There was a package on the floor of the elevator. A note from Richie was stuck lopsidedly to one corner, saying that it had come with the mail. Duncan entered the lift and pulled the gate closed absently behind him, studying the package as he rose to his loft. It was long, narrow and heavy, with no writing on it except his address and the various postal markings. Aside from the postmark, there was no clue to its origin.
Reaching the loft, he set the package on his coffee table and got a beer from the refrigerator before opening it. The paper came away to reveal an unmarked box, and the box opened to yield what Duncan had more than half expected -- a sword wrapped in cloth and carefully packed for shipping. But what sword, and why had it been sent to him with no warning?
When he unwrapped the sword, Duncan dropped it to the coffee table in shock. Swallowing hard, he reached out a hand to touch the blade, then snatched it back. He leaped to his feet and paced the room for a few minutes, then reached for the phone, his back turned to the package and its disturbing contents. He didn't use the number much, but his fingers dialed unerringly.
"Nash Antiques, Rachel speaking."
"I need to speak to Russell Nash," Duncan growled, then added in afterthought, "please."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Nash isn't in at present. Could I take a mess--"
"When will he be back?"
A pause. "Mr. Nash is out of town for several days."
"Where can I reach him?"
"I'm sorry, I can't tell you that. If you'll give me your name and --"
"I'm a relative of his. I need to get in touch with him right away."
"Well, I can't give that information over the phone. Leave a message and I'll be sure that he gets it as soon as he calls in."
Duncan frowned. "When he calls in? You mean you can't reach him yourself?"
There was another telling pause.
"Look, uh, Rachel, I think he may be in trouble. If you know where he is, just tell me."
"I'm sorry, Mr. MacLeod, I don't know where he is. But there's no reason he should be in any trouble."
"Well, thanks anyway," Duncan snarled, and slammed the phone down. After a moment's thought, he headed for the elevator.
Joe Dawson was in the back room when he heard someone entering the bar. He picked his cane up from the corner where it was leaning and limped out to the front. "Sorry, we're closed," he called out, wondering how the doors had come to be unlocked. Then he froze in the doorway. Duncan MacLeod was standing before the bar, his stance rigid and his face flinty.
Dawson recognized the signs of anger and grief; he hadn't seen MacLeod so affected since Tessa was killed. "What's wrong?" he said at once.
Duncan said in a low voice, "Joe, I need to know the name of Connor's Watcher."
Dawson frowned. "You know I can't tell you that, Mac."
"Damn it, I have gotten that answer too many times already today, and it isn't good enough!"
Dawson just shook his head.
Duncan paced. "Has he been killed? Did someone take his head? Tell me that, at least!"
Dawson raised his brows. "His last fight that I know of was two and a half weeks ago. He won. An immortal named Morgan, about two centuries old."
"I've met him," said Duncan, calming slightly. "Brash, overconfident. Good with a sword, but too flashy. Connor wouldn't have any trouble with him."
"No, he didn't."
"And you haven't heard anything since then?"
"He's been perfectly quiet in New York, as far as I know. Why?"
With that uncanny ability that most older Immortals possessed, Duncan produced a sword and placed it on the bar.
Dawson leaned forward and inspected the weapon, a well-used, slightly strange-looking katana with a white hilt. The blade was crusted with blood. "Connor's?"
Duncan nodded. "He got it from Ramirez. It's over two thousand years old. He doesn't use it for ordinary fights."
"How did you get it?"
"It came in the mail today. No return address."
"That doesn't tell us much."
"Joseph," said Duncan ominously, leaning toward him. "If someone's killed him, I need to know."
"So you can have your revenge?"
"He was my kinsman. My teacher and my friend. But more than that, I have to know who has his Quickening. And Ramirez', and the Kurgan's. Whoever it is must have a pretty good shot at the Prize. I know the Watchers must have been keeping a close eye on him."
Dawson nodded slowly. "Hang on a minute," he said, withdrawing to the back room.
Duncan could hear the murmur of his voice and knew the Watcher was placing a phone call, not simply checking his files, but the words were inaudible.
After a few minutes Dawson reappeared, frowning. "His Watcher lost track of Connor five days ago. He went across the street from his shop for coffee and never returned."
"Was he armed?"
"He's always armed, but he rarely carries that ancient katana. She thinks it was stolen from the shop that night."
Duncan stiffened. "'She?'" He drew a breath in dawning realization. "His secretary! Of course. She called me `Mr. MacLeod,' and I didn't even realize . . . but she's been with him for years. He must know that she knows."
"He told her himself. It was later that we recruited her."
Duncan's lip twisted. "He saved her life, didn't he? And he trusted her."
"She never betrayed his trust."
Duncan turned away, his shoulders rigid.
"Mac, you're missing the point. With all the security on that shop, the sword could only have been taken by someone with the keys. Connor's keys. Rachel didn't have a copy for that display case."
"So it was the same one who took Connor. But why? He must have had Connor helpless in order to get those keys. Why go back for the sword, just to mail it to me?"
Dawson bent over the gory weapon on his bar, studying it closely. "This isn't just dried blood, is it?"
"No. There's bone and hair and -- I think -- brain." Duncan swallowed hard. He didn't like being able to recognize such things, but it was an inevitable part of the Game. Connor always took great care of his weapons -- any intelligent Immortal did -- but with Ramirez' blade he had made a religion out of cleaning, oiling, and sharpening. And whatever bone or brain the sword had cleaved, Connor had been unable to tend the blade afterward.
Dawson placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Let me do some more checking around. I'll come by tonight and tell you what I can."
Duncan met his gaze sharply. "Thanks, Joe." He turned and left the bar, the sword disappearing beneath his coat as if by magic.
It was nearly ten o'clock before Dawson showed up. Duncan had searched the packaging for a clue to its origin, but found nothing. Now his hands moved restlessly over Connor's blade, cleaning the last of the encrusted blood away. Growing impatient, he reached for the phone, then paused as he heard the lift begin to move.
Joe Dawson limped heavily into the loft and settled himself into a chair with a sigh.
"Well?" said Duncan crisply.
"I've been checking on other Immortals, trying to find out who might have been in the right place at the right time. The only ones who were in New York last week are young and inexperienced. They had all met Connor before and parted peacefully, sometimes as friends. Most Immortals who aren't on good terms with Connor avoid the area."
"I know," said Duncan with some satisfaction.
"In fact, I couldn't find anyone who might have attacked Connor last week."
"Then you haven't looked hard enough."
"Mac, there are no more than a dozen people in the world today who could stand for ten minutes against Connor MacLeod, much less take his head. And none of them were anywhere near New York."
Duncan got to his feet and began pacing again. "Then someone must have cheated. Attacked him two to one, or on holy ground, or something. One of those young idiots in the area."
"All of them were watched that day. Nothing unusual happened. Mac -- I think you have to face the possibility that it wasn't an Immortal."
Duncan stared unseeing out the window. "It was someone who knew about him, about me. Someone who knew enough to mail that sword to me."
"Someone vindictive enough to use Connor's own sword against him."
Duncan closed his eyes. "A Watcher," he rasped.
"Hunters," Dawson corrected.
"Is there a difference?" Duncan spat.
"You know there is."
"Rachel led them straight to him. Do you suppose she let them in to get his sword? Or did she just warn them that he was on the way across the street?"
"Connor's been based in New York for two centuries, Mac. They didn't need any help to find him."
Duncan picked up the ancient katana, feeling the blemishes where it had struck bone, imagining all too clearly the feel of that blade shearing through vertebrae, the arc of the disconnected head, the leap of blood and the fire of the Quickening . . . released into nothing, if Dawson was right. All that power, the accumulated energy of millennia of immortality, Connor's own essence, lost forever beyond hope of retrieval. Connor snuffed out as if he had never existed, four hundred and eighty years of struggle for survival ended in one moment. Just like Darius ---
"NO!" Duncan bellowed. There were tears on his cheeks, and a pain in his hand. He looked down to find blood dripping from his palm; he had clenched his fist on the razor-sharp blade.
Dawson came up behind him and gripped his shoulder hard. He removed the blade from Duncan's hands, wiped it clean with a piece of packing paper, and pressed a cloth against the wound to soak up the blood. "I'm sorry, Mac," he said softly. His uneven steps moved toward the elevator. "I'm very sorry."
There was a roaring in his ears and a churning in his stomach. Hearing a footstep, Duncan turned around. A man -- a member of the clan, by his tartan -- stood on the heathered slope above him, with an odd curved sword pointing at Duncan's head.
Duncan's sword had been taken from him. He reached reflexively for the sgian dubh at his ankle, but it, too, was missing. He must have lost it at some time in his three days of wandering the glens, searching for death.
Duncan rose to his feet slowly, resisting the cramps in his gut. He had never seen this man before, but any clansman must have heard the story of how Duncan was accursed and cast out, a creature of the devil. Perhaps this man knew some way to kill such a demon as Duncan had become. He would find no resistance.
Duncan waited calmly for death, praying that this time it would be real. Instead, to his dismay, the stranger relaxed his fighting stance, sheathed his sword, and reached out a hand in friendship, beginning to smile.
Duncan's face twisted, and he drew back. He felt the rock crumble beneath his feet, and turning away from the offer of friendship, he threw himself over the cliff.
He woke to the crackling of a fire. He lay still a while, staring at the cloud-pressed moon above, then turned his head. Someone came around the fire and laid a hand on his shoulder. The buzzing in his ears redoubled.
"Sit up, brother, and have a drink," said an unfamiliar voice. "You must be thirsty."
He was thirsty, very thirsty, and he guzzled eagerly from the skin the stranger handed him. When he had emptied it, he wiped at his mouth, gasped, and demanded, "Who are you?"
"My name is Connor MacLeod," said the stranger.
Duncan's eyes widened. He had heard that name. "The demon!" he gasped.
"I am not," said Connor firmly. "And no more are you. We are just -- very hard to kill. The townsfolk call us unnatural. But have you had any dealings with the devil? I have not."
"No . . . " said Duncan weakly. He had not at first believed his family when they told him he was accursed. But what else could he call it, when he was impervious to death? "Why can't I die?" he pleaded.
Connor sighed and sat next to him, staring at the flames. "I don't know why," he said. "But I do know it's no favor we've been granted. It brings naught but pain. Not so long ago I buried my wife -- dead of old age. And here am I, alone, still seeming as young as the day I married her. What pleasure can there be in that? Would any man sell his soul for such a life?"
Duncan certainly wouldn't have given much for his own life, as it was now.
"What's your name, brother?" said Connor, stirring from his bitterness.
"Are you a MacLeod, then?" Connor fingered the philabeg draped over Duncan's shoulder.
"Yes. No. I don't know." Duncan scrubbed at his face. "I'm cast out from the clan. I've just learned that my father is not my father, and my mother never bore me. Which explains why I haven't the look of either of them."
"You're a member of the clan by choice, not by blood," Connor said. "Nothing wrong in that. Did they speak the words to cast you out?"
"No. They said Duncan MacLeod was dead, and I was a spirit that had stolen his body."
"You are the same man you were a week ago, and you're still a MacLeod," Connor affirmed. "Just as I am." He knelt and began to bank the fire. "Go to sleep, Duncan MacLeod. I have much to tell you in the morning."
Duncan was still sitting motionless, staring at the mess on the table, when he felt a telltale buzz at the edge of his awareness. Dawson must have called Richie, he thought sourly. After a few decades of spying on him, the man should be able to guess that Duncan didn't want company now.
But the buzz came no closer. And now that he was paying attention, Duncan realized that it felt very different from Richie's quickening. This was someone far more powerful; he was outside the building, yet the prickle of his presence came clear as a bell.
The package had been postmarked Seattle. Perhaps Dawson had been wrong that no Immortal could have taken Connor.
Duncan rose to his feet, lifting Connor's katana smoothly from the table. This was one fight that he would enjoy.
He emerged from the dojo with all his senses alert, the blade held ready. There was no one in the street. He followed the buzz around the corner of the building into the alley. A figure waited there in the shadows.
"Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," Duncan said slowly, dangerously. "Show yourself."
"Only if you promise not to do anything stupid," said a familiar voice.
Duncan's jaw dropped, but not his sword. "Connor?"
"In the flesh -- what's left of it." The figure moved forward into the light.
Duncan bounded forward to embrace him. "My God, man, I thought you were dead!" Then he felt the difference, saw his kinsman flinch away from the touch. "What --"
"I'm in trouble, Duncan," said Connor with a wry twist of his lip. "Think you can put me up?"
"Of course! Come in." He led the way to the dojo and paused in the door. "I'm flattered that you came to me, but wouldn't holy ground be better?"
"The swine that are after me don't pay any attention to the rules."
Duncan couldn't get a good look at him as they moved through the darkened dojo and into the elevator; Connor kept his right side turned away. But Duncan had felt the limp sleeve, and seen that half of his kinsman's face was covered with a scarf. He also noticed that Connor's quickening was distinctly stronger than when they had last met; he must have been quite active over the past few years. Duncan supposed his own quickening must have changed noticeably when he beat Grayson. When they reached the loft he set the katana down and went to get a drink for Connor, a bowl of water and some gauze.
"My sword," said Connor softly. "I didn't think I would see it again."
"Someone wanted me to think you were dead," Duncan said.
"Actually, they were planning to mail you my head."
Duncan froze, appalled.
Connor sipped the very old vintage and raised his brows in appreciation. "I could really use some food to go with this," he said.
"I know, but you're not eating anything until I've seen to those wounds. I don't want you throwing up all over my couch." When his old friend didn't move, Duncan urged, "Come on, let me see the damage."
With a sigh and a wince, Connor began to shrug off his coat. Seeing that he was in pain, Duncan helped. His breath ended in a gasp as Connor's right shoulder came free. He pushed the loose shirt aside to get a better look.
Connor's right arm was gone, along with several inches of shoulder. The skin had healed over, pink and new, but the flesh and bone were gone.
"Have you ever lost a limb?" Connor asked.
"No," said Duncan, appalled.
"Well, don't. It hurts like hell."
"Will it grow back?"
"I don't know. I thought the shoulder was growing, the first couple of days, but then it stopped."
Duncan frowned. "I cut off Xavier St. Cloud's hand, and it didn't grow back at all." He studied the angle of the cut. "You lifted your arm to block the blow?"
"Yeah." The left half of Connor's mouth curled upwards. "Silly of me, I know how sharp that blade is."
"It probably saved your head."
"Half of it, anyway."
Duncan's eyes followed the line of the blow up to Connor's face. "Let me see," he said, beginning to unwind the scarf.
Connor sat motionless.
Head and neck wounds tended to heal more slowly for Immortals, especially if they were severe. Sometimes they left scars. Connor was clearly going to have a souvenir of his latest encounter.
The blade had contacted his ribs below the right arm and sheared away the shoulder, then struck the neck a few inches below his ear, continued through his jaw and right up his cheek to his brow. The wound was still red and angry, and Connor mumbled as if the jaw pained him.
Duncan wiped the cuts clean with moist gauze, probing the scar up the back of the neck to the base of the skull. Connor could very easily have lost half of his head, if the strike had continued just a few inches further on. Duncan had no idea what the effect of that might have been. He lifted Connor's drooping right eyelid. "Can you see through this eye?"
"No. Not yet," Connor amended. "It has been getting better. I don't know if it will heal all the way or not."
"Maybe it's just been slow because so much had to heal at the same time."
"Maybe." Connor looked away.
"You've always healed well. Give it time and see how far it goes. How long were you dead, after that?"
"I have no idea. At least a day. I fell into a river and woke up thirty miles away."
Duncan whistled. "Lucky. You always were damned lucky."
"Except with women."
An uncomfortable silence fell.
"I'm sorry, Duncan. I didn't mean . . . I heard about Tessa."
Duncan looked away.
"I remember how I felt when Brenda was -- anyway, I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it."
"If Tessa had still been here, I wouldn't have come to you." Connor's remaining eye flicked about the loft. "I might be putting you in danger." His gazed fixed on Duncan. "How am I going to fight, with only one arm?"
"Practice," said Duncan firmly. He rose to his feet. "We'll worry about that later. Now I'd better get you some food."
"Connor." Duncan laid a hand on his kinsman's shoulder.
"Ungh!" Connor started up in alarm, looking around the loft dazedly. "What?"
"It's bedtime. Don't sleep sitting up, you'll get a crick in your neck."
Connor lifted his hand to his neck as if surprised to find it still attached to his shoulders. "I was just having the strangest dream."
"I was an old man -- I'd won the Prize years before, and I was aging like a mortal. But then more Immortals came forward in time from the past, and I became Immortal again, and I had to fight them. And there was something else -- the sky was the wrong color, or something. It was red, and that was my fault, somehow, and I had to try to make it blue again." Connor rubbed at the scars on his face. "Ramirez was there."
"Hmmm. And who was the woman?"
"What makes you think there was a woman?"
"Connor, I know you. There's always a woman in your dreams."
Connor grinned. "There was a woman. She was a terrorist."
"Well, you always had strange tastes."
"It was the most amazing dream," he said reflectively.
"If it was that good, call Steven Spielberg and make a movie out of it."
"Ah, no, it wasn't that good."
"Come on, then. Here are your blankets. Lie down and sleep properly."
"I have to eat something first. Weren't you making sandwiches or something?" Connor stumbled into the kitchen while Duncan, shaking his head, went to his own bed.
When Joe Dawson returned to MacLeod's loft in the morning, he found the door unlocked and went in, but there was no one there. The mess on the coffee table had been cleared away since the night before, which meant that Duncan had not been sitting despondently the whole time; still, the silence worried him.
"MacLeod?" he called, looking around. Not a movement or a sound.
He rounded the corner to the kitchen, bracing his hand on the counter, more than half expecting to find a headless body on the floor. As he passed the counter, something hit him in the center of his back, and his legs and cane were swept out from beneath him. In the space of a heartbeat, he was sprawling face-down on the floor with someone kneeling on his back and something sharp pressed to his throat.
Duncan must have been killed, and now he, the only one who could tell the end of Duncan's story, would be lost too. He spared only a moment for regret before closing his eyes and waiting for the blow.
"Where are the others?" growled an accented voice in his ear.
"What others?" Joe gasped against the weight on his ribs.
"The rest of your little pack of assassins. Where are they waiting?"
Recognizing the voice, Dawson twisted his head. The knife pressed deeper and he froze. "You're Connor MacLeod!"
"So what. Who are you?"
"Joe Dawson. I'm a friend of Mac -- of Duncan's!"
"You expect me to believe that?" Connor's knee ground into Dawson's upper arm.
"I expect you to consider the possibility that he wouldn't want you to slit my throat on his kitchen floor."
"I've seen that tattoo before. It's the mark of a pack of killers."
Joe sighed. "No, it's not. The ones you met were renegades. I'm not part of that group."
"What are you doing here, then?"
"I came to talk to Duncan. Where is he?"
"Out. Talk to me instead."
"He asked for my help. I got some information on the people who k-- who attacked you."
"I'd rather wait for Duncan to get back before I tell you."
Connor considered this, then moved his weight slowly off Joe's arms and back. "Get up. Slowly. Keep your back to me." The knife remained in place, the arm that held it wrapped halfway around Dawson's chest to restrain him.
Slowly was the only way Dawson could get up. His cane had ended up in the far corner of the room, and Connor offered him no help.
"Into the living room. Don't try any tricks."
Joe had no intention of trying tricks with one of the most dangerous men in the world threatening him. He limped slowly into the other room on his twisted leg.
"Sit down. Take it off."
Dawson sank gratefully onto the couch. "Take what off?"
"The leg. It's artificial, isn't it?"
"Do it," said Connor with the knife pressed below his ear.
It wasn't easy to take the leg off without removing his pants first, but after years of practice Joe managed the feat without too much embarrassment. He pulled the plastic leg out of his pants and set it aside on the floor. Connor searched him quickly with one hand, removing his keys, pager, cell phone, and pocket binoculars. Joe pictured his other hand holding the knife ready for a killing blow.
"All right. Stay there. Don't move. Don't turn around." Connor kicked the leg out of Dawson's reach and stalked around the apartment, checking from the windows. He went down in the elevator and came back a few minutes later.
"I told you there was no one else out there," Joe said quietly.
"I'm beginning to believe you," said Connor warily. For the first time, he stepped into Dawson's field of view.
Dawson's eyes widened at the scars Connor bore. Glancing at the Immortal's empty sleeve, he said slowly, "I see why you wanted me to take my leg off."
Connor's left cheek twitched, just a hint of amusement. "It evens the odds a little." He sat down across from Dawson, still suspicious.
"I can see why you distrust me, after what those fools did to you," said Joe, spreading his hands, "but I truly am a friend of Duncan's. And I'm no threat to you, Connor MacLeod. You saved my life once."
Connor's eye snapped to his face and sharpened, as he remembered.
Connor saw Fasil run into someone at the mouth of the alley, heard the grunt of impact and a choked cry of pain, but he didn't understand what had happened until he reached the street and looked about to see which way Fasil had gone. The other Immortal was disappearing down the street, but in his wake he had left a young man, not twenty years old, staring stupidly at the blood gushing from his thigh.
Connor made his sword disappear and knelt beside the kid, furious. The next time he met Fasil, he wouldn't hesitate again. He despised Immortals who used their strength against innocent people. But right now he had to take care of this kid, who was losing blood so fast he would be dead in less than a minute.
The kid's eyes flicked up at him, terrified. "It -- it was some crazy guy with a sword," he gasped. "I've never seen him before in my life!"
"I know," Connor muttered. "Just hold still." He pulled the belt from his trenchcoat and used it to fashion a tourniquet. He jammed his fist against the artery in the groin. Seeing some onlookers, he yelled at them to call an ambulance. The kid was weakening fast. "Take it easy, kid, you'll be all right," he lied. The femur had been cut right through. Even if the kid lived, he would probably lose his leg. "You'll be all right," Connor repeated, uncomfortable at the way the kid's eyes were fastened on him. He pressed the fainting boy back on the sidewalk.
As the ambulance sirens approached, Connor faded quickly to the back of the crowd. He would have to wait for another day to take Fasil's head.
"That was you?" said Connor incredulously, seeing the boy's face behind the middle-aged man. So we were both lying to each other that day, he thought.
"What's going on?" came Duncan's voice. He was standing next to the elevator with bags of groceries in his arms, his eyes flicking over the tableau in his living room.
"A stalemate," said Joe dryly. "I assume you didn't have a chance to tell your cousin that not all Watchers are murderous idiots."
"You're a Watcher?" Connor frowned. "I thought that was just a crazy legend."
"What the hell did you do to him, Connor?" Duncan demanded.
"Nothing permanent," said Connor uncomfortably. He got up, retrieved Dawson's leg and cane, and handed them back to him.
"Thanks," said Joe. "We were just getting reacquainted," he explained to Duncan. "We've met before, very briefly."
"You used to be assigned to Connor?" Duncan said.
Dawson shook his head. "I was watching Aman Fasil. I thought the assignment was almost over, until he got away from Connor, and cut my leg off in passing." He turned to Duncan with a humorous light in his eyes. "When I was walking again, I was reassigned to you. They figured you would be easy to keep up with, since you'd been out of the Game for so long."
Duncan grinned, acknowledging that keeping up with him must have been anything but easy these last few years.
"Wait a second," Connor demanded. "He's a Watcher, he's got the same mark as the guys who tried to kill me, but you two are friends?"
Duncan sighed. "The Watchers have been around for centuries, Connor. I'll let Joe explain while I put this food away. You nearly cleaned out my cupboards last night."
When Duncan returned Dawson was finishing, "We're not supposed to have any contact with Immortals. I should have requested reassignment as soon as Duncan found out what I was. But with the Gathering here, I figure it might be time to reconsider some of the old rules. Especially since there are factions in our organization that are getting involved in just the opposite way."
"You mean the ones who tried to kill me," Connor said.
Joe nodded. "I came over today, Duncan, because I think I know who was behind that attack. It had to be someone with connections, someone who was in the New York area last week and close enough to Seattle to mail that package two days ago. I found someone who fits, someone who's been known to say in the past that we should have a hand in deciding the outcome of the Gathering."
"His name?" Duncan said in a dangerous tone.
"Is he related to --"
"He's Horton's cousin." Dawson sighed. "He heads a group that thinks we should ensure that the Prize is won by someone we can control. That means they target the most powerful Immortals, the ones whose Quickenings would be most dangerous if passed on." He glanced at Duncan. "Two of them were in Paris when Darius was killed. I don't know if they were part of it or not."
"But you don't share their views?" Connor said suspiciously.
"I think it's absurd," Joe spat. "We don't even know what the Prize is -- what makes them think they can control it? If we do get involved in this struggle, we should be helping the Immortals who've always been humane and reasonable toward the rest of humanity. Why else did we gather all that information for centuries, if not to learn who we could trust? Instead, these idiots go out and make a perfectly rational Immortal like yourself suspicious of everyone around him, while evil ones like Grayson or the Kurgan are left for others to deal with."
"When you put it that way, it almost makes sense." Connor's tone was heavy with sarcasm.
"Well, my first encounter with you certainly persuaded me that some Immortals are more trustworthy than others."
"And you haven't changed your mind after meeting me today?"
Dawson smiled slowly and picked up his detached leg.
"Connor," said Duncan sharply. "You came to me for help. Now I'm telling you, Joe can be trusted. We wouldn't even know as much about the Hunters as we do, if not for him."
"You still don't know as much as you need to," Joe said, as he slid his prosthesis back into the leg of his pants.
"There's more?" Duncan caught his friend's gaze and remembered the Seattle postmark. "They're here."
Dawson nodded. "Either they were planning to come after you next, or they guessed Connor would be coming this way."
"And they don't respect holy ground," Duncan said grimly.
"I knew I would be putting you in danger," Connor muttered. "I should have stayed away."
"No, better to face them together."
"Duncan's right," said Joe, squirming to reach the fastenings for his leg. "And while you're at it, get Richie to help you watch out for them. How many were in the group that took you, Connor? Four?"
"Damn. Was there a teenager with them? Seventeen, skinny, curly blond hair?"
"Yeah, they called him . . . Nicky."
Dawson's lips tightened. "How could they draw a kid like that into their schemes?"
"Is he a relative of yours?" Duncan asked with concern.
"No, it's my other sister. He's not a bad boy. If we can just get him out of their hands --"
"Joseph," Duncan warned. "Connor and I are planning to stay alive. We won't kill anyone if we don't have to, but if the kid comes after us . . . "
"I know, I know. Just keep an eye out for him if you can, alright?" He tested the leg and, satisfied, headed for the elevator.
"How long does it take?" Connor asked suddenly. "To get used to it, I mean."
Dawson understood at once. With a glance at his plastic leg, he said softly, "I don't know. Longer than I've lived." He shrugged helplessly and thumped his cane on the floor. "Watch your head -- both of you."
Richie parked his bike outside of the dojo, and as soon as he turned off the motor he heard the clashing of swords. From the powerful roaring in his ears, he could also tell that there was at least one Immortal inside with Duncan. Warily, he pulled out his rapier and opened the door.
He could tell fairly quickly that Duncan had the upper hand; his opponent fell back repeatedly. While Richie watched, Duncan disarmed his opponent and brought his katana flashing up below the other man's chin, to stop at the last moment with a smile. The stranger threw up his arm -- his only arm, Richie realized -- in exasperation. "This isn't working!" he exclaimed. Richie caught his breath, almost recognizing the voice.
"Give it time," said Duncan, breathing heavily.
"I don't have time. I'll be dead before I get my left arm up to speed." He turned and walked over to where his sword, a light rapier similar to Richie's, had fallen. Duncan set his katana on a bench, caught Richie's eye and gave a little jerk of his head.
Richie glided soundlessly behind the strange Immortal before he could retrieve his weapon, but the other man either heard or sensed him, for he spun around with a kick which barely missed Richie's knee. Backpedaling before Richie's advance, the man somersaulted away from a thrust and came up with sword in hand.
The stranger was tired, but Richie was hampered by his motorcycle jacket. If the stranger was unused to fighting left-handed, Richie was unaccustomed to defending on that side as well. As he began to adjust to the new angle, it became apparent that the newcomer had even more tricks up his sleeve than Duncan. He pretended to stumble and lured Richie in close, then bound their blades together and with one swift motion kicked the younger Immortal's legs out from beneath him. Richie's elbow banged painfully on the floor, and by the time he recovered his grip the other man's sword was at his throat.
"See? That wasn't so bad," said Duncan appreciatively. "You still need more practice with different blades and styles, but you're starting to remember the moves now."
The stranger glared. "You should talk -- you're still using your favorite sword and moves you learned three hundred years ago!"
Richie climbed to his feet and tossed his rapier to Duncan's waiting hand. Changing his grip, Duncan said, "I'll make it really even and use my left hand. Come on, then."
They circled each other, looking for an opening. The one-armed man was beginning to look more sure of himself, and he made the first move. In two quick encounters neither got a clear advantage. They closed again, the light blades moving too swiftly to see, and when they parted, both were bleeding from small cuts.
"Now I remember why I shouldn't wear a shirt for sparring with you," Duncan said.
"That's nothing!" the stranger objected. "Try this." He lunged, wormed his way around Duncan's quick parry, and pricked home just above Duncan's heart.
Duncan fell back with a groan and brushed at the blood on his shirt. "Am I supposed to thank you for not running me through?" he gasped.
"No, you're supposed to thank me for not cutting your head off," said the one-armed man. He stepped to the side of the floor and grabbed a rag from a bench, holding his sword hilt between his knees while he wiped the blade clean.
Duncan followed him, grimacing in pain, and handed Richie back his rapier. "Connor, this is my student Richie Ryan."
Richie nodded as his guess was confirmed. "We've met before, but there wasn't much time for an introduction. You're Duncan's cousin, right?" He started to reach out his hand for a greeting, then drew it back in confusion.
"Well, we're clansmen, anyway." Connor grinned. "I told Duncan you would need watching."
Richie's eyes widened at the implication. "You mean you knew?"
Connor shrugged. "I guessed."
Richie turned to Duncan. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"What was I supposed to say?" Duncan objected. "'By the way, if you ever get killed, don't worry, because you might come back to life'? You were reckless enough as it was."
Reluctantly, Richie returned his grin. "Yeah, I suppose you didn't want me to cause any more trouble for you. But you might have told me afterward!"
"It didn't seem so important then," said Duncan, sobering quickly.
Connor gave his kinsman a sharp look and said, "Come on, let's go upstairs and get some clean clothes on. I'm ready for lunch."
"You just had a second breakfast an hour ago!" Duncan complained.
Richie laughed as he followed the two Highlanders into the elevator.
Miranda Kelly finished her sword kata, came back to the ready position, then relaxed with a sigh. She couldn't follow the kata exactly in the limited space of a hotel room, but her mentor had taught her that sometimes it was good to practice in a confined space, just as she practiced on different terrains.
Thinking of Drew made her want to cry. She tossed her sword down on the bed and dug in her luggage for her sketchbook. She had never shown Drew the sketches she had drawn of him. She had expected to have all the time in the world to tell him how she felt -- time for her to develop her own skills until she could meet Drew on an equal footing. But now he was gone and it was too late.
Here was a picture of Drew reading a book, another of him laughing at something. And here was one of Drew with his shirt open at the neck, his sword at the ready and his eyes challenging her to attack. Was this how he had looked just before he lost his head?
Miranda didn't want to kill anyone, but Drew had explained that she had no choice. It was an unavoidable part of what she had become. She didn't want to suffer Drew's fate, but if she was going to make it on her own, she had to get some experience. She had only taken one head so far, and that had been, at Drew's insistence, a man who had been Immortal less than a year and had no idea what it meant. His Quickening had given her new strength, but not the knowledge or skill she needed to fend for herself.
So, with Drew gone, she had come to Seattle in search of the nearest other teacher. She knew that Duncan MacLeod avoided killing when he could, and that he had helped other young Immortals. He had one student who was just about as advanced as Miranda.
Miranda needed to fight someone she knew she could beat. She had come to Seattle to take Richie Ryan's head.
Connor and Richie sat in the living room, talking. They had already covered motorcycles and women, and they were moving on to swords and swordfights.
"I should have known you two would get on like a house on fire," Duncan said dryly as he brought out a plate of nachos. He set it halfway between his two friends and watched with interest to see which way the plate would move.
Richie choked over his beer. "How old is that expression?"
Duncan looked wounded. "It's not that old." He appealed to Connor for support. "I'm sure I've heard it used some time this century."
Richie was incapacitated by laughter. Connor was busy eating. Richie pointed a finger at Duncan, gasping, "Your accent -- it's getting stronger every minute."
"It always does that when I get really annoyed," said Duncan pointedly.
"Guess I'm just a bad influence," said Connor around a mouthful of nachos.
When Richie recovered, he said with a grin, "Duncan said I should ask you about the duel on Boston Common."
"He can tell you about it himself," Connor retorted.
"Ah, but it's so much funnier the way you tell it," Duncan said.
Connor glared at him. "Why don't I tell him about that time in Paris, instead?"
"Which time in Paris?" asked Duncan with a frown.
Connor turned to Richie. "The first time my young friend here was in Paris, he hadn't been there an hour before he'd promised himself into duels with the three finest swordsmen in the city, all scheduled on the same day."
"It was an accident!" Duncan protested. "It all started from a misunderstanding."
"Did you win?" Richie asked.
"Well . . ."
Connor grinned. "Duncan wasn't so good with a sword in those days. He lost all three duels."
"It was the only polite thing to do," Duncan muttered. "I told them it was a misunderstanding."
"Polite? Is that what it was?" Connor went on, "Then later he told the tale to some tavern lass, who told it to a friend, and so on, until it ended up written into a book." He watched Richie's reaction expectantly.
"What book?" asked Richie.
Connor looked offended. "What do they teach you in schools these days?"
"What book? Duncan?"
Duncan shook his head. "You'll have to find out for yourself or not at all." He picked up the empty plate -- the greater part of the food had definitely gone to Connor -- and returned to the kitchen for more. As he left the room, he heard Richie asking again about Boston Common.
Miranda waited down the street from the dojo, watching its door carefully through her windshield. She wasn't sure how close she would have to be to sense a renowned Immortal like Duncan MacLeod, but she intended to stay well out of his range. She had no desire to attract the eagle's gaze when she was preying on one of the chicks. All she needed to do here was pick up Ryan's trail and find out where he lived.
She stiffened as she saw the door open, and the young red-headed Immortal barreled down the steps two at a time. For a moment she thought she had been detected, and they were coming after her. But when Ryan settled onto his bike and began fastening his helmet without any particular hurry, she decided it was just youthful energy that had made him run that way. She slid down in her seat as her quarry started up his motorcycle and pushed off into the street. When he turned away from her, as she had expected, and began roaring down the pavement, she breathed a sigh of relief, straightened, and turned the key in her ignition. Clutching the wheel tightly to keep her hands from trembling, she drove after her intended victim.
Joe Dawson limped into his bar and glanced about at the patrons. It was a Friday night, and business was good. The band was just taking a break from their music. His gaze sharpened as he saw a lanky figure leaning next to the bar. He gave Mike a glance, and the bartender shrugged. Underage kids were not supposed to be in the bar in the evening, but somehow exceptions seemed to be made for family, friends, and fellow Watchers. Joe sighed and shook his head.
"Nicky!" he said warmly, approaching the youth and setting a hand on his shoulder. "I haven't seen you or your mother in months -- the last I knew, you were worried about your history final. How has your summer been going?"
The kid gave a start, almost upsetting his glass of Coke, and looked down at his uncle. "It's been OK, I guess," he said. "I've been pretty busy."
"And how was the history exam?"
He grimaced. "I got a C+."
"That's too bad. You should get your mother to help you study. She was always the best of us in history."
"She never told me that. I guess she's been pretty busy too."
"That's true. Are you thinking about colleges yet?"
"Yeah, it's not time to start applying, but I've been looking around. I like Washington State, but my parents think I should go to Notre Dame. I could hold down an assignment at the same time."
Dawson nodded thoughtfully. One of the professors in the history department at Notre Dame was an Immortal, one of the more stable assignments available these days. Nearly half the Watchers of his generation had attended the University of Illinois while she was on the faculty there, before she left to conceal her continuing youth. Now, sooner than expected, she had resurfaced in another academic environment to teach more young Watchers, never guessing how many of her students knew her secret.
"What about you, Uncle Joe?" Nicky asked. "Has MacLeod been keeping you busy?"
Dawson hesitated at the too-casual tone in his nephew's voice. "MacLeod's always in the thick of things," he admitted. "He doesn't go looking for trouble, but anyone who comes after him tends to get more than they bargained for."
"Has he killed any more Watchers?" Nicky snarled.
Dawson stiffened. "He didn't ask for that fight, Nicky. He was pushed to it. Your Uncle Jim was -- too set on having things turn out the way he wanted them. And he didn't care who got hurt in the process."
"So it was OK for MacLeod to kill him?"
"MacLeod didn't have a choice. He was just trying to save innocent lives."
Nicky shook his head violently. "Not innocent. He was trying to save more of those murdering Immortal friends of yours!"
The conversation was starting to draw attention as the boy got more upset. Joe laid a hand on his shoulder. "Nicky --"
Nicky shrugged off the hand. "Don't touch me!" His eyes were bright with tears. "They used to say you were the best, Uncle Joe. Smart, thorough -- now, I don't even know what you are. You might as well be one of them!" Crying, the boy shouldered his way toward the door.
"Nicky, wait!" Dawson called after his nephew. He leaned over the bar and told Mike to take care of things for the rest of the night. Then he followed his nephew out the door.
Dawson didn't know what he was going to do about Nicky. He supposed he could go to his sister; he doubted that she would want her son having anything to do with Hunters. But first he needed some proof of Nicky's involvement aside from what Connor had told him. While the boy's words tonight had made the conclusion fairly obvious, they weren't hard evidence.
If Joe Dawson knew anything, it was how to carry out discreet surveillance. When he saw his nephew pull a battered old car out of the lot, he put his own car in gear and followed.
When Richie had left, Connor leaned his head against the back of the couch. He gave Duncan an unhappy glance. "I didn't plan for this," he said quietly. "I never thought about it."
"I don't think any of us does."
"I mean, I've thought of dying, of losing my head, or maybe picking up a few scars. But nothing like this." His truncated shoulder heaved awkwardly. "It really changes --" He broke off and turned his head sharply. "What was that?"
"What was what?"
"I sensed another Immortal." Connor moved toward the window.
"It was Richie. He went just under this window when he was leaving," said Duncan, recalling the roar of his student's motorcycle. He joined Connor at the window and looked out at the quiet street.
"No, not Richie . . . maybe I just imagined it."
"Or maybe not. You're the one who got all those strange lessons from Ramirez about the Quickening." Duncan turned as a thought came to him. "Did he ever teach you anything about healing?"
Connor shook his head. "I never understood half the things Ramirez told me about the Quickening. I always thought there would be time to ask him again later."
"Well, he's with you now, isn't he? Inside of you?"
"What are you getting at? You know I can't use his knowledge consciously."
"But maybe unconsciously, on some level? Maybe if you try to use the Quickening, you'll remember how!"
"Use it for what?"
"To heal yourself." Seeing his kinsman's look, Duncan pressed, "Come on, what harm can it do? It's not as if it could kill you."
Connor sighed and closed his eye, trying to remember Ramirez' words from long ago. He concentrated on the rhythm of his own breathing, on the beat of his heart . . .
"Give it a try, at least!" Duncan insisted.
"Quiet, man. I am trying." Connor's breathing deepened and slowed as he concentrated. When he felt properly aware of himself and his own body, he extended his senses outward. The buzz of Duncan's presence was like a bonfire roaring in his ears, but he sifted through the fire until he could feel Duncan's heart beating, faster than his own, and sense the rush of the Quickening through his kinsman's body. He could feel the electricity coursing back and forth between the walls of the loft, and vaguely, outside, the presence of a city full of souls.
Drawing on Duncan's Quickening for his strength as Ramirez had showed him, Connor turned his concentration to his missing arm. Where Duncan's energy circulated smoothly through his limbs, Connor's own dissolved into turbulent eddies about the wounded shoulder. He tried to extend the Quickening beyond his shoulder where his arm ought to be, tried to smooth the jagged disruptions of the wound in his cheek. But the energy stubbornly twisted back into its former path, roiling angrily. Connor took a deep breath, used Duncan's arm for comparison, and pushed his Quickening where he wanted it to be.
A sudden spark of energy leaped from Duncan to Connor. Duncan cried out, glass shattered, and both clansmen collapsed into a welcoming oblivion.
Connor opened his eyes to find that he had fallen sideways on the couch. The light overhead had blown out; the only remaining light filtered in from the kitchen. Duncan was sprawled on the floor at the other end of the couch. After checking to see that Duncan was unhurt, Connor staggered to the bathroom and splashed water on his face. When he caught sight of himself in the mirror he gave an exclamation, looked more closely, then hurried back to the living room.
"Duncan! Duncan, wake up." He bent to shake his kinsman's shoulder, then sat down hastily as dizziness overcame him.
Duncan groaned and rolled over. "Wha happen?"
"I think we made it work."
Duncan twisted his head to get a look. "Your arm?"
"No, I didn't heal the arm, but I have most of a shoulder, now, and the cuts on my face are much better."
Duncan sat up, bracing himself with an arm on the coffee table. "How long was I out?"
"I don't know, I just woke up a minute ago."
Duncan scrubbed at his face, then hauled himself to his feet and headed for the kitchen. "It's been over an hour since Richie left," he reported, after checking the clock on the microwave. "We were lying there for at least half an hour."
"Duncan, it worked! Look!" Connor flexed his jaw in demonstration.
"Very nice," said Duncan dully. "Can you see?"
Connor closed his left eye and held open the still-drooping eyelid of the other one. "A little. I can just make out the kitchen light."
"Wonderful." Duncan slumped on the couch. "I'm glad that wasn't all for nothing. I've woken up in a body bag and felt better than this."
"I think I got back about three inches of shoulder. If we can just do this a few more times --"
"Connor. We're not going to do this again."
"Why not? You were the one who said we should try it in the first place! Now it's working, you want to give up?"
"I didn't realize it would all but kill us. We can't afford to be that vulnerable again. What if those Hunters had been watching the apartment, and they investigated after they saw the sparks? They could have taken both our heads without any effort at all."
"Young Richie can guard us. Or you can stand guard --"
"Do you think you'd be able to do that again without drawing on the Quickening of any Immortal in range?"
"Well, I could try --"
"No. Not until we've taken care of these Hunters. Maybe later, when it's safe --" Duncan caught his kinsman's furious glare. "I'm sorry, Connor. But you can live without an arm -- you can't live without your head."
Connor was still angry, but he gave a reluctant nod. "All right then, we deal with the Hunters first. At least while I'm stuck being lefthanded, the police won't be able to identify me by my handwriting."
Nicky Mandrell walked along the pier with his head down and his hands in his pockets. The warehouse he was heading for was at the far end of the pier, but he didn't hurry. Half-heard noises made him stare intently into the shadows, but he never turned to look behind him.
The warehouse door was open, and he stepped through quietly, squaring his shoulders. Two men waited there.
"Well?" said the taller of the two. "Did it work?"
"I think so," said Nicky unhappily.
"Good. You've done your part, Nicholas. Stand clear of the door, now."
Nicky moved out of the light. "Look, are you really sure --" he began.
He was interrupted by the arrival of another man.
"Alan, did you get him?" the tall man said urgently.
"Of course, Mr. Carver. Davis is bringing him in now."
Carver moved closer to the door so that he could see along the pier. Two men were approaching, walking very close together. The first one to enter the warehouse had a cane. The second had a gun.
Nicky hunched his shoulders and moved further into the shadows, but he couldn't avoid Joe Dawson's gaze.
"Martin," said Dawson calmly. "I should have guessed you had something set up. I couldn't think why you would want to meet the boy all the way out here."
"Well, now you know," Carver replied.
Joe's eyes took in the empty warehouse, the broken lock on the door. "What next? Are you going to call MacLeod and tell him you're holding me hostage, try to drag him into your net?"
"Not yet. I have a better location in mind." Carver looked at the man whose gun was nudging Dawson's ribs. "Did you get his car keys?"
"Yep." Davis tossed the keys across. "He's parked at the end of the pier."
"All right. Nicholas, Alan, you take the car back to the bar and leave it there. Meet us at --" he glanced at Joe "-- the place I showed you this afternoon. Bring the hardware." He gestured to the other two. "Bring him. You're not planning to make any trouble for us, are you Joe?"
Dawson shook his head wordlessly, watching sadly as his nephew hurried away to do Carver's bidding.
The phone rang as Duncan stepped out of the shower. Twisting a towel around his waist and throwing his hair over his shoulder, he stepped out of the bathroom. "Don't touch that!" he said sharply to Connor, who was just reaching for the phone. "We don't want anyone to know you're here." He picked up the phone, still glaring at his kinsman. "Hello?"
"Joe? Is something wrong?"
"I've got a problem, Duncan." Dawson's voice sounded tense. "I think I'd better let my -- friends explain."
A new voice came over the line. "MacLeod?"
"Yes," said Duncan warily.
"Yes, who's this?"
"This is Martin Carver. We've got your buddy Dawson." The tone was unmistakably threatening.
"Dammit, he's one of you!"
"No, he's a traitor to humanity. We've been thinking the world would be better off without him, unless you can make us a better offer."
"What do you want?" Duncan's voice was tight with fury.
"You and your cousin. Unarmed."
Duncan grimaced at the discovery that the Hunters knew Connor was with him. "Two for one? What guarantee do I get?"
"You'll just have to trust us. One hour. 922 South Burroughs." The line went dead.
Duncan closed his eyes and pressed his fist to his forehead.
"What is it?" said Connor warily.
"Hunters. The same ones who were after you. They have Joe. They're threatening to kill him."
"He seemed worried. Dammit! I should have thought of this."
"That's right," Connor agreed. "It's the oldest trick in the book."
"I'm used to Richie being threatened, and -- and Tessa, and my other friends, but not this. I never thought Hunters would go after Joe. He's family to them!"
"Apparently family isn't as important to them as it is to you and me," said Connor dryly.
Duncan met his kinsman's gaze, and slowly his frown eased. "Right. Time to start thinking about how to deal with this." He pressed a speed dial button on the phone, frowning when there was no prompt answer. "Richie, if you're there, pick up," he said after the machine answered. "Listen, Richie, we've got a situation and I need backup. Meet me and Connor at 922 South Burroughs as soon as you can. We have an appointment there at midnight." He hung up the phone and glared at its impassive plastic surface.
"The kid's not there?" Connor prodded.
"No. I don't know where he could be, unless he's on his way over here."
"Well, we've got time to wait for him while we get ready."
Duncan slammed fist into palm. "Five Hunters. I could really use Richie's help."
"You've got me."
Duncan glared at his clansman. "You are going to stay out of the fight."
"No I'm not."
"Yes you are!"
"Duncan, you can be as protective as you want about your students and your friends, but don't try to pull that on me."
"Oh, and I suppose you weren't trying to protect me the last time you came to Seattle?"
"No?" Duncan set his hands on his hips.
Connor grinned. "That was just an excuse for me to punch you out."
Duncan looked as if he would like to return the favor. "Look, the whole point of this is to keep you away from the Hunters."
"The point is to avoid anyone being hurt unnecessarily, like your friend Dawson. They asked for me, didn't they?"
"I wasn't thinking of hostage exchange!"
"You should think of it. It's just the thing to distract them while we all try to get away safely."
Duncan turned and paced the room, thinking . . . and remembering.
As he took breath to call a greeting, a strange glow seemed to rise from the ruins, and lightning flashed without a cloud in sight. A man's voice screamed in pain. Half the remaining steps crumbled to the ground. A strange queasiness cramped Duncan's gut as he groped for his sword. Bent nearly double, he began to run.
He found Connor lying half-buried in the rubble, blood flowing from a deep cut in his side. Duncan heaved rocks out of the way. "What happened?" he cried.
Connor waved weakly at a body lying among the stones. Several feet of dusty space lay between the shoulders and the staring head.
Duncan caught his breath. He had never seen another Immortal aside from Connor, and sometimes he had wondered if this tale of a Game and a Prize could possibly be true. Here was the grim reality before him. The man had fancy foreign garb, and two Italian swords lay near his hands.
"That's the stranger Ewen warned us about last night, the one who was looking for you." Duncan turned accusingly upon Connor. "You knew he would come today! Why did you send me off hunting?"
Connor shrugged. Color was returning to his face. "The rules say the fight has to be one on one."
"I could have seconded you, made sure he didn't pull any tricks!"
"I wasn't sure if I could beat him," Connor admitted.
"Well, then I could have avenged you!"
Connor chuckled. "You would have died. You're not that good yet."
Duncan's hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. "I've lived through more than one battle, Connor MacLeod!"
"Aye, and died in one, too."
"Dammit, Connor, I'm a grown man. I can make my own decisions, and take my own risks!"
Connor lurched to his feet. "Someday you'll return the favor."
Duncan's jaw jutted. "I'd not serve you so. I respect you too well. Better than you respect me, I see." Jamming his sword into its scabbard, he stalked away.
Duncan sighed. "All right. You'll come along. Two is better than one. But we're going to have a good plan worked out before we go."
The two started discussing strategy and gathering what they would need, but there was still no sign of Richie when it came time for them to leave. Duncan was worried. "I can't believe he'd just go off on his own somewhere when he knows we might need him any minute. I hope he isn't in some kind of trouble."
"What kind of trouble could he possibly be in?" Connor asked. Then, chuckling at Duncan's glare, he added, "Don't worry about him. My first student was a reckless fool too, but he got over it."
"Thanks a lot," Duncan growled. He hoisted their equipment on his shoulder, gave one more worried glance at the phone, and led the way out of the loft.
The lights went out in Ryan's apartment. Miranda's hands twitched, but she forced herself to remain where she was. She would wait an hour or two to make sure he was fully asleep before she went in. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard of the car -- the car she had rented with Drew's money -- and was shocked to see that it was barely eleven o'clock. It seemed as if she had been waiting here for many more hours than that. But her watch, held up to the glow of the streetlights, confirmed the time.
This changed things. Richie Ryan, energetic youth that he seemed to be, could not possibly be going to sleep at this hour on a Friday night. He must be planning to go out. Just as the thought occurred to her, Miranda saw the door swing open, and Ryan bounded down the steps of the apartment building.
Should Miranda follow him and try to surprise him in a quiet place, or should she wait until he really did go to bed? It would probably be better to wait; he might have a few drinks, wherever he was going, and make her job easier. But her nerves were already jangling from the hours of waiting. More of this and she would be exhausted just from thinking about it. Perhaps it would be better to make her move now.
Ryan was getting on his bike. She had to decide now. As she wavered between waiting for his return, following him, and attacking now, he stiffened suddenly. He patted at his jacket, stuck his hands in one pocket, then the other, and dismounted from the bike. He was going back into the apartment to get whatever he had forgotten. This was the perfect moment. Miranda opened the car door and hurried toward the building.
She caught up to Ryan just as he was opening the door to his apartment. He turned in surprise when he felt her presence, saw her sword out and ready, and tried to slam the door in her face. She put her shoulder to the door, lowered her center of mass as Drew had taught her, and bulled her way in.
He had his sword ready to hand by the door; if she had been a little quicker, she might have kept him away from it. Now she would have to fight. He held his rapier at the ready and faced her warily.
"Miranda Kelly," she said curtly, saluting her opponent.
"Richie Ryan. Look, I really don't want to fight you," he said.
"Too bad. You don't have a choice," Miranda told him, and lunged.
He parried her blade, which swung aside and swept across a shelf. Half-seen objects clattered to the floor, and some broke.
Ryan winced. "Couldn't we do this somewhere else? I really don't want a fight in here. Or a Quickening. My security deposit --" He broke off as Miranda attacked again. He backpedaled, leading her into a living room where there was more space.
He was better than she had expected. She couldn't seem to get past his defenses. She wasn't sure whether he was holding back or not. At one point she let her sword get out of line -- Drew would have screamed at her for it -- and his point darted in toward her chest. But he pulled the strike.
"This is totally unnecessary," he gasped. "I don't know you from Eve. I got nothing against you."
Miranda recovered from her lapse, swept his blade aside, and attacked again.
"What do you want from me?" Ryan cried.
"Your head," Miranda replied. She was appalled to hear a quaver in her voice -- Fear? Regret? She pushed the emotion aside and concentrated on the fight.
The next time her defense failed, Ryan didn't hesitate. His blade cut deep into her thigh, and she cried out. She managed to get her sword back up and ready almost at once, but when she tried to put weight on the leg it buckled. She fell to one knee. Ryan stood before her, panting, looking furious. She waited for his next blow, not taking the time to get up.
The phone rang. Ryan's head turned.
Miranda reacted at once, thrusting home beneath his relaxed guard. She was a little too low, and he pulled back before she had a chance to widen the wound, but he was hurt -- badly hurt.
Ryan staggered back against the windowsill, face contorted, clutching at his intestines. The phone rang again.
Miranda forced herself to her feet and went after him again, ignoring the pain in her leg. The sight of the blood pouring from his stomach made her want to gag, and her cheeks were wet with tears, but her arm lifted and swung just as Drew had taught her.
Ryan blocked the first blow, then the second, grunting with pain. He tried to straighten up, then cried out and curled around his gut again. His head was wobbling, his knees bending.
Miranda stepped back. She would wait for him to pass out, then finish it. The phone rang again.
Ryan's eyes widened as he realized what she was doing. Then, before she could guess his intent, he smashed his swordhilt back into the window and dived through amid the shattering glass.
Miranda went to the window and craned her head through the broken pane. Her enemy was lying prone in the parking lot behind the building. No one seemed to be reacting to the noise; she still had time to finish him off.
". . . meet me and Connor at . . . " said the voice on the phone.
Miranda was halfway to the door before she realized what she had heard. Surely the message couldn't mean Connor MacLeod? She turned to stare at the phone as the caller finished and hung up. The answering machine beeped and whirred to itself for a while, then began to blink peacefully.
She crossed to the machine and pressed the play messages button. Her hand left a smear of blood on the black plastic -- hers or Ryan's? She wiped it away impatiently.
Meet me and Connor at 922 S. Burroughs. It had to mean Connor MacLeod. What was he doing in Seattle? No, that didn't matter. What was Miranda going to do about it?
She stood in blank amazement for a while, digesting this revelation. Then she remembered that she was already in the middle of a fight. She left Ryan's answering machine with its light glowing steadily and hurried out the door.
She had delayed too long. Ryan was already getting to his feet when she reached the parking lot. She attacked him at once, but he seemed to have recovered much of his strength. With more space to fight in and none of his own possessions about to make him hesitate, Ryan outmatched her. Soon Miranda was the one fighting defensively. Ryan pressed her back again and again. She took cuts on her arm and another in her thigh. Then her elbow, drawing back, struck a wall she hadn't known was there, and with the next clash of blades her sword fell from her numbed fingers. Ryan's point was instantly at her throat. Miranda stared disbelieving at her death.
"Look," said Ryan, heaving for breath, "I don't know what your problem is, but I don't take someone's head unless I know a good reason. Why did you come after me?"
Miranda blinked uncomprehendingly, bewildered by her defeat, by the prospect of such a meaningless death, by the knowledge that Connor MacLeod was here, in this city.
"You got something against me? Me, personally?"
Miranda shook her head. She realized that her tears were still flowing, and wondered if Ryan thought she was terrified. Was she terrified?
"If I let you go, will you come after me again?"
Miranda gasped at the suggestion. What kind of a lunatic was this man? "No," she answered, truthfully. She wasn't sure what she planned to do, but she had other concerns now aside from Ryan.
"All right then," he said. "I suggest that you get out of town. Don't make trouble around here again." He backed up, his sword still pointed at her, his eyes wary. When he saw that she was rooted to the spot by confusion, he turned away and went back into the building.
Miranda stood motionless for several minutes. She didn't understand Ryan's behavior. It went against everything Drew had told her. Eventually she picked up her sword and returned, limping, to the rental car.
By the time she slid into the driver's seat she was shaking all over. She hadn't expected to lose a fight -- and almost lose her head -- so soon. It all could have been over right here. It wasn't that she really had anything to live for, but the shock of facing death had struck right to her soul.
She had also, she realized slowly, been afraid of winning. That moment in Ryan's apartment, when she was sure she had him, she had been more frightened than when his blade was at her throat. She was still haunted by the memory of the first head she had taken, the sight and feel of it rolling off her victim's shoulders, the agony of the Quickening that had followed. She hadn't really wanted to do that to Ryan. And apparently Ryan had not wanted to do it to her. But whether he wanted to or not, how had he been able to refrain?
Miranda puzzled over this for some time, her thoughts going around in useless circles of recollection and bewilderment. Then her eyes fell again on the dashboard clock, and she remembered the telephone message. It was nearly midnight. Connor MacLeod would be at 922 S. Burroughs. Here was a fight that would not be meaningless if she lost, and if by some miracle she should win, it wouldn't trouble her conscience for a moment. Miranda's hands stopped shaking. Sure of what she had to do, she twisted the key in the ignition.
Duncan stopped the car in the shade of some trees a little distance from the building that could only be 922 S. Burroughs. It was a slightly shabby wooden structure with peeling paint and warped porch steps. A weatherbeaten sign in the front read J SUS SA ES. The area exuded a sense of peace at odds with Duncan's fears.
"Holy ground," he breathed. "Damn them."
"It doesn't matter," Connor said. "These are mortals."
"It's still going to slow me down. I don't like to fight anyone on holy ground. That must be why they chose this spot."
"Maybe they really do want to negotiate."
Duncan looked at his kinsman. "Maybe they want to put us at a disadvantage. Darius was killed on holy ground." He opened the door of the Thunderbird. "Come on, let's go."
Connor stepped out of the car, exchanged glances with Duncan, and started across the open, untended lawn toward the front of the church. Duncan circled around to the back, staying in the shadows while he looked for a second entrance. He noted two cars pulled up to the back of the dilapidated church; there must be a door near there.
A crackling sound made him pause. His shoulder blades told him there was someone following. He resumed his careful walking. The noise had sounded like a two-way radio. Of course, he realized, if Martin Carver had a team of five Hunters to work with, he would have posted at least one outside, to warn him when his quarry had arrived.
Now that the man's presence had been revealed, though, it made things easier. One man alone could be dealt with simply enough, and it also meant there must be fewer men inside the church. Duncan and Connor might just be able to pull off their plan.
Duncan had edged along the side of a neighboring building until he had a straight line of sight to the back door. No one else appeared to be waiting there. Connor was probably in at the front already; he would have to hurry.
He ran quickly, crouching low, to the little patch of gravel where the two cars were parked, then ducked between them. Every foot of the way, he expected to feel a bullet between his shoulders, but there was no attack. Perhaps they wanted him inside first.
Deciding to oblige, he crept out from between the two cars, went up to the first landing of the fire escape, and tried the back door. It was open. If he were unobserved, he would have had his sword out at this point, but Carver had told him to come unarmed, and he didn't want the spy to know what was under his trenchcoat. Duncan passed through the door warily and waited in the dark entryway.
The steps that ascended the fire escape were feather-light; Duncan didn't so much hear them as feel them. These people were certainly experienced in surveillance. Duncan held his breath and remained perfectly still as the doorknob slowly turned. He could hear voices from another part of the church.
The spy opened the door just a few inches and slipped through. He lifted his radio to his mouth, then crumpled to the floor as Duncan's swordhilt caught him just below the ear.
Duncan checked to be sure that the man was out cold, and he had just begun to search him for weapons when the roar of a shotgun boomed through the church.
Joe Dawson contemplated the dust on the floor of the church. Tiny motes, disturbed by the presence of people after years of neglect, glittered in the light of three battery-powered lamps. Joe was sitting in the foremost of the remaining pews. About ten rows had been removed for one purpose or another, leaving an open space where Martin Carver and his friends huddled, talking in low voices.
They had taken his leg and cane away. He had tried to persuade them to tie his hands instead, although frankly he didn't know whether mobility or dexterity would prove more useful. He was simply tired of having his disability used against him. He supposed he should be glad they hadn't tied his hands as well as removing his leg. He would have to make some mileage out of that mistake.
Nicky was standing a little apart from the older men, watching their conversation anxiously. He turned away with a frown and sat down beside Dawson. "You doing OK, Uncle Joe?" he asked.
Joe raised his brows. "Does it make a difference?"
The boy flushed. "To me it does."
"So all that family talk in the bar wasn't just to lure me out?"
Nicky's jaw tightened and he looked away. "They're not going to hurt you."
"That's not what Martin said."
"He was just trying to get those . . . Immortals here." He invested the word with a wealth of disgust.
"Well, he picked the wrong people to make angry," Dawson said quietly. "The MacLeods aren't evil men, you know, but they will defend themselves."
"They're all evil!" Nicky hissed. "They want to rule us like cattle! They're not even human!"
Dawson winced at the last comment but let it pass. "Actually, both Duncan and Connor have been trying for years -- for centuries -- to keep others from 'ruling us like cattle'. And Martin isn't doing a very good job of showing his gratitude."
"Gratitude! How can you say that, after what one of them did to you?" Nicky waved at his uncle's lonely leg.
Joe stiffened. "An Immortal cut off my leg, but it was another Immortal who saved my life that day. In fact, it was Connor MacLeod."
"Nicky!" Carver's urgent stage whisper cut across the boy's amazement. "Shut up, kid, they're coming!" Carver muttered into his radio and listened to the muted reply. "All right, places, everyone. This is it! Nicky, stay with him. Don't let him try any tricks."
Nicky gripped Joe's elbow tightly and then, incredibly, drew a gun from his pocket and clicked the safety off. Carver and his friend Francis also had handguns, while Davis, who had manhandled Joe on the pier, was fading into the shadows with a sawn-off shotgun.
Dawson bit his lip, foreseeing a bloody confrontation.
Steps sounded on the ancient wooden porch. The front doors swung apart slowly, creaking. The figure that entered was not at first recognizable, but it was clear that there was only one. Carver, waiting in the center of the triangle of lamps, seemed unsurprised.
Connor MacLeod strode down the central aisle, his eyes flicking to Dawson, Nicky, and the shadows in the corners. When he reached the first lamp, he stopped. His left hand was open, empty. He wore a T-shirt that could not have concealed a weapon. With an asymmetrical shrug, Connor said, "I'm unarmed."
Carver laughed, slowly, as if he were just beginning to believe his scheme would work. "Not quite," he said humorously. "You still have one left. But we can remedy that."
Connor's grin faded. His eye bored into Carver with unmistakable malice. The scar that marred the right side of his face only made his glare more unnerving. "Let Dawson go," he said, "and you can do what you want with me."
"Oh, we'll do what we want with you, all right. And your cousin, too. I've got a man covering him outside. There's no need for us to let Dawson go. Traitors get their reward too. Davis!" he snapped suddenly.
The shotgun blazed from the corner, deafening in the confined space. The pellets ripped into Connor's chest. He fell backwards and lay still.
There was silence for a moment. Carver stepped back a pace and waved his two henchmen out of the shadows. "Make sure he'll stay down for a while," he said. "We'll have to get the other one before we take their heads."
"I wouldn't," said a voice from behind Carver.
Carver's head jerked. The other two men froze halfway to Connor's still form. Nicky's hand tightened convulsively on Dawson's elbow, and Joe let a hopeful breath trickle between his lips.
"If you value your friend's life," said Duncan MacLeod, "put your weapons down."
"Don't do it," said Carver.
Duncan moved slightly so that everyone could clearly see the katana he held just behind Carver's kidneys.
"Shoot him," Carver gritted. "Never mind about me, damn you, shoot him!"
Only Nicky had a clear shot. The boy was trembling violently. Dawson clenched his fist against his thigh, ready to move, glad now that his hands were untied.
"Damn you all to hell!" yelled Carver, and spun around, raising his gun. Then he froze, staring at Duncan's sword protruding from his stomach. He fell to his knees.
Havoc broke out. Nicky fired, his shot going wild as Joe lurched against him. They began to grapple for the gun, Nicky dragging his uncle off the pew and Dawson refusing to let him go.
Davis leveled his shotgun with one charge left. Francis skipped aside for a clear shot, then grunted and fell as Connor butted him in the back. Connor wrenched the gun free, rolled over, and shot Davis in the head. "Not bad for a one-eyed man," he commented to himself.
Francis bellowed and leaped on Connor, grabbing the gun and punching repeatedly with his free hand. Gagging and coughing, Connor held on for a few seconds, then doubled over. Francis turned the gun around, then cried out and fell back with his hand dripping blood. Duncan's katana caressed his chin. The gun dangled from his left hand.
"Put it down," Duncan said. "NOW."
Francis lowered the gun slowly, then tried to snap it up and fire from within an inch of the floor. His last breath ended in a gurgle.
Duncan turned to the last struggle between Joe and his nephew. Sobbing, Nicky at last managed to break away, but Joe held the gun. He put the safety back on and slid the weapon across the floor, out of the boy's reach. Nicky started after it and froze as he saw Duncan standing in his way.
"It's over, son," Duncan told him. Blood dripped from his sword into the dust.
Nicky stared at him for a moment like a deer caught in headlights, then snatched up Davis' sawn-off shotgun and pointed it at Duncan's chest.
"Nicky!" Dawson protested.
"Put it down, Nicky," said Duncan steadily. "Who are you going to shoot? You can't kill me with that. You going to shoot yourself? Or your uncle?" He moved forward, holding out his hand. "Give me the gun."
Wavering, Nicky lowered the shotgun. Duncan pulled it out of his hands and tossed it aside.
"Come here, Nicky," said Dawson.
The boy turned and gave his uncle a hand up from the floor.
Connor, who had been getting his wind back, suddenly croaked, "Duncan, behind you!"
Duncan turned. Martin Carver had rolled painfully onto his side and was aiming his gun, not at Duncan or Connor, but at Joe Dawson, who was making his way back to the pew on Nicky's arm.
With a wordless yell of warning, Duncan leaped to push the mortals out of the way. Two shots rang out at once. Duncan, Joe, Nicky, and a pew all tumbled to the floor.
Dawson drew a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. He was sprawled across Nicky's legs, and Duncan had landed on top of them both. When Joe twisted around and pushed at the Immortal, Duncan didn't move. His eyes were open and unseeing. A trickle of blood ran from his mouth.
Dawson shivered. He had seen Immortals die dozens of times, both temporary and permanent deaths, but this was a little more immediate. With shaking hands he pulled himself out from under Duncan's still form and looked around.
Nicky lay motionless on the dusty floor. He was spattered with blood -- Duncan's, or his own? Joe felt anxiously for a pulse, and found it. When he rolled the boy over gingerly, he saw blood on his forehead and realized he had hit one of the pews when he fell.
Connor was the only man left standing. He held a gun still pointed at Carver and was watching him warily, but there was no movement. Carver had a hole in his forehead, and the other two men were crumpled about the floor. Moving slowly, Connor checked each of them for signs of life, then laid his gun on the floor and turned to Dawson.
"You recovered pretty quickly," said Joe shakily. Then he realized that there was no blood on Connor's chest. Only his sleeve was reddened.
"Bulletproof vest," said Connor with a grin. "Comes in handy sometimes." He winced as he stretched his arm. "Too bad it doesn't have sleeves."
"I guess Duncan could have used one too," Joe said.
"We only had one." Connor knelt beside his kinsman and studied the bullet wound in Duncan's back. "He'll be all right." Then he stiffened and turned, looking warily toward the back of the church.
"Is someone here?" Dawson had seen that look before.
Connor didn't answer as he rose to his feet. Then a grin tugged at his mouth. "You're too late, Richie," he called. "It's all over. Come on in." He walked into the shadows where Duncan's katana had fallen.
Joe started disentangling himself from Nicky and Duncan, moving the two of them to more comfortable positions. It was only at the last moment that he looked up and realized the approaching figure was not Richie, but a stranger raising a sword behind Connor's undefended back.
Dawson shouted a warning just as Connor sensed the danger and ducked, scooping up the katana and dancing out of the way. Connor's good eye widened with surprise as his opponent came into the light; a slight woman who looked no older than Richie.
"I don't want to fight you," Connor said uneasily as he ducked another slash.
"But I want to fight you, Highlander," said the woman hoarsely.
"Not here, then," Connor began. "This is holy --"
"Murderer!" she yelled, thrusting at him. The blades met in a shower of sparks and separated. "You killed him!"
"Killed who?" Connor asked, retreating. "This is not the time or place--" then he was too busy defending himself to speak.
For Joe, the fight was unlike any he had ever watched. It had been some years since he was properly impartial about the fights he watched, but after tonight's events he had a special sympathy with Connor. He was wracking his brains to think who this strange Immortal could be -- why had he had no warning that she was in Seattle? And of course, he had never witnessed another fight in such proximity that he had to scramble to stay out of the way.
Dawson didn't know what the consequences might be of fighting on holy ground, but he could see some differences immediately. Connor was fighting purely defensively, reluctant to attack, and it was not merely because the katana sat awkwardly in his left hand, or because of the shotgun pellets in his arm. Every time the blades met, they sent up enormous fountains of sparks, far greater than the usual small spurts. The sparks obscured the fighters and stung Joe's arms as he curled over the still form of his nephew. He saw one of the sparks alight on the overturned pew and sit there, glowing sullenly, until he patted it out.
It was a while before it occurred to Joe that maybe he should not remain uninvolved in this fight. The rules were already being broken, since the fight should never have started on holy ground. Perhaps it was again time for him to break the rules in the other direction and even the odds. Even so, his training, habits, and philosophy resisted the idea of interference so strongly that it took him precious seconds to decide. The combatants moved away as Connor retreated between two pews, still using his weapon only for defense and trying to reason with his attacker whenever he caught his breath.
Reaching a decision, Dawson pulled himself across the floor toward the gun that Connor had dropped. Behind him, he heard Duncan beginning to stir. With a gasp and a groan the Immortal rolled over and squinted in bewilderment at the continuing fight. "What?" he mumbled. "No . . . stop!" But his voice was still weak, even if the two battling Immortals would have listened.
Dawson reached the gun and weighed it in his hand, still unsure. The swordfight had rounded the end of the pews and was heading back in his direction; Connor's body blocked any shot he could have made.
"Mac!" Joe said, urgently. "Mac, here!" He slid the gun across the floor in Duncan's direction.
At first Duncan didn't seem to realize what the gun was for. Then, picking it up, he staggered to his feet, clutching his chest with his free hand. He started to circle around the fighters for a clear shot, then stumbled and caught himself against a pew.
Connor turned his head at the sudden movement, dancing back from the woman's blade while he looked around for more danger. But as he retreated, his heel caught against Martin Carver's still leg. He fell backward and to the right, unable to catch himself or to lever into a roll with an arm that was no longer there.
The woman took instant advantage of his fall, striking the katana out of Connor's hand. Face exultant, she raised her sword for the killing blow, while Connor, still disbelieving, stared up at her.
Duncan raised the gun, took aim at the woman's heart, and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing happened. Dawson had grabbed Nicky's gun, with the safety on.
The sword descended.
"NOOOOOO!" Duncan cried as he saw his kinsman's head roll free. He threw the gun aside and stumbled forward, his face twisted with fury and grief.
The Quickening came like an explosion, sudden and violent. The woman was limned in a harsh white light, and lightning ran between her body and Connor's as she screamed. The three lamps erupted in flame.
Dawson caught Duncan's leg before he could move any closer to the vortex of light. "Mac!" he yelled, "We've got to get out of here!"
The windows began to shatter.
Wind tore at Duncan's hair, pushing him away from the Quickening. With a sob, he grabbed Joe's arm, and the two of them staggered, three legged, out of the church amid a shower of falling glass.
From the grass in front, the old church looked as if it were being eaten from within. Lightning struck upward from its weathervane. First one, then both of the cars parked behind the church exploded with a whump. The light glaring through the empty windows began to change from an unnatural blue-white to the reddish-yellow of fire.
Dawson gripped Duncan's sleeve. "Nicky," he breathed. "MacLeod, my nephew's in there. You've got to get him out!"
Duncan just stared at the glowing church.
"He's just a boy!" Joe insisted. "Mac! Dammit, if you won't go after him, I'll do it myself." He released Duncan's arm and started to hop toward the church, cursing Martin Carver for taking his leg away. He was now quite sure that he would rather have had his hands tied.
Duncan caught up with Joe and blocked his path. "Stay here," he said in a low voice, then raised his arm before his face and ran into the burning building.
By the time Duncan reappeared with the boy slung over his shoulders, sirens had begun to wail in the distance. Duncan dropped Nicky, coughing, onto the grass beside Dawson and turned again toward the church.
Joe put an arm around his nephew's heaving shoulders. "Mac, we need to get out of here before the fire department shows up."
Duncan's stance was rigid. "There's someone else in there," he said quietly.
"Mac, you can't go after her on holy ground!"
Duncan ran back toward the blaze and ducked through the firelit door of the church.
Swearing under his breath, Dawson pulled his nephew into a sitting position. "You all right, Nicky?"
"Yeah," coughed the boy. "'S just -- the smoke . . . "
"It's OK. You'll be fine," Joe said, hearing in his voice an echo of Connor's words from the past. "Dammit, Mac, would you get back out here?" he fretted. Flames were beginning to rise from the roof of the church, and the sirens were much louder.
"We gotta get away," Nicky rasped. He twisted around dizzily. "Where's the car?"
"It blew up. MacLeod's car is the only one left. If he doesn't show up soon, we're stuck." If he had had his other leg, Joe would have gone after Duncan. He knew the Immortal could recover from burning to death, but he also knew that it was the most unpleasant experience anyone could go through. "What the hell is he doing in there?"
He saw someone running around the corner of the church, and drew breath with relief. But when the man came nearer he realized it wasn't MacLeod, as he had hoped, or the Immortal woman, as he had feared. It was Alan, the man Carver had stationed outside to watch for the MacLeods' arrival. He stumbled to a halt, gaping at Dawson and his nephew, twisting his head to take in the blazing church. Then he ran the other way, frantically, tripping over shadows in his haste. Joe turned his attention back to the church that had swallowed Duncan.
For a moment, he thought he saw a dark figure outlined against the flames in the doorway. Then a piece of the doorframe collapsed with a roar. When Joe's vision cleared, he saw that Duncan was making his way down the front steps much more slowly than the occasion warranted. He was walking backward and dragging something with him, and he had two swords tucked under his arm.
As soon as Duncan came within reach, Joe grabbed him by the knees, tripped him, and rolled him on the grass to put out the embers smoldering in his ponytail. "Come on," he gasped. "Let's go." He saw what Duncan had dragged from the church -- his clansman's naked body. Without asking questions, he pulled off his coat and threw it over the body. "Nicky, bring him with us. Duncan, get up, we need to use your car."
And so, with Nicky dragging a dead body, Duncan bearing Dawson's arm across his shoulder, and Joe himself carrying two swords for no good reason that he knew, they staggered to the Thunderbird parked at the curb and piled in. Duncan climbed into the back seat with the body, handing his keys to Nicky without question.
They rounded the corner out of sight of the church just as the fire engines drove up. Joe breathed a sigh of relief and started coughing convulsively. Duncan and Nicky were both hacking almost nonstop.
"Take us back to the bar," Joe ordered. The top priority in his mind, after getting someplace safe, was to get his spare leg strapped on. He leaned back against the car seat, his mind whirling with all that had happened today. Only then did he realize what he had just seen. "What the --" He turned to look over into the back seat.
Duncan was holding Connor across his lap, studying his kinsman anxiously. Connor's body was naked, and hairless, and quite whole -- both head and arm properly attached, no scars on his face. He bore none of the scorches or blisters that stood out on Duncan's bare arms.
"What happened to him?" Dawson demanded.
"He had his head cut off," said Duncan in a low voice.
"And welded back on?"
"I don't know," said Duncan. "I just knew I had to get him out of there. That was the strangest Quickening I've ever seen."
"Is that what happens when you fight on holy ground?"
Duncan shrugged. "Nobody I've ever met knows the reason for that rule. We just know it must be a good one." He looked up. "Do the Watchers know?"
Joe shook his head. "I always thought it was just convention."
"Oh, no." Duncan's hand passed across Connor's motionless chest. "Holy ground is special."
"What happened to the woman, then?"
"She was just a pile of ashes when I got there," said Duncan. "I don't know why she did it. Her sword . . . "
For the first time, Dawson realized that he was holding one katana and a twisted, blackened piece of scrap metal with a hilt. "My God," he whispered in awe, then wondered if he had meant the words literally.
They arrived at Joe's bar in silence and staggered out of the car. Nicky and Duncan carried Connor's body in the back door, while Joe made his own awkward way. "Lie him down on the couch in my office," he ordered, grabbing a cane from the stand by the door as he entered.
While Duncan tended to Connor, Dawson took Nicky into the bar. Since it was a Friday night -- or, rather, a Saturday morning -- the place was still fairly full. Joe ignored the stares he was getting and beckoned to Mike. "Keep an eye on Nicky," he said. "Don't let him go anywhere." Then he hobbled off to change his clothes and find the spare prosthesis he kept in a closet.
A few minutes later, he returned to the office with two sets of clean clothes. "Here, Mac," he said. "Clean yourself up. I'll watch him for a while."
Duncan looked reluctant, but dragged himself away. When he returned, he looked much better, his burns almost healed and the soot marks scrubbed away. Only his abused hair showed the aftereffects of the fire.
Dawson was puzzling over Connor, who looked perfectly healthy, but remained still and lifeless. "What's wrong with him?" he asked.
"I don't know," Duncan muttered. "He's dead, that's all. He should have woken up by now. Or else he should have stayed in pieces. I don't know what's supposed to happen."
"So is this his original head, that got reattached, or did he grow a new one?" Joe asked curiously. "Or did the head grow a new body?"
"Joe!" Duncan protested, giving him an offended look.
"Sorry. But we do need to ask some questions. Do you suppose there's anything we should do to help him?"
"How should I know?" Duncan flung himself into a chair.
"Can you sense him?"
"No. Not exactly. There's something . . . I felt it from outside the church. Something there. But it's not really -- it's like water lying stagnant in a stream, when it should be flowing."
"Maybe it just needs something to get it started, like opening a dam."
"Maybe." Duncan frowned. "I have an idea." He knelt beside the couch and laid a hand on Connor's chest. "Stand back," he said curtly, and closed his eyes in concentration.
Baffled, Dawson moved to the doorway and watched intently. Duncan crouched motionless for a few minutes with his eyes closed. Without warning there was a bright blue flash, and the light went out with a tinkle of glass. The music filtering in from the bar stopped in mid-phrase. Everything was dark and silent.
Joe reached out a hand to steady himself against the door frame. "MacLeod?" he ventured. "Duncan?" No answer.
A door opened. "Hey, Joe!"
"The lights went out!"
Joe sighed. "I know that, Mike." He groped down the hallway. "Did they shatter in the bar?"
"No, they just went out. What the heck did you do, cut off somebody's head?"
"That's not funny, Mike." Dawson found a switch and flipped it without result. "Maybe the circuit breakers kicked in. Go check the fuse box. It's in the back of the kitchen."
"Yeah, I know where it is." Mike's footsteps receded.
Dawson felt his way to the back door, where he kept a flashlight on a shelf. Just as he clicked it on, he heard the music start up again, and light appeared under the door to the bar. The broken light in his office stayed out.
Mike stuck his head through the door. "Got the lights back on," he said unnecessarily.
"Good. Listen, maybe we should close up early tonight."
"What? It's a Friday night, man!"
"Just call last round, will you?" Joe shook his head as he limped back into his office.
Connor was lying on the couch just as before, with Duncan collapsed on the floor. Joe set the flashlight on a table and bent over to check Duncan's pulse. It was weak, but present, and growing stronger as he waited. Next he turned to Connor, and saw that the older Highlander was breathing deeply and steadily. With a smile he sat back and waited for his guests to revive.
Connor woke first, twitching his hand and then sitting up convulsively. He looked around the room wildly. "What happened?"
"What do you remember?" Joe asked with interest.
Connor fixed him with a suspicious glare, and for a moment Joe thought the Immortal had lost all his memory. Then he said, slowly, "We were in the church. Everything was over, and then . . . some crazy woman attacked me. She wanted to fight on holy ground. She was -- she was . . . " He rubbed at his head, then groped in astonishment at his bald crown. "What happened to me?"
"She was what?" Joe pressed, bringing him back to the subject. "What about her?"
"I've got her Quickening. But I didn't kill her, did I? Not in a church." His eyes widened suddenly. "She killed me!" His hand went frantically to his neck, patting, feeling for a scar. Then he froze again, staring at his hand -- his right hand. "My arm . . . what is going on here?"
On the floor, Duncan groaned.
Joe smiled and tossed the extra set of clothes at Connor. "There's a bathroom down the hall. Go get a look at yourself. You're a new man." He chuckled as Connor barreled out of the office, carrying the clothes where they would count the most.
Duncan rolled over and pushed himself up to sit against the couch. "What happened?" he mumbled.
"Oh, not you, too!" Joe protested.
Duncan stared at him dazedly for a moment, then twisted around to look at the couch. "Connor -- where's Connor?"
"He's fine. He's getting dressed."
"Fine? He's fine?"
"He has two arms and a head, and they all seem to work properly. That's better than he has any right to expect."
Duncan scrubbed at his face, patting his strands of half-burnt hair much as Connor had reacted to his own loss. "Ugh. This is a stupid way to heal. I wish Ramirez had finished teaching Connor."
"Teaching him what? What did you do?"
"I just tried to -- touch his quickening with mine." Duncan dropped his hands and looked up as Connor appeared in the doorway.
Both Immortals stared at each other as if they could hardly believe their eyes. Then Duncan levered himself to his feet and crossed the room to stand before his kinsman. He took Connor's forearm, and Connor returned the grip. They both grinned and pulled each other into a hug, laughing and half-wrestling.
Duncan broke off first and looked at the door. "Someone's coming."
A door slammed in the hallway. "Joe?" called Richie's voice. "Mike said you were back here . . . how come you're closing early?" He came to the door of the office and fell back as if someone had punched him in the stomach. "Whoa!" he cried, staring at Connor. "What happened to you, man?"
Connor held out both his arms. "I got better?"
"Geeze! I've never felt anything like that!" Richie braced himself against the door and straightened slowly.
"Never felt anything like what?" Joe asked curiously.
"Connor's buzz is a lot stronger now," Duncan explained. "He could probably knock another Immortal down at twelve paces with that."
"What? Why?" Dawson was baffled.
Connor shrugged. "It'll probably fade with time. It's not every day I get my head reattached."
"Your what? What the hell happened to your hair, man?" Richie demanded. "Your arm -- your face . . . what's going on?"
Joe explained in a few words what little they knew, taking the role of storyteller naturally as his own.
Richie's eyes widened when he heard about the woman's attack on Connor. "Oh, geeze," he said, "if I had known she was gonna go after you guys --"
"You knew her?" Duncan demanded.
"She came for me earlier. I beat her and made her promise not to come after me again, then I let her go. I never guessed . . ."
"Where were you when I tried to phone you?" Duncan asked.
"That was you? I was in the middle of a swordfight. A little too busy to talk. You should have left a message."
"But I did."
"You did? I never got it." Richie smacked his forehead. "Damn! She must have listened to the message and erased it, that's why she waited so long! I bet you said in the message where you were going to be, huh?"
Richie shook his head, stunned at the course of events and looking vaguely guilty. "I'm sorry, man," he said to Connor. "If I had known --"
"It turned out OK," Connor said with a grin, brushing the right side of his face with his right hand.
Mike appeared in the doorway behind Richie. "Everybody's gone," he told Joe. "Except for Nicky. You gonna tell his folks he's here? Or at least let him clean up?"
Joe sighed. "Bring him back here. I need to have a talk with him. I'll call his parents." He looked at the three Immortals. "Why don't you three have some drinks on the house? I'll get back to you when I'm finished with Nicky."
Connor sat nursing his Scotch while Richie reclined across from him. Duncan appeared from behind the bar. "I found a hat," he announced. "Here."
Connor regarded the knitted cap with distaste. "Thanks," he said glumly, and pulled it on.
"Come on, man, you don't look so bad," Richie urged. "Heck, it's the first time I've ever seen you without beard stubble."
Duncan spluttered over his drink. "Yeah, it's been a couple centuries since I saw you clean-shaven too."
Connor glared at him. "I dressed up fancy for that party you dragged me to," he said.
"The one with Jane Austen."
"Well, that's what I said, a couple of centuries!"
The opening of the bar door cut off Connor's response. A harried-looking man came in, gave the three men at the table a nervous glance, and disappeared into the penetralia of the offices.
"I guess that's the kid's father," Richie said.
"We should have left him to explain to the police," Connor grumbled. "Or let him burn in the church."
"Connor, he's just a stupid kid," Duncan protested.
"Who hangs out with murderers. He's old enough to take responsibility for his mistakes."
"And young enough to learn from them, too," Duncan pointed out.
"He's not that much younger than Richie, here. Or Miranda."
"The girl who -- you know --"
"Cut off your head? I know."
All three turned as the door to the back swung open again, this time disgorging Nicky, his father, and Joe. Dawson started to lead the other two to the door, but the father stopped him and walked stiffly over to the table.
"Mr. MacLeod," he said to Duncan, "Joe tells me that you went to a lot of trouble for Nicholas, even after what he tried to do." He turned to Connor. "And I know you have good reason for a grudge against him, Mr. -- ah, MacLeod." He looked flustered. "I just want to thank you both for giving him a second chance."
Duncan nodded gravely, his eyes straying to where Nicky stood watching them uneasily. Connor just stared into his drink.
Nicky stepped forward to his father's side. "Thanks, um -- for pulling me out of the fire. I know I didn't do anything to deserve it . . . "
"Being human should be enough," Duncan said. "We all have to stick together."
Nicky's face turned red. "Yeah. I, uh -- I guess I was pretty stupid."
Connor raised his head and fixed the boy with his dark eyes.
"I'm really sorry that, uh, that people got hurt."
"People got killed," Connor corrected him. "You can't take that back with an apology."
The blood drained from Nicky's face. His father looked torn between defending his son and seconding the harsh words.
"I'm sorry," the boy whispered again. "I'm sorry."
"You didn't kill them," Duncan said. "And you didn't put the guns in their hands. Just -- don't listen to people like Carver again."
Nicky's father put an arm around his shoulders and led him out of the bar.
Connor snorted into his drink.
Joe looked from the retreating father and son to the three Immortals. "Look at it this way," he said, trying to inject a lighter note. "He's facing every teenager's worst nightmare. 'Uh, Dad, about the car . . .'"
"At least he has a father," said Richie with unexpected bitterness.
"That's just it," said Connor, lifting his gaze to Dawson. "You stood up for the boy and protected him -- why?"
Joe looked confused. "He's my nephew. My sister's kid."
"Right. And now his father's going to protect him from the consequences. And his mother's going to make him feel better. He's safe in the bosom of his family. But what about the ones who don't have a family?"
Joe studied the three faces around the table and came back to Connor. "Are you talking about someone in particular?"
"Miranda Kelly," said Connor explosively. "I've got it all up here." He tapped his head.
Duncan looked up. "You remember what you got from the Quickening?"
"Yeah. This one was -- different. I remember. She was two years older than that boy that just left. Died her first death ten months ago. She was Drew Morgan's student."
Dawson took a sudden breath in comprehension.
"Do you know why I went after Morgan's head?" said Connor sharply.
"He had a habit of killing new Immortals," Joe said slowly.
"Without telling them why. Exactly. But what I didn't know when I killed him was that sometimes he does take a student. Like Miranda. He encouraged her to fall in love with him, told her all sorts of lies about Immortals -- told her we weren't human, didn't tell her about holy ground, didn't explain about the Prize -- and he made her cut off the head of a man with his hands tied behind his back. He told her she had no choice but to be a murderer."
"She was crying when she came after me," Richie remembered. "I kept trying to talk to her, but it was like she couldn't hear me."
"Morgan drove her half crazy. He planned to take her head, eventually, when he was done with her. But first he had to have his fun." Connor's eyes bored into Dawson. "And there was no one there for her. No one to protect her. No one to give her a second chance. No family, no friends . . . that's what it means to be Immortal."
"We make our own friends," said Duncan harshly, "and our own chances. She could have come to me."
Connor shook his head and swallowed the last of his drink. He surged to his feet restlessly. "I've got to get out of here. I should get back to New York. Rachel doesn't even know where I am."
Duncan opened his mouth, met Joe's gaze, and changed what he was about to say. "I've got your coat and katana in my car," he said. "Do you need any money?"
"Thanks. I'll pay you back." Connor paused and looked at Joe. "I'm glad I met you. It's been -- interesting."
Dawson shook his hand.
Connor ruffled Richie's hair. "Nice meeting you, kid. Stick with Duncan -- he'll take you far."
Richie grinned. "I know."
"Connor." Duncan nodded back.
Joe watched Connor leave. "Do you agree with him, Mac?" he asked slowly. "About second chances?"
"I don't know why he's so upset for that girl," Richie put in. "If she had known about holy ground, he wouldn't have gotten his arm back."
"I don't know, Joseph," Duncan said, as if Richie had not spoken. "I know we all tend to be shaped by our first teacher. If Connor hadn't found me, who knows how I would have turned out?"
"It always seemed to me that getting a second chance is what Immortality is all about. You could cut off my head in a church, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference to this." Dawson rapped his cane against the plastic of his leg.
Duncan sighed. "But would you give up your family to have your leg back?"
Dawson just shook his head, unable to answer. Then he shrugged off the dark mood. "Well. I guess I'll see you tomorrow, Mac."
Duncan's eyes narrowed with amusement. "I guess you will."
Joe chuckled and waved his cane as he pushed through the back door. "Don't lose your head."
To Part 2, "The Dark Side of the Mirror"
To the Authors' pages