He dropped to his knees, the object in his hand planting itself to keep him from falling on his face. He ached more than he ever had in his life. He was exhausted, yet he could feel energy coursing through him. He opened his eyes on a sigh—and froze. The object he was using to hold him up was a sword. The hand gripping the handle was not his. He gasped and let go, watching almost mesmerized as unfamiliar fingers opened at his brain's command.
Still staring at the hand, he slowly pushed himself to his feet. He felt—different. Energy still surged through him, like a low buzz of electricity. His ears felt plugged. He shook his head and opened his mouth wide, but nothing changed. Except for the tingling all over, his senses seemed muted, deadened. Cautiously, he took stock of himself. Black boots, black pleated pants, and a dark gray turtleneck. Not what he normally wore. There was a plume of blood on the shirt surrounding a tear. He fingered the rent, but there was no wound.
He stared at the back of his hands. The hair there was darker. Carefully, he flexed his arms and shoulders. He felt broader, his arms muscular but trimmer. He tilted his head right, then left; his neck felt smaller. His legs were longer and leaner, his waist narrower. Hesitantly, he touched his head, and his eyes widened. He had more hair than he should, and it was thicker. He moved his arms again, feeling the coiled energy within. He knew his body would respond in an instant with grace and power.
Trepidation edged into his soul with each new discovery. Only years of discipline and training kept him from panicking. He was in someone else's body. What the hell happened? He swallowed and closed his eyes, forcing himself to remain calm, but he was shaking on the inside.
"I'm not in Kansas anymore, Toto," he murmured.
"MacLeod! What's wrong? I swear, if you've taken another bad Quickening…."
He turned to see a lanky, dark-haired stranger striding toward him. MacLeod? Quickening? Memory clicked, and he locked his knees as they threatened to buckle. Damn. He couldn't pick just any body to drop into, it had to be Duncan MacLeod's, the Immortal they'd met a few years ago. He glanced around. Forget Kansas, he wasn't even in Cascade anymore.
By now the stranger was in front of him, looking at him cautiously, and maybe with a bit of concern.
"MacLeod? Are you all right?"
He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, a cell phone rang. The man grimaced and grabbed it, hazel eyes never leaving his face.
"Pierson." The stranger's expression turned wary. "Who is this?" A long pause. Disbelief. Suspicion. "Yes, he is." A reluctant sigh and Pierson held the phone out to him. "It's for you."
Hesitantly he accepted the device. "Hello?"
He started, his eyes widening. He recognized his own voice on the other end. "How—? Who—?"
"It's MacLeod, but—I'm you."
"MacLeod? Please tell me you have an explanation for this." Jim knew he sounded desperate, but didn't care.
There was a long pause. "Not yet."
"Listen Ellison, I don't know how this happened, but we're damn well going to fix it. I'm sure you don't want to be me any longer than you have to, and I don't want to be you any longer than I have to. I told Methos—Adam—but I'm not sure he believes me. Stay with him until I can get there."
"Whoa, wait! I should come there. That's where my—" He couldn't believe he was going to say this. "—body—is."
"And mine is there."
"But I bet this has to do with that damn fountain again. There was a violent storm, almost as bad as that one a few years ago. The next thing I know I'm waking up in a new body, feeling like I just let go of a live wire."
There was a pause, then quietly, "I had just taken a Quickening."
Ellison closed his eyes for a moment. Damn. "That's some punch."
"So, I should head back to Cascade."
"No! Ellison, you might be right about the fountain, I don't know, but I—my body—needs to stay put. At least for a while. Adam will protect you."
"I can take care of myself," he growled.
"Think, Ellison! You're not in your own body. Unless you know how to use a sword, I'm not letting you risk my neck! Stay with Adam."
His gaze flew to Pierson. The man was watching him intently, his expression carefully neutral.
"And you trust him to watch your back?"
"I trust him to watch my head."
He sighed, his shoulders relaxing. He wasn't in this alone. He'd gotten used—
"He's here, not quite believing either. I think he needs to talk to you."
"He's coming with you?"
"Can I talk to him?" He heard movement on the other end.
"Yeah, it's me. How is…?" He wasn't sure how to ask.
"You're fine, Jim. Freaked me out at first. It's been a long time since I've had to deal with all your senses going out of control at once. I'm glad we were parked before this happened."
"Me too, Chief," he said quietly.
"I think Duncan was freaked some, too, but he's a quick study. I think he figured out the dial thing faster than you. He seems to have them under control for the moment. "
Jim heard the grin and had to smile. "Thanks, Chief."
"Not a problem, man. We're already headed to Seacouver. You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. Still—processing—you know?"
"Man, I bet. Duncan says to lay low and watch your head. We'll be there as soon as we can. He wants to talk to Adam?"
"Okay. See you soon." Jim started to hand the phone back to Pierson, but stopped when he heard, "Ellison!"
"How do you handle these senses all the time?"
"Stay close to Sandburg. He'll protect you." Jim tossed Duncan's words back at him. There was a momentary pause.
"I—" A sigh. "Understood." There was amusement in the tone.
Jim grinned and passed the phone to Pierson. "He wants to talk to you."
Pierson took back the phone, a wry smile playing around his lips. "Yes, Duncan. Oh, I'm becoming a believer. It's definitely your body, MacLeod, but he doesn't move anything like you. We'll be at your place. No, I think we should wait to call him until you're here. I'll take care of it." Pierson shut the phone and tucked it away in the pocket of his trenchcoat. He picked up the sword Jim had dropped and held it out to him. "Take this like you know how to handle it, and try not to cut yourself," Pierson directed.
Disgruntled by the patronizing tone, Jim grasped the hilt of the sword with more confidence than he felt. It was surprisingly light. The hilt was a carved ivory dragon's head. Japanese, at a guess. It was a beautiful weapon.
"Good, now hold it down by your side so it's hidden next to your leg."
Jim did as instructed, turning to watch as Pierson retrieved a pile of cloth. He nearly dropped the sword again as he spied the body; the headless body. He clenched his jaw, his grip tightening on the sword. He—MacLeod—had done that. Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He pushed his shock aside, carefully schooling his expression into a passive mask. Pierson held out a black trench coat he recognized as MacLeod's. He accepted it and draped it over his arm.
"What about that?" he asked, tilting his chin toward the body.
Pierson didn't even glance at it. "It'll be taken care of. Don't worry."
Jim followed Pierson to MacLeod's black Thunderbird.
"This wasn't an especially tough Quickening, but Duncan has been known to let me drive after a challenge," Pierson said conversationally.
"Are you with him often on these fights?"
A moment passed. "You know, that is going to be bloody hard to get used to. You've got his voice, but definitely not his inflection. What should I call you, anyway?"
Jim shrugged. "My name's Jim Ellison."
That wry smile again. "Forgive me. Name's Adam Pierson, and under other circumstances I would say it's a pleasure. You can call me Adam, and for the meantime, I think I'll call you Mac. Everyone else does."
"Fair enough, Adam," Jim said. "So, are you often with MacLeod when he—fights?"
Teeth flashed in a wicked grin. "Ah. Persistence. A trait you share with him." Pierson's expression sobered. "Challenges are not generally for spectators. We happened to be coming back from dinner when we noticed a tail. He kept well back, but never lost us. We led him here. It was only then that we knew for sure he was another Immortal. He challenged MacLeod. The guy wouldn't be persuaded otherwise, so here we are."
Jim smiled slightly. He liked this guy. "So why am I keeping up appearances out here? And why does MacLeod have to stay here for the time being?"
"Same answer both times."
Jim arched an eyebrow, waiting.
Pierson grinned, but turned serious almost immediately. "Watchers."
"Watchers? I thought you just said these little duels aren't for spectators?"
"These spectators are different. They're part of a secret society that watches Immortals and records their history. Their lives, their loves, their challenges. Just about everything."
"You let people spy on you?"
Pierson sighed. "The majority of Immortals don't know about Watchers. The handful that do grudgingly tolerate them."
"Because they're useful. For the most part we leave each other alone. They don't interfere with us, we don't interfere with them, and occasionally, we get information from them."
"Sounds like a dangerous way to live. What's to keep these Watchers from exposing you?"
Pierson's expression grew rueful. "Someone tried a few years ago. She failed. Ironically, it was one of the Watchers who tried to stop her."
Jim clenched his jaw. It didn't feel the same on this body. "And that doesn't bother you?"
Pierson shrugged. "We've gotten used to it. For the most part we never actually know they're watching."
He still wasn't comfortable with the idea of some stranger out there watching his every move. "So why are these Watchers recording your history?"
"I think curiosity mainly. They want to know who wins the Prize."
Jim remembered MacLeod telling about the Game and the Prize. It made him uneasy, knowing he was one of these Immortals, however temporarily. As much as it rankled him to admit it, he was grateful for Adam's "protection." Thanks to a class he'd taken during Ranger training, he had a little skill with a sword, but he'd be next to hopeless in a duel with an Immortal.
"What prevents these Watchers from hedging their bets?"
Pierson's face clouded. "Part of where the non-interference rule comes in. For the most part their structure of checks and balances has prevented such occurrences. Watchers caught ‘assisting' their assigned Immortal to find others and/or win challenges are punished or removed from the organization.
"Uh huh," Jim said coolly. "How often has this happened?"
Pierson hesitated, then shrugged and answered, "Once, maybe twice in the last twenty years."
Jim narrowed his eyes, but said nothing further. They traveled in silence for a few minutes, while Jim took in his surroundings.
"You younger or older than MacLeod?"
"Both," Pierson said mildly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jim tried to hide his annoyance, but judging by Pierson's wry grin, he hadn't succeeded. He stared out the windshield, clenching his teeth.
Pierson sighed. "You're just like him. Very black and white."
Jim nearly laughed. Pierson had no idea. He decided it was no use being defensive, or even offended. After all, older or younger, Pierson was probably more equipped to handle a challenge than he was at the moment. He looked at Pierson and smiled. Pierson's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"I've been known to do a gray thing or two."
Pierson chuckled. "I just bet you have, if it fit your parameters of right and wrong. MacLeod is the same way."
Jim had no comeback to that. Let Pierson believe what he wanted to.
"Heed me, Mac. I am older than MacLeod. Adam Pierson is not."
Jim looked at Pierson, weighing his words. He nodded in understanding. "And how old is Adam Pierson supposed to be?"
"His ‘first death' was about seven years ago. He's been Duncan MacLeod's ‘student' since then."
"Okay, so you're hiding in plain sight. From who? Other Immortals? Watchers?"
Pierson's mouth quirked into a wry smile. "Please allow me to keep some secrets."
Jim's lips twitched. "All right."
"Your turn. Who's Jim Ellison and how do you know Duncan?"
"My story isn't nearly so fascinating," Jim said with honest amusement.
Duncan clenched his fists on his thighs and gritted his teeth. He could tell Ellison's jaw was used to the gesture. He felt clumsy, like every limb was weighted down. Ellison's muscle mass was greater than his own. He was thicker in neck and waist, bulkier in legs and arms, but Ellison was no muscle-bound gorilla either. The change in body dynamics and the lack of the kinetic power Duncan was used to were unnerving. And the senses… His senses had always been strong, but Ellison's were unreal. Everything was brighter, louder—more—than he had ever experienced before. It was sheer luck that they'd been stopped on a side street close to the university when Duncan found himself in possession of the strange body. The sensory input had swamped him, almost like taking a Quickening.
Blair touched his shoulder, bringing him back to the here and now. "You okay?"
Duncan smiled slightly. "Yeah, I'm okay. Just got lost in thought."
"Man, I hope that's all you get lost in."
"What do you mean by that?"
Blair swallowed nervously. "Don't let yourself focus too intently with any one sense, or you might zone out. Jim hardly ever zones out anymore and when he does they're usually light and he's able to pull himself out, but since you're new to this, you might be more susceptible and I don't know if I'll be able to bring you back like I do Jim."
Duncan raised an eyebrow, grinning slightly at the stream of information. To his wonder, he realized he could hear Blair's elevated heart rate and smell his sweat. The guy was nervous and maybe a little scared. "Blair, it's okay. It's okay. Whatever these zone-outs are, I'm sure it'll be okay."
Blair stopped. He took a deep breath. "Right. Okay." Blair nodded once, decisively, as if answering an internal question. "A zone-out is—well, when Jim over-focuses with one of his senses, or something overwhelms one of them, he can lose track of everything around him. Kind of like the lights are on but no one's home."
Duncan's mind gibbered in terror. The consequences could be deadly for an Immortal who wasn't aware of his surroundings all of the time. Even a moment's inattentiveness could cost an Immortal his head. Duncan gripped his thighs even harder.
He heard the yell, realized his shoulders were shaking, and eased his grip. He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. "I'm okay, Blair. I just— Do you know how terrifying that possibility is? We always have to be on our guard, aware of our surroundings. Getting lost like that, even for a moment…."
Blair nodded solemnly. "That's why Jim and I have worked so hard on his control. He hates when he loses control of his senses. He hates when he zones. He hates being vulnerable."
"I can understand why. These senses are incredible, but—frightening. I've never experienced anything like this. Everything is brighter, louder, more noxious. How does he handle the input?"
Blair smiled grimly. "By using the dials. Jim has gotten so used to controlling them that it's automatic. I don't think it's conscious anymore, except when something unusual happens."
"How often is that?"
"Not very often anymore." Blair chuffed softly. "There was a time when about once a year Jim would want to get rid of his senses. He felt they were a liability or they caused harm, or he was just tired of dealing with them. Every time he succeeded in shutting them off, something bad would happen and he'd need them back. He occasionally backslides, but for the most part he's finally stopped fighting them and himself. I just hope this, whatever this is, doesn't renew the cycle."
Duncan nodded, remembering times when he had walked away from the Game, only to be drawn back into it for one reason or another. He didn't want to dwell on that topic. "What were you and Jim doing before—this—happened?"
Blair fidgeted, frowning. "We were investigating another freak lightning storm. Jim saw a concentration of what he said was ball lightning, and we headed to check it out. When he—" Blair stopped and took a deep breath. "—realized we were close to Rainier he pulled over and just stopped. We're watching the lightning show, and the next thing I know he's bent over the steering wheel, hands clapped to his ears, eyes squeezed shut, and gasping for air." Blair pinned him with dark blue eyes. "Only, it wasn't him."
Duncan acknowledged the role he'd played in Blair's distress.
Blair waved the apology away. "Not your fault. Weirdness seems to like Cascade. I just want Jim back in his own body and you back in yours as soon as possible. I'll worry about why it happened and how to prevent it later." Blair's knee bounced with nervous energy. "It was a Quickening, wasn't it?"
Duncan could have feigned confusion, but Blair's question paralleled his own thoughts. "I think so."
Blair frowned. "I think we're going to have to decree that no Quickenings can be taken within a five-mile radius of Rainier."
Duncan didn't know how they'd enforce such a decree, but he had to admit that any time a Quickening was taken near the water fountain on Rainier's campus, havoc seemed to ensue. "When we get back to Seacouver, I'll see what I can find out about any Quickenings taken in Cascade tonight."
Dawson stepped off the elevator, his eyes already fastened to MacLeod and Methos.
"Good evening, Joe. Close the bar early?" Methos asked.
Joe eyed the old Immortal, but let the strange greeting go and turned his attention to MacLeod. "Andrews said Adam drove you home," he said. "You all right, Mac?"
"I'm fine, Joe." MacLeod walked into the kitchenette. Joe watched him with concern. The Highlander seemed ill at ease in his own home.
"There weren't any problems with the Quickening?"
MacLeod's head shot up as if he were surprised Joe knew the word. A moment later Mac's eyes flicked to Methos's, and with studied effort he relaxed. Joe stared at Mac in confusion. "You sure you're okay, MacLeod?"
"Yeah, Joe, just a bit tired."
"So there was a problem with the Quickening?" Joe demanded.
"Well, yes and no," Methos hedged.
Joe glared at the ancient Immortal before pinning MacLeod again. "Andrews reported that you got pricked, but that you took Kanton without much of a fight." Mac glanced down at his mid-section. Odd. Mac rarely thought about past wounds. "Then you let Adam drive you home. Was the injury more serious than Andrews thought?"
"Can't I let a friend drive me home once in a while?"
Joe arched an eyebrow. The tone was right, but the inflection was off. "Mac, the only time you let friends drive your car is if you're near dead or exhausted."
MacLeod only shrugged.
"Dammit, Mac, what happened?"
MacLeod wouldn't meet his eyes. "I…. It's complicated, Joe."
Joe huffed and plopped down on the couch. "So uncomplicate things for me." Silence greeted him. He waited. Fortunately, before it got to the point where he had to make the decision to stay or go, Methos broke in.
"It wasn't a garden variety Quickening."
Joe shot another stare at Mac. He appeared fine. Not quite himself, but definitely not the hard, cold, evil thing he had turned into after the Dark Quickening.
"No, Joe, it wasn't another Dark Quickening. This is something else entirely. Something I've never even heard of, let alone witnessed."
He stared at Methos now, a cold dread forming in the pit of his stomach. "What happened?" he asked again.
"How to explain this without sounding mad?" Methos muttered, studying the floor. Joe waited as patiently as he could. Methos finally raised his head and looked him square in the eyes. "When the Quickening was over, MacLeod was no longer MacLeod. Someone else has taken up residence."
Joe started, his gaze darting to MacLeod, then back. Anger began to replace the dread. "If this is your idea of a—"
"It's the truth!" Mac said abruptly. "I-I don't know how, but somehow MacLeod and I have switched bodies. He's got mine, and I've got his, and believe me, I don't want any part of this Immortal crap."
Joe eyed Mac skeptically. "And who are you?"
"That name sounds familiar."
"I'm a police detective in Cascade. I contacted you a few years ago—"
"—asking about Tessa. Right, I remember." Joe looked at Methos. "It's really not him?"
Methos shook his head.
"And Mac is in Ellison's body?"
A slight nod.
Joe sagged back into the couch.
After a long moment of silence, Methos said, "When they get here we're going to figure out what happened and fix it."
"MacLeod—Ellison—and his friend, Blair Sandburg."
At that moment the elevator activated. Joe watched Mac and Methos closely, but he caught no indication that there was another Immortal in the building. Mac stayed where he was, watching the elevator ascend. Methos was alert but relatively relaxed as he, too, waited for the car to arrive.
The elevator stopped, the doors opened, and the gate slid aside, revealing two men. One was tall, almost as tall as MacLeod, and muscular. The other was a few inches shorter, trim, and curly haired. They didn't immediately move, staring back at the reception waiting for them.
Slowly, the bigger man stepped off the elevator. Joe assumed this was Ellison. Sandburg followed slightly behind and to Ellison's left.
"Joe. Adam." The voice was in the tenor range, about the same register as MacLeod's. For some reason Joe had expected his voice to be deeper.
Sandburg stepped around Ellison and held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Blair Sandburg." His voice was a low tenor.
Joe nearly laughed. It was always the little guys with the deeper voices. He accepted the young man's hand. "Joe Dawson."
"Oh, the owner of the blues bar, right?"
"That's right. You have a good memory."
Sandburg shrugged. "Yeah, well, it was an interesting case."
"So I've gathered, though MacLeod has refused to tell me very much." Joe's gaze followed Sandburg's to see Ellison and MacLeod eyeing each other warily.
"MacLeod, I don't think he's going to attack you," Joe teased. Surprisingly, it was Ellison who turned to look at him. He glanced at MacLeod who was still staring at Ellison.
"Jim, play nice," Sandburg ordered. The man who looked like MacLeod started guiltily and glanced at Sandburg.
"Do you know how strange it is to be looking at myself without a mirror?" Jim replied almost plaintively.
"I can only imagine, Jim, but I can tell you it's kind of freaky from where I'm standing, too. Now, let's see what we can do about fixing this, okay? Duncan, now that we're face to face, do you have any ideas?"
The man who should have been Ellison shook his head. "Not yet, but I'm hoping Joe's network can help. Adam might have some ideas, too."
"It's really true," Joe blurted. "You really have switched bodies."
Mac looked at him in sympathy. "Yes, Joe. We really have."
"That's what we have to try to figure out. I think simultaneous Quickenings are involved."
"Oh? Like that double one you and Adam—"
"Maybe, but Ellison isn't an Immortal, and we were miles apart. From what Blair has told me, I'm pretty sure someone took a Quickening in Cascade about the same time I took Kanton's. I need to know who it was."
Joe stared at Mac (still trying to reconcile what he knew and what he saw). "Why would Quickenings miles apart have any effect on each other?"
"I don't know, Joe, but we think it has something to do with what happened a few years ago. We need to find out the how and the why, reverse it, and prevent it happening again, even if all we do is somehow declare the spot holy ground."
"Mac, what happened last time?" Joe asked quietly, gently. "You've never given me any details." Sadness touched the three men's faces. Joe was mildly surprised.
Quietly, reluctantly, they told him the story of Tessa's return and departure.
By the time they finished, Joe was staring at Mac with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief.
Mac smiled ruefully. "I know, Joe. Unbelievable. But it happened. Remember Ahriman?"
Joe flinched at that name. Mac raised his gaze to Adam, who hadn't said a word since Mac and Sandburg's arrival.
"Adam? Have you ever heard of this happening? Legend? Myth? Anything?"
Methos returned the switched MacLeod's gaze for a long moment before he spoke. "I was prepared to say no. And truthfully, I have never heard of Immortals or mortals switching bodies." He paused. "But there is a tale of at least one Immortal who insisted he was someone else. When challenged, he lost, never drawing his sword. A farmer in a nearby village dropped dead simultaneously."
Mac continued to hold Adam's gaze. Silent knowledge seemed to pass between them, and it dawned on Joe that Methos was talking about himself. He had been the challenger.
Adam continued, "As far as simultaneous Quickenings are concerned, there are references, but until the advent of instant communication, witnessing such oddities would have been next to impossible."
Sighing, Mac nodded, looking unhappy.
Joe pushed himself to his feet. "I'll go see what I can find out about any other Quickenings tonight."
"I'll go with you, Joe. Seems I have my own research to start."
"I need you to stay for a bit," Mac said.
Adam paused in the act of reaching for his coat and quirked an eyebrow.
Having a pretty good idea why MacLeod wanted the old man to stay, Joe nodded to him. "I'll let you know what I find out."
"Thanks, Joe." Quietly.
Joe jerked his head at Sandburg. "Good to meet you." He looked at the figure of MacLeod. "Ellison? I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot of you until this is resolved."
"I'd say you're probably right."
"Thanks for doing this, Joe," Sandburg said.
Joe waved a hand and stepped onto the elevator. He watched them until the car took him down and out of sight.
Duncan turned to Adam. "We have to practice."
Adam's lips twitched slightly, but he nodded. Duncan snatched up his trench coat and pulled out his katana. The reality of his predicament slammed into him. He stared down at the sword numbly. For three hundred years it had been an extension of his arm, at home in his hand. Now, it felt completely foreign; too light. Wrong. He glanced at Methos and saw sympathy in his hazel eyes. He gripped the katana tighter and stalked down the stairs. The others hurried to catch up.
Once in the dojo, Duncan strode to the middle of the floor and stopped. He took a few practice swings with the graceful blade. Each arc, each swipe was overdone. The blade was all wrong for the body he was in. With a soft sigh he turned and walked back to Ellison. He held out the katana.
It was strange, seeing his own face look at him in confusion.
"Go on, take it."
Reluctantly, Ellison accepted the sword. Duncan turned to Methos, unable to look at himself holding a sword. He spread his arms slightly. "What do you think? A longsword?"
Methos studied him critically for a long moment. "Yes, I think so."
Duncan accepted this and stalked into his office. A few minutes later he came out, bearing an English longsword. Long, narrow, and every bit as deadly as his cherished katana, this sword was more suited to this body's more slender hands and bulkier arms.
"Have you ever used a sword?" Duncan asked.
"Not since my Army training days."
"Then I'm going to assume you know the parts of a sword at least. What we're going to do is run through some exercises, get you used to handling the weapon. From there we'll get down to some serious training."
"Do you think that's really necessary? I thought we'd just lie low until we figure out how to get our own bodies back."
"Yes, I do, and we can't ‘lie low.' There's no telling how long we're going to be stuck like this, and I want to make sure you're prepared for a challenge if it happens."
"How likely is that?" Ellison seemed dubious.
Adam grunted. Amusement laced his voice. "The Highlander isn't exactly unknown among Immortals."
Ellison speared Adam with angry eyes. "What does that mean?" He turned his gaze on Duncan. "How often do you take challenges?"
Duncan sighed. "More often than I did a few years ago. It's the Gathering. It's growing closer."
"How. Often?" Ellison demanded.
"Once, twice a month. Sometimes less, sometimes more."
It was strange seeing his own shoulders relax when he wasn't staring into a mirror.
"Then we should be safe for a while."
"We can't count on that! You need to be as prepared as I—we—can make you! According to Adam's story, if one of us dies, the other does, too. I'm not ready to die. Are you?"
Ellison glanced down at the sword in his hand. Quietly, he said, "No."
"Good. Let's start with getting a feel for our weapons. You are holding what's known as a katana. It is a graceful Japanese weapon designed for flowing, sweeping cuts, but don't underestimate the tip. I have used that sword for a very long time. If you let it, it will almost guide itself.
"The sword I'm holding is a longsword. Where the katana has a single-edged blade, this is double-edged. It's designed for slashing, parrying, and lunging." Duncan motioned Ellison out on to the floor. "Adam, please?"
With a familiar wry smile, Adam took over their instruction. If Ellison was surprised by this turn, he hid it well. Quite frankly, Duncan was relieved. He would have his own problems getting used to wielding a sword in a different body, and until he was comfortable, he refused to risk injuring either of them with a misplaced maneuver. For the first time in over four hundred years, he was mortally aware that a cut or an ill-placed blow could be fatal.
Jim didn't know where Pierson had come up with the sword now in his hands, but he didn't have time to question it. He'd barely processed the fact that MacLeod was turning the "training" over to Adam, before he was being asked to wield the katana. Jim listened and watched carefully, diligently putting himself through the paces Adam set. He felt clumsy and unsure. He was unused to the feeling. The only thing stopping his frustration was seeing MacLeod's less than confident movements with his own weapon. He had a strange body and strange weapon to get used to, MacLeod who had likely wielded a sword since he was old enough to lift one, was probably finding it scary in a body that didn't automatically respond.
Slowly, slowly, Jim gained the feel of the weapon. Up, down, across, sweep up, jab back, lunge, pivot, do it all again. An hour later he was panting and sweat was pouring down his face.
He missed a parry and came within a hairsbreadth of getting his fingers cut off. Pierson immediately pulled back.
"Duncan, work on your lunges and up thrusts for a while." Wordlessly, Duncan moved off a few feet. Pierson turned to Jim. "You're over-controlling."
Jim ignored the soft snort from Sandburg, who was sitting on the bench near the outside door.
"The sword wants to go one way when I tell it to go another."
"Remember, you're in a body that has had centuries of experience handling a sword. It would not be a bad thing to relax into the flow and guide the weapon, not try to control it."
Jim clenched his jaw, but acquiesced. He set his stance and began again. This time, he parried successfully. Pierson didn't let him enjoy his accomplishment for long. He came at Jim from another angle, using a different attack. Jim was hard-pressed to counter it. He gave ground rapidly, trying to avoid the sharp blade.
Jim was tiring. He knew it, but refused to give in to it. Each parry, each deflected blow, whittled at his reserves. Exhaustion dogged him. His reaction time was slowing, but Pierson barely seemed fazed by their exercise. Jim dodged a forward strike, twisted and swung the katana, but instead of stepping back, he stepped forward, right into the path of Pierson's backswing. The sword sliced him from side to side, laying open his stomach.
"Jim!" Sandburg shouted.
Fire scorched him. Jim looked down at his open belly dumbly. The katana dropped from his hand. He clutched the wound. Other hands were on him then, easing him to the floor. Jim stared at his bloody hands.
"Jim? Come on, man, look at me." Sandburg's voice seemed off, shaky.
Jim pulled his gaze away from the blood and looked at Blair, then at the weird mirror that was his face, then at Pierson.
"I think I zigged when I should have zagged."
Blair was trying ineffectually to staunch the blood with the edges of Duncan's sweater. "We need to get him to a hospital."
"No, he'll be all right."
Blair's head came up. "What do you mean he'll be all right? This isn't just a paper cut!"
Duncan ignored Sandburg. "Ellison." Jim focused on his face—and wasn't that weird? But he locked onto the blue eyes that were his own. "You can feel it, can't you?"
For a moment Jim didn't know what MacLeod was talking about. Then he did feel it: a low-grade electrical field. His body was beginning to tingle all over. The feeling rushed from his extremities toward his mid-section, where tiny sparks of lightning were beginning to arc across the wound. In moments, the gash was sealed, leaving behind a red welt; seconds later, not even that remained. The torn shirt gave the only evidence of injury.
"Whoa," Blair said softly.
"Yeah," Jim agreed, fingering the now smooth skin. He looked up at the Immortals. "That's some trick."
"Just remember, it doesn't work if you lose your head," Duncan said tersely and stood.
Jim scowled, disgruntled by the implied criticism. He accepted Sandburg's help getting to his feet and turned to Pierson expectantly.
"Are you ready to continue?"
"What?" Blair exclaimed. "You can't be serious. He's tired, doesn't he get to rest?"
Jim gripped Blair's shoulder. "It's all right, Chief. Adam is only doing what any good drill sergeant would."
"You're not in the Army anymore, Jim!"
"But I am preparing for combat," he said gently. He looked at Pierson. "Am I right?"
"Yes. Each challenge accepted is an individual combat that only one will walk away from."
"Accepted?" Blair said. "You mean a challenge doesn't have to be accepted?"
"No, but the choices are limited. The challenger could choose to attack anyway, forcing a fight; you could simply not fight and let the challenger take your head; or you could run."
Blair looked at Jim. "I vote for running."
Pierson shook his head. "If you run, you have to be prepared to keep looking over your shoulder, or seek sanctuary on holy ground."
"If it means you live a little longer, what's wrong with that?" Blair argued.
Before Pierson could reply, Jim said, "Chief, think about it. Say I run from one and successfully elude him, and run from the next, and the next; pretty soon I couldn't go anywhere without being challenged, and sooner or later someone would corner me without escape. Plus, there's MacLeod's reputation to think of."
"What's that got to do with anything?" Blair said stubbornly.
"I take it Mac has a reputation as something of a champion. He doesn't walk away from a legitimate challenge." Jim glanced at Pierson for confirmation. Pierson smirked, but gave him a slight nod. "I want this fixed as soon as possible, but what if I'm stuck like this for months? Years? If I turn MacLeod into a perceived coward, I'll make his life that much more difficult to live once we get our own bodies back. I can't do that to him."
Blair looked unhappy, but didn't argue any further. Jim tried a reassuring smile and patted his shoulder.
"Okay, but I don't have to like it," Blair muttered.
"Neither do I, buddy."
Sandburg went back to the bench and Jim went back to training.
Blair sat down with a heavy sigh. He understood their reasoning, and in a similar situation he'd probably do the same, but he definitely didn't like it. He'd never quite reconciled himself to Duncan's Immortal way of life, and now with Jim's neck on the line too, it was doubly difficult. Already, Blair could see improvements in Jim's sword skills. Jim wasn't fighting the katana as much, wasn't as stiff as he had been, and he was becoming comfortable in Duncan's body.
Duncan was making similar progress. Blair suppressed a shudder. Duncan was putting Jim's body through a series of tightly controlled maneuvers with the longsword. As graceful as Blair knew Jim could be, it was disconcerting to see that grace refined into something more. Blair's frustration was bordering on anger. He needed to be doing something to help resolve their current problem, but all he could do was watch and wait. He hated waiting. Research was second nature to him, but what could he research about this? Nothing. It wasn't as if Immortals kept public records, and unless he wanted to become a Watcher he knew damn well they weren't going to let a stranger run amok in their archives. With resignation he sat back to wait for others to do the research. All he could do was help Jim deal with this peculiar situation, and be his rock when he needed it.
Three hours later, wringing wet and exhausted, the fighters finally called a halt. Blair figured it had more to do with the phone ringing in the office than with their actual willingness to quit. Duncan snatched a towel from a stack sitting on a bench and went to answer it. He returned within minutes.
"Joe is on his way over."
"Did he tell you?" Adam asked, following Duncan toward the locker room. Jim went with them, and Blair quickly caught up.
"No, just that he has the information we wanted. I think he wants to check up on us."
"Good ol' Joseph." Adam smiled.
Blair sat on Duncan's black leather sofa, absently rubbing his jeans-clad leg. Duncan was in the kitchenette fixing tea. Adam had snagged a beer and was now ensconced in front of Duncan's laptop. Jim was browsing through the books and other oddments around the loft.
Duncan moved around the kitchen island and held out a steaming cup. Blair accepted it gratefully. Jim turned from his study of a painting.
"For an antique dealer, you don't have many antiques."
Duncan paused in the act of sitting down. Adam looked up from the computer screen and cast a concerned gaze on Duncan. Duncan sat and stared down into his cup.
"Most of the items were sold with the store. The rest are in storage." Duncan took a sip of tea.
Jim nodded, finally settling on the other end of the couch. "Do you find yourself taking more chances?"
Duncan looked at Jim, a faint smile coming to his lips. "Not as often as you might think." Adam snorted softly, but Duncan ignored him. "Even though we heal almost instantly, getting injured still hurts, and sometimes the healing is more painful than the injury. Coming back to life is not only painful, it's disorienting and something to be avoided when at all possible. Also, we always have to be conscious of the mortals around us. If they see us die, we have to stay dead to them; pack up and take a new identity somewhere else for awhile."
"How many times have you…?" Blair couldn't help asking.
Duncan grimaced. "A few."
The elevator started up. They waited expectantly. Only when the doors opened and the gate slid aside, revealing Dawson, did Duncan and Adam relax.
Blair wondered about that. From what he'd been told, Immortals could feel each other. Then he realized the problem wasn't just about an Immortal walking in on them. Any of Duncan's friends would be a problem. Just as there would have been problems if they'd stayed in Cascade and their friends and co-workers had stopped by the loft. Utter chaos.
Joe paused before stepping off, one eyebrow rising. "Someone want to help with this?"
"This" was a large flat box filled with white carry out bags. Adam quickly relieved Joe of the burden.
As Joe followed Adam to the kitchenette he said, "I figured you'd be hungry after your workout, so I brought clubs from the bar."
"Bless you, Joe. I am quite famished," Adam said, flashing a cocky grin.
At the mention of food, Blair's stomach rumbled. It had been a long time since dinner. While they ate, they kept conversation to mundane, everyday topics.
Joe wiped his mouth with a napkin, wadded it up and tossed it on his plate. He picked up his beer and sat back with a soft belch disguised as a sigh. Adam and Duncan cast expectant glances at him.
Joe looked at Jim, who was concentrating on the last few bites of his sandwich, then seemed to remember the body switch and turned his gaze to Duncan.
"The man you fought was Ruiz Kanton. First death in 1972, age thirty."
"Didn't know him," Duncan said. "What about the Quickening in Cascade?"
"That's a different story." Joe studied the handle of his cane for a long moment. "It was Cassandra's."
Dismay stole across Adam's face. Duncan closed his eyes.
"Who?" His simple question was barely audible.
"An Immortal by the name of Kylie Daniels, also known as Cora."
"Cora? There's a name I haven't heard in a while," Adam said.
Duncan opened his eyes and met Adam's gaze. "What do you know about her?"
"One of the brashest, most deceitful women it's been my misfortune to meet. Not surprising, considering her teacher was Cassandra."
Duncan's expression was a mixture of surprise and concern. "I didn't know Cassandra had any students."
"Cora was her last as far as I know. That was seven hundred years ago."
"Cassandra taught Cora the use of a sword. But more important to Cassandra, Cora has the gift."
"You mean she's a witch?"
Adam nodded. "Cora was an apt pupil, but all accounts say she grew impatient and finally betrayed Cassandra. Didn't take her head then, but left her dead."
"Excuse me," Blair interrupted quietly. All eyes turned to him. "Who is—was—Cassandra?"
Duncan rotated the cup in his hand. "Cassandra was a—witch. At least she called herself such."
"As in hocus pocus, or the practice of Wicca?"
Duncan's lips twitched. "More like the practice of alchemy. She knew things that today's scientists can only dream after."
Blair blinked. He almost scoffed. "Could she turn lead into gold?"
Joe and Adam chuckled. Duncan took a sip of his tea.
"I don't know, but it wouldn't have surprised me."
"She must have been pretty old," Blair said.
Duncan cast a glance at Adam. "Around three thousand years."
Blair gasped, eyes going wide. Jim's eyebrows were reaching for his hairline. He couldn't imagine a life spanning millennia.
"Are—Are there many that old?"
"No. There are few ancient ones left."
"It sounds like she meant a lot to you," Blair said with sympathy.
Duncan smiled faintly. "Sometimes I almost hated her, other times…" Duncan shrugged. "She lived in the forest near my village when I was a boy. Everyone called her a witch and the elders warned us away from her with tales of the sacrifices she made. I got lost in the woods once. She helped me. She didn't seem so scary. I forgot all about her until a few years ago when she showed up here. I was supposed to fulfill some sort of prophecy of hers; damn near got Joe killed in the process. In the end I saved her life and she saved mine."
"Is that the last time you saw her?"
Before Blair had a chance to ask more, Adam got up and slipped into a beige trenchcoat.
"Time for that research," he said quietly.
Duncan stood and followed him to the elevator. Adam gave Duncan a melancholy smile, then turned and stepped into the elevator.
The bar was closed. Joe stood behind the counter, slowly, meticulously wiping glasses. He looked up when the doors opened. Without a word, he reached for a glass, drew a draft, and set it on the bar top as a grim-faced Methos sat down.
With a bare tilt of his head, Methos lifted the glass and drank deeply. Joe studied him, noting the lines of fatigue seaming Methos's face.
"What kind of a woman does it take to stand out in the memory of a five-thousand-year-old Immortal?" Joe asked quietly.
Methos ran his fingertips through the condensation on his glass. "A strong-willed, spirited one. One filled with fire and ice."
"Did you love her?"
"As much as Death could, I suppose."
Joe nodded sagely.
"Another time, another place, I think we could have been good together."
Methos sipped his beer.
"She was the last link to you and the other Four Horsemen, wasn't she?"
Methos smiled ruefully. "I guess you could say that, Joe. I am truly the last of the Four." Methos gave a small chuff. "Wouldn't Cassandra be furious?"
"I expect so," Joe said. He let a moment pass in silence. "Have you had any luck searching your Chronicles?"
"Not yet, but I still have a few to go through."
"Do you need—want—any help?"
Methos smiled fondly this time. "Unless you can read my own form of short hand, I'm afraid this is a task solely for me."
"Just thought I'd ask."
"And for that, I thank you." Methos finished his beer and stood. "Good night, Joe. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other later."
"Night. Call me if you need anything."
Methos nodded and left as quietly as he'd come.
The sun was barely an hour in the sky when Methos ran lightly up the back stairs to MacLeod's loft. He was greeted at the door by a rumpled-looking, grumpy MacLeod in the guise of Ellison, his sword raised and ready.
Methos arched an eyebrow and slipped past. Once inside, he saw Ellison rubbing his temples. He turned an inquiring gaze to MacLeod.
"I heard you with these crazy senses; he felt you. The first time he's felt an Immortal."
"Adam, did you find something?" Blair asked from where he was curled up in a nest of blankets on the floor. A huge yawn escaped him as he sat up.
"Since you're here voluntarily before breakfast, I assume that's a good sign?" MacLeod said.
"Yes to both questions," he said. "But before I tell you, I need some coffee."
MacLeod nodded and strode to the kitchenette. Methos followed. Gratefully, he accepted the cup MacLeod handed him and took a healthy sip.
The elevator activated.
"That will be Joe with breakfast. You'll be happy to know that I rousted him before I came here."
MacLeod gave a small smile and headed to the elevator.
"Good morning, Joseph," MacLeod greeted, taking the box of pastries thrust into his hands.
"Morning," Joe said gruffly. He stepped off the elevator, leaning on his cane and cast a bleary eye on Methos. "What was the all-fired rush to get me over here?"
"Hey, Joe. Adam was just about to tell us what he's found," Blair said.
Methos grabbed a pastry and perched on a barstool, content to wait until everyone had food and drink.
"I came across two references similar to this one. One of them is the incident I told you about earlier."
"What happened? Did the other one get fixed?" Blair asked.
"No, it didn't."
"It didn't?" Blair's expression fell. "Then how—?"
"I think I know how the transfer happened, and I have an idea how to reverse it."
"Adam?" MacLeod packed a lot of questions in that single word.
"The fountain at Rainier is on holy ground, right?"
"Yes, but it doesn't extend much past the fountain."
"As near as I can tell, in both cases, simultaneous Quickenings were taken, and one of each was taken near holy ground. In each instance the Immortal who lost near holy ground knew the winning Immortal at the other site. The Quickening near holy ground was far stronger than the Quickening taken elsewhere."
Nobody said a word as they mulled over the connotations of this.
"You think that as the stronger person died, they somehow pulled the spirit free of the Immortal they knew?" MacLeod asked.
"Yes. Invariably, a person's last thoughts before death are of loved ones or those most important to him. If one of those loved ones happens to be taking a Quickening at the same time that person is dying, when the energy transference is greatest, it is conceivable."
"Are you serious?" Blair exclaimed.
Methos smiled mildly. "Look at your friend and tell me I'm wrong."
"But that's—that's unbelievable." Blair slumped. "But it happened," he murmured miserably.
"What's your idea for fixing this?" MacLeod asked.
"You've said the fountain in Cascade is on holy ground, and is or was some kind of supernatural gateway."
"Yes, and the Quickening I took there seven years ago closed that door and sent Tessa back to her rest."
"Was there anything unusual about that Quickening? Stronger? Wilder?"
"It might have been more intense than usual. I vaguely recall some ball lightning. Other than that nothing out of the ordinary."
Methos nodded, thinking. "If I take Cora's Quickening, with the added power the fountain seems to lend, I should be able to sort out your signatures and send them back where they belong."
As he expected, Duncan scowled and Joe frowned. What he had not counted on was Blair's reaction.
"And how do you figure that, Adam? You just told us that those two other transfers didn't get fixed. Now you're telling us you can do it. And we're supposed to, what, just believe you? A little evidence would be appreciated. Hell, I think we're probably open to suppositions and theories. But all you're saying is that you can do it. What do you know that we don't? All I've heard from you and Duncan and Joe is that Quickenings don't work like that."
Methos studied Blair intently for a long moment. "Are you a scientist, Blair?"
Blair jerked his head once. "I've done my share of research—anthropology. I'm sorry, but it just seems like you're grasping after straws. Not to mention that you're talking about murder as the solution."
Methos gave him a small, wry smile. "I, too, am a student of human nature, Blair. My interpretation of what I've found is based on my knowledge and experience. In this instance, you're going to have to take it on trust that I know what I'm talking about."
"Why?" Blair said in frustration. "Because you're Immortal? So is Duncan, and he's not going around thinking another beheading is going to help. And while we're discussing this anyway, doesn't it bother you that you're talking about murdering another person so we can have our friends back?"
"Cora is Immortal, as am I, as is Duncan. This is our way of life. I would have been content to let her be, but the moment she took Cassandra's Quickening, her life was forfeit."
Blair's eyes widened. "So you're out for vengeance?"
"No. Cassandra's Quickening was very strong, her knowledge and power in the wrong hands could be devastating, for mortals and Immortals alike. Cora is devious, conniving and power hungry. I shudder at what she could do with all of Cassandra's knowledge at her beck and call. I am not the White Knight that MacLeod is, but even I know she needs to be stopped before she has a chance to wreak real damage. By taking Cora's Quickening, we'll have the chance to restore our friends."
"But you still haven't told me why you think you can pull this off, restore Jim and Duncan to their respective bodies."
"Let it go, Chief."
Blair turned a fierce gaze on him. "Why? We're talking about your life, Jim!"
"Not just mine." Ellison glanced at Duncan. "I'm the weak link in all this. If things stay as they are and I lose a fight, Duncan goes down, too. I don't want to be responsible for that. If Adam—"
"Big ‘if'," Blair muttered.
"If Adam has figured out how to reverse this, if he's willing to risk MacLeod on a hunch, a guess, whatever—"
"I'm willing to risk myself, Blair," Adam said softly.
"From one non-Immortal to another, Blair," Joe added, "it really is a big deal."
Blair stood abruptly and headed to the kitchenette, muttering under his breath.
"Excuse me," Ellison murmured and went after Blair.
Methos's eyes followed Ellison as he joined his partner, who had retreated to the farthest corner, busying his hands with the few dirty dishes in the sink. Low, heated murmuring reached their ears. He turned back to Joe and MacLeod to find them staring at him.
"Are you nuts?" Joe demanded in a low-voiced growl.
"Undoubtedly, but whether or not I am insane has no bearing on this."
"That's not what I meant and you damn well know it," Joe hissed.
Methos looked at the unhappy MacLeod.
"There's a lot at stake here," MacLeod said quietly.
"Your life; mine and Ellison's. With a single stroke three lives could be gone and Cora will have the most powerful Quickening of all."
"And you're willing to risk that?"
"And if I'm not?"
"Are you willing to risk Ellison's sanity? Yours? Are you willing to stay mortal, living as Jim Ellison while he fights to keep your head so you both can live? What happens if you die a mortal death? Ellison's spirit will probably go with it, but will yours? I doubt it. It will probably return to its rightful place. Duncan MacLeod will be alive, but Jim Ellison will be gone."
Methos could tell MacLeod hadn't considered any of these possibilities.
Joe interrupted. "You're saying that if the mortal dies, the Immortal will live?"
Methos nodded. "Think about it, Joe. What is the only true way to kill an Immortal?"
Joe studied him. Methos knew the moment Joe resigned himself to the inevitable by the bleakness that came to his eyes. "Beheading, and if there is no beheading, the Immortal's spirit would return to its rightful body whether the mortal's spirit remained or not. Damn," Joe whispered. "But why wouldn't Ellison's spirit return to his body if Mac…?"
"It would greatly depend on how far apart they are when that happened, but it is doubtful that Jim's spirit would be able to find its way back to his body. And if it did, would it be strong enough to re-enter?"
MacLeod raised equally bleak eyes. "You're sure there is no other way?"
Methos took pity. "I'm suggesting I fight, MacLeod. You know that if there was another way, I'd be all for it."
MacLeod nodded, but he caught and held Methos's gaze. "What happens if you lose?"
Methos let MacLeod read what he needed to in his eyes. Finally, MacLeod relaxed a little and glanced at the pair still in the kitchenette.
"How much do we tell them? I doubt Jim will argue, but Blair will need assurances."
Methos allowed a very slight smile to form. "I have a plan for that."
Blair and Ellison returned to their group. Blair appeared calmer but still a little agitated. Blair parked himself on the other barstool and glared at Methos.
"Let me see if I understand how this works."
"Every Quickening an Immortal takes makes him stronger, correct?" Methos nodded. "Presumably the older the Immortal, the more Quickenings he's taken and the stronger he is." Again a nod. "I assume when a younger Immortal takes the Quickening of an older Immortal his power grows even more."
"Yes. Depending on the Quickening, the growth can be exponential. That is why so many younger ones actively hunt the heads of older Immortals."
Blair grimaced. "What you're proposing sounds like it will take an incredible amount of power."
Methos nodded, but remained silent, curious where this was leading. He reached for a napkin, located a pen, and began writing as he waited.
"I know Duncan is over four hundred. Would he have enough power for what you're proposing?"
Methos finished writing and slid the napkin over in front of Blair. "Yes, MacLeod would have enough power, but he is unique among Immortals."
Blair studied the napkin, his brow furrowed. "This looks like a form of cuneiform. Why is he unique?"
"It's Hurrian, actually." Methos took back the napkin and started writing again. "MacLeod has taken more ancient Quickenings, those over nine hundred years, than any other Immortal." He passed the napkin back.
Blair's head snapped up. "I thought he wasn't a head hunter?"
"He's not. But remember, he's a knight in shining armor, champion of justice." Methos smirked.
Blair smiled a little, and looked down at the napkin again. "Now, this is cuneiform. I recognize it from papers I've seen. So someone older than Duncan would have the power. How much older?"
"Yes, it is cuneiform. Are you able to read it?"
"Of course not. There are only two scholars in the world who have had any success in translating it. And you haven't answered my question; how much older?"
Methos wrote on the napkin again and passed it over. "What do you know of Hurrian?"
Blair thought for a moment. "Not much, but then nobody does. About all they do know is that it goes back almost five thousand years. It's even older than cuneiform, but while cuneiform documents are relatively plentiful they've found only a handful of Hurrian references. And they haven't found a way to translate it." Blair looked down at the napkin, and froze.
Methos smiled. "I thought you would be able to read Hebrew. Are you also able to read Aramaic?"
Blair's eyes flicked to Methos, then back to the napkin as he nodded.
"Then you know that they say the same thing."
Blair swallowed and looked up at him. "‘Trust me.'" Whispered.
"Yes," Methos said softly, capturing Blair's gaze with his own, letting the young man see.
Blair gasped, barely heard. He mouthed a question. Five thousand years?
Methos nodded, and answered gently, "Do you understand now? I can fix this."
Blair picked up the napkin, carefully folded it, and put it in his pocket. Methos noted the barest tremble in his hands. Blair closed his eyes, took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and opened his eyes again. He straightened and met Methos's regard squarely. "So, how do we find this Cora?"
Methos allowed a wolfish grin and gathered the others up in his gaze. "Don't worry; she'll find me when we're ready."
The fountain at Rainier. Innocuous. Placid. Seemingly ordinary. The site of Blair's death and resurrection, and another man's greatest love come back to life. And the bane of his nightmares for the past few years, surpassing even the nightmares of Peru. Would he ever get free of its shadow?
Jim shuddered, tore his gaze away from the innocent-looking stone structure and fastened it on the man—the Immortal—walking slowly around it, studying it. This was the first place they'd come when they made the two and a half hour drive back to Cascade. Adam wanted to have a look at the fountain, the site that seemed to hold so much unearthly power. As Duncan had three years ago, Adam proclaimed that it was indeed holy ground, though only recently consecrated. Jim just knew it still gave him chills to be near it.
"The question I still have," Blair said from his left, "is why Jim? Why did he get switched with Duncan?"
That was the very question Jim had been asking himself since the night before, but he was afraid he knew.
Adam stopped and turned from his study to gaze at Blair, his hazel eyes almost twinkling in amusement.
"Do you really still have that question, Blair?"
Blair looked at the water cascading lazily from the spout into the pool, frowning. It was a minute before he said anything. "It all comes back to this, the fountain, doesn't it?"
Adam nodded, continuing his examination. "Whatever happened to you here, whatever Jim did to retrieve you, somehow transformed the energy here, consecrated the fountain. But creation also stamped its creator." Adam looked at Jim.
Jim gasped softly. His knees threatened to buckle. A pure act of will forced them to hold. He closed his eyes for a brief moment.
"I knew it. I knew that portal was created when Jim came and got me." Blair's voice echoed Jim's thoughts. "But after Duncan took that Quickening Jim said the portal was shut and sealed."
"And I have no doubt that it still is. But Jim, being its creator, will always have some connection to it."
"Don't you find that hard to believe? This borders on true magic."
Adam's lips twisted into a wry smile. "I've seen all kinds of magic, Blair. This is no harder for me to believe in than the existence of Immortals. It's your belief that amazes me."
Blair shrugged. "Jim and I have learned to expect the unexpected. It wasn't an easy lesson."
"It never is."
"After we reverse what happened to us," Jim said quietly, "how do we prevent it from happening again? I don't want to be exchanging bodies every time you guys decide to play at swashbuckling around here."
"It's not a game, Ellison. And it's not likely to happen again."
"No, it's a nightmare—my nightmare." He tugged at the long coat he wore over the sword. "As for ‘not likely', that's not good enough. I want even the possibility eradicated."
Blair touched Jim's shoulder, reminding him he wasn't in this nightmare alone. "Yeah," Blair agreed. "You guys have some way of marking territory off limits? Buoys? Code? A website with forbidden areas grayed out?"
Again the wry twist came to Adam's mouth. "I'll see what I can do."
"Can you?" Blair asked hopefully.
"We can start spreading a legend that something terrible happened near here. That might be enough to dissuade most, but not all," Duncan said, breaking his long silence.
"The Watcher network can spread the rumor inside a month," Joe added.
"There's nothing more you can do to ensure this area is off limits?" Blair asked.
"The only sure way to prevent further Quickenings in this area would be if it were holy ground, but holy ground is made not designated," Duncan said.
"This sucks." Blair's usual heartfelt response was no less true. It did suck.
"You still haven't said how you figure she'll find you."
"By putting myself in a place easy to find."
No matter how many ways Jim asked, Pierson refused to say more, insisting that it was best they didn't know.
"MacLeod might be willing to go along without knowing details, but I can't do that," Jim said.
Pierson studied him for a long moment. "You are going to have to content yourself with the knowledge that I'm setting myself up as bait."
"And how does that work? You don't even know where she is."
"On the contrary. We do know."
"Joe confirmed her whereabouts with her Watcher."
"I thought that was against the Watcher code."
"It is. Cora's Watcher just confirmed our ‘educated' guesses," Pierson said with a wry smile.
Jim sighed, rubbing a hand over his brow. "Fine. I've gotta get some air." Jim turned abruptly from the fountain and began walking. He stopped when Blair started to follow. "Alone," he said shortly.
Jim raised a hand. "I'll stay in sight." He strode away, ignoring them all, needing to distance himself from the fountain and its memories. He shoved his hands into the duster's pockets. He didn't much care where he was going, just so long as it was away from there. After a few minutes Jim realized he was heading for the park behind the main campus quad. The tranquil setting was just what he wanted—and needed.
With a quiet sigh, Jim settled on a park bench. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his face into his hands. What a nightmare. He hoped to hell Adam could make good on his claim that he could fix this. No matter. One way or another, Jim sensed that, tonight, it would all be over.
A half hour later, he felt it. The tingle began at the base of his skull and rapidly spread to the rest of his body. He suppressed a shudder as the sensation enveloped him. Forcing several deep breaths, Jim slowly lifted his head and scanned his surroundings. Having experienced that sensation once, there was no mistaking what it meant. A low, almost seductive voice came from behind him.
"Well, well. For some reason, I thought the Highlander would be harder to find."
"So much for bait, Adam," Jim muttered under his breath. With careful, deliberate movements, he stood and turned to face the newcomer. The woman was smaller than he had expected, not much over five feet. Her long cascading hair was a golden red, glinting in the feeble light of the street lamps and the moon.
"Cora, I presume?"
Her eyes flashed with surprise, then narrowed. "I'm flattered. I didn't think Cassandra ever spoke of me."
Jim realized he'd said more than he should have.
"What? No comment? Ah, yes, I forgot. Duncan MacLeod is ever the cautious one. Since you're here, I assume you know Cassandra is no more?"
"I know," Jim said.
"Come to avenge her, have you?" Cora chuckled. In one swift movement, she had her sword in her hand. Jim stepped back, drawing the katana less than gracefully. He was painfully aware that this diminutive woman outclassed him.
There was a renewed tingle at the base of his skull; Cora's gaze flickered. Jim braced for the explosion of sensation, but it didn't come.
"He hasn't, but I have."
Pierson emerged from the shadows, looking relaxed and confident, his Ivanhoe sword held comfortably in his hand.
"Who are you?" Cora demanded.
"Never heard of you."
"Ah, but I have heard of you—Cora." The familiar wry smile curled the corner of Adam's mouth.
Cora shrugged. "And why should I concern myself with you?"
"Because I'm the one you're going to have to fight."
"You'll have to wait. I've already challenged MacLeod."
"Odd. I didn't hear him accept." Pierson looked at Jim. "Do you mind, Mac?"
Jim bowed and waved a hand gallantly. "Be my guest." He began to back away.
"No! You're going to fight me, MacLeod!" Cora lunged for Jim, but was blocked neatly by Adam's Ivanhoe. The clang of steel against steel shattered the still night air.
Cora screamed in fury and broke away, glaring at Adam. She tried to circle around him, but Adam kept himself between her and Jim while Jim retreated to a safe distance. "I do not want to fight you, Pierson. I came for MacLeod!"
"If you win, then you can fight him."
"What was Cassandra to you that you'll risk your neck?"
"I loved her."
Cora paused at this, but quickly recovered. "Cassandra didn't love anyone but herself!"
"And you betrayed her, as so many others did. As I did, once upon a time. I vowed that someday I would atone for my betrayal, and that day has come."
Fury darkened Cora's face. "She was keeping me back. She refused to teach me all of her secrets."
"But she would have. Your youthful impatience cost you more than you knew, didn't it?"
"Enough!" she screamed. "Let's get on with this."
Jim took his attention from the circling combatants long enough to acknowledge the arrival of Blair and the others.
"So much for Adam as bait," MacLeod murmured.
"Joe, Blair, it's time," MacLeod said. "Go find a safe spot."
"Blair, once the Quickening starts, there'll be no time to get to safety, and there's no predicting when the fight will end."
Joe grasped Blair's shoulder. "Come on, Blair. MacLeod's right, we need to get away from here. We won't be very far."
Blair glanced at MacLeod then let his gaze linger on Jim. Jim gripped his other shoulder.
"Go on," he said softly. "It'll be okay. I'll be okay."
Blair took a deep breath, nodded, and followed Joe. He looked back, and Jim gave him an encouraging smile.
Methos sized up his opponent. Cora was quick and agile, and adept with a sword.
"What method of magical trickery did you use to best Cassandra?" he asked, taking a negligent swipe at Cora's unguarded side.
"What makes you think magic was necessary?" Cora easily blocked the slash, and took her own at his leg.
Methos smiled. "Cassandra was a master of the art. I have no doubt it took an equally masterful touch to take her down."
Cora preened. "A little sleight of hand, a little smoke screen, and she practically walked into my sword. Of course, there was the little matter of my dirk in her shoulder to slow her down. She tried her own smoke screen, but it was a simple matter to cut through it."
Dismay washed over Methos. Cassandra had been an admirable and cunning fighter, a survivor. It was almost inconceivable that she would have been so easily defeated, wounded shoulder or not. "You make it sound like defeating her was easy." Methos feinted to the right and slashed at her left.
Surprise flickered in Cora's eyes. She barely danced out of reach, and made a swift lunge from his off side. He slid away, but her sword managed to nick him. He didn't react to the cut, it was barely more than a scratch, but Cora's smile said she knew she'd drawn first blood.
"Easy?" Cora said, slowly circling. "I wouldn't say easy, necessarily. Cassandra fought hard and gave me a good go. I just had the advantage of long study." Cora made another lunge.
Methos sidestepped at the last moment and scored a slice to Cora's midsection. She gasped in pain, seeming surprised again, and a bit angry now.
"What do you mean long study?" Methos asked.
"I've wanted Cassandra's head for a very long time, but I knew in order to take her, I needed to learn everything I could about how she fought." Cora jerked her hand down and smoke filled the air between them.
Methos knew she would try to get behind him, and relished her frustration when he met her attack with cold steel instead of his unprotected back. He sliced her arm, forcing her to one-hand her sword. She scrambled back before he could strike again, and he smiled coldly. Cora looked flustered.
"Why didn't you take her head when you betrayed her all those years ago?"
"Call it inexperience. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I was weak. I was squeamish at the idea of taking her head then." She tried a rushing serpentine maneuver, but he met it with a backhand block and thrust. Cora nearly lost her hand. She leaped back, snarling.
Methos quirked an eyebrow in dark amusement. "It seems, in your quest to best one opponent, you neglected to learn of others."
Cora's eyes grew wary. She attempted an up thrust; he slapped it aside with ease and slashed down, leaving a thin gash from her sternum to her hip.
Methos was through playing. He let his eyes go cold, and smiled in satisfaction when the first touch of fear flickered in hers. He attacked. Deliberately. Relentlessly. Up thrust, slash down, reverse swing, swipe. Cora was hard-pressed to defend. She gave ground, desperately seeking space to return blows, or use her magic. Methos never gave her the chance to complete her spells. He kept at her, driving her in circles. Every now and then she scored a minor cut on him, but her stamina was waning.
Finally, he stepped back. Cora was sweaty and gasping, bleeding in a dozen different places. Methos was barely panting. He watched Cora carefully. If he had read her right, she would take this apparent respite for weakness on his part, and charge. She did not disappoint him.
Throwing her smoke screen, Cora raised her sword and lunged with a furious scream.
Methos blocked the blade, grabbed her extended sword arm, and jerked her in close to him, disregarding the slice her blade made to his side. Grinning ferally, he ran her through.
Cora gazed up at him in bewildered pain. "Who are you?" she rasped.
His smile turned almost kind as he withdrew his sword from her belly and laid the edge against her neck. "I am Methos. I am Death," he whispered. Her eyes widened in recognition. He stepped back, twisted his body, and with a powerful swing, severed her head.
Methos let go of the body and stepped back. The air stilled. The night creatures fell silent. Cora's headless body began to glow as the Quickening coalesced. A lightning bolt shot from her body and snared Methos in its vicious grip. A gale force wind whipped branches and leaves into small, stinging projectiles. The lightning tried to reach out and destroy, but Methos kept it contained to a tight circle around him. He shook under the strain; screams ripped from his throat. The Quickening seemed to go on forever, without lessening. Methos struggled to gather the power to him. Little by little he absorbed the energy, though it still arced wildly around him, threatening to escape his control.
NO! I refuse to reside within Death!
"Ah, Cassandra, I thought that might be you."
I will not submit to you ever again!
"Cassandra, milady, it is necessary. I couldn't let the likes of Cora keep your knowledge."
Let me go to Duncan. If you ever truly loved me, let me go to him.
"The mortal will die. Duncan will be doomed."
What are you saying?
"Cassandra, look at them." Ellison and MacLeod were on their knees. Ellison's body was supporting MacLeod's, but it was obvious both men were in pain.
"The loss of your Quickening to Cora, here, caused an unforeseen chain of events. Duncan and the mortal's souls have switched."
You lie! It is not possible.
"I need your help and the power of Cora's Quickening to switch them back."
Duncan hurt me by choosing to remain friends with you. I do not know this mortal. Why should I care what happens to them?
"Because you are not me."
The lightning lashed in fury.
"Please, Cassandra, let me save them."
The lightning flashed and flickered, but seemed to calm slightly.
For the mortal…and for Duncan.
With an earsplitting snap the last of the Quickening arced into Methos. He had to smile ruefully as he received a last zap before it settled to a hum.
"Thank you, sweet Cassandra," Methos whispered. He closed his eyes and tilted back his head. With both hands, he held his sword aloft to the sky. The wind whipped and howled. A faint blue glow formed between Methos' hands and slowly formed into a ball of blue-white brilliance. The ball traveled up the length of the sword until it reached the point. There it grew, becoming a huge sphere poised on the tip of the sword. It pulsed and glowed with arcs of lightning, and lit the area from the park to the fountain. Methos plunged the sword point into the ground.
Twin arcs of blue fire raced across the lawn. MacLeod and Ellison stiffened and cried out as the lightning touched them. Blue fire spread up their bodies, enveloping them in a blue-white nimbus. Tendrils of lightning arced across the surrounding electricity. Two thin bolts leaped, arced, and dived. MacLeod and Ellison convulsed, but made no sound. A third, larger tendril sped toward the fountain. Upon contact, the energy engulfed the fountain in a similar nimbus. A second later the nimbus cascaded away from the fountain and blanketed the ground.
The energy pulsed—once, twice, three times—then slowly sank into the earth. The nimbus surrounding MacLeod and Ellison faded away. They collapsed, groaning. The lightning show ended, and the winds calmed. A moment more and the night insects picked up their song.
Methos leaned heavily on the pommel of his sword. MacLeod rolled over and pushed himself up on one elbow. He met Methos' gaze and smiled wearily. Methos released his breath, letting his legs fold under him, bowed his head and went freely into oblivion.
Transfixed, Blair stared at the night sky. The Quickening was like nothing he had ever imagined. It was awe-inspiring.
"This isn't a normal Quickening," Joe said at his side.
"By now a Quickening that size should have blasted everything within a hundred feet; somehow, he's keeping it under control."
"It looks painful."
"Absorbing a million volts is no picnic, even for Immortals. They're revitalized and exhausted all at once. Major ones can leave the winner dazed for several minutes."
Blair would have run to his partner's writhing form, but Joe latched onto his shoulder.
"Don't! It's not safe until it's completely over."
Blair watched helplessly as Jim and Duncan jerked under whatever strange energy held them. He stared at the weird blue light sweeping over the ground, feeling the tingle as it passed under his feet.
Finally, the energy seemed to dissipate and everything returned to normal. The moment he felt Joe's hold loosen, he wrenched himself free and raced to Jim's side.
"Jim!" he yelled, sliding to his knees next to him. "Jim?" Jim's eyes were open and unfocused. Blair glanced at MacLeod. The man looked like he had been through a wringer, but he managed a small smile. "It worked, Blair. Jim is back where he belongs."
Blair sagged in relief and began to work on pulling Jim out of a deep zone-out. The lightning show had left sparkles in his eyes, he hated to think what it had done to Jim's senses. "Come on, Jim. Listen to my voice, and follow me back. Everything's okay now."
After a couple of anxious minutes, Jim's eyes closed and he took a deep breath. And another.
"That's right, Jim. Slow and steady. When you're ready, adjust the dials and open your eyes," Blair said quietly, keeping a hand on Jim's shoulder.
A moment more and Jim blinked. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, then focused on Blair. On a heavy sigh, he spoke, "He did it, Chief."
"Jim. You okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. Feel like I've been turned inside out, but I'm fine." Jim lifted a hand, and Blair helped him sit up. Duncan was already sitting. He smiled tiredly.
"No offense, MacLeod," Jim said, "but you can keep your Immortality."
Duncan's smile widened. "And you can keep those hyper-senses."
They shared a knowing grin.
Jim looked around. "Man, the air feels weird. I can feel it tingling on my skin."
"The aftereffects of the Quickening. The more powerful, the longer the air remains charged." Duncan's gaze fastened on Adam. He showed no sign of rousing. Duncan's eyes widened.
"He didn't." Duncan stared at the ground. "He did."
"Did what?" Blair asked.
Duncan looked at them. "You won't have to worry about anything like this ever happening again. Now, the holy ground extends well beyond the fountain. Adam must have sanctified the entire area."
"He could do that?" Blair exclaimed.
"He did it," Duncan replied. "Though I don't know how."
"How large an area?" Jim asked.
Duncan climbed to his feet. "At a minimum, the entire campus."
"And that's going to guard against this happening again?" Jim demanded, struggling to his feet with Blair's help.
"Yes. You wanted a warning sign, now you have it. Unless a rogue attempts to break the sanction, no more Quickenings will be taken near this site."
Jim relaxed; Blair breathed a sigh of relief.
"I need to help Adam," Duncan said.
Blair and Jim followed, Jim still a little shaky but quickly recovering.
Duncan knelt beside Adam and gently rolled him over. Up close, the number of slits in Adam's sweater was disturbing. Cora had gotten in a few good blows. Duncan laid a hand on his chest, then against his neck.
"How is he?" Joe asked, worriedly.
"Coming around. This took a lot out of him. Almost too much," Duncan said.
"Anything we can do for him?" Jim asked.
Duncan shook his head.
Moaning, Adam opened his eyes. He blinked, stared at each of the faces hovering above him, and finally fastened on Duncan's.
Duncan smiled. "Yeah, old man, it's me. You did it. You switched us back."
"Seems you managed to do something else, too."
Adam heaved a tired sigh. "Needed to be done. Blair gave me the idea."
"How'd you manage it?"
"Didn't know if I could until after I had the Quickening. Didn't know if there was going to be enough power for it all. Cassandra helped."
Duncan smiled again. "You two finally made up?"
"No. She only agreed because of you. But she's settled."
Duncan closed his eyes, then nodded in acceptance. It saddened him that even in death, Cassandra couldn't make peace with her past. "Ready to get off this cold ground?"
"By all means, only—I don't think I have the strength."
"We'll help," Duncan said, and looked at Jim.
Together, they managed to hoist Adam to his feet, supported between them.
"How far does this holy ground go?" Jim asked quietly.
Adam met Jim's gaze. His lips quirked into a tired smile. "Blue eyes suit you."
Jim's lips twitched.
Adam turned serious. "About a mile radius."
Blair stared. That was a lot of ground. "Wow," he breathed.
"Duncan, Joseph, let's go home," Adam said.
"Sounds good to me," Joe agreed.
Duncan only smiled as he and Jim assisted Adam to Joe's car and got him settled in the back seat.
Jim held out his hand. "Thanks hardly seems to cover what you did for us."
Adam held his grip firmly and looked into Jim's eyes. "What I did for you, I also did for myself."
Blair also shook Adam's hand. "Thank you, Adam. I hope we can keep in touch."
Adam chuckled softly. "Piqued your curiosity, have I? Yes, I'm sure we can keep in touch. Call me whenever you like."
"Thanks." Blair turned to shake hands with Joe. "Thank you for all your help, too. It can't be easy with all those Watcher rules."
"Not by a long shot, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. And you're welcome, Blair, Ellison. I don't want to imagine what it would have been like if we hadn't gotten you back where you belong."
"Me either," Jim said. "What about tonight, and the Watchers? Is what happened here going to be a problem?"
"No. I'm Duncan's Watcher, and Adam is his own. I'm also head of North American operations, and since Cora was in my territory, her Watcher has to report to me. Since I was here, the report is likely to be brief."
"That's got to be handy," Blair said.
"It's been useful on occasion." Joe turned and eased himself into the driver's side of the Range Rover. "It was good to meet you. Take care of yourselves."
"We will," Jim answered, one corner of his mouth turning up.
Jim and Blair quietly followed Duncan to the other side of the car. Duncan turned to them, a wry look in his eyes.
"I don't know whether to hope we see each other again or not. If it means more strangeness, I don't think I want to."
Jim and Blair traded glances. In unison they said, "We hear that!" They broke out in quiet laughter.
"Take care, MacLeod," Jim said. "If we do meet again, I hope it's under better circumstances."
"You too." MacLeod slid into the passenger's seat and Joe started the engine.
Jim and Blair watched the dark vehicle disappear into the night. They turned to look at the fountain. How innocent it looked. How innocuous.
"There's still one thing I'm curious about, Chief."
"What finally convinced you to trust that Adam could do what he said he could?"
Blair dug in his jeans pocket and pulled out the napkin he'd folded away there. He gazed down at the white scrap of paper, unable to discern the letters in the darkness, but he remembered what the writing looked like.
"Well, when you've been told ‘Trust me' in five different ancient languages by a five-thousand-year-old Immortal, it's kind of hard not to."
"Did you say five thousand?"
"Yeah. Only, I don't think his real name is Adam."
"Methos. Duncan called him Methos once when this whole thing started, but he called him Adam every other time."
Blair nodded, gazing at the fountain.
"I imagine they keep his identity pretty well hidden. Think of the ‘prize' an Immortal that age must represent."
Jim squeezed his shoulder and turned toward the truck. "Come on, buddy, it's been a long couple of days. Let's go home."
With a last glance at the fountain and the surrounding campus, Blair followed. He hoped they'd never have to confront it like this again.
They drove away. Blair glanced in the side mirror in time to see a thin tendril of blue lightning dance around the fountain's edge, then fade away. Oddly reassured, he said, "Think we'll ever see MacLeod again?"
Jim shrugged. "Three years ago, I would have said no. But now, who knows? If we do, though, I don't think it'll be because of the fountain."
"Yeah, I think you're right."
Jim returned his smile, and pointed the truck toward home.
Feedback always appreciated (and even answered). :-) kandacek