This story is a work of Highlander fan-fiction, a non-profit, amateur piece done without the permission of Rysher Entertainment. It is in no way intended to infringe upon Rysher's rights to their world or characters. I would like to thank my beta-reader, Jim Overly, and my editor, Trudy A. Goold, for their assistance in the creation of this story.
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Viator skulked in the shadows near the tavern. The laughter of the majority of the patrons echoed pleasantly in his head and Viator wished he could join them. Unfortunately, there was one man in the corner drowning his sorrows in drink and Viator couldn't feel content until he went away. Slowly, he approached the building.
Several occupants of the tavern turned at the sound of the door opening and the gasps of surprise at the wild man who entered attracted the attention of the remainder. Soon everyone was staring at the intruder except for his intended target, off in his own little world of drink and misery. The cheerful atmosphere was replaced by one of fear as the customers noted the daggers clutched in either hand and the glint of madness in the man's eyes.
The fear struck Viator as if it was a living thing and he howled in pain, lashing out blindly at any target that presented itself. Their trances broken by the flurry of violence, patrons scurried to get out of his way. Two of the braver ones drew weapons and stood their ground, positioning themselves so that the madman would have to go through them to reach the others.
Piaras circled around, trying to get behind the source of the disturbance and knock him unconscious. Sensing the threat, Viator whirled at the last instant, receiving only a glancing blow that he barely noticed. The dagger still tightly clenched in his left hand marked a trail of red as it crossed the larger man's midsection. Dropping his club, the bouncer staggered backwards, clutching at his wound.
Swords raised, Illius and Aleron stepped forward. Illius, on the right, gasped and nearly dropped his weapon as Viator turned back, slicing Illius's arm with an outstretched dagger. Aleron caught an opening as the madman completed his pivot, plunging his blade deep into the wild man's chest.
Viator struggled futilely, but his efforts only served to twist the blade, increasing his agony. When at last the life drained from his body and it slumped to the ground, the whole room breathed a sigh of relief. Their courage returning once the madman lay motionless, a couple of people approached the heap of muddy rags still bleeding from the freshly made hole.
Friends of Piaras and Illius rushed to see if they were all right while Dermott tried to regain control of his tavern. With some effort, he managed to find messengers to send to the healer and the city guard. It would take time for them to arrive and while waiting, the tavern keeper offered Aleron a drink on the house.
As the room started to return to something resembling normal, Dermott glanced about, noting that Paganus was no longer sulking in his corner. Apparently somewhere amid the excitement, he had managed to sneak off without paying his tab. Dermott sighed. He'd have to wait and catch Paganus when he returned tomorrow night.
Suddenly, the heap on the floor twitched. Those nearest the body all jumped back and even Aleron turned pale as the corpse rose shakily to its feet. The dead man looked wildly around the room and then, snatching up his daggers, turned and ran from the wall of fear that surrounded him.
The tall, dark-haired man rode his horse down the otherwise deserted road. It had been dark for a while now, but the nearly full moon gave off sufficient illumination to travel by and the thought of the comfort of an inn drove him on for the last few miles. This was Lutetia he was approaching and it had been close to three years since Methos had last seen his old friend, Urshanabi. That wasn't the reason for his visit, though.
Methos had heard stories about a madman who repeatedly rose from the dead, the oldest of which dated back about seven years. When he had originally started tracking them five months ago, it had been for the sake of his usual scholarly curiosity about the activities of his fellow Immortals.
Now Methos was searching for the man himself. Viator the Mad had left a trail of bodies behind him, and the lives of mortals were no less precious for their shortness. Methos disliked violence and killing, but in his current state, Viator's life benefitted no one, including Viator himself. If Viator was really as mad as those Methos had talked to claimed, his death would be a mercy killing.
The ragged man ran through the empty streets, trying to find a place of comfort to shelter in. Suddenly he felt a powerful presence that projected a wave of pain. Viator had felt the sensation once before, near the temple in this very city. This time it was different, though. The priest had pitied Viator, but this other one wanted to hurt him.
Viator turned desperately, trying to locate the threat. He knew that he was cursed to never truly die, but the attempts to kill him were always painful. Viator felt that he had already endured enough pain for one evening and just wanted a safe place to sleep.
A quiet voice behind him spoke. "Viator the Mad?"
The ragged man turned slowly at the sound of his name. He could still faintly recall a time when his friends had called him Viator, though the epithat was new to him. The moonlight reflected off the raised sword of the red-haired stranger. While the painful sensation was starting to subside, the powerful wave of hostility that remained forced Viator to take a step backwards.
"I am Ruanaidh. The merchant whose caravan you ambushed last month was a friend of mine. Take up your sword. Your insanity ends now!" The tall man gestured with his own blade, but did not advance.
Viator wasn't certain exactly what he was being punished for, since he had never harmed anyone who hadn't hurt him first. He was additionally confused by Ruanaidh's conviction that he could kill Viator. The belief itself was common enough, but somehow Ruanaidh gave the impression that he knew something Viator didn't.
Ruanaidh's sword whistled through the air as he took a step forward impatiently. "Draw, you coward! I won't have it said that I took your head without a fair fight."
Viator didn't own a sword, but he still held the two daggers and the force of Ruanaidh's hatred and anger compelled the uncomprehending Immortal to act. Leaping at Ruanaidh, Viator took the more experienced man by surprise. Taking only a minor wound from the sword in passing, Viator plunged his twin blades into Ruanaidh's flesh as the momentum of his leap brought them both to the ground.
The sword was too long to be used in such close quarters so Ruanaidh released his grip, leaving it at the spot where they fell. He realized that his opponent was engaging him in a knife fight and wrestling match rather than a proper sword duel, and now the superior skill of the older Immortal started to win out. Ruanaidh managed to quickly deprive his younger opponent of the short blades he wielded, leaving him weaponless as well.
They rolled around on the ground for a while before Ruanaidh was in the position he wanted. He managed to get himself on top of Viator and within easy reach of the abandoned sword. Ruanaidh punched Viator in the face to stun him long enough for the killing blow. Grabbing the weapon, Ruanaidh raised it above his head, but then he hesitated. Ruanaidh was an Immortal, not a murderer, and Viator's struggles were pitiful in comparison to his own skill at combat.
Viator recovered from the punch, but failed to resume the fight. The guilt and sorrow that now warred with the hatred within the other man confused him. Somehow Viator knew that Ruanaidh wanted to remove his head and that if he did so, Ruanaidh would absorb Viator's essence and he would be no more. This confused Viator further, as it was not just a thought from Ruanaidh's mind, but an echo of lost memories that were both his and not his own.
"Please do it," he begged. Viator did his best to wish his essence towards the man with the sword, so it would all be absorbed and his pain would end at last.
This ended Ruanaidh's paralysis and he completed the final swing, severing Viator's head in a single blow.
This was only his second Quickening, but Ruanaidh still sensed that something was different enough to be wrong. As soon as Viator the Mad was dead, even before his life's energy began spilling out, Ruanaidh felt the contact of thoughts and feelings that were not his own. As Viator's Quickening assaulted his body, somehow Viator's personality was invading his mind. Ruanaidh screamed in helpless agony.
This late at night, the temple of Jupiter was quiet. Everyone had either left the grounds or gone to sleep except for one ancient priest. Urshanabi enjoyed having some time to himself to reminisce about lifetimes past and the nature of the divinity he followed. He presently professed to be a priest of Jupiter, but his actual view on religion was nowhere near that simple.
Since the temple was true Holy Ground, there was presumably some validity to the religion that had built it. However, all of the other religions that Urshanabi had previously belonged to were equally valid, in spite of contradictions between them. None of them explained the existance of Immortals, but all affected them in the same way.
Urshanabi wondered if all religions could somehow be different interpretations of the same force. Being viewed by mortals ignorant of his kind, the need for the answers to Urshanabi's questions was not realized. Immortals, for the most part, did not seem inclined to write their own interpretations. Most tended to become warriors rather than philosophers.
The Immortal priest's contemplation was interrupted by sudden flashs of light from outside. Guessing what was causing them, Urshanabi strained his senses in an attempt to identify the victim as he slowly crossed to the door. While the energy storm was not directly visible at this distance, the fact that it lit everything in its vicinity was obvious.
The Quickening was a bit far away for proper identification, but Urshanabi suspected it was the confused young man who had passed by the temple this afternoon. Urshanabi had attempted to reach out to him and ease his fear, but the pain of being near another Immortal had won out and the young man had fled. Now Urshanabi wished that he had decided to go after him, but at the time it had seemed better to wait. Curiosity about finding another like himself would have risen and that, combined with the comfort of Holy Ground, should have drawn the young Immortal back to Urshanabi.
It was probably too late to help the young man now, but Urshanabi was concerned for whomever had killed him. If Urshanabi was right, the Quickening would not have gone as the killer expected and the priest wished whomever it was luck in surviving it.
The sky above the city was dark now and Urshanabi reluctantly went back inside the temple.
The bridge leading to the walled island city was just coming into view when the sky above Lutetia was lit by a display of energy. Methos knew that his friend lived on Holy Ground, but Immortals were rare enough that having four in one city would be unusual. He urged the horse into a gallop.
Urshanabi sat in the temple. The night was quiet now, but the Quickening still bothered him. If the young Immortal was whom Urshanabi suspected, he had many enemies, most of whom were decent people. Viator had not been entirely responsible for his actions in either life or death and Urshanabi was concerned for the sanity of whomever had killed him.
He rose quickly as he felt the approach of another Immortal, the mingled patterns he detected confirming his worst fears. A scared and confused Ruanaidh entered the temple. He had two daggers stuck through his belt, but his scabbard hung empty. Urshanabi slowly approached the door, trying to project calmness and reassurance at his former student.
Ruanaidh looked at him with shock. "You're real!"
"Of course I'm real." Urshanabi winced internally at the further proof that his concerns were well-founded, but he attempted to project only calmness. "It's understandable that you're confused right now, but I can help you."
"No! Get out of my head!" Ruanaidh wailed, as realization crystallized. "You're like him. Go away!" He gave the priest a shove, knocking him to the floor, before fleeing into the night.
Urshanabi pulled himself up, but stopped himself from following. Distasteful as the concept was, Ruanaidh could get violent with him. Leaving Holy Ground without a weapon wouldn't be safe. While Urshanabi's own death could probably reverse the damage, it was not yet his time to die.
Methos sensed another Immortal inside the temple as he approached it. He hoped it was Urshanabi, but there was no way to tell. Methos barely took time to dismount before bursting through the door. The name of his friend was on his lips, but it died away unuttered.
"Methos! Thank Jupiter you're here," Urshanabi exclaimed as soon as the door started to open.
The ancient scholar stopped in the doorway, taking in his friend and the sword that Urshanabi almost never carried. Relief mixed with his concern, but neither could completely distract Methos from the certainty that the priest had identified him before Methos was visible from inside. "What happened? I saw the Quickening."
Urshanabi nodded. "Ruanaidh killed a young Immortal whom I believe was Viator."
"You'd kill your own student to avenge Viator the Mad?" Methos was incredulous.
Shaking his head, Urshanabi put his hand self-consciously on his sword hilt. "This is for defense only. I hope not to have to use it." Meeting his friend's eyes, he asked seriously, "You've heard of the phenomenon known as Dark Quickenings, haven't you?"
Methos nodded cautiously. Scattered legends claimed that anyone who killed too many evil Immortals would become evil themselves. Having taken the heads of more evil Immortals than anyone with no ill effects, Methos approached the theory with understandable skepticism. "But it's more complicated than they claim." Methos tried not to sound like he was fishing for information.
Urshanabi smiled at his colleague, nodding his head, but his expression sobered as he spoke. "When Ruanaidh killed Viator, he took in his madness along with his Quickening."
"Then it's too bad I didn't arrive sooner. If I had been the one to take Viator's head..."
"You would have been the one to absorb his madness. You might have been able to withstand it better than Ruanaidh, but if not..." Urshanabi shuddered. "I might stand a chance against Ruanaidh, but there aren't many swordsmen in your class."
Methos gave a humorless smile. "I've had a lot of practice." At heart he was a scholar, not a warrior, but three thousand years in the Game was a long time.
"I need to go after Ruanaidh and try to help him. Will you come with me?" Urshanabi's eyes held the pleading that his voice did not.
"You have to ask?" Methos didn't think he had ever seen Urshanabi more serious. He did know he had only seen the ancient priest off of Holy Ground seven times in the thirteen centuries they had been friends. Still, Urshanabi's talk of Dark Quickenings made Methos nervous.
Urshanabi relaxed and nodded as he led the way out of the temple. "If you've been tracking Viator, you must know more about him than the rumors I've heard. I need to know everything I can about the Immortals he's killed."
Methos followed, glancing around for his horse, which had wandered off to graze or sleep. "From what I've discerned, Viator the Mad hasn't killed any Immortals." Urshanabi turned, but Methos continued before he could protest, "But he did receive one Quickening."
Urshanabi looked at Methos, puzzled, and the scholar started his explanation, "It happened seven years ago..."
The sounds of Viator's screams woke the village. He had seemed normal enough as a child and no one had understood why his parents had abandoned him as an infant. It wasn't until he hit puberty that the odd behavior had started. Still, he didn't usually shriek for no reason, so they went to his hut to investigate.
They found an armed barbarian just inside the entrance. Frightened, the majority of the villagers backed away, but Martino was a warrior, just returned from Rome to visit his brother. He stepped through the path the group opened for him. "Leave him alone." Martino drew his sword to make sure his meaning was clear.
To the villagers' surprise, the barbarian laughed and answered in Latin. "And you're going to stop me? Pathetic." Drawing his own weapon, he disarmed Martino with one swing and killed him with a second.
The crowd stood frozen with shook and terror for a moment. Viator cried out again. This broke the trance of Martino's brother, Levka. "He can't take on all of us at once!" Levka rushed at the barbarian with an eating knife. The rest of the villagers were similarly armed or had grabbed makeshift weapons upon exiting their huts and most of them joined in.
Levka had been right. While he himself sustained a mortal wound, and three others were injured, twelve to one proved too much for the barbarian and he succumbed to their knives and clubs.
The villagers slowly got up and recovered themselves while Renzo the Healer began to do what he could for the wounded. Calleo, the village elder, had just arrived on the scene when the former corpse began to stir again. The villagers drew back with horror.
Calleo remained calm. "You took him out once and he's disarmed now. We just have to make sure he stays dead this time. He's probably a vampire. First you need to cut off his head, then..."
The rest of Calleo's instructions were lost as the barbarian vampire screamed, "No!" followed by a stream of curses in a language no one recognized. He looked wildly around for his sword, but it was now held by one of the mortals and the rest of the mob prevented him from going after it. Viator's howls echoed those of the undead barbarian, but the villagers paid them no attention.
The results of beheading a vampire were not what any of them expected. Even Calleo was surprised at the lightning that rose from the body and flew into the hut to strike the still wailing Viator. The lightning set the hut on fire, but everyone outside stood frozen until the energy storm subsided.
By the time it was over, the entire village was awake. They quickly divided into three groups. One fetched water to extinguish the hut. A second followed Calleo's instructions for finishing the vampire's disposal. The last assisted Renzo in escorting Viator and the wounded to the healer's hut, where he could attend to them more effectively.
After all the injured villagers had left, Renzo held Viator as he sobbed himself to sleep. In the morning Viator was gone and none of the villagers ever saw him again. They heard the stories of a madman who rose from the dead, but until the mysterious stranger known as Methos came by, asking questions, no one wanted to accept that it could be Viator.
Urshanabi shuddered as he walked. "That would be traumatic enough for anybody."
Methos nodded. "I'm fairly certain that Viator wasn't a full Immortal yet at the time. When I asked if there was any possibility that Viator had risen from seeming death on a prior occasion, Calleo looked at me as if he thought I was crazy. He insisted that the vampire, or whatever the barbarian was, must have infected Viator somehow. Viator must have been one of us, or he couldn't have received the Quickening, but I think that was what activated him."
Urshanabi nodded. "It sounds like that's what happened. I've never heard of such a case before, but there are so few of us and we're so hard to kill, that Immortals killed by mortals are extremely rare. For there to be one of us present, let alone one not quite Immortal yet..." He shook his head. "The odds against it happening seem incredible."
"I know," Methos said quietly. "Do you think it's the Gathering?"
Methos stopped walking now, looking at his friend. Even though the Gathering wasn't supposed to take effect until the Game was about to end, the ancient scholar had noticed that Immortals always seemed to defy probability in encountering each other, even now. The force that drew them together until there was only one Immortal left was one of the few things that really scared Methos.
Urshanabi slowly turned to Methos, but he hesitated before nodding. "Probably." As he started walking again, Urshanabi asked, "Who did the barbarian turn out to be?"
"I don't know!" Methos's frustration was obvious. "He didn't introduce himself to the villagers and I couldn't locate anyone else he'd encountered. I had to chose one or the other and Viator seemed more important. There are more than a hundred Immortals and only one of me. Even with help, I can't keep track of all of them all of the time."
Urshanabi gave him a gentle smile. "No one expects that of you, except you yourself. Not knowing whose Quickening he's carrying makes Ruanaidh harder to predict, but we can still help him."
"You think Viator received a Dark Quickening from the barbarian and that's what drove him mad?"
The priest nodded.
"Why? He was already prone to random mood swings. Becoming Immortal has been known to push unstable people over the edge before and even an ordinary Quickening can be pretty unsettling for someone who isn't expecting it."
Urshanabi shook his head. "I don't think Viator was as crazy as people make out."
"So you think Dark Quickenings are contagious?"
The ancient priest looked at Methos. "In some cases, not all. If worse comes to worse and you have to kill Ruanaidh, you'll be fine."
Methos sighed. The ancient scholar hated being deliberately left in the dark, even if he understood Urshanabi's reasons. Paranoia was one of the worst drawbacks to Immortality. They all knew that eventually there would be only one. This made it difficult to place complete trust in any Immortal, even your best and oldest friend.
The gap in knowledge made Urshanabi seem older than Methos by much more than the two centuries they had estimated. Of course, since neither remembered the time of their birth, one or both could easily be off by a matter of several centuries. However, it seemed more likely that Urshanabi's superior knowledge was caused by the fact that he concentrated more time on studying the nature of Immortals while Methos was off chasing their history. Still, in spite of the fact that he had no desire for Urshanabi's title of eldest Immortal, it sometimes bothered Methos that no situations ever came up in which he seemed the older of the two.
Urshanabi came to a halt and bent to pick up a sword that lay, abandoned, on the ground near a decapitated body. Turning, he showed the blade to Methos.
Viator had not carried a blade longer than a dagger in any story that Methos had heard. "Ruanaidh's?" he asked.
The priest nodded. "I'd recognize it anywhere."
Methos tried to remember if it was the one Urshanabi had given to his student. Sword fighting was a necessary part of the training of any Immortal who didn't intend to spend life as a priest. While Urshanabi didn't use the skill much himself, he did make sure all his students acquired it.
Suddenly the quiet night air was split by a scream. The two ancient Immortals exchanged glances and broke into a run.
Ruanaidh ran wildly through the streets of Lutetia. A part of his mind knew that he was heading in the wrong direction. If anyone could help him now, it would be Urshanabi. Unfortunately, he couldn't stand to be near his old mentor at the moment. There were already too many people in his head and Ruanaidh refused to deal with one more.
In the darkness, Ruanaidh didn't see the woman until he was almost on top of her. She barely had time to look up and scream before the collision sent both of them sprawling. Ruanaidh was confused to find himself on the ground. The woman was solid, even though she didn't feel real. Ruanaidh had never, in all his two hundred and fifty years, been able to sense anything from mortals, but that was as irrelevant as the fact that the sense of realness was the very thing he was running from. The crazed Immortal made no effort to avoid stepping on the frightened woman as he rose shakily to his feet and staggered off into the night.
Eilionoir lay, listening to the footsteps until they faded completely before moving again. Her friends had warned her not to go out this night. The unnatural lights earlier were a sure sign that whether they were gods, demons or fae, something not of this world was abroad tonight. Eilionoir wondered what sort of creature that had been masquerading in human form.
She was just starting on her way again when two men came running up, one holding a sword. As they approached, Eilionoir realized that they were not guardsmen, even though both wore sheathed swords. The one holding the third weapon was a priest from the temple of Jupiter.
It was the other man who spoke. "Where did he go?"
Eilionoir pointed in the direction the being had gone as she addressed the priest. "What was he?"
Urshanabi had to stop and answer the woman as Methos ran off on the indicated course. The priest wished he had time to come up with a more reassuring answer, but he tried to project calmness as he gave a version of the truth. "He's a man possessed by a confused spirit. We have to find him to lay the spirit to rest. Don't worry. He shouldn't bother you again."
"You're going to help him with that?" Eilionoir looked dubiously at the sword in his hand.
"This belongs to Ruanaidh. The spirit caused him to lose it, but he's going to need it back." Urshanabi gave a reassuring smile. "I promise everything will be fine."
Eilionoir nodded. She wanted to ask about the lights, but knew the priest had to be on his way. She could always go by the temple in the morning.
Methos slowed to a walk when he sensed the Immortal, needing the concentration to locate the source of the disturbance. There were two Immortals within in his range. Since the one behind him was Urshanabi, the one ahead and to the right must be Ruanaidh. The priest had been delayed long enough to be out of sight, so Methos decided to try something he wasn't certain would work. Methos knew that his senses were significantly more acute than those of the average Immortal, but he suspected Urshanabi was even more sensitive than he was.
The two ancient Immortals had adjusted to each other's presence back at the temple. While Methos now had his sense of Urshanabi back in conscious awareness, their reaction to each other had only increased slightly. This was normally a good thing that he tried to achieve when using his well-trained senses, but right now Methos wanted Urshanabi to reacquire a sense of him. Increasing his own reaction to the ancient priest required little more than quelching his instinctive dampening of the effect.
The activity in Methos's aura automatically triggered a response from Urshanabi's. Methos waited to see if the priest would react to it. Sure enough, the Immortal trailing Methos changed his course to intercept the one the scholar was now following. Methos smiled. It was little things like this that allowed the two ancient Immortals to admit to each other that they shared such skills that mutual paranoia wouldn't let them speak of.
The Immortal ahead of Methos had frozen upon sensing him and the red-haired man quickly came into view. Methos had never met the other Immortal before, but he recognized Ruanaidh from the sketch Urshanabi had drawn for him as soon as they were close enough for Methos to make out his features.
Ruanaidh broke out of his paralysis. "You're not real. How can you be an Immortal if I can't feel you?"
Methos slowed his approach, making a point of holding his hands away from his sword hilt in a non-threatening manner. But, just in case, he kept the muscles tense, prepared to grab the weapon the instant it was needed. He spoke in as calm and soothing a manner as he could manage. "I'm sure you can sense me or you wouldn't have reacted to my presence. My name is Methos. I'm a friend of Urshanabi's."
The young Immortal shook his head. "You're an Immortal, but you're not there. Methos is one of the ancients. He'd understand."
The ancient scholar smiled as he continued his slow approach. "If my first three millennia made me omniscient, what would I have left to learn in my next three?"
Ruanaidh considered briefly, then shook his head again. "Urshanabi understood. He was real."
Methos wished he knew what the young Celt was talking about, but Urshanabi hadn't arrived yet. "I'm real too. See. You can feel me now, can't you?" Methos placed a gentle hand on the younger man's left shoulder.
"No!" Ruanaidh drew one of the daggers with his right hand as he squirmed out of Methos's grasp and tried a stab at his heart.
The ancient Immortal was unable to deflect the blade farther than his lung as he drew his sword and took a step backwards. Unfortunately, Ruanaidh wouldn't let him have the distance needed to wield it properly. He now had the second dagger out and used the space to leap at his elder, knocking him over from the momentum.
Having the wind knocked out of him would have put Methos momentarily at a disadvantage even if he could breathe properly to begin with. He felt the daggers at his throat and used his free hand to grab one of Ruanaidh's wrists, but the other started to cut. Methos debated the wisdom of letting go of his sword. At the moment Ruanaidh was in a better position to use it than he was. On the other hand, if Methos lost consciousness, the younger Immortal would end up with it anyway.
"Ruanaidh, please, that's my friend you're trying to kill." Urshanabi's quiet voice startled both combatants.
The mad Celt looked up at his mentor. He saw that Urshanabi was holding the sword Ruanaidh couldn't remember dropping. Urshanabi had been the one to teach him the no two against one rule, so he knew the eldest Immortal wouldn't interrupt him, but still he hesitated. The priest called the other Immortal his friend, so Ruanaidh began to consider the possibility that he might really be Methos more seriously. The previous Quickening had given him enough problems that he didn't think he could afford to take the head of one of the ancients. Ruanaidh rose to his feet and fled.
As he felt the pressure of the Immortal on top of him leave, Methos tried to rise as well. A wave of dizziness convinced him that it might be better to heal first. His quickening manipulation tricks could probably use some more field testing anyway, if he could just stay conscious long enough to apply them. Methos vaguely heard footsteps running past him as Urshanabi gave chase.
Ruanaidh could hear the footsteps following him as he ran. He slowed his pace as he neared the edge of the island, uncertain whether he ought to brave the river. Immortals had little to fear from drowning, but Ruanaidh was a poor swimmer and there were two ancients chasing him.
The ancient who was real was right behind him, trying to be reassuring. "I can help you if you let me."
"No, you're not helping," Ruanaidh said as he turned. Waving the daggers at his mentor, he took a step closer. "Leave me alone."
"Please come with me. I don't want to have to fight you." In spite of this, Urshanabi switched Ruanaidh's sword to his left hand and drew his own. He wasn't really skilled enough to try fighting this way, but merely holding them in front of him made the daggers, with their shorter reach, mostly ineffective.
Ruanaidh slowly circled around his mentor, still waving the daggers threateningly. "You don't have to fight me. Just stay away from me."
Urshanabi pivoted, keeping the swords between himself and the younger Immortal. As Ruanaidh neared the buildings, the priest could see the now-healed Methos coming towards them. Knowing that his student now had nowhere to run, Urshanabi took a few steps towards him. "Please let me help you."
The swords in the way prevented the leap that had startled himself and nearly taken out Methos, so Ruanaidh hesitated. A fragment of his own combat knowledge sifted through the mad ramblings in his brain. He pulled his arm back to throw one of the daggers at Urshanabi, but a sword hilt hit him from behind and the throw went wild as he lost consciousness.
"We were in the middle of a duel," Urshanabi said sternly. Methos was old enough to know better.
Methos was also old enough to feel secure in his ability to distinguish when practicality could take precedence over following the rules to the letter. He deliberately ignored the reprimand as he bent to deprive the unconscious Immortal of the second dagger. "What did he mean when he said I wasn't real?" Methos demanded.
"Methos..." Urshanabi began.
The scholar looked up to meet his friend's eyes. "I'm not some ancient-worshiping kid you can lead about on a string. I deserve to know what I'm up against."
The unyielding force of Methos's anger caused the priest to take an involuntary step backwards, reminding Urshanabi that while his friend might be slightly younger, he was by far the more powerful of the two Immortals. Urshanabi sighed as he sheathed his sword. "Viator was an empath."
Methos nodded. He had long suspected that Urshanabi had empathic abilities of his own, which this confession more or less confirmed. It also not only explained Ruanaidh's definition of real, but gave a clue regarding Urshanabi's theories on Dark Quickenings. Methos undid Ruanaidh's sword belt and tossed the scabbard to Urshanabi as the young Immortal began to stir.
Ruanaidh saw Methos standing over him when he opened his eyes. He wanted to run away, but Urshanabi was not too far off on his other side. "Please, just let me go," he begged.
"I'm sorry, but we can't do that. We would like to help you or, if you prefer, I can put you out of your misery." Methos indicated the sword his hand was resting on. "However, we cannot allow you to run around as a madman, endangering innocents and putting the secret of all Immortals at risk."
"You wouldn't kill me," Ruanaidh said uncertainly, looking at Urshanabi for support.
"Try me," Methos responded, drawing his weapon. He hadn't given up on the idea that Urshanabi could cure the young man, but Methos was getting pretty frustrated. The priest might be able to sense the difference, but Ruanaidh shouldn't be able to.
Ruanaidh hesitated. Urshanabi's stories about his oldest friend implied that Methos wouldn't kill someone in this fashion. Then again, the way Methos had taken him out fit in better with the more common stories about the ancient Immortal's unpredictability. Ruanaidh wasn't ready to die yet. Viator had believed that was his only way to escape, but his death had merely passed the madness to another. "Can you really help me?" Ruanaidh asked his mentor.
Urshanabi nodded. "If you let us."
Swallowing and closing his eyes, Ruanaidh nodded. "I'll try."
"We should head back to the temple for some rest. I'll make arrangements for us to leave first thing in the morning."
"Leave? Where are we going?" Ruanaidh asked nervously.
"There is an underground spring about three days ride from here. The waters have the ability to inspire visions, and in your case will allow you to face your inner demons and overcome them."
Methos perked up at the mention of the spring. From Urshanabi's previous descriptions, Methos had guessed that its proximity was one of the reasons Lutetia had been the priest's home these past five centuries. However, Urshanabi had not divulged the the spring's location and the ancient scholar had yet to locate it with his own efforts.
Still, Methos was not totally convinced that the spring could cure someone of a Dark Quickening. Unfortunately, he knew very little about either phenomenon and had to trust Urshanabi's judgement. While a part of him wanted to question his friend on the subject, it was unlikely that he would be able to get any satisfactory answers, and he did want to see the spring himself. Methos kept silent as he followed the other two Immortals back to the temple.
The rustling of leaves woke Methos with a start. Realizing that he had nodded off while on watch, Methos was on his feet in an instant. In his defense, it was late at night after a long day of riding with minimal sleep the night before, but he had promised Urshanabi that he was up to first watch. After all, the priest had gotten even less sleep the previous night and was not as accustomed to travel as Methos was.
Moonlight illuminated a figure hurrying away from their makeshift camp and Methos guessed it was Ruanaidh. Focusing his senses, the scholar could tell it was one of the two Immortals within his range, and the other was Urshanabi's sleeping form. Since Methos knew that he would be able to follow from some distance away, he decided to move slowly enough to avoid making a sound.
The tactic paid off. Once he was well clear of the camp, the younger Immortal slowed to a walk. By keeping him near the edge of his detection range, Methos could afford to increase his own pace without fear of being heard. Circling around, Methos positioned himself behind a tree in Ruanaidh's path.
When he felt the young Celt approach, Methos stepped out in front of him. "Going somewhere?"
Ruanaidh stopped short, looking wildly back towards the camp where he had left the sleeping Methos. Somehow the older Immortal had managed to wake up and not merely follow Ruanaidh, but get ahead of him. Such a feat dispelled the last of his doubts that this was one of the ancients. At least it did for the few seconds it took him to figure out why Methos seemed doubly unreal at the moment. "You're not an Immortal!"
Methos smiled. The younger man didn't realize that the two Immortals had never been out of sensing distance of each other. Methos brought his own senses back to conscious awareness. Ruanaidh didn't have Urshanabi's sensitivity, so Methos wasn't quite sure this would work, but this time the tracking ability was unnecessary. Increasing their mutual reaction to each other was much harder with the younger Immortal than it had been with the ancient priest the previous night, but his effort was rewarded.
The Celt took a step back, fear and respect mingling in his eyes. "How did you do that?"
Methos shrugged. "It's just a little trick I picked up."
Ruanaidh suddenly realized that Methos had been going easy on him the night before. Even though the ancient Immortal had been cooperating, that didn't change the fact that Ruanaidh had tried to kill him. Methos must be toying with him now. Urshanabi was a man of peace and might be willing to protect his confused student, but the ancient priest was nowhere in sight. Desperately, Ruanaidh turned and ran as if the Hounds of Herne were after him.
The camp and his old mentor failed to come into sight. Ruanaidh couldn't remember how far away it was supposed to be or even if he was heading in the right direction. Glancing at the ancient Immortal chasing him, Ruanaidh noted that Methos had fallen behind. Inspiration struck. With the lead he had, Ruanaidh could probably escape entirely. He didn't really want to go back to Urshanabi anyway. The Celt veered off, heading as far away from where he thought the camp was as he could manage while still avoiding the trailing Immortal.
Even Immortals can't run at top speed indefinitely. Ruanaidh pushed himself on, but eventually he was too short of breath and had to stop. He turned to verify that he had lost the ancient following him and was surprised to see Methos almost on top of him. The elder Immortal leapt, grabbing both of Ruanaidh's wrists in order to pin them to the ground as they landed.
The two Immortals stared at each other a minute, panting from their exertions. Methos was the first to speak. "I thought you wanted to be cured."
"What I want is to be left alone, but the voices in my head won't go away. He's real and you're not and I just couldn't stand it anymore," Ruanaidh sobbed.
Methos looked into the younger Immortal's eyes, wishing he could tell if the Celt was going to try to run away again. "You have Viator's memories?"
"Yes. No. I don't know. Ever since I killed him, there have been things in my head that don't belong here." Ruanaidh shuddered.
"If I understand things correctly, Viator defined reality by whether or not he could sense someone's emotions. You somehow inherited his definition, but not his empathy, which is why you're so confused."
The young Immortal gazed up at the ancient scholar. "I think so." He shook his head. "Why couldn't I figure out he was an empath?"
Methos gave a gentle smile. "You're too busy suffering from the effect to be able to analyze it effectively. Besides, I'm not certain Viator knew what he was."
"He didn't know he was an Immortal." Ruanaidh shook his head. "I shouldn't have killed him."
"Don't feel badly. If I had been in your situation, I would have killed him."
"Even knowing what we know now?" Ruanaidh asked.
In spite of the high risk of madness, there was a part of Methos that would have been sorely tempted to learn what it was like to be an empath. He pulled away, looking up at the horizon as he answered softly, "Knowing what we now know, I'd bring him to Urshanabi for help."
Ruanaidh sat up slowly. "He's an empath too, isn't he? That's why he feels real."
"Why couldn't I feel him before?"
"You didn't know what you were you looking for." The ancient scholar looked back at the young Celt. "I can't feel him."
Ruanaidh shook his head. "Why would you want to?"
Methos smiled. "Because I can't."
Uncomprehending, the younger Immortal shook his head. Gazing off into the distance, he said quietly, "I think I can stand to be near you if I have to. As an ancient, you're sort of real some of the time." Shaking his head, Ruanaidh continued, "But I don't want him in my head." Meeting the other's eyes, the Celt pleaded, "Can you take me to the spring alone?"
The ancient scholar sighed. "I wish I could. Unfortunately, Urshanabi never told me where it was."
"But if I have to be near him, I'll run away again." The young Immortal looked desperate.
"So tell him that," Methos suggested.
Ruanaidh looked at him doubtfully. "It won't make him leave."
"No, but it might convince him to stop projecting his emotions to you," the scholar explained.
"He can do that?" the younger Immortal asked in amazement.
"I don't know for certain, but he does have better control than Viator did. We won't know how much unless you ask him."
"Why don't you ask him?" Ruanaidh asked curiously. "You've been friends with him longer."
Methos shook his head. "I'm also, in the long run, more of a threat and have less immediate use for the information. Even living on Holy Ground, Immortals can't reach our age without at least a little of the species paranoia."
Ruanaidh shivered. "I don't ever want to grow old enough that I have to keep secrets from my best friend."
With a half-hearted smile, Methos replied, "It beats dying."
Shaking his head, Ruanaidh said, "It's no wonder no one understands you. You are to us what we are to the mortals."
"I'm not the only ancient Immortal. I'm not even the oldest."
"I know Urshanabi is older, but I think you've seen more," Ruanaidh said thoughtfully.
Methos gave a rueful smile. He had been wishing that he could seem older than Urshanabi in just one respect, but feeling the weight of the millennia wasn't the one he would have chosen. Rising, he said, "Come. We should get back to camp. You need to talk to Urshanabi and we could both use some sleep. We have another long day ahead of us."
While the looks Urshanabi gave Methos during Ruanaidh's talk with him were not entirely friendly, the priest had apparently agreed to the young Immortal's conditions. At least, Ruanaidh made no further escape attempts in the two days that followed. He did keep pestering Methos for reminders that the scholar was an ancient Immortal, and therefore almost real.
Once Methos had the hang of it, activating another's senses was an easy extension of the ability to reactivate his own. It was only the lack of useful applications that prevented him from figuring it out earlier. The amused expressions Urshanabi sent his way gave Methos the not surprising information that the priest could sense what Methos was doing and conveyed the impression that Urshanabi could duplicate the effect if he tried.
The ability to call up awareness of Immortals already within range was actually a fairly minor skill that Methos suspected some younger Immortals might have as well. That was one reason why the scholar wasn't too worried about revealing its existance to Ruanaidh. Of course, the young Celt seemed to be operating under the impression that the reverse was the primary ability and that it was only available to ancients, so he might not figure out anything useful. For that matter, the skill itself had limited value without the much more difficult tracking ability that Methos had mastered.
Noticing that Urshanabi had come to a stop up ahead, Methos pulled himself out of his contemplation. The young Immortal riding beside him had slowed his mount, but Methos continued on to where the priest was dismounting. "We're here?"
Urshanabi indicated a spot with his head. When Methos looked in that direction, he could make out some kind of hole or opening several yards away. Meanwhile, the priest had been removing Ruanaidh's scabbard from his horse. He now approached the young Celt where he sat astride his own mount, watching nervously. "It's time," the priest said quietly.
Resisting the urge to turn and flee, Ruanaidh gave a slight nod and slowly swung his leg over and lowered himself to the ground. Urshanabi held up the weapon, hilt pointing towards Ruanaidh. The young Celt swallowed nervously. "That's my sword." The priest nodded. "I don't want to hurt you with it."
"Your sword represents who you once were and who you wish to be again. Symbols are very important in visions." Ruanaidh hesitated. "Take it." The priest's soft tone made it a request, but all present knew it was a command.
Ruanaidh obeyed silently, then accompanied Urshanabi back to where Methos stood waiting, staring intently at them. The priest retrieved the rope from his horse and led the others to the hole. When he had finished securing the rope for Ruanaidh to climb, Urshanabi indicated that the young Immortal begin his descent. While the priest did not speak the words, it was clear that his student was to enter alone.
Looking nervously at his mentor, Ruanaidh reached for the rope and began to lower himself into the cave. It was quiet below ground, and the late afternoon sun spilling through the openings could not dispel all of the ominous shadows. He slowly walked towards the pool of water that had collected at one end of the cave. This was the spring that was supposed to create the vision that would cure him. As Ruanaidh nervously stepped into the pool, the water appeared to glow with a supernatural light.
Methos and Urshanabi watched Ruanaidh until he was out of sight. The scholar moved away from the entrance before speaking. "Are you certain this is going to work?"
The priest sighed and shook his head as he moved to join his friend. "This is the first such case I've had since I found the spring. Based on my own experiences with its visions, I believe they have the ability to stabilize his condition. Which direction he goes in is up to Ruanaidh, which is why it is so important that he not doubt the spring's ability to cure him."
"But it could actually make him worse?"
Urshanabi nodded. "In some respects, but even if it does, stabilizing his condition will make mundane attempts at treatment more effective."
Methos wasn't sure how Ruanaidh could become stable, but remain mad, but Urshanabi gave the impression that he ought to. The scholar decided not to push the matter, since he was unlikely to get satisfactory answers in any case.
The cave had been transformed until it resembled the street in Lutetia where Ruanaidh had faced Viator. This time it was lit, not only by the moon above, but by the water he was standing on. Looking around, Ruanaidh spotted the madman he had come looking for, exactly where he had been three days ago, on that fateful night.
"You said the suffering would end when you killed me," Viator accused. "You lied. It hasn't ended. It will go on and on for all eternity."
Ruanaidh shook his head. "I want it to end. It should have ended. You're the one torturing me. Go away and leave me alone."
"I can't. You made sure of that. We're inseparable now."
Still shaking his head, Ruanaidh responded, "It doesn't work this way. Beheaded Immortals stay dead. They don't take over the mind of whomever killed them."
"Liar! It happened, so it must work this way." Viator hurled one of the twin daggers he held in clenched fists.
Ruanaidh ducked and the short blade flew over his head, striking the building behind him, then falling with a clatter on the rocks at the edge of the pool of water. As he turned, intending to pick up the dagger, Ruanaidh remembered the weapon he already carried. Drawing the sword, the Celt held it out in front of him and turned back to Viator. "I am myself and you don't belong here."
Watching Ruanaidh approach him menacingly, Viator protested, "Killing me didn't work before. Why would it work now?"
Stopping short, Ruanaidh realized that Viator was probably right. Pulling the other Immortal's Quickening deeper into himself would more likely than not make the problem worse. Ruanaidh examined the sword in his hand, wondering why Urshanabi had insisted he take it if he wasn't supposed to use it.
Then it occured to him that Urshanabi had given it to him as a symbol, not as a weapon. It represented himself before and after Viator's influence. Kneeling on the street, Ruanaidh dipped the blade into the water beneath him. When he rose again, it now shone with its own light. Holding it in front of him, he took a step closer to the other Immortal. "I was, am and will always be Ruanaidh. Begone," he commanded.
Viator took a step backwards. "Where should I go?"
Ruanaidh hadn't the faintest idea which gods Viator professed to follow. "Where do you belong?"
Shaking his head in confusion, Viator said, "I don't know."
Inspiration hit Ruanaidh. "Urshanabi is a priest." While Jupiter was not a deity Ruanaidh followed, Urshanabi knew the rituals for the Celtic gods from before the Romans arrived here and Ruanaidh suspected that he had learned many others besides. "He can send you on to your afterlife."
Remembering that he had left Urshanabi above ground, Ruanaidh looked up, but he could see only the night sky. "Come. You can wait at his temple while I fetch him."
Urshanabi rose quietly. Noting Methos looking at him questioningly, he explained, "Ruanaidh wants me."
Methos nodded and slowly rose to follow the priest. He watched Urshanabi climb down the rope to the cave. Methos didn't think the priest wanted Methos to join him just yet. Looking around, he realized that there was no longer anyone here to stop him and curiosity compelled the ancient scholar to begin his own descent.
When Ruanaidh and Viator reached the temple of Jupiter, Urshanabi was standing in the doorway watching them. "Viator needs help leaving this life and I don't know which gods to send him to," Ruanaidh explained.
Urshanabi nodded. "He's Roman." Urshanabi knew that from the story Methos had told him. "Come inside." The priest gestured towards the door as he stepped aside to let the others enter.
Methos looked around the cave, noting several smaller openings that the diminishing sunlight still seeped through. As he moved further in, Methos could see Urshanabi and Ruanaidh standing in a pool of water at the far end of the cave and he wondered what they were experiencing. Having no desire to interrupt the cure that was supposed to be taking place, he decided to approach no closer.
From the way Urshanabi had been acting it seemed likely that he expected to be able to join Ruanaidh's vision, rather than start one of his own. Methos wondered if this was a property of the pool or Urshanabi's own abilities that enabled him to do such. The ancient Immortal sighed. It didn't really matter. He could see no purpose to himself doing either at the moment. The spring wasn't going anywhere. Methos could always come back to try his own visions at another time.
When the ceremony was over, Ruanaidh was surprised to find himself back in the cave. Seeing Urshanabi standing next to him in the water, he took a step back. "That was really you? But I thought..." Looking up, he saw the cave roof had replaced the sky.
Urshanabi smiled and said simply, "You called. I came."
"Thank you," Ruanaidh said sincerely. "Thank you for everything. And your friend, Methos too. I..." Turning towards the exit, Ruanaidh saw the ancient Immortal standing there watching him.
Ignoring Urshanabi's look of reproach, Methos smiled. "You're cured now. That makes it worth it."
"Even though I tried to kill you?" Ruanaidh was skeptical. Most Immortals found that hard to forgive, even the ones who weren't ancients.
"I don't think you were yourself at the time." When Ruanaidh smiled, Methos suggested, "If you two would like to come out and dry off, I think we have something to celebrate."
Ruanaidh widened his grin and even Urshanabi began to smile as Ruanaidh took the hand Methos had reached down to help him out of the water.