Northern California, 1975
She sat alone on the balcony of the ocean-side house. The wind whipped through sable hair, its strength only a precursor to the storm which roiled on the horizon. Distant thunder drew closer, while lightning lent its spark to the air, the waves pounding harder every second. She drank in the sound and smell of the storm, as she had a thousand times before and would a thousand times again...she hoped.
"It's too cold out here for you," a quiet voice said behind her. She felt a heavy coat slide around her shoulders and smiled at its rough comfort.
"It's not cold at all. Just wild." The salt spray beat against her face. The cushion gave as he sat beside her. "He hasn't come yet." It wasn't a question.
"No," he answered quietly. "He may never come, Cade."
"He will." She felt it as surely as she felt the storm moving in. "He's waited a long time. He won't wait much longer. He wants to finish his game."
He didn't answer, knowing the truth as well as she did.
"He will come," she said to her companion, or maybe to the air. "He will come and you will protect me. As always."
Again he didn't answer. He simply looked at her, at the young face with its old eyes - old, sightless eyes and the calm half-smile beneath them. He felt the smoothness and the weight of the sword which rested at her side. Felt the weight of his own press against his back, as heavy as the weight of her trust.
"Yes," he said, too quietly to be heard. "I'll protect you this time."
She heard. Her hand stole to his as they watched the storm move in, and remembered.
Virginia Colony, 1775
She was eighteen, and the prettiest woman in the Virginia Colony. Her green eyes were always laughing. They carried not a little bit of mischief in them - and not a little bit of intelligence. But the men who clustered around her chose to ignore that intelligence. For her birthday, she was content to let them.
Duncan watched the girl with studied casualness, enjoying her easy grace. A hundred years ago he would have been in the crowd of young men that circled her. But he was no longer young; now, he was content simply to watch Acadiana St. John.
Her head turned as if she felt his gaze. She grinned, her eyes full of wry pleading for all that they could not see.
He shoved himself away from the wall he had been holding up and sauntered over to her. "I believe I have claimed this dance," he said smoothly, sweeping away from the throng of admirers and onto the crowded ballroom floor.
"Thank heaven," Acadiana said with a sigh. "They're all very sweet, but I can only survive so many for so long."
"The price of being a belle," Duncan shrugged.
"I would appreciate being a belle more if it was me they wanted, not Father's money."
Duncan laughed. "Maybe it's both."
Her snort was less than ladylike. "Maybe."
They were separated by the movements of the minuet and didn't reunite for several minutes. Duncan surveyed the room.
"Anything yet?" she asked as they came together again.
"Maybe he won't come."
"He'll come. His Majesty's government is paying him well for information about the activities in Boston. Your father is up to his neck bank- rolling revolutionaries, and Danneau is well aware of it. He'll come."
A murmer of agreement. "At least he won't be able to do anything without me - or, more precisely, without the key to Father's safe."
"Which you, being a loyal little British subject desperately in love with him, will obligingly turn over."
"Not too bloody likely, but he doesn't have to know that."
Duncan grinned in admiration, wishing she could see the pride on his face. *She has courage, this one. Maybe too much courage...* As if in answer to his thoughts, he felt a sudden screaming in his brain. He looked around, and located the Immortal who had set off the warning.
He found the tall man at the entrance. He was dressed immaculately, his smile gracious and charming as he greeted St. John, Acadiana's father. He didn't look like a spy -- or a killer. As he moved away, St. John and Duncan exchanged a silent signal.
A potted plant had made a convenient hiding place. "He's here," Duncan told Acadiana. "Remember the plan, lass."
"Of course." Her voice was calm, but her hands shook. "He's at the door?"
"Coming this way."
"Looking for me, no doubt." She set her shoulders, bit her lip. "Well, then, I'd better go meet my faithful beau."
Bitter sarcasm coated her words, but her wide, sightless eyes showed her fear. "You don't have to do this, Cadian." The words sounded like someone else's. "We'll think of another way--"
"No," she cut him off. "It's too late. He'll destroy my father and any hope of freedom. It has to be tonight." Her eyes hit his with frightening accuracy. "Be ready, Duncan."
She left the shelter of the tree in a swirl of bright color. Duncan stayed hidden. He could not afford to let Danneau spot him. The man already knew there was another Immortal there.
Danneau had felt the same warning as he cleared the door. He savored it for a moment and thought about seeking out the source. Then he shrugged it off as he spotted Acadiana and bulled his way through the crowd to her.
Acadiana sensed him coming long before he reached her, smelled the powerful cologne he insisted on wearing. Its odor was an assault on her senses.
"Monsieur, you have found your way to me," she greeted him.
"But of course, my dear," he answered with a low bow. He kissed her hand with dry lips. She fought the instinctive flinch. Her smile stayed in place. Duncan applauded her acting. "Come, I must claim a dance."
He led her onto the floor. "Do you have the key?" he asked when they were safely lost among the dancers.
"Yes," she answered. "But, Jean-Paul ...I do not know if I can go through with this. My father..."
"My dear, I understand that you are afraid and your loyalty does you credit. But he is a traitor to your country. You must realize how dangerous his involvement in this uprising is. If he is stopped now, it will go easier for him."
She fought the urge to kill him then and there. Instead, she smiled up at him weakly. "You are right, Jean-Paul."
"Of course. Come,let us go. The sooner we begin, the sooner it will all be over ." Over her head, he smiled.
Cadian's quiet voice brought Duncan back from his memories. "You never told me why you helped us, all those years ago."
"I'm a Scot," he answered. "I spent my childhood fighting the British. You offered me a chance to do it again."
"Bull. You were nearly two hundred years old. You outgrew that nonsense long before we met."
Duncan stared out at the sea. The deep blue of the water had changed to green. After a long moment, he gave another answer. "I respected your father, and you. It took courage for you and the others to defy England, to fight to be free of them. You deserved better than to be destroyed by Danneau."
Cadian nodded, satisfied. A stroke of lightning caught his eye. The thunder came only moments later. It was getting closer.
Virginia Colony, 1775
Two dances later, Duncan's legs began to cramp. "Come on, you bastard, take her someplace private." In response, Danneau leaned over to whisper something in Cadian's ear. After a moment she followed him out of the room, her hand placed on his arm for guidance. Duncan followed. He couldn't find St. John, but didn't worry. The fewer eyes on the coming fight, the better.
Danneau led Acadiana up the stairs. She leaned on him heavily, to all eyes another lady tired from too much dancing and delight. Once up the stairs, she let herself straighten. "It is to the right, Jean-Paul."
"Good girl." She led him down the hall and into her father's study. Using one of the 'stolen' keys, Danneau opened the door and closed it behind them. "Where is the safe?"
"Behind the portrait."
He found it above the desk, a striking portrait of Cadian herself. The safe was behind it. It opened easily on well-oiled hinges. Inside was a packet of papers and a ledger. "Well done," he murmered, ostensibly to the girl. "Well done indeed."
Cadian began to fidgit. "Jean-Paul, we must be away from here."
"Of course, my dear," he answered smoothly. She could hear the irritation in his voice and hid her smile. At least she was accomplishing that much. "See me away?" he pretended to coax.
*With pleasure.* None of her thoughts showed on her face. Instead, she smiled and walked into his arms, pretending to cling. "You will come back for me?" she fluttered up at him.
"Of course," he lied smoothly, leading her out the terrace doors. As the doors opened, the scent of the garden hit them. Heavy night air filled with the cloying scent of roses. It mingled sickeningly with his cologne. "But, before I leave, there is one thing we must discuss."
The tone of his voice had changed. "What, Jean-Paul?"
He stood beside her. She felt his eyes move over her, stripping away the charade. "Why, you, my dear," he answered at last. "And the games you have been playing."
Cadian's heart stopped. "What games?" She asked with all the lightness of young innocence.
"Serious games. Your father's games... and Monsieur Macleod's." She gasped as his hand tightened brutally on her wrist. His breath was hot against her face. "Did you think I wouldn't realize? Quite a good game, for amateurs. You and this lovely open house to bait the trap, with those lovely documents still lying in your father's safe. False documents, meant to lead me to a British prison." He smiled calmly, charmingly. "But you've quite got in the way of my game. Most unsporting."
"It's no game, Danneau."
Danneau never flinched. "Ah, Macleod, I was wondering when you would join us." He turned abruptly, keeping Cadian between him and Duncan. Something cold and hard touched her side. *A pistol. So much for true love.*
"Let her go," Duncan warned. "This is between you and me."
"Always playing by the rules, Macleod." Contempt twisted his words. "I've always chosen to make my own. And it was you who brought her into this Game." He smiled with no humor and less mercy. "You chose rather well this time. She's quite lovely."
Cadian shrank back from his hand, which still clutched the pistol. He laughed. "I think, after I dispose of you, I might still take the bait. A good game deserves to be ended well." His mouth came back to her ear. "I would have settled for you, my dear. Now, I'll have his head as well."
*Helpless again. Always helpless.* Her senses were clouded with fear, but sudden rage burned through. She twisted viciously, driving a heeled boot into his foot and a hard elbow into his stomach. Her blows struck true, his grip weakened with the loss of breath. She twisted free and fell, the ground knocking her own breath away. The papers and ledger hit the ground with her, the wind scattering the papers instantly. The pistol hit as well.
Duncan lunged forward, drawing his sword in the same motion. Danneau dragged his blade out in time to parry the first blow. Duncan began to circle.
Cadian fought to clear her mind. Dimly, she heard the sound of metal clashing, of two men in battle. She didn't think about the swords, could only focus on moving, on finding the pistol. She didn't think about what she would do with it, only searched. An eternity later her hand closed on cold metal. She tried to figure out what to do with it. *Get it to Duncan. He can kill Danneau with it.*
Both men looked over, saw the pistol in her hand. Danneau moved first, lunging away from Duncan's sword toward her. She sensed him, tried to roll away, but he was too quick. He wrested the gun away, striking her down. He stood above her, the pistol aimed at her head. Duncan froze.
"And so it ends, my dear," Danneau said, his eyes on Duncan, gloating in his power. With one hand, he broke off a rose, inhaling deeply. "Parting is such sweet sorrow." As if by itself, the gun went off.
Through the puff of smoke, Duncan saw the bullet drive into Cadian's body. He heard his own shout, saw the blood blossom on her gown. He saw her fall back to the ground.
Daneau laughed as he tossed the flower onto Cadian's body. "Until the next round, Highlander." Duncan lunged for him, but Danneau had already faded away. Only his laugh echoed in the darkness behind him.
Duncan stumbled to Cadian. As in a dream, he heard the voices behind him, guests responding to the gunshot. He could see the blood, knew the wound was fatal. Her eyes were open, staring past him at something she could not see. A few papers were still caught under her body, where Danneau had left them.
"I tried, Duncan," she whispered. "I tried." Her body went limp as the last breath left it. Duncan reached over, closed her eyes.
"You tried, girl," he said quietly. "I failed."
He picked up the rose. Its petals were the same color as her blood, nearly black in the darkness. He threw it aside. His own eyes closed, weariness overtaking him. Tears, if they came, would come later.
Two hundred years to the day later, Duncan gazed at the girl next to him. Danneau had disappeared that night, beyond Duncan's ability to locate him. Now, it seemed he had decided to come out of hiding. Duncan looked at the girl next to him. She was strong, he knew, but strong enough to face Danneau in the Game?
He had carried her slight body into the house himself, he remembered. St. John had been made nearly useless by grief and guilt. Duncan had placed her body on her bed, standing over it while someone went for a doctor, for the militia. And he had been the first to see her eyes open, see the confusion in them as her wounds healed and Death released its victim. The first to see the new Immortal born.
He had also made the explainations, lying first to the doctor and St. John, then to the shocked and frightened guests. Finally, far into the night, he had explained to Acadiana about who and what she had become. About the Quickening, about the Game. About the Prize.
"Did I ever tell you," she said now, her voice quiet, but audible even above the storm, "how grateful I am to you?"
"For getting you killed?" His voice held more than its share of bitterness and guilt.
"No. For taking care of me. For training me as well as you could. For protecting me all these years, almost my entire life, from Danneau and from others."
"Not well enough. Danneau found you again."
"You couldn't have prevented that. Nothing can stop one Immortal from finding another."
"Still...." He stared out over the waves. *Which way would the bastard come from?*
"You came when I called. That was enough." She knew what he was thinking, knew his fear. Carefully, she hid her own. "I almost regretted calling you. I wanted to believe I was overreacting to a gift, imagining things."
"He left a pretty clear message," Duncan said.
"To you and me, to him," she nodded. "but it could have just been a secret admirer. I could have one, you know." She tried to laugh but it came out wrong. The fear was still too real.
Northern California, one week earlier
She opened the door on the first ring. The small Northern California community was quiet, Duncan had made sure of that long ago. There was nothing to worry about.
The delivery boy was young and pleasant. Surprised at the gift, she fumbled with the pen to sign for it, thanked him and closed the door. Then she ripped into it.
The scent of roses hit her first, the smell of blood and battle. The box fell from her hand.
The neighbors came when they heard her scream. "A red rose," one told her when she asked. "Pretty color for a boyfriend." Cadian barely heard the teasing. No friend had sent this.
It was easy to shake off her fears, reassure her neighbors, throw the rose in the trash. But, that night, the first call came.
"Did you enjoy your gift, my dear?
Cadian slammed the phone down, but not before he laughed. The same laugh that had been the last sound of another life. She stayed awake that night.
The next day, she went through her day as always. Breakfast in the morning, a walk on the beach, an afternoon working with her music. She went to bed at eleven, tried to sleep. But she was awake when the phone rang at midnight.
"Our anniversary soon, my dear. I'll come for you." The line went dead before she could hang up. She did anyway, then picked the receiver back up. Her fingers dialed the number without thought.
An ocean away, it rang once, twice. Then, a deep voice with a Scots accent answered, the accent fainter than it had been two hundred years before.
"Duncan." Her voice was steady, although every nerve in her body screamed.
He heard it. "What's wrong?"
"He's found me. He's coming for me."
No need to ask who. "I'm coming."
The phone went dead again. She clung to it. He was coming.
Less than ten hours later, the knock on the door surprised a scream out of her.
"It's me." She ran to let him in. He pulled her into his arms and she stayed there for a moment, allowed herself the comfort of her teacher's arms, before she pulled back.
"He's coming for me," she repeated needlessly.
"Has he been here?" His eyes were dark with worry.
"No, only called. He sent me a rose, a red one."
Duncan cursed. Cadian found herself smiling. An odd sense of peace had taken over, a sense of the inevitable. "He's coming," she said.
He had called no more. He must have known Duncan had come, that both of his targets were in the same place, that the game board was set. Two days, and no sign of him. Now, only a little while until midnight, until two hundred years would be up.
She realized Duncan had left, somewhere in the middle of her memories, to patrol the house again. The house Duncan had bought with her father's legacy, had watched over until she learned to care for herself. The house where he had taught her the ways of the Immortals, the ways of the sword.
The sword was still at her side. Useless now as it had always been. She cursed her equally useless eyes with unexpected anger, then calmed again. *Why waste the energy? Duncan is here.* He would protect her.
She cursed again.
The thunder rolled. It felt close. She drew her arms around her body, shivering for the first time.
When she felt the Buzz, she thought it was Duncan, coming back to check on her. Then she smelled the cologne.
"Good evening, my dear."
Instinct brought her sword up and around. She slashed at the sound and the smell, but she hit nothing. She was standing now, breathing hard, her senses straining for any sign of her enemy.
"Such a greeting, for an old friend." His voice flowed out of the darkness. She whirled, trying to find it, and swung again. Her sword hit something too hard to be a body. Something crashed to the floor.
"Cadian?" She heard Duncan's call immediately, but could not spare the attention to answer. She heard the whoosh of a sword, barely ducked in time.
"Such a treat, to find you an Immortal. I had thought I would have to find another toy." His voice was silky and seemed to wrap around her in the darkness. "And still running to Macleod as well. Two Quickenings for the price of one."
"Why are you doing this?" Cade almost sobbed, her voice shrill from fear and desperation.
"Why not?" You must admit, it is a fitting celebration for our anniversary. A fitting end to my game. You spoiled it before, you know. That delightful reward money, Macleod's Quickening, gone.I only want to take what is mine." Another swing. She ducked again, realizing that she was the mouse to his cat. *He's still playing games. Duncan, hurry!*
His voice came in answer. "Leave her alone, Danneau."
"Ah, the hero appears. It's our fight, Highlander. You can't interfere, that would be against the rules."
"You'll have time for her later," Duncan said, his voice flat. "You want to play, try me." His sword was already in his hand.
Danneau looked at him with a bitter half-smile. "Tell me, Macleod, does it ever get tiresome, being the knight in shining armor, riding to the rescue?"
"No more games, Danneau. It ends here."
"I want the girl."
Duncan's jaw clenched. "You can't have her."
"Pity." With the single word, Danneau's sword swung up and out. Duncan parried, slashed back, and the fight began in earnest.
Cadian followed the sounds of battle, cowering back even as she despised herself for her cowardice. She heard Danneau grunt -- one of Duncan's slashes had gotten through. Then, a laugh, as Danneau's thrust hit its mark. He was older than Duncan, quicker and crueler, and he had less to lose.
Cadian suddenly knew that Duncan would not win this fight. He would die for her. For Danneau's game.
Resolve hit, washing away fear. Cadian's voice rang out over the clashing metal, over the wind raging outside.
"You want me, coward? Come and get me!"
"Cadian, no!" Distracted for a moment, Duncan didn't see Danneau's blade until it slammed into his stomach. He fell to the floor, curled around agony. Danneau pulled his sword free and looked down at his victim. Then he chuckled.
"I'll be back for you, Macleod." He kicked Duncan's body as an afterthought, turning to follow Cade.
She felt her way through the door and down the hall to the stairs, moving as quickly as she dared. *Faster, faster!* Danneau came slowly, his footsteps barely audible over the howling winds outside. She had known he would follow, had known he would drag out his game.
One flight, then two. Finally, she touched the basement door. She fumbled for the knob, her fingers stiff with fear. Finally it turned and she stumbled through, down the steps. He followed, his footsteps heavy, mocking her efforts to run. She fumbled along the wall, found what she was searching for -- and waited.
Upstairs, Duncan felt the Quickening, felt his strength begin to come back. But it was too slow. "Cadian," he groaned again. He shoved himself up, then fell back. "Cadian."
The storm broke, finally. Rain lashed down with lightning, creating chaos outside. Inside, there was near silence, but for Cadian's harsh breathing. Thunder sounded close by, shocking a scream out of her.
Danneau found his prey by that sound, crouched by the cement wall of the basement. Her eyes were wide with unseeing fear, her blade gleaming under the harsh lights. She waved it helplessly at every noise.
He swung at her, just for fun. She parried and the blades clashed. Another half-hearted swing, another desperate parry. This time, she lunged for him, and almost connected. He stumbled back in surprise. Off balance, she crashed against the wall, clinging to the grey box mounted there.
"Very good, my dear," Danneau laughed. The sound echoed oddly off the bare walls. "But the game, I think, is over."
Acadiana St. John's jaw tightened and the fear left her eyes. In one move, she opened the box and ripped out the fuses.
The house plunged into darkness, deep and absolute. The storm blocked even the streetlights, so that only strobes of lightning offered sight. In the windowless basement, even that was locked out.
Suddenly disoriented, Danneau froze. Only an instant, but long enough for Cadian to dart past him, her movements swift and sure. The door to the basement slammed shut.
"Want out, monsieur?" This time, it was Cadian who mocked. "Come and get me."
He lunged for her voice. Cadian heard him move, parried easily and cut his arm with the backstroke. He lunged again, and her blade sliced his leg.
"The darkness is terrifying, isn't it?" Her voice echoed as his had, seeming to come from all sides, feeding his growing fear. "Never knowing what's there, where your enemy is, when his blade will come. Like this." Another slice, to the other arm. "Or this." To his leg. He stood in the darkness, blood flowing, and felt the cold breath of panic.
"It's a scary thing, darkness. Unless you've lived in it for two hundred years."
He raised his sword, tried to lunge for her again. She danced aside. Above him, he heard the door open and a stumbling step. His nerve broke. He turned to run -- and felt cold steel in his chest. The blade struck his heart, before she pulled it free. He fell to his knees, his sword falling from his lifeless hand. It crashed to the floor. Blood stained his shirt.
A flash of lightning came through the open door, casting her in sillhouette over him. Her face glowed like ice, all harsh lines and angles.
"Game's over. You lose." Her voice was flat and cold. Jean-Paul Danneau looked up at her, his eyes full of the shock of being beaten. He laughed once. Cadian needed no sound to guide her blade.
Duncan felt his way down the stairs, his eyes beginning to adjust. In a flash of lightning, he saw the gleam of Cadian's blade and the headless body, still kneeling before her. The darkness fell again, until a white glow began around the body and rose into the air. Lightning struck again, this time inside the room, a continuing stream of pulsating light surrounding Cadian. It bounced crazily off of walls and ceiling, off of Cadian and Duncan.
The Quickening took her, its power shaking her body, ripping her apart even as it forced her back together.
They shared the feel of Danneau's mind, the memories of cruelty and torture in the game of Death. They felt his last moments of terror. Cadian screamed once, high, raw and shrill. Then it all faded to darkness.
She fell to the floor. Duncan was beside her in a moment. He felt her shake, felt the sobs that tore through her, harsher than her first Quickening. Silently he held her, absorbed her grief and rage -- only held her, until the storm passed.