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Heaven Sent by Sophie
This is a sequel to another story which can be found at :
Innocence and Justice

[NOTE: A bit more getting it together edited out here, see ADULT: version for full text]


Part 6

There was pure contentment in his heart as the youth embraced his Eternal Love.

Yet, the peace was not to last any longer - a single crack cut the quiet evening and sent a jolt through the couple. It was the sound of a gun, not a farmer's rifle for scaring the birds, but a pistol, and a youngster's scream followed it. Richie started and went into Immortal overdrive - gun shots were not healthy where Mortals were concerned, Mortals about whom he cared. Rapidly, he grabbed his clothes and began to pull them on, Naomi was quick to follow suit. Shirt loose on his back, jeans half fastened, boots in hand, Richie ran down the length of the loft and came to a cautious halt at the open exit. His companion caught up with him as he was pulling on his protective footwear and straightening his clothes.

"Stay here and keep out of sight," he ordered firmly, laying a hand on his beauty's arm.

The immediate response was negative, a swift shake of the head and a worried frown, but her lover continued logically, "I'll go and see what's happening, if I don't come back, it means there's something wrong, probably more than one of them and they're not friendly - wait `til dark and then go for help."

The argument was to the point, and the young man was not taking any counter, there was a look in his eyes, protective, definitely Immortal, and Naomi had seen it before. She recognised the purpose of the warrior and knew she could not match it. The concern didn't leave her gentle features, but she accepted his command with a brief nod.

"Be careful," she whispered and laid a kiss on his cheek.

Richie turned into the kiss and pushed back, he was not feeling any easier about the disastrous sounds than his partner. The embrace over, he let his training kick in - it wasn't designed for reconnaissance, but he'd have to do. He moved with the poise of the Immortal fighter, his senses keen to an unusual hunt, as he surveyed the barn below for person, or persons unknown and then climbed down the ladder.

The farm was quiet as the Immortal inspected it from the half-open barn door; the yard in front of him was empty except for a dusty van which lay between him and the house. There were sounds of fear coming from beyond his vision, and then the youth was glad of MacLeod's teaching. He closed his eyes for a moment and centred on the noise - there were at least two voices he didn't recognise, both male. Yet, his mind's eye recalled the picture of the truck, it's backdoor swung open - if there were only two, why had one man sat in the back of the truck. Then came an answer, a third male voice he didn't know, but it wasn't aggressive sounding, it held a similar fear to the tones he knew. Things were not looking good, the only up point being that there had not been another shot fired.

His movements as silent as the world around him, the young form ran for the cover of the empty vehicle. From there he looked through the cab over to the house; he only had a side view, but it was enough. Through the side kitchen window, the youth saw four figures in the kitchen, two blue shirted men with their backs to him, and Jon and Agatha - Richie made out a dim view of the kids and a third stranger through in the dining room. A gun was being waved about by the intruder nearest the window, and he was threatening his hostages, "We're only here for a while, people, and we don't want no trouble. You all stay quiet and we leave nice and early tomorrow morning without anyone getting hurt. Understand?"

Agatha nodded silently - there was Eternal hazard in her eyes, but she was not about to endanger her Mortal companions. It was a side to the woman that Richie had not seen before, she was the Immortal now, like him, and there was a hunger in her eyes as she stared at the two strangers. The youth had never seen one of his kin look at a Mortal in such a manner, but he felt the rage too as he heard the condescension and arrogance in the intruder's tone. He stayed a moment longer, assessing the situation, but there was not much he could do alone that would not put his friends in harm's way, so he prepared to turn away and head back to the barn. However, a glint from the window as sun reflected on something shiny caught the concealed man's eye and stopped him from leaving his position. He froze in dread as he recognised his own sword, held out by a fourth trespasser. The reaction of the nearest man was unexpected and rapidly changed the youth's mind about leaving the area. The leader, as he appeared to be, snatched the weapon from the finder and waved it nastily at his companion. His manner was maddened and there was fear in his voice as he attacked the passive stranger with, "There's one of them here? You didn't tell me. You treacherous freak! Which one is it?"

The rapier swung dangerously close to Agatha, then Jon, then back to the source of the frustration. Richie reacted out of instinct, fighting was not good, even among the enemy, and the implication of the intruders' leader was obvious. Immortal anger inspired, he moved towards the farm house, not quite sure why he was doing it.

The enraged, apparently unhinged stranger continued to threaten his subordinate, who made no sound. A stream of words protracted, and the Immortal newcomer was backed against a wall, the sword at his neck when Richie felt him for the first time. The youth was stood in the doorway still as a statue when his kin breathed in sharply and looked over toward the portal.

"The sword belongs to me," the poised figure disclosed smoothly, no sign of emotion on him, he was regarding his brethren.

The blade was swiftly moved away from the first neck and came rapidly towards its owner. Richard Ryan did not move his body, only his attention; penetrating, powerful eyes gazed through the Mortal as he dared to lay the sword on an Immortal shoulder. There was no chance of intimidation on either side, however, one was too dense to recognise power when he saw it, the other too busy controlling the pot of rage inside to even consider fear.

"Maybe you weren't deceiving me, Tarant," the Mortal sneered, glancing over his shoulder at his nervous-looking colleague.

Richie followed the look and once again levelled himself on the stranger. There was a knowledge between them, and a common ritual to follow.

"Russ Tarant," the unkempt, wild-eyed kin disclosed quietly.

"Richard Ryan," was the even response.

"Have you heard of him?" the Mortal between them interrupted the moment of introduction.

His underling merely shook his head briefly. The man was a pitiful creature really; he stood, his shoulders hunched, his eyes dull, his hair greasy, his chin covered in stubble. He looked about thirty, but there was age, and a weariness in his eyes, and he did not carry a sword. That was not surprising, his blue shirt went with standard issue blue jeans and a number on the clothing, he was a `guest of the State', or rather, had recently been one. Richie's anger at the Immortal interloper died as he took in the pathetic form, there was no danger from him, no fight, he was being used. The real sense of threat came from the sword holder - average height, average build, mouse brown hair, clean-shaven, there was nothing special about the man at first glance, but once the blond youth had looked into his eyes, he knew the selfish, onerous qualities that lay behind the sneer.

A shift of the sword at his neck, and the unusual being's attention hardened on his adversary. The Mortal glared venomously at the passive statue and menaced loudly, "You listen to me, freak, and make sure you understand me. As I told these nice people here, we are only staying for the night, Tarant thought it might be a place to hide until the heat dies off. Now, I know about your kind, my friend talks a lot when I give him enough booze, and I know plenty to dispose of any unwanted garbage. Whatever you're thinking, don't, remember, I got the sword. Any trouble and I take you out, and then I'll take a couple of your friends as well. Got it?"

The young man nodded, there was real intent in the flash of the other's eye and he wasn't going to provoke it. Naomi was still free, she could go for help. It was not time to play the hero, especially with an opponent who knew his weaknesses. The intimidator held the blade to his neck for a little longer, just to make some kind of point, and then he turned away, swinging both gun and rapier dangerously.

"Carter, go and find Guinea - tell him his perimeter sweep sucks and to do it again," he ordered. "You three, into the other room with your friends."

Richie sat at the end of the table closest to the kitchen, staring, supposedly, fixedly out of the window, but in fact keeping half an eye on the activities in the other room. He sat away from the others, and had not greeted anyone - he knew that whatever happened now, he was a focus of attention for the nervous leader, whose name was Hill, and he would not pass the association onto any of his comrades. Instead, he was being watched from either side: the hostile eyes of the captors ran over him occasionally, half aware of the poise in the seated figure; the youngsters were huddled together at the far end of the room, as far away from the five men, who gathered in the outer room, as possible, and their gazes drifted, occasionally settling on him with something close to uncomfortable revelation. They'd heard what had passed in the outer chamber, and the enigmatic links between the newcomer and their companion was another unusual quality about him to file away. The Immortal ignored them all, but the small figure being held close by Biff was the hardest to neglect. Annie was frightened, a tiny child he desperately wanted to sweep into his arms and wrap in all the comfort he could, but he recognised the danger in which his fondness could place her. The toddler could not understand his reasoning, and only her companion's and Agatha's presence stopped her from protesting. The adults seemed to accept his logic, the looks which had passed swiftly on their entrance into the room had settled that, but the cool exterior was only adding to the growing mystery of the man the teenagers had thought they knew. However, it could not be helped, and dealing with the present was enough of a problem, future incidents due to his behaviour now would have to be dealt with when they arose. So they sat, silent and tense, prisoners of five escapees with a couple of police pistols and now the contents of Jon's gun-cupboard.

There was a stranger among the group who wasn't in league with their captors; a young police officer, no more than Richie's age was sat in a dishevelled heap in the corner next to Agatha. He was pale and obviously shaken by the rough handling that he'd been given, and also by the shooting of his partner, which he had briefly recounted to the older woman who had taken charge. The men had skipped from the county jail, two murderers, and three bank robbers - answering the APB that had followed had been unhealthy for the rookie's chaperone and terrifying for him. They'd left the man bleeding badly in his car, no use as a hostage, but relieving him of his gun, handcuffs and partner. The description of their previous actions made it quite clear that the men were desperate and very jumpy.

The young Immortal took in all the information he could.

His direct observations of the intruders served only to back up the cop's disclosures. Hill never seemed to sit still, he was hyperactively pacing up and down the kitchen, sometimes waving the weapons around at his comrades, sometimes throwing them down on the table in frustration. He would pause occasionally to glance out of the window, or survey his prisoners - neither view seemed to give him any succour. Tarant was a passive creature, inactive in the most part, seated at the table his head in his hands, remaining inert despite the occasional shove or thump given him by his companions. He had found a bottle of cooking brandy in the cupboard, and helping himself regularly, he didn't seem to care much about anything. The other three, Guinea, Carter and Pitbull were the muscle of the team such as it was. Largely overweight, rather than well built, there was still considerable amounts of power that could be applied by the bulks. They responded to orders from their leader, squabbling occasionally amongst themselves, but obviously subservient to the brains of their escape.

None of the men seemed to like the others much, theirs was a union of convenience that was fast becoming troublesome. There was tension among the captors as well as their hostages, but for different reasons and none of them good. It had already been demonstrated that Hill did not trust his companions; Richie assessed him as a habitual loner, cold, but prone to regular bouts of temper that could prove dangerous. The others did not worry the young warrior, one was weak, the others stupid, but the man who held his sword was neither. He didn't like the way the absconder eyed him, calculating as carefully as he was, assessing, considering, his face dark.

Hill was not comfortable with his Immortal hostage, there was a fear in his eyes which made him more of a possible threat. Richie did his best to stay still and inconspicuous, but by his very presence he made his nemesis nervous. He could not lower his unusual shield, it held back the emotions that could make the situation worse, but the calm, almost serene mask was the lesser of two evils when it came to antagonising the anything but unruffled opposite.

It was not more than half an hour before Hill's watch from the kitchen was not enough for him.

Richard Ryan's manner tensed almost invisibly as he recognised the hostility begin its path towards him. His fellow Immortals saw the shift in his demeanour, they too were on edge, but it was not something that was visible to someone who was not watching for it. Hill seemed to have no sense of the identification he was being given and gained the apparently absent creature's attention by a fast swipe of a hand on his shoulder. The unusual man responded slowly, turning his head and staring coldly up at his opponent, but he couldn't stifle the flash of anger that crossed his face at the pernicious nature of his abuser. He was silent, but his heavy attention spoke for him; Hill chose to take it as fuel to his fire.

"Think yourself better than us, freak?" he sneered in his usual dissatisfied fashion. "How long you been in the Game?"

"Long enough," Richie answered glacially, and the look in his eyes held no doubt as to the truth of his statement.

The youth didn't like his enemy, and it was beginning to show; his facade wasn't perfect and his disgust at the other's audacity was beginning to show. It wasn't a Mortal's place to pry into Immortal affairs, the Watchers had been a bad enough revelation, but another renegade holding such information was not a pleasant prospect. Once again, the would-be intimidator was not getting anywhere, and his inability at something he found so easy to hold over his normal acquaintances was yet another chagrin. The sword, glinting in the evening sun was brought slowly up level with the seated form's face, but it was held away from him.

"Lethal piece of antique," Hill tried to belittle the weapon's elegance and failed, but pressed on, "How many have you killed with this?"

That drew the Immortal attention more effectively than any sneer; this was not a conversation to have in front of innocents. His glare said as much and his captor laughed.

"Hit a nerve, eh, freak?" he brought the razor edge in under an immobile chin. "Don't want me tarnishing your image? How many heads have you taken, murderer?"

Hill had said enough, it was time to end the dialogue before he revealed any more personal opinions on the Gathering. Richie reacted with an urgency made out of anger and self-protection. His hand went out, grabbed the hilt of his sword and twisted out and away from both of them. The Mortal had only a moment to complain as the metal crashed down on the floor, but he was quick enough to lift his gun. It was all that held the two men apart as Richard Ryan stood and faced the evil at his full height. The pistol jabbed in his ribs and he glanced down at the black housing. It seemed pathetic and he hissed coldly, "Expect me to be scared of that, or you? You don't understand us, you can't."

There was stillness; the young man had managed to unnerve his antagonist into a second's immobility. His enraged gaze seemed to captivate the Mortal as he glimpsed the danger that truly demonstrated the soul of an Eternal. It was the youth who ended the confrontation, it would do no good; he turned away in distaste, trying to gather back in his self-presence. His movement was enough to break the temporary spell and his opponent was not happy at the show of defiance. A noise near a snarl came from his mouth and Richie turned in time to see a solid piece of metal coming down on his head. The butt of the gun cracked at his skull and elicited a grunt of pain, but feeling was gone into blackness before much of the exclamation escaped his lips.

Light came out of dark and then pain out of sensation; the world into which Richie awoke caused him to groan loudly. He was lying down, and putting a tentative hand to his head, the youth attempted to sit up. Several hands came to help him, and he opened his eyes in response. He found himself half seated, half lying on the window seat, and both Kathleen and Agatha knelt by him. The older woman's face spoke for her and it said `that was a stupid thing to do', Kathleen seemed more appropriately concerned, but then she didn't know that even in the few seconds he had awoken, the ache was ebbing away as his body healed itself. The image before his eyes was a little blurred to begin with as a concussion sorted itself out, and he blinked several times, wincing as he placed his fingers on the part of his scalp that was still mending.

"Richie, you okay?" his Mortal aide questioned in a hushed whisper, glancing at the half-closed door of the kitchen as she did so.

"I will be," the young man responded gratefully, trying to act like someone dazed, even though the inconvenience cleared quickly.

He carefully sat round and placed his feet squarely on the ground while lowering his head onto his knees. He let out a sigh, not for the discomfort he was feeling, but for the looks on the faces he had seen as he sunk down into that position. Even the caring woman next to him seemed nervous, and the recalled conversation did not conjure pleasant ones for the future. They'd seen the killer instinct, the Immortal- indignation, the difference in him, and his friends were more than just concerned for his physical well-being. They'd been bemused before, uncertain of the unusual qualities that he'd called into play the moment he'd faced Hill, but now, part of that edge had been given specific form in the allegations that the convict had laid at his prisoner's feet. There had been no denial of the accusations and there had been a vague, unthought hope in many a face that one would follow shortly. Yet, the young Immortal could not bring himself to raise his head and remove their angst with a glib lie - he was a killer, he had taken heads with the sword that Hill carried, and he wanted to make them understand why his life held such brutality, but there was too much that he could not reveal to so many Mortals and he would not prevaricate.

There was movement close by, and the young man felt a body moving away from him; Richie glanced up and was in time to see Kathleen moving over to her silent charges. His attention was quickly taken by the look on Agatha's face however, and it did not look pleased.

"I know I didn't handle that very well," the young man shrugged and defended himself immediately in a whisper that was meant to be low to all ears, not just their adversaries, "but would you have preferred for that bastard to have continued our interesting conversation?"

Jon began a quiet conversation with his nearest neighbour as he became aware that it was not good to eavesdrop the Immortals. Agatha paused a moment, waiting for the murmuring to grow through the company, and then her frown was put into words.

"There were better ways to confront that one," the woman responded, "but I have to admit that he was looking for a fight. As it rests now, however, we still have a serious problem."

"Thanks to Tarant," Richie made a face and then pressed on with a question that he had wanted to ask before, but had not had the opportunity, "How does he know this place anyway?"

Agatha's face was unreadable as she recalled something, but there was a sad aspect to her features as she disclosed, "Twenty years ago, he came into town, a drifter, a drunk, obviously sick and tired of his life. We came across each other and I felt sorry for him. The ranch was a working farm then, and I offered him a place in by bunk house for as long as he needed it. I was intending to try and dry him out, but he only stayed a few days. He worked hard, said little, kept to himself when he wasn't working, and then he was gone before pay day. He skipped in the middle of the night, and one of my men found some money on his bed along with a note apologising for the fact that it was so little, and that he was sorry to have taken advantage of my hospitality for so long. His name was different then, something Clint, I think, but apart from that, I have no idea who he is."

"He remembered you," her companion observed and continued, "and he has told Hill a lot about us, but hasn't revealed anyone to him unless he had to. What's his game?"

"Survival," was the cool response through pursed lips.

"And meanwhile, we have four loose cannons in the kitchen, and twenty Mortals in their firing line," the youth shook his head in frustration.

"Keep cool, Kid," Agatha laid a wiser hand on his arm as she saw the anger at the back of his eyes. "Don't give Hill an excuse to go for your head. He's near enough to the edge to do it."

"I don't intend to offer myself to him on a platter," Richie answered, but there was an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as his friend's words rang true.

Their conversation broke up soon after the warning, Agatha returning to reassure her companions, the young Immortal sat back and glanced over his shoulder out of the window. The sun was dropping out of the sky and it would be night soon; the youth's mind wandered to his darling hidden in the hay loft - her task would begin shortly. Despite the situation, the room was quiet, and Richard Ryan let his thoughts drift over the image of loveliness he held in the front of his mind. She did not judge him, she understood his life, the way it had to be shaped to cope with the Game. She and the recollection of her touch sent a warmth through the chill of the hazardous reality that the farm had become. However, the real world always has a way of reasserting itself.

The captors kept an eye on their prisoners from time to time, and it was not long before Hill became aware of the fact that his defiant Immortal was once again conscious. His reaction was not all that calm. The convict's face looked only a little less mad than when Richie had last seen it as he slammed open the door, and stalked menacingly over to the lone figure his quarry had once more become. The youth glared at him, but he kept his actions under control, Agatha's caution held firmly in his thoughts, his hands by his sides, his body poised in case the blade in hand was used in an attack. Only his eyes blazed his hatred of the arrogant interloper. It took an amazing amount of self- control not to move as the man lifted the back of his left hand to his victim and swiped it across an unprotected face. The youth let the momentum of the strike carry him back into the seat, rage flaring in his spirit held passive by the weapon gripped in the other hand. Silence, cold, frightened wordlessness fell over the rest of the room as they watched the interaction unfold. The atmosphere prickled as Hill paused a moment in his position over the smouldering prey. He waited for a response, a reason to use the hard steel, but none came, Richie was awkwardly submissive.

Eventually, the man relaxed back from the blond youth, his eyes still holding the dangerous disquietude, but it being satisfied for the moment by the lack of defiance. Richie bit his tongue as plenty of caustic quips came to mind at the grin of victory which spread across his antagonist's lips, he merely righted himself and glowered.

"Learnt a bit of humility, eh, freak?" he taunted, testing the limits of his reach. "Now what were we discussing?"

"Don't try to judge us," the young man cut back with quiet assurance, as Hill touched on the sensitive issues once more; there was control about him once more as he forced his Immortal calm to take over.

"Why not?" the Mortal returned with mockery in his tone, his minor triumph giving him indulgence in the derision. "Yes, you mentioned this before, something about not understanding you wasn't it? None of these good people here understand you do they?"

The Immortal stayed silent, unwilling to respond to the enquiry which he knew would be twisted around whatever he said. There was something about bigotry that stank, no matter in what form it appeared, and at that moment, the escapee reeked with its foul odour. Richard Ryan, street-kid, no responsibilities, would have physically struck out at the unfounded animosity, but it was the ageless being, obligated to protect the Mortals close by, who kept his tongue guarded, and merely listened to the contention as it was revealed.

"The rest of us mere Mortals can never understand the great band of freaks, can we?" the man dug at the foundations of his focus' self- control, "You make pretence at our ordinary little lives, but when push comes to shove, the EndGame is this sword," Hill waggled the beautiful workmanship out for all to see. "You live by it, you'll die by it. If we see you use this, will we understand you then, Richard Ryan?"

Richie stared up at his tormentor, his gaze steely, but giving away no emotion, his feelings were too well clamped down for any break in the facade this time. He felt the eyes on him grow wide as the dialogue continued and his senses told him of the horror in the air. Hill was proving quite eloquent, but there was no counter to his ridicule, not without argument that would reveal sources of more awkward questions and feelings.

"A challenge, freak, isn't that how's it's done?" the Mortal taunted, and for an awful moment the youth thought that he was offering himself, however, Tarant appeared at the door, apparently on cue.

The young man glanced at him and then back at his harrasser, and this time there was horror in his eyes. He was not cut off from the peace around him to forget the power and serenity of the land on which he stood, and the very idea of lifting the sword in contest made his being shiver.

"This is holy ground," he disclosed in a subdued, but very firm tone, his disbelief at even the suggestion showing in his manner.

Hill laughed, a cold, humourless sound, and then enlightened, "Yes, Tarant's attitude was very similar to yours - your priorities are perverse, but he was adamant about your laughable lore. However, I like to know what I'm dealing with, and Guinea found a solution to my dilemma," the aforementioned appeared next to the defeated-looking Tarant once more on his mark; the large man was holding the second, larger leather case of Richie's.

"These belong to you too, freak?" the taunter continued, and the infuriated look he received gave him the affirmative. "Thought so. Now, these," he took the bag from his henchman and unzipped its contents onto the table, "aren't so lethal as the metal kind, but you can spar with them. I want to see how well you handle yourself, freak, and I'm sure your friends would like to see just how deadly you can be. You and Tarant, outside, now."

"No," the youth returned immediately, the idea of combat with a hostile Immortal unthinkable to him.

Hill was ready for the rejection, and Richie caught a slow, pained shake of the head from the mysterious would-be combatant; he glanced at him as his antagonist moved away and the look in his eyes was nothing but sadness. The young man quickly returned to watching the more threatening figure as he walked purposefully over to the huddled group of teenagers. There was terrified silence as the evil surveyed his captives with a self-satisfied smile; it was becoming quickly obvious that he had been planning his moves carefully since returning to the room, and the young Immortal experienced a sinking feeling as one finger raised and beckoned deliberately to Emily. The girl was afraid, but walked forward as the gun that lay slack in the beckoning hand became the incentive for movement. The scene played out before the youth was slow and defined, that was until the teenager came within reach of her captor; then, a hand hooked around her waist and pulled her to the escapee with dextrous speed. The delicate creature screamed in fear, and it was not just Richie who rose to his feet to try and aid her plight. However, the young man froze as the more fatal design of sword was lifted menacingly to her throat as she was held immobile.

"You have two choices, freak," Hill spat, his eyes flaring with the hatred in his soul. "I've explained this to my colleague, and now I'll explain it to you. Pick up the stick, go outside and show me how well you can use it, or this little lady who screams so well will be screaming some more as I slit her throat."

There was no doubt in the young Eternal's heart as to the aggressor's sincerity, the look of utter hostility that was levelled on him told him how deep the purpose ran. Hill was afraid of what he knew, but afraid like a cornered dog is of those who threaten it. He was snarling for all he was worth and his bite was not very far away. With regret, but knowledge that it was the only option, both Immortals slowly reached for the wooden sword-sticks.

Richie's face spoke through his silence as the two men walked slowly out onto the veranda; his body was taut as he fought very real urges to drop his arm and turn from what he was about to do. There was an open hostility in the air, and mixing it with weaponry did not make a recipe that any Immortal could ignore. The young man's soul sang with inharmonious disquiet as he felt the atmosphere around him recoil from the violence that was about to unfold; this was no tutorial, or friendly spar, no matter how much Hill had tried to make it so, and the challenge could not be denied.

Ryan glanced at his opponent as they stepped in tandem down the porch steps and onto their arena - for once he felt in accord with the shell of a man as he read the same instincts in him as ran through his own heart. Tarant was kin and he too understood the nature of the power around him. There was a vague disbelief at what he was doing in the old creature's eyes, yet, the stick was held expertly in his palm, a firm grip, but not so tight as to hinder sword play - this was a being who had fought more than one battle in his life. The Immortal was a mixture of signals for his younger associate, on the one hand he was pitiful, a man given up on life, lost in drink and his own despair, on the other, there was an Eternal within, who had surfaced as soon as the weapon had touched his flesh. The Tarant that strode into view of the Mortal who dominated him under most circumstances was far from the weak figure that had been apparent only moments earlier, and Richie recognised the fact. The way he moved was smooth, unaffected by whatever drink he had recently been almost desperately swigging, his face was clear and most of all there was the strength of the warrior in his eyes.

The look that was eventually returned to the younger Immortal was one that showed sadness, but also the readiness for battle. The two men turned to face one another a metre or so apart on the dusty paddock, their movements calm and controlled, their emotions only visible to each other through the closeness of combat. Tarant paused a moment, stick held passively as he surveyed his competitor, Richie was more than willing to oblige the moment as he gritted his teeth against the overwhelming wrongness of his present situation. His feelings must have been obvious to the suddenly composed figure before him, and there was a warning to be given. The mysterious Eternal was sincere, his tone flat and cold as he disclosed, "I know what this place means, Ryan, but don't let it stop you fighting - if Hill thinks we're holding back he won't hesitate in slitting the girl's throat."

"Let's get on with it," was all the other could find to reply, animosity in his tone not really aimed at his opponent, but at the situation they both found uncomfortable.

Richard Ryan sank his weight onto his back leg and shifted the wood above his shoulder in the graceful arc he had practised so often. The movement was smooth, controlled as muscles flexed and a gaze set hard, but within, the young Immortal was churning. He became a poised statue as he waited for Tarant to settle himself into readiness. Reluctance showed strong in the other's features, only for a moment, before his visage too hardened to the composure of the fighter and his body lost the look of a scruffy hobo. Richie was vaguely surprised by the change he witnessed as he finally became certain of the Immortal that had been so deeply hidden. The youth drew in breath and prepared himself for the first strike, there was no underestimating his opponent once the sword was levelled with a poise that spoke of skill.

The eyes on them no longer mattered, even the holy ground's influence became distant as both figures anticipated the battle. Tarant moved first, slicing the dull edge through the air towards what would have been a deep cut to a leg. Yet, his combatant was ready and wood skidded down wood as he brought the weapon swiftly round to block the blow. The attacker backed off, the strike a mere test of skill and readiness; Richie couldn't find the urge to follow through the defence as his rival stood straight and left himself open for an assault, his face showed the frustration as half his instincts told him to cut and the other half screamed revulsion at the hostility. Tarant was still as he watched the internal struggle, a being hovering about the point of attack.

"There is a razor's edge to your friend's throat," the man hissed emphatically at the blond youth. "For her sake, strike!"

The sound that escaped Ryan's throat was not coherent, but held the essence of his dilemma in its anguish as he swung wildly into a blow. Arms flexed, teeth gritted as the fighters met, their sticks crossed and they came almost nose to nose.

"Good," Tarant encouraged the enraged look on his companion's face and continued, "now we fight."

Richie wasn't expecting the almost inadvertent push which sent him a few paces backwards away from his opponent, but he did managed to ready himself as, with a flash of danger in his eyes, the older Immortal brought his weapon around once more and stepped into the offensive. The arc just missed his shoulder as the youth side stepped and deflected with efficient dexterity. Emily's terror at the forefront of his mind, spurring him on, the young man powered back thrusting into the space that Tarant left open. Both bodies spun as the strike missed its target and gazes met once more. Faces were grim, but there was no denying an excitement that flared in both pairs of eyes, combat spoke to the soul and inspired the fire in Ryan's heart - it was a base instinct, an emotion that characterised a warrior. It beat back the call of the sacred around him, centring him on the strength in his rival; this was battle, for good or bad, and everything outside that dimmed.

The sound of wood clashing did not hold the ring of the deadly steel, but there was no doubt in those who watched the battle unfold as to the lethal ability contained in either body. The weapon was almost irrelevant as the Immortals moved with a fatal grace. Slice, or thrust, parry or block, every move was precise and deployed with a passion that could not have been called human. The two men who fought had been born for the purpose, and that innate skill burnt in their eyes and shone in the dimming of the evening. They were detached from the rest of the world: from the shadowy figure who walked around on another perimeter search, keeping well back from the intense battle; from the still figures in the dining room, silent and afraid, but also strangely awed by the destructive power before them; from the cold figure who stood on the porch watching every move with a concentration that almost made him lose hold of the hostage he had wrapped close - only the girl's trembling occasionally brought the rapier's blade to her neck, and the pistol into her ribs.

Breath hissed between his teeth as Richard Ryan pushed his opponent away from his body as their sticks locked once more. Tarant was an adept swordsman despite what first appearances may have suggested, and the young man was using all the skills he possessed to meet the challenge. His body may have long since healed from the strenuous kata of that morning, but its influence was still with the blond Immortal as he focused on his competitor and blocked another carefully placed slice. Wood danced down his own weapon and sent the familiar vibrations through his taut muscles as the deflection took affect. Duncan would have been proud of the presence his pupil displayed as with perfect timing he shifted his stance enough to unbalance the dark man. A small twist of the stick and Tarant stumbled backwards, his wooden sword waving in useless air. Movements were almost played out in slow motion as the young warrior took in every minute shift of his combatant's body and his mind rang with the battle. His opposer was unlucky, there was an old sack lying on the ground left over from the baseball game and his back foot contacted with it. The hessian strips left where the material had been worn wrapped themselves evilly around the dirty boot; another step onto the main sack itself, then an attempt to lift the ensnared ankle as the backwards lurch continued its natural course and Tarant's fate was sealed. His leg caught, but had enough momentum to shift the material from under the failing body, and then the swordsman was toppling to his doom. The stick slipped from his grasp as the man fell awkwardly to his knees.

Instinct was leading both Immortals as they had used it to force away the heavy restriction of their surroundings, and it was his gut that led Richard Ryan into the final, fatal strike for the neck. There was no consideration that the instrument in his hands was a blunt piece of wood, he was an Immortal, and this was the end of the challenge. The movement was controlled, powerful, precise, deadly - the arc came down with all the force of a body behind it. Tarant looked up at his possessed competitor and very suddenly the world hit back. Richie's eyes widened as suddenly everything came back and the shock ran through his body. Emily, Hill, the reasons behind the battle daggered into his mind and ice ran down the young man's spine. He wasn't sure how he did it, but as reality cut at his mind, the youth's body spasmed and he brought his attack to an abrupt halt. He breathed hard, a little confused by the panic that had suddenly run through his being and looked down at Tarant. The young man had frozen his slice only millimetres away from his opponent's neck. The man himself just stared up at the stunned victor an indistinct age in his features. Both men sensed the power which had the ability to stop an Immortal in the midst of a death strike, and it held them in the bewildered tableau.

A single sound brought the pair out of their momentary stillness, it was hard and cut into the calm of the pause - Hill was applauding them. Richie lowered the sword stick and turned to stare caustically at the mocking action, angry at the offence he had so nearly committed against his code.

"So you're lethal as well, freak," the man sneered, raising his pistol in careful defence since he had released his hostage back into the house. "Tsch, tsch, Tarant, I thought you were supposed to be good at this sort of thing."

There was no reply from either Immortal as the younger held out a hand to aid his fallen companion. The moment of realisation had brought something home to the blond youth, and as he helped his kin to his feet, he realised that the scruffy figure was not his enemy. They were stood together, shoulder to shoulder, brothers in the Gathering as they faced their tormentor. Hill read the signs before him and didn't like what he saw.

"Trying to kill each other do something for Immortal relations, did it?" the convict growled, his volume low and menacing.

"Understand us any better now?" Richie returned coldly, the stick still held lightly in his palm.

The reply was never to come as the conversation was interrupted by a startled scream. The young man recognised the sound of his loved one and spun towards the barn in time to see her slight figure come running out of the door, followed by the hulking form of Guinea. He was moving in defence before his brain told him that such an idea might not be advisable; Richie moved with a speed that defied the energy he had just expended as he charged towards the chaser. Yet death travelled faster. The shot rang in the youth's ears and halted his path with the jarring in his being. He froze where he was, stunned by the pain which erupted in his heart. Yet it wasn't his own body which failed - his cry of `No!' daggered through the still air as, in anguish, he saw Naomi convulse with the power of Hill's bullet entering her flesh.

End Of Part 6