Highlander: Time and Again - 03 - Bluebeard by Emby Quinn
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HIGHLANDER
Bluebeard

Fanfiction by Emby Quinn


Disclaimer: I do not own Highlander or any of the characters therein, nor do I own any characters based on actual historical personages. All original characters are my own creation.--eq

New Orleans, Louisiana
October, Present Day


The long, steamy summer was finally drawing to a reluctant close. The early morning air held a definite crispness, a faint promise of cooler weather to come. Methos was familiar with the capricious weather of the region, having spent most of the eighteenth century in the fledgling city of New Orleans. Still he welcomed the onset of winter, if only because it made wearing long coats more comfortable.

It was the Sunday before All Hallows' Eve, and Jackson Square was more or less empty of people. The bells from the nearby Cathedral of St. Louis summoned early morning worshippers to Mass. The sky was a clear, soft blue above his head, promising a temperate day.

He stopped at the corner to buy a newspaper, the Sunday edition of the Times-Picayune, on the way back to Lucinda's gallery. He found her, not in the building, but in the courtyard, enjoying the early morning air in her own fashion. He felt her presence as he turned the corner of St. Peter, and knew she felt his as well. She smiled when he came into view. "Enjoy your morning constitutional?" she asked, pouring him a cup of coffee.

"Yes. It should be getting cooler tonight." Methos sat beside Lucinda at the wrought-iron table. "Not soon enough for me."

"Strange talk coming from a man who was born in a desert," she childed him gently.

"Oasis, not desert. And that was dry heat. Not this misty, moisty, muggy, moldy, mildewy mess they call weather hereabouts."

Lucinda giggled. "At least we don't have to worry about yearly yellow fever epidemics anymore."

"No, but there's still Mardi Gras to contend with, and that's a whole other level of insanity." Methos settled back and opened the Times-Picayune. He habitually scanned the headlines, skimming the articles he found of particular interest, reading a piece in-depth if it really caught his attention. When he set the first section aside, Lucinda picked it up and read it after him. She was less selective, usually reading through the pages front to back; usually he was finished with the entire paper before she'd finished reading the first part.

He was just beginning on the Lagniappe section when he heard her gasp sharply, and the delicate crash of fine porcelain on the parquet patio. He looked up and saw an expression of absolute horror on Lucinda's face. The shards of her Limoges cup lay scattered at her feet where she'd dropped it. "Lucy? What is it?"

She started shaking her head, mouthing silent words, her eyes wide and disbelieving. She blanched to the color of milk. The hand still holding the paper fisted so hard the thin newsprint crumpled, and she began to tremble.

What the bloody hell?! "Lucinda, what is it?" Methos got to his feet and stepped behind her to look over her shoulder. He reached out to hold the paper steady, his sharp eyes scanning the text. The paper was open to the regional news section, and amidst the reports of political dissembling in Texas and post-hurricane price gouging in Florida, he found an item he'd taken only brief note of before hastily skipping over it.

BODIES OF MISSING CHILDREN FOUND
Officials Say As Many as 50 Discovered

MERIDIAN, MS (AP)--Investigators with the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department are reporting that the remains of a shocking number of children have been upturned in a red clay pit south of Meridian. Construction workers discovered the first bones on Friday morning and local authorities quickly cordoned off the entire area of the pit and brought in forensic investigators to locate any more remains. As of Saturday evening, a spokesperson for the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation stated "The investigation is still ongoing. It is difficult at this time to determine precisely how many victims there are as all the remains which have been found thus far are skeletal, and no complete bodies have been found. We are attempting to match dental records from what skulls have been recovered in order to identify as many victims as we can."

Officials are refusing to speculate as to whether the bodies are the work of a single killer or group of killers. Currently no suspects have been named and no individuals have been brought in for questioning. The clay pit is owned by Colonial Properties, Inc., and construction of a new shopping mall on the site has been delayed indefinitely, says a Colonial spokesperson.



Methos shook his head; it wasn't as if he needed any proof of man's inhumanity to man. He generally avoided such lurid accounts in the daily news; they brought back too many unpleasant memories. It was for that reason he'd avoided this particular story in the first place.

Lucinda choked on a sob, and he looked at her. This was obviously having a profound effect on her, far beyond what a news item, however unpleasant, should have done. "Lucinda?" he said again, tearing the paper in his haste to remove it from her grasp. "Lucinda, what is it? What does this mean to you?"

She looked at him then. Her eyes were hollow and haunted. "It's my fault," she croaked. "I killed those children, or as good as done."

Now Methos was really confused. "Lucinda, that's not possible. You'd never raise a hand against a child!" He'd known Lucinda for most of her Immortal life, and while she was a ruthless warrior and a deadly opponent on the field of battle, she wouldn't harm a hair on the head of a non-combatant, particularly not an innocent. It simply wasn't in her. He knelt in front of her and took her hands in his. They were cold as ice. "What the hell are you on about? You can't blame yourself for this!"

She shook her head violently, blinking back tears. "It's him," she rasped. "I know it is. Eala!" she cried out suddenly, lapsing into the tongue of her birth. "Tha earmlic bearnen, aefre losian..." 'The poor children, forever lost,' in the words of the Old English dialect.

Bloody hell. "Lucinda! Focus!" he snapped, his voice gone as cold and steely as a sword-cut. He seized her by her upper arms and gave her a firm shake. "Lose the Anglo-Saxon histrionics, speak proper English and tell me what's wrong."

Her eyes snapped shut and she drew a deep breath, then let it out. She repeated the action several times until the color slowly returned to her face and her trembling stilled. Methos waited tensely until she opened her eyes again, focused on him, and spoke in a low, steady voice. "Gilles de Rais."

Methos stared at her. "What?"

"He was at court when I took Joan to meet the Dauphin of France. He rode with us, fought with us. He was one of the greatest heroes of the Hundred Years' War."

"I know who he is, Lucinda!"

"Then you know that he was also a murderer. He practiced black magic--at least, that's how it started." Her voice was horrifically flat, devoid of expression. "He dabbled in alchemy, seeking the Philosopher's Stone. He was convinced that he could concoct an elixir of life from innocent blood. He slaughtered hundreds of children before they burned him at the stake."

"Yes, yes, in 1440. Just because I wasn't there doesn't mean I don't know the history--" Realization dawned, and Methos felt a cold hard lump form in his etomach. "Lucinda...are you saying that he..."

"He was one of us." Lucinda nodded grimly. "And I was there to see him burn."

***

Nantes, France
26 October, 1440


The tall dark-haired man looked like an angel from Heaven, robed as he was in immaculate white. He seemed to take no notice of the guards flanking him, or of the ropes which bound his hands behind him. His eyes were fixed on the stake which had been erected before the Church, and the jeers and insults of the gathering crowd appeared not to disturb him in the least.

He mounted the steps to the platform alone, and he stood tall and silent as the Bishop of Nantes read the list of his crimes. The throng of people stirred and murmured as the horrific condemnations were pronounced, profanities issued from the lips of the holiest man in the city: Witchcraft...heresy...sodomy...torture...murder...dismemberment...consumption of human flesh...

"For these offenses," the Bishop finished, lowering the parchment from which he had been reading, "you, Gilles de Rais, have been sentenced to death, and may God have mercy on your soul." He turned and made the Sign of the Cross before de Rais, who bowed his head most piously in response.

"Because you have confessed your sins," the Bishop continued, "and because the Church finds that you have repented of your misdeeds, you shall not be subjected to the agony of the flames. You shall be strangled before being put to the torch." He gestured, and an armored figure stepped forward, holding a heavy rope.

Gille de Rais looked up and smiled beatifically; he had already sensed the other Immortal's presence. "I'm glad that it is you, my friend," he said with complete sincerity.

The face of the woman he knew as Lucile de la Croix did not change. Her expression was as hard and unyielding as stone. She stepped behind him, raising the rope.

"A moment!" de Rais begged, and Lucile hesitated. "Good people, my people, I beg you--pray for me. I have confessed my sins to Almighty God, and I am deeply sorrowful for the wrongs that I have committed. As a youth I was wayward, bereft of discipline; pray God that you mothers and fathers learn by my example, and teach your children well in the ways of the Lord and the Church. Keep faith with His Word, and I humbly beseech you all to pray for my tormented soul."

There were no more jeers from the crowd. Many were openly weeping--women and men alike. The man fell to his knees, lifting his head to expose his neck. "Now, dear Lucile," he whispered, "and pray be quick."

Lucile wrapped the rope around his neck and strangled the life from him. She left the platform, refusing to look back as they laid his body on the pyre.

***

It was past midnight when the shallow grave in the Carmelite convent church grounds expelled its newly-revived contents. Gilles de Rais clutched his burial shroud about himself and peered up at the full moon above the churchyard. Quickly he gained his bearings and he hastened towards the iron gate that led to the street.

No sooner had he set foot on the cobblestone path than he felt the sense of another Immortal nearby. He turned and saw a tall, slender figure, carrying a sword. He recognized at once the stance and bearing of one at whose side he'd fought. "Have you come to kill me again, Lucile? I've already died once today."

"I've come to finish it." Lucile stepped into the moonlight, her normally-pleasant face still stony and unyielding. "How could you, Gilles? How could you have done such terrible things? What kind of monster have you become?"

"So you, too, condemn me for witchcraft and heresy? Are you taking dear Joan's place as the guardian of the Church?"

"I'm not talking about the Church, Gilles. Your beliefs are between you and God." Her eyes blazed as she stepped closer. "I'm talking about the children! They say you killed hundreds as sacrifices to the Devil. Killed them and worse."

"Lies!" Gilles de Rais sobbed and fell to his knees in the street. "All lies. I never sacrificed anyone, Lucile, I swear."

"You confessed, Gilles. I heard you confess--to acts that were horrible beyond belief."

"Lucile...you don't understand. I had to say those things. They were going to torture me. Have you seen what they do to those who proclaim their innocence? The rack...the wheel...the rippers..." He clutched at himself, wrapping his arms across his chest. "It's not the pain that terrifies me--it's the thought of pain that never ends, knowing that not even death would provide me escape. You know what those of the Church are capable of--look what they did to Joan!"

"Joan was executed by the English," Lucile said. Her voice was as cold as ever, but her resolve was beginning to waver.

"The Church sold Joan to the English. After they used her to get what they wanted--Charles on the throne." de Rais held his hands out, gazing up at Lucile with pleading eyes. "You know I speak the truth. After Joan's death, they turned on me as well. I removed myself from the war, returned to my estate, attempted to put my family's affairs in order--but they came after me. They wanted my holdings and my wealth. I would have given it to them gladly, but they never gave me the chance. They decided to take it. They trumped up charges against me and forced me to confess to the most horrible crimes. I knew the only way I could escape the hell they had planned for me was to confess all, let them have their way with me, and then leave my beloved France forever."

"It wasn't true, then?" Lucile asked, looking at him hard. "You killed no children? You did not rape them, torture them, mutilate them, consume their flesh?"

"I swear it!" He threw himself forward at Lucile's feet, sobbing on his hands and knees. "No innocent blood was shed in my house, or by my hands, or by the hands of those who served me. I swear it upon the name of our Holy Savior Jesus Christ. I bore false witness--of that, I am guilty, and may God forgive me for it. I know that I am not so brave as you, Lucile...I ask only that you show the mercy the Church would not. We were friends, Lucile. For the sake of that friendship, please, I beg you, let me go, and I swear you will never see me more."

For long, tense minutes Lucile looked at the weeping wreck of a man kneeling before her. Finally, she lowered her sword and stepped back.

"Go," she said. "Leave and never return, or I swear on Joan's blood I will take your head."

He choked back his tears and looked up at her with pathetic gratitude. "May God bless you, my friend, God and all His host of angels--"

"Go!" Lucile roared, raising her sword once more. "Go now before I think on it twice!"

With a last grateful nod, Gilles de Rais turned and fled into the night.

***

New Orleans, Louisiana
October, Present Day


"He was true to his word," Lucinda said bitterly. "I never saw him again."

"And you let him go?" Methos was astonished. "You believed him?"

"Yes. I'd known him for ten years--or I thought I knew him. I couldn't reconcile the things they'd described with the man who rode at my side during the war." Lucinda stood and walked over to the fountain, watching the play of water on the arranged stones. "He was very convincing. At his execution he had the crowd in tears. He simply didn't behave like a murderer."

"Neither did Ted Bundy." Methos came up behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "But if de Rais is one of us, what did he want with any so-called 'Elixir of Life'? What possible use would he have--" He broke off, remembering his own desperate, half-mad quest for something not dissimilar to the legendary Philosopher's Stone. "He wanted to grant immortality to a mortal." Just as I wanted to save Alexa.

She nodded, not looking around. "That's what the Bishop of Nantes told me--I talked to him the next morning, for hours. He told me everything. Gilles wanted to bring Joan back to life, and he was obsessed with finding the key to immortality. He began researching alchemy, black magic, forbidden knowledge. His original intention was noble enough, but soon the murders became their own justification." Her hands fisted. "He committed atrocities beyond imagination, and eventually he stopped trying to justify them even to himself."

It's all too easy to do just that. You can justify anything if you do it long enough--and if you enjoy it enough. Methos' hands tightened on her shoulders, but he kept his tone gentle, coaxing. "So what makes you think that this is his work--these murders in Mississippi?"

"I feel it in my gut." Lucinda dropped her gaze to her feet. "It matches what he did in France. I went to Gilles' holdings, in Machecoul and Champtoce, after talking to the Bishop. I still didn't believe it--until I saw the bones for myself as they dug them out. He'd dumped them into pits, hundreds of them. All those tiny, fragile-looking skulls..." A shudder coursed through her. "I knew then that he'd lied to me. He was a murderer...and I let him go." She turned around to face Methos, but didn't look him in the eye. "I may as well have killed those poor children in Mississippi with my own hands--along with God knows how many others he's done over the centuries."

"No, Lucinda, you're wrong." He took hold of her chin and raised her face up. "Even if this is the work of Gilles de Rais--and we don't know that, we can't know that for sure--then you're not responsible for what he's done. He has to answer for his own misdeeds. Look at me," he coaxed, and she finally lifted her eyes to meet his. "You didn't kill him because he was alone and unarmed. He was helpless, Lucinda, and you wouldn't kill someone who couldn't fight back. You couldn't have done it."

"You could have," Lucinda said wryly. "You would have seen through him in a minute."

"Yes, but you're not me, and that's not your way. You remind me very much of a certain Highlander I know."

That earned a small, weak smile from her. "Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod?"

"None other. Or perhaps he reminds me of you. Either way, your philosophies are annoyingly similar. Defending the defenseless, helping the helpless, death before dishonor--that sort of thing."

"We have to find him," Lucinda said. She straightened her shoulders and headed for the back door of the gallery.

"What? Wait, wait, wait--" Methos hurried to catch her up and put his arm across the doorway as she opened it, blocking her path. "What do you mean, we have to find him?"

She rolled her eyes impatiently. "All right, I have to find him. You can stay here."

She took hold of his forearm and tried to move him out of her way, but Methos locked down and didn't budge. "You still don't know it's his work, and even if it is--we're not the police, Lucinda. We're not the FBI. It's not our job to go hunting serial killers."

Lucinda gave him a stubborn look. A small crease formed between her arched eyebrows, a feature that Methos had come to regard as a woman's "I-want" line. "If this is de Rais--and I believe it is--he's been doing this for six hundred and fifty years. The mortal world has had plenty of opportunities to stop him, and obviously they haven't managed it." Her chin lifted defiantly. "And if they catch him--what will they do to him? Life in prison? Lethal injection? The bloody electric chair? None of it matters. He'll escape the county morgue after they execute him, or he'll outlive his captors." She took a slow, calming breath, trying not to lose her temper with this man she'd loved for most of her Immortal existence. "I know you avoid confrontation, and I understand why. I'm not asking you to help me, or to go with me, or to do anything at all except stay out of my way. Let me do what I have to do. What I should have done back in 1440."

Methos studied her for a moment, measuring the weight of her conviction. Finding it insurmountable, he scoffed quietly and moved aside. When she walked into the back room of the gallery, he followed her. "How are you going to find him?" he asked as she headed for the stairs. "I don't expect the Yellow Pages have a listing for serial murderers."

She climbed the black iron spiral stairway without sparing him a backwards glance. "I'll know him when I see him."

"He might not even be there, Lucinda." He rattled up the steps after her. "He could be miles away. He could have left months ago. He could be on the other side of the bloody world by now."

She turned at the top of the stairs to face him. Her expression, the whole stance of her body, was at once defiant and defeated. Methos realized that Lucinda knew full well what he was saying, that the chances of her finding Gilles de Rais were slim to none. He also knew, profoundly, that it made absolutely no difference to her. The bit was in her teeth, and like a good little wild horse she was going to run with it. She would spend the next century or so trying to hunt him down if she had to. That was how she was made.

One of the key points of surviving five thousand years is knowing when you're outmatched. Methos ran the back of his hand over his eyes. "All right, look. You start packing. I'm going to make a few phone calls." He met her confused gaze and smiled. "I might know someone who can help."

***

Lucinda knew nothing about the Watchers, of course, and she was intelligent enough not to ask questions about who Methos was going to contact. For that he was truly grateful.

I don't believe I'm doing this, he thought morosely as he punched in the international code for directory assistance in France. That woman's going to be the death of me--"Allo? Un numero de telephone pour Le Blues Bar, s'il vous plait. En Paris, oui." He hastily scribbled the numbers down on the notepad by the phone. "Merci."

He made a quick calculation in his head as he dialed again; it should be just turning up ten o'clock in Paris. He cleared his throat as the other end was picked up. "Allo? Pourrais-je parler a Joe Dawson? C'est Adam Pierson a l'apperiel. Non, je ne quittez pas." He listened idly to the background noises of a happy, busy Sunday crowd in the best blues bar in Paris for several minutes before the other receiver was finally lifted again. "Joe? Yeah, long time no hear. No, I'm still not interested in rejoining the Watchers; how can I when half the bloody world knows I'm Methos? Oh, the Tribunal is willing to give me 'special dispensation'? In exchange for what? Straightening out the--now look here, Joe, I didn't tamper with the official record while I was on the Methos Project. Well, all right, not enough to really matter...listen, I don't have time for this. I need to ask you a favor. As a Watcher and as a friend. Look, it's not for me. It isn't! I'm serious, Joe. There are lives at stake. There are children's lives at stake...you listening? Have I got your attention? Good. I need to find an Immortal before he dumps a few dozen more dead kids in a clay pit or a bog somewhere. Have you heard of Gilles de Rais? I doubt that's the name he's going under now, of course...all I know is that he's been in Mississippi within the past year, and they're still pulling bodies out of a mass grave that looks like his handiwork. You will? Thanks, Joe, I knew you'd see sense about this. Yes, yes, I'll owe you one. You're going to what? Joe--no--I do not want you to put in a request for Adam Pierson to be reinsta--" He heard the connection break off in his ear. "Joe! ...dammit."

"Problem?" Lucinda inquired, poking her head out of the doorway.

Methos bit back a curse and put the phone down. "Nothing for you to worry about. All packed?"

"Getting there. This isn't exactly a pleasure trip." Lucinda retrieved her sword from behind the door. "This is all I really need."

"Yes, well, you might want to take a change of knickers along, just in case." He walked past her and began rummaging through his side of the closet.

"Where are we going?"

"I'll let you know when I find out." He looked back at her. "I've got someone looking for your old friend."

She leaned on the door-jamb and folded her arms, studying him. "What, you hired a private detective?"

"Something like that, yes." As he reached up to pull down his suitcase from the top shelf, his sweater rode up on his arm, and the Watcher tattoo caught his eye. He paused for a moment, wondering briefly why he'd never bothered having it removed. Then he shrugged the thought away and pulled the case down, tossing it on the bed and selecting clothes to take on the trip to...wherever it was Joe was going to send them.

***

Imperial Palace Hotel
Biloxi, Mississippi
October, Present Day


Joe was as good as his word. Within hours he'd called back with the information Methos had requested. He'd also cheerfully informed the elder Immortal that Adam Pierson's dishonorable discharge would be coming up for review within the month.

Methos put that thought out of his mind to concentrate on the matter at hand. His present concerns consisted primarily of (1) finding Gilles de Rais before he decided to leave the continent entirely and (2) keeping Lucinda at something below a high simmer so she wouldn't explode at the wrong moment. Neither task would be particularly easy to accomplish, especially not simultaneously.

Lucinda sat on the edge of the king-size bed and looked restlessly about the penthouse suite they'd acquired. It was tastefully furnished in a palette of soft whites accented with deep, rich wood tones. "How sure is your...friend...that Gilles is here?" she asked with a touch of impatience.

"He's sure de Rais was here last night. He could have cut and run when that news story broke, but there's been no word on that." Methos pulled back the curtains from the large bay window, which offered a pleasantly unobstructed view of the white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. "Why don't you try and relax for a bit?"

"How can I?" Lucinda got to her feet and began pacing. "If he's here, we have to find him. If not, we're wasting time."

"If he's here, we will find him. If he turns up elsewhere, I'll hear about it." Methos stepped into her path and caught her in his arms. "Get a grip on yourself, won't you? Why don't we head down to the bar for a drink? Or we could go see a movie. There's a cinema right here in the hotel. Or," he continued, moving closer, his voice dropping to a seductive purr, "we could put the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door and try that king-size bed on for size."

Lucinda folded her arms crossly, but it was hard to maintain her constant low-level fury while Methos was kissing down her long neck, pausing to nibble teasingly at her earlobe in passing. She was completely aware that he was doing this deliberately, in an attempt to divert her from her single-minded, self-appointed mission. "You're trying to distract me," she growled--or meant to; actually, it came out as more of a whimper.

"It's working, isn't it?" he said against her shoulder as he pulled the thin strap of her dress aside.

And it was. And it did.

***

In the evening, after a long hot shower, a change of clothes, and an excellent dinner in the hotel restaurant, Lucinda was, if not relaxed, at least in enough control of herself not to draw her sword in the middle of the casino and jump up on the blackjack table to call de Rais out.

They were standing at the dollar slot machines when the sense of another Immortal's presence alerted them both. It paused some distance behind them, and Methos nudged Lucinda, who pulled out a compact and opened it, peering intently into it as though checking her lipstick.

"It's him," she whispered, closing the slim compact and tucking it into her bag. "Black hair, black tie, red shirt, over near the bar."

Methos yawned for effect and scanned the area. "I see him," he muttered behind his hand. "You're absolutely sure? It's been six and a half centuries."

"I have an excellent memory for faces. It's de Rais, right enough."

She started to turn around, but Methos stopped her with a hand on the small of her back. He kissed the nape of her neck and whispered, "Let me. If he recognizes you, he'll bolt. Best to stay right here, keep your back to him, and leave me to handle things."

"What are you going to do?"

"What I do best, darling...improvise." He gave her a saucy pat on the rear and sauntered off across the casino to the bar.

He ordered two fingers of Scotch and glanced casually over to the man at his left. He was a handsome fellow, darkly seductive in a way only Byron could have rivaled. His hair was thick, wavy and blue-black, framing his fine-boned face. A meticulously trimmed mustache and goatee framed his perfect mouth. He wasn't quite as tall as Methos (who, admittedly, slouched in an attempt to blend into the crowd), but he carried with him a sort of aura--his presence didn't just attract attention, it demanded it.

It's the type of thing he can turn on and off, Methos realized, the same sort of on-command charisma that Marilyn Monroe had. If he wants to be noticed, he will be. If not, no one would look twice at him. Handy, that. He'd need a certain level of anonymity in order to get away with what he's done.

Even without Lucinda's confirmation, this close he recognized the man's face from the database file Joe had emailed to his laptop. He was using the name John Guillory these days; jet-setter, entrepreneur, one of those extremely rich and powerful people who never got press because they knew who to pay in order to keep their name out of the papers. His poor Watcher was run ragged trying to keep up with him as he traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York to Atlanta to his plantation in Brazil to his palazzo in Venice to his manor house in Krakow to his mountain retreat in northwestern Japan...

None of those places, of course, had had reports of any high number of missing children in the past twenty or thirty years. Well, except for Atlanta, of course, but that might have been coincidence. However, there had been other reports. Mass graves, full of children, mostly boys, in Kosovo, in Haiti, in Guatemala, in India. All points accessible from his worldly travels, most of the sites likely abandoned years ago in favor of newer locales. In Iraq, perhaps, or Bosnia, or Uganda--where a few more dead children, or even more than a few, would likely be attributed to despotic rulers or local cults.

Standing beside him was a man with the blood of countless innocents on his hands, the historical inspiration for the mythical Bluebeard. Methos understood Lucinda's rage, on the most basic level, and he shared it completely. He also had the self-discipline to overcome his visceral reactions so they wouldn't show in his face or manners. He had long, long practice in hiding his true feelings, and he did so now to smile and nod pleasantly at the other man.

"Evening," de Rais murmured, nodding in return. His eyes swept over Methos' fashionably casual sweater and slacks, gauging the body beneath it. Then he cast his eyes back to the slot machines, where the tall blonde woman was still trying for a jackpot. "Your friend's going to be missing you soon, isn't she?"

Methos leaned on the bar, taking his cues from de Rais' body language. He's a predator. Always in the market for fresh meat. Let's give him something to snap his teeth at, then. He assumed the attitude of a bored burgeoise, the eternal graduate student, someone who honestly thought they knew everything life had to teach them, someone looking for the next distraction, the next big thrill. "You know how it is with older women. She's constantly on about the places she's been, the things she's done, the people she's known...no matter how scenic the view is, the travelogues tend to get tiresome after a time."

de Rais nodded slowly. "So...you're looking for other company?"

"That depends," Methos said, raising the glass to his lips as he smiled. "What are you offering?"

"A night's...diversion. Nothing more."

Methos pretended to consider. Then he shrugged. "Got nothing better to do." He downed his scotch and set the empty glass on the bartop. "Lead the way."

de Rais smiled and tossed a hundred-dollar bill on the bar as they walked out of the casino. In the breezeway Methos made a slight face. "Excuse me a moment--got to take a piss." He headed left into the men's room for some breathing space and to plot out his next action.

He leaned on the counter and studied his reflection in the long gilded mirror. So far, so good, but only as far as it went. He wasn't about to go up to de Rais' hotel room, and he certainly wasn't going to have sex with him. Somehow he had to get the man out of the casino...maybe a walk down on the beach. Away from the madding crowd, so to speak, just the pair of them. Yeah, I just got into town, and I haven't been anywhere with you-know-who. It's been ages since I've seen a beach up close. Why don't we head over there for a bit? All this noise is giving me a headache...

The door opened behind him, and he ran the water in the sink, splashing some on his face to improve his color a bit. "Almost done," he said to the man behind him.

"That you are." de Rais drew a silenced pistol and shot him in the back. Methos gasped as the front of his chest exploded, spraying his reflection with his own blood. He staggered, once, then fell without another sound.

***

Lucinda saw the two men leave in her compact mirror. Once they were out of sight, she headed across the casino, keeping the awareness of them just within her range. When they stopped, so did she, pausing at the edge of the fountain in the center of the large room.

Then one of the presences winked out. The more powerful of the two.

"No..." Lucinda broke into a run, knocking other patrons aside in her haste. She ignored their shouts of protest. Methos was dead, and she had to find him before he stayed that way forever.

***

Gilles de Rais rode the freight elevator up to the roof of the hotel. He staggered out of the car with his limp, lifeless burden over his shoulder, carrying Methos' body to the center of the roof before dumping him on the graveled surface.

He looked down at the man for a moment, weighing his options. He could wait for him to revive, and then all sorts of interesting games could be played...but no. This was not a safe place for such amusement, and there was no time to take him elsewhere for it. Better to take his head and have done.

He drew his sword, the sword he'd carried in battle at Orleans, a sword given to him by Joan herself. He admired it in the waxing moonlight, a gleaming double-edged weapon with a flanged crossguard whose pommel was graced with a red enameled cross.

He stroked the sword-point along the neck of the man at his feet, savoring his power over him. "Perhaps I'll keep your head," he murmured, although of course the dead man could not hear, "as a souvenir." He paused to cross himself, then raised his sword above his head.

The presence of another Immortal flooded his senses. The door to the fire stairs was flung open and he heard a voice cry out--a voice long remembered. "Gilles de Rais! I challenge you!"

He turned, feigning a look of delighted surprise as he lowered his sword. "Lucile...it's been a very long time, old friend."

Lucinda was out of breath from running up so many flights of stairs, but her sword was steady in her hand as she pointed it at him. "Step away from him, Gilles," she ordered. " I swear, if you touch him, the tortures of the Church will seem like Paradise compared with what I'll do to you."

Graciously de Rais stepped back from the dead man lying at his feet. "What is he to you? Your student? Your friend? Your lover?" He chuckled, shaking his head. "You should have heard the things he said about you."

Lucinda struck her blade against his, her expression implacable. "Shut up and fight me, Gilles. It ends tonight."

His expression shifted. The mockery was gone, and taking its place was evident sorrow and mild confusion. "But why are you interfering? This man sullied your honor and I was honor-bound to defend you. Oh, yes, I knew it was you. Times change, fashions change, but you still carry yourself like the warrior you are. Even when you're standing still." He shifted his sword to his right hand, made as if he was about to put it away. "Let's sheathe our weapons and discuss this calmly, shall we? There's no need for us to fight."

Lucinda's face didn't soften. "That worked once, Gilles. No more. I won't believe any more of your lies."

"Lucile," he said, putting as much pleading and helplessness into his voice as he could, "I won't fight you!"

"Then die."

He brought his weapon up just in time to parry the killing-stroke she'd aimed at his neck. As de Rais backed away from her, she shrugged out of the long leather coat she wore over her brief black minidress. Her skill with the sword hadn't diminished over the passing centuries; neither had her capacity to deal death with it. Soberly, de Rais realized he was outmatched. "Lucile," he begged, buying for time, "please..."

She charged him again, dealing cuts and thrusts with a frightening amount of control. With all his attention focused on staying out of cutting range, de Rais barely noticed the third Immortal awakening. He was already beginning to tire; he hadn't had a protracted fight with another Immortal in decades. He remembered how tireless Lucile had always seemed in battle, able sometimes to go for days without sleeping. He couldn't win against her.

He dropped to one knee, lowering his sword, and just as Lucinda drew back for the beheading stroke, his other hand darted inside his coat, pulled his pistol, and shot her just underneath the breastbone. She still stood there for a moment, eyes wide with shock, ready to bring the sword down on his neck...but in the next breath, she had toppled over and lay on her back on the cold gravel rooftop.

"Poor, dear Lucile," de Rais panted as he got to his feet. She was still moving, clutching at her sword, struggling to get up. "You never managed to keep up with the advance of progress. I remember how you disdained the longbow as a 'coward's weapon'; but it won the battle for the English at Agincourt, as I'm sure you'll remember." He put his foot on her chest, holding her down. He aimed the gun at her face, and she froze, gasping into the cold night air. "No doubt you have the same opinion about modern firearms. I, on the other hand, find them quite useful--particularly when facing another of our kind." With the gun still aimed between Lucinda's dimming eyes, de Rais raised his sword, preparing to cut through her long, pretty neck. With a gentle smile, he slashed downwards in a single, vicious killing-stroke.

Which never landed, because a thirteenth-century broadsword interposed itself. Steel rang against steel as Methos forced the blade aside and then, with a quick chop that was almost an extension of the first move, knocked the gun from de Rais' other hand. He kicked de Rais in the chest, knocking him off Lucinda, and stepped over her carefully. "I have had just about enough of you," he snarled.

"You recover quickly," de Rais said, not without admiration. "But you're still weak, my friend. You're in no shape to fight me."

"M-Methos," Lucinda gasped, trying to rise from the spreading pool of blood beneath her and failing.

The Frenchman's mouth fell open in shock. "Methos? Not the Methos--the world's oldest Immortal?"

Methos' eyes narrowed to slits. "Oh, well, you've found me out. Now I'm going to have to kill you." He was still in a great deal of pain--his lungs ached with every breath, a knot of fire lived inside his heart--but he set it all aside as though of no consequence. The gentle scholar's demeanor, the affected guise of the bored dilletante--those were gone. The Methos who raised his sword and came at Gilles de Rais now was what he had always been at his deepest core--a skilled, methodical, deadly warrior, one who expected no mercy and would show none. He pressed his attack with a fierce, bloodless grin on his face, giving his opponent no respite and no chance to escape.

de Rais was already close to exhaustion from his earlier exertions. Even had he been fresh, he knew from the first movement that he was far outmatched. If Lucinda was an expert at the blade, her companion was a master. Barely able to defend himself, unable to launch a counterattack, de Rais backed towards the roof's edge. He was hoping desperately to be able to make a jump for it. If he hit the river, it would be easier, but even if he fell onto the parking lot, before his opponent could get back downstairs he would be alive again and able to make good his escape.

Unfortunately for de Rais, Methos could read his intentions clearly. Under this sort of pressure, the deceiver's body language betrayed his every thought. Methos feinted high, then disarmed de Rais with a cut across his forearms. de Rais cried out in pain and staggered forward. Methos stepped smoothly to one side, brought his sword into position, spun on his heel and, with a brutal backslash, took off his opponent's head.

As de Rais' body hit the rooftop, Lucinda coughed brokenly and managed to raise herself on one elbow. Methos was standing above his fallen foe, arms outspread, as a waft of silver-white mist enveloped him. Lightning erupted around him, making his whole body jerk spasmodically with each stroke, and the floodlights on the rooftop around them sputtered and burst one after the other.

Unwanted images and sensations flooded the ancient Immortal's mind. How so much evil, so much depravity, could be contained in a soul not seven hundred years old was incomprehensible to him. The scent of fresh blood, the taste of raw flesh, the screams of children begging for mercy that would never be shown...it threatened to overwhelm him, invading all that he was or ever would be again.

With a howl of anguished fury, Methos drew it all in, down into the vast reaches of his consciousness, down where the other dark memories he carried still lived. He didn't deny it, or try to suppress it, or ignore it; from that foolishness were Dark Quickenings born. Instead, he embraced it, mastered it, accepted it, and then integrated it into the vast pattern of his long existence. He had done as much evil as de Rais had, and some might say worse, but he was no longer that man. He was who he had chosen to be--who he still chose to be.

The lightning lessened and finally ceased. The mist began to clear, lifting from the darkened rooftop. The only light now was the gibbous moon, its oblong face rising above the dark waters of the Gulf. Methos lowered his arms and looked around weakly. "Lucinda..." He staggered over to her and dropped to his knees beside her, his whole body shaking.

He let go of his sword, ignoring it as it clattered beside him. He took Lucinda into his arms. She was almost bled white, but her eyes were were wide open and hellishly bright. "Methos..."

"Shush." He gathered her against his chest, feeling her heartbeat begin to fail.

She coughed violently. "You...shouldn't have interfered," she choked.

"He cheats, I cheat." Methos kicked a foot at the gun, which went skittering across the gravel. "Guns aren't part of the Game. Anyway, he started with me first. Only right that I finish with him."

Her head raised up from his arm, wobbling unsteadily. "...you know what...?" she rasped.

He looked tenderly into her face. "What?"

"I...really...hate...guns." With that, her head fell back and she went limp as the life left her body.

Methos kissed her cold white forehead with a soft sigh. He heard, distantly below, the sound of alarms going off. No doubt hotel security would be emerging onto the scene at any moment. He realized the entire hotel beneath them must have lost power, which meant the elevator was out. He looked over at the fire door and saw a sign marked with clear red letters: EXIT ONLY.

"Bugger," he said calmly, struggling to his feet. After reclaiming both their swords, he managed to carry Lucinda to the edge of the roof and looked downwards. Far below them, the black waters of the Mississippi flowed sluggishly out to the Gulf of Mexico.

He set Lucinda down for a moment and pulled something made of metal from the pocket of his coat. He locked one handcuff around his own wrist, the other around Lucinda's. Gathering her up again, he stood and stepped up onto the low ledge surrounding the rooftop. He could hear footsteps now, coming up the last flight of stairs behind them. "This is really going to suck," he said to no one in particular as he leapt out into the empty air.

***

"Okay," Lucinda gasped as Methos pulled her out of the water onto the levee a few hours later. "There's one thing I hate more than being shot."

Methos collapsed onto the ground beside her and lay sprawled on his back. He coughed up half a lungful of brackish water. "Let me guess," he said wryly. "Drowning?"

"Got it in one." She spat mud and started to sit up, then noticed that one wrist was wrapped in a steel handcuff. "What the hell--?"

"I didn't want us getting separated in the river," he explained, rising carefully to his knees. "I would have had a hell of a time finding you in the dark."

"Oh. Well, good thinking."

"Thanks." Methos stood and pulled Lucinda to her feet. "Well, I suppose we should go back to the hotel, collect our things."

"Let's hope they let a pair of drowned, filthy rats like us walk through the lobby." Lucinda looked down at her dress and made a face. "Fifteen hundred dollars, ruined by Mississippi mud."

"I suppose the bullet hole is a fashion accent?"

"Oh, ha ha." She stumbled a bit as Methos tugged her along by their cuffed wrists. "Hey, what are you doing carrying a pair of handcuffs around, anyway?"

"Well, there was the distinct possibility of having to lock you up in the hotel room if you wouldn't listen to reason--or...other persuasion."

"You wouldn't."

"Don't try me."

Lucinda gave him a doubtful look, but didn't argue the point further as they headed across the hotel parking lot.

***