It was fear. Now, just for an instant, she had seen it on the priest's face, smelled it on his body. Elena Duran knew fear inside and out, from feeling fear to causing fear. Fear was one of her oldest, most loyal companions, one who lived deep inside her just below where her rib cage opened up, and who every once in a while made itself known, unbidden, unwanted, unwelcome.

She took his left hand, squeezing a little to reassure him. "What's wrong?" she asked him, blunt as always.

"Wrong?" He smiled again, shaking his head and pulling his hand carefully out of hers. When this man smiled, he used his whole body. His aristocratic face softened, brightened, his eyes crinkled at the corners, his mouth spread open, showing even white teeth, his hands warmed, his body straightened and relaxed a little at the same time. It was a contagious, open smile that said, "I'm so blessed and delighted to be here with you."

Now his smile was a little different as he said, "There's nothing wrong. I was surprised, that's all." He turned to the small, wizened brown woman who had just entered his office. "Senorita Duran, this is Sor Rafaela. She is my right hand and my left as well. I don't know what I or the children would do without her."

Sor Rafaela was obviously not a smiler, but just as obviously devoted to Padre Carreras. Elena saw the concern on the nun's face.

"And I don't know what we would do without your generosity, Senorita Duran," the nun said gravely. "Your money runs this place."

Elena smiled. "[Mucho gusto, hermana.] And we all do what we can," she said automatically, standing again to shake the nun's hand. But she wasn't distracted. Something was wrong; he hadn't been just "surprised." For the first time, she felt Padre Carreras had lied to her, and the thought made her sad and a little angry at the same time. The look of fear on his face--it had been so brief, maybe she had imagined it. Because this man had never been afraid, not in front of her, not since that first time they'd met.

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CHURCH OF SAN MATEO IN SALADILLO, NEAR BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

FEBRUARY 8, 1919

As soon as Elena steps onto Holy Ground she can sense the Immortal. [!Cono!] She swallows her anger and disappointment. She is here to meet a priest, a Padre Roberto Carreras, to talk about a proposal to build an orphanage right here on the church compound, to fund a home for homeless children. But it's a trick, a trap; some Immortal has simply drawn her here. At least they are on Holy Ground, for now.

She enters the dilapidated, empty building. The paint is peeling, the inner walls are crumbling, there are cobwebs in the corners and dust bunnies on the floor--and comes face to face with him, with the Immortal, as he twirls toward her, gasping a little, holding his head with both hands in pain, perhaps?

The Quickening, of course.

He recovers, then straightens and walks the length of the room toward her.

Meanwhile she scans the room, looking for other people, other exits, noting that it had at one time been a dormitory: ancient metal beds, torn, stained mattresses, crumbling bookcases. The Immortal approaching is a tall, lanky, strong-looking man, with short wisps of grey hair around a bald spot which is almost a tonsure. He's in his mid-sixties--no wonder he wanted to meet on Holy Ground! He's dressed in a priest's robes, if indeed he is a priest, which won't make any difference anyway, and approaches her with his hand extended, smiling most cheerfully.

What the hell are you thinking, Padre? she thinks to herself. It just isn't done. You don't touch another Immortal, not one you don't know very, very well, and trust absolutely.

Just before he gets within sword range she holds out her hand for him to stop. He's already slowed down, his smile less sure, a puzzled look on his face as he gets a closer look at hers. "Who are you, and what do you want?" she asks him wearily, warily. As if she didn't know.

His arm goes down reluctantly. "I'm Roberto Carreras. You must be Mariaelena Duran. I'm...pleased to meet you, senorita. I've heard so much about you."

I bet you have, she thinks. But his tone sounds friendly, genuine, frank. Now it's her turn to be puzzled.

He continues in the same open, warm fashion, but she can tell he's put a bit off stride. "I have heard your name, heard that you are a generous person. That you would be very open to helping fund a specific charitable project that I have in mind."

Elena stares at him. Charitable project? She lets him continue, all the while examining him closely. What is your game, she wonders?

"Excuse me; I'm not a very good speaker. But my plan is a good one, as you will see. I've already spoken to others."

She can hear the hesitation in his voice, see the nervousness on his face. This "charity" must be a cover, the excuse to lure her here. But even so, why isn't he getting to the real business? There's no one around to hear them, or to interfere.

"Padre." She puts as much sarcasm into that one word as she can.

He blinks in surprise, more nervous than before.

Good. "This is getting tiring and boring. And pointless. Why don't we talk about the real reason I'm here? Name the time and place." Even as she says this she has her first real doubt. Because the look on his face now is utterly bewildered, completely and totally lost. She glances around one more time to make sure they're alone, and that no one outside can see in through the boarded up or broken windows.

"The real reason? Senorita, I'm not sure--"

She draws her sword swiftly, even though they're on Holy Ground, and puts it to his throat, then forces him to retreat until his back is against the far corner, well away from the door and the windows. Her world narrowed to the enemy before her, she notices the small flecks of peeling yellow paint that fall on the shoulders of his black cassock as she presses him against the falling plaster of the wall, his arms out, palms against the wall, fingers closing into claws. But what she especially notes is the look of real terror--no faking that, priest!--on his face.

But he doesn't say, "We're on Holy Ground," or "another time," or even, "yes, let's get down to business." He stammers, "What? In the name of God, what...what are you doing?"

Her doubt increases. If he's acting, he's an expert, but she's met those, too, before. "Don't move and don't call out or I'll kill you," she orders softly, meaning it, leaning into him even more, pinning him with both her blade and with her savage, hungry look. She waits for him to object, to say they are on Holy Ground, to call her bluff. She can bring herself to kill him, perhaps, but not permanently, and he'd know that.

But he says nothing, frozen in terror, his mouth open with words that won't or can't come out.

Keeping her sword steady, she uses her free right hand to sweep down the sides of his body, from his armpits to his ankles, then the front, frisking him expertly, efficiently, quickly. No sword. Nothing. She turns him roughly so he's facing the wall then moves in closer and puts the edge of her sword at the base of his neck. "[Silencio,]" she repeats, then makes sure there are no weapons hung along the back of him.

When she moves away from him he turns around slowly, but with less hesitation, more firmness. He clears his throat, then asks her the same question but with a different inflection, the fear now being quickly replaced by anger, she can see. "In the name of God, what do you think you're doing? What..." he points at her hand, "...is that sword in your hand ... what ... who are you?"

She studies him for a moment, then puts her sword away, knowing she can get to it quickly enough and that he's unarmed. Her eyes narrow, as if by focusing them better she can read his mind. "You really don't know, do you?" she asks him.

"Know what!? That you have assaulted me, senorita? I know that! By all that is holy, you will tell me what's going on, right now!"

Oh, he's angry, all right, insulted, outraged. But she can still feel the fear underneath, in its little corner, waiting to come out and take him over again, if necessary. Good.

She looks around and sees that they're still quite alone. "Sit down, Padre," she gestures to one of the old beds, and when he hesitates, she adds, in a more conciliatory tone, "Please. I can explain everything."

He still hesitates, his eyes flicking past her for an instant toward the door beyond, gauging his position, his chances. And still standing up to her, looking down from his greater height, facing her down. If the meek shall inherit the earth, this priest might be left with very little, she thinks.

"Please sit," she repeats, but stays on her feet herself, moving to a better position to block his escape, making it apparent, in spite of her words, that she's not really giving him a choice.

After a long moment, he says tersely, "You may explain, senorita," then he finally complies, sitting stiffly on the edge of a worn mattress.

"I won't hurt you," she assures him. If you are what you seem, she adds to herself. She sighs, resigned to tell this story yet again, wishing she had a drink, wishing they both had a drink, by now almost convinced of his ignorance and his innocence, but still alert for any signs of treachery. "I have something to tell you, and it might take some time."

In the end, it had been harder for her to convince him of their mutual Immortality than for him to convince her to fund the orphanage. Even this news about himself had failed to deflect his plans for the children. They would need beds, linens, clothing, and toys, of course. Books, very important; also school texts, pencils, pens, crayons, notebooks. The local school had already been contacted about the children. The building they were standing in was to be cleaned up and painted in bright, child-friendly colors. It would need a new roof, and an addition to the smaller building where the kitchen was, to make a dining hall. Padre Carreras had architectural drawings and a local contractor who had agreed to donate labor, but the materials still had to be bought, the area prepared, and volunteers accommodated. In a sunny part of the yard would be the garden, planted and nurtured by the first batch of street urchins who would arrive off the streets of Buenos Aires as soon as everything was ready. And what's a yard without play equipment? In the end, Elena had made a sizeable contribution, and more every year since then.

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Translations: (all Spanish)

mi amigo - my friend

mucho gusto, hermana - good to meet you, sister

cono - damn

Chapter 2

ORPHANAGE OF SAN MATEO IN SALADILLO, NEAR BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

FEBRUARY 10, 1970, 8:00 p.m.

Now the nun had gone, and the two of them were left undisturbed with their dinner and their conversation. Her annual visit, when she was in Argentina, was the one time every year when the ever-present children were not permitted to intrude on him. First, he would give Elena her little tour, and as she had been in Japan since 1949, she was sure many things had changed.

Padre Carreras regaled Elena with tales of what the children said, what they did. At present there were twenty children at San Mateo's. It was his whole life, the church and the outbuildings which made up the orphanage. The birds. And of course, the books. When he wasn't holding some child's hand or carving his little birds, Padre Carreras had a book in his hand.

After dinner and the tour, they went to sit in his small parlor--they had to move several books out of the way to get to the chairs--and sat around drinking the bottles of [rioja] Elena had brought. [Barriga llena, corazon contento,] she thought to herself. Now that he was happy, time to go fishing again. She sat back, and in a deceptively mild voice, asked, "So everything is going well? No problems?"

"Well," he answered, reflective now. "God never gives us a burden we cannot carry, somehow. There are one or two boys--aren't they almost always boys?--who are giving us some trouble. Carlitos Francs I worry about the most, but also Profirio Diaz. He's extremely bright, but also very angry, and so hard to reach, to talk to. I also worry that they want him back to continue carrying messages and drugs for their filthy business."

Elena smiled slightly. Padre Carreras had very little Christian charity to spare for criminals who hurt children. Nor did she.

He shook his head, sighing. "They've been too long in the streets, Carlitos and Profirio, and Angela, and Mariflor and Joselito, you understand, living alone, hungry, afraid, abused," he explained. "They're just children, after all. Although I am constantly amazed by their toughness and their resourcefulness. God hasn't given them a burden they can't carry either."

Elena nodded. She had been a slave to the Spanish conquistadores in the seventeenth century until her adoption by her Immortal teacher, Don Alvaro Duran. She knew about being a lost, frightened, abused child, like Carlitos and Mariflor and Profirio, and exactly what a burden that was. Over the years, on her visits, she had told him about some of the things she'd seen and done in almost four hundred years of living: travelling to the Andes, to the modern, large cities of the United States, to the courts of Europe, to the outback of Australia, to the Far East. She had told him about meeting Pablo Picasso, Jose de San Martin, Pablo Casals, Rudolf Nureyev. She had told him about her father, her husbands, her baby, her teachers, and about the Immortals she had known.

But they didn't just talk about the fun things. They also discussed their endless topic, war and peace, life and death, and what it meant to be an Immortal. She had been beaten and disillusioned in 1945, when she had returned from more than ten years of fighting the Fascists in Europe. Franco was still in power even after VE Day, and she and Padre Carreras had spoken at length about the war, a war he hadn't wanted her to join. And ultimately she had conceded that she should not have gone. She had agreed that she would not take part in any more mortal wars. In fact, she had agreed she would not kill any more mortals, except in self-defense, or to protect someone else's life. Not again.

Padre Carreras had won that argument between them, the one about killing mortals. It had been partly his influence that had made her go to Japan in 1949, to learn the art of self-defense called [Aikido], to find a way to protect herself against mortals without necessarily killing them.

That still left their other argument: the killing of Immortals. It was their inevitable debate, the warrior versus the pacifist, and she'd missed the discussion almost as much as she'd missed the birds. She knew that particular debate would come up between them again, eventually. In fact, she knew that argument was going to come up between them today. But this argument Padre Carreras would not win. She thought about how best to bring it up, as she noted how easily and often he laughed.

He was especially intrigued and pleased by her newest teacher, the Japanese Aikido master Ueshiba Morihei, better known as O'Sensei. Elena had spent the last twenty years, until O'Sensei's death, studying with this Japanese master.

"So Ueshiba, too, believed in pacifism. A book written by a martial arts sensei, and he called it, 'The Art of Peace'?" He chuckled, shaking his head in delight and disbelief, then put the small volume down on the table and picked up his wine glass again.

"Yes. Like with you, it's all in the religion. Zen, not Christianity. But he was willing to fight if necessary, to defend himself. And of course, he didn't have other Immortals trying to decapitate him," she argued.

"Nor do I, senorita," he said, but there was a false note somehow, a worry, a fear. She could smell it as easily as a dog could smell fresh meat.

Let's push a little more, she thought. "You're the perfect host, you know," she continued. "You tell entertaining tales and you're a good listener. And I still think you should meet Darius."

"The Immortal priest in France? And just how do you expect me to get away from my little [adorados tormentos]?" he asked her, making a wide, emcompassing gesture with his hand.

"Surely someone can take over for you for a while. Sor Rafaela seems very efficient. And I'd be willing to travel with you, of course."

He became grave suddenly, abruptly. "Travel with me? You mean to protect me? And what would that entail, senorita? Fighting for me? Killing for me? Dying for me?" he said, putting more and more emphasis on each phrase as he said it.

She was not fazed by his anger. "The first two, yes," she answered immediately. "The last--I hope not." She looked at him closely. He was gripping his wineglass so hard that Elena thought the fragile crystal might shatter in his hand. She put her glass down and leaned closer to him, her face and voice earnest. The hell with tact. "Tell me what's wrong, Roberto," she asked, using his given name for the first time. "If I can do anything to help--and it has to do with Immortals, doesn't it? You're afraid."

"Am I afraid?" he challenged her. But after a moment he sighed, his shoulders slumping as he let go of his control, finally. "Yes, I imagine that I am, but not the way you think. I am not afraid to die, not even ... not even by the sword. I have made my peace with God. But I am afraid ... for you."

"For me?"

"I fear for your soul. This killing of others, even Immortals, is wrong."

He reminded her of Darius. "We've been through this before, Padre. I kill Immortals because I have no choice. It's what we do!"

"No, it is not what we do. It is what youose to do. You do not have to kill, senorita. You can defend yourself, defeat an enemy without destroying him completely. If you are not a threat to another Immortal, why would he have to behead you? Oh, yes, or course. The Quickening."

She could hear the anger in his voice now. "To gain his power, his soul. Don't you see that it is nothing but self-perpetuating violence and greed? And that in gaining his soul, you lose yours?"

"I have no fear for my soul, Padre. And if I were ashamed of killing Immortals, I would have to be ashamed of who I am. I could not live like that. I'm proud of who I am."

"You are content to live such a life, living upon the blood of others? Like a vampire?"

"You are content to live such a life as this, hiding from the world? This is nothing but a self-imposed prison. And you can never leave, remember?"

"If Immortals like you did not kill each other, I would be free to leave Holy Ground," he said, the only sign of bitterness she had ever seen in him.

"But there are Immortals like me, Padre," she argued, moving closer to him, lacing her logic with anger. "And there are worse than me. There are evil Immortals, murderers, rapists, madmen, who deserve to die! Without Immortals like me, willing to fight for Immortals like you to kill for you, Immortals like you would not survive to preach brotherhood and peace."

"No!" His face was grim, no humor in it. "I cannot permit any of this to happen! None of it!"

Her expression matched his. "And don't you think it's my choice? What I do wi--"

"No!" he cried out, putting his wine glass down on the desk, standing up, looking down on her. "No, absolutely not! This is the last thing ... if someone, you or anyone else, died because of me--"

"Who's after you, Padre?" she asked him bluntly.

He walked away, refusing to look at her. For a moment he stood in the middle of the room, trembling slightly. When he finally faced her again, he said, softly, "There is someone. I sensed her, today, perhaps twice."

So it was a woman after him, Elena thought. There were only a few female Immortals in Argentina.

"I actually called the [estancia,] to warn you off, but you had already left. Then I realized that might make you more determined to come to my 'rescue.' Now, of course, I have to tell you so you won't be surprised or caught off guard." He paced up and down, speaking almost to himself. "I've put you in danger letting you come here again. After what happened with the Italian, Mentori, I should have insisted we do this by telephone, by mail. But I was weak, and I've always enjoyed your visits so much." He closed his eyes, opened them again. "Now you're here, and that Immortal is here. I've been praying all afternoon."

"Praying?" she asked him. "Praying is fine, Padre, but in this case..." She stood also. "Look, you haven't put me in danger. I do that by choosing not to live on Holy Ground." She tried to explain, again. "When it comes to Immortals, we have very few choices. You've chosen to remain on Holy Ground, where you belong, and where you should stay. I have decided to live in the world. And that means to fight, if necessary."

He put his hands together, long fingers interlaced in an attitude of prayer, and walked right up to her, getting into her space. "Is it still necessary? Have you given it another chance, letting an Immortal live, shown mercy? Even one time? Remember Luke, the Bible. Love your enemies; be merciful."

She could tell he was reliving her duel with the Italian, Antonio Mentori. Being merciful had not worked then, and it had not worked when the Japanese Immortal had come for her in Tokyo. O'Sensei had called her a hawk who stoops on a dove. But there was more to it than just the desire to destroy her enemy. O'Sensei had been a warrior, and when his war was over he had preached peace. But he was not an Immortal. Elena was an Immortal, and her war would never be over. Padre Carreras was an Immortal, but... She shook her head. "You are a dreamer, Padre. And you are not out there in the real world. You truly do not understand. Being merciful does not work." She took a deep breath, then conceded, "Only very rarely."

He sighed. "I can't believe that. And I understand that sometimes you feel you can only survive by...killing. But you also find joy in it, don't you, senorita? I will never forget your face, when you took the Quickening of that Italian, Mentori."

She flinched visibly. He would always hold that against her, wouldn't he? So much for his Christian charity. "We've been through this too, Padre. And yes, there is...a certain satisfaction. A pleasure. It's a part of the Quickening." The priest had never taken a Quickening, and he never would. He really did not understand. "But I do not kill Immortals for their Quickenings. I am not a headhunter. I kill to protect myself."

Usually.

He was nodding furiously, apparently conceding this point to her, for now. Which meant he had another argument in mind. "But not for me! Senorita, you must give me your word that you won't hurt anyone for my sake, to protect me."

Of course, she thought. She was very calm. This was such an old story, and the argument was fine while it was theoretical. But now it was real, [!cono!] surely he could see this! "It doesn't work that way, Padre. You think, if you don't mean her any harm, why should she harm you? For the same reason the strong have always harmed others, because they can. And often, because they want to. How's that for a reason, Padre? Maybe you're content to be killed, but I'm not."

"I do not want to be killed; but I am not worried about it. I am ready to face my Maker. But you, senorita...if you must protect your own life; if you feel at times that it is the only way..." He sighed. "God in His wisdom made us cling to life, so that we may love Him and glorify Him here on Earth.

"But I cannot and will not permit you to challenge this Immortal, hunt her down, kill her! Not for me! Never for me! 'Thou shalt not kill' is a commandment. It does not mean sometimes." He was firm in this, obstinate. "Perhaps ... if you stayed until morning..." He had that determined look on his face, and she already knew how persuasive he could be, how he usually got his way.

Not this time.

Elena shook her head. "This is not going to go away overnight, Padre. She's not going to go away. And I'm not hiding on Holy Ground, even if you don't approve of me, even if it does make me a sinner, even if I do break the commandments." Her turn to sigh. "Look, I've been a faithful Roman Catholic since the seventeenth century, even when the Inquisition burned me for a witch in 1733. I still believe in the teachings of the Holy Mother Church.

"But God in His wisdom made us who we are, and He made us Immortals, didn't he?" she asked, a little bitterly. "Besides, an Immortal lurking about could be a danger to the children. Have you ever thought of that? That she might use one of them against you? It's happened before, you know."

He shook his head again, stubbornly. Then he said, "Do you think she might...? No, I...I hadn't thought...my dear God! I didn't realize..."

"Yes, I know you didn't." She was annoyed by his naivete. Following Christ's teachings was admirable; thinking others did was optimistic; thinking everyone else did was foolish. More like suicidal. "Now tell me, did she speak to you? Do you know who she is?"

Padre Carreras looked at Elena for a long time. She could clearly see him weighing his options. Finally, reluctantly, he admitted, "I did see her, by the gate, briefly. She...has a shock of white hair," he ran two fingers back over his head, starting at his forehead. "And she made an obscene gesture...I thought she was just mocking me." He sighed. "I approached her, to talk to her, to make her understand I meant her no harm, I was on Holy Ground, I was no threat to her. But as soon as I got close she smiled. Such a smile I've seen on the face of a cat when he spots a juicy mouse. I tried to speak to her, but she walked away. Before she left, she drew her forefinger across her throat..."

Elena nodded. She knew that smile and that gesture. It was the hawk and the dove all over again. She also knew who this Immortal was. "She looked a little like the bride of Frankenstein?" she mused, almost to herself.

"The what? The bride of who?"

Elena remembered that this man had been cloistered since 1919. She shook her head. If the situation hadn't been so grave, she would have been amused. "Her name is Cana Rivero. I'll take care of her." She spoke firmly, as though it were a done deal.

"God forgive me!" he murmured, turning white. "Now everyone, the children, you ... everyone is in danger because of me."

He looked so miserable and guilty that she relented a little. It truly wasn't his fault, but feeling guilty was something Roman Catholics were really good at. She should know. Putting her hands over his, this time, she murmured, "You're not to blame. And things will work out as God wills. Have faith, Padre Carreras. Have faith."

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Translations: (all Spanish)

rioja - red Argentine wine

barriga llena, corazon contento - full belly means a happy heart

adorados tormentos - beloved torments, persons one loves

estancia - Argentine ranch/farm

Chapter 3

An hour later

When Elena walked through the gates and off Holy Ground she sensed no Immortals at all. She stood near the entrance for a moment, sniffing the air delicately like a cat trying to catch the scent of its prey. She stood obvious and visible, broadcasting the message to any awaiting, hidden Immortal that this place, and especially the Immortal inside, was under her protection.

Nothing.

Well, she'd just have to find Cana Rivero. Elena had always wanted to ask this particular Immortal what her given name was, since Cana was a nickname referring to the tell-tale streak of white hair and to the phrase which meant letting your hair down, going wild. Cana Rivero certainly had a reputation for being wild. Maybe this time Elena would ask before...

She shrugged and started to move toward her Jeep when she sensed an Immortal presence--behind her? She whirled...but it was Roberto Carreras, on the other side of the fence, on the safe side, an anguished expression on his face. Deja vu! she thought. "[!Cono!]" she exclaimed, filled with adrenaline and relief.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," he said, through the bars of the fence. "I just came to remind you, once more." He glanced around. "Was she here? I didn't sense anyone."

"No. She's gone, but I think I can find her."

"She obviously does not want to fight you. Your presence scared her away. Please remember your promise, Senorita Duran, that you would not kill her, especially not because of me. No harm has been done. Let it go. Let her go." He gripped the bars, knuckles white.

Elena shook her head one more time. She was getting tired of this. "I know what I promised, Padre. But I still have to be sure."

"But you will talk to her first. I'm sure she would not want to harm the children. Give her a chance; give both of you a chance. For your own sake. For God's sake." He swallowed, then whispered, bleakly, "For my sake." He put one hand through the bars, like a helpless prisoner asking for mercy. "[Por favor]; remember Luke, remember the Golden Rule."

She felt uncomfortable, angry, guilty in the face of his relentless opposition. He had said and done everything he could to try to convince her not to hurt Cana Rivero, to talk to Cana and try to get her to walk away. Elena had been hard put, now that there was a real possibility of her killing someone, to defend her position and retain any moral stance, not to seem like a cold-blooded killer, like a headhunter. Now he was begging her... "I won't forget, Padre--no killing," she promised again.

Walking back to her Jeep, she reflected on how different Padre Carreras was from her. But he was very firm in his convictions, enough to give his life for them if necessary. She could admire that, even if she didn't understand his totally pacifist attitude. She hadn't understood O'Sensei's attitude either, which is why she'd been unable to fully comprehend the philosophy of peace behind Aikido.

On the other hand, she understood Cana Rivero's aggressive, predatory attitude quite well. Too well. She sighed, turned on her engine, and gunned the Jeep east, towards Buenos Aires.

///////

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

FEBRUARY 10, 1970, 3:00 a.m.

Cana Rivero was a wharf rat, so that's where Elena went to look for her, at the docks around La Boca. It was not the nicest part of town, but then Cana Rivero was not the nicest type of person. Although it was late, there were still many people awake -- this was Buenos Aires, after all.

Elena drove around aimlessly, crossing Calle Olavarria, Calle Suarez, Calle Pinzon, then she went north, hoping to get lucky, to get a hit, an Immortal sense. Searching. Hell, no--hunting. After a few blocks, she left her car, hoping it would be there when she returned, and proceeded on foot. It was more personal this way, more visceral. And there was nothing more personal or visceral, she thought, as the blood raced through her veins and a knot clenched and unclenched in her stomach, than hunting for an Immortal. Headhunting.

At this point Elena regretted not having challenged the other Immortal before; but then, Cana had never been a threat to her before. She had actually had a couple of drinks with Cana once, under the general proviso of "know your enemy," and had come to the conclusion that the other Immortal was simply extremely, dangerously antisocial. Cana seemed to be missing any kind of feeling for others, any sympathy or empathy, and certainly Cana had no conscience.

But contrary to what Padre Carreras apparently believed, Elena did not consider herself an indiscriminate killer. She judged and condemned Immortals on their actions, not their character, and killed them for a specific reason, not just because "there can be only one." Of course, the reason was whatever she liked. She smiled at herself for her own inconsistency.

Reassured by the feel of her sword pressing against her right side, she walked past some of the oldest buildings in the city--colorful houses painted by old-time sailors, open bars, closed [confiterias], shops, whorehouses, warehouses, restaurants. In this Italian part of town, she could smell tomatoes and olive oil mixed in with the stronger, more vile river odors slowly drifting in the hot, still night. She spent more time fending off passes from Italian lotharios than actually getting any information. At one point she thought, viciously, that the next man who called her [bella] would wind up with three feet of steel in his gut.

But eventually, by asking, smiling, flirting when needed, avoiding those pinching fingers; spreading money, liberally, but not too liberally; being persistent and insistent and downright nasty sometimes; being alert for nuances and lies; and generally, by listening, she was able to locate Rivero's rooms. They were on the second floor of a whitewashed building that was so dirty, it looked grey.

As she walked down the hallway redolent with the smells of garbage, urine, and cooking grease, she was alert for the tell-tale Immortal signal, and for mortal trouble as well. Cana Rivero was not in her apartment -- and although Elena was on full alert, her pulse went down a few points with the knowledge that she wasn't going to meet an Immortal. Not right now. And as always, she wasn't quite sure if she felt disappointed or relieved.

Elena didn't bother knocking. The lock was very little trouble, but something made her hesitate before she opened the door, and that little hesitation saved her from an unpleasant, if temporary, death. As she stepped to the side of the door and pushed it open slowly with her foot, a quiet but deadly crossbow bolt buried itself deeply in the wall across the hall. Elena went back to look--it would have gone in just below her rib cage and out the other side, impaling her and breaking her spine.

Very cute, Cana.

With some difficulty, she pulled the bolt out of the pitted wall across from the door and took the bolt back into Cana's apartment with her.

Two rooms with a bathroom. A real dump, messy and dusty but less dirty than it could have been, and saved only, in Elena's opinion, by the profusion of reading material. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, overwhelmed by the sheer number of printed pages. Hardcover books, paperbacks, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, papers lay everywhere except for one lone easy chair. Starting with the shelves, the books also covered the table, the kitchen counters, the chairs, a sagging sofa and the single bed, the window ledges, and even the bathroom over the toilet bowl.

They filled the closet and were stacked almost knee high in some cases on every square meter of floor space, leaving only a small path from the door to the bedroom. Not to the bathroom--did Cana Rivero ever piss Elena wondered.

She took a moment to look and found everything from National Geographic to sheet music to books on Freud and Jung, Japanese swordmaking, extra-sensory perception, anatomy. She also found several leather-bound sets--Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoi, Dante, Voltaire--all in their original languages, all well-used, all obviously old, obviously read.

Elena smiled slightly. This place was mostly a much messier version of her own library at home. If this is what Cana did with her free time, it was a very redeeming quality. Maybe they would be able to talk, to reach an understanding, instead of just trying to kill each other.

She went into the small, cluttered bedroom to see if she could find any clues as to where Cana might be but she soon decided she'd probably never find anything in this chaos. But she could certainly leave a message for the other Immortal. Finding some lipstick, she wrote a few words on the mirror in the bedroom, then left.

///////

It was almost dawn, and Elena went to her hotel to get much needed rest. Her eyes were gritty, her mouth dry, and she needed to sleep. Maybe she was getting too old for these all-nighters, she thought, smiling to herself. Her muscles, even her bones, hurt.

The clerk behind the desk was sleepy, but he snapped to attention when she mentioned her name. He should; the Claridge was her favorite hotel in Buenos Aires. She came here often and tipped liberally. Sometimes it was good to be old and rich.

She'd never seen him before, and as he spoke she glanced at his nameplate: Ernesto.

"Senorita Duran, welcome to Buenos Aires. We did not expect you. Your usual room..." he did a quick lookup "...is not available, I'm sorry to say, but we can find you another, I'm sure."

"Good," she said, shortly. She usually stayed the night at the orphanage when she came to visit Padre Carreras, but it was a two-hour drive from Buenos Aires to Saladillo, where the orphanage was. There was no point going back there now. She'd just call him and let him know she hadn't found Cana Rivero, but had left her a message.

Now Elena realized she was hungry. It was almost time for breakfast, and although it was very early, she was sure the kitchen would satisfy her.

"Room 400," Ernesto murmured. He looked up and beyond her at someone. A bellhop appeared by magic and reached for her duffel and for the key the clerk was holding out.

Obviously the clerk was new. "I like to take my own bag, thank you, Ernesto," she said, picking it up and taking the key as well. "Just send up some coffee, croissants, an egg, poached. And some fruit yogurt and a banana, please."

"Ten minutes," the desk clerk promised, and picked up his phone.

She reached her room and threw the duffel on the bed, lying down beside it, stretching out, closing her eyes. The bed was very comfortable, and she relaxed muscles that had been tense since she'd first seen Padre Carreras, almost twenty-four hours ago. But she couldn't relax completely. She still hadn't found Cana Rivero. Hunting was exhilarating, nerve-wracking, intense--and exhausting. She almost fell asleep, but a knock on her door roused her.

She opened the door, thanked the waiter, signed the voucher, and sat on the bed with her coffee cup, stretching her legs out. Two swallows, and she picked up the phone, gave her number to the hotel operator, and waited. Apparently today was one of the good days for the Argentine telephone system, and the other phone rang almost at once.

"Padre Carreras, por favor," she said. She finished her first croissant. It was freshly baked, and still hot. She wiped the crumbs with her napkin.

"Senorita Duran?" the voice on the other end answered.

Elena recognized Sor Rafaela's voice. "Yes, Sor Rafaela. I'm sorry to call so early." I should have waited for a decent hour, Elena thought.

"No, it's quite all right. We rise with the chickens here. However ... I'm sorry to say you've missed the Padre."

Elena had been swirling the yogurt in her cup, holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder. She sat up in bed so abruptly she almost dropped the receiver. "Missed him?"

"Yes, he called the [estancia,] trying to reach you, but they said you were supposed to be here, at the orphanage. Padre Carreras asked me to tell you, if you called or came by, that he had to go to Buenos Aires, he had no choice. It's that boy, Profirio Diaz. He's run away. Padrecito was very worried about him, and when he couldn't reach you, he couldn't wait...he went after him." The nun sounded tired, not concerned.

Elena felt as if all the saliva in her mouth had dried up. She swallowed, putting the cup of yogurt down. "He's here, in Buenos Aires?" She kept her voice calm. "Do you know where?"

"He mentioned the docks area."

"La Boca?" The light, airy, flaky croissant Elena had just eaten now felt like a lead weight inside her, and her stomach muscles clenched around it painfully.

No. Please, God, no.

This couldn't happen. Only in novels and in stage plays did these incredible coincidences occur, where people met each other in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this was real life, life and death. This did not, could not happen! [!Por el amor de Dios, no!] "Yes, he did say la Boca. I'm afraid I don't know the city very well. I'm from the mountains myself, not a [portena]." But the sister might have heard something in Elena's voice, in those few words, because she added, with a little alarm, "Is it a dangerous part of town? I doubt that anyone would harm a priest, would they? God will protect him."

"Yes. I'll go find him now."

"But you must be careful yourself, senorita," Sor Rafaela said, concerned. "A woman alone... Perhaps you should contact the authorities, if you feel..."

"I'll take care of it," Elena whispered, eager now to get off the phone, to go searching for him. How could he have left Holy Ground, knowing someone was after him? How could he have put himself in such danger? What a stupid, careless thing to do! Why couldn't he have waited for her, just a few hours!

Damn him!

"...him, where can I contact you?" the nun was asking.

"Contact me? Yes." Elena gave her the number of the hotel.

"I will pray for you."

"Yes, [hermana.] Pray for us all." She hung up her phone and took deep, calming breaths, cooling her anger at the priest. And her fear for him. Then, although she wasn't hungry any more, she finished her coffee, realizing she needed the energy and the caffeine jolt. Then she rinsed out her mouth, splashed water on her face. She desperately wanted a shower and some rest, but there was no time.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Translations:

confiterias (Span.) - cafes

bella (Ital. or Span.) - beautiful woman

por el amor de Dios (Span.) - for the love of God

porteno(a) (Span.) - native of the 'port' of Buenos Aires, Argentina

hermana - sister/nun

Chapter 4

As she walked through the hotel lobby, the desk clerk, Ernesto, called out to her. "Senorita! There was a telephone call for you. I just put it through to your room, but you were gone."

She shook her head, no time, and stepped into the doorway as the doorman, smiling, pulled it open for her from the outside. But as she started to walk through she realized there was only one person who knew where she was.

"Wait!" Ernesto said. "It was a Sor Rafaela."

That was the only person who knew.

"She said it was most urgent," the desk clerk added.

Elena felt her heart stop. Just for a moment, an instant. Then it started again. She kept her face composed. She walked over to the house phone and picked it up, gave the hotel operator her number, waited an eternity.

Sor Rafaela's voice was shaking, with an edge of hysteria to it. Elena could hear the nun's harsh control even through the phone lines.

"I just heard from the police. They have found Padre Carreras. It's ... it's le.

Elena got herself ready. She waited for the words to come, to fall on her like boulders from a sheer cliff, crushing her, crushing the joy out of her.

He was beheaded...

"...I cannot imagine what kind of person would do such a thing..."

He was decapitated...

"...our Lord Jesus Christ preached forgiveness, we must always remember..."

His head was cut off...

"...person who did this." There were unshed tears in the nun's voice. "Senorita--are you there?"

"Tell me," she whispered, needing to hear the words, knowing how much they would hurt and almost welcoming that pain. "Tell me what they did. Tell me what happened. Tell me, [hermana]."

"His head was ... removed from his body. A large blade, they think a sword, or an ax, perhaps..."

Closing her eyes, Elena gripped the receiver tightly, her lifeboat in the waves of pain and horror which washed over her like a tsunami. Her pulse throbbed in her temples. For a moment she couldn't get air into her lungs, and she didn't want to. She waited to see if the nun would say anything else.

But there was nothing more to say.

"I will pray for him, for his everlasting soul, Sor Rafaela," she finally said automatically into the telephone. And for mine, she added. Not for someone else's, though.

Not for Cana Rivero's soul.

Elena carefully hung up the phone. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. She wanted to kill. She walked to the door of the hotel.

The doorman held it open for her again, smiling again, and she walked out into a bright, brand new dawn. She heard him say, behind her, "Would you like your car, senorita? I can have it brought around."

She walked forward until she was standing in the empty street, undecided, not knowing what to do, and this was so uncharacteristic of her that it made her almost physically sick. She wanted to go back to the orphanage, but Padre Carreras wasn't there, what the hell was the point? Later--there was nothing she could do for him now. And if he were there, she'd yell at him, she'd hit him for being so stupid, so stubborn, so innocent, for leaving the safety of Holy Ground when he knew, he knew there was an Immortal after him. And why had he left? For some kid. He was worried for some kid who could take better care of himself on the street than the priest could. Profirio Diaz? Some fucking brat whose life wasn't worth sacrificing a good man like Roberto Carreras, a decent man, a noble...

A car horn startled her. Early morning traffic was starting to get heavy. The doorman approached her, holding up his hand to stop the cars. "Senorita? Are you unwell? May I help you in any way?"

She nodded.

"We should really get off the street, don't you think?" he asked her gently, putting his arm around her protectively, but without touching her.

She looked at his face, and the kindness she saw there brought tears to her eyes. "I'm fine. Thank you," she whispered, then squared her shoulders and headed back to La Boca on foot.

If she came across Cana Rivero she'd kill the other Immortal, on the spot. But she wasn't hunting Cana Rivero. Not now, anyway. She'd get to Cana eventually.

Right now she was hunting Profirio Diaz. If Padre Carreras felt it had been worth his head to find this boy and take him back to the orphanage, then by God, the boy would be found and taken to the orphanage! And she was the perfect person to do it. She had nothing better to do at the moment, anyway.

///////

Finding the boy, Profirio Diaz, wasn't hard. Elena didn't run across the same people she'd seen in the middle of the night. The day people were friendlier, more cooperative; or else she was more tired, looked more desperate, or more dangerous.

But when Profirio saw Elena, he ran. It was the last straw, and she judged which way he was going--she'd been down this alley earlier the same morning. So she was able to rush ahead, teeth grinding together in frustration, and cut him off. As he tried to run past her, she stepped around the corner and put her knee in his solar plexus--not hard enough to really hurt him a lot, just scare him, drop him, make him pay.

He went straight down.

Elena crouched beside him and pulled his head up by his hair. His eyes were wide and frightened, which was natural, considering he couldn't breathe. Good.

"Profirio Diaz?" she asked.

He actually nodded.

"I'm a friend of Padre Carreras," she continued.

She expected to see guilt or shame; maybe sullenness or rebellion; perhaps anger or fear.

Instead, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he turned so pale she was sure he would pass out. Not waiting until he caught his breath again, she rolled him onto his back, took the front of his shirt in her fists and muscled him to his feet, then pressed him against the wall, holding him up by sheer strength alone, towering over him.

She wanted to scare him even more. She wanted to hurt him. She leaned over him, fighting back the urge to simply kill him on the spot, and looked him over: dirty, ragged, useless, a criminal in the making, a drain on society. He wasn't worth dying for.

"Haaahhh," He finally was able to make a sound, sucking in air.

Now she had his full attention. "You fucking little worm! Do you know why I'm here?" She pulled him forward a little, then slammed him into the wall. "Do you know what you did?"

Still trying to catch his breath, the boy nodded, eager to agree with whatever she said.

"Do you know that Padre Carreras, the only person who ever cared whether you lived or died, is dead?! He's dead because of you! Because you ran away, because he tried to save your miserable life! Your worthless, miserable life!" she yelled in his face.

The boy nodded again, more slowly this time, seemingly shrinking into himself. Soft tears, then a mumbled, "I'm sorry."

"You're sorry!" She slammed him into the wall again, harder this time. "You're sorry!?" It was this stupid, worthless little shit's fault that Padre Carreras was dead, and he was sorry. Well, he was about to be sorrier. Furious, she released him, moved back, and opened up her cloak to reach for her weapon.

The boy's eyes, drawn by the sudden movement, went to her sword. And she saw it on his face. Something beyond fear, beyond terror. It was a terrible knowledge, the knowledge, a reflection in his wide, haunted eyes, a remembrance that she knew would never leave him. Never.

Profirio Diaz knew. He'd seen it.

She paused. The designs on her sword hilt were digging into the palm of her hand. "You were with him when he died. You saw it happen," she whispered.

It wasn't a question.

"It's all my fault. My fault. I'm sorry!" He covered his face with his hands and slid down the wall, pulling his knees up into the classic fetal position and burying his face between them.

[!Madre de Dios!] she thought. This was a boy, just a boy, and he'd seen someone he cared about killed, beheaded in front of him. And he blamed himself. Hell, why wouldn't he? She was certainly blaming him.

His shoulders shook, but he wasn't making a sound, and he didn't have to.

In the face of his total misery, she felt the heat of her anger cool suddenly, like hot coals doused by water.

But the steam had to escape somewhere. [!Cono!] What kind of a cold-blooded monster was she? How could she draw her sword on an eleven-year-old child, no matter what he'd done? And he hadn't done anything, really. She couldn't believe she was actually contemplating murdering this little boy, killing him as part of the Game. Maybe Padre was right, she thought, a bad taste in her mouth. Maybe she was fooling herself. Maybe she was truly just a killer.

She closed her eyes, her cheeks burning in shame. [Carajo,] how could she--? This wasn't about Profirio Diaz. It wasn't about mortals. It was about Immortals. It was about the Game. Padre Carreras had died because he was an Immortal, because he'd made a stupid mistake, because he hadn't played the Game corrrectly. And the boy was not to blame. He wasn't.

Elena slammed the half-drawn katana back into its sheath and knelt in front of Profirio. She closed her burning eyes, hard, then opened them again. [!Dios mio!] She was so tired! She wanted to sit next to him, and put her face in her hands, and draw her knees up into a fetal position, too, and sob quietly with him.

Now she could hear him snuffling. Further down the narrow alleyway, a skinny man opened a door, came out, and shuffled past them, staring openly. But he said or did nothing to interfere, perhaps because he was afraid, or most likely because he didn't care. Elena waited, following the man with her eyes until he was gone. Then she waited a little longer, until Profirio's snuffles became soft sobs and eventually petered out. "Profirio," she finally began. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I hurt you, and I'm sorry about what I said. It wasn't your fault, what happened to Padre Carreras. You didn't kill him. That woman killed him. Didn't she? A tall woman with a streak of white in her hair? A sword?"

She cold-bloodedly decided she might as well find out, make sure, use the boy's fear, knowing he wasn't likely to lie to her right now. For a moment she thought he hadn't heard her. Then she saw him nod his head, almost imperceptibly.

"She had a ... sword," he whispered. "She c--cut his head off."

"Yes, she did, [nino.] It wasn't your fault. I shouldn't have said that. I was angry," Elena explained.

He lifted his head slightly so that only his reddened eyes showed above his hands. She could see the mix of sorrow, guilt, and now mostly fear. "Are you going to cut my head off now?" he murmured. [!Madre de Dios, no!] She shook her head, emphatically. "No! I'm not going to ... I won't hurt you. Any more," she added.

He nodded, accepting, accepting anything she did or said. He had no choice; she'd made sure of that. And just how many times had this boy been given a choice, any choice? Suddenly he asked her, out of the blue, "Are you Senorita Duran?"

Curious, she answered, "Yes."

He raised his head completely, eager to talk now. "Padre told me you were a friend. He said to trust you. And he asked me ... he asked me to tell you ... he said if I saw you to ask you not to kill her. Not to kill the woman with the white in her hair. He made me promise to tell you, to remember Luke."

Elena stared at him, not fully understanding, not wanting to understand.

"He made me promise," he insisted.

Elena nodded. Of course Padre had said that, had made the boy promise. "All right, Profirio. You've kept your promise to him." Elena had made the priest a promise, too. If she kept it, Cana Rivero would just walk away. No, Elena decided, she was not going to keep her promise. Cana was not going to walk away. Cana was going to die.

Profirio took a deep, soulful breath. Now there was misery as well as guilt in his voice. "I didn't mean for him to die."

She brought her attention back to him, away from her thoughts of revenge. "I know. So listen." She reached toward him, to put a hand on his shoulder, to comfort him, and he drew back instinctively, sucking in air.

Elena recognized the gesture of someone who was used to being hit, who expected it. And she hadn't disappointed him. She sighed with some guilt of her own. "I said I wasn't going to hurt you again, Profirio. And I won't. Padre Carreras was right. You can trust me."

He looked at her intently, waiting, mistrustful, afraid. There was a little bit of the sheep there, the beaten animal -- but behind it she saw some strength, too, a bit of steel. Maybe that's what Padre Carreras had seen, what had prompted him to go after Profirio. Because the boy hadn't completely given up. He was still fighting back. And maybe Padre had felt the boy deserved a chance to win. Casting around for something else to say to him, something non-threatening, she thought, he's a kid. "Are you hungry?" she asked him. "Would you like some breakfast, a [cafe con leche]?"

"No. Do I have to go back?"

She discarded the easy answer and considered what to do. She had said he could trust her, and that she wouldn't hurt him, which meant she couldn't just force him, muscle him back to the orphanage. She could just walk away, go find Cana Rivero now. But Padre Carreras had told the boy he could trust her. And Profirio needed to see this through to the end; she owed him at least that much. So she asked him, "You'd like to go back for his funeral, wouldn't you?"

He nodded unhappily.

"After that..." She wanted to tell him he should go back to the orphanage, that it would be best for him, which it would be. She wanted to tell him that the priest would have wanted him to go back, which he would have. Instead she said, "After that, you'll have to make a decision about what is best for you, what is the right thing to do, whether you want to stay at the orphanage or run away again. Not what Padre wanted for you, or what the people here," she waved her hand to encompass the neighborhood, "want for you. What you want for you, Profirio. Even though you're just a boy, you'll have to make a man's decision. That's just the way it is."

He thought about it for a moment, then asked her, "Will they blame me? At the orphanage?"

"They better not," she murmured perversely, inconsistently. Then, because she had always used touch to soothe and to comfort, she stood and pulled him to his feet, then put her arm around his shoulders, and this time he didn't flinch away from her. Not much, anyway. "I'll talk to them. Come on, let's get you a shower and some clothes..." For the funeral, she didn't finish saying. "Then I'll drive you back."

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Translations: (all Spanish)

Madre de Dios - mother of God

carajo - damn

Dios mio - my God

nino(a) - boy/girl

Chapter 5

CHURCHYARD OF SAN MATEO IN SALADILLO, NEAR BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

FEBRUARY 13, 1970, 4:00 p.m.

Elena stood a little apart from the grave, her hands clasped in front of her. The hot summer sun beat down on her black clothes and black hair. That morning she'd arranged with the new priest, Padre Dominguez, and with Sor Rafaela, to keep her money for the orphanage coming on a regular basis.

"The police have no clues," the nun had told her. "They believe it's the work of a madman." The sister had looked beaten, desolate. But in the face of Elena's relentless, silent despair, Sor Rafaela had rallied, taken Elena's hand and spoken softly, as to a lost child, "It is the will of God, my child. No matter how much we loved Padre Carreras, we must not question God's design."

Elena had said nothing to that--what could she say? In fact, she had said nothing at all, to anyone. She was waiting, patiently, quietly--and that in itself was a strain for her--waiting for the funeral to be over so she could get her work done: find Cana Rivero. Gut her. Decapitate her. Leave her carcass to feed the vultures and fertilize the [pampa,] so her death would accomplish some good purpose.

Padre Dominguez gave a short eulogy and read the Biblical passages that Padre Carreras had asked to be read over his grave. Luke: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Luke: If thy brother trespass against thee, ... forgive him. Luke: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. Luke: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Elena shifted uncomfortably, remembering her promise to Padre Carreras, aware that he was reminding her from the grave, sending a message directly to her.

All the children were there, and they had been waiting patiently for their turn. Sor Rafaela held one boy, who couldn't have been more than four years old, in her arms. As Elena looked across the grave, she saw the tears leaving soft tracks down the nun's dark face, the sister's chin quivering. After the new priest was finished, Sor Rafaela whispered softy to the child she was carrying, and the little boy threw a flower into the grave. Then the other children filed by, and each one in turn threw a flower into the grave, on top of the gleaming brown coffin. Two girls were crying so loudly that Profirio, who was the last in line, had to gently take their flowers, whisper something to them, and throw their blossoms in himself. Then, instead of a flower, Profirio threw in a small wooden figure of a songbird. It ended its final flight with a little thumping sound as wood hit wood.

Elena was seized by a strong urge to leap inside the open grave and snatch that little bird, return it to the boy, and say, "Keep it. Remember him."

But she knew that this particular boy would not forget Padre Carreras.

"Ay, ninos," she whispered, not bothering to fight back the tears as the children left. At least now she knew what to do, where to go. Cana would have to go back to her apartment eventually; she'd never abandon her books. Elena would just sit there, waiting, and read until Cana showed up.

Then Elena smiled, her first smile since she'd had the news about Roberto Carreras. She looked to her right, feeling that familiar Immortal twinge.

The fly had come to the spider. This was going to be easy. Cana had saved her the trouble of hunting.

Cana Rivero glanced once at the grave, then came to stand by Elena's side. Cana was dressed in black, her hair tied back, that white bride of Frankenstein streak going all the way to the nape of her neck and swirling in her severe bun.

Her expression was solemn, as though she were hurting, as though she hadn't caused this. Damn her! Elena thought, shaking, wanting to move but holding herself in check. She couldn't let her enemy see her pain; still, her voice trembled with grief and anger. Quietly, so that the gravediggers couldn't hear, she asked, "Why? He was a priest, a true pacifist, and no threat to you. He didn't even have a sword."

"I know," Cana answered. "But we're Immortals. I warned him. He would have been safe on Holy Ground, but he left it. He came to me, to my neighborhood. That made him fair game, Duran. You know it, and he knew it. He knew the rules."

It was true, Elena thought. Padre had known exactly what he was doing, the chance he was taking.

Cana glanced sideways at Elena and licked her lips. "You might have done the same--perhaps you have at some point."

Elena had done it at some point, beheaded a weaker Immortal, just because she could. And Padre Carreras had known that, too. Elena had done it more than once. She had done it recently, in Japan, and O'Sensei had known it, too. Elena was more like Cana Rivero than she wanted to admit, even to herself. She shifted uncomfortably, again.

The gravediggers threw in the first spadeful of dirt, on top of the priest and his dreams and his life's work.

The sound distracted Cana for a moment. She glanced at the burial party, then continued. "Of course that doesn't really change what I did, does it? That wonderful cynic la Rochefoucauld said that if we had no faults of our own, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing the faults of others." She sighed, turned to Elena, then added, a little earnestly, "I didn't know he was your friend. I didn't get your message on my mirror until after he was dead. I have no quarrel with you, Duran, and I don't want to fight you."

I'm sure you don't, Elena thought, but said nothing. Silence could be a weapon, and she didn't use it as often as she should. Besides, this was just words, words... What the hell was the point?

"If I had known the priest was your friend, I would not have taken him."

"But you did take him," Elena said, and turned to face Cana, a damped fire in her eyes. Elena was gratified to see the fear in the back of the other woman's eyes, not completely hidden. Still, Elena did not want to break her promise to Padre Carreras. She had to wait for Cana to challenge her. She knew it was coming--all she had to do was wait, although it was hard, although she really wanted to challenge Cana Rivero now, to fight her, to kill her, to take her head.

"Yes, I did, I... Tell me, did you ever hear of a priest named Darius? He's one of the old ones."

Darius? Elena wondered, surprised, her deadly thoughts interrupted. She nodded.

"According to legend, Darius was a ruthless warrior who beheaded an Immortal priest in Paris. Then he changed and became a priest himself."

"What does that have to do with...? Oh, wait! Are you telling me Padre Carreras' Quickening has changed you, and you now want to become a nun and devote yourself to good deeds?" Elena scoffed. She wanted to draw her sword, right here and now. "You lying, fucking bitch!"

"No, dammit, I'm not lying, Duran! And I don't mean a nun! But Roberto Carreras has changed me!" She sounded truly earnest. "You see, in all the reading I've done I've never had a real appreciation for what I read. I don't mean the sense of it; I mean the feelings behind them. I don't feel what everyone else feels, Duran. It's just not in me."

"We already know you're a cold, unfeeling whore, Cana. But you do feel fear, don't you?" Elena leaned in closer. "You're feeling it now. I can see it in your eyes." She almost shook with the need to move, to attack, but purposefully kept herself very still, her left fist knotted at her side, while she gathered her thoughts, preparing herself mentally for the fight to come, focusing her anger, her rage, her pain, to aim them at Cana Rivero, like an arrow, or more like a sword...

Elena could see the color come to Cana's face, her pulse quicken--but, surprisingly, this time it was not with fear.

"Look, yes," Cana acknowledged. "I..." She paused briefly, then she went on, driven, excited, using her hands for emphasis. "[Cabrona], listen to me. Padre Carreras saw the world feelingly, like the mad King Lear. And now for the first time, through his Quickening, through his soul, if you like, I understand. I feel a great many things I never felt before. It's like walking into ... it's a whole new wonderful experience! I feel like Jules Verne's Arronax exploring the seas with Captain Nemo. I can now understand why the caliph of Baghdad was so desperate to hear Sheherezade's next story, night after night. I can share Alice's confusion and wide-eyed wonder when she stepped into the mirror. I feel a little like Valentine Michael Smith, I..."

"What a bunch of bullshit!" Elena interrupted. But she could have sworn the other Immortal had not been lying, had actually changed, had been really trying to explain...

"The sanctity of life," Cana said, as though she could read Elena's mind. "He felt it so strongly! The priest should have been a Buddhist, not a Catholic. And he wouldn't want us to fight! I know it!"

"He wouldn't want us--?" Elena nodded knowingly, then smiled unpleasantly. "So that's what this is all about! [!Que caradura, che!]" Elena lowered her voice, counting off on her fingers. "You're a killer, a liar, and a coward. Have I missed anything?"

"Fuck you, Duran! I am not a coward, and this isn't--!" Cana shook her head quickly. "You just don't get it, do you?!"

"I get it, Cana. I just don't give a damn," Elena answered calmly.

"All right, fine, you just tell me when and where, and I'll be there!"

Elena chortled. There it was. The challenge was made, and not by her, so Elena would just be defending herself. The priest could not possibly have objected to that. "Midnight," Elena said. "Two miles off the road south of town, by the canal." She looked into Cana's face, distilling her feeling of revenge into one scathing look--and had the satisfaction of seeing the other Immortal pale.

Cana nodded, turned, and walked away.

After Cana left, Elena stayed by the graveside, watching the three men slowly and methodically spade the dirt in, one shovelful at a time. There was a calming rhythm about it, she knew, from having buried so many bodies herself. Now that Cana was gone, Elena felt a little more tranquil.

A little. And also thoughtful. Cana had reminded her that Jules Verne, that man of infinite and child-like imagination, had been Padre Carreras' favorite author. A coincidence? No, he had given the gift of his soul to his murderer.

All the more reason to kill her, Elena decided. Then his gift, his joy of life, his Quickening, would come to her, to Elena, where it more properly belonged.

It always came back to this. She was right in killing Cana. But the more Elena decided to take Cana Rivero's head, the less she was convinced, somehow. Was decapitating Cana the best thing, the right thing for Elena to do? And why wasn't the answer to that simply yes, like it had usually been before? Like it should be.

She didn't know how to answer that question, but maybe someone else did.

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Translations: (all Spanish)

pampa - Argentine plain

cabron/a - jerk, asshole

que caradura, che - how bold you are, my friend

Chapter 6

later that evening

Elena went into the orphanage office, picked up the phone, then put it down again, as she had done several times in the last few hours. Impatient, she went outside to pace up and down. The children were absent, no one playing on the swings or digging in the garden, but the birds were still joyfully singing in the trees, their last songs of the waning day, and they reminded her of the priest. Her eyes burning, she went back to the phone. This time, she dialed the number. It was answered almost immediately, as though he'd been waiting for her call.

"Elena Duran?"

"Yes, it's me, Darius." She heard the smile in his voice over the phone, all the way from Paris.

"Wonderful. I've been thinking about you lately, and I recognized your voice right away, that lilting accent of yours. But you're not here in Paris...? Are you calling long distance? From Argentina?"

She didn't answer. His voice sounded so good, so soothing... It was so much what she needed to hear that it finally made her cry. The walls of the small office started to close in on her, and she took a deep shuddering breath, gripping the receiver tightly.

"Elena? What's wrong?" he asked.

"A friend...a friend died yesterday," she replied. The tears were filling her eyes now, overflowing -- she couldn't keep them back. She started sobbing in earnest.

"Elena...," he murmured, then waited quietly, patiently, for her to regain some control. She could actually feel his sympathy reaching out to her across the ocean, over thousands of miles. She'd first met Darius in 1636, and she hadn't seen him since World War II, but at this moment she wished more than anything else that Darius were here with her, offering her some of that awful tea of his. She wished he could wrap her in his long arms, the warm brown of his habit rough against her cheek, press her against him, and make that calm, comforting sound deep in his chest.

"I'm sorry," he finally said softly. "Was it the Game?"

She caught her breath. "Yes," she answered bleakly.

"I'm so sorry, Elena. Tell me about your friend."

"He was a priest. Like you. And like you, a pacifist. He didn't believe in killing, not even in self-defense. So when he left Holy Ground and was attacked by an Immortal..." An obstruction in her throat prevented her from finishing the sentence. She snuffled. "And Darius, I know who took his head..."

"Ah. And this Immortal who took his head is still alive? Why is that, Elena?"

She couldn't believe he'd ask her such a question! "I ... I promised Padre Carreras I wouldn't kill her." Elena could still remember the desperation in Padre Carreras' eyes as he grasped the bars of the gate, pleading with her to let Cana live.

Darius paused. "You do not want to break your promise. I understand that. But do you want to kill her, Elena?"

"Yes, of course!" she exclaimed. "I just... Why is this so difficult? It's never been difficult before." She switched the receiver to her right hand; her left ear was aching from holding it so close, a typical bad connection. She stretched her neck to the right to get the tension out.

"Elena, if you wanted to kill her, you would just do it. You would not have called me. Tell me, is there something about her you do not want to destroy?"

Elena sighed. Good guess, she thought. Or maybe he'd had this conversation before, once or twice. "There is something special about her. She says she was changed." She hesitated, then asked, "Darius, were you really changed by the Quickening of that old priest outside of Paris? Or is that just a legend?"

Darius' pause this time was so long she was afraid she had asked the wrong question. "I'm sorry," she began. "If I'm intruding--"

"Not at all. I was just thinking about it. It has been a long time. And no, it is not just a legend. The priest was real, and he did influence me. But the change came from within, not from outside of myself. The priest was a catalyst. Or an excuse. A reason. But I was ready for him, ready for a change. I wanted to be different from what I was. My metamorphosis was of my own doing, and it wasn't by any means immediate or even surprising to me. To others around me ... well. That's another story. But I have discovered, over the centuries, that no one changes unless he wants to, unless the seed is within him from the beginning."

"A kind of yin/yang?" she asked him. "We all carry evil and good within us? The opposites?"

"Perhaps. But it's more that ... the seed needed watering." He was quiet for a moment, then asked her, "Do you believe her? Has she changed?"

"Yes, and she's so damn happy about it! She shouldn't be better off because she's killed him, it's not right, she should be made to pay!"

"Then why don't you make her pay, Elena? Why are you agonizing over this?"

"I don't--" she yelled, then lowered her voice and finished, "--know!" glancing toward the door, not wanting to be heard by the nuns, the children.

"It comes back to the same question, nina. You didn't take this Immortal's head before. And now, whoever she has become, with Padre Carreras' help or on her own -- do you want to destroy her now?"

"[!Cono], it would be so easy! She's no match for me. I could just behead her without...with very little effort."

Relentless, he asked her again, "Do you want to destroy her now?"

"Darius--I don't know what to do!"

"Consider your two paths," he said logically, "and the consequences." He waited, and when she said nothing else, he said, "You look at yourself in the mirror every day, Elena. And for us, it is every day for centuries. You have to feel that you have done the right thing, as best as you can; or perhaps, in this case, what will hurt you the least. The lesser of two evils." There was a smile in his voice now. "You know, Elena, there is a reason wise old sayings are wise and old."

"Yes. Like you." The right thing. Elena remembered saying something similar to Profirio Diaz. She should really hang up, she thought, and go find the boy, talk to him. But first she had to make her decision.

He chuckled softly, then said, "Think about it carefully, Elena. If you make the wrong choice, your life can become intolerable, a hell on earth. And it has to be you who is satisfied, not anyone else. Not me. And not Padre Carreras. I will pray for you, and for this woman, and for Padre Carreras."

"Gracias, Darius." She'd hoped he would just tell her what to do. But of course, nothing was that easy. Padre Carreras would have just told her what to do; in fact, he was still doing that, even after his death. But not Darius. He was leaving it up to her, as he should.

After saying goodbye, she hung up the phone and left Padre Carreras'--no, Padre Dominguez'--office. But in the hall she met Profirio, who had obviously been waiting for her. She could tell he was still afraid, but he came up to her anyway, breathless.

"She was here, the woman who killed Padrecito! You were talking to her!" he accused.

"Yes, I know. But you don't need to worry, Profirio. She won't hurt you."

"Why?! Are you going to kill her with your..." he jerked his chin toward her waist, "...sword?"

She noted he wasn't even questioning whether she were capable of such a thing. "What do you think I should do?"

"Kill her," he answered immediately, closing his fists. "I want you to kill her!"

She could see the beads of sweat on his face, and the pounding pulse in the hollow of his throat. And a little child will lead them, she thought, perversely. At last, someone who had a simple, straight answer. But, she realized, if the boy went back to the streets, in the same area of town, eventually he and Cana would meet. And Cana might just kill him, the only witness. After all, who would care? Who would even know? So, if Profirio left the orphanage, Elena would have to behead Cana to protect him.

"What have you decided to do, Profirio?" she asked him.

"I'm staying here," he answered. "I'm...I don't want to die in the streets."

[!Carajo!] Elena thought, frustrated and angry, but at the same time glad the boy had made the right decision.

"But why would you care, anyway? Nobody cares," he continued.

Well, he was wrong about that. She walked up to him, lifted his chin to meet his eyes. They were overflowing with pain and anger, but he didn't flinch away from her. "I care," she stated firmly.

"Only because of Padre! Not for me, you don't care about me!"

She nodded, then released his chin, still looking into his eyes. She considered carefully, wanting to make sure she told the child the truth, because he would spot a lie immediately. And he deserved the truth. "You're right. Before it was because of Padre Carreras. But now I care about you because of you, Profirio."

He made a snorting, disbelieving sound and moved away from her.

She wondered what to say, how to try to reach him... Then, seized by a sudden inspiration, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a small wooden bird, an owl. "Look, Padre Carreras gave me this little bird a few days ago. I want you to have it," she said, and put it in his hand.

Profirio looked at it for a moment, then closed his fist around it. He turned away again, but not before she'd seen the tears fall, and she could tell he was pleased.

With that relatively happy thought, she took him back to his dormitory, then walked to the small cafe in the village to have a light dinner, drink a little wine, and keep her appointment with Cana. She still hadn't had a chance to rest, it wasn't going to happen, and she hadn't slept well the night before, not for almost seventy-two hours.

But it wouldn't make any difference.

///////

THE [PAMPA] SOUTH OF SALADILLO, NEAR BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

FEBRUARY 14, 1970, 12:30 a.m.

The killing fields. Survival of the fittest. Just like here in the wild, Immortals were predators and prey. In many cases, the predators were less naturally sneaky but more intelligent than the average snake--and often more cold-blooded.

Elena was a predator. Given time, her prey, Cana Rivero, would become a fearsome predator herself, but she wouldn't have that time. Elena would not give her that time. The irony of it made Elena want to cry or laugh or something, and she was already confused and unsure, quite different from her usual confident, aggressive self.

She paced up and down the edge of the canal. A hot wind blew through the treeless plain, raising little eddies of dust that she could feel but not see. Sounds of crickets and other night creatures filled the dark plain, irritating her. Her sword was at rest behind her left arm, and she tried to shake off her sour mood, searching in the still, murky waters for some sign, like the old Greek oracles. But all she could come up with is that it would be a good place to wash off the blood afterwards. And she knew there would be blood. Cana Rivero was overmatched, and she was afraid, as she had every right to be. But Elena knew that the other Immortal was not a coward. Cana would fight.

She saw the headlights and heard the car engine before she felt her skin crawling at the nearness of an Immortal.

Cana got out of her car and stepped up, the light of the half-moon glinting off her blade. She settled into an en garde position right away and attacked without a word.

It was over almost before it began. Cana was an enthusiastic fencer, and she tried to make up in volume and movement what she lacked in experience, actually scoring a cut on Elena. But within a few swordstrokes, Elena had her measure, and she went on the offensive, pushing Cana mercilessly, overwhelming her, cutting her, weakening her, then finally feinting, deliberately letting Cana overextend her lunge. Elena let Cana pass by on her left, then came up behind and hamstrung her.

Cana screamed her rage, pain, and fear as she collapsed to her knees.

Elena disarmed the other Immortal, then put her sword at Cana's throat. Panting, Elena could feel her blood sing at the nearness of the Quickening.

Suddenly she heard, so clearly in her head, Padre's voice: "You find joy in killing, don't you, senorita?"

Cana looked up at her killer, her eyes large in her head. "What are you waiting for, Duran!"

"You fucking bitch!" Elena whispered viciously. She leaned forward, pulling back on Cana's hair, exposing the other woman's neck and letting her blade cut into Cana's neck, just a little. Elena could feel tears stinging her eyes. "He was my friend, and you--" She gathered herself for the kill...

But once the voices began, twirling in her head like a troupe of mad dancers, she couldn't shut them up: Padre Carreras, Cana, Darius, Profirio. "I cannot permit you to challenge this Immortal, hunt her down, kill her! Not for me! Be merciful. For the first time, through his Quickening, I understand! Let him live and he will let the next one live. Give her a chance; give both of you a chance. For God's sake. You find joy in killing. Do you want to destroy her now? Love your enemies. I want you to kill her! You have to feel you have done the right thing. Let her go. Remember the Golden Rule. Remember Luke."

And finally, her own voice. "I know what I promised. No killing."

Cana was trembling, her eyes wild, but she unglued her lips long enough to ask, "What the hell do you want from me?"

Suddenly Elena stepped away, pulled her arm back, then plunged her sword into Cana's chest and out the other side. As Cana arched, crying out in mortal pain, Elena whispered harshly, "I want nothing from you, Cana! Nothing! Stay away from me and from the orphanage if you want to live!"

She pulled out her blade.

Cana screamed again, a long, agonized wail, and fell forward to her hands and knees, already dying. But with enough strength to call out, perversely, "No! You'll just come after me another time! Finish it now, Duran!" She fell down onto her face, her blood soaking the ground.

"No," Elena said. "I won't come after you again." Trembling, stumbling in grief and anger, she tossed her still-bloody weapon onto the passenger's seat of her jeep and jumped in, turned on the ignition, and put it in gear. She closed her eyes and took deep, gulping breaths until she felt in control. She wasn't going to think about it anymore, just drive home and try to get some blessed sleep. And maybe, just maybe, at last, some blessed peace.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

APRIL 14, 1970, 11:00 a.m.

Elena walked up to the small desk in a corner of the shoddy, dark lobby of Cana's apartment building, a place she never thought she'd come back to again.

The little man behind the desk smiled at her, showing yellow uneven teeth. He rose quickly and put out his cigarette. "Senorita Duran! I didn't think you'd come!" he said, obviously surprised--but not necessarily pleased, she thought.

"You remember me. Good, Jose," Elena said, looking around. She knew she stood out in this part of town--for one thing, she didn't smell of alcohol. And she was clean.

Well, if Cana meant to set a trap of some sort for her, it wasn't obvious to Elena. "All right--you called me, Jose. So what's Cana's message?" Elena was now wondering why she'd bothered to come and what the hell Cana's game was. She'd warned Cana to stay away, and as as soon as she saw the other Immortal, ftttzz! Off with her head! Just like your favorite, Alice in Wonderland, right, Cana?

"You see," Jose was saying, "she checked in with me every week. Every week, like clockwork, since the summer."

Elena turned her full attention back to the clerk.

"So what?" she snarled, making him shrink back, visibly.

"So...so she told me if a week passed by when she didn't let me know she was all right, that I was to contact you, Senorita Duran. And give you this book, and a man's name. I wrote it down," he explained, opening a drawer under the desk and nervously rifling through it, "because it was a French name. I didn't want to forget it." Finally, he came up with a scrap of paper. "This is the name, Jules Verne. It's French, right? And this is the book, here it is!" he said triumphantly.

Elena took the small volume, an old leatherbound copy of Jules Verne's "Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers." Elena's eyes narrowed. [!?Que diablos?!] "So the last time she talked to you was...?"

"A week ago yesterday, senorita. And she ... ah ... said if I let you know that you would make it worth my while. She said you were very generous."

His obsequious tone made her sick. Elena knew his type, ruled by a combination of greed, suspicion, and fear. Especially greed. She pulled three bills out of her pocket and laid them on the counter. They immediately disappeared into a grimy fist. She was beginning to understand and felt her stomach tighten. It had happened again. Of course.

Well, she might as well go into the apartment the easy way. "Give me her key," she said.

Jose hedged, greed warring with fear. "Why don't I come up with you, senorita?"

"No," she said, leaning over the desk, looking down on him, and he backed up one step into the wall behind him. His eyes were nasty, and there was a yellow crust on his mustache, probably dried eggs. She didn't want to look too closely. He smelled of grease and sour sweat, and his breath was rank with tobacco. She breathed through her mouth. "Her key," she ordered.

She took the key, put the book in her backpack, and walked up the stairs and down the same dark, foul-smelling corridor. This time it stank mostly of urine. The booby trap was set on the door again, and she disarmed it before walking in--if Jose got too greedy or too curious, he would wind up with a crossbow bolt in his chest. Then the police would come, an investigation, etc. And Cana's books--Elena looked around, they were all still there, all in disarray as before, a wonderful, jumbled, intercultural collection of the best words by the best minds of the last three thousand years--would be lost. Oh, and Jose would be dead, too. Unnecessarily. That would be a real loss for humankind! she thought.

Her eye fell on a blue spiral-bound notebook on the chair. There was a pen sticking out of the notebook, acting as a bookmark. She opened it, turned some pages. It was a group of essays and poems, written by one Elena Maria Rivero. So that was Cana's Christian name! she thought, smiling grimly, ironically. There was also an address for a warehouse. More books? Elena wondered, putting the notebook, too, in her backpack.

Sighing, feeling a little pang, thinking what a fucking waste it was, she went back downstairs. The little clerk was anxious and curious...and still greedy. She gave him two more bills and said, "Cana's gone. She left a message for me. She wants me to take her books--she's afraid they might be stolen while she's gone."

"Her books?" Jose licked his lips. "Are they valuable?"

She shrugged. She didn't want to awaken his suspicions, but she figured he wasn't completely stupid. "Sentimental value. I'll be back for them tomorrow. All of them."

"Oh, I wouldn't touch anything, never, of course not! But, ah, if Senorita Rivero should come back..."

Elena wanted to grab Jose by his shirtfront and scare him witless. But she didn't have the heart for it, not right now. She wished she could leave a guard here, or take the books, magazines, everything with her. They'd make a great new library at the orphanage, and she could give some of them to the university... But she'd be back with someone to help her box up Cana's collection as soon as possible. Right after lunch, in fact. "If she returns, tell her to call me." But in her gut she was almost sure Cana would not be back.

"You know, she's been very different the last few months. A different person." He looked around him slyly, then leaned forward and breathed up into her face. "She's not really gone, is she? Is she ... do you think she's dead?" he asked her avidly, his eyes sparkling. "There was a tall man hanging around, a foreigner asking for her. Maybe that French Jules whoever is this stranger's name. Maybe she knew he was coming. You think maybe he killed her or something?"

Now Elena was completely sure, and she felt ... regretful. And a little depressed. She didn't answer his question. "Tell me about this stranger you saw."

He leaned away from her a little, not so eager now. "Well, I mind my own business, you know. I don't really remember what he looked like..."

Especially greedy. She put one last bill on the desk and said firmly, "The bank's closed. Describe him."

And as the clerk described Cana's foreign visitor, Elena listened closely, making her plans, knowing that the same endless, vicious cycle of death was continuing, would never stop. Hell! It hadn't even paused!

When Jose was finished, she simply nodded, walked outside, then leaned back against the building's wall, taking long, deep breaths, filled with a resigned desperation.

[Vida immortal.] Immortal life. Live forever. What a fucking lie. What a joke. Try kill forever. Try die over and over, forever. [Muerte immortal] was more like it. Immortal death. She closed her eyes against the ugly reality that was her existence. Now she'd have to find the 'foreign' Immortal who had surely beheaded Cana Rivero, start hunting again. It was an endless cycle of violence and blood, and there was no way out, no exit, no choice.

But then she thought about it a little more. She couldn't stop the killing, couldn't end the cycle of violence -- but she could interrupt it, if only for a little while.

She opened her eyes again, with a little hope, and pushed herself away from the wall, standing straight, squaring her shoulders, feeling better. Then, shunting aside thoughts of killing for the moment, she headed for home.

Forgive. Be merciful. Love your enemies.

Elena did have a choice. She could always remember Luke.

Translations:

Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers - Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, by Jules Verne

THE END

Part two: "Elena"

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