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Dividing of The Ways by Tasha

This is the first in the Dividing series, the others may be found at:
Discoveries
Disclosures

 

Part 9

Poison could be removed from an Immortal's system very quickly and it took only a very short time for the competitor in the arena to regain consciousness. When the young man opened his eyes on the world again he had been out for just under five minutes and he'd been moved. Instead of lying in the doorway where he had fallen he was propped up in the corner of the room onto which the door had opened, and the portal was closed.

"One down, two to go," Craven's victorious tones informed his opponent jovially. "I'm sure you'll find level two much more challenging, although I must admit you have performed beyond my expectations."

"Why, thank you," Richie replied acidly and picked himself up off the floor, but he did not go on since Beren's life still hung on his success.

He did not think Craven would break his word, but he still held sway over the twin where the young woman was concerned.

The rules had obviously changed since this arena bore little resemblance to those which had come before or a real room for that matter, in fact it was decorated in such a way as to cause an optical illusion, distorting the space available. The warping of the walls was created by the tonal qualities of the art work but what really played havoc with the eyes of any observer was that the actual designs were S.I.R.D.S. .

"And I bet there's a message in this lot," Richie mumbled to himself.

Over the last few years you had to have had your head in a bubble not to know what one of these S.I.R.D.S. was, but the young Immortal was one up on most people in that he could actually see them. Single Image Random Dot Stereograms were a modern phenomenon over which Immortals had a particular advantage since they were practised in altering their perception, but here there were no pieces of paper which could be waved around until an image resolved. The young Immortal daren't move around the room to play with distance either and so he took the bold move of walking right up to the edge of the peculiar pattern and sat down.

What he was about to attempt no mortal could have done unless they had a few decades to practice it, and Richie wasn't even sure about it himself, but some of the things Duncan had been teaching him were not just about keeping his body in shape there were exercises in concentration as well. Whatever tweaked their genetic structure to make them capable of spectacular cell regeneration also gave Immortals advantages in the mental line, and just now Ryan decided he was going to need them all. No feature was visible on the wall, no exits at all: the arena had been so well created that not even a suggestion of door made itself known to a cursory inspection. However, as the unusual individual let his focus shift, the far wall dissolved and the outlines of two portals showed themselves, and on one of the was a large 3-D arrow.

Of course from his present angle it was impossible to see what designs the floor held since probably the most annoying thing about S.I.R.D.S. was that you had to be almost perpendicular to them to actually see the image. Starting off from the other end and working backwards would of course set off every trap in the room and defeat the point of finding the hidden trail in the first place, so all he could do was start from were he was sitting and work along the edge of the pattern. Very carefully he stood up and basically stared at his feet, doing his best to ignore the ache beginning in the muscles of his eyes.

At first nothing would resolve as his brain refused to alter it's perception and take in the peculiar visual stimulation, but finally after a few frustrating minutes he found what he was looking for. An arrow about a foot long leapt out at him and quite deliberately he stepped on it with his eyes already scanning for the next one. The concentration it required meant that he had to ignore all else and Craven knew this, so he had supplied a few distractions. The first time was on his third arrow and something exploded harmlessly next to Richie. Even though he didn't fatally step off the spot on which he was standing he did loose the focus. This caused the young Immortal to swear as the normal room came swimming back and almost made him loose all sense of balance. I

t had been planned that way, but Richie was up to the test. It took a great amount of self control to bring his aching eyes back into check, but with a will made of iron he centred himself and brought his mind back to the job in hand. It soon became clear the idea was that the little episodes would try to make Richie move off the trail and therefore set off the booby traps but as it turned out he was superior to the task. Not even the strobe caused him to wobble as he closed his eyes and quite simply waited for it to stop. The arrows only led to one door and there were no extra trickery on the portal so with his head buzzing the young Immortal moved on to more tasks.

=====================================================================

"Manheim just basically means trouble," Dawson informed the select little group sitting at his bar, "he's actually known about Watchers since the turn of the century, and he takes delight in killing us whenever he can find us. We didn't know he frequented this area at all, the last record we have of him is in Austria where he killed the man watching him. I've put the word out for any information that may tell us where he's taken Richie and the others, but it's going to take some time."

MacLeod did not look particularly happy at this but then he couldn't blame Joe for something beyond his control.

"It sounds like he plays the Game very well," the Immortal commented coldly. "When I get my hands on him we'll find out just how well."

"What I can tell you," his friend continued evenly, "is he's just over five hundred and thirty years old, he always has at least ten hirelings in his employ to guard his back, and he's very efficient when it comes to dispatching his victims. Two hundred years ago he began to trap those he challenged and as far as we know no-one has ever survived."

"Bloody marvellous," Chris said quietly and for the first time lost any trace of his American accent, it seemed that he swore in English.

=====================================================================

Whilst Richie was moving through the obstacles their host appeared to completely ignore his three prisoners and they sat each holding their neighbours hands. They hadn't dared to move the chairs from their equally spaced, almost regimented positions, but both John and Angie lent towards their partner as much a the chairs arms would allow. The male of the partnership had possibly the most expressive face as they watched their friend on the screen, and one by one the ideas the doctor held dear were shown to be anything but absolute. The young mortal was not sure if he believed that Manheim would release them, but he held to the hope that the peculiar man who had become his friend over the past few days would prevail, and they'd never have to find out.

Beren was hypnotised by the large screen that continually focused on the man she loved, and she barely appeared to breathe. She watched every move without any show of emotion at all, not even when there was a near miss or a clear victory did she react, and she was almost a statue. At that particular time, life meant nothing to her, her own body was irrelevant and her mind followed the action, free of any other focus: all she cared about was the man on the screen. Extreme situations tend to bring out extreme reactions in those involved and in this case Beren was certainly an example of a very definite response: her decision to love Richie without reservation had been made suddenly and forced on her, but it was irreversible and she was consumed.

=====================================================================

As predicted the second level proved more difficult than its downstairs cousin with more inventive traps and particularly devious puzzles, but much to Craven's delight his prisoner rose to the challenge. Even as his body became more tired, Richie's mind went up a gear in a way he had never realised it could, and pulled his weary flesh with it in an incredible show of mental energy. Every twisted hazard the older Immortal's insanity placed in front of his considerably junior opponent was surpassed and left behind. The entire level was on a different scale to the previous in that the rooms were smaller and the tasks larger, but there weren't as many of them and relatively quickly the end game of the current section revealed itself.

The arena was the same shape as its predecessor in that it was longer than it was wide and there were stairs at the far end, but it was about half the size. The three steps down into it, however, did account for a couple of low ceilings Richie had noted on his way through the previous level. What revealed itself as he opened the large oak door was not a mental test, nor a mechanical one, in fact it was very human. Four large, agile looking men waited for him in the centre of the very empty space and there was no mistaking their intent.

With a slight sinking feeling, Richie recognised the weapons they were carrying, and for the hundredth time thanked the powers that be for a man like MacLeod as a teacher. One of the four was oriental and carried a pair of evil looking, multi-pronged, daggers which looked more like mutant corn forks than real weapons; another was Asian and his chosen weapon was all too familiar to anyone who knew street gangs: Nunchacka. Their companions on the opposite side of the room were an Afro-Caribbean and a Caucasian, carrying a large wooden Kendo sword and a foot long machete, respectively. None of this cheered Richie up at all. This was a game without defined rules, but they all stood stock still, clothed in a parody of ninja style, and awaited his approach like sinister ornaments. In this situation, Ryan's only advantage was his Immortality which gave him the edge in speed and awareness, but he was outnumbered four to one by armed mercenaries, and that was grossly unfair.

=====================================================================

It was as his captive walked slowly towards his opponents that Craven leant over the control panel and altered the camera setting to achieve the best view, a gesture which was only half appreciated by his other guests. With his left hand he compulsively fingered Richie's unusual penknife which he had had retrieved along with the discarded keys, he seemed to relish the trophy somehow.

=====================================================================

There was still little sign of life in the four men as the young Immortal came within a few feet of them, and they all just eyed their adversary speculatively. It was quite obvious that they weren't particularly impressed; Richie wasn't the tallest of his kind in the world, but of course they were judging him by mortal standards despite what they had been told. These four had been employed by Manheim for several years specifically for their current purpose, but they had never come up against one of their paymaster's opponents before, because none had ever made it this far. Quite frankly the ageless man didn't appear much of a challenge, he was tired, and it showed. Had he been mortal, his life would have been over very shortly, of course he wasn't, and letting them misjudge him would be his greatest advantage in the short run.

There was one dilemma for Richie in this fight, one which he had never before had to resolve: he was not a born killer, and the idea was still difficult for him even when it came to the Game, and these were mortals which made it even worse. They were willing to kill him, that much was plain, but he was not willing to take their lives unless absolutely necessary, which gave him fewer options in this battle. If he were going to complete this arena with his conscience intact, he was faced with disarming and rendering harmless four very large men, not an easy task at the best of times.

"So how do we do this, gentlemen," he asked calmly and paused ready for any move, "Do I get to take you on one at a time, or is this a free for all thing?"

The two at the ends of the what was a half circle moved into action at his words, and began to circle behind him.

"Guess that answers my question," Richie commented nonchalantly, but never once did he loose track of his opponents.

There was obviously a game plan here and the first to come at the Immortal was the oriental, the only mercenary under six foot two, but unlike his mortal rivals Richie didn't see this as an advantage. As one of the evil looking forks came his way, Ryan feigned a move left and ducked right, fooling the chain, the machete and the forks into a shift along his original course. This left only the Boken wielder, who found a very fast, determined Immortal coming in his direction. The young man never gave his opponent time to begin to use his weapon as the heal of his hand shot through the dark skinned individual's defence, and took him out with one sharp blow in exactly the right place. Unbelievably the mercenary crumbled as the first punch was thrown, and Richie relieved him of the Kendo sword on his way down before his companions realised exactly what had happened.

If he'd had time the young Immortal would have been mildly astonished at his own performance, but he wouldn't get a second chance to surprise his three, still very mobile adversaries so he moved in. Now swords was one thing every of his kind knew a lot about, and now he had a wooden one, possibly the best weapon Richie could have chosen. He may have been averse to killing any of his foes but broken bones were not a problem, and he went straight for the quickest solution to the battle. The carrier of the machete had his legs swept out from under him before he pulled his act together, but the other two were faster and came after their opponent quickly. Richie had no choice but to back off as the Asian swung his weapon in a wide arc and all the Immortal could do was hold his sword out in front of him as a shield. Time was on the mercenaries' sided and so they waited, as much to their rival's dismay, their bruised companion slowly regained his feet. One man was down and out, but the others were very much still in this match, and all three came at Ryan with vicious solidarity.

With detached calculation the Immortal noted that the Caucasian was the weak link in the attack since his reactions were that micro- second slower than his compatriots, and that made him the unknowing centre of attention. With considered accuracy Richie swung the wooden weapon in a blocking parabola and shifted his weight onto his right foot to put all his strength into sending the two faster adversaries backwards. Of course the man with the machete saw the opening at the combatant's back and moved in to strike, as the young man was busy deflecting a blow from the Asian. However, as Ryan's right hand held the wooden barrier against the Oriental's weapons and his left caught the flying stick from the other's direction, his foot came up and dealt a stunning blow to the Caucasian.

A foot in the groin did nothing for the man's reflexes and he folded into a painful heap on the floor; the combat forgotten in his own private agony. Nobody had remotely suggested that this was a fair fight, and the white face of the fallen man was due payment for over confidence as far as Richie was concerned. The pitiful whine that escaped the mercenary's throat made the young Immortal wonder briefly if maybe he'd kicked him a little too hard, but that didn't stop him continuing the move he had begun. The one footed stance was not stable, but than the ageless man hadn't expected it to be, and he threw his centre of gravity sideways, rolling out of the conflict. There was somewhat more respect in the eyes of the two remaining combatants as he came to his feet, especially as the scratch on his upper arm that the fork wielder had managed to inflict sparked and vanished.

As for Richie, he was on a high, nothing impinged on his consciousness except his purpose, and adrenaline flooded his system; at that moment he was a weapon, balanced and accurate, a state of mind few mortals knew existed. There was no doubt that the machete carrier was out of the match because he quietly keeled over as the other three circled. What was really eerie about the Immortal was that he fought silently, as the other attacked they shouted their own particular war cry, but Ryan never made a noise as he wreaked soundless havoc. Without backing into a wall Richie couldn't prevent the two remaining mercenaries from taking positions on either side of him, and so once again they took the advantage.

This time the chain wielder came at him first and he used the wooden sword to block the incoming offensive and struck under the stand-off with his hand, but his adversary was ready this time and blocked the punch as his comrade advanced against Richie's back. A kick would have done no good now because the oriental was expecting it and it was basically a surprise blow that could land him in serious trouble if blocked, so he went through the move in which he was engaged. Unfortunately his opponent had been expecting this and the Asian blocked his route out as the other moved in for a killing blow. Richie felt cold metal touch his bare skin and desperately he twisted, deflecting the blow from it's original course between his ribs, but the sharp implement still dug in and glanced off the bone which really hurt.

=====================================================================

The bar made for a suitable surface onto which to collapse as white hot agony shot up Chris's side but it lasted only a moment.

"This twin business has it's downside," he said with sarcastic tone as MacLeod reached over to help him.

There was a question in Duncan's eyes, it was obvious.

"Just pain," the young man told them all quietly, "he still has his head and he's still breathing."

Just as he said this, the phone rang.

=====================================================================

The young Immortal saw red at the Oriental's fork sliced open his flesh, and pure need overcame warrior calm. With unnatural speed and furious exactness Richie released his only weapon and rounded on his most dangerous opponent with fist and elbow followed, by the ball of his other hand, which sent the fork wielder backwards. The man's eyes went glassy and his weapons dropped from his hands uselessly, but as he fell a chain flew over the Immortal's head and efficient hands pulled it tight. Only a quick limb prevented the metal from damaging the yonger man's Adam's apple outright, and it took a great deal of strength to stop the weapon digging in. Richie could defend himself or prevent the choking grip, not both so he had to make a choice.

With vicious precision he let the top half of his body go limp, and then suddenly brought his head back sharply. There was the splintering of bone and the grip slackened, Richie had quite efficiently broken his opponent's nose. He slipped out of the hold quickly, gasping for air, and caught the free end of the weapon as it dropped away from its user's grip. They came up slightly dazed, each holding one end of the Asian's nunchuka and glared at each other.

Blood poured from the brown skinned individual's nose in a silent river, it was clearly flattened at the bridge, and hatred glinted in the mercenary's eyes. Richie's own wound hurt, but he put that to one side of his mind as his adversary pulled hard on his end of the weapon, trying to free it from the Immortal's hand. However, the young man's grip was beyond strong and into the granite region, so it did not give, in fact he pulled back suddenly and messed up the Asian's centre of balance.

"Good night," he said calmly, the first sound he had made since starting the fight, and his left foot shot out at the mercenary's chin.

The blow must have shaken a few of the man's teeth loose, and it certainly put him out of the ball park. He swayed gently as if he might regain his wits, but at a second pull on the martial weapon he fell over gracefully. The last opponent was beaten and Richie was nearly exhausted as he let go of the wooden pole and gazed at the stairs. Gingerly he fingered the deep cut in his side and noted gratefully that it was already scabbing, but he also knew it was going to slow him down.

This time there was no outside banister he could climb because the steps were encased from floor to ceiling, and he had no choice but to ascend them carefully. At every move forward he checked his surroundings, even as he reached the landing at the top and was presented with two directions as usual. In keeping with what he had seen before, both ways through announced that level three lay behind them. Maybe his fatigue made him careless, or maybe it was a well hidden sensor, but he never saw the silent bolt which flew at his back as he chose to move left again. He barely realised he'd been hit before the poison on the arrow attacked his system, and he knew he'd lost again. His hand touched the handle that meant Beren's safety and turned it; as numbness crept through his body, the door opened just a crack. As he fell he just had time to realise that Craven didn't play fair at level crossings, and then the world vanished in blackness.

=====================================================================

The night's activities were not a lot easier on Chris than they were on Richie, and as the latest incident slowly passed into a manageable feeling at the back of his mind, his fury exploded.

"MacLeod," he said in a voice that was so cold it could have frozen hell, "I want a piece of this Immortal."

There were four of them in the car and they were headed out of the city, no-one chose to comment on his statement although Madi tried to comfort her son.

=====================================================================

Craven turned to his three prisoners calmly and smiled as the screen went blank whilst his associates prepared Richie's lifeless body for the next round of the insane game.

"Well it seems your friend has outreached all my expectations," he said evenly, confident in his own superiority, but pleased with the entertainment. "It appears he has saved all of you: that is as long as he doesn't break any of the rules, so you need not fear. It'll take a while for him to recover from this one so, can I offer any of you a drink?"

Had it come from anyone else it would have been a reasonable question, but from those mad lips it made gore rise in Angie's throat. However, John found a voice first and Richie's words of warning were at the forefront of his mind.

"No," the doctor said and tried to keep emotion out of his voice, "thank you."

That seemed to satisfy the madman, and he turned back to play with the control without further conversation.

=====================================================================

The next time Richie awoke, he was given no chance to fully recover: in fact the moment he came to he had to move. He was on some sort of platform and the second he opened his eyes it began to trundle forwards.

"Wait too long and you're toast," Craven's wild tones informed the younger Immortal and he had to go into action.

The problem with this room was it had no floor: it went all the way down to the basement at which point there were some very well lit stakes. Staying on the little train on which he had been placed was not a viable option because as the trucks passed the halfway point of the track, a nozzle sprayed acid all over them. A demonstration was provided by a piece of meat left on one of the furthest platforms which dissolved into a nasty liquid residue in a very short space of time. That meant the only place left to go was under the structure, and this Richie did with all due haste, so that he ended up literally holding onto his life by his finger tips. Muscles complained and sinews cracked at the speed with which he moved and as he soon found out the bars under the tracks brought hazards of their own.

By this time, however, the young Immortal was beyond tired: he'd regenerated three times in as many hours; he'd passed through numerous physical and mental tests, and he was well into the pure will stage. So long as the situation called for it, Richie would go on; when it was over he'd probably collapse in a heap. He hung motionless for a while, really unaware of the strain on his arms, more just a sort of dazed confusion, and then brought his situation into focus once more. For one moment he thought he saw something in the room with him and then he knew the guiding light was back. Something other than Craven was in this game and with quiet certainty Richie knew he wasn't going to die as he finally perceived that his current situation should have been impossible for an Immortal of his years. Manheim had been right, the youngster had a knack of surviving, and he was beginning to wonder if something had stacked the odds in his favour.

Level three should have been more difficult than it's predecessor, but with his unseen influence to tweak his instincts, Richie found it traversible.

=====================================================================

Even as his brother re-entered the fray, Chris and friends moved through the night towards him, and Madelaine noticed a peculiar look in Chris's eyes. There was the anger and hatred in his gaze, but there was also something else, something distant and quietly calm.

"There it is," Mac said finally as lights became visible from the road and he pulled the car to a stop and shut off the head lamps. "We walk form here."

Joe was with them since he had refused to be left behind, but he waved them to go ahead as his legs meant he was slower. Both Immortals had their swords in their hands: they were not being coy about exactly why they were here, and anyone who got in their way was going to know about it. For the first time since they'd arrived in the States, Chris became aware that his mother could be a very dangerous woman. She'd only been challenged once in his lifetime and then she had hidden most of it from her adoptive son; this was probably the first time he'd seen her with the killing glint in her eye. She always made sure her sword was in easy reach just like any other of their kind, but this was different, she was going into battle.

Richie and Chris had adapted to being twins and so had their mentors, both of whom were as protective about the new half as they had been about the one. Duncan looked on the pair as youngsters who needed guidance and maybe the odd hand, and Madelaine was like any natural mother with two children. Chris was her son and now so was Richie; which meant she took what was happening very personally. Manheim had a queue for his head and no matter what happened now, he was going to loose it as far as the two Immortals were concerned. For one second Mac and Madi both thought about telling Chris to stay back with Joe and then they saw his face: rage did not quite cover his feelings and they showed all too plainly on his visage.

Most of the wildlife ignored them and there were no guards to bother them as they climbed the wooded bank to the house: the owner was obviously not expecting visitors. The outside of the building was very impressive even in the artificial light: if not the architecture, the size would impress anyone. A ramp went down into an underground part of the structure on the right side where the road came up, and three massive stories rose from ground level to dwarf some of the huge, ancient trees. Most of the windows were obviously bared and shuttered, making them blank, closed eyes of some great hulking monstrosity from another age.

It wasn't just one building: it had an old core and Craven had added bits sideways and upwards to create the gigantic structure which dug into the mountain on which it was built. The three interlopers approached silently and stayed out of the light thrown from the third floor windows on the left side and almost immediately found a large set of fire escape stairs. The strangest thing about the building was it had only two entrances visible to the naked eye: the downward ramp and the door at the top of the steel steps. There was absolutely no other security on the outside; there weren't even outside lights sensitive to movement: nothing noticed that the newcomers were there at all.

Chris stared up at the dark mass of the building and knew exactly where Richie was, just before his knees buckled with reflected pain.

=====================================================================

Level three had proved no obstacle to Richie as he followed his nose through room after room, occasionally setting off a trap or two and removing himself from trouble, just to make sure Craven didn't become bored. All he thought about was reaching the end and coming face to face with his enemy for the second time. He'd passed through rooms with spiked, moving walls; falling ceilings; trapdoors; bitter cold; poison gas and all manner of deadly devices with barely a scratch and the last arena did not seem to pose a real threat either. It was almost like a dream, as if it couldn't really harm him no matter what happened because he knew what was going on before it actually occurred.

The game ended as it had begun, with a chess board, and this one was covered with giant pieces that took exception to anyone in their firing line. The pawns only noticed anything diagonally, one square in front of them; the rook on a straight line and so forth as if it were a real game. They shot everything from poison darts to flames to liven up the process of crossing the board, all moved as if in a match and they expected the same of Richie. He could move as any piece he liked, but only in turn, but if he didn't play within a few second one of his colour would move instead and he had no way to remove one of the opposing pieces. There was no hedging either and if anything saw a chance it was going to dispose of him as the pieces did to each other with seemingly, unrestricted abandon.

It took him ten minutes to traverse the peculiar games room as his mind calculated move after move with a skill at chess he knew he did not possess, and finally there was his sword hanging on the wall. Yet this was the end game and with cold certainty, Richie knew that Craven would have one last trap for him, one last pitfall that he could not possibly survive. Dying with a sword in his hand would be no good to him and the young Immortal suspected that poison awaited him at the top of the three steps which led to his weapon. This time he was not going to fall victim to any lethal substance, and he made a few risky decisions.

The bishops on the board fired two foot long stakes of about half an inch in diameter and one had just about followed him to the edge of the board, so cautiously he began backing up. From the control room it appeared that he was examining the end of the arena for traps, but actually he was working up to springing one he could survive, and then with the game over, moving in for the kill. He was positive that once he was supposedly dead for the third time the cameras would go off, and Craven's hirelings would move in, at which point he could take them on.

Quite deliberately he took that one step back too far and the bishop noticed him immediately: as he spun, a look of startled realisation on his face, it fired. The metal spike sliced into his body just below his rib cage and could very easily have been fatal had it not been for his split second timing, and that was just the impression he gave. The pain was very real and so it took very little acting to convince all watching he was hurt; what took skill was the falling to his knees and dying convincingly. Eventually he lay, unmoving on his side and Craven fell for it. After a few seconds a voice came over the intercom and it answered Richie's prayers.

"He's dead," Manhiem's voice said half triumphant, half surprised, "the game's over. Put him in the blue room, I'll be there in a moment and the traps are off so take his sword to the trophy room."

What the spectators saw was a hidden door open in the wall next to the chess board, and the grey suited man walk through with an associate; then the screen went blank. Craven turned to his prisoners calmly with victory in his eyes and smiled, but only for a second as he became aware of another Immortal. The moment Chris had collapsed, Duncan had charged up the stairs and as the cameras went off he attacked the door. Very quickly he had defeated the flimsy lock and was into the corridor outside the control room: it didn't take him long to open the portal that lay between him and his opponent. He came through the door loudly and one hundred percent warrior with sword at the ready.

"I am Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod," he said coldly; his Scottish accent almost reappearing in his anger, "and your head is mine."

The other Immortal in the room looked totally startled, but he soon gathered his wits as the Highlander approached, although at that moment there did not seem to be any way out for him: he held no sword. Duncan was just about furious enough to forget his long adhered to honour and take his head anyway, but he didn't have to. As Madelaine appeared from the doorway with Chris just outside, Manheim hit a button on the control panel and the entire end wall began to move. He was gone before he could really take in the newcomers and by the time the structure had withdrawn completely the blond madman had a sabre in his hand, and the room had doubled in size. As Chris entered the room, still in pain, but walking, he almost phased Craven: the Immortal's research hadn't included the twin, and he was as shocked by the concept as everyone else had been.

"Two of them," he said, somewhat amazed: his peculiar blend of insanity and rationality showing, "how extraordinary."

"Worry about your head," Mac snapped icily, and weighed the strength of his opponent as the man brought his sword to play.

There was definite skill in the mad Immortal, but Duncan knew he could take him; not that he would have cared if the odds had been against him, anyway. They were almost within striking distance and Mac raised his sword; very ready to attack and get this over. The Scotsman wasn't a blood thirsty individual, but he wanted this head: this animal had been torturing his friend and that was all that was in his mind. However, he wasn't to get his way this time because as he moved to begin the assault on Craven, something stopped him.

"Highlander," a very angry voice called from behind him, "he's mine."

It was a formal address and Richie was very serious about the statement, and that was what made MacLeod withdraw. Quite frankly, the young Immortal looked like death warmed over with blood all over the place from the raw wound in his side, but there was no denying his right to this battle. His grip on his sword was strong and the steel in his eyes belied the obvious physical injuries he had suffered. On this one, Duncan knew he had no place getting in the way. His friend was an Immortal just as he was, and he deserved the respect Mac would give to any of his older comrades, even if it meant he could loose his head. They passed one look that said everything needed and then Richie walked towards the man who had caused him a very painful few hours.

"Look after the others, please," he said to his friend evenly and raised his sword for combat.

Had it not been for one thing, Craven would have believed his luck had just changed, but the fury and determination in his opponent's gaze was somewhat disturbing.

"Never turn your back on your enemy until you are sure they are dead," the younger man said coldly, "your employees are nursing concussion."

"Quite," said Manheim, the excitement of the fight in his voice, "I shalln't make that mistake again."

Richie moved in for the attack first and they threw and parried a few blows: trying out each other's swordmanship again before the real battle was joined. Neither showed any weakness, not even the injured, younger Immortal and they circled warily. The second time he moved in, the hail of slices Ryan rained down forced Craven backwards, but he was not an inferior blade master and he came back with a flurry of his own. The sound of clashing metal filled the room and the mortals were frozen in place as they watched sparks fly as blow followed blow. Richie's style followed MacLeod's very closely, but there was something about it distinctly his own as well and he parried like no- one Duncan had ever seen.

He forced Manheim towards a wall and threw all his weight behind a strike which drove them nose to nose into the structure. Pure strength met pure strength, and they struggled against each other with blades close to necks. It wasn't, however, going to be that easy and with a show of Immortal skill, Craven sent his adversary backwards and they were back in free fighting room. Now the older took the initiative and began a furious hail of cuts and thrusts at Richie, who steadfastly deflected them, even as he had to step backwards. His mind snapped up a gear and suddenly he was fighting on instinct again; the almost psychic ability back in place. Finally there was an opening and as the mad Immortal raised his arms to strike again, the younger moved under his guard and thrust his sword into the madman's body. He withdrew quickly and watched his opponent crumple in pain and back away.

This, however, was a life and death battle and Richie gave only a moment respite, going in for the kill. It had been a while since Craven had been up against anyone near his own standard, and he hadn't taken a wound in quite a while, so he was virtually unprepared. He blocked the blows the young Immortal sent his way, but barely, and one hand clutched at the hole in his side convulsively. He fell to his knees under the strain and then the inevitable happened: Richie's sword caught his with a giant spark at just the right angle and it flew from his hand: the battle was over. The victor stood for a moment, breathing hard and stared at Craven, who to his credit stared right back as cold steel touched his neck. The insanity was so clear in his eye, but there also surfaced a basic bravery in the face of death, and Richie's fury evaporated. He could see into the man's soul, and even as his mind groped for the familiar rule it sounded so empty.

"There can be only one," he said quietly and raised his sword, but he couldn't quite believe it.

Chris heard a noise and turned as the grey suited man appeared in the doorway, blood dripping from a gash in his forehead, but gun in hand. As the still mortal twin saw him, the man recognised the young man and all he perceived was a face that was all too familiar. He was confused and slightly groggy so it never occurred to him that this person wasn't wearing the same as the Immortal who had attacked him, and his only thought was to slow him down. Without pausing, or realising what was happening in the rest of the room, he raised his gun and fired: Chris didn't stand a chance and for the first time he felt the real pain of a fatal injury.

Richie's world exploded and Craven was forgotten as he felt his brother's agony and the life leaving him. He couldn't help dropping his sword, he froze: a scream of denial on his lips and suddenly he knew who had been helping him. Chris clung to this side of the divide bravely as their eyes met and Madelaine went for the man who had shot her son. Both twins knew that something was going to happen, but his pain took the knowledge away from Chris. Vague shadows gathered around Richie as he stood in the centre of the room and he finally perceived who they were and why they were there. These were the essences of every Immortal who had died without passing on their Quickening, at the hand of mortals or in decapitating accidents. However they had passed from this life they were here. Their energy had never been continued into their kindred, and yet it couldn't be destroyed so it lived on outside the Game.

"Get out," Richie said breathlessly as he finally understood, "Mac leave if you want a choice. The Game is about to divide; leave now or your path is decided."

There were only precious seconds left and he couldn't explain anymore as those only he could see closed in, the nearer Chris came to death. Duncan saw his friend and believed that something incredible was about to commence: he was not completely immune to the atmosphere in the room. However, the Highlander was not known for backing out and he was not leaving now: if Richie was in this so was he. As for Madelaine: she was not leaving her son and as life slipped from him it was too late to change anyone's mind.

Invisible hands reached out and touched Richie and the most incredible agony filled every cell of his body: he had no choice but to scream. His legs gave way and he collapsed as MacLeod moved towards him, but the Scotsman couldn't get within six feet as something held him back. Suddenly energy bolts began to lance across the young Immortal's body as the power that was entering him began to show, and all at once it erupted from him in all directions. It was like a Quickening without a beheading and at what magnitude it was incredible. The white lightning found every Immortal in the room, including the new one still senseless on the floor, and they were all engulfed in the agonising transfer of energy.

It found every molecule of their bodies and forced muscles into spasm just like electricity: Madelaine backed into the wall; Duncan fell to his knees; Craven was thrown across the floor; and Chris convulsed where he lay. The source of the visible energy seemed to levitate a few inches off the ground trapped in perfect agony. The mortals in the room cowered as most things remotely sensitive in the area exploded as power touched them, yet they were untouched by the Quickening. However, the seemingly random distribution of energy was not to be the end of this peculiar, cataclysmic event, and as never before the Immortals felt power being dragged out of them again. The small sparks were dying out and then they were all joined: one to another with long blue and white arcs like a crazy spiders web. They were all crying out in shared pain and then as suddenly as it had begun it was over: Richie fell to the floor, out cold; Madelaine slipped down the wall; Duncan almost fell forward, but regained his feet with a lurch; Craven tried to reorient himself; and Chris curled into a small ball where he was lying.

It had been a stunning and yet invigorating experience and Immortal looked at Immortal as they realised they had just been changed. The three mortals cowering in their chairs slowly uncurled from their defensive positions and tried, without much success, to understand what had happened. The silence was so sudden as to be almost as distracting as the noise, but that wasn't what Beren was worried about. She shot into life and went to her fallen love without heeding anything else. All trace of any wound on all Immortals was gone, as was any trace of blood on the surface of the skin. As the young English woman leant over her unresponsive beau it was as if he had been blasted clean: there was not a trace of dirt or grime anywhere.

MacLeod and Craven were staring at each other as if they'd just seen each other for the first time, and both appeared slightly stunned. There was one vitally important thing about the blond Immortal now that was different from before: the madness had gone from his eyes. Manheim was looking at the world as sanely as any of them, and he didn't seem to know how to take this. He wasn't, however, given time to contemplate his new situation for very long as a quiet beeping drew his attention to the wrecked control panel. A small red light was flashing in time to the electronic noise and Craven's eyes opened in shock.

"The self-destruct," he said loudly, "it set off the self-destruct. The whole building is wired we have ten minutes to get as far away as possible."

The previous conflict seemed to have been forgotten, much to the incredulity of the mortals, but they weren't about to argue with plastic explosive. MacLeod moved to usher out John and Angie before going to Beren and Richie; Madelaine went to her half conscious son, and Craven hit a larger button on the control panel. Bells started going off everywhere and the mortal staff knew exactly what that meant and the evacuation began. With a quick thrust, Duncan sheathed his sword and gently moving Beren aside he hoisted the unconscious Richie into a fireman's lift and the young woman picked up her beau's weapon carefully. They headed for the door at speed as the others disappeared and lastly came Craven, who retrieved his sword before turning his back on his chamber of horrors.

End of Part 9