by Maxine Mayer
NEW YORK CITY - 1999
Sloan Caldwell watched Matthew Marcus dash across the street - Sixth Avenue, or Avenue of the Americas, as it was now called. Sloan recalled the days before the name had changed but couldn't remember when or why the city'd changed it.
When or why. With a small smile on his lips Sloan followed Matthew's deft progress down the opposite street, watching until the tall slim dark-haired man was lost to view in New York City's crowds.
It was hard to see him go. But it was time. Sloan was accustomed to it. He'd had his friend's company and undivided attention for nearly a week. Longer than usual. Now, Matthew's boss was back from Europe and Sloan knew he wouldn't see or hear from Matt for a while.
He'd met Matt's employer, the wealthy Irishman, Devlin O'Connor, at a Christmas party the man threw last year in his home. Matthew'd surprised him when he'd issued the invitation. Sloan suspected that the relationship between Matt and Devlin O'Connor wasn't simply that of employer and employee. The men shared a suite of rooms at an exclusive residential hotel and traveled together frequently, purportedly on business. It was an unusual arrangement for grown men. Sloan was sure his suspicions were justified.
There were other signs that led Sloan to believe there was a bond between Matthew Marcus and Devlin O'Connor beyond that of business associates. Matt was a cool customer, of course, but certain periods of turmoil in his life couldn't be entirely hidden. Sloan was always on the lookout for any clues to illuminate Matt's personality, and over the years he'd matched up his lover's distracted moods with the timing of Devlin O'Connor's solitary business trips, or O'Connor's renewal of his relationship with an attractive brunette who was close to both men. It wasn't pleasant to admit it to himself, but Sloan knew that Matthew used him shamelessly, to ward off loneliness when the Irishman was out of town, or otherwise unavailable for company. If boss and employee weren't lovers, it wasn't because Matthew didn't wish it.
And perhaps they were lovers. A man like Devlin O'Connor wouldn't care as deeply as Matt Marcus, Sloan believed. O'Connor hadn't the intellect to appreciate Matt. He was a rough and ready sort who'd pulled himself up by the bootstraps. A blustering bull of a man but attractive in his way. There wasn't any question what Matt might see in him. But to Sloan's mind, O'Connor was certainly not a man of depth or sensitivity. In his simplicity he might hurt Matthew without meaning to do so.
But O'Connor was a man of passion. Sloan admitted that. A few minutes in Devlin O'Connor's presence made it quite clear that the man was driven by passion. In him, this was very attractive. Sloan found O'Connor appealing and apparently so did Matthew. It occurred to Sloan that there were aspects of Matthew's intimacy with O'Connor which might parallel Sloan's with Matthew. Each man loved someone who reciprocated only a little, Sloan thought. Neither did anything to end what were in many ways unsatisfactory, abusive relationships.
With a sigh Sloan turned his steps in the opposite direction from the route Matt had taken, walking north toward his small apartment in the 60's. It would be a long night. Always was, the first night separated from Matt, after a few days together.
He wouldn't consider giving the man up, though. Matt was worth waiting for and suffering over. The three years since he'd known him were the best Sloan could remember. Perhaps their relationship was unsatisfactory on certain levels. Still, he'd never end it voluntarily.
Sometimes Sloan let himself imagine a day when Matthew would call, broken and bereaved, to tell him that Devlin O'Connor was dead. Heart attack. Or plane crash. Could Matt come over for a drink? He didn't want to be alone. Sloan knew this fantasy was absurd. Not that Devlin O'Connor couldn't die young. If he died tomorrow, Devlin would die young. He was no more than thirty-three while Sloan Caldwell was forty.
But Matt wouldn't be consoled by Sloan if Devlin died. In his heart of hearts Sloan knew that only Devlin's life and work held Matt here in New York, near, where Sloan could touch him. Devlin's death would kill the reason Matthew spent time with Sloan. Used him. Devlin's death would not open up possibilities for Sloan and Matt. It would simply destroy what they had.
Matthew Marcus unbuttoned his gray overcoat and took it off. "Have you accomplished what you set out to do, Dev?" Matt asked his lover, hanging his coat and suit jacket in the closet by the door of their apartment and sitting on the sofa. Without appearing to do so, he studied Devlin.
He thought Dev seemed very tired. He'd apparently come in only minutes before Matthew got home and without removing his overcoat had poured himself a drink. Dev held the glass in one hand and with the other rubbed his forehead, pressing deep against the bone. It looked to Matt as if Dev was attempting to push his anxiety away. He hadn't even sat down. He stood by their small bar, his back to the room, not looking up when Matt came in.
"Devlin?" Matthew repeated.
His friend's voice was low, without energy, when he answered. "I suppose. I brought Casey the money. He seemed content with the amount. For five minutes, at any rate," Devlin remarked bitterly, his Irish accent strong on his tongue, as it always was when he returned from abroad. He glanced at Matt, and his eyes were troubled.
"That's good. Getting Liam Casey off your back for five minutes is a triumph, Dev. The man's insatiable. He seems to think you're a bottomless well and he intends to drop his bucket into your pockets until the well runs dry."
"I believe in what he's doin'. I don' fight alongside the man, Matt. I don' risk my life. The least I can do is put my money where my mouth is."
"It's a lost cause, Devlin," Matt told his friend bluntly, drawn into a quarrel he knew he couldn't win. "When the hell are you gonna realize that? The Brits won't leave Ireland. No amount of money or weapons will make them leave. You're wasting your life on this, man!" He'd wanted to comfort Dev. Instead, Matt realized, he'd end up causing his lover more pain with his talk.
"No, I'm wastin' my life earnin' money to fund the Cause. Because you won' let me fight." The Irishman's dark eyes smouldered. It was an old argument between them, flaring up whenever they'd been separated for a time by one of Devlin's frequent trips abroad. Matthew knew he was more irritated by Dev's involvement with his Irish cohorts when his friend traveled with a woman - actually, one of Matt's former mistresses - to camouflage the true purpose of his trips.
"I won't go with you. Nor will I fight in their pointless war." Matt's fine eyes were hard and cold, his voice angry. He stood and went to the window. For a moment his back was to his friend but he turned quickly to face Devlin. "I refuse to watch you get killed. If my refusal prevents you from leaving our business entirely to go to Ireland and play the fool, then I'm glad."
"Oh, I know you are, Matthew Marcus. No one knows better than I. I won't leave you. You know that. But I don't thank you for blackmailin' me into stayin'."
"It's not blackmail. It's love." With a chuckle Matt added, "Maybe soon - sooner than I think - you'll decide you don't love me as much as you once did. Then you'll be off to Ireland for good. Serve me right, I suppose. But what will I do then?"
"Be serious. That won't happen."
"Or -" Matt continued, sauntering slowly over to the bar and pouring himself a brandy, "one day I'll decide I don't love you as much as I once did, and I'll go live with Caldwell. He'd be happy if that happened. Don't you agree?"
"Sloan Caldwell will never get ya, Matt. He's no' your type."
"He's all right." Matt shrugged. "He's not you. But he's all right. I love him, in my way."
"You love nobody," Devlin said quietly.
Matt frowned. "I love you."
"No, you don't. If you loved me, you'd want me to do what I need to do, for the Cause. You'd want me to be happy, instead of guilty that I don't fight - that I just throw money."
Raising his hand in a weary gesture, Matt said, "Look, let's not have this discussion for the seven hundredth time, Dev. It's not me who's stopping you from going to Ireland for good. You're stopping you. The fact that I'm glad of it, doesn't mean I'm forcing you to stay. You stay of your own volition. Whatever your reasons." Matt lifted his glass. "And yes, I'm glad of it!"
"Fine. Let's change the subject. Shall we go out to eat, or stay home?" O'Connor stood, picking up his leather gloves and rapping them sharply against his thigh.
"Out." Matthew went to the hallway, pulled out his jacket and topcoat and put them on again. "There's a new bar opened up on Houston, that I'd like to show you. They serve good food. It's expensive. You'll like it."
"Ah, Sloan found it?"
"Yeah." Matt grinned. "I think he believes in miracles."
"Does he, now?" Devlin asked, going out into the hall after Matt and closing the door behind them. They walked to the elevator and Matt pressed the button. "How's that?"
"Sloan believes that, if he entertains me, I'll love him."
"He's no' wrong, then, is he?" Devlin quipped with a smile.
"I already love him. I simply love you better."
The elevator came and the two men got on it. In its close confines they sought one another in a quick embrace, a kiss that was short, bruising, promising. Knowing it would be brief made it easier to give in to the desire to touch, reassure one another of their love in a physical way, erase the hurtful words they'd spoken. After a moment they pulled away from each other and stood apart, with their backs to the wall, facing the door, waiting to meet the world. Each wore a mask of indifference as if it was the only face a man could wear.
Sloan Caldwell brewed himself a cup of tea and brought it over to his drafting board. While Matt was with him he'd ignored two commissions that were nearing their deadlines. With a sigh, he turned on the architect lamp and opened one of the folders, but his concentration wasn't good. His mind kept reverting to thoughts about the past, until finally he took his teacup and brought it with him over to an easy chair. Sitting quietly, Sloan allowed himself to remember Edward Rasmussen, the only man besides Matthew that he'd ever loved.
Edward was dead now. He'd been killed in a plane crash nearly five years ago, and his body had never been recovered. But the love and care he'd lavished on Sloan was not forgotten. Edward had brought Sloan along, from a frightened art school graduate who still refused to accept what he was, to a proud, successful man who was secure enough in his sexuality and his professional life to face the world alone during the years after Edward died. Sloan hadn't let his life degenerate into promiscuity. He'd endured loneliness until he'd met Matthew and fallen in love again. The irony never ceased to amuse Sloan. Edward hadn't been his lover, was not gay. But he'd been Sloan's best friend for a decade and that had been enough to change Sloan's life forever.
He missed Edward every day. Wished he'd been able to say goodbye. Bury his friend properly. Wanted to introduce Matthew to Edward. Many times, Sloan caught himself wishing that. The impossible. Never to be.
With a sigh, Sloan stood and got his coat. He was hungry. He knew he often neglected his health after a few days with Matthew. The tendency to live on love while they were together, and afterwards, live on the memories of love, was strong. And wrong, Sloan knew. He left his apartment and took a cab to Houston Street, to the new restaurant he'd shown Matt a few days before. The food there was excellent. Good enough to tempt even him, even in one of his nostalgic, blue moods.
Matthew glimpsed Sloan when his friend came into the restaurant. He waved to the older man and called him to his and Devlin's table. They were chatting, ordering drinks, when the shots rang out, startling him, then killing him, Devlin and Sloan.
When Matt woke, he was freezing. He looked around, realizing that he must be in a morgue. He was lying on a metal slab of a table, covered with a pale green cloth. To either side, there were other metal tables. And his friends. Devlin at his right. Sloan at his left. Also covered. Dead.
Hovering near him, a firm hand on his shoulder, was a rugged-faced man of about forty, with close-cropped startlingly white hair.
"Don't be afraid, Matthew," the man said. "I'm Edward Rasmussen. You, Sloan Caldwell and Devlin O'Connor were shot in Flaherty's Restaurant tonight. Killed instantly. You were taken to the morgue at St. Vincent's Hospital. I'm here to get you out. The others will wake in a moment."
"I beg your pardon?" Matt said. "We were shot dead?"
"Couldn't be. I'm alive -" He lifted the cloth and looked at his chest. "Not even hit. I heard shots but they must've missed me."
"They didn't. You were hit. Killed. You've revived. Your friends will revive too. It takes a while, the first time. Actually, I'm surprised you're already up."
"Are you?" Matt asked sarcastically. "This surprises you? But the idea that the dead rise, doesn't?"
"No. It happens all the time. To Immortals. Which is what the three of you are."
"I see," Matt retorted. "Immortals. Lucky chance, that."
"In fact, I'm at a bit of a loss, how to deal with three -"
"Sensible of you. I agree, three men rising from the dead is a bit much. But if you get me some clothes, I can help."
"Well, aren't you the cat's whiskers, Matthew Marcus! Talk about poise and humor in the face of adversity! No wonder Sloan took to you."
"You know him - Sloan Caldwell? He'll be all right? He's not dead?" Matt asked anxiously, looking at his friend who lay still and silent.
"Neither of them will be out much longer." Grabbing a sweater and jeans from a bag by his side, Edward thrust them at Matt. "Put these on. Let me see to O'Connor. He appears to be coming to."
"You do that."
"What! Where am I?" Devlin O'Connor asked, sitting up on the metal table quickly, and looking around. He pressed his hand to his heart. "Was I shot, then?"
"That's right. But you're all right now. Put these on."
A moment later Sloan opened his eyes, then closed them again when he saw Edward. He groaned.
"Sloan?" Edward went around to his friend. "Sloan? How you feeling? You've got to get dressed."
"Edward?" Sloan whispered, looking up again.
"Yes. I'll tell you everything later. First, get into this sweater and jeans. I brought sneakers for all of you. They may be too big but I got what I could pick up fast. Sorry, no jackets. We haven't much time. If the forensic team comes in while we're still here, we'll have a problem."
"I think we've already got a problem," Matt remarked wryly, tying his second sneaker and standing. He'd dressed in the clothes Edward had given him and appeared to be ready for anything. "Where do you propose to take us - now that we're clearly officially dead and they'll be out looking for our bodies when we disappear?"
"Abroad. Europe. But first, to my cabin in Connecticut. O'Connor, you've gotta get to your money before they freeze your accounts. And if you've got anything immediately negotiable, take that out first. Bearer bonds, diamonds, cash - anything you might have salted away in a safety deposit box -"
"There's nothing," Matthew said, with a wry smile. "Devlin O'Connor's a pauper, thanks to the Cause."
"I'm no' a pauper. I've got a business, assets -"
"Nothing liquid?" Edward asked. "Well, it doesn't matter. I've got enough. It would've been easier, with more, but what I've got will do us."
"Edward -" Sloan whispered.
"I'll explain later."
Sloan shook his head. "Alive."
"Let's go, all of you." When the three new Immortals made no move, Edward Rasmussen barked, "Now!"
Edward Rasmussen drove without speaking, speeding north. Devlin O'Connor was in the passenger seat, his hand under the loose sweater, smoothing his skin compulsively where he knew he'd taken bullets. He stared ahead at the road, flinching every time the bright oncoming headlights shone in his eyes, but not shutting them.
Matthew Marcus sprawled in the back seat, on the right, his head back, eyes closed, apparently conserving his strength.
Sloan Caldwell sat upright to Matt's left, one hand stretched out, resting on the back of the leather driver's seat, near his old friend's neck. He stared at Edward's white hair, the shape of his ears. Then, after a while, he glanced at Matthew. "Are you awake, Matt?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, I'm awake. Just nursing a headache." After a moment Matt asked, "Devlin, who do you think tried to take us out? Your Irish friends? Or your British enemies?"
"I don' know, Matt," Devlin replied listlessly without taking his eyes off the road, though he wasn't driving. "Neither, I think. Why hit your friend? And the Brits don' work that way in this country - in the open. No, I believe it was personal."
"How could it be? Who'd want all three of us, for personal reasons?
"I don' know," Devlin repeated wearily.
Matt continued. "I think the bastards were trying for you and took all three of us out - just being thorough."
"Matt?" Sloan said.
"Does it matter? I mean, who shot us? We're alive -"
"You think they won't notice that? Whoever it is? Brits or Irish? Try again?"
Edward said, "They won't be able to find you. Not for years. They'll give up before that."
"You've got a lot of experience, have you?" Matt retorted sarcastically.
"Would you care to take this opportunity to tell us a bit about what's happened to us - this 'Immortality' business?"
Devlin added, "We heal fast, too, right? No scars, nothin'?"
"That's right. And you cannot die, in the normal run of things. You won't age past what you are now, either," Rasmussen explained. "You'll always be thirty-three. Sloan will always be forty. And fit," he added with a smile. "And you, Matthew Marcus," he went on, glancing in the rear view mirror, "will always be -"
"None of your business!" Matt retorted.
"Well, whatever you are, that's what you'll stay. We call it First Death. But you'll be stronger and tougher than you ever were. After."
"After what?" O'Connor asked.
"After you've learned to use a sword. Picked up some martial arts moves. Boxing. Wrestling. That sort of thing. You'll be very fit." Edward sighed. "I don't know how I'll handle three. I'm just gonna have to call in some favors -"
"You keep saying that - how will you handle three! What do you mean?" Matt asked irritably.
"Someone's gotta teach you. Not just the physical stuff. Other things. It's done one-on-one. I've been keeping an eye on Sloan, so I could step in when he bought it. If he bought it."
"Yeah? You've been doin' that?" Devlin asked.
"That's right. I knew he was an Immortal in the making. What we call a Pre-Immortal. There's a 'feel' about it. Like what you're feeling from me and each other now, only not as strong."
"You weren't counting on us?" Matt queried.
"No, Matthew, I wasn't. This is a bigger coincidence than you can imagine. That you and Devlin O'Connor got together - two Pre-Immortals - to begin with. That Sloan met you, and the two of you became friends. Sloan being Pre-Immortal as well. And to top it off, the three of you sitting together in a restaurant when someone decides to kill one of you, so he kills all of you. The coincidence - it's awesome. A lot of us came together during the Crusades, but this -" Edward shook his head.
"Big coincidence, huh?" Matt needled the older Immortal with a grin.
"And a royal pain in the butt that you all died at the same time, in the same place. I can't teach three. Not, and keep you alive until you're strong and skilled enough to take care of yourselves."
Sloan said, "Edward, you're alive. That's all that matters. I've missed you -"
"I'm sorry I couldn't let you know. But I had to go. I was showing my age. That I didn't age. People were beginning to wonder. The plane crash was convenient. I walked away, and that life was over."
"Pardon me, but I've missed something, I'm sure. Exactly why do we need to learn sword fighting and martial arts? Have you said? Did I fall asleep and miss it?" Matt asked.
"Let's get to my place first, then I'll explain."
"This sounds bad, Matt," Devlin said, turning at last to look at his lover.
Matthew nodded. "Ominous." He smiled. "But not boring! And to think, I was afraid to let you fight alongside your Irish lout friends! Afraid you'd get yourself killed! Had I but known, I might have let you do what you've always wanted to do, with no fear for your safety at all!"
"Now, I can fight for the Cause, and I will!" Devlin vowed fervently.
"No, you won't," Edward contradicted. "You can't contact your friends. If the war's still on in fifty or sixty years, you can join up. But for now, that Cause is no longer yours. If you must fight, find another battle."
"But that's my life - the fight to free Ireland!"
"Not anymore. Not for decades. You can't go where you're known. All Ireland will be mourning Devlin O'Connor. You can't simply show up."
Matthew began to laugh. "Finally safe for you to fight, and you mustn't! Talk about irony!"
"Don' you laugh about this, Matthew Marcus!"
"I'm sorry! Really I am!" But he continued to laugh.
"We're here." Rasmussen pulled onto a long winding side road, then made a turn onto another, narrower path. Finally, he pulled his car around the back of a large cabin, turned off the ignition, and got out.
His Immortal companions followed suit.
The three newcomers spent the next hour industriously distracting themselves from their situation. They got familiar with the layout of the cabin with the help of a quality flashlight Rasmussen took from the trunk of his car, then changed into warmer clothes they found in the older Immortal's closets. Making a fire with wood they discovered neatly stacked out back, unearthing and lighting kerosene lamps, the men avoided talking about any but mundane matters while they tried to take in the new concepts they'd been told about, without mentioning them. Edward spent the time making phone calls.
After a while, Devlin checked out the pantry and prepared a small supper for the group, baked beans, canned ham, instant black coffee he managed to heat on a makeshift tripod he and Matt rigged in the fireplace. Edward told them without apology that he didn't come up here much in winter, so the gas and electricity was turned off. They ate in silence.
Finally, Edward went to a cabinet and brought a bottle of scotch and some glasses to the table. Pouring drinks for the others and himself, he said, "Do you want the full lecture, or to ask random questions?"
"Better the lecture - so you cover it all," Devlin replied gruffly, his face dark with distress.
With a glance at each of the men Edward began. "There's a Game, for Immortals, which only One can win, in the End. There are Rules to the Game. We fight one-on-one, with swords, to the death. The winner of each battle takes the loser's head, and with it, his power. That's the only way we can die - if someone takes our head -"
"Edward - you mean, we kill each other?" Sloan sounded horrified.
"That's right. To the death. But let me finish." After a moment, Edward went on. "Our existence is a secret from all Mortals. We recognize each other by the 'buzz' we emit. Mind you, we're not obliged to challenge and fight one another. Not yet. But most of us believe that at the time of the Final Gathering, we'll be compelled to do so."
"By our natures?" Matt asked.
"That's the theory," Edward replied in a dry tone. "Please don't interrupt. I don't want to leave anything important out. Let me see. Oh, not to be forgotten. We must not kill on Holy Ground."
"Holy Ground?" Devlin repeated, frowning. "Whose?"
"Anyone's. From the highly visible cathedrals and cemeteries of the Roman Catholic Church, to the most obscure Amerind burial ground - and every sort of consecrated land or graveyard, of any religion, in between."
"How'll we know?" Matt asked.
For a moment Edward didn't speak and the others glanced at each other and then back at him.
"What's wrong, Edward?" Sloan asked.
"What isn't wrong?" the Old Immortal replied wryly. "This is a time - I think it's impossible to teach you, to reach you, with what you must know. Do. How you gotta look at things, the world. To survive."
"Here there be Dragons?" Matt quipped.
Edward looked up quickly. "You betcha. And Heroes. An unsuitable time for it, 1999."
"Oh, I dunno," Matt drawled, glancing at Devlin O'Connor. "There are still heroes about, if you know where to look."
"Aye, many, and brave," Devlin added, his Irish brogue thickening with every minute that passed.
"You've no idea what you'll face," Edward said bluntly. "Immortals who've lived for hundreds of years - some, for thousands. With every Quickening, after every won challenge, comes great power. For good and for evil. Nobody even talks about good and evil anymore, let alone lives their life in the shadow of the struggle."
Sloan said, "There's no lock without a key, Edward. We'll find the key, the answer."
"Yes, we'll find the way to survive," Matthew said. "As a matter of fact -" he asked suddenly, "where do we come from, Immortals, I mean?"
"That's right. You're all orphans, right? I know Sloan was adopted. How about the two of you?"
"I never knew my birth parents," Devlin stated. "I was a very happy child, lucky in my adoptive parents."
Matthew said nothing. Finally, Devlin told the others, "Matt grew up in an orphanage. They tossed him out to foster homes from time to time but - he didn't stay long anywhere. He wasn't - lucky."
"Why not call a spade a spade, Dev? I was damned unlucky! Wouldn't wish it on a soul! But I survived. Damned successfully, too! There's your 'key' to the 'lock!' I may not be the hero of your dreams, Edward, but you can lay odds on it, I'll still be standing when your 'Powerful Old Immortals' are six feet deep in the ground!"
"Aye, so will I lay odds on it!" Then, with a sigh, Devlin counseled, "Maybe you'd best take care of Sloan, here. I think he'll be needin' your protection more than Matt and me. We'll watch each other's backs."
Edward took a deep breath, finished his brandy and stood. "You've got no idea what you're up against, any of you. In the morning we leave for Europe. Start off in Paris, meet up with old friends."
"What aren't you telling us, Edward?" Matt asked, the expression in his eyes quite cold.
"You're gonna need to separate, Matthew. The three of you. I'll teach Sloan - he'll stay with me, at my home in Sweden. Quentin of York has agreed to take you on, you'll be living in his chateau in Switzerland. And Devlin will go to Connor MacLeod, the Highlander. Connor will meet up with us in Paris and take Devlin on to Scotland. You won't be watching each others' backs, Matthew. You'll never see each other again."
Devlin's face closed the moment he heard those words. Matthew's eyes widened while his lips compressed to a slit. Sloan Caldwell's mouth formed a silent "o" and he looked at Matt, then away.
"You understand, now? You get it? We fight one-on-one. Your auras are up now, strong enough to draw the attention of the most insensitive Immortal alive. You can't help each other. This isn't a group sport. You must learn to fight - alone. We leave for the airport at dawn. Get some sleep." With that, Edward took his own advice and went into his bedroom, closing the door behind him.
After a moment Sloan put out his hand in an ineffectual gesture, not quite touching Matt's arm. "I'm sorry, Matt."
"What've you got to be sorry about, Sloan? The fact that Edward Rasmussen's your friend? It's none of your doing - nobody blames you."
"From what your friend says, nobody's to blame, save the murderin' bastards who shot the three of us," Devlin said.
"I think you should forget about that side of it now, Dev. We've other fish to fry."
"I'll no' leave you, Matthew! If I didn't leave you for the Cause, I surely won', just to save my own hide!"
"Oh, that's very pretty, Dev! Pity it makes no sense!"
"O'Connor, I think we should listen to Edward. He knows more about this than we do - he's trying to help us!" Sloan added.
"We don't know that," Matt replied quietly. "All we know is what he's told us. Why should we believe the man? He's one of them - an Old Immortal - like he described. Who knows what his game is?"
"Edward Rasmussen is an honorable man, Matthew," Sloan contradicted. "If we trust him, do as he tells us, we'll be safe."
"Safe! Safe!" Devlin exclaimed. "With one breath the man talks about Heroes, the struggle between Good and Evil, and in the next breath, and every breath fore and aft, he speaks only of safety, survival! It's a contradiction, I tell you! The man's daft!"
"Life's full of contradictions, Dev," Matt replied pointedly. "The only thing about Sloan's Edward that makes me think I should trust him, is the contradictions! If the story he told made any sense whatever, I'd steal his car and take off with you into the night right now! But the holes, ah, the holes! Intriguing!"
"You must do what Edward says, Matthew. You, too, O'Connor. He has our best interests at heart, I promise you."
"He has your best interests at heart, Caldwell! Your his friend, his old friend. We're nothin' to him!" Dev retorted.
"Edward's not like that - he's good."
Matthew interjected, "Yes, well, you're probably right. No doubt he's as good as you say, Sloan. A saint. I think we've no choice, at this point, but to follow his instructions, meet up with his friends in Paris, and see what we can see." Matthew ran his fingers through his hair. "Somebody tried to kill us today. Right in the middle of New York City, in an expensive restaurant. They didn't fail. We're only alive because we're Immortal, for no other reason. It's best we leave the city before they try again, with better luck."
"He wants to separate us, Matthew!" Devlin cried. "I won' permit it! Ever! If it's one-on-one they're after, it'll be me against one of them, if they try it!"
For a moment Matthew said nothing. There was a strange look on his face as he stared at Devlin O'Connor. "Do you feel it, Dev? My aura?"
"Aye. And theirs, too."
"What does it tell you, Dev?" When his friend didn't reply, only stood up from his place at the table, pushing back his chair, Matthew went on. "It tells me quite a lot. Particularly, that everything's changed, as Rasmussen says. That our old lives are through, finished, kaput. That we've gotta start again from scratch. Like children. We're not old hands at this, Dev! We're green. Sloan's friend has a point. We don't know what we're up against, who we're up against. I think it behooves us to find out, before we make rash judgments. Before we decide who's the enemy, who to fight."
"I'll no' leave you, Matthew Marcus!" Dev repeated, digging in his heels.
"Then I'll leave you," Matt re
lied very simply, walking out of the room and into one of the bedrooms.
ONE YEAR LATER, QUENTIN OF YORK'S CHATEAU, SWITZERLAND
"Very good, Matthew, excellent!" Quentin cried, smiling at his student, oblivious to his own bloody shoulder.
"That's three times in a week that I've bloodied your shirts, Quen! Are you doing your best, or letting me win?"
"My best, dear boy - but no tricks," Quentin insisted with a grin, walking to the edge of the exercise room and grabbing a towel. He wiped his face and draped the towel around his neck. "You're a good pupil, agile, graceful, clever. Not as strong as some, but good. A few Quickenings under your belt, you'll be fit to defend against all but the best among us."
"Who are they, Quen? The best among us?" Matt joined his teacher on a bench and stretched out his legs. He grabbed a water bottle and took a sip. "Anybody I might know?"
"If you're asking about Edward Rasmussen and Connor MacLeod, the answer's yes. Ras isn't as old as me and Lamartin, but he's very strong. Connor's a youngster, but he's considered the finest Immortal swordsman of us all. So your friends Sloan and Devlin have the best teachers there are. Ras did well, on such short notice, in his choices."
"Devlin's still angry?" Matt asked.
"Of course! Connor says Devlin's fury knows no bounds! And he takes it out in his training! Your friend's good, Matthew, very good. Strong as a bull and passionate as a woman! He'll survive, I promise you that."
"Has he -?"
"No. Nobody so far. Connor's estate in Scotland is isolated. Secluded. He's keeping your Devlin under wraps. It's too soon, yet, to allow Devlin out on his own."
"Why?" Matthew asked. "And me, too, why? Why won't you let me go? You say I'm fit, I'm good. What more is there to learn?"
"Much more, Matthew. You were without any training at all, when you came to me. You knew nothing of swords, nothing of the Warrior Path. You'd never even served your country -"
"I want to see him, Quentin. I've got to see him. You can't keep me here -"
"No, I can't. But you'll stay. Because you're a clever child, Matthew Marcus. You know you're not ready. You're not suicidal. I promise, when the time is right, I'll release you. If you wish to survive, you'll listen to me, and obey."
"Damn it, when?"
"Soon. I promise." Quentin touched Matthew's shoulder. "Courage, child. Soon."
RASMUSSEN'S ESTATE IN SWEDEN, SAME TIME
The table was set for dinner. Sloan Caldwell came into the dining room and slumped down into a chair, exhausted. He sighed heavily.
"You okay, Sloan?" Edward Rasmussen asked, joining his friend. He buttered a roll absently, while he gazed intently at Sloan.
"It's not working out, Edward. You know it, I know it, pretty soon, every Immortal in Europe will know it. I can't do this. And even if I could - even if I weren't old and clumsy and tired - we both know I'm never going to be able to kill anybody. Cut off their head." Sloan smiled sweetly. "But you've known that forever, Edward, haven't you? From the day we met?"
"I know nothing of the kind! Sure, it's not the life you were raised to lead, fighting other Immortals! Killing them! But it's better than that! Better than what you were brought up to do! It's your destiny, Sloan! You will kill, when you must. You won't have a choice!"
"It's not going to happen. Never. I might fight, but I won't kill. How long will I last, if I don't take heads? A few months? A year? Either I stay here with you, or I go to Holy Ground. Those are my choices, Edward, if I want to live. Are you going to admit it to yourself? Courage, my friend! Face the truth! Give up this nonsense with swords and wrestling and kata and kumite! I won't kill! I will be killed, unless you stand guard over me forever, or I go to Holy Ground!"
"Besides," Sloan added with a grin, picking up a roll, "I'm not good enough. I'm too old. Forty is too old. I'm not fit for the Game. I haven't blooded you once, in a whole year! Not even by accident! You put me out there, I'll be easy pickings for any Immortal who comes my way."
"That's not true. You have no idea what you'd do in a real fight!"
"I have a damn good idea what I'd do in a real fight! I'd lose!"
For a moment Edward said nothing. Then he asked, "So, what do you propose?"
"I want to see Matthew again. Talk to him. Say goodbye. Then I want you to pull whatever strings you have to, to get me into a monastery, one that takes our kind. I want you to drive me up to the abbey door, shake my hand goodbye, and leave me there. That's what I propose. Will you do it?"
QUENTIN'S CHATEAU IN SWITZERLAND, THREE DAYS LATER
"Welcome, Edward! Good to see you again!" Quentin said, greeting his old friend in the hall of his mansion. "This must be Sloan Caldwell - very pleased to meet you! Matthew's in the library, studying some of our Chronicles. Says he's inspired by the old stories about our kind. Of late, he's begun to paint. He was so certain he'd never pick up a brush again, but now - well - the shock's worn off. He's still who he was. For the most part."
"Good to meet you, sir. I've heard a great deal about you."
"All good, I hope?" Quentin replied with a smile.
"All true, at any rate," Ras put in.
"You're as young as they say - young in appearance," Sloan said in an awed tone. "It's incredible!"
"Just the luck of the draw, old man. You bought it at forty, I, at seventeen. Neither of us could congratulate ourselves on our luck. Either end, makes for difficulties."
"In my case, insurmountable difficulties."
"Really?" Quen replied with a lift of his eyebrow. "You've found insurmountable difficulties? I'm impressed! I'm six thousand years old, and I've never come across one yet! We must exchange anecdotes, Sloan."
"Be quiet, Ras. You came here for my assistance. Permit me to assist."
At that moment, Matthew Marcus appeared at the top of the hall staircase. "I thought I sensed something sweet in the air," he cried, running down the steps and embracing Caldwell. "My God, it's good to see you, Sloan! You look well, fit! They've let you out! That's wonderful! I'm very pleased!"
"You look well, Matthew," Sloan replied, extricating himself from Matthew's arms. "But I'm only out on a pass. I'm entering the Benedictine Monastery at Beaufort tomorrow."
"No! You can't mean it! You, in a monastery! It's absurd!" He turned to Edward. "You can't do this to him! He'll die!"
"Matt, it's not Edward's fault. It's my idea. I can't do this - thing. What's happened to us, it's impossible for me. I can hardly fight and I won't be able to kill. The only place for one of our kind like me is Holy Ground, a monastery. So that's where I'll go."
"Of course it's Edward's fault! He's your teacher. He's supposed to get you to the point where you can fight, and kill, to survive! If he hasn't done that, he hasn't done his job! He's to blame, not you!"
"It's my nature, Matt! It's got nothing to do with Edward! I'm too old to fight and too much of a pacifist to kill - don't blame Edward!"
"I do blame him! Particularly, for going along with this. For not trying harder, longer - it's only been a year!" Matt cried, furious, turning to Edward. "How can you write the man off after only a year!
"I didn't write him off - he wrote himself off!" Rasmussen replied angrily. "If you keep your mouth shut and let your elders do their work, it'll be better for everyone."
"I kept my mouth shut a year ago. Let you drag Sloan away, let Connor MacLeod drag Devlin away. See where it got us!"
Quentin put a hand on Matthew's arm. "It got us to this point. You're fit and skilled and nearly ready to live on your own as an Immortal. Devlin O'Connor's the same. Fit, strong, skilled, ready. Two out of three."
"Not good enough," Matthew retorted in a low growl. "Not nearly good enough."
"Then let me have at it, Matt, please," Quentin replied. "Let me do my work."
Matt stared at the old Immortal.
"You do follow? Matthew?"
"I -" Matt squinted. At last he said uncertainly, "You're my teacher, Quentin -"
"So - it's settled. The servants will show you to your rooms, Rasmussen, Sloan. Dinner's at seven. Be prompt. Our cook's a temperamental fellow. Doesn't like his dinners to get cold."
"What's going on, Quentin?" Matthew asked, when the two of them parted from Rasmussen and Sloan and went up to the library.
"Your friend's in trouble. I'm the oldest of us. So we think. Me and Lamartin. The wisest, at any rate. Ras asked me to help."
"How can you help? Sloan says he can't fight. Can't kill. What can you do to change that?"
"You're sounding very sensible, Matthew. A few moments ago you were ranting and raving that Rasmussen should have tried harder -"
"Ranting and raving - yes. I was. But I've known from the start that a man like Sloan can't do this. At his age. With his mentality. I thought, perhaps, when I was ready, he could stay with me. I would protect him -"
"You cannot fight his battles for him, Matthew. You know that."
"I've never been one for rules, Quentin. I've read our Chronicles. I wouldn't be the first Immortal who cared for another -"
"Is that what I've taught you? How to break the Rules? What a waste of a year, then, Matthew Marcus!"
"What would you have me do? Let him rot in a monastery for the rest of his life - a damn long life, as an Immortal!"
"You don't understand, Matt. Your friend's mistaken. He believes he's still the same middle-aged, soon-to-be-old faggot he was when he was Mortal. He believes nothing's changed. That his heart's still in the right place. That's he's a pacifist, a good guy."
"No, he's not! He's an Immortal! He will fight. He will fight well. He will kill, when he's bested an opponent! He's as good as the next one. If we can make him believe it! We win with our minds and our hearts, not simply our swords, you foolish boy! That goes for a forty year old commercial artist today as much as it did for a seventeen year old Warrior Prince whose bones hadn't yet hardened into manhood when he died First Death six thousand years ago!"
"Six thousand -? You?"
"Yes, of course, me! I overcame, and so can your friend. But he must believe that! Must know it in his heart! Rasmussen couldn't pull him along that last stretch. That's why he brought Sloan to me. I hope you'll observe and learn from this, Matthew. I truly hope and wish it. For your friend's sake. And for the future of our Game!"
"I won't interfere, Quentin. If you can make a Warrior Immortal out of Sloan Caldwell you'll have my gratitude for as long as I live. My gratitude, and anything else you want or need. I swear it!"
"I do this for our kind, Matthew, not for gain! I do not want our kind to end now, in the twentieth century. If men such as Sloan Caldwell are murdered by swine, or disappear into monasteries, our kind is finished! I exist, I've survived, to prevent that!"
After a moment Matthew said softly, "You've got a Cause, like Devlin."
"Yes, I do! Make it your own, if you can. Else you'll find yourself alone and grieving on a very dark, impossibly long road."
"A Cause," Matthew repeated distantly.
"Make no mistake, Matthew Marcus. I knew it from the first - you will survive. You'd be wise to make our Cause yours."
"I don't trust Causes, Quentin!" Matt replied hotly.
"That's the further mile I must take you, then, boy, before I release you into the world!"
"I trust people, not Causes. I pledge myself to people, not Causes. Devlin O'Connor will have my strong right hand, in his Cause, when he takes it up again. And if you salvage Sloan Caldwell, I pledge to fight for your Cause, as well. But it will never be mine. I hope that's enough. Sufficient. Because there is nothing more, not in me!"
"It's enough, quite sufficient, Matthew. Needed, and welcomed. I'm happy you made First Death while I live!"
ANOTHER YEAR LATER, TRAIN STATION, BERNE, SWITZERLAND
"Thank you for coming, Connor, and bringing Devlin with you," Quentin told the younger Immortal. "Let me help you with your luggage."
"Dev can carry what we have. He's collecting our things now."
"Matthew will be happy to see him. How's your boy doing?"
"Very well - but don't tell him I said so. He's a natural fighter, strong, graceful, indefatigable. Great heart. He's taken down two, this year. No difficulty defeating his opponents but he had some trouble screwing himself up for the kill, both times. And afterwards. That was the only problem."
"This is the wrong century for it, Connor. We both know that. But it can be taught, with the proper will on the part of the pupil." Quentin turned as he sensed the approach of Devlin O'Connor. "Ah, there you are, my boy! Matthew's up at the chateau, waiting for you."
"I've got plenty to say to him," Devlin told the older Immortal curtly. "Where's your car?"
"This way," Quentin gestured. "Come, both of you."
While they rode the several miles from the station to his chateau Quentin did nearly all the talking. Turning to Connor he said, "Matthew's doing beautifully. His training will soon be completed. And you'll both be surprised and pleased to learn that Sloan Caldwell's taken a head - just a week ago. He was in Geneva on an errand. A young fellow challenged him. They took the fight to the Jardin de Roses, and Sloan defeated the man. Not a bad showing, either. From what we've learned about him, the other fellow was nearly two hundred years old, reasonably skilled, with several Quickenings under his belt."
"How did Caldwell take it, when he got home?" Connor asked.
"Well enough, for a first time. Splendidly, if you consider his background."
"And your pupil? Matthew Marcus? What of him?"
"Oh, I've kept him at the chateau. He's - learning, still. Not quite ready to leave the nest, I don't believe." Quentin smiled thoughtfully. "But he was brilliant with Sloan, afterwards. Treated him like an Olympic champion. Joked, teased, laughed, called him 'Master' - Matthew's got a way with him. When he finally left Sloan to himself, he was fine. Couldn't have brought him around better, myself."
"You'll never find a better man than Matthew Marcus," Devlin said dourly, from the back seat of the limousine. Then he clamped his mouth shut.
Quentin raised an eyebrow in Connor's direction and the younger Immortal smiled, tipping his head to one side and raising one hand. "Devlin O'Connor's spoken. There's no other opinion to be held."
"I agree with his opinion. Matthew's the best student I've had in a thousand years -"
"If he's such a fine student, why do you keep him locked up?" Devlin asked hotly. "Why no' let him go?"
"As I said, he's not ready."
"What's lacking, then?" Connor asked.
"I don't really know. But something."
"We've got to let them go, Quentin, you know that. They never seem to be ready, until we let go."
"No. Matthew stays for a reason. What it is, he won't tell me. Perhaps, now that Sloan's made his first kill, Matt will leave."
"You don' know Matthew Marcus, Quentin," Devlin said. "No' in two years, nor in ten. I've known him since we were boys servin' at the altar in St. Stephen's Church. He was fostered with my own family for a time, when he was sixteen. We attended the same classes in high school, went on to university together, into business together. Fucked the same girls, the same women. Fucked each other. Loved each other. I've been his friend for nearly twenty years, and I still don' know Matthew Marcus."
The two older Immortals stared at Devlin, startled by his long speech.
"But you can guess, can't you, why he won't leave his teacher and set out on his own?" Connor asked.
"No, I canno'," Devlin stated firmly, "but I expect he'll tell me."
"He will leave eventually, I suppose," Quentin speculated. "I'm in no hurry to see the back of him. He's a pleasure to have around. Even Lamartin is fond of him."
"He'll leave with me, and soon. He's written to tell me that."
"He shouldn't go before he's been tested -"
"I don' think you should worry, Quentin of York," Devlin replied. "Matthew'll do you proud, when he must. Oh, he won' go lookin' for trouble, you can be sure of that. He's had enough trouble in his time. He'll stand behind my coat tails, as long as he can, to avoid a fight. But when he's cornered, he'll fight."
Quentin frowned. "You cannot mean that! He's skilled. He fights with passion, he doesn't hold back -"
"Aye, I mean it. You said it yourself - he doesn't leave your sanctuary, your grounds. He hasn't taken a head. Even Sloan Caldwell's been tested. Why do you imagine Matthew waits?"
"As I said, I don't know," Quentin replied.
"I do know. He doesn't want to fight. I'll fight for him, until he has no choice. Then, you'll see who he is."
"I don't doubt who he is. I'm just - perplexed that he hesitates -"
"Matt's no' hesitatin' - he's refusin'," Devlin contradicted. "Doesn't surprise me much."
"Our kind won't give him that option, once he's off my estate, you can be certain of that."
"We'll see. You'll no' throw him out?"
"Of course I won't. But he'll leave with you, you say, very soon. You won't be able to protect him, Devlin. It'll be all you can do to fight your own battles."
"Don' worry about us, Quentin. We'll be fine. I've salvaged a bit of money from the wreck of our business. Matt and I will travel east, to China. Begin again. For a while, we'll be vulnerable. But - in ten years time no one will be able to touch us. We'll be safe."
"You're never safe. We're never safe, Devlin. You're dreaming," Connor said earnestly. "Tell him, Quentin."
"Why waste my breath? He won't listen. He's as Sloan was, when Rasmussen brought him to me. Thinks nothing's changed. That Immortality is simply another job, like accounting or being a salesman, or a mathematician. Only life, and time, will teach them the truth. That everything's changed for them. Forever."
"Matthew knew it, two years ago," Devlin said softly.
"Yes. He was ready to adapt when he came to me." Quentin looked out the limousine window at the countryside. "Yes. Perhaps that's it. Why he's waiting. What he's waiting for."
"What's he waitin' for, then?" Devlin asked.
"For you to learn it, too."
"I can't get enough of you, Dev," Matthew said, compulsively sliding his palm along his friend's bare arm. They were in Matthew's suite, had been there for hours, making love. Now they lay together on top of the sheets, holding each other close. The moon was high in the sky. It shone through the french windows, the only light.
"Do you remember, Matt? When you first came to us? When we were boys?" Dev asked.
"I remember." Matthew smiled and sighed. "You were the kindest foster brother I'd ever had. The only person who ever cared for me. I couldn't understand it. I didn't trust you. Always giving, always sharing, always smiling -"
"I was only doin' what my parents taught me. Makin' you feel welcome. I had so much. You were - so thin. I'll never forget it - the first day they fostered you with us. In the shower. You were so thin. So white. The welts on your back, half of them healed, old. Half of them fresh, new. I'd never seen such a thing."
"Yes, I was a mess. The last place I'd been was a nightmare."
Devlin raised himself on one elbow. He smiled. "I remember tryin' to decide what sweater to give you. One that wouldn't scrape against those marks on your back."
Matt grinned. "You literally took the shirt off your back and gave it to me. Cashmere, it was. Sky blue."
"It was a soft material. I couldn't find anythin' softer in my drawer -"
"I remember thinking what a fool you were, to give me such a fine sweater. Planning what I'd steal from your room and sell, that you might not notice was gone."
"You stole my watch. The fine one I'd been given at confirmation, by my grandfather."
"I knew you didn't wear it, for fear you'd break it when you played ball. I figured you'd never miss it."
Devlin laughed. "And next you took my stamp collection - such as it was - and sold that."
"You never said a word."
"No point to it, Matt. You had those welts on your back, you see. I knew I'd never understand. Never be able to find a kindness big enough to make the scars go away. Never be able to repay our Lord for sparin' me such horrors. A watch and a few stamps were small enough payment for all the blessin's I'd been given, that you'd been denied."
"So, you pitied me?" Matt asked, curious.
"No more than you did me," Devlin retorted. "You pitied me for bein' so soft, such a fool! You pitied me for trustin' you. For tryin' to protect you from the other boys, and you the new boy!"
"Because I didn't need protection. And you would never believe that." Matthew touched Devlin's face. "When you did that - stood up to the other boys when they tried to bully me - you frightened me, you know."
"Why was that, then?"
Matt replied slowly, "I was so moved, I was afraid I'd lose my edge, I suppose. Or maybe I was simply afraid to feel at all."
"Aye, lovin' is frightenin', no question of that."
"Not to you, it wasn't. You loved as if there was no other way to be."
"It was what I was taught, Matt. The same that was beaten out of you, was loved into me. I was lucky."
Matthew smiled. "In the end, so was I."
"Do you remember Sharon Dempsey, Matt?" Devlin asked later, after they'd made love again.
"Vividly! Our first girl. I can't believe we did that - took turns with her while the other looked on. Poor girl. She was in love with you, and you insisted we share. And she went along."
"I wanted you, Matt, but I didn't know it."
"I hated it. All of it."
"What?" When Matthew didn't reply immediately, Devlin sat up and asked again, "What did you hate?"
"Sleeping with them, when I wanted you. Oh, it felt good enough. And I wasn't jealous. You got such pleasure from sex, from the girls, and later, the women - and gave so much joy to them - after Sharon, that is," Matt went on with a grin. "I didn't begrudge it to you. Or envy them. I just -"
"You just wanted me to know, but you couldn't tell me. And I wouldn't see."
"I was afraid you'd never see. Never know. That we'd spend our whole lives without coming together."
"Then the accident, just before we graduated from St. John's - when mum and da died -"
"I thought you'd never recover, Devlin. Truly. You drank and drank and drank -"
"And you cleaned me up and propped me up and got me through -"
"Still your friend. Until the day I told you I was going away to join an artists' colony in New Mexico, to paint."
Devlin laughed. "Aye, that did it! I got drunk as a lord! I hit you, Matt - I, who'd protected you so faithfully, smashed my fist in your face! I never thought I'd hurt you like that, never! Then I cried -"
"You told me not to go. I said I couldn't stay."
"I'd promised to marry Isobel Rourke in June, after commencement. I begged you to stay for the weddin'."
"I couldn't, I told you. Remember? And you asked me why? Oh, Devlin! I told you I thought Isobel wasn't good enough for you."
"And I said, then I won' marry her, only stay." Devlin leaned toward Matthew and kissed his mouth. "You looked at me. You said, 'Really, you won' marry Isobel?'"
"And you said, no, you wouldn't, if I thought it was wrong."
"That night, we slept in our old room, at mum and da's house. Ended up there, after I met with Isobel and broke our engagement. We showered, then got under the covers, each in our own twin bed. With the lights out. Talkin' in the dark the way we did when we were boys."
"And out of the blue, with no warning at all, you got out of your bed and got into mine, and held me. I thought you were drunk."
"I was drunk. But I finally knew it was you that I loved, Matthew Marcus. You that I wanted. I couldn't tell you, even in the dark. But I could do what I must, to show you."
Matthew laughed. "Oh, you showed me, all right! No poor orphan boy ever got a better gift!"
"You were the gift, Matthew. And I wouldn't have left you, from that day to this, were it not for this terrible thing that's befallen us."
"It's a blessing, Devlin," Matthew said gently. "Think of it that way. I do."
"Quentin of York says you won' leave the chateau. Won' go out on your own. Will you tell me why, Matt?"
"I - I don't want to risk it."
Devlin frowned. "Risk what? The fightin'? You're no' afraid, Matthew. I know you canno' be. You never needed my protection, no' back then, when we were boys. No' ever."
"I don't want to risk going back to where I was, before I came to you and your mum and da, Devlin. Who I was."
"No one will harm you, Matt -"
"That's not it."
"What is it, then? What is it?"
"I've killed before, Dev."
"Have you, now?" Devlin replied without losing a beat.
"Yes. I killed when I was a boy, before I was fostered to you and your family. On three separate occasions."
"Did you, now?" Devlin was silent for a few moments. "Well, considerin' the scars on your back when you came to us, I'm no' surprised. I'd have done the same, if I'd been where you were."
"You have no questions?"
"Only - did mum and da know? Were there - juvenile records?"
"No. Nobody knew."
"I'm happy you kept it from them, Matthew. It would've troubled them terribly."
"Doesn't it trouble you?"
"It does no'." Devlin's mouth was tight. "No' when I remember those scars."
"Do you think it was hard for me, Dev? That I was forced to kill, hated doing it?"
"I knew the ones I killed deserved to die, and I enjoyed killing them, and getting away with it."
"How'd you do it, then? With a gun, or a knife?"
"The old huntin' knife you carried about with you for a year, before you finally left it behind in a drawer in our room, on my eighteenth birthday?"
"The very one, my friend."
"I liked the gift, Matthew. I never got a better, before or since - save the one."
"The one you gave me later on. Your love." Devlin sighed. "For which the puttin' away of your knife was a down payment, was it no'?"
Later they walked around the grounds arm in arm and Matthew pointed out several special views to Devlin.
"It's a beautiful place, isn't it, Dev?" he asked, when they sat on a rock and looked out over a small lake behind the chateau.
"Lovely. The Highlands are lovely as well."
"Dev, can you understand what I told you?"
"Sloan Caldwell's taken a head. I've taken two. The Quickenin' - it's - so different, Matthew. Hard to describe. It's as if - all my life - I've been waitin' for somethin' like that! Somethin' powerful, charged with the glory of God, to fill me with joy and strength! You are meant for it too, Matthew! That's what they're talkin' about, when they say we're Immortal - that nothin's the same! You said it yourself, two years since!" Devlin stated earnestly. "That's the meanin' of your instinct, the reason you were ready to adapt, to make this thing your own! You must do this! You canno' avoid it, or prevent it. You canno' live without it!"
"Devlin, in all my life I was never happy until you gave me a cashmere sweater and paid no mind when I stole your watch. If I do this - if I kill again - every kind and sweet gift you ever gave me, every cruel and ugly act of mine you ever overlooked, will have been wasted! The man your love created will be lost! And you'll be holding a skinny feral animal in your arms again, like the one you took in with the scars on his back!"
Devlin said nothing. He stared at the lake and waited.
Matthew spoke again. "Do you understand? I won't be able to paint, I won't be able to love, or accept love, if I kill! I'm not like you! You're all heart! You care for everyone! This - ritual killing - runs off your back like water off a duck! And you remain who you are - strong, proud, good! I'm different. My goodness is only skin deep. Something grafted on. Learned. Late. If I go inside myself, find the place from which I can do this thing - kill again - that's all there'll be left of me. That wolf. Nothing will remain of what you've given me, what mum and da gave me. Nothing."
"Is that why you wouldn't fight for Ireland with me, then? No' because you didn' believe in the Cause, but because you were afraid of what you'd become?" Devlin asked.
"You wanted me to do this thing, learn the ways of Immortality, ritual combat -"
"Yes, I did."
"Why? Why now, and no' then? Why this fight, no' that one?"
"Because I couldn't go on without you, if you'd been killed in Ireland. Now I know you'll be safe. And I know you'll be great. With your heart, you could only be great at this business. The more Quickenings you absorb, the more powerful you'll be. And safer, too. That's what I want. For you to be powerful, safe, alive."
"I want the same for you, Matthew. If you won' take a head, you'll never grow strong -"
"Doesn't matter. I'll survive. Through - through Mortal might alone." He explained. "The boy I was, is still inside. He'll protect me. I don't require this sort of power to survive."
After a moment Devlin chuckled. "I see now, what Quentin of York was meanin', all along."
"He was meanin' the same as he said about Sloan. Sloan Caldwell, who didn' want to recognize that he is no longer the middle-aged commercial artist pacifist he was. Now it's you, Matthew. You, who don' want to accept that you're no longer the boy - or the man - you were."
"I am the same."
"Matthew, you're no'! This killin' we do as Immortals is no' the same as what you did as a boy. It's our life, our destiny - no' a horrible secret that will eat us alive! The men you killed when you were a boy - what you did to them was wrong, whatever the provocation, if it wasn't in self-defense."
"It wasn't - not truly. It was - preventative," Matt replied grimly.
"It was wrong, then. But what we do now, when we're challenged, or when we cross paths with an Evil One of our kind, is no' wrong. It's what we were meant to do. That goes for you as well, Matthew Marcus. For Sloan, for me, and for you."
"Will you come with me to China, Devlin? As we planned?"
"Will you watch my back on the road?"
"I don't know if I can -"
"Do you know if you should?" Devlin retorted quickly.
"Almost, you convince me...." Matt said with a slow smile. "We'll see."
"Will you try to see? Though it's only me who's sayin' it?"
"Then I'll come with you to China, as we planned."
They took a long circuitous route back to the chateau for dinner. While they walked, they talked.
"How'd Quentin pull it off, then - bring Sloan round to where he could fight and take a head? Do you know, Matthew?"
"It was very slow coming, I can tell you that. The key, I think, was sending Rasmussen away."
"Why that, then?" Devlin asked.
"Edward was the real link to Sloan's past. Oh, I suppose it might have been easier for Quentin, in some ways, if he could have sent me away as well." Matthew sighed. "I was a reminder of the man Sloan used to be, too. But Quentin's so clever, so experienced. He worked around it."
"Once Edward left, Quen treated Sloan as if he were an equal. He didn't permit him to spar with me, like a student. Instead, he had him work out with Lamartin. When you meet Marty, you'll understand. The man's a bull." Matt smiled. "Like you."
"Is he, now? Like me?" Devlin grinned.
"Where Edward must have been easy on Sloan, Marty pressed him hard, very hard. I sparred with Marty once - I pulled out everything I had, and I still couldn't get inside, score a touch. It was - impossible."
"He's better than Quentin, then?"
"Oh, much! Stronger, more singleminded. No tricks. Sheer power. It's like fighting a bull. But Sloan surprised me. He held his own against someone like that. I think, perhaps, he wasn't afraid he'd hurt Marty. Didn't believe he could. And he didn't care about him, the way he cared for Edward. So he could let himself go."
"Then what happened?"
"Nothing much, for a while. A couple months. Eventually, Sloan stopped mentioning his plans to enter a monastery - at least, not at meals, which was when I saw him, mostly, when he first came here. And Quentin didn't say a word about Sloan going out on his own, to be tested."
Devlin frowned. "Did you have anythin' to do with the change - with Sloan's willin'ness to fight?"
"Not a thing, far as I could tell. I just watched. Slowly but surely the - spiritual fat, if you will - dropped away. I noticed small things, at first. Sloan stopped saying, 'I can't,' all the time. Started talking about the future. One night at supper he said, 'I'd like to go to Rome, to study.' He was talking about painting. You know he's an artist?"
"Commercial, I thought."
"Not only that. That was just how he earned a living. No, he's an artist, or had been. That's how we met, at the museum, looking at the Renoirs," Matt said, glancing up at Devlin.
"I saw his work, a few pieces he'd framed and hung in his apartment. He drew very well. Painted, too. He was good." Matthew frowned. "I wish I'd taken the time back then to convince him to start painting again." He sighed. "I really used him dreadfully. It's embarrassing to remember."
"You can make it up to him, if you like, Matt. You've got time now."
"True enough." Matt took a deep breath. "Anyway, Quentin told him it could be arranged. Studying in Rome. Whenever Sloan wanted to leave, Quen would foot the bill for classes, lodging, food, clothing. Anything Sloan needed. I was astonished. It was - an open-ended offer. No time limit. None of your 'a year or two' stuff. Not a loan. An outright gift. For as long as Sloan needed it. Generous to a fault, Quentin. Never would have expected that - he puts up such a front." Matt grinned.
"He's no' a likable sort, I agree," Devlin replied with a smile. "Grows on you, does he?"
"I adore him now, Dev. But in the beginning - what a pompous ass he can be!"
Devlin laughed. "Pomposity is your least favorite thing, for certain!"
"You better believe it! But after a while - I don't know why, or whether he even realized he was doing it - Quen dropped the act and then -" Matt lifted his hands - "he was a different person with me. Like night and day. Straight as a dye. Absolutely up front. I don't think I ever saw anybody rejoice the way he did, when I drew blood the first time. It was his blood! But no - didn't matter! I thought he might break into song, he was so happy and proud!"
"Connor got mad -"
"Damn Scot!" Matthew grinned.
"Aye, that he is!"
"Hungry yet, Dev? You ready to go in?"
"No. Tell me the rest of the story - Caldwell's transformation. I'd like to hear it all."
"One day - oh, about three months ago - Sloan asked me if I'd spar with him. I said yes, of course. But I asked Quentin if he thought it was alright. I didn't want to screw up his plans."
"You canno' be serious!" Devlin exclaimed.
"Absolutely. The fellow's like a brain surgeon, only Quen does surgery on the soul, not the body. I wouldn't dream of interfering. But he thought it was okay. He asked only that I not hold back. So I didn't."
"Sloan got inside my defenses with some strange move he'd picked up from Lamartin, and ripped my thigh open!"
"He hurt you!" Devlin's concern and upset were palpable in his voice.
Matt gestured dismissively. "It was nothing. I healed in minutes. But wait, that's not the best part!"
"That was a good part?"
"Yes, of course! But the best part was, he didn't apologize, or fuss about it. He simply backed off a few feet to the edge of the mat, and waited until I was ready to continue! I couldn't believe it! It was wonderful! He was unrecognizable!"
"Even I'd apologize, if I blooded you when we sparred, Matthew!"
"Exactly! Sloan - well, it was an unbelievable change. I remember when he'd apologize if I didn't like the beer he'd chosen. I remember when he'd scamper about like a pitiful child, trying to find something new to entertain me with, so I wouldn't leave early - when I visited with him at all."
"He was in love with you, and you were no' in love with him. He got what he could from you, Matt. You were kind to him, I think -"
"I was a bastard. I used him when you were away. He had no idea what we were to each other. Felt sorry for me."
"It's water under the bridge, Matthew. He's no' the same man now. And I know he does no' hold the past against you. He loved you then. I'm certain he loves you still."
"Doesn't matter. We're going to China and Sloan's going to Rome. The Lord knows when we'll meet again."
"Aye, the Lord knows," Devlin agreed with a smile. "But Sloan's taken a head, a Quickenin'. And I've taken two. So we know Sloan and I will survive till we meet again -"
"I said I'll see, I'll try, Devlin! Don't shove the thing down my throat every five minutes, for God's sake!"
"Sorry, man. Just - I'm worried about you."
Matthew grinned. "Nothing new in that, is there, Devlin O'Connor? Let's go in now, I'm hungry and cold. And Connor's leaving tonight, isn't he? You'll want to say goodbye."
"And good riddance. The man's daft. He fights for real! I'm never certain whether he's teachin' me, or gettin' ready to take my head!"
"You've still got your head, so he must be teaching you, Dev!"
"I would no' want to meet him on a dark night on a deserted road, let me tell you!"
"From what I hear, nobody would!" Matt retorted with a grin. "They say Connor MacLeod's the greatest Immortal swordsman in the world!"
"I've heard that his kinsman, Duncan MacLeod, is even better!"
"Where's he live? Not in China, I hope! I'd like to avoid him, if I can."
"So would I, like to avoid him. He's been to China, from the tales Connor's told me, but no' recently. We're safe from Duncan MacLeod, if we go east."
"Then east is where we'll go, Devlin O'Connor! Until your reputation equals his - then...."
"Then we'll see, won' we now, Matthew Marcus?" Devlin grinned. "Then we'll see!"
"Well, your mentor's gone now, Devlin. You're on your own. But you're welcome to stay with us for a time, or are you and Matthew leaving for China immediately?" Quentin asked, starting up the hallway steps with a sigh.
"That's somethin' I'd like to talk to you about, Quentin. If you have time."
Quentin turned sharply. "Yes. I have time," he told the younger Immortal in a serious tone. He came back down the steps into the hallway and guided Devlin to the door. "Take your coat," he said as he grabbed his topcoat and opened the door. "Let's go this way, towards the gazebo. It's not warm there, but it's sheltered from the wind. We'll have privacy."
"Aye, sir. Privacy. That's splendid."
"So," Quentin said, when they'd reached the gazebo and he'd sat down on a stone bench inside. "What is it?"
"It's about Matthew -" Devlin began.
"Tell me, man! You've found out why he's - 'refusing' - to leave?''
"Aye, I have."
"Well?" Quentin barked impatiently. When Devlin didn't speak, Quen added gently, "I cannot help him if I'm in the dark, O'Connor. You want me to help him?" Dev nodded. "Then talk to me, boy."
"I don' want to betray his confidence -"
"But you do want him to keep his head?"
"Aye." Devlin took a deep breath. "Matthew's afraid he'll - lose himself - if he kills."
"What does that mean - in words of one syllable? And stop pacing - sit down!"
"I canno' -"
"Cannot sit, or cannot tell me what you mean?" Quentin asked with a wry smile.
Devlin grinned. "Sit. I know I must tell you." He took another deep breath. "Matthew. Matthew had a hard life. He was - abused - as a child, a boy. And he - retaliated, more than once." Dev glanced at Quentin, whose face was impassive, his eyes alert. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, yes, I follow. He killed his tormenters. Go on, go on." Then, more softly, "Continue, please."
"When he came to be fostered with me and my family, he was sixteen and - set in his ways. Hard. Closed. Angry." Devlin paused. "Vicious," he added reluctantly, then walked a few paces away.
"But you and your people gave him love, so he changed."
"Aye." Devlin turned to the older man. "Quentin, I beseech you to tell me the truth! Will he lose everythin' - become vicious again - if he kills one of us, takes a Quickenin'?"
"That's what he believes? Why he won't leave?"
"Matthew's frightened, Quentin. He thinks he will no' love, once he's killed again." Devlin's misery was evident. "I told him this was different, what we do is different - but -"
"But you're not certain, yourself. And he doesn't dare risk it?"
"Yes, that's it. Can you help him, Quentin of York? He says you're the best - a 'surgeon of the soul' - can you help him?"
Quentin stood and walked the few steps to the gazebo door. He stared out through the glass at the grounds. Finally he turned to Devlin and stated in a serious tone, "I want Matthew Marcus to survive. And I want you to survive. I want that very much." At Devlin's startled expression Quentin added, "Don't pretend to be surprised. I know what you are, Devlin O'Connor. Who you are. So does Matthew. You know, too."
"No, I don'!" Devlin insisted hotly.
"Yes, you do. But you won't go on without Matthew. So your friend must survive as well. Not simply for his sake, mine, or yours. For the sake of our Game."
"I don' know what you mean! But you'll do what you can, for my Matthew?" Devlin pleaded.
"More than that, boy! I'll do what I must - to succeed!"
Sloan Caldwell came up behind Matthew Marcus near the gazebo where his friend had set up an easel on the hard-packed earth and was busy sketching the outlines of a few trees and the mountains behind them, preparatory to doing an oil painting of the winter landscape. Placing his hand on his old friend's shoulder Sloan remarked softly, "You're careless, Matt. This is not Holy Ground. I might have been anyone."
Matthew put down his charcoal and removed his earphones. He took his walkman out of his pocket and placed it carefully on the ground as he swiveled on his small canvas chair and looked up into his friend's face. Taking Sloan's hand, Matt smiled. "No. Not anyone. I wasn't joking about sensing something sweet when you arrived at the chateau - your aura is quite distinctive, Sloan. I know when you're near."
"I always thought you were unusual, Matt. Now I'm certain. You really can sense differences in our 'feel,' tell one of us from another?"
"Oh yes. Can't you?"
"No," Sloan replied, sitting crosslegged on the ground, one hand resting in his lap, the other holding Matthew's. "I don't think many of us can. I know Edward can't. Neither can Marty. Maybe Quentin - I dunno. I certainly don't feel anything in our auras to help me tell the difference between one Immortal and another. Except the intensity of power - which I assume goes with age and many Quickenings."
Matthew frowned. "Well, maybe it's a good thing. Maybe it'll help me avoid the worst of our kind. Which I certainly hope to do."
"You won't fight?"
"Not if I can help it," Matthew replied grimly.
"I see." Sloan took his hand out of Matthew's grasp, stood and walked to a large rock a short distance away. He stared at the stone, his back to Matt. "I'm leaving for Rome very soon. This weekend."
"That's wonderful, man! I'm happy for you! You've got so much talent - now you've got time to develop it. I'm very pleased."
Turning to face Matthew, Sloan said, "You're an artist, too. You've got lots of time now, too. I'd hoped -" he paused, then continued softly, "I'd like you to come with me, Matthew. We can share a flat, and a studio. We won't be so lonely, then, on our own. What do you think?"
"I can't, Sloan," Matthew replied quietly.
"'Can't?' Why not?"
"I've made other plans. Devlin and I -"
"Devlin!" Sloan echoed scornfully.
"Why, yes, of course. Dev and I will be going east, probably end up in China -"
"He's still hanging on to you, then? Keeping you in his orbit? Nothing's changed? You're gonna let him keep using you, just like before? Even now that we're Immortal?"
"Dev doesn't use me, Sloan -"
"He does! He can't know what you are, Matt, who you are! He's a fool, a thickheaded Irish boor! He's not good enough for you! He doesn't care about you - he just wants somebody around he can boss and bully -"
Matthew stood quickly. "Have a care, Sloan! You don't know what you're talking about. Please don't speak about Dev that way!"
"Why not? I'm not afraid of him the way I used to be! I know I'm worthy of you now! Good enough, better than that! I'm his equal now!" Then, dropping the defiant tone Sloan pleaded, "You don't need to stay with Devlin O'Connor, Matt! We can be together, study, travel, whatever you like! Be happy, together!"
"It's not possible."
"It is possible! O'Connor can't force you to go with him -"
"It's not possible because I don't want it. I want to be with Devlin. Please try to understand -"
"I don't believe you! In the past - before - you had no choice! And neither did I! But now! I'll take him down, if it will free you from his hold over you! He's not good enough for you, Matthew! If I've gotta take his head to free you, I will!"
"You're crazy, Sloan! I love Devlin O'Connor! I've always loved him! If you harm him, you'll be harming me, hurting me!"
"No! You can't stop me - I'll challenge him, fight him for you! You can't stop me!" Sloan turned to leave but Matthew grabbed his arm.
"You will not do this! I won't permit you to try! You face Devlin O'Connor over my dead body, no other way!" Matthew shouted, drawing his sword from beneath the folds of his winter coat and stepping back a few feet, his weapon held at the ready.
Caldwell's face went white. "You'd do that - challenge me? Matthew?"
"And kill you, if I must! Anything, to protect Devlin O'Connor! He must survive!"
Slowly circling Matthew, Caldwell took his own sword from its sheath and lifted it into position to fight. "At that price! My head? Or your own?"
"At any price! Devlin must survive!"
"You'd fight me, kill me -"
"Absolutely. I would. I will," Matthew asserted, lunging out with a massive blow that struck Caldwell's sword.
For a moment Sloan was silent and still, reacting only with the quick motion it took to parry Matthew's thrust. Then he attacked with a swift series of moves, ferociously, quickly, forcing Matthew to defend, fall back. Matt scampered down the slight incline behind his easel.
Down and down Sloan pushed Matthew with calculated, powerful slashes, until they were on the flat paved tiles surrounding a formal garden and Matthew finally regained the initiative. Gradually he wore his friend down with intricate combinations of strokes delivered at great speed. An expression of cold fury was in Matt's eyes as he swiveled and slashed, finding the one unguarded spot on Sloan's body - his abdomen right above the groin. Crippled for a moment, Sloan fell to his knees, his sword clattering out of his hands as he broke his fall with both palms, then pressed his fists against his belly.
Matthew kicked Sloan's weapon aside, took a step back and lifted his sword high over his head to gain the leverage he needed to cut powerfully and cleanly. Sloan stared up at Matthew, his face an impassive mask.
After a moment Matthew lowered his blade without striking. He said softly, puzzlement in his voice, "This is crazy, Sloan. Why did you do this? Force this? You may have changed, but not this much. I can't believe you'd challenge Devlin O'Connor over me - you'd never dream of killing a man for so little reason."
"But you would." Sloan smiled. "Good. Very good." He rose, brushed off his trousers, grabbed up his sword and sheathed it.
"Sloan - what's going on? You sound like Quentin -"
"Forgive me, Matthew. Please. Be happy, you and Devlin. He's a good man, I know that. You wouldn't love him if he weren't. When we meet again I hope we can be friends."
"Sloan? What have you done?" Matthew whispered, but his friend had already left him, walked away toward the house, out of earshot.
The great hallway at the foot of the stairs was crowded with luggage, coats, sheathed swords and Immortals. Quentin of York embraced Matthew Marcus and shook his hand in farewell.
"Keep in touch, Matthew. Remember, I'm but an e-mail away, if you need me. Don't hesitate to ask," Quentin said with a smile.
"I will keep in touch." Raising his voice so Caldwell could hear him from where he stood at the other end of the hall saying goodbye to Lamartin, Matt asserted, "We all will - that's right, isn't it, Sloan?"
"I know I will," Sloan replied, bowing to Lamartin and threading his way between the suitcases over to Matthew, Devlin and Quentin.
"Goodbye, Devlin," Sloan said, shaking O'Connor's hand. "Take good care of my friend."
"Aye, I will, never fear." Devlin grinned, glancing at Matthew. "No' that he needs my protection, nor ever did."
"Will you wait for me outside, Dev?" Matthew asked. "I'll only be a minute. Put the bags in the car. I want to say a word to Quentin."
"Sure. Goodbye, Quentin of York. Thank you."
Sloan and Devlin took their bags and left the chateau. Lamartin smiled at Matthew and ran up the stairs, leaving teacher and pupil alone.
"So, you're leaving after all, Matthew. I'll miss your company - the pitter patter of little feet in the halls," Quentin teased with a big grin. "But I rejoice for your sake."
"Do you need anything, Quen? Here, now, anywhere, any time?" Matthew asked seriously.
"Why, of course not, boy! What could I need? I have everything!" he retorted, with a toss of his head in the direction Lamartin had taken.
"You're a terrible man. Awful. Frightening."
"I don't know what you mean, Matthew!"
"Sloan Caldwell! To suborn Sloan Caldwell to your devious purposes! You almost got him killed! Really, Quen - if you weren't so old, I'd take your head myself!"
"Whatever are you talking about, dear fellow! Sloan's a fine man. He'd never do anything remotely devious. And you! You're my student. I taught. You learned. Now you're leaving to go out into the world. Surely, there's nothing so terrible in any of that!"
Matthew sighed. "Right. As you say."
"Good. Always good to listen to what I say."
Clasping his mentor in a farewell embrace, Matthew whispered, "Thank you, old man."
"No, thank you, Matthew Marcus."
Matthew picked up his suitcase, went to the door and opened it.
"Watch his back, please."
"I'll do that. And his head," Matthew replied seriously.
"That's the point, child. Care for him, for all our sakes."