DISCLAIMER: Highlander Television Series copyright 1993 Gaumont Television. All rights reserved. The characters Connor MacLeod, Duncan MacLeod, Richie Ryan, Adam Pierson/Methos, Amanda, and Joe Dawson are owned by Davis/Panzer Productions, Inc. They are used without permission, but with great reverence. Musical interludes provided by: Jim Byrnes, That River, produced by Stony Plain Recording Company Ltd, 1995; Carly Simon, Have you Seen Me Lately, copyright 1990 by Arista Records, Inc.; and Jackson Browne, Hold Out, copyright 1980 Elektra/Asylum Records. All Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek:Next Generation references are copyrighted by Paramount Pictures. The personality destruction/reverse Quickening idea comes from Russet McMillan's story, Adam. The other characters and the story itself belong to Jennifer Allen, copyright 1996.
WARNING: This story contains scenes that are both violent and sexually graphic. If either of these offend you, please select another story. If they don't offend you, sit back and enjoy the ride.
TIMELINE: This is the third story in my trilogy (the first two are Consequences and Accusations). This story is set sometime after the fourth season, and a month after the events in Accusations. I've tried to make this one stand alone, but you'll probably understand it much better if you read Consequences and Accusations first. If you need a copy of either one, please get them from the archive site or E-mail me and I'll send you one.
Seacouver, February 1997.
JL circled Duncan with her staff held diagonally across her body and a confident smile on her face. They'd already fought four times that morning, and the score stood at two victories apiece. She was sure she could win the tie-breaker, though. He moved in suddenly, feinting towards her head then bringing the staff in low with a real attempt to trip her. Easily avoiding his staff, she responded with a shot to his ribs that left him gasping for breath, followed by a martial arts kick to his chest that made him stagger. Using his momentary loss of balance to her advantage, she planted her staff behind his leg and shoved him as hard as she could, forcing him to step backwards and fall over her staff. Placing one foot on his staff, she mimed a solid blow to the head that would have ended a true fight. Duncan signed his surrender, and she grinned and helped him regain his feet. After they'd both caught their breath and Duncan's ribs had healed, he clasped her on the back.
"Nice work," he acknowledged with a smile. "You're a natural with that staff--even more so than you are with a sword. If you could just find a really sharp one, you'd be all set."
JL laughed and twirled her quarterstaff like a baton. "It figures, doesn't it? I'm exceptionally qualified to use one of the few weapons that is almost useless in the Game."
"It's not entirely useless," Duncan countered, "or Bryan and I wouldn't be teaching it to you. You can translate some of the moves into sword fighting, the same way you added that kick to the staff fight."
"True," JL said thoughtfully, bringing the staff to the proper diagonal en garde position, with her right hand at shoulder height and her left closer to her waist. "But this weapon lets me really use my ambidexterity to the best advantage. I've noticed that you almost always use your right hand to drive your shot, because it's placed better and lands much harder. But that means most of the time you start a move with your left hand, it's usually a feint and I can anticipate the real move."
Duncan stared at her for a second, then ran through a couple of practice moves. Shaking his head, he grinned at her. "So I do. I never noticed that before, and no one ever bothered to point it out to me."
"That's the problem with being such a good fighter, Duncan," Bryan said as he joined them. "Nobody wants to help you improve. Now JL, she's still at the phase where she likes to show off how much she figured out about the other person's fighting style. After you change your style based on her comments and she starts losing, though, she'll learn to keep those observations to herself."
JL laughed. "You know, Bryan," she said, "for a teacher, you're not being very helpful today."
"I don't have to be," he replied, taking the quarterstaff from Duncan. "He's Connor's student, not mine. My job is to be helpful to you, and you're still moving much too slowly when you're switching between your feint and your real shot."
"But I won," JL protested.
"Only three out of five. You could have taken all five if you'd been concentrating. Now try it with me."
JL sighed but began circling Bryan while Duncan settled in to watch them glide across the ballroom floor. He had always maintained that being a good dancer helped him be a good fighter, so he appreciated their present setting all the more. When they'd come back from New York City after JL was acquitted for her father's murder, they needed to get ready to attack the Black Adders' Peruvian stronghold. That meant getting a place big enough to hold all eight of them comfortably, which disqualified Duncan's loft, much to the Highlander's unspoken relief. When they began discussing how many could fit in Joe's house, Joe had quickly talked his friend Jasper into letting them rent his earthquake-damaged, but still livable, estate in the mountains north of Seacouver. The main house had a small exercise room, but Adam and Connor had happily appropriated the ballroom as their practice hall. Joe told them that Jasper's ex-wife had loved elegant parties, so Jasper had added an observation gallery overlooking the ballroom floor that included an entrance from the second floor hallway. A sweeping staircase curved down from the gallery to the ballroom floor, allowing the host and hostess to make a proper entrance. JL was certain that, if she listened closely enough, she could hear the swish of taffeta and silk as the former lady of the manor descended the staircase, and it had cost her dearly to buy Richie's silence when he'd caught her practicing her own dramatic descent. Fortunately, however, she enjoyed exploring her relationship with Richie, so she'd been happy to pay up--with enough interest to leave even his perpetually-teenage libido satiated for the rest of the night.
Bryan pushed JL unmercifully for almost an hour until they were both sweating and fighting to stay on their feet. JL suddenly made a fast feint to Bryan's leg, followed by a slow transition to a head shot and a lightning-fast transition back to the original leg shot. Bryan had just enough time to realize he'd been had when her quarterstaff hit him solidly in the knee, breaking his kneecap and making him try to balance on one leg. JL hit his injured knee with her quarterstaff again and kicked his good let out from under him. Bryan grunted in pain as he fell, but he still tried to roll out of her way and continue fighting. Standing on his quarterstaff, JL hit him solidly on the temple and knocked him unconscious, kicking the staff from his hand so he couldn't resume the fight immediately upon waking up. Stepping back and wiping the sweat out of her face, she looked up in surprise when she heard clapping and cheering from the gallery. She held her quarterstaff up in mock salute to Jim, Richie, Connor, and Adam, who were leaning over the rail watching them. Jim extended his hand and turned his thumb downwards, and JL pretended to stab Bryan in the heart as a proper Roman gladiator would have. Her audience cheered again, and she made a sweeping bow before laying her quarterstaff down and kneeling next to Bryan so she could make sure his knee was relatively straight as it healed.
Duncan shook his head and walked over to pick up both quarterstaves and put them back in the rack. "I still can't get over the fact that you actually fight to the death," he said. "Why take that last step when it's only practice and the victor is obvious?"
"Bryan insists that if you surrender too soon during practice, you might do the same in a real fight," JL replied. "And I know you've both killed your share of Immortals after they thought you were finished and they let down their guard." Grinning, JL nudged Bryan gently in the ribs with her knee. "Besides, I could tell he wanted me to knock him unconscious, or he would have tried harder to roll away from me. He's just a baby when it comes to pain."
"I beg your pardon?" Bryan said, shaking his head to clear it and experimentally moving his leg before deciding to let it heal a little longer. "I am not a baby. I just don't see any reason to stay awake while things are popping back into place and the nerves are still on fire. I've been there, done that. Lots. Nice shot, by the way, JL. I think you've got the transition problem solved."
JL ruffled his hair and helped him stand up. Bryan tentatively put his weight on his leg, decided it had healed properly, and spun so he could grab a practice sword from the rack. "Me and Duncan on JL," he announced, driving forward and giving her just enough time to grab a sword. Duncan looked surprised, but he followed Bryan's lead and joined in the attack.
"Oh, you're not a sore loser, are you?" she muttered as she tried to fend off both Bryan and Duncan at the same time.
In the gallery, Connor turned to Adam. "She hasn't got a prayer. Duncan's rested--he could nail them both right now."
"No bet," Adam replied. "Although it would be interesting to see what would happen if they were all fresh."
Connor shrugged. "Let's hope we never have to find out. Shall we go down and add our two cents to the fray? We are supposed to be practicing fighting together, after all."
"Sounds good to me," Richie said, heading down the stairs. "I've got dibs on JL. I should be able to win now that she's exhausted." Connor laughed in answer and went to challenge Duncan while Jim and Adam engaged Bryan.
Once the battles had ended, Duncan bowed formally to Connor and looked around. Jim was handing Adam back his sword, and Bryan was helpfully explaining in vivid detail all the things Adam had done wrong. Adam looked like he was planning on using his sword again in short order, but Jim just laughed and convinced them both to behave themselves. Duncan looked for JL and Richie, but they didn't seem to be in evidence. Stripping off his sweaty shirt and picking up a towel to dry himself off, he joined the others. "Where's Richie?" he asked.
Jim looked up and replied, "I think I heard JL tell him when they started fighting that if she won, they could move on to the raping and pillaging portion of the festivities, but if she lost, she wouldn't be in the mood." Grinning wickedly, he winked at Duncan. "To say that Richie's defense became rather lackluster after that would be--well, shall we say--an understatement?"
Duncan laughed. "Great. We need less practice than he does and we fight to exhaustion while he wanders off with the girl. Now he's starting to act like Hugh Fitzcairn."
Jim nodded and threw a mock punch at Bryan. "It's his fault," he said laughing. "He taught JL to take advantage of such things by doing it himself. I can't tell you how many times he convinced pretty young things that it would be more fun not fighting sometimes."
"Never during a serious training session, though," Bryan protested. "If JL hadn't already been tired, I'm sure she wouldn't have shirked the fight. I'm going to go talk to them."
"Not now, you're not," Jim said, grabbing Bryan's arm. "Let them play, Bryan. They're practically newlyweds."
"He's got to learn this stuff, Jim," Bryan said gruffly. "He's got to."
Jim studied Bryan's angry expression and he shook his head. "He's not your student, Bryan," he said softly. "Let it go."
"I can't," Bryan replied. "JL is my student, and I'm responsible if she interrupts Richie's training."
"Bull," Jim snorted. "You're trying to do to Richie what you tried to do to Tony--cram a couple of millennia's worth of experience down his throat in a month. And you can't. So drop it."
"And if he has to face Aurelia?" Bryan asked quietly.
"She'll probably win and try to flee with his unconscious body, the same way Sutkin did with yours. Then we'll have at least five days to rescue him before she finishes sacrificing him, just like I had five days to rescue you. But your pestering him isn't going to help. The only one who can make Richie learn is Richie."
Bryan still looked unhappy, but he nodded and resheathed his sword. "I'm going to take a shower," he muttered, leaving the exercise room.
Jim watched him go before turning back to Duncan. "Sorry about that," he said quietly. "I know it's impolite to bicker over another Immortal's student right in front of him, but Bryan forgets his manners sometimes."
"Who was Tony?" Duncan asked.
Jim sighed. "A student we took on in 1612. He was challenged by Aurelia in 1620, and she captured him."
"Did you find him before they sacrificed him?" Connor asked.
Jim shook his head slowly. "No. We had two days before the challenge to teach him everything we could, and we planned to follow her if she won the fight. Bryan and I went out the morning of the challenge to see what we could find out, and we gave Tony strict orders not to let anyone in. When we came home we found Tony's sword and a large pool of blood on our floor, but no signs of a Quickening. We searched everywhere, but they disappeared without a trace. Bryan hasn't forgiven himself for it yet, and I doubt he ever will."
"What about you?" Adam asked softly.
"I take after you, teacher," Jim replied with a small smile. "And let my practical nature convince me that I did the best job training him I could, therefore I am not responsible for his death. It's a small comfort, but it's all any of us have when we lose a student. Or a friend."
"I'm surprised Bryan still takes students if he can't let them go," Connor said quietly.
"He always swears that he won't, no matter what. Then I bring home someone like JL, and he can't help himself. I keep telling him if he weren't such a good teacher I wouldn't bring him strays, but he doesn't seem to appreciate it." Jim grinned. "Besides, it's what keeps us in synch with the world. JL brought us Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, and the Jim Byrnes Band. Richie introduced us to grunge and Green Day. If one of our students hadn't dragged us to concerts by Mozart and Bach and told us what was so great about those guys, we'd still be chanting Roman battle songs. You've got to stay in touch so you can understand the slang. Otherwise it all becomes Greek to you."
Adam looked confused. "But you speak Greek, James," he protested.
Jim snorted. "See what I mean?"
Adam was about to press the point further, when they felt the buzz of another Immortal. Turning toward the door, they saw Richie come in grinning like the Cheshire cat. "Where's Bryan?" he asked. "I have to tell him that the alarm system is even better than he thought."
"What's up?" Duncan asked.
"Remember how Bryan set up the system so it would page whoever was on duty when there was a problem? Well, I got paged during the fight so JL and I went to investigate. The perimeter alarms had been tripped over near the back wall, so we checked the security cameras and guess what we saw?"
"A raccoon bent on stealing one of Bryan's shiny security cameras?" Adam guessed.
"Close," Richie said with a laugh. "It was Amanda, declining our invitation to enter through the gate like a normal person. So JL and I had great fun waiting for her to slip through the window and then rousting her for setting off the alarms."
"And you didn't invite me?" Duncan scolded playfully. "What kind of a friend are you if you let me miss a chance to pick on Amanda?"
"Pick on me for what?" Amanda purred as she came into the room and walked over to Duncan, snagging his towel so she could finish drying his chest before hugging him. "I set the alarms off on purpose, just so you fraidy cats wouldn't panic."
"Sure you did," JL said, coming in behind her. "That's why, when we turned on the lights, you flinched so violently that you nearly broke the window with your head."
"That wasn't a flinch," Amanda protested. "I was ducking in case one of you over-reacted and swung one of those swords at me. Hi, Adam. Hi, Connor." Standing safely in the circle of Duncan's arms, she glanced at Jim coyly. "And hello, Jim. Am I forgiven yet?"
"No," he said shortly. "Never. Quit asking."
"But it really wasn't my fault," Amanda replied in her most innocent voice. "How was I supposed to know those nasty guards were going to come around the corner at that very moment?"
"It was the Louvre, Amanda," Jim replied. "Bryan claimed you knew the guard schedule by heart. Of course, it's not like you were anywhere around, so maybe you did."
"Why, James, I'm shocked. How could you imply such a thing?" Amanda batted her eyes at him, but didn't move away from Duncan. "I just got lucky, that's all. Where is Bryan?"
"If he had any sense, fleeing for the hills. But he's probably just getting out of the shower." Jim scowled at Amanda when she looked interested in that piece of information. "Hands off, Amanda," he warned. "I spent five years waiting for Bryan to get out of prison because I made the mistake of letting you two go out to dinner unescorted. How it went from 'let's get some chateaubriand' to 'let's break into the Louvre,' I can only imagine. I'm sure it had something to do with some electronic geegaw you two wanted to test out. But it's not happening again. Got that?"
Amanda saluted as Jim stalked off, but he ignored her. JL hid a smile as he passed her, then she looked at Amanda. "I don't know what he's worried about," she commented. "There aren't any major art museums in Seacouver, are there?"
"None worth risking his wrath, no," Amanda acceded with a smile. "Oh, well, he'll get over it. Bryan still likes me."
"Which is probably why Jim doesn't," Adam observed. "Although why he thinks Bryan would leave him for you after 1,847 years, I'm not sure."
JL chuckled. "He thinks Bryan should have been angrier about getting arrested, or, at least, at never getting his split of the proceeds. Plus, it's been almost a century since they took their last vacation from each other. If they follow tradition, Jim will pick a tremendous fight, pack his bags, and head for Europe. Then they both spend a couple of years missing each other and trying to date other people until Jim finally relents and comes home. You'd think it would get monotonous after awhile, but they seem to enjoy it."
"We all have our ruts," Connor said with a laugh. "Some of them are just more fun than others. Speaking of ruts-- you're not being chased by any law-enforcement types this time, are you, Amanda?"
Amanda laughed and tossed her head. "Of course not, Connor," she replied archly. "None of those dolts can move fast enough to catch me. Now, what great plans have you made without me?"
"None, really," Duncan told her. "We've been practicing our fighting techniques and letting JL explore Alaric's memories to find out what we'll be facing. She wanted to present it to all of us at once, so we decided to wait for your arrival."
"I'm ready to fill you in on the background stuff," JL said, "as well as some basic strategies. I'm not sure how much you're going to like Alaric's ideas, but he insists that I present them. I just need a quick shower then I'll grab the floorplans I've drawn up. Let's meet in the living room in twenty minutes or so."
"All right," Duncan replied, "I could use a shower myself." Amanda smiled thoughtfully, and Duncan shook his head. "She said twenty minutes, Amanda," he said with a laugh. "Not two hours. Here, Richie, show Amanda around a little and we'll meet you in the living room." Giving Amanda a hug, he followed JL up through the observation gallery and out toward their second floor bedrooms.
"She can really talk to Alaric?" Amanda asked as Richie, Connor, and Adam showed her the first floor. "How? I couldn't talk to anyone whose Quickening I've taken even if I wanted to."
"We're not really sure either, Amanda," Connor said with a grim smile. "Basically JL took Alaric's head and ended up with his personality co-existing with her own. She can talk to him, and he can take control of her body when she lets him. Bryan thinks it's because JL was abused as a child and developed multiple personality disorder long before she took Sutkin's head."
"That's really creepy," Amanda said with a shudder. "How do we know she can control Sutkin? He wasn't the nicest of people, you know."
"Trust us, Amanda, we know," Adam said. "But you can always tell when Sutkin's in control because her eyes turn black like his were. And his Black Adder cohorts have made it very clear that he's now considered an enemy. Bryan killed two of Sutkin's former playmates, Ryder and Logan, in New York City last month when they tried to get JL arrested for murder."
"I thought it was very strange when she called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to help kill Aurelia," Amanda replied. "It all sounded so theoretical then. But I did, and she promised to get back to me when she got organized. I didn't expect to hear from her again, much less find out that it had become such a large group. Do we really stand a chance of taking down the entire organization?"
"If you believe Alaric's assessment of their strength," Connor said. "And if we didn't, we wouldn't be here."
"She's telling the truth," Richie stated flatly. "I'm sure of it. Alaric was really pissed off about the way the Black Adders treated him in New York, and he wants them dead as much as I do. And, considering it's me they want to sacrifice, that's saying something."
Amanda raised an eyebrow at Richie. "Sacrifice you? Why would anyone want to do that?" Richie was about to answer when they felt the buzz and turned toward the door. "Bryan!" Amanda exclaimed as he walked into the living room with Duncan, Jim, and JL, seeming to forget all about Richie's impending sacrifice.
"Amanda!" Bryan greeted her happily, giving her a warm hug. Amanda responded with one of her trademark mind- altering kisses that lasted until Jim cleared his throat angrily. Bryan pulled away reluctantly, searching for something to say so he could regain his equilibrium. "Uhm," he stammered, "have you seen the new laser-activated security system they have in the Louvre? It's supposed to be state of the art. Ow! Jim, quit pinching. That hurts."
"I'm going to do more than pinch you if you ever set foot in another museum with that woman again, do you hear me?" Jim threatened. "I'm going to take her head and hand it to you, then I'm going to pack up and leave you with your precious geegaws."
"That's not fair, James," Amanda pouted. "He brings up the alarm system and you threaten me. Actually," she continued, turning back to Bryan and batting her eyes, "it's only a modification of the system they use in Windsor Castle to protect the Royal Family. We could drop by after all this is over and pick up a souvenir if you like."
"That's enough, guys," JL interrupted. "Let's concentrate on getting through this before we plan our next vacation, all right? And getting Duncan jealous by seducing Bryan probably isn't the best way to do that."
Bryan started and looked at Duncan. "Sorry, Duncan. I forgot you two were an item for a minute there. Man, I am just racking up the points with you today, aren't I?"
"That's OK, Bryan," Duncan replied with a tolerant smile as he settled down on the couch. "Amanda has that effect on a lot of people. If I tried to kill everyone she's charmed, the world would be a much lonelier place, and I'd be very, very tired."
Amanda gave Bryan another small kiss and a wink then went over to snuggle up to Duncan on the couch. He looked like he was thinking of trying to resist her charm, but he just sighed resignedly and put his arm around her. JL remained standing as everyone settled in, then she addressed the group. "I feel really odd lecturing you guys about history," she admitted, "but Alaric thinks the background stuff might be useful, so here goes. The Chavín cult started in Peru in 1400 BC, and its priests ruled with an iron fist. Carvings of decapitated and otherwise-mutilated bodies showed exactly what they did to non-believers, but what they don't show is that the entire cult was invented by an Immortal named Chavés, who was its first high priest and who directed them in their human sacrifices. The Chavín religion began to die out in 400 BC, and Chavés vanished a couple of centuries later until the European concepts of God and Satan began to gain popularity in the first century AD. Then Chavés resurfaced in the Middle East leading a group of Satanists known as the Black Adders."
JL paused to pour herself a glass of water from the bar in the corner of the room before continuing. "Chavés discovered Alaric shortly after his birth, and raised him as his own son. Chavés eventually took him to Peru and told him how they were going to rebuild the cult that had once flourished there. He found a forgotten Chavín temple high up in the Andes, and together they build an entire priesthood and congregation that turned the temple into an edifice rivaling the one the Chavíns themselves had spent five centuries building at Chavín de Huantar. When the temple was finished, Chavés dedicated it, and Alaric, to Satan in a ceremony that culminated in Alaric's first death. Of course he claimed that it was his power that restored Alaric to life, so Alaric became even more devoted to Chavés. Fortunately for us, though, the new cult didn't attract the same following as the Chavíns did, so they never built another temple."
JL showed them the stack of floorplans she'd retrieved from her room. "Alaric was trained in that temple for centuries," she continued. "He knows every corridor, every secret door, every way in and out. He knows things that the current occupants never heard about or have forgotten--elevator rooms that move between floors, booby traps that can be sprung while walking down a seemingly-harmless corridor, and a variety of tunnels that turn the foundation into a rabbit warren. Sadly, though, Alaric can't draw a map of the tunnels because the last time he was down there was before Connor was born. But he remembers the floorplan of the buildings perfectly, and he thinks he can navigate the tunnels if he actually sees them again."
Laying the papers out on the coffee table, JL let the others study the maps Alaric had drawn. I hope they trust us enough to believe that these maps are real, Alaric, she said silently. If we go to all this effort and they ignore our warnings, they'll never survive long enough to get into the temple.
They will, Alaric assured her. Just remind them of what Logan said about Aurelia planning to have me put in jail and then 'collected' in March to be sacrificed along with Richie. That should prove my eagerness to kill her before she can come up with a new plan. Now tell them the rest of it, and let's see how they react.
Yes, boss, JL thought, making her sarcasm perfectly clear to Alaric but addressing the group anyway. "There's one other thing." When the others turned to look at her, JL crossed her arms and studied them. "Alaric says that there will be anywhere from four to eight Immortals at the temple for the equinox ceremony, plus almost a hundred mortals. That means we'll need scouting parties to do reconnaissance." JL started to pace but controlled herself with an effort and looked back at the others. "Alaric thinks we should elect the scouting parties now and not let them in on the main plans. Then, if they get captured, they can't tell Aurelia anything important other than who we are and what we're doing there. Both of which she'll probably have found out from her spy network anyway."
"Isn't that a bit pessimistic?" Duncan asked.
"No, it's realistic," Adam said quietly. "A fine but essential distinction that keeps eluding you Highland-warrior types. I agree, much as I hate to agree with Alaric about anything."
Bryan nodded. "It does make strategic sense. Jim and I have done recon for more centuries than we care to count--we hereby volunteer our services for this mission as well. I'd like to make one modification to your plan, though. We'll start discussing strategies with you, and give you our ideas. Then we'll bow out before you make any final decisions. That way if Aurelia asks us what you're going to do, we genuinely won't know but we've still had a chance to give you our valuable input."
"Modestly put, Bryan," JL said with a laugh, "but reasonable. Will two people be enough for recon?"
"No, but considering the size of our group, it's all we should risk," Adam said. "We'll have to rely on the floorplans to get us where we need to be. But I think Bryan should stay with the main group and Amanda should run recon with Jim."
"You can't be serious," Jim protested. "Me? Work with her? Never."
Adam shook his head. "Drop the personal grudge, Jim, and look at this rationally. Bryan is the fighter, even if he does like playing with electronic surveillance gear. You are the outdoors, seat-of-the-pants, recon expert, as well as a decent lock-picker when you need to be. As a top-notch thief, Amanda has stealth, native cunning, and a lock-picking ability that has been underestimated by generations of guards. If we're going to worst-case this and assume our recon team is going to be captured, we should try to make it a team that can get out again."
"Just think, Jim," Bryan added with a wink, "of all the motivation you'll have to get out with Amanda as your cellmate."
"Like the motivation of not being Aurelia's sacrifice wouldn't be enough," Jim grumbled.
"I don't know about this either," Amanda said. "My expertise lies in art museums and jewelry stores, not Chavín temples."
JL smiled. "Did you know that the Chavíns were accomplished goldsmiths, Amanda?" she asked. "Alaric says they have some absolutely gorgeous things that date back over 2,500 years. Even one of them would be worth a king's ransom on the black market."
"Amanda," Duncan said warningly.
"What?" she asked innocently. "It's all in a good cause, right? Why shouldn't we bring home a trinket or two?"
"That's my Amanda," Bryan said. "She works not for the glory and self-righteous feeling of ridding the world of evil, but for the cold, hard cash."
"You can't eat glory," Amanda said with a sniff, "nor give it to the desk clerk at the Ritz in exchange for a room. Now gold, on the other hand, has all sorts of uses. I'll be happy to work with Jim, as long as he promises not to kill me."
"He won't," Bryan said firmly. "Even if he wanted to, he's too much of a professional to screw up a top-secret recon mission with a Quickening. Right, Jim?" Jim shrugged noncommittally, and Bryan scowled at him.
This won't do, little one. Alaric said silently to JL. Amanda can't be on the recon mission. Give them an alternative.
Why? JL asked him. What are you up to now?
Just trust me. I am the expert here, after all. Offer my services. I'll explain it to you later.
I really hope you know what you're doing, Alaric, JL thought. Aloud, she said, "You're missing the obvious pairing, here. I'll work with Jim. Alaric knows the terrain and I know as much about electronic surveillance as Bryan. Plus I won't have to worry about Jim sneaking up behind me."
"But we'll need you inside the temple," Connor protested.
"You'll have me. There's no cell in that place I can't get out of, because they all have bolt-holes that Alaric never told anyone else about. These bolt-holes lead into a series of secret corridors that I can use to get out of the temple building undetected."
"What if they behead you as soon as they catch you?" Richie asked with concern.
"They won't. They'll question me first, and I'll be gone before they learn anything useful. Besides, I don't intend to get caught, and I'll bet Jim doesn't either."
"I still think you should be in on the main plans," Connor said.
"We'll run the last recon mission the day before we actually attack, then you can brief me and Jim," JL said. "Then we can suggest changes if we have any. And if you have any strategy questions before that, you can ask me without telling me why you want to know."
"All right," Connor acceded. "I suppose. I guess you can't be too paranoid when you're dealing with Satanists who've had two millennia to prepare for an attack."
"Precisely," JL said seriously. "Especially when they know we're on to them."
"How are we going to get in unnoticed?" Richie asked.
JL grinned. "By capitalizing on the secrecy Alaric spent a lot of time setting up. But maybe he better tell you about this, because I don't have all the details straight yet." JL closed her eyes and concentrated for a second, her body straightening as Alaric took control.
Opening JL's now-black eyes, Alaric regarded the others. "So you're Amanda," he said with a smile. "Aurelia's description didn't do you justice. In fact, you don't look a thing like a desiccated old witch."
Amanda looked startled, but she summoned a small smile. "Thanks, I think. Aurelia doesn't do much for me, either."
Alaric nodded JL's head knowingly. "She tends to have that effect on women. Anyway, for the last few centuries, all the priests and priestesses have been Immortals, but we conceal that from our servants. What?...OK, JL insists I say their servants. She never misses a chance to remind me my Black Adder days are behind me." Alaric smiled again and waved JL's hand dismissively. "Now where was I? Oh, yes, concealing things. Anyway, we wanted to conceal the fact that we never aged. So I designed these red and black robes with hoods that hide the wearer's face. Then we needed some way to tell each other apart so we could look 'psychic' to our congregation--and impress upon them that we still knew each other on sight so they couldn't just steal a robe and pass as a priest."
Alaric picked up JL's glass and sipped it, looking mildly surprised that it was just water. "It's sort of like marking a deck of cards," he continued after exchanging the water for a glass of brandy. "You make the variations just barely noticeable if you know where to look, but very hard to spot if you don't. Then we trained the guards to obey anyone in a robe instantly and without question. That's going to be the biggest point in our favor. I've already got eight robes on order--one of each design belonging to the remaining eight priests. If we split up, we might even be able to fool a real priest unless one of us is wearing his or her pattern. At the very least, it will give us a minute or two until they notice the duplication. The guards, however, will take us at face value as long as we stride imperiously along like we have every right in the world to be there and to pay absolutely no attention to anyone who isn't a priest. Growl a lot, and be very impatient. Basically be as much of an arrogant snob as you can manage, and you'll fit right in."
Alaric took another sip of brandy and couldn't help looking pleased with his own cleverness. "Using the robes also conceals how many priests we actually have, er, had at any given time, too," he said. "If you take a group of people, dress them identically and shuffle them around a lot, you can make it appear that you have twice that number. It's all smoke and mirrors, but that's what most religion is anyway. Lots of fancy ceremonies and arm waving to cover the fact that you're manipulating your congregation."
"And I thought I was jaded," Adam observed.
Alaric smiled. "You are. But there's still plenty left to go around."
"Why don't people just steal a robe and walk all over everyone?" Amanda asked.
"Because the punishment for impersonating a priest is death by slow torture. And all you have to do is set some poor soul up for that punishment every once in a while to reinforce the idea that stealing robes is a very bad thing. Besides, a single Immortal might get away with it until they ran into the priest whose pattern they were wearing, but a mortal would be given away by the absence of his, or her, buzz."
"How could you set someone up to die by slow torture?" Richie asked.
"By lying to them about what would happen, of course," Alaric replied smoothly. "You'd be surprised how easy it gets after the first few times. But JL wants to reclaim her body, so I will bid you all good-bye for now."
JL let her body relax as she regained control, but she decided to keep the brandy he'd poured. "So does it sound doable?" she asked them.
Adam, Jim, and Bryan nodded slowly. "Yes," they said in unison. Looking at each other, they laughed. "No one would ever guess we worked together before, would they?" Bryan commented with a smile.
"Good," JL said happily. "Now that that's settled, how would you like to go out for a drink, Amanda? Joe said he wanted to say hi to you when you arrived."
"Sounds delightful. How about it, Duncan?" Amanda replied.
"Actually, Amanda," JL interrupted. "I thought we could make it girls' night out. You and I are the only ones who haven't met before, and I'd like to get to know you without all the boys clustered around trying to impress us."
Amanda looked wary. "This isn't the tiresome part where you demand I keep my hands off whoever you've got your hands on, is it? Because I never react well to that speech."
"Not unless there's more history between you and Richie then he's led me to believe," JL assured her.
"Richie? No. I haven't had the pleasure. Yet, anyway," she added with a wink. "Sure. A drink sounds like fun. See you guys." With a casual wave, Amanda headed for the door with JL.
"Oh, Amanda, darling," Bryan's voice interrupted them. "Before you leave, could I please have my wallet back?"
"Your wallet, Bryan?" Amanda asked innocently. "Whatever would I be doing with your wallet?"
"I shudder to think, my dear," he replied, taking Amanda's crystal pendant out of his pocket and letting it dangle from his fingers. "But you might want to think about it seriously, if you get my meaning."
Amanda felt her neck, but the crystal her mentor Rebecca had given her was indeed gone. "Why, Bryan," she said with a rueful laugh. "You've been practicing."
"Just trying to defend myself. Now be a reasonable lass for once in your life and put my wallet on the table. If you behave yourself and leave the credit cards in it, I'll let you keep the car keys that you took out of my other pocket."
Amanda sighed and removed Bryan's wallet from her back pocket and placed it on the table. Bryan nodded approvingly but checked his wallet carefully before tossing her the crystal. As Amanda turned to go, Bryan said, "Oh, one more thing, Mandy. That Jaguar was my Christmas present from Jim, which is why I drove it all the way up here and let Jim fly the Lear. You scratch it and I'll leave you locked in a room with Jim."
Amanda waved Bryan's keys in answer as she and JL made their escape in Bryan's new dark green Jaguar. As they drove to Joe's bar, JL got Amanda to tell her all about breaking into the Louvre with Bryan, then JL told Amanda how she and Bryan had once broken into the de Young Museum in San Francisco just so Bryan could have more time to study a special display of Roman artifacts and try to figure out if any of them used to belong to him. By the time they arrived back home it was almost dawn and they had tripped the alarms at the three biggest jewelry stores in Seacouver. Flushed with adrenaline and scotch, they hugged each other good-night and went to wake up Duncan and Richie so they could share their chemically-enhanced enthusiasm. Neither man managed to protest for very long, and it was well past noon before any of them were up and about.
When JL and Richie finally wandered out of the kitchen after a late breakfast, they found Adam, Connor, Jim, and Bryan in the living room studying a greatly-enlarged version of the temple floorplan that Adam had copied onto poster board. "Morning, guys," JL said, sipping her coffee and making sure Adam hadn't forgotten anything when he copied the floorplan.
"Afternoon, you mean, sleepyhead," Bryan replied with a grin. "You and Amanda have fun last night?"
"Yeah. She's quite, uhm, adventurous, isn't she?" JL said with a smile.
"Quite," Connor agreed. "Lucky for her she can talk a blue streak when her adventurousness lands her in trouble."
"Practice, gentlemen," Amanda said coming in with her own cup of coffee. "All it takes is practice. And after a century or two, JL, you'll be as good at it as I am. You talked that officer out of that speeding ticket like a pro."
"What speeding ticket?" Bryan demanded. "Which one of you was speeding in my Jag?"
"Both of us at one time or another," JL replied carelessly. "You said don't scratch it, not don't speed in it."
Jim nudged Bryan and said, "I told you letting the two of them get to know each other would be trouble. Now the world's no longer safe."
"When was it ever?" JL retorted. "Besides, you can't argue with a force of nature. And Joe and I both think Amanda qualifies as a type 3 tornado at the very least."
"Why thank you, JL," Amanda said. "I've never been called a force of nature before. I think I like it."
JL raised her coffee cup to Amanda in a mock toast as they settled in to discuss strategy.
JL and Amanda became great friends over the next week, often going shopping together and then comparing notes on the security systems and planning ways to get around them. They were ensconced at Joe's bar figuring out how to get a diamond necklace from Tiffany's when JL's cellular rang. "Hello," she said distractedly, paying more attention to the diagram Amanda was working on.
Amanda stopped drawing when she saw JL stiffen and begin to look angry. "Fine," JL snapped. "If that's the way you want it. No, I understand, I guess. I'd just hoped you'd gotten a bit more flexible. What about Joe? Good call. Look, don't forget my offer, OK? Right. Bye." JL flipped her cellular closed and shoved it in her pocket. "Scotch, Joe," she said bitterly, "and keep it coming."
"What's up?" Joe asked, pouring her a small scotch.
"My membership has been revoked. I have to turn in my ID and any Chronicles I've got lying around. He almost asked me to have my tattoo removed. He reluctantly agreed that I could still associate with you, probably because he knew what I'd do to him if he tried to stop me."
"He who?" Amanda asked.
"The new head of the Watcher Tribunal," Joe replied, giving JL a sympathetic smile and a pat on the shoulder. "At least they skipped the firing squad this time. That's a start. And you knew keeping your job was a long shot once they discovered your immortality. Besides, you've been complaining about having to drive your van everywhere, especially since you've been borrowing Bryan's Jaguar. Now you have an excuse to trade it in and get a better car."
"Great idea," Amanda enthused. "Let's take the stuff you want to keep out of your van and take it to the dealer as a trade-in. I love haggling with car dealers almost as much as picking a hefty pocket. It'll be fun."
JL perked up and nodded. "Let's do it," she said. "What the hell. Joe, can I store my surveillance gear in here somewhere?"
Joe sighed. "Sure. Your van's been parked out back for so long that I'm going to miss it."
"Wanna buy it?" she asked cheerfully. "Then you can keep it as long as you want."
Joe laughed and ruffled her hair. "I think I'll pass. You can put the stuff in the back of the stock room, but please don't leave it there too long."
"I promise," JL said with a grin. "Thanks. Come on, Amanda. You can help me unhook all the wires."
Amanda was true to her word, and two days later JL was the proud owner of a sleek red 1989 Mustang GT V-8 sports car. Joe tried desperately to convince her to buy something safer and a lot slower, but she insisted that she was tired of slow and that she could handle it. "Besides," she'd said to him when he'd taken her and Richie to pick it up, "it's not like I'm going to kill myself in it or anything. Stop worrying, old man. I'll be fine."
Joe had just shaken his head, but she was so happy about the car that he'd decided not to argue. Richie thought it was great, and the two of them didn't get back to the estate until late that night. Richie wanted to take it out again the next day, but JL vetoed the idea, telling him they had to start thinking about security.
"It's March now, Richie," she told him over breakfast, "and Aurelia's going to have to try something soon. She's only got three and half weeks before she has to take your place as the sacrifice, and I guarantee she won't do it quietly. You'd better stay on the estate from now on. Amanda and I have been refining the security system, and, with all of us to protect you, you should be OK."
Richie frowned and sipped his coffee. "I hate this," he said. "It's been 30 seconds and I already feel like a prisoner."
JL gave him a kiss. "Perhaps," she said with a smile, "I can help make your prison more palatable. How about an extremely exciting sparring session? We can work on your quarterstaff techniques."
"Why is it," Richie said with a sigh, "that you think fighting is more fun than sex?"
"Because it is," JL replied promptly. "And we can always have sex later. Shall we spar?"
Richie sighed again and looked significantly at Bryan, who was trying not to laugh. "Don't look at me," Bryan protested. "I never told her fighting was better than sex. She came to that conclusion all on her own. But if you want to spar, I'll be happy to coach."
Richie gave up and followed them to the practice hall. JL's skill with the quarterstaff had grown annoyingly quickly-- Richie had thought he could stay ahead of her since he'd started working with one a couple of years ago, but she beat him easily. Richie insisted that they move on to martial arts where his superior height and strength gave him the edge. When Jim came in for his daily workout with Bryan, they stopped sparring and settled in to watch the experts.
Jim and Bryan were both dressed in shorts and old T-shirts, and, although their movements seemed almost choreographed, physically they had little in common. Jim's shoulder-length, golden brown hair was thick and gently waved, while Bryan kept his jet black hair short to control its natural curliness. Jim was 5'6" tall and sleekly muscled--at first glance he appeared unassuming and gentle. On the other hand, Bryan was the type who liked attracting attention. At 5'9", his muscles were the first thing most people noticed, especially because he often flexed them ostentatiously when he moved. JL had once calculated that they'd spent over two million hours together practicing dancing and fighting, and now, as Richie had observed the first time he saw them work out, their moves had moves.
"Just when I think I'm getting good, I watch them and realize how young I am," JL observed with a sigh. "Discouraging, isn't it?"
Richie nodded. "Duncan always makes me feel that way when I see him spar with someone like Adam or Connor. Then I have to admit to myself how easy he takes it on me."
JL nodded, trailing her fingers lightly down his arm. "Care to conserve water and share my shower?" she offered.
"Absolutely," Richie replied. "Why else would I let you beat me so unmercifully with that silly stick?"
JL laughed and led him upstairs, leaving Jim and Bryan to their workout.
Richie managed to stay on the estate for three days before the confinement got to him. He begged JL to let him take her place on the grocery run with Adam, insisting that it was just the grocery store and the world wouldn't end if he slipped out for a couple of hours. JL understood how much he hated being locked up even when the prison was as comfortable as the estate, and she'd finally agreed after making both Adam and Richie carry guns with them just in case. They'd teased her about being a worrywart, but took the weapons anyway and went off to convince Bryan that they were worthy of driving his Jaguar.
By the time they'd gotten organized, JL had added a tracking device to the Jaguar and was lounging nonchalantly outside, waiting for them to leave so she could follow them. Bryan followed Adam and Richie out the door so he could make a few last-minute comments about what he'd do if they harmed his precious car. Bryan glanced at JL as they headed down the driveway. "Planted a tracking device on it, didn't you?" he asked.
JL winked at him and nodded. "Yep. Wanna ride along?"
"Sure," Bryan replied. "Why not?"
They followed the Jag at a comfortable distance, enjoying the chance to discuss their beloved electronic geegaws without Jim glowering in a corner looking neglected. When Adam and Richie pulled into the grocery store parking lot, JL found a spot a few blocks away and settled in to wait with Bryan. They had just finished deciding what surveillance gear they should take to Peru when the transponder beeped, informing them that the Jag was on the move. Starting the Mustang and pulling out, JL slipped the cassette into the tape deck, letting Jim Byrnes' gruff voice fill the car with a song from That River.
The moon is big, I can't sleep
I can't even pray. Walking fast, talking trash
Not thinking about the price I pay
And when the deal goes down
And there's no where to run
and its finally judgment day.
"That man's been places," Bryan said appreciatively. "Listen to his voice. You can't sing like that unless you mean it."
JL nodded and turned the volume up. They were almost back to the estate when the Jag stopped and JL followed suit. "That's odd," JL muttered, turning the stereo back down. "Why are they stopping here?"
Bryan shrugged. "If they broke my car, I'm gonna sacrifice them myself," he growled, but he looked more concerned than angry.
JL waited for a minute, but the Jag didn't move. Pulling back on the road, she drove to the where it was parked along the roadside. From a distance, everything looked fine, but, as she pulled in next to it, they could see that the windshield had been shattered. Bryan jumped out and stared at the bullet holes and bloodstains that were all that remained of Adam and Richie. When JL called out his name questioningly, he turned to her.
"They've been kidnapped," he said heavily, getting into the Jag and starting the engine. "We didn't see anyone drive past us toward town, so they must be headed past the estate and up into the mountains. I'll call the others on my car phone and tell them what happened. You go on and catch up with them. But be careful, JL. These mountain roads are treacherous at high speeds."
JL nodded and pulled out, showering Bryan with a small spray of gravel and the smell of burning rubber. Sighing, Bryan watched her race off as he picked up the car phone and called the estate. Duncan answered the phone, and Bryan filled him in. They agreed that Duncan, Jim, and Amanda would head out in Duncan's T-Bird and Bryan would pick Connor up at the gate so that everyone except for JL would have someone riding shotgun. Offering a prayer for his mentor's and Richie's safety, Bryan pulled out and sped off to pick up Connor.
JL thanked the gods that she'd gotten the fastest Mustang available as she gunned the engine and raced after the kidnappers. At this speed, it took her only a couple of minutes to pass the estate, but she still hadn't caught up with any other cars. Flooring the accelerator, she pushed her car up the mountain road at a speed that left her missing the edge of the cliff by scant inches on every turn. As the road curved back on itself, she caught sight of Duncan's big, black T-Bird behind her, then she glimpsed a dark sedan up ahead that was driving almost as fast as she was. The buzz she felt confirmed that this was the right car, so she tried to pull up next to it and force it into the embankment, but it was heavy enough to withstand being bumped by her Mustang. She tried to pass them but the sedan kept swerving at just the right moment, and JL realized that she was definitely outmatched in the driving department. Deciding that she could let Duncan follow them, she elected to take a side road that should, if she drove fast enough, let her get ahead of the sedan. Her Mustang complained bitterly about the rough road, but she just gritted her teeth and pushed it as fast as it would go.
Reaching a spot overlooking the main road, she saw the sedan careening around a corner, driving perilously close to the edge of the cliff and gaining some ground when Duncan chose to take the corner at a more reasonable pace. Thankful that the damage to her car hadn't been in vain, JL prayed silently and pulled out, swerving from lane to lane in an effort to keep the sedan boxed between her and the T-Bird. As she slowed down, the sedan rammed into her back bumper, but she managed to hold on and keep herself on the road and stay ahead of the sedan. She was so intent on her driving that she didn't notice when one of the kidnappers leaned out of the passenger side window holding a .44 Smith & Wesson. She did hear the loud crack of the gun just before her rear tire blew out and Mustang began careening wildly. Yanking the wheel so the car wouldn't hit the stone wall, she realized much too late that she'd over-corrected. As the Mustang sailed over the edge of the cliff, JL suddenly remembered all those cartoons where Wile E. Coyote hung suspended over the chasm until he looked down. She tried staring resolutely ahead of her, but she didn't have Wile's red and white striped cartoon umbrella to protect her. She started laughing hysterically at the image as the ground rushed up to greet her. The Mustang bounced when it hit, then it began rolling down the mountainside before it exploded with very uncartoon-like results.
Amanda and Jim cried out in horror as her car drove over the cliff, but Duncan's cursing brought their attention back to the road in time to see the kidnapper fire at Duncan's T-Bird. Duncan tried to swerve, but the man's second shot caught his tire, and they had to watch helplessly while the sedan carried Adam and Richie off into the mountains. Duncan rolled the car as far off the road as he could before getting out and slamming his fist into the hood. Turning around and leaning against the car with his arms crossed, he looked angry enough to hurl it off the cliff with his bare hands when he heard Amanda calling to him. Looking around, he saw her trying to keep Jim from climbing down the cliff to get to the burning Mustang that lay upside down almost half a mile below them on a rocky outcropping. Duncan ran over to help her convince Jim that they'd need climbing gear when the Mustang shifted and slid further down the slope. Suddenly lightning began flickering along the car, and the ozone smell that accompanied a Quickening came to them. It was a relatively weak Quickening, and they knew they were out of its range when none of the tendrils of light even tried reach them. Jim watched silently until the lightning died before lowering his head and trudging back to the T-Bird. Duncan held Amanda, who stared quietly at the wreck. They both looked up when they heard another car approach and felt the buzz as Bryan and Connor pulled up in the remains of the Jaguar. Bryan jumped out and looked down the hillside at the Mustang before glancing questioningly at Duncan and Amanda.
"Why aren't we climbing down there to get her back?" he asked.
Duncan shook his head. "There was a Quickening," he said quietly. "The windshield must have shattered in just the wrong way."
"Damn," Bryan swore softly as he moved off to comfort Jim. Duncan watched him go, closing his eyes for a second when he realized the discolored patches on the back of Bryan's shirt were from where Adam had bled on the front seat when he'd been shot.
Connor shook his head sadly. "This isn't good," he commented. "Who took her Quickening? Maybe we can still get to Alaric."
Duncan sighed. "None of us were close enough. So not only have we lost Adam and Richie, but we've also lost Alaric's information on this setup forever."
"Not to mention JL," Amanda said tightly.
Duncan hugged her closer. "Not to mention JL," he agreed. "I didn't mean to discount her, Amanda. We were beginning to get along rather well, in fact. But Adam and Richie still need us, and it's going to be a lot harder now that Alaric's gone."
Amanda smiled grimly. "Don't count him, or us, out yet. JL and I spent a lot of time talking about the temple, and I know she made extensive notes about everything Alaric told her, just in case. We'll use them to go after Adam and Richie."
"It was supposed to be eight to eight," Connor pointed out. "Now it's five to eight, plus a hundred mortals thrown in for good measure. How are we supposed to take on that many people?"
"By being smart and fast," Amanda insisted. "They're not going to expect us to launch a counterattack for a week or two, especially when the equinox ceremony is still weeks away. They'll assume we'll take the time to find some other Immortals to help our cause and them bring them up to speed. But we won't. We'll fly down there tomorrow and hit them as soon as possible."
Duncan and Connor stared at her. "You sound like you planned all this, Amanda," Duncan said.
Amanda nodded slowly. "JL and I did discuss the possibility that they'd try for Richie before we left for Peru and that she might get caught in the crossfire. She thought they'd wait until later in the month so they wouldn't have to worry about keeping him locked up so long. They must have decided that the opportunity was too good to waste. We never actually planned on taking him to Peru, you know--we were going to stash him on holy ground and make sure he couldn't get out until after the equinox was over regardless of how well the attack went. That way if we missed one they wouldn't know where to find Richie."
"What else did you and JL discuss that the rest of us weren't privy to?" Connor asked.
Amanda regarded him with a hint of her usual flippancy. "Just girl stuff, Connor. You'd be bored senseless." Growing serious again, she looked at Jim and Bryan. "We need to get them back to the estate before Bryan tries to haul her car back up the cliff by himself. He absolutely hates losing a student. Then Duncan and I have to go tell Joe."
Duncan grimaced at the thought of telling Joe that his Immortal foster-daughter wouldn't be outliving him after all, but he knew Amanda was right. This was something they couldn't do over the phone.
"You go ahead," Connor offered. "I'll change the tire and bring the T-Bird back."
"Thanks, Connor," Duncan said. "I appreciate it, but we shouldn't leave anyone alone at this point, just in case they decide to come back. I'll stay with you, and Amanda can drive Jim and Bryan back to the estate. Telling Joe can wait until we get back with the T-Bird." Connor nodded and went over to the T-Bird to get the jack.
Duncan hugged Amanda again, then called to Jim and Bryan. Bryan appeared to be in shock, but Jim managed to get him in the back seat of the Jag. Jim took one last look at JL's Mustang before climbing in next to Bryan and idly brushing shards of glass off the seat. Amanda stared at Adam's and Richie's blood covering the front seats of the Jag, shook herself slightly, and got in on the driver's side. "See you back at the ranch," she told Duncan with a forced smile, turning the Jag around and heading back down the mountain.
When they reached the estate, they found Joe's truck parked outside the main house. Getting out of the Jag, they walked inside to find Joe standing in the living room, staring out the sliding glass doors toward the mountains. He glanced at them when they came in, his look of concern increasing when he saw Bryan's face. "What happened?" he asked them softly. "Colin, JL's Watcher, called and told me that that Richie and Adam went out for a drive with JL and Bryan trailing them, and then the rest of you suddenly took off like scalded cats. I came right over, but Colin didn't know where you'd gone and he wasn't willing to follow at the speeds you were driving."
Amanda sighed and walked over to hug Joe. "Adam and Richie were kidnapped on the way home," she told him gently. "We were all chasing them, but they got away by shooting out Duncan's tire. He and Connor are fixing it."
Joe regarded Amanda quietly for a minute, but she didn't continue. "What about JL?" he finally asked.
Amanda sighed and led Joe over to a chair. "JL, well, there's really no easy way to say this, Joe, but JL was forced off the cliff when she tried to stop the kidnappers."
Joe studied Amanda's face intently. "So? She promised me that car couldn't kill her. Are Duncan and Connor taking care of her body? When will she wake up?"
"I'm really sorry, Joe," she said, laying her hand on Joe's shoulder, "but we saw a Quickening. The car flipped over, and the windshield or something must have done it."
Joe dropped into the chair and leaned his forehead against his cane, trying to accept the fact that JL wasn't going to come walking casually in the door demanding coffee or asking for a loan. "Oh, well," he said softly. "She always said she was on borrowed time. I just never believed her."
"I'm sorry, Joe," Amanda said. "It shouldn't have happened this way. We'll avenge her, I promise."
"Just rescue Adam and Richie," Joe replied heavily. "That's all that's important right now." Standing up, he walked slowly over to Jim and Bryan.
Amanda took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "I'll get JL's notes so we can start revising our plans," she announced. Jim glanced up and nodded, still talking earnestly to Bryan. Amanda went upstairs to find JL's notes, trying not to think about how she and JL weren't going to get that diamond necklace from Tiffany's after all. When she returned to the living room, Duncan was talking quietly to Joe while Connor poured the drinks. Bryan had a death-grip on a large glass of rum, but he already had a couple of ideas about using electronics to make up for their diminished numbers. Spreading JL's notes out on the coffee table, Amanda tried to sound optimistic as she filled them in on all the details she and JL had discussed.
Joe listened to them quietly for a few minutes before going outside. Duncan and Amanda looked up when they heard the door close, glanced at each other, and followed him. Joe was just getting into his truck when they got outside, and Duncan got in on the passenger side while Amanda leaned in the driver's side window. "Where exactly is she?" Joe asked softly as he started the engine.
"Near mile marker 134," Duncan answered. "I'll go back up with you. This isn't something you should do alone."
"Thanks for the offer, but I won't be alone," Joe replied, gesturing to an extremely tall, dark-haired man who was walking up the driveway. "Colin is going with me. I met him in Viet Nam, and he thought of me when his post-war work as a Boston cop brought him into contact with a hardened street-case named Angelina. He convinced both of us that her soul was still salvageable, and that she was strong enough to kick her heroin habit." With a sad smile, Joe caressed the picture of JL sitting on Colin's shoulders that he had taped to his dashboard. "He's helped me take care of her ever since."
Amanda studied Colin, amazed that someone that tall could move with such grace. "He moves like a trapeze artist I knew a few years ago," she commented.
"Before you ask," Joe said with a chuckle, "he's 6'8" tall, an excellent dancer, and no, he wouldn't be interested in helping you with some second-story work." Giving Amanda's hand a squeeze, Joe said softly, "Thanks for caring, you guys, but we can handle this. We're used to cleaning up after you, remember? Just get Richie and Adam back. She'll never rest easy if you don't."
Duncan nodded and laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "We will, Joe," he promised.
"Then we'll come back and throw her the biggest, most outrageous Irish wake you ever saw," Amanda offered. "I think she'd have wanted an Irish wake, don't you?"
Joe smiled fondly. "She'd have loved it. Now go rescue the other attendees already, will you? We can't have a wake without Richie or Adam."
Duncan nodded, relinquishing the passenger seat to Colin. "Your wish is my command, Joseph. See you in a week or so."
The day after the kidnapping, Duncan, Connor, Amanda, Jim, and Bryan flew to Lima, Peru, and rented two all-terrain vehicles. Alaric's converted Chavín temple was in a mountain valley northeast of Ayacucho, and JL's notes included carefully annotated maps showing how to drive to the temple, a general plan of the small town that had grown up around its base, and a topographical map with a potential base camp site marked about five miles from the temple near a small spring. Her notes included the patrol schedule and routes that they had been using when Alaric last visited, but she had added the warning that Aurelia had probably changed them after she realized that JL could access Alaric's memories.
It took all day to drive to the temple, but the full moon gave them enough light to set up the base camp near the spring Alaric had marked. The next day, Jim, and his replacement scouting partner Bryan, began trying to determine what changes Aurelia had made in the patrol schedule. Amanda left Duncan and Connor setting up the security around their camp while she scoped out the town. The massive temple building overhead sparkled with gilt and precious stones and dwarfed the simple homes of the peasants who worked to keep the priests fat and happy. She acquired some appropriate clothing from a convenient clothesline and walked through town unnoticed, but it was obvious that it was a one-way relationship between the workers and their priestly masters, so she'd returned the clothes and headed back to camp without learning anything useful.
When she got back, she ate Connor's attempt at dinner and surveyed their base camp speculatively. Connor and Duncan were taking care of the dishes while going over the main attack plan one more time, but Amanda couldn't ask them for advice about her own plans because she wasn't supposed to have any. If I'm going to go through with this, she thought, now's the time, because it will be much harder to slip out once Jim and Bryan get back. Duncan's going to be furious with me when he finds out I didn't tell him my plans, but that's nothing new. I'll talk my way out of it.
Resolutely picking up one of the smaller trunks she'd insisted on bringing along, she made sure the Highlanders were engrossed in their plotting and slipped out of camp. Walking around the spring, she set the trunk on top of a large boulder that rested against the mountain wall. Climbing over the boulder, she picked up the trunk and slid it carefully between the boulder and the wall. Jumping up on top of the boulder, she sat where she could see anyone coming and took out her cellular phone. Dialing a number, she let it ring three times and hung up. This is crazy, she thought, studying the sweep second hand on her watch. I'm going to go through all this and nobody will be home. That's what I get for listening to someone whose best argument was 'Trust me. I'm good at this kind of stuff.' Precisely three minutes later she called back, giving a sigh of relief as the phone was answered on the third ring.
"Thank God. I was afraid this wasn't going to work," Amanda whispered into the phone, keeping a sharp lookout for Duncan or Connor. "No. Bryan's scouting with Jim. They're making a preliminary pass right now and planning to go back around dawn tomorrow. We're set up right where we agreed. I just put the trunk behind the rock. Are you sure it has to be this way? Yeah, I guess so. They're just very, very hard to lie to. If they weren't so upset about the kidnapping, I'd never get away with this. No, same general plan. Yes, I'm sure of my part. Look, I'd better go. Be careful yourself."
Closing the phone and making sure the trunk wasn't visible from this side of the boulder, Amanda snuck back into camp, claiming nonchalantly that she was just attending to the call of nature when Duncan asked where she'd been. They were just finalizing the main attack plans when Jim and Bryan came back looking pleased.
"They still have regular patrols consisting of four guards apiece," Bryan told them, "and Aurelia didn't even bother to change the routes much. That means we can anticipate where they'll be and slip past them. Amanda was right--we must have moved a lot faster than Aurelia expected or she would have stepped up the patrols."
Amanda smiled. "Thanks, but it was really Alaric who predicted they'd react this way." Standing a little straighter, Amanda mimicked the sound of JL's voice when Alaric was in control. "'Arrogance,' he told me. 'That will be Aurelia's greatest weakness. Exploit it well.'"
Bryan flinched at the accuracy of Amanda's imitation, and she gave him a hug. "Sorry, Bryan," she said softly. "That wasn't the reaction I was going for."
"That's all right, Mandy," he replied. "I just miss her, that's all. You know how I get when I lose one of my students. I'll get over it someday."
"Some century, you mean," Jim said gently. "Well, everyone, it's going to be a very early morning, so I'll say good night."
"As will I," Bryan added. "We'll be gone shortly after dawn, so if you hear rustling in the wee hours, it's just us trying to find the coffee."
"I'll leave it out and ready to brew for you," Connor said with a smile. "It's the least I can do for the Dawn Patrol, and that way you won't have an excuse to wake me up."
"Thanks, Connor," Jim said, taking Bryan's hand and leading him into their tent.
Duncan and Connor stayed up watching the stars and talking softly for another couple of hours, while Amanda nestled silently in Duncan's arms. When they finally retired, Duncan lay on his back so Amanda could lay her head on his chest. "You're uncharacteristically quiet," Duncan observed, gently stroking her back.
"I just don't want to disturb the Dawn Patrol," she replied quietly. "And I'll admit to being a tad nervous about this. In two days we'll be facing up to eight Immortals. Celebrating doesn't seem appropriate somehow." Caressing Duncan's chest, Amanda kissed him then nibbled on his ear. "This might be one of our last nights together," she whispered. "Shall we make it memorable? I'll be happy to gag you if you don't think you can keep your mouth shut."
"We'll see who needs to be gagged," Duncan growled playfully as he began his counterattack. Both of them found the need for silence exciting, and Amanda soon forgot all about the plots and plans she was trying to keep straight.
In the morning, they found traces of Jim and Bryan's breakfast, but the Dawn Patrol was indeed long gone. After breakfast, Connor and Duncan practiced their kata exercises in perfect synchronization while Amanda watched appreciatively. Then they laid the maps out one more time so they could quiz each other on the fastest way to Aurelia's quarters. JL must have made a great Watcher, Duncan thought to himself as he studied her neatly written and extremely thorough notes. With the amount of detail she's got on these maps, you'd almost think she knew she was going to die before the attack.
Amanda studied the maps for a while before looking at Duncan and Connor. "I want to propose a minor variation on the plan," she said. "I think you boys should head for Aurelia while I go down to the prisons and try to free Adam and Richie."
"It's too dangerous for you to go alone," Duncan protested. "We agreed to stay in teams of two at the very least."
"That was before we lost JL. At least three of you need to go after Aurelia, because she always has other priests around. And getting Aurelia is the main objective, so that's the mission we don't dare compromise. Besides," she said with a smile, "I tend to get my cohorts into trouble. Ask Jim, he'll tell you. I'll be very, very careful, and I'll make sure I'm in and out so fast they don't see anything but a flash of a red robe."
"She's got a point, Duncan," Connor said. "It might be the only way to pull this off."
"What if we send Jim with Amanda?" Duncan suggested. "That still leaves you, me, and Bryan to go after Aurelia."
"Jim and I don't get along," Amanda replied. "And on a mission like this, I can't afford to be dragging someone along who doesn't want to be there. Bryan would be OK, but you need him on the Aurelia Tracking Team. So let me do this alone. I'll be fine, I promise."
"We'll discuss it with Jim and Bryan when they get back," Duncan stated, "because we need to fill them in on the details tonight anyway. Maybe they'll have an idea."
Amanda shook her head warningly. "I'm telling you right now that Jim won't go for it, Duncan. So don't get your ponytail in a knot when he insists on going after Aurelia with you."
Duncan nodded but looked determined. "We'll see," he said. "Maybe Bryan can reason with him."
"Maybe," Amanda said with a sigh. "But who can reason with you?" Stalking away from the camp toward the spring, Amanda tried to figure out how she'd be able to ditch Jim if Duncan's renowned charm actually got him to agree to go with her. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad having him along, she rationalized. If I tell him it's a short cut Alaric told me about, he could cover my back and not realize what's really going on until it's over. Hmmm. I may be crazy, but I'm beginning to like this backup idea.
Amanda was fixing lunch when they felt the buzz and saw Bryan stumbling towards them. Connor ran over to him, supporting him the rest of the way back to the camp. As Amanda and Duncan joined them, Bryan looked up dazedly. "They knew we were coming," he whispered hoarsely. "They must have. We got ambushed about a half-mile from the temple. Jim was on point, and they just surrounded him and shot him without a word. I only got away because Jim insisted we keep a lot of distance between us. He was always right about stuff like that."
Bryan folded his arms over his pulled-up knees and rested his head on his arms. "Jim insisted he take point," he whispered. "He said I'd never spot an ambush until I'd sprung it, then he goes and does the same thing."
"It's all right, Bryan," Connor soothed. "It just means we have three prisoners to retrieve. No big deal."
"Tell that to Jim," Bryan muttered. "He's the one they'll be questioning all night." Taking the flask of brandy Amanda offered him, Bryan took a long swallow then sighed. "Looks like Alaric was right again, doesn't it? It was too dangerous to tell the scouts what the real plans were." Standing up, Bryan dusted off his pants and squared his shoulders. "But I'm through scouting, so what's the deal?"
"That's the spirit, Bryan," Amanda told him, giving him a hug and a kiss. "Hand me that map, would you, Duncan? We're planning on going in the north entrance. From there, I'm heading down to the prisons while you boys are going after Aurelia in her living quarters."
"We never settled that, Amanda," Duncan protested.
"It's settled now," Amanda said firmly. "You three go after Aurelia, and the rest of us--which, at this point, is me, myself, and I--go to the prison. See how neatly that works out? Anyway, Alaric suggested going in between 3 and 4 am, because the priests will be just drifting off to sleep and the night guards will be tired and waiting for their shift to end at 5."
Bryan nodded, studying the plans. They spent the next few hours finalizing the details before settling in to wait until it was time to leave. Bryan tested his equipment, packing and repacking it until he was satisfied he could get to everything. Unable to think of anything else to do but wait, he got out his 12-string guitar and tried to lose himself in the music. Selecting Carly Simon's Life Is Eternal, he sang softly.
But just how long and who knows
And how and where my spirit goes
Will it soar like jazz on a saxophone
Or evaporate on a breeze?
Amanda came out of her tent to listen, enjoying Bryan's strong baritone voice. He smiled at her and continued singing.
Won't you tell me please
That life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon.
Amanda walked over to Bryan and sat down beside him, adding her sultry tenor to the rest of the chorus.
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight
Save the limit of our sight.
Duncan and Connor listened appreciatively as the two of them began singing duets, and the rest of the day passed faster than any of them had thought it would. After dinner and a couple of hours sleep, they were ready to leave camp at 2:00 am. Just before they left, Amanda slipped off to use the latrine and pull out her cellular phone. Dialing the same number she'd called when she'd dropped off the trunk, she let the phone ring three times before hanging up. This time, though, she called back immediately and hung up after the first ring. Returning to camp, she and her companions began the five mile hike that would hopefully end in Aurelia's timely demise.
Bryan took his time leading them up to the temple, using a heat sensor to look for people lying in ambush. Connor chuckled dryly the first time he scanned the trail, thinking of how much he looked like the First Officer of the Enterprise with his blue shirt and tricorder. Bryan glanced at him, and Connor said softly, "Any life signs, Mr. Spock?"
"Negative, Captain," Bryan responded, adding the Vulcan salute. Duncan looked at them quizzically, and Bryan grinned at him. "Star Trek. The TV show, you know? You really need to watch more TV, Duncan. You can find some interesting stuff on some of the independent networks."
Duncan just shrugged, but even he had to admit it was worth it when Bryan's sensor showed them an ambush set at the base of the temple that none of them had noticed. Bryan grinned and led them around the waiting guards, and they arrived at the north entrance to the temple around 3:30 am. After they had donned their robes, Duncan gave Amanda a final good luck kiss and watched her slip off on her own. With a sigh and a silent prayer, he followed Bryan and Connor toward the temple's central living quarters.
Adam struggled to his feet, trying to shake the last of the drugs from his brain. Drugs? he wondered silently. When did I take drugs? He looked around quizzically, hoping for some clue as to where he was and how he'd gotten there. The room was dimly lit and had cold stone walls, neither of which were good signs in Adam's experience. A soft moan drew his attention, and he stumbled over to the inert body curled in the corner. Recognizing Richie, Adam laid a hand on the boy's shoulder and said, "Hey, there, Richie. It's Adam. Wake up."
Richie rolled part way over and looked blearily at him as he tried to sit up. The effort seemed to exhaust him, and Adam helped him lean against a wall. "Where are we?" Richie asked. "What happened?"
Adam sighed. "Your guess is as good as mine. What do you remember?"
Richie cocked his head thoughtfully and said hesitantly, "Weren't we were almost home when we saw a car with its hood up in the middle of the road? We pulled over to help and some guys got out. I don't remember anything much after that."
Adam concentrated for a second. "They shot us," he suddenly announced. "Then they must have put us in their car and taken off. I vaguely remember being locked in a coffin that just wouldn't lie still, but it was probably the trunk of the car." Adam rolled his eyes as more of the scene came back to him. "They shot us with machine guns," he almost whispered. "Oh, God, we were in Bryan's Jag. He is going to crucify me." The look of horror on Richie's face reminded him of just who their kidnappers were and why they had been taken in the first place. Brilliant, you idiot, he thought to himself. Remind Richie that crucifixion is probably high on the list of possibilities right now. "That was a bad choice of words, Richie," he apologized. "I'm sure the cavalry is right behind us."
"Yeah, sure," Richie muttered, putting his head back in his hands.
Adam patted his shoulder reassuringly and studied the cell. The walls were solid stone and the bars looked thick enough to hold an elephant. The cell contained a couple of blankets but no bunks, and the toilet facilities consisted of a hole in one corner. "Well, if we're in the Chavín temple, I'll bet it didn't make Fodor's Guide to Peru," he commented dryly. "Although it might be in Dungeons of the Americas."
Richie looked up slowly. "So how do we get out of here?"
"You don't," sneered a guard who had appeared with their dinner.
Adam looked sharply at the guard but decided not to antagonize him yet. "How long have we been here?" he asked politely. The guard shrugged and slid the tray in through a slot and onto a small shelf that was set into the cell door before walking out.
"Friendly lot, aren't they?" Adam observed to Richie. "Well, let's see what's for dinner." Going over and retrieving the tray, Adam sniffed the stew-like contents. "Then again, let's not," he decided, putting the tray back down. "There's water, though. Here, Richie, take a drink. It will help clear your head."
Richie accepted the flask and drank a little, then passed it back and went to inspect the stew himself. Even his cast- iron stomach rebelled at the smell, and he left it untouched. For a few hours Adam told him some stories to try and bring up his spirits until they heard a large door being opened and some guards coming toward their cell. The guards told Richie to stand back as two of them came in and roughly pulled Adam's hands behind his back and handcuffed him.
"What's the problem?" he asked them. "Didn't I leave a big enough tip?"
One of the guards shoved him forward and through the door of the cell. "Just keep talking, smart guy," he said. "And they won't have to hurt you. Much, anyway."
Adam tried to smile reassuringly at Richie, but the guards propelled him out of the room too fast for him to do more than pay attention to where his feet were going. Richie leaned against the bars for a few minutes, then he began pacing. Tiring of that, he began doing some of his kata exercises, using the challenge of performing the complex maneuvers in the small cell to distract himself from reality. When he was finished, he lay down and stared at the ceiling until the guards returned dragging Adam. The number of cuts, welts, and burns on Adam's naked body shocked him, and the amount of dried blood attested to how many wounds had already healed. The guards gestured him back from the door and then threw Adam's body inside, tossing his clothes in a pile on the floor. Richie called out for water and some clean rags, but the guards ignored him and left.
Taking off his shirt, Richie tried to wash off the dried blood as best he could. He glanced up when he heard a faint scuff of a boot, and he saw a hesitant guard slip in, put a finger to his lips, and shove a towel and a bowl of water in through the food slot before he fled. Richie smiled gratefully, took the bowl, and went back to taking care of Adam.
When Adam awoke, he fought Richie's restraining hands in panic until Richie's voice cut through the disorientation that always accompanied his recovery. Letting Richie help him sit up, he drank some of the water and sighed. "That," he softly, "was most unpleasant. This hotel is definitely off my list, and I'm going to lodge a complaint with my travel agent as soon as I get home."
"What did you tell them?" Richie asked.
"Everything I know about blacksmithing, horse training, ballroom dancing, and wine making. None of which seemed to amuse them in the slightest." Adam sighed and slowly pulled his pants back on. "Sadly, I don't know that much about wine making, so I ended up telling them the names of our merry band, but I could honestly say I had no idea what they're going to do now."
Richie leaned down near Adam's ear, ostensibly to clean a bit of blood he had missed on Adam's shoulder. "Someone's listening to us," he whispered, remembering how the guard had shushed him when he brought the towel. "But I don't think they can see us. I wouldn't count on that though."
"Ask me about Alaric," Adam whispered back.
Straightening, Richie rinsed out the towel and put the bowl in the corner. "Did you tell them about Alaric?" he asked in a normal tone of voice.
Adam nodded. "All of it," he replied. "They just don't believe that we couldn't get much help out of him. Apparently they think he's the type who'd turn the keys over to the invaders first chance he got."
Richie snorted. "They don't know him very well, do they?"
"Apparently not," Adam agreed. Standing up and stretching, Adam put on his shirt and walked over to the food tray to look at the now-congealed stew. "You know, after that little session, this stuff doesn't look as bad as it used to. Want some?"
Richie grimaced but choked down a few mouthfuls before they both lay down and tried to get some sleep. Adam had slept on his share of stone floors over the millennia, but he'd managed to forget just how uncomfortable they really were. Using his own personal version of counting sheep, Adam silently went over all the aliases he'd used over the years, making himself start over with Methos every time he remembered one that he'd missed. He had gotten up to 150 by the mid 1800s when he finally drifted off to sleep, positive that he'd remembered most of them.
The next morning the guards brought more food and even some coffee. Richie looked at his shirt that was stained with Adam's blood and put it on with a small shudder.. Adam scavenged the room and came up with enough bits of rock and breakfast crumbs to use as checkers, scratching a board in the dust with one of the larger rocks. Richie settled in across from him and grinned. "Let me guess," he said. "You've done this before."
"A couple of times," Adam acknowledged. "I prefer using bits of cloth to crumbs, but, as long as you don't eat your pieces, these will suffice. I once made an entire chess set out of bits of soap I smuggled out of the shower room when I was a POW in WW I."
Adam was still telling war stories when the guards came in dragging another body. The man's body was in even worse shape then Adam's had been, but they both recognized Jim's lithe build and golden-brown hair. Moving reluctantly to the back of the cell when two of the guards pulled their automatics, Richie and Adam watched the guards throw Jim's body on top of the checkers board and back quickly out of the cell. As soon as the guards let him move, Adam knelt down next to Jim, carefully turning him onto his back so he could assess the damage. They had cut his cheeks to the bone and branded Satanic symbols in his forehead, but they hadn't taken his eyes or cut off anything that wouldn't grow back. Adam tried to will some of his strength into Jim, but his student didn't regain consciousness until several hours after the guards had brought their evening meal.
Adam could tell that awakening wasn't anything Jim wanted to do from the way he tried keeping his eyes closed and his breathing shallow, but he could see Jim's muscles tensing in pain. "Easy, now, James," he said softly, laying a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It's Adam. You're safe for the moment."
Jim slowly opened his eyes and looked at Adam. "Define safe, teacher," he whispered hoarsely. "From what I can tell, I'm lying naked in a cell waiting for a group of angry Satanists to decide my fate."
"I've always said safety was a relative term, Jim," Adam said with a smile, giving him some water and keeping himself from staring at the brands on Jim's face. "Right now it means that there's no one in sight with a branding iron. Other than that, I make no guarantees." Taking off his shirt, Adam offered it to Jim. "Here," he said. "Apparently someone else appreciates your fine taste in clothing, because they kept your stuff. I know you'd prefer pants, but this might be long enough on you to give you a little modesty, if nothing else."
"You're amazing, Adam," Jim said tiredly. "We're in major trouble and you're making short jokes. I remember when you were short, dark, and swarthy yourself." Jim moved his arms tentatively and draped Adam's shirt across his waist so he could heal some more before putting it on. "Bryan's going to be extremely pissed," he said after a few minutes. "I told him he couldn't have point because he'd walk into the first ambush we hit. So, instead, I did it."
"Bryan?" Richie asked, coming over to kneel next to Jim. "Why was he with you? I thought you were going to scout with JL."
Jim closed his eyes then forced himself to sit up so he could face them. "JL's gone," he said quietly. "She tried to stop the kidnappers and they forced her off the road. Amanda, Duncan, and I saw her Quickening before we could get to the wreck."
"What?" Richie demanded. "Are you sure? There's no mistake?"
Jim shrugged carefully. "I saw the Quickening, Richie. Unfortunately, it wasn't strong enough to reach anyone, so it just dissipated. I'm sorry, Richie. We all are."
Richie stood up and rested his head against the stone wall. "Damn," he whispered. "Just when we were putting it all together. Why now? Why her?"
"Questions of the eons, kid," Jim said sadly. "Let me know if you ever find the answers, because I sure haven't."
Adam sighed. "Joe must be devastated."
Jim nodded. "He is. So is Bryan. But here we are anyway."
Adam rose so he could clasp Richie's back comfortingly. Looking back at Jim, he flashed the hand signal that meant their conversation was being monitored. After Jim acknowledged the signal, he asked, "Why? We don't have enough people to pull this off anymore."
"Tell Bryan he couldn't avenge JL?" Jim asked with a snort. "Tell Duncan he couldn't rescue his protégé and his friend? Are you mad? Neither of them know how to listen when they get morally outraged. Now that I'm gone, though, who knows? As I told my inquisitor, they won't give up but they might fall back and regroup. I hope they do, actually. I'd feel a lot better if they went on a recruiting tour and got some reinforcements. We've still got a week before the main show starts."
The Immortals looked up as the guards came back toward the cell, this time accompanied by someone with a strong buzz. The robed priest regarded them silently for a moment before slowly removing his hood to reveal deep green eyes and curly dark brown hair that accentuated his classically handsome features perfectly. "Hello, Jim," he said softly. "I hear you were quite uncooperative during your interrogation. Feeling more talkative now?"
Jim staggered slightly as if he'd been struck. "Tony?" he whispered.
"I knew you'd remember," the man purred. "Well, I remember some things, too. Like how you never bothered to come find me. Like how you left me to die over and over again at Aurelia's hands. If I hadn't begged her to recruit me after being locked up in this very cell for a couple of decades, I'd probably still be here waiting for you and Bryan to rescue me. Oh, by the way," he added with a contemptuous smile, "it's Mark Jeffries now. I threw out the name Tony along with all the lies you and Bryan told me about loyalty and honor."
Striding forward, Mark stood right next to the bars. "Speaking of your partner in crime, why don't we go discuss what he's up to? Personally I'm hoping you don't want to. I can't wait to carve my symbols on your pretty face, but I might stop sooner if you tell me what I need to know."
Jim shook his head wearily. "I already told Aurelia everything. I was a scout, so I didn't take part in the planning. Period."
"I don't believe you, James. You're too good to take a back seat to anyone."
"I'm also a team player, Mark. And my team needed me in the dark for just this reason."
Mark looked ready to press the point when a servant came up and humbly offered him a note. Mark glowered but snatched the paper from the groveling servant. After reading it, he looked back at Jim. "Well, teacher," he said, "it seems you have a small reprieve. But I will be back. Count on it."
Mark swept out the door, and Jim slid down the wall until he was sitting on the floor. "Oh, lord, this isn't good," he said into his hands. "He's going to drop his hood when Bryan attacks him and Bryan's going to freeze. Then that will be the end."
"You don't know that," Adam reassured him. "Maybe Bryan will be so angry he takes his head before he even looks at him. Or maybe they won't even end up fighting each other. I know Bryan intends to challenge Aurelia."
"Tony was a good kid when we knew him. I hate to think of what they had to do to him to make him over in their image," Jim replied. "I truly do. Why didn't Alaric mention this?"
"I remember reading Mark's file," Adam replied. "He didn't come to the attention of the Watchers until 1645, when he showed up in Aurelia's company and started taking heads. No one ever connected him to Tony, though, and Alaric must have neglected to mention it to JL." Adam grinned. "Apparently it was a real sore spot for Alaric. JL told me that Mark replaced Alaric as Aurelia's lover three centuries ago, and that's just about when Alaric moved out of the temple and began touring the world again. Coincidentally of course, I'm sure."
"I'm amazed he's still alive," Jim said with a sigh. "Alaric didn't strike me as the type who'd take well to losing anything, much less a woman as beautiful as Aurelia."
"You've seen her?" Adam asked.
Jim nodded. "She conducted my interrogation personally." Hesitantly running his fingers over the brands that still hadn't healed, Jim sighed again. "From a purely aesthetic point of view, she makes your old flame Martinique look rather plain, but she's just not my type."
Adam smiled and squeezed Jim's shoulder. "We'll get through this somehow, Jim," he promised. "I'm not sure how, but we've been through worse."
"When?" Jim asked.
Adam paused, surprised that Jim wanted a specific place and time. "I can't remember one offhand," he finally admitted. "But we have. I'm sure of it."
Several hours later, he was still trying to come up with one when they felt the buzz again as another robed figure strode imperiously toward them. This one stood about 7 inches shorter than Tony's 6'3" frame, so they knew immediately it wasn't him. Adam studied the design of the robe; according to Alaric's description, it belonged to a priestess named Eileen Brennan. The priestess stopped to the left of the door and studied Jim intently. "So, Mr. O'Leary," she said in a sarcastic voice that Adam was positive he'd heard somewhere before. "Are you ready to tell us your friends' plans?"
Jim shook his head reluctantly. "How many times do I have to say this?" he asked wearily. "I was a scout, so I didn't get briefed. Just for this reason."
The priestess inclined her head and regarded him silently for a few seconds. "We shall see if you can maintain your ignorance while watching your friends suffer. Guards!"
At her command, six guards appeared carrying three sets of heavy chains. Jim looked like he was about to panic, but Adam put a hand on his arm and shook his head. "Not now, James," he said softly. "We're too badly outnumbered. We'll get another chance."
Nodding, Jim forced himself to stand still as a guard fastened a waist chain around his hips and then handcuffed his hands to the chain behind his back. "Couldn't you have warmed these things up a little?" he complained as the guard placed the cold steel under Adam's shirt and against his naked skin. The guard slapped him casually, and he sighed dramatically but stayed still.
When Adam and Richie were similarly secured, one of the guards attached another chain to each of their waist chains, linking them together. Then he fastened a second length of chain to the front of Jim's harness to serve as a leash. Bowing subserviently, he offered the end of the leash to the priestess, who accepted it regally and turned to walk down the corridor.
Jim almost resisted but one of the guards shoved him forward, and he decided to bide his time and follow quietly. They walked through the prison hallways for a little while before entering the temple proper. He felt a momentary surge of hope as four of the six guards stayed in the cellblock, leaving one guard in front, one in back, and the priestess walking ahead of him. Now these are better odds, he thought. Slightly, anyway. Good thing they didn't hobble our feet.
Jim was considering the possibilities when they came to a locked door. The first guard tried to open it, but it seemed to be jammed. The priestess waited impatiently for a minute before abruptly gesturing the other guard forward with a growled command. He went to help, bowing slightly to the priestess as he passed her. Jim was about to try and yank the leash out of the priestess' hand when she dropped it and turned to face them. Her hands told him to "stay" in American Sign Language, but what caught Jim's attention was the familiar gold claddagh ring she wore. His eyes widened and he was about to speak when she quickly stepped up and put her ring finger to his lips.
Jim watched in fascination as she drew a gun from inside her robe and ghosted up behind the guards. They were totally oblivious to the world as they tried to open the door before they incurred her wrath, so they didn't notice her silent approach. Her hand flashed out and one of the guards collapsed as the butt of her gun slammed into the back of his head. The other guard turned in surprise, only to find himself staring into the barrel of her gun. "Turn around," she commanded him. "Hands on the wall."
The guard stared at her, but she raised her gun threateningly and he complied. Knocking him out the same way she had his partner, she moved a few feet down the corridor and stopped before an ornate mosaic on the wall, pressing several of the stones in sequence. A section of the wall swung open and she dragged the guards' bodies through the secret doorway before turning and regarding the prisoners. "Are you coming?" she asked. "Or are you just going to stand there gaping stupidly until Aurelia comes by and finds you?"
Jim shuddered and began walking toward the open doorway. Richie glanced at Adam, but Adam just shrugged and motioned for him to follow. When they had all squeezed into the small room, the woman closed the door and turned on a flashlight, manipulating a panel set in the wall until the room began to move slowly downwards. She approached Jim and unlocked his chains, gesturing to one of the guards, who had begun to stir. Jim nodded and put the handcuffs on the guard, catching Richie's cuffs when she tossed them to him and securing the other guard. When all three Immortals were free and the guards were shackled, Jim turned toward the woman, a thousand questions evident on his face.
"Hush," she whispered. "I need to remember all the twists, turns, and traps between us and safety. These old corridors can be more dangerous than the guards." Opening the door, she motioned for them to bring the guards and follow her. Leading them through long forgotten corridors, she finally opened a door and turned on the halogen flashlights that were waiting next to it. Jim laughed in delight as he saw three piles of clothes laid out neatly in the center of the room, each pile topped with a gleaming sword. Gleefully hefting the Irish blade that Aurelia's men had taken from him, Jim began to look much more like his old self. "Figures if anyone could crack the armory in this joint, it would be you. All right, kiddo," he demanded, waving his sword for emphasis. "Spill. Now. Why aren't you dead?"
She regarded him silently for a second before pushing back her hood to reveal her graying black hair and blue eyes. "I'm a rapidly-healing freak of nature, remember?" JL said quietly, trying not to show how much she cared about Jim's reaction.
Jim studied her for a minute before putting down his sword and stroking her now-short hair and the burn scars on her neck and face. His recent interrogation had reminded him how much hot metal hurt, and he knew that being trapped under a burning car must have been much worse. "Nobody heals from a Quickening, sweetheart," he said gently, putting his arms around her. "I saw it all. Well, I thought I did anyway, and I consider myself something of an expert."
"That wasn't supposed to happen," she said sadly, resting her head on Jim's shoulder. "You guys were supposed to hear about it from the Watchers. I figured that way it wouldn't hurt quite so much, and you could harbor your secret doubts about the abilities of the Watchers to judge a real Quickening until I reappeared. But I had the stuff in my trunk when I crashed, and it must have gone off. Joe told me that you thought I was dead, so I had to forge on ahead with my plan or give it up all together."
"What plan?" Adam demanded. "You and Alaric have been holding out on us, haven't you?"
JL pulled away from Jim and looked uncomfortable. "Alaric was certain Aurelia would find a way to get Richie, and he convinced me that the only way to get her was to pretend I was dead. And that meant faking a Quickening. So I talked to some of the friends I made in Los Angeles who do special effects for the movie industry. I told them what I wanted, and they came up with a geegaw that I could hook into my car's electrical system and use its battery to produce lightning-like effects. Basically it turned the car into a big Van de Graaf generator. The fire must have shorted out my car's electrical system and set the gadget off. I knew any Immortal who was close enough would realize that no actual power had been released, but I figured a Watcher would buy it."
"Stick to the point, JL," Jim interrupted before she could get sidetracked by the mechanics of it all.
JL sighed. "I looked through the files of all Watchers who joined up in the last five years, and Alaric recognized a couple that work for the Adders. So my original plan was to stage a fight with someone, appear to lose, and have the Watchers report my demise to Aurelia's spies. Then I'd come down here and get ready to free Richie if he got caught, and to kill Aurelia if I got the chance."
"How did you know I was here?" Jim asked, gesturing to the three piles of clothes.
JL smiled. "Alaric knows about lots of secret corridors, one of which passes right by Aurelia's office. The peep holes are still there, so I just settled in and listened to her head guard report that you'd been captured. In fact, that's how I found all three swords--she told the guard to put yours with the others, and all I had to do was follow him when he left her office." Grinning at Jim's look of amazement, JL reached out and ruffled his hair. "You forget, you only found out about all this in January when Logan and Ryder attacked us. But I've known about it since I killed Alaric almost a year ago. He tried to intimidate me by telling me about what Aurelia was going to do to Richie, and we ended up arguing about it for hours while sitting in your solarium watching the ships in the San Francisco Bay. It was during one of those arguments that I decided to have a secret weapon made," she added, pointing to a rectangular black leather case resting in a corner. It resembled a 4 foot long attaché case, but it was much taller and thinner than any sword case Jim had ever seen.
"I'll bite," Richie said with a grin. "What is it?"
"A secret," JL replied promptly. "Hence the name: Secret Weapon."
Richie laughed and hugged her. "Remind me again why I put up with you?" he said.
JL kissed him passionately, and Richie seemed satisfied with that answer. Pushing him away with a laugh, JL gestured toward the clothes. "Now you guys have to get dressed because the cavalry's coming in about an hour, and we've got more preparations to make."
"Do you mean Bryan and the others?" Richie asked. "How could you possibly know that?"
"By having an inside man. Or woman, as the case may be," JL said with a grin.
"Amanda?" Jim said in a shocked voice. "She knew you weren't dead? And she didn't tell us? Now I really am going to kill her."
JL shook her head. "Slow down, James. We did talk through this whole thing together, but she knew the car crash wasn't part of the plan. So she couldn't have known for sure until the day before yesterday when you arrived in Peru and she contacted me. Luckily she decided to bring the supplies, extra clothes, and food I asked for just in case I was around to pick them up. Now get dressed, all of you. We don't have much time."
As the Immortals changed clothes, JL checked the hallway one more time. When they were ready, she paused to kiss Richie thoroughly. He melted into her embrace before stiffening suddenly and trying to push away from her. "Sorry, love," she said, lowering his unconscious body gently to the floor and tossing the hypodermic needle she'd used on him into the corner. "But having you along is much too dangerous for all of us."
Glancing up at Jim and Adam's shocked faces, she smiled ruefully. "He won't be safe until 12:01 am on the day after the equinox. That's really why I dragged Amanda into this--she's coming down here to pick him up and get him out. If we miss a priest, or if they have a new recruit hidden somewhere that I don't know about, and they manage to sacrifice Richie, they'll be able to rebuild their power base and start over again. And I don't want that to happen, do you? I didn't think so. Now help me get him as comfortable as we can and we'll leave him for Amanda. She has the antidote to this stuff."
"What if she's late?" Adam asked.
"Then he'll wake up on his own in three or four hours, and he'll find a map showing the way to the car I rented, the car keys, and supplies that will last him until he gets to town. Nobody but us has thought about this part of the temple in centuries. He'll be OK." Stroking Richie's hair, she smiled fondly. "It's us I'm worried about right now. Come on, guys. Time is no longer on our side." With a grim smile, JL led them through the corridors toward the inhabited part of the temple.
Bryan strode through the hallway toward Aurelia's room as if he owned the place, with Connor right next to him. Duncan couldn't believe it was going to be this easy, but the guards simply snapped to attention as they passed. They were three quarters of the way to Aurelia's rooms when they felt the buzz of an approaching Immortal. Duncan fell back a couple of paces just in case, and Bryan and Connor went around the corner to find two priests walking down the corridor. The priests studied them, glanced at each other, and drew their swords.
Before they could raise the alarm, Bryan and Connor attacked. Duncan flinched as the sounds of the fight echoed from the stone walls, but he held his ground as the guards ran up to him and decided to try a bluff that Alaric had suggested.
"Stand down," Duncan barked at the lead guard. "This is our business, and we shall handle it. Block off these corridors and make sure no one else disturbs us. Now!" Duncan held his breath, grateful that the hood hid his features so they couldn't see how uncertain he was. The head guard looked a little concerned, but he seemed to be wavering. "Didn't you hear me?" Duncan demanded in the most arrogant tone he could muster. "Do I have to teach you to pay attention?"
"No, Master. My apologies, Master," stammered the guard. Turning to the others he ordered them to block the corridors and leave the combatants alone.
Duncan heaved a sigh of relief. Alaric wasn't kidding when he said these guys were obedient. He must not have expected anyone else to try ordering them around. Granted, it certainly wasn't my first impulse. Looking back at the fight, Duncan watched Bryan and Connor dispatch their opponents within seconds of one another. As the Quickenings died down, another priest raced down the corridor, obviously planning to take Connor's head before he could recover. Duncan leapt forward and met the new assailant, the adrenaline coursing through his system giving him the energy to disarm the man with his second blow and take his head with the third. Bryan and Connor stood watch for him while he recovered, then the three of them continued on to Aurelia's quarters. The next turning led to a secret door into a corridor that was marked on Alaric's map as 'unknown to the current inhabitants.' The heavy layer of dust and cobwebs confirmed that, and they took the opportunity to relax their guard a little.
"Well," Connor observed as they walked, "so much for the element of surprise. If they didn't hear the fight, they must have felt the Quickenings."
Bryan nodded agreement. "We didn't really expect to get there unscathed, anyway. At least we made it this far. I just hope Amanda's doing as well."
As if in answer, the three Immortals felt a distant Quickening. Duncan closed his eyes and concentrated. "I don't think it was Amanda," he said. "Although I'll bet she was the victor."
Connor laughed. "No bet. She fights like a demon when she's cornered. Well, guys, it's time to rejoin the real world. Ready?"
At Bryan and Duncan's nod, Connor opened another secret door and they stepped back into the main corridor. Connor listened intently before turning right and leading them onwards. They had only gone a few feet when the buzz overwhelmed them. Brandishing their swords, they came face to face with the object of their quest--Aurelia. She had her hood thrown back and her platinum blonde hair fell loosely around her face. Duncan couldn't help staring at her lovely green eyes and full lips--he had thought Kristin was the most beautiful Immortal he'd ever met, but, if Aurelia's body was half as lovely as her face, he'd have to revise that impression.
Aurelia was flanked by two hooded Immortals, one who stood 6' 3" tall and another who was about 5' 10". Bryan looked at the patterns on their robes and recognized them as the two oldest and most powerful Immortals after Aurelia-- Mark Jeffries, who had taken his first head in 1645, and Dominick Martinson, who had been raised in the temple by Alaric and had taken his first head in 1805.
The taller man stepped forward and removed his hood. "Bryan," he said with a cold smile. "So you made it after all. And to think I was afraid I'd only get to play with Jim."
"Tony?" Bryan whispered incredulously. "But that's impossible."
Mark smiled. "Nothing's impossible, teacher. You told me that yourself, when you convinced me to stay and face Aurelia instead of running. You just didn't tell me you were lying. My defeating Aurelia was impossible. Your leaving Jim to die alone was impossible. And now, your surviving this little encounter is impossible. And please call me Mark. I've come to hate the name Tony."
Bryan stepped forward and raised his sword, but Aurelia just laughed and snapped her fingers. Instantly, guards appeared in the corridor behind her, the snick of their guns being cocked echoing against the stone. "Now, gentlemen," Aurelia said with a cruel smile, "you can drop your swords and walk nicely, or you can get shot and be dragged. It makes no difference to me."
"I challenge you, Aurelia," Bryan stated quickly. "Your minions can't interfere."
Aurelia laughed. "A challenge, Bryan? How quaint. We follow more modern rules around here. The people with the guns make the rules. Now drop your weapons. I have too many things to do to waste my time arguing."
Bryan growled angrily, but one of the guards raised her pistol and Bryan decided to stay conscious and look for a way to get his hands around Aurelia's neck. Laying his sword gently on the floor, he stood and placed his hands on top of his head. Duncan and Connor exchanged glances and followed suit. Aurelia signaled the guards, and they came forward and handcuffed the three Immortals.
"We're still missing the woman I told you about," Aurelia said to the head guard. Taking out a ceremonial dagger, she handed it to him. "Find her, whatever it takes. Show this dagger to anyone wearing a robe that you find in the corridors--it will tell our real priests that you speak for me. Then tell them I said to report directly to the altar room. If they question you or try to get away, kill them and bring the body to me." Aurelia paused and studied him intently. "If you succeed, I might forget about the fact that your ambush was a failure. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mistress," the guard replied with a bow before quickly assembling a team and beginning the search.
"The rest of you," Aurelia told the remaining guards, "will accompany us. Make sure the prisoners don't get away, or you will take their places."
Mark walked next to Aurelia as she strode toward the altar. "What now, Aurelia?" he asked her. "What if Amanda gets to the prisoners?"
"She won't," Aurelia replied. "I ordered Eileen to interrogate them for as long as she wanted and to take Adam's head when she got bored." Mark glared at her and started to protest, but Aurelia just laughed and patted him on the shoulder. "Don't fret, my love. I told Eileen to save Jim for you. We're going to have to relocate, though, just in case somebody else comes looking for us. We'll need to have to travel fast, and we can't take them with us. The sacrifice will be enough to keep track of."
"What about these three?" Mark asked.
"We'll dedicate them, and Jim, to Satan and use their suffering to build our Satanic power for a couple of days. Then we'll move them off Holy Ground and take their Quickenings." Glancing at the prisoners, Aurelia smiled. "They can lodge all the complaints they want about not getting a fair challenge after they get wherever we go when our power is released. Personally, I'm not too worried about retribution from beyond the grave."
Leading them into the altar room, Aurelia had the guards strip the prisoners and chain them to some of the crosses that were already set up against one wall. When the guards had finished, Aurelia ordered them to go to the interrogation room and bring Jim to her. The guards bowed and left as Aurelia turned back to Duncan, Connor, and Bryan.
"Well, gentlemen," she said. "As you can see we expected all of you, just a bit later. Too bad Alaric's already dead--I was really looking forward to seeing how much power sacrificing him would have generated. Oh, well, we can't always get what we want, can we?" Checking a ceremonial brazier that was already heating several small branding irons, she smiled at them sweetly. "Welcome to Hell, gentlemen. Feel free to scream as loudly as you want--these walls make lovely echoes." Handing the branding iron to Dominick, she smiled. "Let's start with the youngest one and work our way up. That will give Mark's friend Bryan the most time to think about his sins."
Dominick accepted the iron gravely, advancing on Duncan with a deliberate slowness that told the Highlander he planned to draw this out as much as possible. Just as he was about to press the glowing metal into Duncan's chest, a low rumbling began in the ceiling. Alarmed, the Immortals all looked around as the rumbling grew louder and louder until it ended in a crash that shook the very foundations of the temple.
"What was that?" Mark asked, coughing as he breathed in the clouds of dust that filled the air.
"The doorway," Aurelia gasped, pointing. Through the dust, they could see that the doorway was blocked by a massive piece of granite. "What in Satan's name," she whispered. The scrape of stone on stone returned their attention to the altar, behind which a section of the wall was slowly swinging open. Mark looked at Aurelia, but she just shook her head in confusion.
The Immortals felt the buzz as a figure emerged from the wall, and Duncan, Connor, and Bryan all stared in shock as they recognized the woman who sauntered through the opening wearing tailored black pants and a red and gold silk shirt. Bryan shook his head in disbelief, but the sound of Alaric speaking with JL's voice removed any doubt that this phoenix had literally risen from the ashes. "Isn't that a lovely sound?" Alaric asked of no one in particular.
"What sound?" Dominick asked.
"The sound of the good cavalry cutting off the bad cavalry, Dominick, old boy," Alaric replied with a small laugh. "Of course, I suppose it doesn't sound as pleasant to you, because you were counting on the bad cavalry, weren't you?" Facing Aurelia, Alaric smiled. "Didn't I ever get around to telling you about the security measures the Chavíns put in place in case they had to hide from a peasant rebellion or an army of those holier-than-thou types intent on freeing the poor, oppressed masses? No matter. The important thing is that you don't know where the exit is, so you can't run away from me this time." Directing JL's body to stand behind the altar where the high priest would stand during a service, Alaric drew his black flamberge rapier with the carved steel snakes that twisted over and around each other to form the hilt and guard. Moving it slightly so it reflected the light hypnotically, Alaric smiled again. "But we need the right setting, don't we?" Raising JL's arms dramatically, Alaric pointed his sword at the far corner of the room and announced, "Let there be fire!"
Aurelia knew he triggered the flames with a mechanism on the floor, but even she was impressed when a burst of flame seemed to answer Alaric's summons. It reached majestically toward the roof, igniting the channel of oil that ran around the perimeter of the room. When the flame completed its circuit, the room was bathed in reddish light that cast flickering shadows on the floor and transformed most of it into a surreal chamber straight out of Dante's Inferno. Carefully positioned spotlights cut through the shadows, leaving the altar and the crosses clearly visible. "Smoke and mirrors, Aurelia," Alaric said softly. "That's what this nonsense all comes down to, remember? So why on Earth are you making it out to be more important than our Immortality? Where did I go wrong in your training? Tell me, my dear, so I don't make the same mistake with my next lover."
"I don't believe it," Aurelia whispered as her eyes adjusted to the light. "It really is you, isn't it? Why didn't you come back to us?"
Alaric laughed. "Come back to what, Aurelia? You? You seemed quite focused on little Marky over there, remember?"
"It's not too late," Aurelia pleaded, walking over to Alaric and holding out her hand. "I know of this exquisite pre- Immortal boy who lives a few hundred miles from here. He's almost 25 now, and we can kill him and then trick him into taking your head. Then you can blast his personality the way you did Dawson's and we can be together again, just like we were before."
Alaric stared into her eyes, thinking about the eight centuries he'd spent teaching, and loving, Aurelia. He almost reached out for her, but JL refused to let her hand move. Momentarily surprised that JL could fight him this way while he had control, he hesitated. Aurelia interpreted his confusion as desire, and she reached out to caress JL's cheek gently. "Think of it, Alaric," she wheedled. "You and me. We'll sacrifice these fools now and build a new temple, an even better temple. Right after we sacrifice Richie during the equinox."
"What about Mark?" Alaric almost whispered, the scent of her perfume making him tremble slightly.
"What about him?" Aurelia purred. "Consider him gone. All you have to do is tell me where Richie is, and I'll take it from there."
Alaric straightened, roughly slapping her hand away. "Is that what you said about me when Mark began courting you, Aurelia? 'Consider him gone?' Well, my dear, I'm not gone. And I'm not playing your game anymore, either. So prepare to lose your lovely head, because, although it took three and half centuries, I finally got over you."
Aurelia stepped back from Alaric's fury reflected in JL's eyes. "This is Holy Ground, Alaric," she said hurriedly. "You can't kill me here."
Alaric laughed coldly. "Do you know the one thing about Holy Ground that even we tend to forget?" he asked. "It's just regular ground that became holy when a priest consecrated it in the name of his god. And ground that can be consecrated can be deconsecrated."
"What are you talking about?" Aurelia asked, stepping back another pace.
"I'm talking about the rites I taught you in case we were overrun by an army who didn't honor Satan. Rites that would nullify the sanctity of this temple so all they could destroy was stone and metal, not power. Look at the symbols, Aurelia. What's different about them?"
Aurelia looked around the room, her heart sinking as she realized that the precisely drawn circles, lines, and angles had been altered so that they would no longer attracted Satan's power, nor protect the summoner from it. Her eyes widened suddenly and she raced to a hidden niche in the wall behind the altar, frantically looking for her platinum key. As Aurelia fumbled with the locked door, Alaric studied the ancient dagger with the two entwined black adders carved into the hilt that he'd removed from that very niche less than half an hour ago. The dagger was the most important artifact in the temple, and Alaric knew its touch intimately. It had once belonged to Chavés almost four millennia ago, and it still held residual power from the countless Chavín and Satanic sacrifices that he had used it in. Alaric was convinced that the dagger had actually taken part of Chavés' Quickening as well, and now he was ready to test that theory.
Chanting the final verse of the deconsecration ritual, Alaric brought the dagger down on the altar as hard as he could. Aurelia screamed as the blade shattered, and small bolts of lightning raced up JL's arm and engulfed her face in an eerie blue radiance for almost a minute. When the light died down, the burn scars on JL's face had faded a little more, and Aurelia, Mark, and Dominick were staring at him in shock.
They recovered quickly, though, and Aurelia stopped hiding her hatred for Alaric. Beckoning to Mark and Dominick, she advanced on her former teacher. "Be that way, Alaric," she said venomously. "If you want a challenge so badly, you've got it."
"Three on one, Aurelia?" Alaric said with a laugh. "Is that one of the modernizations you keep prattling about? No, my dear, Bryan's the one who likes the adrenaline rush of being outnumbered. I prefer one on one, thank you." Hesitating, Alaric glanced at the doorway. "That was your entrance cue, gentlemen," he called over JL's shoulder.
"Sorry," Jim said, coming out of the doorway with Adam. "We got so caught up in the words we forgot to listen to them."
Alaric sighed. "See what I have to work with these days?" he complained to Aurelia. "It's almost not worth the bother."
Jim laughed softly and lunged at Dominick while Adam dove for Mark. Mark snarled in frustration at facing Adam instead of Jim, but Adam quickly engaged his full attention with a swift series of thrusts that moved them across the temple floor and away from any possible interference on Aurelia's part. Alaric laughed again and winked at Aurelia, as if sharing some secret joke. "Teachers shouldn't fight their students," he said, "unless they really, really hate them. So, my dear, shall we see what you've learned since last we danced, or do you want to watch your lover-boy get slaughtered?"
Aurelia shook her head at him, her eyes never leaving Mark and Adam. "Isn't love grand?" Alaric sighed. "Go ahead and watch the silly fight, Aury," he said, lowering his sword and sitting casually on the altar. JL took control back so she could make sure her leather case was still resting opened and waiting behind it. I'm not going to need that...that thing, Alaric told her silently. I can beat her with my rapier.
Humor me, JL replied dryly. Like I've been humoring you for the past year. Why should you be the only one with backup plans for the backup plans?
Why indeed? Alaric replied, but he didn't try to resume control or move the case.
JL watched Aurelia as the priestess stared at Mark and Adam, obviously willing Mark to win but not moving to interfere. Satisfied that she was going to stay out of it for the moment, JL slipped across the temple. "Let me know if Aurelia moves so much as a muscle, all right?" she asked Duncan, and he nodded. Turning to pick the lock on Bryan's chains, she met his confused green eyes evenly.
"Tell me you didn't do all this just to pay me back for letting you think I was dead during the trial in New York City," he said softly.
"Of course I did," she replied, giving him a gentle kiss. "Burned myself and my new car up just to teach you a lesson." An especially-loud clang made her turn to look at Jim and Dominick, but Bryan just lowered his head and closed his eyes. She knew he hated watching Jim fight because he was afraid some day he'd be unable to stop himself from interfering, but Jim looked very confident at the moment. Freeing Bryan, she handed him the lockpick so he could distract himself by unchaining Duncan and Connor. "I like the new look," she said to Duncan, gazing appreciatively at his naked body. "It's very, uhm, minimal. But it works for you."
Duncan almost blushed, and Bryan swatted her gently as he finished releasing Connor and went over to Duncan. "Stop picking on the one poor soul who's managed to retain a shred of modesty. What about me? Don't I look fetching?" he asked petulantly.
JL shrugged. "Been there," she replied casually. "Seen that."
Bryan laughed softly, leaning against the wall and trying not to be too obvious about appreciating Duncan's body himself. Amanda always did have exquisite taste, he thought with a sigh. Maybe when Jim gets in his next snit I can investigate the possibilities. Scotsmen make great lovers.
JL winked at him as if reading his mind and returned her attention to the fights. Jim decided he was tired of playing with Dominick, and he blocked Dominick's blade with his own while delivering a karate chop with his free hand that made Dominick stumble. Stepping back and twisting his blade so that it forced Dominick to drop his own or end up with a broken wrist, Jim smiled triumphantly and severed Dominick's head before he had a chance to pull any holdout weapons.
Bryan clenched his fist and whispered, "Yes!" then glanced over at Adam. His joy turned to concern as he watched Mark try the same maneuver Bryan had used successfully in New York to get behind Logan and bring his claymore crashing down through Logan's shoulder. Adam recognized the move as well, however, and he didn't waste time trying to turn around. Instead, he reversed his sword and stabbed up and back, trusting his instincts to guide his hand without the aid of his eyes. The solid feel of steel meeting flesh and Mark's agonized grunt told him that he'd succeeded, and he yanked his blade back and spun around. The blow wasn't fatal, but it was satisfyingly bloody, and Adam pressed his advantage mercilessly. The two of them danced across the temple floor, exchanging a series of blows so fast that the observers had trouble following them. They were halfway across the temple when Adam suddenly lunged in and they both stopped, their bodies pressed together and their gazes locked in mutual hatred. They were so close that JL couldn't tell who had won the exchange, but she let Alaric take control anyway and he moved her body back across the temple toward Aurelia.
Alaric's caution was proven justified when Mark's eyes glazed over and he slid to the floor, Adam's blade slowly coming free of his chest as he did so. Aurelia lunged for Adam as he moved to cut off Mark's head, but Alaric leapt in front of her and met her rapier with a solid parry. "Sorry, Aury," he said with a cruel laugh. "No miracles for your little pet today."
After Adam had absorbed Mark's Quickening, Alaric and Aurelia began circling. Aurelia's attention was completely focused on the battle as she channeled her anger at Mark's death into her blade. "Let your anger power your blade, not guide it," Aurelia said softly, repeating the mantra Mark had taught her. Alaric laughed delightedly at the irony of hearing JL's mantra coming from Aurelia's lips, but she didn't understand his amusement and he didn't bother to explain it. Instead, he lunged forward and tried to disarm her before she had a chance to collect herself, but she parried automatically and drove him back. They circled around the altar, each exchange giving one or the other the chance to inflict a small cut, but not letting either one do any major damage.
After twenty minutes of such nonsense, Alaric was growling in frustration. Throwing himself into an all-out attack that no Immortal had ever withstood before, he managed to score a bone-deep cut on Aurelia's left leg, but her blade took a deep gouge out of JL's side at the same time. Holding JL's side, Alaric retreated toward the altar, stopping only when the black stone slab lay between them. Aurelia looked confused at his retreat, but she was grateful for the chance to let her leg heal, so she didn't try to attack him.
Leaning against the altar, Alaric sighed. "You know, my dear," he said tiredly, "I was wrong. A teacher shouldn't fight a student. Ever. Especially when the teacher has taught all his good moves." Nudging the leather case into position with JL's foot, Alaric regarded Aurelia steadily. "So," he continued, "I'm afraid I must forfeit this fight to my hostess."
"Your what?" Aurelia asked.
"My hostess. JL Dawson." Alaric smiled. "You see, Aurelia, I didn't really take over JL's body. It's more like a, well, a time share. She takes control sometimes and I take control sometimes. We're together, yet still separate. You might like her, though. She's big into modernization too, only she's taking it in an entirely different direction." Smiling sadly, Alaric shook his head. "I'm almost glad I couldn't kill you, Aurelia. It lets me know I at least taught the sword fighting right, even if you picked up a few of your moves from Bryan via Mark. Still, though, JL doesn't share my compassion for you, so she won't have any qualms about destroying my efforts. I won't say good-bye, Aurelia, because I'm sure your Quickening will be joining us soon enough. But I will wish you good luck. You're going to need it."
Alaric laid his rapier on the altar and bowed, ostensibly to pay homage to Aurelia but actually to free JL's hands so she could pick up her secret weapon. When JL straightened again, her eyes were blue and she looked almost eager as she brought her weapon into position. Aurelia gasped as the altar spotlight gleamed off the strangest blade she'd ever seen. It was almost 4 feet long and shaped liked a flattened C whose ends had been sharpened to a deadly point. Three handholds were cut in the outer curve of the C, and these were wrapped in leather. Two more deadly points protruded from the inner curve of the C, as if someone has attached a second, smaller C to the inside of the first one. Except for the leather- wrapped handholds, every inch of the blade had been sharpened to a gleaming edge that looked sharper than any sword Aurelia had ever faced.
"What," Aurelia asked in amazement, "is that?"
"A Klingon Bat'telh," JL replied with a smile. When Aurelia simply continued to stare at her, JL grinned again. "Literally, a sword of honor. From Star Trek, you know? The television show? Well, the Next Generation and DS9 anyway. Oh, never mind." Hefting the blade speculatively, JL held it by the outer two handholds. "You seem to understand the need for modernization. Well, I agree that the Game could use a little. I just don't see why it can't be otherworldly in origin, if it's still steel. Well, technically it's a new-age steel alloy that never needs sharpening, but with all the edges on this thing, that seemed to be the only way to go." Jim coughed slightly, and JL smiled at him. "But my mentor tells me I'm rambling, so I'll try to put it in terms you can understand before I shut up and fight you with it. I've heard some people call it a two-ended scimitar, but I prefer to think of it as a very, very sharp quarterstaff." Winking at Duncan, JL leapt over the altar and attacked, shouting "Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam," as she did so. "It is a good day to die."
To her credit, Aurelia recovered more quickly than Duncan thought he would have when faced with a weapon that outlandish. Leaning over to Connor, he whispered "Where did she get that thing?"
Connor smiled, never taking his eyes off the two women. "Not the Home Shopping Channel, that's for sure. The ones they sell there are cheap imitations and not at all sharp. Maybe off the Web."
"The what?" Duncan asked.
Connor sighed. "You're hopeless. Ask Richie. He'll know. Now shut up and let me watch this. I've always wondered what it would be like to fight with one of those things. Jadzia Dax looks great using one on Deep Space Nine."
Duncan shrugged and leaned back against the wall. A sharp quarterstaff, he mused. Only JL would have taken that comment literally and figured out how to actually get one.
Bryan watched JL circle Aurelia, then he burrowed his head in Jim's shoulder. "I can't watch this," he muttered. "What in God's name does she think she's doing? When did she practice with that thing?"
"Hush, Bryan," Jim said, stroking his hair. "She's not stupid, and she's not suicidal anymore. Watch and learn. This may well be a sign of things to come."
The clang of steel made Bryan glance up, and he straightened hopefully when he saw the trail of blood running down Aurelia's arm. JL smiled at the sight herself, driving in and wielding the Bat'telh as if she'd been born with one. Aurelia couldn't seem to find an opening in the defense the massive blade provided, but she managed to keep the vicious points from doing more than scratching her skin. It's huge, Aurelia thought, but it's slow. And it takes two hands, so she can't use a second weapon. Parrying a head shot, Aurelia cursed as the bottom of the Bat'telh caught her calf, adding another cut to the ones she'd gotten from Alaric. Of course, she thought ruefully, the damn thing is as close to two weapons as you're likely to get.
Realizing that she was destined to lose this fight if she had to keep parrying both the upper and lower halves of the Bat'telh simultaneously, Aurelia decided to throw out the rule book and try a maneuver that Mark had taught her. Rushing toward JL, she put all her effort into a dizzying series of exchanges that put JL slightly off balance. Going into a dive that put her slightly behind JL, she swung her sword ten inches off the floor and watched in satisfaction as the sharp steel severed JL's right hamstring.
JL snarled, more annoyed by the fact that she'd fallen for the same trick she'd used on Alaric a year ago then she was worried about the damage. Then her weight shifted to her injured leg and she fell to her knees with a strangled sob. Her arms dropped to the floor, leaving her Bat'telh resting on her knees, and she bowed her head in unconscious submission. Bryan desperately called her name, and she glanced up in time to see Jim grab Bryan's arm and twist it up behind his back so he wouldn't interfere. Dropping her gaze again, she noticed Aurelia's shadow projected onto the floor by the spotlight over the altar. She saw the shadow rise to its feet and lift its blade for the killing stroke.
Holding her breath, JL waited until the last second before lifting the Bat'telh up and holding it across her body with the inner curve of the C pointing towards Aurelia's sword. Using the shadow to judge the exact placement, JL caught Aurelia's blade in the V formed where the smaller C curved away from the larger one and used the momentum from Aurelia's blow to fling her opponent's blade over her head and to her left. Letting go with her left hand and placing it on the floor in front of her, JL pivoted on her left knee and hand, landing on her butt with her left leg curled under her injured right one and her left arm supporting her weight. As she turned, she used her momentum to swing the Bat'telh one-handed toward Aurelia, aiming it at Aurelia's sword arm.
Aurelia's balance had been thrown off to her left by JL's maneuver, and she was bringing her sword back into line when JL spun. As she brought her sword back up to gain some momentum for her downstroke, she saw the flash of the Bat'telh. The gleaming edge cut deeply into her wrist before she could stop her arm from moving, and her blade dropped from her injured hand. Aurelia glared at JL, who was leaning to the right trying to get her own blade back in line. Seizing the opportunity, Aurelia aimed a vicious kick at JL's unprotected side, but, before it could connect, JL uncoiled her left leg and kicked Aurelia's knee, sending the priestess sprawling to the floor.
After a week of forcing herself to remain calm, JL finally let herself remember the emotional pain of Richie and Adam's kidnapping combined with the physical agony of burning to death in the Mustang. Channeling that fury into her blade, she ignored the pain in her leg and got back on her knees. Laying the Bat'telh against Aurelia's throat, she smiled evilly and said, "rathlaHebj wa' neH. There can be only one," as she neatly severed Aurelia's head.
The Quickening began tentatively, as if it wasn't sure what it was going to do. Then Aurelia's body began levitating slightly and the lightning flashed from her corpse to the altar, where it rebounded off the black stone and stuck JL. She lifted the Bat'telh high above her head and shook it at the heavens. "I am JL Dawson," she screamed, delighting in the way that simple statement echoed off the marble walls. "I am JL Dawson!" she howled again, spreading her arms to accept Aurelia's power and chanting her name over and over the way Bryan had taught her in order to lessen the chance of Aurelia's overpowering her personality.
When the lightning finally died down, JL remained kneeling, her Bat'telh still raised toward the ceiling and her eyes closed. Suddenly her whole body went rigid and she screamed in agony before collapsing bonelessly to the floor. Her Bat'telh clattered angrily against the marble floor as it dropped from her nerveless fingers. Jim raced forward, skidding to a stop beside her, checking her pulse and then fishing her penlight out of her beltpack. Checking her pupils with the penlight, he frowned. "Her vital signs are steady, but her pupils aren't responding." Looking at the back of her right leg, he pulled the ripped fabric apart gently. "Her leg has healed, and the scars on her face have even faded some more. Does anyone remember passing out after a Quickening? Or hearing about anyone who did?"
"No," Connor answered, "not that I can recall." Tossing Bryan's clothes next to where Bryan was hovering anxiously over Jim's shoulder, he tried to lighten the mood. "Here, you immodest exhibitionist. Put these on, will you? I'm tired of looking at that ugly white butt of yours."
Bryan nodded distractedly and didn't move to take his clothes, and Connor squeezed his shoulder. "She's going to be fine, Bryan. She's the Phoenix, and she'll rise again." Bryan smiled up at him and pulled on the pants. "Thank you," Connor said with a laugh. "That's much better."
Jim shook his head at both of them and laughed. "It's strange hearing him harp about modesty, isn't it, Bryan?" he asked casually. "Remember that London dock bar in 1895? The Dirty Crab or some such?"
"How could I forget?" Bryan replied, picking up JL's Bat'telh and examining its curves. "Man, this thing is sharp." Glancing up, he grinned at Connor. "That David Carruthers put on quite a show," he added casually.
"David Carruthers?" Duncan asked, suddenly interested. "Weren't you running under that name around then, Connor?"
"No," Connor said flatly.
"Liar," retorted Bryan. "Although I think he should be proud of it. I mean, how many men could drink that much and still perform adequately enough to get the woman to go out with him the following evening?"
"Not to mention the fact that he was balancing on the bar the whole time," Jim added. "That's what I thought was really impressive. He even rolled off her and went to sleep without falling off."
"Rolled over and passed out, you mean," Bryan corrected cheerfully.
"Passed out, then," Jim agreed, smoothing back JL's hair and checking her pupils again. Straightening suddenly, he looked at Adam. "Bring me a set of those handcuffs, will you, Adam?" he asked, without a trace of his former levity.
"Why?" Bryan asked as Adam retrieved the handcuffs and gave them to Jim.
"Because her eyes are currently green," Jim answered tightly. "That must be why she's still unconscious. The three of them are probably fighting for control."
"What can we do?" Duncan asked. "Will talking to her help?"
Jim shrugged. "I'm not sure. This is all new to me, too."
"It can't hurt," Bryan hypothesized. "Some recovered coma victims can remember people talking to them. And anything we can do to remind her of being JL Dawson could help that personality win."
"Hold Out," Jim said suddenly.
"Who's holding out?" Connor asked.
"No one," Bryan replied. "It's the name of a Jackson Browne album. It's one of JL's all-time favorites. What about it, though?"
"Sing it to her, Bryan," Jim said eagerly. "Remember how she begged you teach her to play all of the songs from that album on the guitar Joe gave her? She used to gaze at you like you were some kind of god when you sang that stuff to her."
Bryan shrugged and sat down in front of the altar so he could rest his back against the stone. He began whistling softly before he launched into Hold Out.
Baby, I guess you know my story
Baby, I guess you know my side
It seems I've traded love for glory
And I'm still not satisfied.
As he warmed up, Bryan's baritone filled the temple, playing with the acoustics. Moving on to That Girl Could Sing, he had no trouble applying the words to JL.
You could hold her tight
With all your might
But she'd slip through your arms like the wind
And be back in flight
Back into the night
Where you might never see her again.
By the time he got to the last song on the album, Hold On Hold Out, he had adjusted his voice to the room and the other Immortals were staring blankly into space, each thinking about the people they knew that fit the lyrics. Adam looked especially wistful as he recalled his glorious, if much too short, relationship with Alexa, who had reminded him of all the reasons to let his heart win out over his cynicism once or twice a century.
Hold on hold out, keep a hold on strong
The money's in and the bets are down
You won't hold out long
They say you'll fall in no time at all
But you know they're wrong
Known it all along.
Hold on hold out, keep a hold on still
If you don't know what your love is worth
No one ever will.
When the last echoes of Bryan's voice died away, the five men remained quiet, each still lost in his memories. Bryan finally opened his eyes to find JL nonchalantly unlocking her handcuffs. Looking up at him with her clear blue eyes, she smiled tiredly. "Can we get back the story about Connor on the bar?" she asked. "That sounded extremely promising."
Connor groaned. "Enough with the stupid bar, already. I tried to match drinks with Jim, and I got a little inebriated. There, are you happy now?"
"A little?" Duncan asked innocently. "Sounds more like you were one sip away from alcohol poisoning."
Jim laughed. "Not quite. Although his snoring did almost get him arrested for disturbing the peace."
"You'd think they could find a few other charges, considering," JL said with a laugh. "Public indecency, at the very least."
"Oh, we threw some clothes on him before the law arrived," Bryan said airily.
"Why on the bar?" Duncan asked. "Surely they had rooms somewhere."
Connor started to answer him but stopped. Thinking for a second, he finally looked questioningly at Jim, who shrugged. "Bryan was the dray that night. Why the bar, Bryan?"
"What's a dray?" JL interrupted.
Bryan laughed. "He means DRA. It stands for Dedicated Responsible Adult. One of us tries to stay sober and coherent at all times, just in case. That's how we got the rep for swapping names every couple of centuries. Someone challenged Jim when he was totally wasted, so I took the fight in his name. Then, a few years later, he took one for me." Grinning at Connor, he settled down with this back against the altar. "As to the bar, well, Connor and this barmaid had been making eyes at each other all night. Jim bet him he couldn't convince her to kiss him passionately enough at the bar to shock their English sensibilities back into the stone age. Which, of course, led to the usual macho posturing of 'not only can I kiss her, but I can kiss her twice,' and so on. The bet, of course, increased along with the acts required to win it. It eventually cost us part ownership in a very nice merchant ship, but it was worth it."
"You guys are the most annoying pair of peeping toms," Connor groused. "What do you do, follow every young Immortal around until you can set them up in an embarrassing situation and then never let them live it down?"
Bryan nodded agreement. "Everyone needs a hobby. Some people collect stamps. We collect snippets of stupidity."
"You're being awfully quiet, Adam," JL observed with an evil grin.
"That's because I know the kind of arsenal they have on me, and I'm not giving them any excuses," Adam replied with a smile, ready to change the subject. "How do you feel?"
"All right, I guess," JL replied. "It's strangely quiet in here, though."
"Quiet?" Duncan asked.
JL nodded slowly. "I think he's gone. Alaric, I mean. I've tried to talk to him a couple of times, but he doesn't answer."
"Maybe he's just pouting," Adam said. "After all, he failed to kill Aurelia, even after his big speech."
"Maybe," JL replied, "but I don't think so. I didn't realize that I was always peripherally aware of him until he was gone."
"Good riddance," Bryan said firmly.
"I guess," JL agreed uncertainly. "I'd just started getting used to him. Anyway, let me check on Richie and Amanda." Pulling her cellular phone out of her beltpack, JL dialed a number, let it ring three times and hung up. The others regarded her curiously, but she held up a hand for silence. A minute later, she redialed the number, let it ring another three times, and hung up again. Laying the phone in front of her, she stared at it impatiently.
"What's going on?" Duncan demanded. "What is Amanda up to this time?"
Jim sighed. "I warned you guys that letting JL and Amanda get to know each other was a bad idea. Now maybe you'll listen to me."
"Be quiet, James," Bryan said gruffly. "What are we waiting for?"
"For Amanda to return the call," JL replied patiently. "But, if either of us actually answers the phone, the call can be tapped or traced. So Amanda and I set up signals that rely on the number of times the phone rings combined with the length of time between calls. If Amanda and Richie made it out of the temple, it will ring three times after three minutes."
"Don't you guys ever do anything the easy way?" Connor grumbled.
"What's so hard about this?" JL asked. "It just requires a good memory for details and a watch with a sweep second hand. And, according to mine, the phone should ring...right...now." For once, JL's phone actually cooperated with her and rang three times and stopped. Looking up with a smile, she said, "Three after three. They're safe."
"That woman couldn't play a hand straight if she tried," Duncan observed with a sigh. "It would bore her to death."
JL shook her head. "It was mostly my fault. Alaric knew Aurelia was going to get a hold of Richie somehow, so he and I started planning how to get him back. Part of that plan meant faking my death, although, as I already told Jim and Adam, I didn't intend to fake it quite that spectacularly." Shuddering a little at the memory, JL moved over to Bryan, who was still sitting with his back against the altar. He shifted so she could sit between his legs, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her close. "Anyway, even though we've won the day," JL continued after she'd settled in, "Richie won't really be safe until after the equinox. If a Black Adder catches up to him before that, they'll still sacrifice him."
"Why did you have to fake your own death?" Bryan asked. "And why couldn't you let us in on it?"
"Because Aurelia knew Alaric was her greatest threat. As he proved several times over, he knew things about the temple and its inhabitants that no one else did. As long as he was alive, Aurelia couldn't let down her guard, not even for an instant. I was eavesdropping on her in her office when she was talking to Mark. She told him that my death had been confirmed by the Watchers, and that meant they could let Richie and Adam recover from the drugs and bring them here. Before that, they were being held somewhere Alaric didn't know about, drifting on fluffy sedative-ladened clouds."
Duncan looked at Adam, and he shrugged. "Could be," Adam admitted. "I don't remember much between getting kidnapped and waking up here. I can't even tell you how long ago that was, because they wouldn't give us a cell with a window."
"Joe's not going to get in trouble for filing another false report, is he?" Duncan asked.
"No," JL reassured him. "He offered to, but I wouldn't let him. We got Colin, my official Watcher, to do it. He's an old friend who's been helping me since my Boston days. We traded--he filed the death confirmation in return for the names of the Watchers Alaric recognized as being Black Adder contacts. He's going to tell the Tribunal the truth--that he didn't file a false report, he laid a cunning trap for people who are only a small step above Hunters. Considering that he's very charismatic as well as being 6'8", and that they're rather chastised lately, I'm sure it will fly."
"That still doesn't explain why you couldn't tell us," Connor prompted.
JL sighed. "For the same reason the scouts couldn't know the attack plans. Because one of you might get caught and interrogated."
"But Amanda knew," Adam said.
"Of all of you," JL said with a grin, "I knew Amanda had the best chance of not getting captured. But, more importantly, I don't know much about her, and that was crucial to my plans for Richie."
"You just lost me, kid," Bryan said into her hair.
"I knew after I got Richie back that I'd have to face Aurelia. And I knew she could capture and question me. The same rules had to apply to me that applied to the scouts--I couldn't know where Richie was so I couldn't betray him, no matter how insistently they asked. I've studied every Chronicle the Watchers have on all of you, except Adam of course. And I dated Adam for five years, so I know how he thinks. No, it had to be someone I couldn't anticipate, someone who could take Richie and stay gone until after the equinox, no matter whether we won or lost."
"You know how I think, do you?" Adam asked archly. "And just where would I take Richie?"
"Egypt," JL said promptly.
Adam stared at her. "How in the world did you come up with that?"
"Am I wrong?"
"Well, no, but still," Adam protested weakly.
"You're like some type of salmon who's ready to spawn or something. You keep talking about going back to your homeland, but it's an uphill battle. We didn't quite make it, and neither did you and Alexa. " JL winked at him and added, "Besides, you already have the airline tickets that you got before Alexa went into the hospital. And you're the cheap type who'd rather make Richie pose as Alexa than pay the change fee."
Adam growled at her, but she just snuggled deeper into Bryan's chest. "I'm really sorry about letting you think I died in the accident, guys. If there had been any other way, I would have taken it, believe me. Poor Joe was devastated when he and Colin finally recovered my body. If I look like this now, you can imagine what I looked like when he got there. He said he wasn't sure I'd ever wake up." Running a hand through her hair, she sighed. "At least the Tribunal will be happy."
"Why?" Adam asked. "And why do you care?"
JL sighed and held up her left wrist, showing them the unmarked skin. "My tattoo burned off in the fire. Now I really am out of the Watchers. Too bad my face didn't heal as well as my wrist."
"It could be worse," Bryan said encouragingly. "The scars on your face faded after you took Aurelia's Quickening. I'll bet you'll be as beautiful as ever once you take a couple more heads."
"Are you volunteering, darling? How sweet."
Bryan laughed. "I'll help you hunt a couple people down, if you like. Why should I bother getting my own revenge when I have the very first Bat, uh, battle, uh, wicked-sharp-quarterstaff-wielding angel of death as my student?"
JL laughed. "Did you notice the inscription on my Bat'telh?" she asked, pronouncing the name with exaggerated care.
"Were those words?" he asked innocently. "I thought it got scratched when you dropped it."
JL punched him playfully. "It's bISovbejbe'DI' tImer." Bryan blinked at her expectantly, and she laughed. "Do you how long I've wanted to speak a language you don't? Just don't quiz me on spelling, because it makes English look easy. Anyway, it translates to When in Doubt, Surprise Them."
JL circled Duncan warily, her Bat'telh held diagonally across her body. Duncan's katana lashed out at her head, and she blocked it with the upper curve, trying to catch his leg with the lower one. Duncan twisted out of the way, bringing his katana back down in a swift stroke that caught JL's side. Sparks flew from their blades as they danced around Duncan's dojo, both so caught up in the adrenaline rush that neither noticed the buzz when Adam came in to lean against the doorframe and watch them. Duncan landed a solid karate kick on JL's leg, but she managed to stay upright and lunged forward, backing him into the wall. Placing the Bat'telh at his throat, she grinned at him. "Give up, yet?" she asked.
"OK, OK," he responded resignedly, "You win. I'm buying. Now can we please head over to Joe's?"
JL laughed and backed off. "Sure. I just need a shower first." Turning toward the locker room, she tried not to show how surprised she was to see Adam standing there. Wiping the sweat off her face, she composed herself and grinned at him. "Hi, Adam," she said. "What's up?"
Adam shrugged. "Just walked over from my hotel looking for a ride to Joe's," he replied.
JL nodded, laid her Bat'telh carefully in the case lying on Duncan's weight bench, and headed for the locker room. Adam watched her go before opening the case and picking up the Bat'telh speculatively. Trying to get a feel for its balance, he smiled at Duncan. "I remember when some clever swordsmith had the inspiration to add a curved piece of metal to his sword's crossguard so he could wrap his finger around the crossguard and not get it lopped off. It was considered amazingly inventive and daring. I wonder what he would think of this?"
Duncan grinned and patted his shoulder. "That he'd gotten a bit left behind, I should think. But he sounds like the adaptable type, so I'm betting he'll get back up to speed in no time."
"I hope so," Adam said fervently, laying the Bat'telh back down again. "It's been a long time since I felt inventive or daring. From bronze to steel to Klingon. Who'd have thought?"
"Who indeed," Duncan agreed. "Come on upstairs. You can have a beer while I get cleaned up and we'll go to Joe's."
"How is she?" Adam asked as the elevator carried them to the loft.
"Nervous," Duncan replied. "But the equinox will officially be over in less than 5 hours, and Richie can actually come home instead of just letting her cellular ring three times after three minutes every day."
"What if he doesn't?"
Duncan looked at him thoughtfully. "What if he doesn't what? Come home? You mean, what if Amanda has him dazzled or got him arrested?"
"Or both," Adam agreed. "She's done it before."
"Not with Richie," Duncan said. "Besides, she's supposed to come back to me." Adam raised an eyebrow but declined to comment. "What?" Duncan insisted.
"Nothing," Adam replied quietly. "I've just never thought of Amanda as the type who thought about people that weren't standing in front of her with a sword at her throat. Out of sight, out of mind, if you get my meaning."
"I am not out of her mind," Duncan growled. "I'm going to take a shower."
Adam watched Duncan stride out of the room and he smiled to himself. Touchy, touchy, Highlander, he thought. Amanda has you firmly in line, doesn't she? Of course, considering what Amanda looks like, that's probably not such a bad place to be.
Settling down with his beer, Adam waited for Duncan and JL to get ready to go. When they finally arrived at Joe's, they found Jim and Bryan already ensconced at the bar, trying to decide who was going to be the DRA tonight.
"I did it last time," Jim was saying. "It's your turn."
"You did not," Bryan protested. "You got drunk at Connor's Christmas party."
"I did not. I was just full of holiday spirit, that's all," Jim replied, turning toward the approaching Immortals. "Hi, guys, have a stool."
Adam grinned and sat down next to Jim. Duncan sat next to Adam, and JL went over to sit beside Bryan. "What are you guys up to?" Adam asked.
"We both feel like celebrating," Bryan explained, "and it's his turn to stay sober."
Jim shook his head. "It is not. Ruling, Joe?"
Joe grinned as he opened a beer for Adam and poured some scotch for Duncan and JL. "This may come as a real shock to you boys, but there are some things even the Watchers consider too inconsequential to remember."
Bryan pretended to look hurt but JL just tickled him. "Why get drunk at all?" she asked. "It's not over yet."
"Close enough, don't you think?" Bryan asked her. "Did they call this morning?"
JL nodded, "Three after three. Wherever they are, they're fine." Sighing, she contemplated her scotch. "But I won't have succeeded until Richie comes home," she said softly.
"Which will be in, oh, four hours or so," Jim said confidently. "Relax. Amanda will bring him back."
"Isn't that what you thought when she and Bryan went out to dinner in Paris and he ended up in jail for five years?"
Jim winked at Bryan and nodded. "Well, yes, but it was the first time I didn't have to worry about him getting into a drunken sword fight and losing his head. Actually, the whole experience was rather refreshing."
Bryan laughed and tousled Jim's hair. "Like you bother to worry about me," he said. "You probably didn't realize I was gone for months."
"That's not true," Jim protested. "It was your turn to do the dishes, and they were piling up. So I started looking for you within the week, at the very latest."
JL laughed at them and sipped her drink. Bryan caught her glancing at her watch, and he knew he hadn't distracted her for very long. "Didn't you say you were going to start working here next week?" he asked JL.
JL nodded. "Yeah. Joe's got all the qualities I look for in an employer--he's forgiving, and he's willing to put up with my notoriously erratic work schedule and my occasional need to disappear to some lonely place to play with sharp objects. Why?"
"Because you can start now, and I can play some blues with Joe," Bryan told her.
"Nice of you to ask him first," JL grumbled.
"Like he's ever turned down a jam session in his life," Bryan responded. "Now will you let him have fun, or do we all have to be miserable until Richie finally bothers to call you?"
JL sighed but went behind the bar where Joe gave her a hug before eagerly going over to the stage. Bryan followed, settling in at the piano while Joe got out his guitar. JL leaned on the bar listening to them play for a minute before picking up Joe's knife and finishing the lemons he had been cutting.
Adam offered her his empty glass and smiled. "So this is what you decided to do with your life now that Alaric's out of it?" he asked as she refilled his beer. "What about studying with Jim and Bryan? Or traveling the far corners of the earth? I still have those tickets to Egypt."
JL smiled but shook her head. "I'm going to stay with Joe until, well, for however long we have. I can always travel later. Besides," she added with a grin, "I might take some classes. I hear the local university has a history professor all the girls think is absolutely to die for. And they haven't even seen him chained to a wall in all his Scottish glory."
Duncan groaned and Jim laughed. "That's my girl," Jim said approvingly. "Find a good situation and never let it go. Have you picked out a new car yet?"
JL sighed. "I can't afford one. The insurance didn't quite cover the Mustang, plus I still owe Colleen legal fees. I can't figure out how to draw my Bat'telh without taking my eyes off my opponent. Every time I grab it without looking, I almost cut my fingers off. That means I need to lug the case with me everywhere I go or get a new sword, as my scimitar didn't appreciate being incinerated in the Mustang any more than I did. I have Alaric's snake rapier, but, now that he's gone, it gives me the creeps." Shaking her head, JL wandered down the bar to fill an order for one of the waitresses and chat with the other patrons.
Jim watched her as she laughed and socialized, skillfully charming the patrons so they'd drink more and leave better tips. "This isn't good," he observed, shaking his head. "As her teacher, I can give her a sword, so that's no problem. How can I get her to take some money?"
"Why do you want to?" Adam asked.
"You heard her, Adam," Jim replied. "She's got lots of debts, a job for minimum wage, and Joe's money is tied up in the bar so he can't lend her any. Can't you guess what's going to happen?" When Adam shook his head, Jim sighed. "Did Duncan ever tell you how he met Richie?" he asked.
Duncan grinned fondly. "He was breaking into my antique store. I felt the buzz and found him playing with one of my display swords. He was rather surprised when I challenged him, not to mention when Slan Quince jumped in through my skylight and Connor materialized from the shadows. It was a busy night."
"Sounds it. What does that have to do with giving JL money?" Adam asked.
"Put it together, Adam," Jim said patiently. "JL, with lots of experience getting in to places to plant cameras and observe people. Richie, with lots of experience getting things out of places and selling them for a nice profit. Neither one of them is particularly solvent, and neither has the collateral for a bank loan. Add her new friendship with Amanda to the mix, and it's a recipe for disaster. Trust me on this one, Adam. I'd rather give her every cent I've got than let her loose on the world with Richie, Amanda, and unpaid debts."
"Amanda wouldn't corrupt Richie that way," Duncan said, with more certainty than he felt. "She knows how much I disprove of her being a thief."
"Care to bet on that, Duncan?" Jim asked.
"No," Duncan admitted with a sigh. "Not really."
JL came back down the bar and studied her friends. Refilling their drinks, she shook her head. "You don't look very celebratory any more, Jim," she observed. "Adam getting you down? I could have him tossed out of the bar."
"That's all right, JL," Jim replied with a smile. "I'll handle it."
"If you say so," JL said with a sigh. "But bouncing him could be fun, so just keep it in mind."
"I promise," Jim said with a smile. "Have you given much thought to how you're going to solve your money problems?"
"A little," JL said noncommittally. "I'm sure I'll work something out." JL looked at her watch and poured herself another drink. "Ten minutes to midnight," she said. "I wonder what time zone they're in?"
"He'll call, JL," Duncan said confidently. "And right on time, too. I can't get him to do anything on time, but he's never been late for a date with a beautiful woman in his life."
"How about a date with a marginally attractive, much older, woman?" JL asked with a smile.
"None of those, either," Duncan replied, winking at her. "If there's a woman involved, he's as dependable as they come."
"I hope you're right," JL said. "Although how I could ever compete with Amanda, I can't begin to imagine."
"You don't have to," Adam replied with a grin. "Richie has to compete with Duncan, if it comes down to that. Because now that the equinox is over, it's basically Amanda's decision whether she wants to convince Richie to stay with her or let go of him and come back to Duncan."
"What about what Richie wants?" Jim asked.
Adam snorted. "Except for you, James, any man who's with Amanda wants what Amanda wants, when Amanda wants it."
JL considered that, then she looked sharply at Adam. "Are you insulting Richie?" she demanded. "Or me for choosing Richie over Duncan? I know you're insulting someone, I'm just not sure who."
Adam laughed and took another sip of beer. "If I were insulting you, JL, don't you think you'd know it?"
"There you go again. Is he insulting me, Jim?" she asked plaintively.
Jim shrugged. "Probably. What do I know? He's been insulting me for the last two millennia, but maybe he's changed."
JL laughed. Looking up as the clock struck twelve, she tried desperately to keep her hands steady as she poured herself another drink, having forgotten the one she already had. Sipping her newly-poured drink, she stared over Adam's shoulder pretending to listen to Bryan and Joe, but the phone remained stubbornly silent. One of the waitresses called to her, and JL shook herself slightly and put her glass down. She looked puzzled as she realized that there were two glasses on her side of the bar, and she pushed the full one over to Duncan with a shrug before moving down the bar to fill the waitress' order.
"She's got it bad," Jim said with a reminiscent sigh. "I haven't been that nervous about seeing someone again since, well..."
"Since the last time Bryan went off to fight a challenge match," Adam interrupted. "Give up the calm, cool, unruffled act, James. I know you better than that."
Jim shrugged. "What can I tell you?" he said with a smile. "He grows on you. Like mold or something."
Bryan heard them laughing and had a feeling he needed to defend himself, so he wrapped up the jam session. Joe glanced at the clock and whispered to Bryan, "Can you and Jim go out back for a minute?"
"Why?" Bryan whispered back.
"Because Richie has a surprise for JL. Just make sure she can see you when she goes outside."
Bryan looked intrigued and nodded. Joe grinned at him, giving him a grateful pat on the back as they rejoined the others. When Joe resumed his place behind the bar, he gave JL a sympathetic hug. Bryan whispered to Jim for a minute, and the two excused themselves saying they needed some air.
JL watched them go through the back door before looking questioningly at Joe. "What are they up to?" she asked him.
"Not my assignment," he replied with a smile. "If you're so curious, why don't you go look?"
JL sighed. "Not my assignment, either. Nor will it ever be again."
Joe smiled understandingly at her. "I'm sorry they ousted you, JL, but it is a conflict of interest."
"Tell him that," she grumbled, glancing at Adam.
"He's not in the field," Joe replied. "It's different. You'd be bored to tears chasing a dusty old legend."
"True enough," she agreed. "Especially when I've already found him, dated him, and tossed him back out again."
Adam started. "How long have you known?" he asked.
JL grinned. "I was just guessing, actually. Thank you for confirming it."
Adam sighed. "Jim's right," he said pitifully. "You're impossible."
JL leaned over the bar and gave him a friendly kiss. "It's OK, Adam," she told him. "Your dusty old Quickening is the last thing I want to deal with right now."
"That's good," Adam muttered. "I think."
"We seem to be having a run on scotch tonight, aren't we?" Joe observed as JL refilled her and Duncan's glasses. "Which reminds me, JL. I bought a special case of scotch this afternoon, and I forgot to bring it in. Could you grab it out of my truck? It's parked out back."
"What are you, crippled?" she said lightly, remembering an old joke they used to share.
"No," he replied, smiling as well. "Just lazy. Now go. Here are the keys."
JL laughed and hugged him, before taking the keys and going off to get the scotch. Joe watched her hesitate at the door, smiling as she wolf-whistled at Jim and Bryan. As the door closed behind her, Joe pulled a camera from behind the bar and gestured to Duncan and Adam. "Follow me."
Exchanging equally mystified looks, Duncan and Adam followed Joe outside. They found Jim and Bryan leaning against the wall of the building, sharing a joint and looking expectant. As JL climbed into Joe's truck to get the scotch, a car pulled from the shadows and stopped in the illumination cast by the spotlight over the back door. Duncan recognized it as another red 1989 Mustang GT, but this one was a mint condition convertible with a phoenix in golden metallic paint on the hood. Duncan couldn't see the driver, but he recognized Amanda when she slipped out of the shadows next to Jim and Bryan and put a finger to her lips. Stealing silently over to Joe's truck, she waited until JL backed out carrying the scotch.
JL glanced up as she locked the door, then she stopped and stared at the Mustang. Hardly noticing when Amanda delicately removed the case of scotch from her hands, she approached the car slowly, studying the gleaming phoenix and the Washington license plate that read JLDAWSN. As she approached the driver's side the door opened and Richie climbed out wearing black leather pants, a green silk shirt, and a new black and silver leather jacket. Holding the door open so she could hear Jackson Browne singing Hold On Hold Out on the CD-player, he smiled. "Can I come home now?" he asked.
JL nodded speechlessly and hugged him. Richie kissed her before moving aside so she could get in the car. "Shall we go spar?" he said.
"Are you kidding?" she said with a smile. "Who needs to spar? Let's go to your apartment and have sex."
Richie walked quickly around the car, looking heavenward as he mouthed the words, "Finally. Foreplay without weaponry. Thank you, god," then he waved to Amanda and got in the passenger side. JL backed out of the parking lot, giving them a good-bye honk on her horn.
Jim looked at Adam significantly and said "See what I mean? JL. Richie. Amanda. Debts. Big, big trouble. I'll bet he paid cash for that car, not to mention those clothes."
"Of course he did," Amanda agreed, handing Bryan the case of scotch and then giving Duncan a kiss. "Finance charges are outrageous these days. So did you guys have fun without us?"
"Amanda," Duncan said warningly.
"Yes, dear?" she purred, snuggling into him. "Is something wrong?"
"Richie can't afford a car like that," Duncan told her, trying to stay mad long enough to scold her properly.
"We got lucky at the race track," she replied. "He bet a 60-to-1 shot that came in like a champ."
"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?" Duncan said. "You stole artifacts out of that temple, didn't you?"
"I just told you," Amanda protested, batting her eyes, "we won it at the track. That's my story and I'm sticking to it." Caressing Duncan's chest, she smiled seductively. "But if you want to take me home and question me at length, who knows what I might say?"
Duncan sighed. "Why do I put up with you?"
Amanda kissed him passionately, making shooing motions to the others over Duncan's shoulder. They drifted reluctantly back into the bar, leaving Amanda alone with her soon-to-be-helpless victim.
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