Highlander: Time and Again - 10 - Bloodletting by Emby Quinn
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HIGHLANDER
Bloodletting

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

I got the ways and means to New Orleans
I'm goin' down by the river where it's warm and green
I'm gonna have a drink and walk around
I got a lot to think about
Oh, yeah

-Concrete Blonde, "Bloodletting"

New Orleans, Louisiana
11 March, Present Day

One thing about New Orleans I never could stomach, Lucinda thought wryly as she watched a crowd of sightseers enter her gallery. All the damn vampires.

A dozen or so of them, clad in black velvet and lace and leather and chains in various assorted combinations, ranging in age from mid-teens to thirty or more. Most of them had lank black hair, but there was a redhead in the group tonight, a bright spot of color amongst her companions. White faces, black eyeliner, black lipstick and nail polish. Lucinda resisted mightily the urge to roll her eyes and instead fixed a cool smile firmly on her face. After a minute's observation, she determined that these weren't people who would start messing with or trashing the exhibits in the gallery; they were there to look, not destroy, so she was able to return her attention to the buyer who was interested in a spectacular landscape of the sun rising over Lake Ponchartrain. Although she devoted little attention to the crowd of black-clad browsers, snatches of their conversation still reached her ears.

"...getting harder to find anyone willing..."

"...have you seen Lucretia? She was..."

"...drank a whole can of Hershey's syrup this afternoon, and it didn't help..."

"...Elise knows, you'll have to ask..."

Dismissing the fragmented phrases as unwanted distraction, Lucinda closed the deal and agreed to make delivery arrangements for the next day. While Mrs. Dumas was signing the check, Lucinda stiffened; she felt the brush of presence, the awareness that announced it was an approaching Immortal, and she was sure it wasn't her husband--he wasn't due back from the bookstore until at least ten. If it was Methos, there was trouble. It could be Henri, she supposed, looking for help or advice, or even Marie...

But the figure who walked through the door was no one who lived in New Orleans. She wasn't tall; rather, she was dainty in appearance, almost doll-like, with her lustrous black hair and porcelain-pale skin. She wore no makeup, and needed none. Her dress fell to the floor, crushed mulberry velvet, clasped around her torso by a black leather corset. She looked perhaps ten years older than the eldest of the gothic afficionados who came alert at her entrance, but she wore her apparent years well.

The group of goths exclaimed in chorus and rushed to meet her. Lucinda turned hastily around, keeping her back to the woman, praying to any god who would listen that she hadn't been seen, hadn't been recognized. There was a moment's delighted greeting, followed by a round of suggestions for the evening's amusement. The woman they were calling "Elise" was still looking sharply around, apparently seeking someone and not being able to pick them out. Eventually she gave up the search and allowed her devotees to coax her back out to the street in search of what pleasures the French Quarter had to offer.

"Lucinda, dear?" Catherine Dumas looked at the gallery's owner with concern. "Are you all right? You're pale as death."

Lucinda shook her head. "It's nothing. I'm afraid I'm getting one of my migraines. They're such a nuisance. I'll make the arrangements for delivery by noon tomorrow. Thank you so much."

"You know I love your work, darling. Now, you take care of yourself, mm? Feel better."

"Thank you, Catherine. Good night." After Mrs. Dumas had gone, Lucinda turned the lock, slammed the sliding sign to CLOSED, and turned and fell back against the door. She was shaking all over, her body covered with a film of cold, clammy sweat.

Dear God no it's not her it can't be her she wasn't Immortal she's dead oh God please she's got to be dead...

She slid slowly down to the floor, drew her legs up to her chest, and put her head down on her knees, wrapping her arms around them. She shook and shook, but she made no sound.

It was close to ten-thirty when the tall, lean figure wearing a long coat came strolling down Chartres, listening to his Discman and humming softly along with the music. He stopped on the corner when he noticed that the lights in the Clair de Lune gallery were out. He took the headphones off, letting them dangle around his neck, and crossed the street at a trot.

The front door was locked. Methos fished out his keyring and let himself in. The whole interior was completely dark, which was strange; Lucinda usually waited up for him when he came home late, and even if it was past midnight she would leave a light on so he wouldn't trip and break something valuable on his way to the stairs. He locked the door behind him and flicked on the main light. "Lucinda?" He felt a vague brush of presence across his senses, but it was impossible to tell where it was coming from. He shrugged out of his coat, but retrieved his sword as he crept cautiously up the stairs.

No one in the living room, or the office, or the bedroom; the bathroom was empty, and so was the kitchen. That left only the third-floor studio, and what Lucinda would be doing in the skylit top floor in the middle of the night Methos couldn't imagine. She never worked in anything but natural light, except for the occasional clay sculpture. Besides, it was pitch black up there as well. He stole up the second spiral stair, careful not to make the slightest sound, every sense alert for any sign of danger.

Yes, she was definitely up here; he saw her as soon as he set foot on the floor of the darkened studio. A familiar silhouette, all long limbs and slight curves, sat curled up in the far corner. Moonlight filtered in through the overhead skylights, turning white-blonde hair to moonwashed silver.

"Lucinda, what are you doing sitting here in the dark?" Mildly irritated, Methos switched on the overhead light. Lucinda didn't move; she sat with her arms around her knees, staring straight ahead, but not really seeing anything past her own eyes. Methos leaned his sword against the wall and knelt in front of her. "Lucinda?"

She was trembling all over, as though from a constant, intense cold. With a shock Methos realized that she was hiding up here because she was terrified almost out of her mind. Lucinda, the fearless shield-maid of a hundred battles, hiding like a frightened doe? He reached out and took her hand--it was cold as ice and as unresponsive as a corpse's. "Lucinda! Lucinda, look at me."

She gave herself a small shake, and her gaze met his. The pupils were widely dilated, making her blue eyes look almost black. Her face was as white as chalk; even her lips looked blanched and pale. She swallowed hard and took his hand in hers, a grip that was almost painful.

Methos tried to sort out the reason for this incomprehensible behavior. He hadn't heard word of a strange Immortal in town, and if Lucinda had been attacked and outmatched, she would have called for help--he was certain of it. The Immortals of New Orleans were bound by a truce of their own making; a headhunter who attacked one of them would end up facing the fury of the others. "Tell me what's happened," he coaxed, putting a hand on the side of her face.

She struggled to speak, swallowed again, and managed to choke out a word--a name, possibly; Methos couldn't be sure. "What?"

"...Bathory," she forced out through numb lips. "She's here."

"Erszebet Bathory!" Methos felt as though he'd been plunged into icy water. "Impossible, she's dead. She wasn't even an Immortal..."

Vienna, Austria
19 November, 1609

"Oh, it was grand, wasn't it?" Lucinda's eyes shone as they left the theater together, her face flushed with excitement. "The music, the voices, the passion in the words, the lyrics--"

"The pretention, the pomposity, the wailing angst..." Methos shook his head. "One can only hope this 'opera' fad doesn't catch on."

"I thought it was beautiful," his companion said a bit ruefully.

"Of course you did, it had a miserable ending. 'No fear, Orpheus, you've lost Eurydice forever, but I'm going to take you to Olympus so you can stare at her picture in the sky for eternity.' Very uplifting."

Lucinda scoffed at him. "That wasn't the point of the story, you know. It showed what lengths a man would go to for the woman he loves."

"Pity it was all for nothing. All he had to do was not look back at her, and she would have returned to life with him."

There was the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones behind them--a twin pair of horses drawing a carriage, being driven at full gallop. Methos moved Lucinda to the building side of the walkway and made sure they weren't in the vehicle's path. The right-hand horse passed so close by him he was nearly trampled, and he was turning to hurl a choice insult at the driver when something solid and heavy hit him on the side of his head. He heard Lucinda scream--a cry of pure outrage--as sparks shot across his vision; then everything went black and silent.

Consciousness returned slowly and painfully. The left side of his head throbbed angrily; the blow had obviously been meant to kill him. Come to that, it probably did, he thought wryly as he reached up to touch the place he'd been hit and his hand came away wet and sticky with his own blood. Blinking hard to clear his vision, he looked around.

The street was deserted. No sign of the carriage, its occupants--

Or Lucinda.

"Lucy!" he called, struggling to his feet. A surge of dizziness washed over him, but quickly passed. His wound was still healing, and he was a bit unsteady, but he cast about for any sign of where his companion could have gone.

Something long and metallic glittered in the flickering light of the streetlamps. With a sick, certain dread, Methos reached down and picked up Lucinda's sword.

New Orleans, Louisiana
11 March, Present Day

"I don't know how," Lucinda choked against Methos's chest. "But it was her. Do you think I could ever forget her? Or mistake anyone else for her?"

"Of course not. No. Shh." He rocked her back and forth as though she were a child in need of comfort, his arms wrapped completely around her. She held on to him, her hands fisting in his thick knitted sweater. She felt deeply ashamed of her weakness, but she couldn't escape the pure terror which had clamped down on her the moment she'd seen the face of the woman called Elise. That wasn't her real name, of course.

"Erszebet Bathory..." She shut her eyes tight as a fierce shudder shook her whole body. "Maybe she really is in league with the Devil."

"Don't be ridiculous." Methos let a quick edge of steel creep into his voice. "And don't start buying into medieval superstitious nonsense. You know better than that."

"Do-do you think that...she was right?"

"What could she possibly have been right about!"

"Do you think..." Lucinda drew in a deep breath. "Do you think she could have...absorbed my immortality, somehow?"

"No." He took her by the upper arms and made her look up at him. He fixed her with a hard, uncompromising stare from which she couldn't bear to look away. "You listen to me, Leohtsenda," he said, deliberately using the original pronunciation of her name. "I don't care what nonsense Marie Laveau has filled your head up with in my absence--if Erszebet Bathory's Immortal, she came by it the same way we did. And she can die the same way we can."

Vienna, Austria
19 November, 1609

"It was a black carriage, drawn by black horses," Methos explained to the Viennese magistrate. Even in his agitated state, he didn't miss the uneasy glances the constables gave each other. "There was a sort of crest on the door, I only got a quick look at it before I was knocked unconscious--it was elaborate; a winged woman wearing a crown..."

"Surmounting a dragon biting its own tail," the magistrate supplied in a tone of weary resignation, "encircling three wolf's teeth."

Methos stared at the man. "You know who it is."

"Countess Erszebet Bathory," the magistrate confirmed. "For years she has had her servants kidnapping young women--always the most beautiful, the most pure. None who are taken to her castle ever return." Behind him, one of the constables grimly crossed himself.

"You know this, and yet she's allowed to continue?"

"The Countess is the widow of the Black Hero, Count Ferencz Nadasdy. Her uncle is King Stephen of Poland, and she is the cousin of Hungary's Prime Minister, Thurzo." The magistrate shook his head. "Perhaps it is different to the west, but here in the older countries...the aristocracy is allowed to do as it pleases. The Countess is above the law."

"Where is this castle?" Methos demanded.

"You cannot go there, sir; it would be suicide."

"She was taken against her will! If you would send your men with me--"

"There would be no point. By the time you could reach the castle, your lady would be dead--if she is not already so." The man leaned forward, his face full of tortured sympathy. "Pray, sir, that she is, and that her suffering was brief."

New Orleans, Louisiana
11 March, Present Day

Lucinda spent over an hour in the bath, soaking in the tub and trying to clear her head and calm herself down. When she emerged, wrapped in her white velour robe, Methos was sitting on the edge of the bed, working on his laptop with a scowl of concentration on his angular face. When she sat on the vanity chair, he spared a glance up at her. "Feeling better?"

"Yes, thank you." She began combing through her damp hair, watching his reflection in the mirror. "I'm sorry I worried you."

"Who said I was worried? Any man I know would find it perfectly natural for his wife to switch out every light in the house and cower in a corner on the top floor. Think nothing of it."

She accepted his scorn without flinching. Her behavior had been completely irrational, and she knew it. "I won't fall apart like that again. I've got to try and work out what's to be done about her."

"I should think that was obvious." Methos looked up and met her reflected gaze. "She's Immortal, and there's only one way that Immortals can die."

She sighed. "I can't take her head, Methos."

"Why not?" He stood up and went over to the vanity. He pulled her around in the chair and bent over her, dark hazel eyes flashing. "Remember how you went after Gilles de Rais when you even suspected he was somewhere in a hundred-mile radius? And Bathory's just walked in through our front door!"

"That's just it, Methos. She's here, in New Orleans."

Methos laughed incredulously, a sound utterly without humor. "You can't be talking about the bloody truce!"

"That's exactly what I'm talking about." Lucinda looked up at him with relentless calm. "It doesn't matter what she did to me or anyone else outside the bounds of the city; within the French Quarter, challenges aren't supposed to be made. Not without reason."

Methos's hands gripped the arm rests of her chair. "For God's sake, Lucinda, if you ever had a reason to go after anyone, Bathory's given you more than enough!"

"That was three hundred years ago, Methos." She put a hand on his tense forearm. "By the logic you're presenting, I should have let Cassandra kill you for what you did to her in the Bronze Age. Three hundred years, three thousand--what does it matter?"

"It matters because--" Methos realized he was beginning to shout, and he forced his voice to a more normal volume. "It matters because I'm not doing what I did in the Bronze Age. Do you honestly think that Erszebet Bathory's not still indulging her sick whims? Don't you remember what she was capable of?"

Lucinda's eyes went cold, ice over blue steel. "I remember," she said in a flat monotone. "I remember very well."

Cjesthe Castle, Hungary
20 November, 1609

Lucinda woke in a haze of disorientation. There was a steady, constant pull on her wrists and she couldn't feel anything under her feet. Cold air washed against her skin; she'd been stripped of her clothes. She tried to move, but her arms were being held outstretched above her head. She opened her eyes and saw that she was indoors--an interior chamber with no windows, a cellar perhaps--or a prison cell. She was suspended from a cross-beam by her bound hands.

What the hell is going on--No, wait...I remember...Methos! In a panic she tried to remember if she'd sensed another Immortal anywhere nearby after her lover had been struck down--everything had happened so quickly. I went for my sword, two men jumped on me from the carriage--one of them clamped a cloth over my face--ether, I think...and then, nothing.

She heard a door open behind her, and she hung limp in her bonds, not moving. Let them think I'm still unconscious. When they're gone I can wrap my legs around the cross-beam, work my hands free, and find a way out of here.

There was a brief sloshing sound, and icy water struck her full in the face, making her gasp involuntarily as it dripped off her naked skin. She opened her eyes and glared furiously at the grinning dwarf in front of her. "Our guest is awake, Your Grace."

A woman appeared in front of her. She was possibly about forty, slightly older perhaps, but she was exceptionally lovely, with lustrous black hair and smooth, pale skin. She wore a wine-colored dress made of washed silk, and in one perfect lily-white hand she held a barbed whip. "You've brought me a treasure, Fitzco," she purred, reaching out to stroke her hand down Lucinda's bare belly. "She will provide much entertainment."

Lucinda kicked out with both her legs, sending both the woman and the dwarf sprawling backwards. She swung herself up and wrapped her legs around the beam. The water made her arms slick enough to slip out of the ropes that bound them. She dropped to the floor and ran.

The woman--the Countess--began screeching for her guards. Two of them came running from just outside--something Lucinda had been counting on. In the space of five breaths, both were dead, and one of their swords was in Lucinda's hands by the time half-a-dozen more arrived.

It had been a hundred and fifty years since Lucinda had dealt death, but she was no less proficient at it. She shrieked with wild laughter as she cut the men down, one and the next. She had almost made it to the open doorway when the sling-stone hit her in the back of the head, dropping her in her tracks.

The dwarf reloaded his sling, but there was no need of it. As more guards arrived, the beautiful Countess dusted off her silken gown in an effort to reclaim her dignity. "Chain her to the post," she ordered tersely, stepping over the bodies of her dead men without concern. "Manacle her hand and foot. This one will suffer greatly before she dies." With one dainty foot she delivered a rib-cracking kick to Lucinda's side, eliciting a moan from the barely-conscious woman.

Lucinda drifted in and out of consciousness as they chained her to an upright pillar, her face pressed against cold iron. She gritted her teeth at the first sting of the whip, holding back her cries to deny the cruel Countess the pleasure of hearing her suffering.

The lash raked her back, her buttocks, her legs, again and again. The only sound was the increasingly heavy breathing of the Countess, the whistle of the barbed wire, and the steady ripping of her own flesh. It seemed to go on forever.

"Why...doesn't she...die?" the Countess panted. "Two hundred lashes...and still she draws breath!"

"Your Grace! Look at her!" The voice of Fitzco, breathless with excitement. "The wounds--they are healing!"

"Impossible!" She heard the Countess step closer, and Lucinda bit down hard on her lip. No. Please God, no.

She remembered the words of Gilles de Rais: 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.

No escape--not for an Immortal who could heal even the gravest wounds almost as quickly as they were inflicted, who would revive even from death if the head wasn't taken.

"Instant restoration..." The Countess sounded almost reverent. Then she called, "Quickly! Bring the bowls--let not one precious drop of her blood go to waste!" Her hand slid down Lucinda's half-healed, blood-slick back in an obscenely intimate caress. "You are mine now," she purred. "We are going to learn much of one another, you and I."

And that was when Lucinda began to scream.

New Orleans, Louisiana
11 March, Present Day

Methos's shoulders slumped. He sank down to the carpet with a heavy sigh and dropped his forehead onto her knees. "I wish I could have spared you that," he murmured thickly. "Do you know I can't even listen to opera now?"

Lucinda chuckled weakly. "Neither can I."

He looked up at her, clasped her around the waist and pulled her to the edge of the chair. He wrapped his arms around her and pressed the side of his face against her stomach. Her hands cradled his head, stroking his short black hair.

"I never blamed you," she whispered. "Not for a moment. Myself, yes, for being unable to fight back or escape--but never you."

Methos shut his eyes tight against a sudden, irrational welling of tears. However calm he usually appeared on the surface, his emotions ran deep--five thousand years deep--and sometimes they surged up to break the surface tension of his placid facade before he could divert them. She means almost as much to me as I do, he acknowledged silently, and I would do anything for her--except die, because dead I'm of no use to her or anyone else. When he could trust his voice to be steady, he spoke. "You are the strongest woman I know," he said with absolute honesty. "You survived horrors that would have broken almost anyone else." And Erszebet Bathory is going to pay for what she did to you--and to hundreds of other innocent women. I will see to that.

She kissed the top of his head and stood up, pulling him with her. She led him to the bed and lay down with him, soothing him with kisses and caresses as she undressed him. They made love with a slow, sweet tenderness that made his heart ache. Afterwards she curled up against him and drifted off to sleep, serenely at peace.

Methos held her against his chest and stared at the ceiling for most of the night, thinking harder and more furiously than he had since the Horsemen had reunited--and with a grim and calculating murderous intent of which Kronos himself might have approved.

New Orleans, Louisiana
12 March, Present Day

Skinworks was one of the many specialty shops in the southeastern part of the Quarter, located on Saint Philip about a block from the French Market. What set this long, narrow shop apart from its neighbors was the vivid neon purple-on-black sign that hung in the display window over a choice selection of whips, paddles, leather manacles and other fetish gear. Inside the shop, the warm smell of leather mingled with the various scents of essential oils--sandalwood, myrrh, patchouli, various subtle florals. Adorning the walls were corsets, jackets, vests and armbands of various sizes and construction, and a display rack along the back displayed boots and pumps of every description. A pottery umbrella stand stood by the front counter, holding various styles of riding crops.

"Adam!" The warm French tenor made Methos turn around, displaying a carefully neutral smile. Henri de Lioncourt looked as pale and woebegone as ever--although now some of that sadness was likely genuine, due to the untimely death of his teacher and protector, Aidan Kerrigan, two months before. "It's good to see you. How is Lucinda?"

"She's well enough." Methos knew full well that Lucinda had little use for Henri. As for himself, he didn't much care about the man one way or the other. He wouldn't go out of his way to kill him, but he certainly wouldn't weep over his grave if he was stupid enough to get himself killed--which he was all too likely to do, since Henri refused to fight for himself and most of the other Immortals in New Orleans were tired of playing his nursemaid. None of this showed on his face, however. "Actually, I was wondering if you could help me get some information. It would help Lucinda no end."

As he expected, Henri jumped at the chance to get back into Lucinda's good graces. "Anything for chere Lucile. Name it, Adam."

Methos nodded and took a step closer, lowering his voice to a confidential murmur. "There's another Immortal in town. A woman named Elise. She hasn't presented herself to anyone--she seems to be avoiding the rest of us."

"You think she is trouble?"

"If she's who I think she is, I know she's trouble. She didn't use a sword the last time I heard, but all the same you'll want to be careful. I need you to find out all you can about her. Particularly her--esoteric activities. See if she's into the heavy stuff. Bloodletting, witchcraft, the vampire scene, that sort of thing. But discreetly, eh?" He glanced around the shop. "If any of us knows about the gothic counterculture in the French Quarter, it would be you."

"Some of them are my best customers, yes." He clasped Methos's arm. "I will find out what I can. For Lucinda's sake."

"Thank you, Henri." That's a good boy, Methos thought as he left the shop. Let's just hope he lives long enough to get back to me with the information I need before he gets himself beheaded.

Royal Palace, Hungary
29 December, 1609

Methos had been in the presence of any number of monarchs--kings, queens, princes, emperors, pharaohs, conquerors, warlords, chieftains...in fact, he himself had occupied a position of authority once or twice in his long lifetime, though never for very long, or very comfortably. Far better to be the power behind the throne than the one sitting on it.

"Your Majesty," he said, bowing respectfully to the stern middle-aged man on the throne. "I am Roger Adams, a visitor to your country, and I have come to beg your assistance in a matter of utmost urgency."

"We have read your petition, Sir Adams," King Mathias of Hungary said in a completely neutral tone. "We are aware of the...excesses of the Countess Nadasdy, and have been seeking proof of her wickedness for some time. However, her castle is too well defended--and the agents we have sent to investigate her activities have never returned, or been heard of since reaching her estates."

"She has my fiancee, Your Majesty," Methos pressed on, putting just the right amount of concern in his voice, "and I believe she is still alive."

"That is highly unlikely, Sir Adams."

"Even so, I must discover her fate for myself. And in the process," he said, with a slight, knowing smile, "I may also be able to assist the throne in a matter of import."

"Indeed?" The king leaned forward, resting his chin in his hand. "Say on, then."

"Even a visitor to your fair country hears many things. It has come to my attention that the Countess has been demanding that Your Majesty repay funds loaned to him by her late husband. She has, if I am not mishearing, threatened legal action. However, if she is arrested, the debt would be considered null and void. The Crown will owe nothing to a murderous witch."

Mathias raised his head, his dark eyes flashing keenly. "You speak freely for one who is asking our aid."

"There is more, Your Majesty. Recently a number of young noblewomen were invited to Cjesthe Castle to be schooled in the courtly arts--the daughters of nobles from Austria and Transylvania as well as from Hungary. None of those young women have contacted their families. I fear that they too might fall victim to the Countess and her...indulgences."

Mathias nodded once in acquiescence. "What will you require?"

"Give me a party of good fighting men, and the authority to enter the Countess's castle. I am certain we will find there more than enough evidence to end her reign of terror, and to relieve the Hungarian crown of its debt to her. And..." Methos swallowed hard; all at once, his voice was threatening to break. "And I shall find my beloved--or whatever might be left of her."

Perhaps it was that one stumble, that brief show of genuine emotion, however quickly closed away, that convinced the King. "It shall be done," he agreed. "Be ready to leave tomorrow for Castle Cjesthe. And may God be with you."

New Orleans, Louisiana
13 March, Present Day

"She's calling herself Elise Bethany," Methos told Lucinda over drinks the next evening. "She's got a big knockabout house north of the Garden District on St. Charles that she purchased about a month ago. There's been a great deal of remodeling work done on it, mostly by unlicensed contractors. It's a good bet that she's been reconstructing her personal little playroom somewhere inside the house. With all the modern conveniences, of course--electric wiring, soundproofing, hot and cold running torture devices..."

Lucinda suppressed a shudder. "Don't joke about it, Methos, please."

"I'm not joking, believe me. I'm entirely serious."

"So what are we supposed to do? Go charging into the house with our swords drawn?"

"Now who's joking? She's bound to have alarm systems, armed guards, surveillance--the dear Countess was never anything less than meticulous when it came to security. No, we're going to have to catch her away from her castle, and hopefully before she finds new victims to torment."

"And how do you propose we do that?"

"I have a plan, never fear. When Henri calls--"

"Henri!" Lucinda nearly dropped her brandy. "Your plan depends on Henri? You're getting senile."

Methos scoffed. "He'll do his part."

"He's a fool!"

"Even fools can be useful, if given the right instructions to follow." Methos took a sip of his drink, his dark hazel eyes glittering dangerously. The look on his face--cool, stoic, totally impenetrable--would have been immediately familiar to his Horsemen brethren. Or to Cassandra. "I have long practice in planning the destruction of others. Some things you don't ever forget."

Even the tone of his voice was different. Lucinda set her drink down and looked at him warily. "I don't like seeing you like this," she confessed. In truth, she'd never really seen him like this before. "It scares me a little."

Without hesitation, Methos changed gears. He put his glass aside, sat forward and took both her hands in his. "You have no reason to fear me," he said with absolute conviction. "I'm doing this for you. So that you don't have to live in fear of her coming after you again. I'm protecting you, just as you have protected me, when you thought I needed it."

Lucinda shook her head slightly. "You're not doing it for me," she said. "You're doing it for revenge."

"Yes! For what she did to you!"

Cjesthe Castle, Hungary
30 December, 1609

"Carefully, now." Methos took one of the few torches the party carried and moved towards the top of the rise, his feet crunching in the hard crust of the snow. He paused and studied the dark shape of the castle ahead. "I know it's been a hard trail, but we're here. We mustn't be hasty now that we're nearly done with the night's work."

A broad-shouldered man with a heavy mustache stepped to Methos's side, wearing the colors of the Nadasdy family. Thurzo was Prime Minister of Hungary, a friend of King Mathias since childhood--and the cousin of the woman accused of witchcraft, debauchery and murder, the woman they were here to arrest. "The talk around town is that she will be having one of her 'ceremonies' tonight," he muttered, his lips chapped and stiff with the cold. "If we can catch her and her followers in the act, it should prove incriminating on the charge of witchcraft at the very least."

Methos nodded, paying attention to Thurzo's words, but also watching the castle, while at the same time hearing the muttered comments of the armed men behind him.

"They say she cavorts with the Devil himself..."

"Fifty years old, yet she still looks like a girl..."

"She practices the Dark Arts, you know..."

"Fourscore maids have gone to the castle and never returned..."

"Fourscore? More like four hundred, I've heard..."

Methos closed his eyes and drew slow, deep breaths, his breath misting in the freezing air. He carefully brought down the shields and defenses that kept his personal aura--the power of over four millenia of life and countless Immortal heads taken--from announcing him everywhere he went. Some Immortals were uncommonly sensitive to the lifelines of others; he had long since learned to cloak his presence, although he couldn't eliminate it entirely. No Immortal he had ever known of could do that. But now he needed to draw on the power he usually kept hidden, so that he could find Lucinda as quickly as possible...if she still lived.

A sound pierced the night--a high, shrill, desolate cry that shouldn't have been possible from a human throat, but was certainly not the call of any animal. It rang from the castle below, echoing off the snowy hills nearby.

Worst of all, Methos recognized the voice. Before he knew what he was doing, he'd dropped the torch and was sprinting towards the door of the castle, Thurzo and his men forgotten, everything forgotten but that horrible, piercing scream which was already fading to echoes.

There was no guard on duty. The heavy oaken door stood partly ajar, torchlight spilling from the interior hallway. As the King's men entered after him, Father Stephan leapt back as a black cat sprang from the shadows, hissing and spitting, and ran off into the night. Glowing eyes watched from the shadows, and as they proceeded down the hallway, more dark, sleek shapes stole past out the door. Stephan crossed himself, murmuring a prayer of protection.

Methos paused at the end of the hallway. A woman's body lay on the cold stone floor, but it wasn't Lucinda. She had dark hair, made to look even darker by her white, bloodless face. He reached down to touch her, then looked at Thurzo and shook his head. Dead, he mouthed, and continued on.

At the head of a staircase leading downward, they found another young woman, this one barely alive. Father Stephan bent to tend to her, but Methos could tell by looking at her that she was beyond mortal or Immortal aid. He was about to start down the stairs when he felt a sudden flicker of presence--not very strong, barely there, but because he was as open as he could make himself he could sense another Immortal anywhere in the castle. Somewhere above him, another of his kind was returning to life. He turned on his heel and headed towards the staircase leading to the upper floors.

"You--you--and you two--follow him!" Thurzo commanded, and four of the men ran to keep pace with the stranger who was taking the stone steps two at a time, his sword drawn and ready. Thurzo and the rest of the party headed down into the dungeons to find any other victims who may yet live.

Methos followed his senses to the topmost floor. At the end of a long corridor, a group of armed guards rushed out to meet him. With terrible swiftness, he cut them down. By the time Thurzo's men caught up with him, Bathory's guards lay dead or dying in the hallway, and Methos was pushing his way through the double doors into the upstairs banquet hall.

The sight that awaited them was one no man among them would forget. A long table bore the remains of a splendid holiday feast, replete with delicacies and rich wine. There were evergreen boughs over the high windows, and torches burning incense in their sconces, but nothing could overpower the all-pervading coppery stench of blood.

Around the room were suspended any number of bodies--all women, each one young and beautiful--suspended by cold iron manacles bolted into the wall between each torch sconce. Their naked flesh bore mute witness to the horrible tortures they must have suffered before death came as a welcome mercy.

Each one had been bled white.

Methos jumped on top of the banquet table, hardly oblivious to the grisly spectacle around him, but knowing there was nothing to be done for the victims. His attention was completely focused on the sole survivor of the Countess's holiday entertainment.

She was bound with Viennese cord to a cross-shaped X-frame, suspended horizontally from the ceiling, face-down. She was naked, her white skin streaked with dried runnels of blood. She had been cut in select places along her arms and legs, and on the table below were crimson rings and droplets on the cloth where goblets had been set to catch the dripping blood. Her neck was untouched, he noted with slight relief; obviously the Countess hadn't wanted her to bleed out too quickly and managed to avoid the one place where an Immortal could take permanent harm.

Her head was hanging down, her long white-golden hair obscuring her face. He heard her moan and he moved carefully closer, letting his presence wash over her in hopes that it would soothe her. "Lucinda," he whispered. "It's me. It's Methos. I've come to get you out of here."

She struggled to speak, but only managed strangled, strangely muffled sounds. When she raised her head to look at him, it was clear why she couldn't form words: her mouth had been sewn firmly shut with black twine.

For the space of a dozen heartbeats, Methos stood torn, caught between two powerful and completely opposite purposes. Half of him wanted to snatch Lucinda up and carry her out of the castle, never once looking back, and take her somewhere that she would never be hurt, never be touched by anyone else again, ever. The other half, equally strong, equally urgent, compelled him to jump from the table, search the castle from top to bottom until he found the Countess Bathory, and perform upon her every slow, painful torture he could remember from a hundred different ages before finally cutting her black heart from her living breast.

A choking sound from Lucinda decided him. However much he wanted revenge, Lucinda needed him now. He drew his dagger and cut her free of the frame, catching her in his arms and lowering her down with incredible gentleness. He inspected her carefully; most of her wounds had already healed, but there was an angry burn healing between her legs that identified the cause of her last, terrible scream...and a still-smoking poker lying on the floor near the head of the table.

Methos used the sharp point of his dagger to carefully cut the sutures holding her mouth closed. She gasped gratefully as he pulled the stitches free, then wrapped her up in his cloak and held her close.

She coughed and swallowed, her throat clicking with thirst. Her hand fisted in the front of his shirt and she curled up against him, shivering as if from intense cold. Her first words were "...thank you..."

He kissed her face, and found to his surprise that he was weeping. "She will not touch you again," he said in a hoarse voice that sounded strange and foreign to his own ears. "I will have her life for this. I promise you, Lucinda."

New Orleans, Louisiana
13 March, Present Day

Lucinda could bear the look in those fathomless eyes of his only a moment before lowering her gaze. "I remember," she said quietly. "I didn't think you would come for me, you know."

"I know." He tugged at her hands and pulled her to him, into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder. "But I never considered doing anything else. I went to the magistrate, the town guard, finally to the King himself, to take me to her castle so I could find you. I didn't have a choice, you see."

"You did. You could have given up on me."

Methos chuckled wryly. "Oh, no. No, I couldn't have." He looked up at her. "I'd just gotten you nicely broken in, you know. Didn't want to go through all the trouble of training a new girl."

She managed a smile at his joke and kissed him. "All right," she said.

"Hm?"

"We'll do this your way." Something sharp glinted in those cerulean eyes of hers. "It's nothing less than she deserves for what she's done."

New Orleans, Louisiana
14 March, Present Day

I will have her life for this. I promise you, Lucinda.

Did Lucinda remember that bit--the vow he'd made to her? Probably not, Methos decided. She hadn't been very coherent for days after the siege on the castle. They had found dozens of young women and girls--one as young as ten--still alive, chained and caged in the dungeons. Most of them had been tortured; many were disfigured for life, and not a few had gone mad from pain and terror. The lucky ones were found buried in mass graves, and there were so many remains it was impossible to determine exactly how many had died at the whims of the Blood Countess.

That very night, Bathory had locked herself in her bedroom, proclaiming her innocence through the bolted door. Since she would not come out, King Mathias had ordered her walled up in her self-imposed prison, with only a narrow slot through which food could be passed. Methos had chafed at not being able to kill her personally, but upon reflection found that solitary confinement--with no one who would speak to her, no one to admire her fabled beauty--was punishment enough. Four years later he received word of her death with a glad heart.

Except obviously she hadn't died. At least, she hadn't stayed dead.

"I should have sensed she was one of us," Lucinda said abruptly. She sat beside Methos in the leased black Lexus, watching the ornate mansion on the outskirts of the Garden District. "Why couldn't I tell?"

"It's not always easy," Methos admitted to her. "Besides, you were dazed, disoriented, under incredible stress--it's a miracle you survived with your mind intact, never mind being able to detect someone who's pre-Immortal."

"I almost didn't," she said softly. "Come out of it with my head on straight, I mean."

"You're lucky to have kept your head on at all." Methos noticed the flash of headlights and sat up, tense and alert. "Here she comes. Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Absolutely." She squeezed his hand and reached for the door handle.

Out on the street, a sleek black limousine pulled up to the front of the manor house. A man in a dark suit jumped out to open the rear door, and the passenger stepped out, resplendent in a long dress of purple satin. Two other men exited the car, moving with the casually alert stride of well-trained, highly-paid private security.

A series of soft reports sounded from the other side of the street, and two of the men dropped to the cement. The bodyguard standing beside Elise reached for his firearm, had it in his hand when three rounds smacked him in the chest, knocking him down as well.

"It's just you and me now, Erszebet," a woman's clear voice said, even as the sense of another Immortal's presence struck. The brunette spun on her heel to confront the tall, cool, slender blonde who stepped into the streetlight. "No guards, no armed men, no chains, no whips, no cages, no restraints. Just two white girls standin' around talkin'."

"Who the hell are you?" said Erszebet, in a voice that still carried faint echoes of her Balkan heritage. "Do I know you?"

"It's been a long time, Your Grace. Three hundred and ninety-six years, by my reckoning."

The blonde's face sparked a long-buried memory in Erszebet's mind. "I remember now...you're that one. The one who healed from any wound, who came back even from death." She smiled warmly. "The one whose blood granted me eternal life--and eternal beauty."

"No, Erszebet. I'm not the one who made you Immortal." Lucinda cocked her head to one side, appraising this woman who she found she was not really afraid of at all. "So how did it happen? Did you hang yourself in your bedroom when the King's guardsmen came? Did you slit your wrists in the bath while awaiting trial? Or was it just an accident? Whatever it was, you did die, and it was sometime between the time the party stormed your castle and your 'untimely' demise four years later. Did you starve yourself to death and wait for them to put you in your tomb before escaping?" She leveled the .45 she was holding. "However you managed to survive, your life will end. Tonight."

Erszebet turned to run; without even flinching, Lucinda shot her in the back. As she lay there gasping, Lucinda walked up to her, drew a dagger from her belt, and plunged it squarely between Erszebet's shoulder blades and straight into her heart. The dark-haired woman coughed, shuddered, and then lay still.

A tall, lean man in a dark coat stepped from the shadows, hands shoved into the pockets. He looked down at Erszebet's body without a flicker of sympathy. "Overkill much?" he asked mildly.

"Don't want her waking up too soon, do we? Besides, I used stun bullets." She waved at the unconscious men lying around the car. "These poor sods had no idea they were working for a homicidal maniac."

"Humanitarian of the Year, you are." Methos bent and took one of Erszebet's arms. "Help me get this baggage into the car, won't you?"

When they reached the abandoned packing plant, Methos slung Erszebet's corpse over his shoulder and headed for the entrance. He turned to face Lucinda just before going inside. "You might want to wait out here," he said in a tone that was just too careless, a shade too casual. "You probably don't want to see this."

Lucinda could hear what he was really saying: I don't want you to see what I'm going to do. She felt sure that it wouldn't change the way she saw him--not substantially--but she loved him enough to respect his wishes. After all, any way you looked at it, he was doing this for her sake. She touched his face briefly and nodded understanding. "I'll be just here if you need me," she told him.

"I will always need you," he replied before disappearing inside. Lucinda drew her sword and leaned on it, waiting for it to be over.

Life and light and awareness flooded back in a burning rush. Erszebet sat up, wincing as the wound between her shoulders wrenched with pain. She looked around in confusion, not recognizing her surroundings. The walls were rough, weathered plaster, covered with spray-painted tags from half a generation of territorial urban artists. In every corner of the room stood brass braziers, the flames giving off a warm orange-yellow light.

Something clattered beside her, and she gave a start; she picked up an elegant Italian rapier, light and well-suited to her hand. A shadow fell across her, and she scooted back, looking up with alarm.

She had never seen the man before. He was tall, black-haired, with long limbs and a chiseled face. He was, in his way, beautiful, but any pleasure she might have taken in his appearance was extinguished by the pitiless look in his ageless eyes.

"Get up." His voice wasn't just cold, it was devoid of any hint of emotion. Although Erszebet couldn't have known it, she was hearing the voice of Death, the man who had killed ten thousand with nothing more than his sword and his wits. "Get up and face me, or I'll start cutting you to pieces here and now."

Erszebet scrambled to her feet, holding the sword in front of her. "I don't...I can't use this," she confessed.

"Oh, really? Never bothered to learn, did you?" He made a feint at her that made her skitter backwards, and she almost tripped over her long skirt. "I suppose other implements suit you better--whips, tongs, razors, needles, branding irons...But those are only good if your opponent is bound, naked and helpless." The broadsword lashed out again and cut a gash across the front of Erszebet's long skirt. She shrieked and cowered against a wall. "Oh, come on, you could at least try. Who knows--you could get lucky." He grinned mirthlessly. "But somehow I doubt it."

Her beauty meant nothing to him; her display of helplessness evoked not the slightest show of mercy. When she did choose to fight back--or at least attempt to--he mocked her in the same pleasantly venomous tone, knocking her clumsy blows aside and opening various rents in her dress. With methodical precision and remarkable skill, he finally cut the garment off her body entirely, leaving her standing only in the corset she wore underneath. Her skin was completely unmarked, so perfect was his control.

"Why are you doing this?" she sobbed, trying desperately to buy time to find a way out.

He scowled curiously. "How many girls asked you that question? How many pleaded for mercy, for release, and finally for death, while you whipped them and beat them and flayed them alive?" The sword lashed out, and Elizabeth screamed as a gash opened up across the tops of her breasts. It was long, but shallow, hardly more than a scratch, and it began to close almost at once. "That made it so much better, didn't it? The fact that you made them beg you for the slightest show of compassion." Emotion was beginning to creep into his voice, a mixture of rage and loathing and terrible understanding. "What a sense of control you must have felt--what power, what freedom. To know that their lives were in your hands, to prolong or snuff out at your whim. But death wasn't really the point, was it?" Another cut, down the leg this time, and Erszebet collapsed to one knee. "It was the suffering that motivated you. The terror. The look in their eyes when they realized that you were going to kill them. The shock of despair when you didn't kill them, when you made them live through your sick entertainments again, and again, and again--" Three slashes, two across the arms, one across the back as Erszebet doubled over.

"Please," she begged him, "please...just stop...just get it over with..."

"Oh, you'd like that, would you?" He fisted his hand in her hair and forced her head up. He growled against the side of her face, "So you're ready to die now, the way you should have died four hundred years ago?" She wept brokenly as he hauled her to her feet. "Sorry, but I'm not ready to kill you...yet."

Lucinda stood with her back to the building and did her best to ignore the screams coming from inside. She knew in her heart of hearts that Methos was capable of terrible cruelty, just as he was capable of incredible compassion. His thoughts, his feelings, his emotions and his experiences were so much more vividly textured, and ran far deeper, than most people would have been able to cope with. It didn't make it any easier to listen to the cries of a woman in the throes of agony--however much she deserved to suffer. And she does, Lucinda told herself sternly. Not just for me, but for all the lives she destroyed--the ones she killed, and the ones she left alive to suffer disfigurement and shame until the end of their days.

There was a crackle and an eruption of blue-white light from within; Lucinda turned around and took a few steps forward, but she stopped herself before reaching the door. The Quickening was still ongoing, and although she felt sure she knew who'd been the victor--there had never really been any question who would win--her gut told her she really didn't want to see what Methos had left of Erszebet Bathory.

The flashes and bolts of lightning slowed, then ceased; the silver mist that had crept out through the door was dispersing on the wind. Lucinda stowed her sword away and waited, tense and alert, under the glimmering stars. She didn't take her eyes off the door.

And she waited.

Just when her frayed resolve was threatening to snap, a familiar shape appeared, moving with the slow, jerky gait of near-total exhaustion. The moment he set foot outside, Lucinda ran to him. She stopped just outside of arm's reach, her breath caught in her throat.

Methos's sword was covered with blood. So was his long black coat. As she watched, he shrugged out of it and pitched it into the darkness behind him. The clothes underneath were largely untouched by the gore. He took a matchbook from his back pocket, struck one, and tossed it back inside. Lucinda barely registered the scent of gasoline before the interior went up in flames.

Methos took her arm and walked with her several yards away. Halfway to the car he knelt and drove his sword to the hilt again and again into the fresh earth until it came out clean.

You're going to ruin the edge like that, Lucinda thought, but she couldn't speak a word. She understood his need to rid himself of any trace of the creature he'd dispatched. He leaned on his sword and rose shakily to his feet. He stumbled, and without thinking, Lucinda darted forward to steady him. He looked at her with the same lost, helpless expression she remembered from their reunion in the gallery, after he'd tried to kill her. "Lucinda..."

There was a streak of crimson across the bridge of his nose. Lucinda took her linen handkerchief from her pocket and gently wiped it away. Something shifted in his brittle expression, and then it shattered. He buried his face in her shoulder and wept, almost roaring in his distress. She wrapped her arms around him and just held him and let him cry himself out. His sword fell forgotten to the ground, and he clung to her so hard it hurt, but she didn't pull away. The fire inside the building didn't last long; there wasn't much in the concrete structure that would burn. Soon the interior went dark, oily smoke rising above the trees to disperse on the wind.

After a while he spoke, but she couldn't understand the words of a language dead long before she'd ever been born. He gulped hard and this time he used words she could understand. "That isn't me anymore," he choked. "It isn't..."

"No," she crooned, as one would to a child, petting his back. "No, it is not. It is part of who you were, but it is not who you are." She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. "You are who you choose to be. That is your strength."

He cradled her head, kissed the side of her face, and she felt the wetness on his cheek. "Don't you leave me, Leohtsenda," he said in a rasped whisper. "Don't you dare leave me again."

"Never," she said with doubtless finality. "I swear it on the breath in my body and the blood in my veins."

She held him until he stopped shaking and his heart-rate returned to something like its usual rhythm. With a final squeeze, he let her go, and bent to pick up his sword. "You're driving, I hope," he said, sounding perfectly normal except for the bone-deep weariness he felt.

"I am now." Lucinda fished the keys from his belt and walked with him to the car.

Methos slid into the passenger seat with a grateful groan. "Home, James," he said, closing his eyes, "and don't spare the horses."