Highlander: Time and Again - 11 - The Revenant by Emby Quinn
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HIGHLANDER
The Revenant

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

***

St. Louis Cemetery #1
New Orleans, Louisiana
8 February, Present Day


"Are you sure about this, Carl?" Brigit lit a clove cigarette and drew its thick, fragrant smoke into her lungs. Her hand shook and she looked around the deserted cemetery with a shiver that had nothing to do with the damp chill of the night air. "The cops patrol this place at night, yanno?"

"The cops are too busy keeping people from killing each other out on the streets tonight. It's Fat Tuesday, remember? Hey, Wince, hold the goddamn flashlight steady, willya?" Carl, a tall, gaunt figure with a permanent slouch in his lanky frame flipped through the pages of the spiral-bound notebook. "Okay, we have to wait till the first stroke of midnight before I start reading this."

Rake yawned hugely, exaggerating the gesture for effect. "I'm bored," she announced for the fourth time. "This zombie crap ain't gonna work. It's just a bunch of spooky hoodoo junk."

"So leave," Carl said without even glancing at her. "Nobody's stopping you."

"Carl!" Wince hissed, with a fervent glance at the anorexic blonde in black leather. "He didn't mean it, baby. Chill."

Rake rolled her eyes. "So what're you gonna do if it works? Sell it on eBay?"

"Shut the hell up." Brigit shuddered again. "I'm outta here."

She took two steps down the gravel path, but Carl snapped, "Stay where you are."

"You said Rake could leave!" Brigit protested.

Carl looked at Brigit and gave her the charming killer-shark smile that had made her go out with him in the first place. "That's because I don't give a damn what Rake does, baby. Just give me a few more minutes, okay?"

Brigit pouted, but she sat down on a concrete marker and didn't say anything more. Rake rolled her eyes and checked her watch. "Okay, it's midnight. Can we go now?"

"Not yet," Carl said. "Wait for it--there." The bells of the cathedral, several blocks distant, began to chime into the night air. "Wince, hold that flashlight--right here--okay, here goes." Carl struck a pose in front of the decaying marble crypt, half-forgotten and nearly hidden by weeds and kudzu, and began reading the words scrawled in ball-point blue on the lined paper.

"Open the gates of the damned!
Charon, ferry this soul across,
Back from the halls of the dead,
Back to the lands of the living,
Back to this shell of clay.

"Bring to life this tortured soul,
Back to its crumbling flesh,
Back to do my bidding!
Back, back from the abyss!
I call you now--ARISE!"


At the last word, Carl flung his arms wide, tossing aside the notebook and beaming with terrible anticipation.

Nothing happened.

"Did it work?" Wince asked nervously.

Rake burst out laughing. "Idiot! Of course it didn't work!" She walked over and grabbed his arm. "Let's go get something to drink. I'm tired of this bullsh--"

Brigit screamed, a knife-sharp sound that cut through the dark around them, echoing faintly off walls of concrete and stone. Carl was still standing in place, and he was starting to chuckle--softly at first, then with more volume, until he was roaring with laughter.

Sounds were coming from the mouldering crypt in front of them. A scratching at first, then a sort of dragging sound. Then it stopped.

Wince looked with his round, protruding eyes from Carl to the crypt and back again. "Oh, my God," he breathed, excited and terrified at once.

After a few tense seconds of silence, Rake relaxed and tried to shrug off her apprehension. "It's probably just--"

Wham.

Brigit screamed again, a sound loud enough to hurt, when the blow from inside shook the iron-bound door of the crypt. Another wham, then a third, and the door flew off its rusted hinges and fell to the ground at Carl's feet. He never even moved. His pale blue eyes were agleam with triumph, and perhaps more than a touch of burgeoning madness.

"Let's get out of here," Rake hissed at Wince, but when she pulled at his arm, he didn't move. He was frozen in place. Brigit was curled up on the ground, whimpering softly, staring past Carl at the now-open doorway of the crypt.

Against her better judgment, Rake looked in that direction. What she saw would haunt her until the end of her days.

The figure in the doorway was wasted, gaunt, almost skeletal. The skin was miraculously intact, but pale as bleached parchment, clinging to the body so tight you could count the ribs through the tattered, muddy rags which were all that remained of its clothing. The long black hair was dirt-matted, crawling with beetles and silverfish. The face was little more than a skull covered with a thin, almost transparent layer of skin. Only the eyes were hellishly alive and aware, black as coals, glittering in the moonlight. Rake met the stare of those eyes and found herself rooted to the spot where she stood.

The dirt-encrusted lips parted, and a guttural voice spoke. "Quid anno est?" Those hellish eyes swept the group, seeming to expect an answer. Receiving none, the apparition spoke again. "Bene, cum Latine nescias?"

"I am your master!" Carl shouted at him--screamed, almost, really. "You will obey my bidding!"

Rake swallowed hard enough to make her throat click. "Dude, I don't think he speaks English--"

"Shut up, bitch!" Carl cackled. "You! Zombie! I command you to destroy her!" He pointed at Rake imperiously.

"Are you nuts, Carl?" Wince shouted, trying to pull Rake behind him. "Quit kiddin' around!"

"Screw this," Rake hissed, pulling out her butterfly knife. "Bring it on, dead man."

The zombie moved slowly towards Carl. Even in her current agitated state, Rake noticed that it didn't move like the movie zombies did--shuffling, stumbling, almost like a sleepwalker. The figure was walking carefully, to be sure, but it was more as if it were testing its legs after a long period of disuse, rather than any lack of coordination.

"What are you waiting for?" Carl shrieked, still pointing at Rake. "Kill her! Kill her! I am your master, I brought you back to life, you must obey me!"

The zombie stopped within arm's reach of Carl. He towered over the skinny youth by nearly a foot. Slowly, he shook his head, and spoke again. "Antiquis temporibus, nati tibi similes in rupibus ventosissimis exponebantur ad necem." Then, quite casually, his long arms shot out, his hands clasped Carl's head, and with a quick twist the zombie broke his neck.

Brigit shrieked as Carl's body slumped to the ground, his head lolling limply to one side, that crazed triumphant look still on his dead face. She scooted backwards up against the wall of a mausoleum, her hands over her mouth, whimpering softly.

"Jesus Christ!" Wince yelped, grabbing at Rake's arm. "Come on, baby, let's get the hell out of here!"

Rake stood her ground, still holding her knife in front of her. The zombie turned to look at her, and anger overcame her fear. "Come on, you sick bastard," she hissed. "Come and get me."

"Noo!" Brigit squealed as the zombie moved forward. He paused about five feet away from Rake, looked at her knife, then at her. The wasted features shifted in what might have been a scowl of concentration, and when the zombie spoke again, the words were English--stilted, with a strange accent, but quite understandable. "You...have courage. You are not...like them."

"What'd you kill Carl for, you sick freak?" Rake spat, not lowering her knife.

"He...annoyed me." The zombie shrugged his head to one side, and there was an audible crack as stiffened vertebrae loosened. "What...century is this?"

Rake glanced at the crypt, but the marble was so worn the death date above it was unreadable. Still, no one had been buried in the old cemetery since the early nineteenth century. "It's the twenty-first century," she said. "Welcome to the future, dead man."

The withered face split into an unaccountable grin. "I...am...hungry," the guttural voice intoned.

"Don't eat me!" Brigit squeaked. "Oh, God, please don't eat me!"

"Don't mind her," Rake said. "She's a wuss. You don't eat people, right?"

"Only...if they're already dead. I prefer...more common fare."

"Well, first, we're going to have to get you cleaned up. Not to mention some clothes."

"Whuh-what about Carl?" Wince stammered. "We can't just leave him here!"

"Why not?" Rake said. "Sorry, Terence, honey, but he lost any brownie points from my scorecard when he tried to have our new friend here kill me." She gestured to the zombie. "This--uhm, have you got a name, dead man?"

"Corvus," he replied. "Corvus Grecius."

***

Clair de Lune Gallery
New Orleans, Louisiana
28 March, Present Day


A steady, distant rapping sound woke Methos from the soundest sleep he'd had in almost two weeks. He grunted softly and turned over, cracking one eye open. It was barely light outside. The other side of the bed was empty. Lucinda was already downstairs, so let her answer the bloody door. Too damn early, he thought fuzzily, settling back into the pillows.

He was just on the edge of returning to sleep when a scream from downstairs jolted through him. Instantly awake, he leapt from the bed, grabbed his sword, and ran out of the bedroom.

"Lucinda!" He paused briefly on the landing. She was standing at the front of the gallery, staring at the open door. As he watched, she dashed outside. "What the hell?" He clattered down the spiral stairs in bare feet and went to look after her. What he saw on the front of the open door stopped him in his tracks.

A black bird--a crow--was affixed to the freshly-painted wood, wings outspread and nailed in place. Its neck had been wrung; its head lolled to one side in a grotesque mockery of Christ's crucifixion.

Methos started to go after Lucinda, but several things stopped him. One: It was cold for late March. Two: It was raining. Three: He was nearly naked and carrying a sword. Four: Whoever had left this morbid token was long gone by now, and it probably wasn't an Immortal.

Grimly, Methos went to put some clothes on and to get something to pull the nails out of the door with.

By the time Lucinda returned, she was soaked to the skin, and the only reminder of the crucified bird was a few innocuous-looking holes on the gallery door. "Gone," she said to Methos, who was just returning from the rubbish bin. "I couldn't find him."

"Most likely he was never anywhere near the place." Methos shut the door, locked it, and took Lucinda by the hand, tugging her towards the stairs. "I didn't sense any of our kind close, and I'm guessing you didn't either."

"Do you really think--"

"What I think," Methos said as he pulled her into the bath, "is that you're a bloody fool for running out there the way you were probably expected to. Sit down." He lowered the toilet lid and set her on it while he washed his hands. "I think we're both well aware of who left that charming little token on our front door. That's why it's important we don't go haring off on some wild goose chase. Particularly not alone. Divide and conquer, that's always been his strategy. It worked on us in 1788, and if we're not careful, it's going to destroy us. Again."

Lucinda winced at the oblique reference to the Great Fire. She sat meekly as Methos methodically stripped her down and toweled her dry. "What are we going to do?" she asked when he was done.

Methos stood her up, wrapped her in her velour robe, then put his hands on her shoulders and caught her gaze with his. "First, we're going to have breakfast. Then we're going to call Marie and tell her what we know. And then we're going to sit down and figure out exactly what we're going to do."

"Methos..." Lucinda put her arms around his waist and hugged him tight. "I will not let him kill you..."

Methos chuckled, but there was no humor in it. 'Believe me, I have no intention of dying."

"He knows you're here. That's what it meant--"

"Shh." He stroked her damp hair. "He's tried more than once, and I'm still here. So long as we keep our wits about us--and stay together--we won't be losing our heads." Unseen by Lucinda, the hazel eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "Particularly not to Corvus Grecius."

***

Domitian's Palace
Rome
93 AD


Titus Flavius Domitianus had been Emperor for twelve years. He had succeeded his well-loved brother, Titus, and had at first been welcomed by the people because of the legacy of his reknowned father, Vespasian. Soon after he took the throne, it became clear that Domitian had neither his father's wisdom nor his brother's benevolence. As an administrator, he was worse than incompetent; within five years of his reign, the silver denarius had lost most of its former value, and the Roman economy was plunged into the worst recession in living memory. As a military commander, he was completely inept, relying on his brother's general, Julius Agricola, for most of his claimed triumphs. When Julius Agricola's popularity eclipsed his own, he had the man killed by his own second-in-command, who was now his own personal enforcer.

"What business have you brought me this morning, General?" he asked as the tall man with black hair and eyes entered the audience chamber. "Make haste, and mark well the time."

Corvus Grecius nodded solicitously; it was well known that a dire prediction by a seer had said that the Emperor would die at a traitor's hands at mid-day. Therefore, Corvus spent the fifth and sixth hours of each day sequestered in his private rooms, with well-paid guards at every door. "Emperor, I have brought with me someone who may well be of great use to you." And to me as well, you great fool.

He held out his hand and beckoned someone forward. Domitian looked the newcomer over--he was of indeterminate racial stock, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with an angular face and pale skin. "Who is this man?" He nodded once at the stranger. "Speak. What is your name?"

"I am Stephanus, noble emperor," Methos answered, bowing respectfully low. "A lowly citizen of your great city."

"He is a freed slave, my lord. It was he who supervised the construction of the wall that sealed the fate of the traitorous Vestal, Cornelia," Corvus pronounced with grim satisfaction. "So well did he perform his work that I thought his talents wasted. No doubt you will find better work for him, Caesar."

Methos kept his eyes fixed on the floor, betraying nothing of his hatred of both these men--the tyrannical emperor and his pet assassin. Oh, Corvus Grecius, we both know full well why you plucked me out of my quiet existence. I am Immortal, as you are. You offered to take me as your pupil, and I gave you no indication that I was old before you even drew breath.

Cornelia's screams, her protests of innocence, still rang in his ears. Poor, foolish woman. Clinging to her oath of chastity, she refused the advances of the emperor. Therefore he accused her of having many lovers and had a score of innocent men put to death. As punishment for her nonexistent crime, Cornelia was walled up alive in an underground cell. With the watchful eyes of the guards on him as he worked, Methos could not help her escape--but he managed to slip a small, sharp dagger into the cell with her. He heard her whisper "...thank you..." as he pushed the last stone into its place.

"My wife, Domitia, has recently returned to Rome," the emperor mused. "The change of climate is not to her liking, and I have determined to reconstruct her rooms to better suit her. I give you to her charge, that you may fulfill her wishes."

"As you wish, great Emperor," Methos murmured, eyes still downcast, quietly seething.

"And once your work is done," Corvus grinned, clapping Methos so hard on the shoulder he almost stumbled, "I may have more...challenging tasks for you."

Oh, I'm very sure of it.

***

Finnegan's Irish Pub
New Orleans, Louisiana
28 March, Present Day


"Not a sign of him," Patrick Finnegan stated, scanning the faces of the others gathered in the back room of his pub. "Either he's staying well out of the Quarter, or--"

"Or he's as good at skulking about as he ever was," Methos finished for him. "You wouldn't know it to look at him, but he's very good at passing unnoticed when he chooses. He can evade mortal eyes as well as Immortal senses."

"But how?" Henri de Lioncourt demanded. "We cannot hide our presence from others of our kind."

"By staying out of range," Methos explained. "By observing us from a distance. He was a general in the Roman army; believe me, he's as good at surveillance and stealth as any Green Beret of modern times, and he doesn't need cameras or tracking devices."

"So how are we going to find him?" Finnegan asked. "If he won't come out of hiding--"

"Like any good general," said Methos, "he's going to have minions. Ground troops. Soldiers."

"Mortals," Marie Laveau said, her black eyes flashing.

"Exactly." Methos got up and paced around the table where they were all sitting. "It wasn't any Immortal who pinned that--thing to our door this morning. We'd have sensed it."

"But what does it mean?" de Lioncourt shuddered a bit at the mention of the murdered crow. "Nothing pleasant, I would imagine."

"Corvus Grecius wasn't just a general. He was the personal enforcer and hit man of the Roman emperor Domitian. When the emperor marked someone for death, Corvus would send a messenger to nail a carrion crow whose neck he'd wrung to the condemned's door, as though it had been crucified there. It was a sign that someone in the house was doomed."

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Finnegan groaned, rubbing his hand over his face. "So you're sure it's him, then? The one who came after you and Lucinda before the Great Fire?"

"Quite sure," Methos replied. "He did the same thing then--nailed a dead crow to the door of my doctor's office. I've encountered him several times over the centuries, and his calling card is always the same." He smiled thinly. "I'm afraid he has a bit of a grudge against me."

"And he won't stop until you're dead." Marie's statement held no hint of question. "Even if you leave, he'll come after you to kill you. Both of you."

The sharp hazel eyes flickered in her direction. "If you have any information, by all means, please share it."

Marie took a sip from her glass of red wine, set it down, and folded her hands on the table. When she was certain she had everyone's attention, she began to speak. "There's been talk among my people. They've heard that a bunch of would-be practitioners raised a zombie out of St. Louis Cemetery on Mardi Gras night."

"There are always stories like that around Carnival time," Finnegan scoffed. "Nothing to them."

"Well, there is the matter of that dead boy they found in front of an open, unmarked crypt. Neck snapped clean, no other sign of injury."

"Random vandalism, and things got nasty. Happens every year."

Marie's black eyes glinted. "The crypt was broken open," she said, "from the inside."

"Sacre mere," de Lioncourt breathed, crossing himself.

"Since then," Marie continued with relentless calm, "the practitioners in my network have been seeing a lot of pretenders--kids, mostly, pretending to dabble in the arts--suddenly claiming to be part of this group that raised a zombie in the cemetery. They all have a distinctive tattoo on their arm or hand somewhere. A black bird, with its wings outspread, like it's been crucified. They say the zombie speaks to them. They're calling him the Crow."

"The Crow?" de Lioncourt echoed. "Like in the movie?"

"Wait a tick." Finnegan sat forward. "The Latin word for 'crow'--isn't it--?"

"Corvus." Methos leaned against the wall, folding his long arms stubbornly.

Marie nodded. "This so-called 'zombie'--he's supposed to be older than the city itself. Some even say he's from Ancient Rome." Marie looked at Methos. "Sound familiar, Adam?"

"What we have to do is find out where the hell he's hiding. It won't be in the city proper, I can tell you that much. Otherwise one of us would have sensed him by now."

"Maudit sacrament," de Lioncourt groaned. "So how are we going to find him?"

"Marie's got the right idea. Keep your eyes and ears open. And make sure any allies you have do the same."

Finnegan set his empty beer bottle down. "What about me? What can I do?"

"Corvus is going to be busy with Lucinda and me for a while. He's going to spend at least the next month or so trying to scare the hell out of us. He'll be too preoccupied with that to take much notice of any other Immortals in the city--if he even knows you're here. I have to say that he probably does. Corvus is nothing if not thorough. Go on about your business as though you were blissfully unaware of anything amiss. If you go out trawling for Corvus, and he decides you're a threat, he won't come after you himself--he'll have one of his mortal lackeys shoot you from a distance and take off your head."

It was Finnegan's turn to shudder. "If the man's that dangerous, Adam--shouldn't you leave? Just pick up and clear off before he comes after you?"

Methos gave a short, humorless chuckle. "Don't think the thought hasn't crossed my mind." He shook his head. "Better to keep him predictable for now. By the time he gets bored playing cat-and-mouse with us, we should have some information on where he's hiding. Then we'll know better how to deal with him."

***

Lucinda had been silent during the entire meeting; she hadn't spoken a word, and her drink had sat before her on the table untouched until the ice had turned to water. She still said nothing as they walked back to the gallery and let themselves inside.

Methos understood the reason for her unusual reticence. She was terrified.

So was he.

He took her hand as they crossed St. Peter. Her fingers were cold and stiff as he entwined his through them. They entered through the rear door, into the kitchen behind the gallery. He shut the door behind them, turned, and pulled her close, wrapping his arms securely around her. He held her without a word until he felt her finally begin to relax against him a bit. Her arms stole around his waist and she rested her head against his shoulder.

"Question?" she finally said.

"Answer," he replied, giving her a slight squeeze.

"Why aren't we running? What's the real reason?"

Methos chuckled softly and kissed her temple. "Do you want to leave?"

She drew back a little and looked at him. "You know I don't," she said. "This is my home. Our home. I want to stay and defend it. It's the way I'm made. But what if the price is too high?"

"Like it was last time, you mean."

"Yes. All right?" she admitted with a touch of defiance. "Corvus split us up in 1788. He wasn't able to kill us, but he managed to ruin our lives."

"That's not going to happen again." He took her face in his hands and locked his eyes with hers. "He's not going to divide and conquer us this time. Right?"

"Right," she agreed, nodding urgently. She took hold of his wrists; her fingers were still cold. "Okay."

"The important thing," he said, still holding her gaze, "is that we keep our wits about us. Corvus wants us to panic. He's counting on that to make us vulnerable. That's one weapon we can deny him."

Lucinda took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah. All right. But..."

"But what?"

"You still haven't answered my question."

"You're right, I haven't." Methos patted her cheeks gently and lowered his arms, clasping her hands in his. "Part of me wants to run," he confessed. "Just pack up and go somewhere--anywhere. Tahiti, Tibet, Trinidad, Timbuktu--anywhere Corvus won't find us."

"So...?"

"One reason is that I know you don't want to leave--and I don't want to leave you. I won't let Corvus separate us again." A muscle in Methos's jaw twitched. "Another reason is that Corvus is too dangerous to be left alone. I suppose it was too much to hope that he'd died after the fire, but after two hundred years I was beginning to let myself think he was gone for good."

"He can't really have been in--in a crypt all this time...could he?"

"Who knows? It doesn't matter. What matters is that it ends here. If we disappear on him, Corvus will most likely throw a tantrum and take his frustration out on the locals, mortal and Immortal alike. And then--once that was no longer amusing--he'd still come after us."

"Damned if we do, and damned if we don't." Lucinda dropped her head to Methos's shoulder again. "So for now, we sit tight?"

"We sit tight, be patient, and see if Marie and Henri can find out anything useful."

She looked up at him again. "What are we going to do when we find him?"

"That depends on where he is, who he's got working for him, and how much effort it will take to dig him out of his hiding-hole. We can't make any definite plans without that information."

"Have you got any ideas?"

"I've always got ideas." He kissed her soundly and let her go. "Now. I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. We missed breakfast and we're about to miss lunch--and I, for one, think better with a full belly."

***

However good Methos was at hiding his unease in waking hours, he had no more control over his dreams than any mortal man. The fears and memories he suppressed during the day all too often came back to him at night, causing him to writhe and murmur in his sleep. That night the murmuring became words, the words of a language long dead.

"Ahu, kanpa!"

Lucinda jerked awake at the hoarse cry from the man beside her. She sat up in bed and looked down at Methos. He was trembling, his head jerking slightly back and forth, as though in protest or denial. "Eli baltuti ima'idu mituti ina kibrat erbettim!"

"Adam?" Lucinda reached out and clasped his shoulder. "Adam, it's all right..."

He didn't seem to hear her or to feel the touch of her hand. "Mese matati kisitti qatiya adi balasi alaku! Mitus! Ni-e Mitus!" The last word sounded almost like his name, but he spat it out like a curse.

"Methos!" She switched on the light and grabbed both of his shoulders. "Methos, you're dreaming! Wake up!"

His eyes flew open, and for a moment a stranger looked out of them. "Sinnis, za-e am?" he demanded in a flat, cold, soulless voice.

He looked as if he might kill her if he didn't like her response, but Lucinda refused to be frightened. "Methos, it's me, Lucinda. You were dreaming. I have no idea what you're talking about, but it's over. It was just a bad dream."

His face went slack with shock. He drew in a sharp breath, and his dark hazel eyes darted around the room, taking in his surroundings. His bowstrung-tight muscles went limp with relief, and he relaxed back against the pillow with a long, shuddering sigh. "Lucinda," he whispered.

She smiled at him as reassuringly as she could. As the world's oldest Immortal, Methos carried more past with him than anyone else, and not all of his history had been pleasant. "I'm here, love." She'd had to cope with his nightmares for weeks since the confrontation with Erszebet Bathory; killing her had brought back a lot of Methos's own inner demons. He'd been able to sleep peacefully through the last few nights, but obviously the threat of Corvus's return had salted those old wounds of his.

He rubbed his hand across his sweating face. "Good. So am I, I think."

"I'm glad." She settled back and pulled him to her. "The Bronze Age again?"

He chuckled weakly. "How could you tell?"

"That sounded a lot like Sumerian you were spouting. I understood the 'Who the hell are you, woman?', but the rest--je ne compres pas."

"You wouldn't have wanted to know what else I was saying. Believe me." He laid his head on her breast and wrapped an arm around her waist. "Those were ugly times."

"So you've told me. But you survived them."

"Survival is what I do." Yes, I survived the Bronze Age, and I survived the perils of Rome. Not the least of which was the mad Emperor Domitian, who introduced the charming custom of throwing Christans to the lions...

***

The Colloseum
Rome
93 AD


The noise of the crowd was everywhere, the shouts and laughter ringing in Methos's ears, but not loud enough to drown out the sounds of screaming from the arena below. He kept his face carefully neutral as he fixed his vision into the middle distance. Anyone who looked at him would assume he was watching the lions tear the hated Christian fanatics apart.

A shuddering gasp from the chair beside him made him glance down. Domitian's wife, ironically named Domitia, had turned from the spectacle, a trembling hand over her mouth. Domitia Longina was a strikingly beautiful woman in her late thirties, married against her will to Domitian when she was a girl of fourteen. Methos had had occasion to speak at length with the Empress on several occasions since being employed to reconstruct her dwelling place. Domitia had come slowly over the past months to trust the stone mason "Stephanus", who showed a genuine interest in her welfare and an entertaining, ready wit, while always maintaining a respectful demeanor towards her.

The booming laughter of Domitian sounded from the Emperor's box, a response to some murmured comment from General Corvus. The scream of a young girl, no older than ten, was cut off abruptly as one of the beasts tore out her throat. There was a roar of approval from the citizens, and Methos had to lock down hard on himself to keep from grimacing in disgust. These are the same people who weep for their own sons and husbands and brothers who fall on the battlefields in Britain and Gaul, he reminded himself. They have been conditioned to think of Christians as something other than human, and that allows them to see their deaths as entertainment, nothing more.

He spared another look at the Empress. But not all of Rome's citizens are able to be so willfully blind.

When the last martyr had fallen, and the day's entertainment was at an end, Domitia was finally permitted to leave. White-faced and silent, she retreated with her attendants under the watchful, gloating eye of her husband the Emperor.

Corvus, grinning with exultation, clapped Methos on his shoulder. "It was a good spectacle today, wasn't it, Stephanus? Some of those poor fools looked almost happy to die."

Methos cast a look at the arena, where the soldiers had come with their ropes and forks to drag the bloodied lions from the field. "Strange," he murmured. "The only ones who look happy now are the lions."

Corvus laughed, not understanding the significance of the remark. "Do you know, we used to crucify them for speaking their foolish Gospels? The idiots embraced it--they were so proud to die in the manner of their so-called 'Savior'. But these days, with the Emperor giving them to the lions and the boars and the gladiators, they're not always in such a hurry to give up their miserable lives. All you have to do is mention the word 'Collosseum' and they'll make a sacrifice to any god you choose."

"Some people prefer the life they have--however miserable--to whatever waits after death." Methos kept his tone carefully casual, betraying nothing of the intense dislike he had for the man beside him. He's a pale shadow of what Kronos was--without Kronos's vision or charisma. I think someday I'm going to have to kill him.

"Death is something we won't have to worry about, my friend." Corvus grinned ferally. "You and I, we're as far above the rest of the world as eagles are above earthworms. We shall live forever, and one day the world will be ours."

Methos managed a pleasant, noncommital smile. Oh, yes, I think I will definitely have to kill this idiot who considers himself my equal. You fool, I was old before you were even born, and when your head is struck off your shoulders, I will still be here.

***

Clair de Lune Gallery
New Orleans, Louisiana
29 March, Present Day

And here I am, Methos thought, and there you are, Corvus Grecius, still out there somewhere. You should have stayed in whatever hole you crawled in after the Great Fire. I won't let you get away from me again, and I won't run, either, however much I want to. One way or another, it ends here.

He closed his eyes and let the calm, steady beat of Lucinda's heart lull him back to sleep. He did not dream again, or if he did, he didn't remember it the next morning.

***

Somewhere outside New Orleans
31 March, Present Day

The old plantation had been reclaimed by the swamp long ago, but with a modicum of work to clear out the vermin and shore up the sagging timbers, it was marginally habitable. Even Wince had done his part, with the sudden, casual extermination of Carl still fresh in his mind. He and Brigit were both scared as cornered rabbits; Rake could smell it on them, and from time to time she saw them whispering when the Crow wasn't around. But they'd never say anything when they thought he could hear, and they were too scared to run. They knew he'd hunt them down. Or he'd send Rake after them.

And she'd go, too. In the two months since he'd freed himself from the crypt, Rake had become fascinated with the man who knew so much about fighting and killing, yet so little about the modern age. She could almost believe that he really was a dead man brought back to life, but of course he wasn't. She'd never known anyone as completely and utterly alive as the man she'd taken to calling the Crow, after the movie character. He liked the name, grinning the first time she'd called him "Crow-man" as though it were some private joke. He'd been pleased, as though she'd passed a kind of test by daring to name him.

Rake lit a clove cigarette and waited for the Crow to wake up. He lay sprawled on a four-poster bed, looking as commanding and intimidating in sleep as he did when he was up and around. She hoped he would have something else for her to do today. It had been fun nailing the dead bird to the rich bitch's front door, then watching across the street to see her reaction. She'd come back once the excitement was over and dutifully reported everything to the Crow. It was just the beginning, he'd said. "By the time we're done with them," he told her, "they will be too frightened to breathe, let alone fight."

Sex with him was like being screwed by a god. Or maybe a demon. Rake suspected that the Crow was a little of both.

She spent a lot of time telling him about advances in technology. His knowledge of warfare ended somewhere around the period of flintlocks and ship's cannons. He was disappointed when she explained the difficulties of securing the materials required to build a nuclear bomb (to say nothing of the hazards involved in the handling of said materials), but her extensive knowledge of firearms and home-made explosives--the result of being the only child of a self-styled "soldier of fortune"--earned his respect as nothing else could have.

The Crow stirred and sat up, instantly alert. Rake smiled at him and stubbed out her cigarette. "Good morning," she said.

"I hope you have good news for me," he responded, stretching.

Rake couldn't help admiring the smooth musculature of his body, but she made herself keep her mind on business. "Everything's set. They're making the drop this afternoon. I've already got the rest of the money waiting for them there."

"And the authorities of which you spoke?"

"Don't know a damn thing. New Orleans police don't know their ass from a hole in the ground." Rake grinned. "Besides, in this town, like everywhere else, money talks, and you gave me enough of it to buy the cops if we wanted to."

"That shouldn't be necessary." The Crow held out his hand for her, and Rake went to him at once. He pulled her against him and began peeling her out of her black leather catsuit. "You've done well. You deserve a reward."

"So when does this go down?" Rake asked, her arousal heightened by the thought of what was to come when the delivery was made.

"If all goes as you have said," he answered, "before the sun sets again." He covered her mouth with his and bore her down onto the bed.

***

Domitian's Palace
Rome
96 AD


There was a knocking at the door of Domitian's private office. The emperor looked up sharply, reaching for his dagger. His general, Corvus Grecius, was dealing with a disturbance in the Forum--more of those bothersome Christian cultists, no doubt--and he was alone in his office, and quite unguarded. "Who is it?" he called angrily. "I am not to be disturbed at this time of day!"

"Your Majesty?" The clear voice of his wife's attendant came through the door. "I bring an urgent message from the Empress which requires your immediate attention."

Domitian gripped the dagger more tightly as he approached the door. "State your message," he said, "and go. I will not open the door, for reasons you well know."

Everyone in the palace knew the reason Domitian sequestered himself every day at this time: an oracle had foretold that he would be killed during the seventh hour of a particular day. Therefore, when the sun was at its highest point in the sky, Domitian always had himself locked away from everyone, except sometimes for his trusted General, Corvus. But today Corvus was not here."

"Your Majesty?"

"What? Are you deaf, Stephanus? I said to state your message and go!"

"I must humbly beg the Emperor's pardon, but my mistress insisted that I give her noble and divine husband this particular message in private. No one else must hear it."

"Then it will have to wait until the seventh hour has passed."

"Your Majesty, it has passed. We are in the eighth hour of the day. Indeed, it is nearly half gone."

"Are you sure?"

"But of course, my Emperor. Otherwise I would never have presumed to disturb you."

Domitian sagged in relief. Hastily he put the dagger aside and unbolted the office door. The attendant stood there calmly, with a small, very humble smile on his angular face. "Inside, and be quick," the Emperor commanded, and with a gracious bow the servant obeyed. Domitian shut and barred the door behind him--although the seventh hour was past and it was now afternoon, he still felt uneasy. "Now, what is your message, steward?"

"I can see that the Emperor is busy; I will therefore be brief." A long dagger flashed into Methos's hand; in the space of a breath, it was buried to the hilt in Domitian's breast. "I lied, you see. It isn't the eighth hour at all." The Emperor howled and staggered back; Methos yanked the dagger back with a grimace of satisfaction. "Not that the time matters much," he murmured, "but prophecies do have a way of fulfilling themselves, don't they?"

"Corvus!" Domitian croaked. "Guards!"

"Shout all you want," Methos said mildly, stabbing Domitian in the belly. "No one will hear you--no one that cares, anyway. The Praetorian Guard are loyal to the Empress, and to the people of Rome--not to a mad, bloodthirsty despot like you." He struck again and again, with deadly accuracy, and the Emperor fell to the marble floor, choking on his own blood. "My lady the Empress Domitia wishes to thank you for your hospitality, but she is tired of being your wife, and since you have not seen fit to release her, she has requested my aid in dissolving your marriage." He knelt on the floor, and Domitian reached up a shaking hand and seized the front of his tunic in a feeble grip. "You'll be pleased to know that the Senate has already chosen your successor. A wise, just, and above all, sane man. There won't be any power struggle--and you will not be missed." One last strike, to the heart, and Domitian went limp and lifeless.

Methos was on his feet, fastidiously wiping the blood from his hands with a piece of Domitian's tunic, when there came a pounding at the door. "Your Majesty! Emperor Domitian!" Corvus Grecius, back earlier than expected from the carefully-instigated riots in the Forum.

Damnation. When Corvus began to throw himself bodily against the barred door, Methos positioned himself beside it, flattened against the wall. The door cracked, splintered, and finally flew apart; as Corvus stumbled in, Methos buried the dagger between his shoulder blades. He had no sword with him, and in any case there was no time to take Corvus's head before the few guards remaining loyal to Domitian arrived, drawn by the noise.

He eluded a wild grab by Corvus and escaped down the corridor, the General screaming after him as he struggled to pull out the dagger imbedded in his back. "Run, you cowardly dog! Run as far and as fast as you like, but I'll find you! By all the gods, I will find you and you will die!"

***

Clair de Lune Gallery
New Orleans, Louisiana
31 March, Present Day

Methos peered into Lucinda's office. The tall blonde was pacing back and forth, the portable phone glued to her ear as it had been since eleven in the morning. "Lunch?" he mouthed at her, pointing at his watch--it was past one--and she shook her head vigorously.

"I'm on hold with the caterer," she hissed.

Methos rolled his eyes theatrically. "Bugger the caterer," he growled back. "And the dessert tray he coasted in on."

"This is an important show, Me--an important show for me, Adam!" she whispered urgently. "I've got six artists whose egos I've been nursing since--hello? Yes, thank you. I don't care if the caviar's not imported, I doubt anyone will touch the stuff anyway. Could you just--? Yes. Yes, seven o'clock. Five? That'll be fine. Thank you." She switched the phone off with a grateful sigh and set it down. She bent over her desk and scribbled a few notes on a legal pad resting on the blotter.

Methos cleared his throat. "I'm hungry," he said. "Can we go now?"

"You're so needy. Yes, yes, all right." Lucinda grabbed her coat as Methos dragged her into the main foyer. "Ben?" she called. "Are you still here?"

The young undergraduate came out of the climate-controlled storeroom. "I'm here, Boss. Just finishing up the mats on those watercolors of Erin's."

"Good man, I knew I could count on you. --Just a minute, Adam, you won't starve to death standing there. You'll be at the show tonight, right?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world." Benjamin Franklin MacKenzie was an eighteen-year-old junior at Louisiana State University, having earned credits at a community college during high school. He was doing a student internship at Clair de Lune, and Lucinda saw great promise in the young man's work. "What about you, Mr. Adam?"

"I wouldn't--" Be caught dead anywhere near the place, Methos wanted to say, but a significant glance from his beloved made him amend his statement quickly. The things I do in the name of love. "I wouldn't miss it, either," he finished.

"Cool beans." Ben grinned, and Adam couldn't help but smile back. Lucinda had taken a particular interest in this young man because he was actually one of them--he was pre-Immortal. The cheerful, optimistic youth brought out Lucinda's long-suppressed maternal instinct, which amused Methos no end.

"Ben's got some work in the show," Lucinda said proudly. "It's his official debut."

The boy ran his hand through his chocolate-colored hair and shrugged. "Well, only because you insisted, Boss."

Methos's eyes twinkled. "Yeah, she's good at that."

Lucinda elbowed him lightly. "Look who's talking. The man for whom the term 'control freak' was originally coined."

Methos assumed an injured air and was about to deliver a clever rejoinder when a sound from the street outside distracted him. He turned towards the tall, latticed front windows and saw a long black car speeding into view. His sharp eyes detected the unmistakable glint of sunlight off of polished gunmetal--

"GET DOWN!" he roared, throwing himself at the other two and tackling them to the tiled gallery floor just as the sound of automatic gunfire erupted from outside. Lucinda screamed as the front windows exploded into shards of pulverized glass. More bullets splintered into the newly-replaced door, and several of the cast sculptures near the front of the gallery were smashed to fragments on their cool white pedestals.

The gunfire just kept on and on. Dozens of rounds--hundreds, maybe--flew through the shattered windows, peppering the immaculate walls. There were crunching sounds from the door as it disintegrated under the heavy fire.

"Make it stop!" Ben yelled, making Methos wince because he was screaming it practically in his ear. "Oh, God, make it STOP!"

Oh, right, like I have any say in the matter?! "Keep your head down!" he shouted back, tightening his grip around the boy's shoulders. "Lucinda, stay still! There's nothing else you can do that won't get your head blown off!"

Cursing in Anglo-Saxon, Lucinda did as he told her, glaring at the ruined front windows, trying to see who was responsible for what was happening. It was useless, of course; once they'd expended their rounds, the gunmen in the car sped off down St. Peter in a squeal of burning rubber. In seconds, it was over, and the only sounds were excited shouts and running footsteps from outside. Someone tried to open the door, and it fell off its shattered hinges with a crash that made Ben scream and temporarily deafened Methos's right ear.

A uniformed officer appeared in the doorway. "Anybody alive in here?" he called, his gun drawn.

"We're all right, I think," Methos called back. "Ben? Are you hurt?"

"Nuh-no, sir," he gulped, obviously shaken but (Methos noted with some approval) perfectly coherent. There was fear but no panic in those round dark eyes. "Mister Adam, you saved my life."

"Hush now. Go with the policeman, he'll look after you." As the officer led the youth away, Methos helped Lucinda stand up. "Watch the glass...there you go...you all right?"

Lucinda was shaking all over--whether from fear or rage, Methos couldn't be sure. She looked around at the bullet holes studding the walls, the ruined paintings, the smashed sculptures, the pulverized windows, the shattered door. Her hands balled up into tight white fists. "Gehwiht...fordrifanda," she whispered. "Everything...gone...just like that..."

Uh-oh. She was a heartbeat away from either collapsing in shock or exploding with fury. Methos took her by the shoulders and made her look at him. "That's all they are, Lucinda," he told her firmly. "The paintings, the windows, the walls, the building--they're just things. They're not alive. We are." He cupped her face in his hands. "And we're going to stay that way."

She looked back at him, and for the first time he saw real doubt in her eyes. "Are we?"

He sighed bitterly and took her in his arms without another word. They stood together in the ruins of the gallery with the sound of distant sirens approaching nearer by the moment.

***

It was after dark before the police and the emergency workers were finally gone. Methos hadn't really had to lie to them; he really had no idea who'd been responsible for the drive-by on the gallery (although he was reasonably sure who had been behind it).

That was something that puzzled him. It was awfully early for Corvus to be upping the ante in this fashion. Either he's getting sloppy in his old age, he thought, or he's really pissed off at us. Possibly some combination of the two.

In any case, it was definitely time to activate Plan B. Which, in this instance, involved getting the hell out of Dodge. Whatever the consequences might be, whatever Corvus might do when he disappeared, New Orleans was no longer safe for Methos.

***

602 Chartres Street
New Orleans, Louisiana
March 31, Present Day


"They're packing up and leaving." Rake was lying on her belly on top of the seafood restaurant which was catty-cornered from the rear of the gallery. Through the rifle scope she watched the tall dark-haired man and the blonde woman loading boxes into the back of a Land Rover. "Just like you said they would."

"Keep watching them," the roughened voice ordered over the comlink in her ear. For someone who'd been entombed since the 18th century, Corvus had adapted to the uses of modern technology reasonably well. He still couldn't use a computer, but he'd mastered the intricacies of closed-circuit communication reasonably quickly. "Does he seem to be taking the woman with him?"

"Well, she's helping him load up. My guess is she's going with him."

"So much the better. As soon as the wagon starts moving, shoot the horses. I want to make it clear to him that there is no escaping me."

Rake suppressed a snicker. "No horses, Crow-man, remember? But I can take out the tires, no problem."

"Whatever it takes to prove to him that he will not elude me."

"Right." A hint of movement caught Rake's notice, and she trained the scope in that direction. "Hang on--someone else just walked up. A woman--I think it's that chick who runs the beauty parlor down the street. She's talking to the guy--whatsisname--"

"Methos."

"Yeah, him. Okay, he just said something to the blonde, and they're all going inside." She followed the group, keeping them in her line of sight. Just before disappearing around the corner, the caramel-skinned woman looked in her direction. Rake flattened herself against the rooftop, but in the process she knocked the rifle against the ventilation stack and knocked the scope out of true. "Crap--"

"What is it?"

"Nothing. Hang on." Rake adjusted the scope and sighted back along it, across the street. "I don't see them anymore. They must have gone on inside."

"Tell me something. Did Methos or the other woman seem to know this one was coming? Did they react as though they heard something, felt something, before she appeared to you?"

Rake thought for a moment. "Yeah, the guy was shoving a box into the back of the Rover and he sort of stiffened and straightened up to look around. She was coming from the other direction, though, so I don't think he heard her."

"Did he seem to welcome her?"

"I don't know about that, but the bitch looked pretty happy to see her."

"Very well. What do you know about the newcomer?"

"Not much. Like I said, she runs a beauty shop. The Paris Salon, real hoity-toity place. Way too expensive. She's been there forever."

"I have no doubt that she has. Keep an eye on them, and let me know when she leaves. I believe the game dynamics have been altered; we may have to move our timetable forward."

"Fine with me," Rake muttered. She settled back down on her rooftop, not realizing that Marie had taken advantage of the brief period when she wasn't watching to spirit Methos and Lucinda away. They'd never entered the gallery at all.

***

Paris Salon
New Orleans, Louisiana
31 March, Present Day

Quickly up Toulouse to Rampart, down Orleans to Dauphine, then east to Governor Nichols and south towards the river to the salon. It was almost dark by the time they got there.

"All right," Methos said, a bit testily, as they followed Marie through the delivery door. "We're here. We should be in Slidell right about now. So would you mind telling me what's so bloody urgent?"

"He was expecting you to make a run for it," Marie answered cooly, leading them towards the back tearoom where she usually took her "special" customers. "You wouldn't have made it past Esplanade. You and Lucy would both be dead--or worse--by now if you'd tried."

"And exactly how do you know this?"

"Because she told me." Marie pulled the beaded curtain aside and nodded towards a small, waifishly thin figure huddled in a huge velvet armchair in the corner. "Brigit was there when Corvus rose from the crypt. She knows exactly what he's planning, although she doesn't quite understand the implications."

Methos looked at the girl in the chair. She might have been as old as fifteen, but he doubted it. Her shortish hair had gone stiff and brittle from too-frequent bleaching. Her mud-colored eyes darted around nervously, and she was holding a cigarette in one shaking hand, puffing on it nervously.

"Tell them, child," Marie coaxed, in a voice that was uncommonly gentle, very unlike her normal quiet authoritative tone.

"I..." The girl swallowed hard, cleared her throat, and tried again. "I heard that you're Marie Laveau's great-granddaughter."

"I share Marie's blood," the woman herself replied with a small smile. "And why did you want to seek me out, and not the authorities?"

"Because--because I wanted to know how to put a zombie back in its grave." Brigit stubbed out the cigarette in a lead crystal ashtray that was already half full of spent, crumpled butts. "This guy's nuts. He's got some kind of army thing going on--half the street trash in the city's working for him now. He had them shoot up that cool art gallery on Chartres just because some guy who lives there pissed him off."

"And what did the 'Crow-man' say would happen then?" Marie urged softly.

"He said--he said the guy would try to run, whether the lady who owns the gallery went with him or not. He sent Rake to keep an eye on the place and to shoot him when he tries to leave. Now here's the thing." Brigit cackled a little; the girl was obviously clinging to the threadbare fabric of reality with whatever strength she had. "When she takes him out, Rake's supposed to call some of the guys who're waiting out behind 667 on Bourbon and get them to help bring him back to the plantation. Crow-man says he won't let the guy stay dead. He'll raise him up and kill him as many times as he wants to, because he's the one who put him in that crypt two hundred years ago." She swallowed hard. "And then he's going to eat the guy's soul."

***

602 Chartres Street
New Orleans, Louisiana
March 31, Present Day


"No, I haven't seen a damn thing," Rake snapped over the comlink to Wince. "You and your bullyboys sit your asses in that alleyway until you hear from me. The Crow-man won't be pleased if we come back emptyhanded."

"Yeah, whatever. You could at least let us wait inside the club, so we can have some fun while we're waiting."

"I know what your idea of 'fun' is. When I call you, you're gonna have to move--what's that noise?"

"I dunno, some kind of siren or something--aw, jeez! It's cops! They're blocking off the alley!"

"Crap," Rake muttered and broke the comlink. One of Wince's crew must have brandished his auto and somebody had called the police. She switched to the secure channel and let Crow know what was going on. "There goes my backup," she finished. "What now?"

"There's no point in waiting around for them to leave. They're still inside?"

"I didn't see them go anywhere, and I've been watching the whole time."

"Go to the building, find out where they are, and take them out. All three of them. If they move before help gets there, shoot them again. As many times as it takes to keep them down. Call when it's done."

"Great," Rake muttered, clattering down the side fire escape. It was almost full dark now, and the only light in the building across the street was coming from one of the rear rooms. The front of the gallery was a gunshot ruin, criss-crossed with yellow warning tape. Rake stole around to the back and peered in the windows. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, she took a grip on her Beretta and slipped inside under the police tape.

It took her about fifteen minutes to search the building from bottom to top. When she called the Crow again, she knew he wouldn't be pleased to hear her news. "They're not here." She looked around the deserted attic. "Nobody's here. The car's sitting out there packed, but they're gone."

"Methos has always been a slippery bastard. Still, they can't have gone far. By now he and his woman will be hiding somewhere they believe is safe. Disable their vehicle and then come back here. We will begin the search afresh at dawn." A mirthless chuckle. "I will come for him myself this time. He will not escape me again."

***

Somewhere outside New Orleans
1 April, Present Day

The arrest of Wince and the four he'd taken with him had relieved Crow's support crew of most of their firepower. Just before sunrise, Methos stood at the foot of the long-disused footpath that had once led through a small fruit orchard up to the front galerie of the house. "There should be about eight of them left," he said to Lucinda, "besides Corvus and his right-hand twitch. Not very promising odds, for all that this Rake girl is the only one Corvus lets carry a gun in his presence."

"It doesn't seem fair at all," Lucinda agreed.

"No, it doesn't, does it?"

"We should give them a chance to surrender."

The pair looked at each other, and after a moment, both shook their heads. "Nah."

***

The damp-warped front doors were slammed open with a kick from the outside. The five boys and three girls who had been sleeping in various positions and combinations in the front room scrabbled awake, reaching for knives, baseball bats and box-cutters as a tall figure appeared in the gray light streaming through the doorway.

Lucinda smiled at them sweetly. "Avon calling."

***

Corvus jerked awake. The girl beside him stirred. "What...?"

"Tacet!" he hissed at her, listening intently. He could feel the presence of another Immortal nearby; after a moment, he heard the sounds of a disturbance downstairs. He leapt from the bed, threw on his clothes, and headed out to the landing above the remains of the downstairs ballroom.

His remaining servitors were warily circling a lone figure who appeared both unarmed and highly unconcerned at the bats, chains and various sharp implements brandished at her. As he watched, she looked up and smiled at him. "Corvus!" she said brightly. "Tam diu, minime visu!"

It was Methos's woman. "Tu vacca!" he spat down at her, enraged by her arrogance.

She arched an eyebrow, seemingly oblivious to the group of toughs who were looking from her to Corvus with mounting uncertainty. "Excuse me? I'm not a cow. I'm a bitch." She laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles theatrically. "Now, are you going to do something, or should we all just go home?"

If she was here, that meant Methos was somewhere nearby. He jabbed a finger at the blonde woman and shouted down to the others: "Tear the bitch apart!"

Lucinda nodded approval. "That's more like it." She turned her attention to those closing in on her as Corvus turned on his heel and swept down the back stairs, his sword in his hand.

***

By the time Rake emerged from the bedroom, bleary-eyed and trying to shake off the remnants of sleep and overindulgence, it had gone quiet downstairs. She crouched down and crept to the edge of the balcony to look down.

She saw the woman from the gallery standing in the middle of the ballroom floor. The members of Corvus's guard--those that had remained after Wince and his boys were arrested--lay on the floor around her, disarmed and either unconscious or dead. Rake couldn't tell which, nor did she much care. Moving slowly and carefully, she brought up her Beretta and sighted along the barrel, aiming at the back of that sleek blonde helmet of hair.

"I never liked fighting children," the woman said, seemingly to herself. Then she spun around, and Rake saw that not only did the woman also have a gun, it was aimed right at her.

"So here we have an interesting dilemma," the blonde said with a grim smile. "You could shoot me, but now I've got you in my sights. I don't know about you, but I can say with reasonable assurance that I'm a pretty damn good shot. It brings a whole new meaning to the term 'mutual assured destruction', don't you think? Or are you too young to remember the Cold War?"

"Put the gun down, bitch," Rake snapped, but her voice shook a little. She'd been in her fair share of street fights, and she'd been cut more than once, but she'd never had a gun pointed at her before, and she was more scared than she'd expected to be.

"Now, I'll be perfectly honest," the woman said as she approached the foot of the stairs, her aim never wavering. "I've never liked guns much. I still don't. They make killing far too easy. Except death is never easy, not really. Tell me, Rachel, have you ever seen anyone die from a gunshot wound?"

"Shut up!" The bitch knew her name. How the hell did she know her name?!

"It's a nasty business." She was side-stepping upstairs now. "The shootings you see in the movies are a convenient Hollywood fiction, a romantic fantasy. 'Bang, you're dead'. It's seldom that quick. The head's usually the best target, but it's chancy. Bullets can ricochet off the skull, or they can rattle around inside your cranium and turn your brain to mush, and still leave you alive and breathing through a tube for the rest of your life." She was halfway up the stairs now. "Anywhere else--the chest, the back, the belly--and you're looking at a slow, painful death from blood loss. Getting gut-shot is the worst. Even if you get to a hospital right away, and they manage to yank the bullet out and sew you up, the risk of infection's astronomical. Whew." She whistled and gave a small shake of her head, though she never broke eye contact. "Talk about a really unpleasant way to die. You're looking at days of white-hot agony as the poison spreads through your veins and your body starts to rot around you." Now she was on the landing, ten feet away at most, her gun still trained on Rake. "Now, then...are you still so anxious to play 'La Femme Nikita', or are you going to put that gun down and walk out of here?"

Rake screamed and pulled the trigger.

The bullet took the woman high in the left breast, and she staggered back, but did not fall. She grimaced and looked down at the spreading bloodstain on her blouse, then back at Rake with an expression of incredulous contempt. "You shot me?!" she said, sounding genuinely surprised. "I bloody hate getting shot! And with a twenty-two? Bloody hell, why not just throw the gun at me, child? It'll do more damage!"

She showed absolutely no sign of falling over dead.

Rake screamed and scuttled backwards against the railing. The aged, rotten wood gave way against her weight, and with a short scream she fell backwards off the landing, twenty feet down to the cracked parquet floor.

Lucinda crept to the edge and looked over at the unmoving form sprawled below. She sighed in genuine remorse. "Why do they always want to do it the hard way?" she asked no one in particular, wincing at the wound in her shoulder. "Ow."

***

Bastard! Murdering, traitorous viper, where are you hiding?

Corvus could sense him out there, teasing along his perceptions, drawing him away from the tumbledown mansion into the marshy wilderness beyond. The sun was just clearing the horizon; the shadows were still long between the cottonwood trees, and there was a thick layer of mist hanging over the damp, springy ground.

There! He could feel the blaze of presence now, clear and close, though of course he could not tell what direction it came from. "I know you're here!" he roared, startling a flock of rice birds at their morning feed into the air in a rush of wings. "You can't hide from me!"

"Obviously," said a voice from above him, "I can--if I want to."

Corvus looked up and bared his teeth. Methos was on a branch about twelve feet up, stretched out for all the world as though he were perfectly comfortable sitting there. "Come down here, you coward!" he snarled.

"Oh, I will, when I'm good and ready." He shifted a bit, letting his long legs dangle off the branch. "Two hundred years in storage obviously didn't improve your disposition. You know--" he leaned forward a bit, peering down intently-- "you would have been a lot better off just leaving it be."

Corvus struck the tree-trunk hard enough to rustle the leaves. "Assassin! Regicide!"

"Guilty as charged. I never really liked meddling in politics, you know. Regimes are too transient in the grand scheme of things. Today's traitor is tomorrow's hero, and vice versa. You've been around long enough to know that by now, Corvus." Methos renewed his grip on his branch as Corvus slammed against the trunk again. "You know, if I hadn't stuck a knife in him, someone else would have. It was only a matter of time. Domitian was a despot. A tyrant. Anyway, it wasn't my idea to kill him. Did you know that the Senate actually sanctioned his death? At the behest of the Empress, of course. It wasn't so much an assassination as an execution. I would have preferred someone else take the responsibility of actually doing the deed, of course, but as Domitia's attendant, I had to follow orders. As a military man, surely you can understand that."

"Come down here and face me!" Corvus bellowed with rage. "Come down or by Jupiter I'll come up there after you!"

"Yes, well, I was going to mention that possibility. Unfortunately, you seem to have left it a bit late."

Enraged beyond words, Corvus reached for the lowermost branch, only to find that it was just out of his reach. He made ready to jump for it, only to discover that he couldn't move his feet. Looking down, he was stunned to notice that he was standing calf-deep in what looked like thick, sandy mud.

"Oh, did I happen to mention--? No, of course I didn't. You're standing in a patch of quicksand." Methos slipped around the tree trunk and down to the branch just above Corvus. He straddled it, locking his legs around the limb as he drew his broadsword. "It's quite common in the swamps, though not so common here as in South America. Nasty stuff, quicksand. Once it's got hold of you it doesn't really want to let go."

Corvus was sinking more rapidly by the moment. He was in up to his thighs now, and he swung his gladius helplessly above him, unable to reach his foe. He cursed Methos savagely until the quicksand reached his hips, and then he gave himself over to struggling to pull himself free. The harder he fought, the faster he sank.

"Now, there is a way to get yourself out," Methos said in a light conversational tone. "If you know the secret. It's quite simple, really, and I'll be happy to share the knowledge with you--in exchange for your word that you'll clear off and not come bothering me again."

"Ad infernum!" Corvus spat.

"At the rate you're going, you'll see Hell before I do." Methos took hold of the branch and dropped lightly down to the ground not four feet from where Corvus was now sunk to his chest. "This is your last chance. Do we have an accord?"

Corvus slashed out with his gladius, and Methos parried the blow with a counterstrike that knocked the short Roman sword from the general's grasp.

"That's what I thought you'd say." With a shrug of resignation, Methos swung his broadsword and took off Corvus Grecius's head. He backed up against the tree, bracing himself as Corvus's body slid under the quicksand and the silver mist began to rise around him.

Through the blast and fury of the Quickening, Methos clung fast to the trunk of the tree to keep from pitching forward into the patch of quicksand. When it was over, he fell with a groan to his knees, gasping into the damp chill of morning. He heard a rustle in the undergrowth and looked up in time to see Lucinda enter the clearing. "Mind that bit there," he gasped, still breathless and vulnerable. "Quicksand."

Lucinda carefully skirted the wet sandy patch and knelt beside him. "Are you all right?"

"Better than he is." Methos gestured at the quicksand. "How'd it go?"

"Well, I confiscated the kids' toys, and when they woke up they ran like hell. Except for the girl with the gun. Poor thing broke her neck falling from the stairs."

"I take it that was after she shot you?"

Lucinda looked down at the bloodstain on her shoulder. "Oh, yeah, almost forgot about that." She reached inside her blouse and felt around a bit, then braced herself, grmacing as she yanked the bullet from the nearly-healed flesh. "And I didn't kill her, if that's what you're implying." She pitched the slug into the brush. "Not intentionally, anyway."

"The thought never crossed my mind." Methos pulled himself to his feet, leaning back against the tree for support. "You know, after this I think I could really use a vacation."

"Well, the gallery's going to be closed at least a month for repairs." Lucinda got an arm around Methos's waist and began helping him back towards the road, and their car. "Where would you like to go?"

"Oh, I don't know. The Congo...Iraq...South Central...anywhere quieter than this place."

"I'll call my travel agent as soon as we get back to Marie's."

"Good thing we're already packed."

***