The bay was quiet and still at that time of the night. Morning, really, with the barest glimpse of dawn beginning to peer over the ocean, casting a silver gleam over the fog that surrounded San Francisco.
A small ferry chugged its way across the bay, leaving a white V in the dark gray water. The driver yawned widely, not used to making the bay crossing at 4:30 in the morning. Not even the fishermen were out yet. Still, his two passengers were paying him well.
He looked over to where they were standing by the railing, the wind whipping through the woman's pale copper hair and blowing the man's dark trenchcoat around his tall, lean body. A strange pair, he thought to himself. They didn't touch, but they seemed connected, like an old married couple. And their eyes, when they had hired him, had seemed impossibly old and experienced -- the man especially, his gaze had been steady and cold, frightening in a man only in his late twenties. He wondered what they were, what they had seen, that made their eyes so frightening.
The driver shook his head firmly. *Keep your mind on business,* he told himself, *not on daydreaming about your passengers.*
Aislyn studied the edge of sunlight on the horizon, studying its strength with years of experience. "We'd better make the shore soon, or you're going to get a hell of a burn," she informed her companion.
Michael looked down at her. "We have another half-hour, at least."
"This was a stupid risk to take."
"Call me sentimental. I wanted to return to San Francisco the same way we came."
"Last time, we were on a frigate, heading into a boom town," she said. "I understand things are a little different now."
"Does that mean I'm not going to get to see you in that charming saloon girl outfit again?" His grin was pure devilment, made all the more charming by its rareness. Women across the centuries had found it irresistible.
Aislyn was no exception. She grinned back reluctantly and reached up to shove a lock of reddish-brown hair off his forehead. "No, I will not put on one of those outfits again. But if you're very lucky and willing to spring for a good club, I might wear the slinky black number and go dancing with you."
"You're on," he answered, flashing the grin again. She laughed out loud, the clear soprano floating out through the fog.
They were on shore a half-hour later, but the sun had already risen too high for comfort. They kept to the shadows until they found the hotel.
Aislyn had argued against the ostentatious (and expensive) waterfront hotel, but she had to appreciate the presence of a desk clerk who didn't bat an eye when confronted with two scruffy young people, wearing denim and leather and carrying only battered duffel bags. The clerk calmly motioned a bellboy to take their bags and shoved a registration form at them. But she noticed with amusement that he got the credit card right up front. Not a stupid man.
The bellboy was less well-behaved, his eyes roaming appreciatively over Ais' tall, slender body, barely pausing to notice the green-gray eyes and pale skin while he tried to imagine her without the jeans and ancient bomber jacket. Ais was used to it, and ready to let it pass. Michael wasn't.
He caught the boy's eyes with a cold emerald glare, exuding the menace that always seemed to surround him, despite his rather ordinary face. Of course, the ten inches of height that he had on most people didn't really hurt, nor did the incredibly pale skin that always seemed to add to the iciness. That glare had gotten many years of use and had its usual effect. The boy gulped hard and spun his eyes away from Ais, focusing intensely on the door of the elevator, as if he could hurry it by concentrating.
Ais shook her head at Michael, silently chastising him. He shrugged, his face blank. She sighed.
The bellboy took off as soon as he dropped the bags, not even waiting for his tip. Aislyn pressed a five dollar bill in his hand before he made it all the way out, to make up for the scare from Michael.
"You've really got to stop doing that," she informed her partner, who had started closing the drapes the second they hit the suite. Another good thing about expensive hotels, they rarely skimped on the furnishings.
He shrugged again. "The boy needed to learn manners."
She shook her head in disgust and took the bags to the bedroom.
"Ais?" he called over his shoulder. She wandered back out of the bedroom, idly swinging her sword. He raised an eyebrow at her. "Do you always have to be playing with that?"
"Yes," she answered, refusing to be drawn into the traditional argument. He let it go with only mild disappointment.
"When did Dierdre say to meet her?" He went back to his original thought.
"In about half-an-hour, on the Embarcadero."
"You couldn't get it set for later, for tonight?" he asked for the hundredth time.
"No, I couldn't," she answered for the hundredth time. "She said it was urgent, that she needed to see me right away. Besides, you couldn't have come, even if it was at night."
She whirled the sword through a brief practice drill. Michael watched critically, enjoying the efficient grace of her movements. She moved like a panther, all strength and elegance, never making a wrong move.
"I could have watched your back, kept whatever's worrying Dierdre from ambushing you."
"That's impossible," she answered impatiently. "An Immortal could no more sneak up on me than one of your kind could ambush you and you know it. You just want an excuse to see Dierdre again, which you can't do anyway."
"Why not?" He knew that answer, but wanted to see how far he could push her.
Not very far. "Because I don't feel up to explaining why that gambler we harassed almost a hundred years ago is still walking around, hasn't aged and isn't one of us! That would be lots of fun!"
He conceded the point with a slight bow of his head, inwardly chuckling at his partner's hot temper. She was so easy to provoke sometimes. And he'd known he was going to lose the argument -- it was the same one he used to keep her from meeting members of his own community.
"Very well," he said out loud. "You'd better get moving."
She checked her watch and nodded, silently sheathing her sword. "I'll be gone a few hours, so feed while I don't have to watch and get some sleep."
"Yes Mother," he answered with a mocking bow.
She ignored him and started for the door.
"Aislyn." She turned, raising an eyebrow at him. "Be careful, Lady" he told her, all trace of mockery gone.
She smiled. "Always."
The door closed behind her. He listened to her footsteps until she reached the elevator, then turned back to the window. He had to fight off the urge to open them and watch her leave the building. Not for the first time, he cursed the sunlight that kept him from protecting Ais from whatever was out there.
He cursed again, then went into the bedroom, emerging with several flasks. He opened one and sipped at the thick red liquid inside, grimacing at the taste of cow blood. He had never really gotten used to it. If only he had known when he'd made that promise....
Well, it had been made, and it was useless to regret it now. Ais was unlikely to release him and breaking his word to her was one of the few things he could not do. And the hunger mostly slept now -- some of Aislyn's sensibilities had rubbed off.
His eyes drifted back to the window. He drained the flask, then, in a rare burst of temper, threw it across the room.
Aislyn caught a trolley to the Embarcadero, settling herself into an open seat with a silly kind of delight at the experience. *Stop it,* she told herself severely, *You're too old to act like such a child.* But she couldn't control her smile as the trolley began to move and stopped trying, sitting back to enjoy the ride. It certainly beat those damn carriages....
San Francisco, 1851
Aislyn held on to the window for dear life as the hired carriage thundered down the rough dirt that jokingly called itself a street. She would have yelled at the driver if everyone else insight hadn't been driving just as badly. Instead, she hung on and prayed for it to be over.
When the carriage stopped in front of the gaudy board building, she had to take a long moment to catch her breath. The driver came around to help her out and she accepted gratefully. Her cape fell open as she stepped out, revealing a long length of stocking-clad leg to the appreciative audience standing outside the saloon. She received several wolf whistles, two propositions and three marriage proposals before she paid the driver and got inside.
It was much better on the inside than from the outside. The gamblers were reasonably sober, the girls in their skimpy outfits clean and the piano was actually in tune. A heavy red curtain concealed a stage at the front of the room -- Aislyn looked at it with distaste.
She sensed Dierdre before she saw her.
"There you are," the other woman smiled. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming."
"Well, I'm here now," Aislyn answered shortly. "Don't ask for too much."
Dierdre made a tsking sound at Aislyn's tone. "Don't be a sore loser. By now you should know better than to draw to an inside straight."
"Don't rub salt in the wound," Aislyn grumbled. "Just let me get this over with."
Dierdre didn't push her luck -- Ais' temper was almost as famous as her skill with a sword. She just lead Ais to a small dressing room backstage and held out a hand for Aislyn's cape, which the other woman surrendered reluctantly. "Oh good, it fits."
Aislyn glared at her, then down at the skimpy excuse for a bodice and the stockings, garters and ridiculously high heels. "No bet is worth this."
"Then you shouldn't have made it," Dierdre answered calmly. "You look incredible, and it's not as if I'm sending you out there alone." She disappeared behind the dressing screen.
Aislyn turned away and checked the mirror, trying to pull the bodice up higher. It wasn't going to work, she realized with disgust. She'd never had a hang-up about modesty, but this was ridiculous.
Dierdre reappeared after only a minute, dressed almost identically to Aislyn. Ais looked at her and groaned. "Why are you making me do this?" she asked.
"Because it's fun," Dierdre answered calmly, standing beside her to look in the mirror. They made an interesting contract, Dierdre as dark as Aislyn was fair. "Come on, our audience awaits."
They had to wait for the pianist to finish a song. Ais took the opportunity to peek around the curtain. She gasped when she spotted a familiar face at one of the blackjack tables. She only had a second to mentally yell at Michael for following her before Dierdre dragged her away from the curtain.
"Knock it off, they'll see you."
Aislyn kept sputtering.
"Someone's in the audience that I did *not* want to see me like this," she explained.
"I'm not letting you back out of this. You'll survive."
"You don't know him," Aislyn answered. "I might survive, but half the men in this room are going to die."
"Jealous, eh?" Dierdre eyed her speculatively. Aislyn didn't even try to explain. "Well, then, let's not give him a reason to be." She explained quickly, and an unholy grin slowly spread across Aislyn's face.
She still grinned, thinking about it. They had brought down the house that night, shamelessly vamping their way through the numbers. And Michael's reaction had been priceless, slow rage at the men's loud appreciation of their outfits, followed with a kind of embarrassed pride when the two women made him the focus of their flirting, ending their act draped over his lap and shoulders. The sight of her normally coldly composed partner convulsed in laughter had been worth the skimpy outfit. They had teased each other for weeks afterward.
It had always taken Dierdre to make her laugh, she reflected. Even after all of these centuries, Dierdre had never lost that sense of fun, the ability to make everyone else remember how good life was.
She got off the trolley a few blocks before the Embarcadero, deciding to walk the rest of the way. She didn't get to see dawn all that often -- there were downsides to hanging around with a vampire. The street was still quiet and still covered in the fog that never seemed to lift between May and September. Only a few people were around, mostly fishermen and commuters getting ready to board the ferries.
She yawned widely, wishing for a cup of coffee.
The drowsiness left her in a rush of adrenaline as she heard the muffled clash of metal on metal drift through the fog. The buzz of Immortals hit her at the same time. She started running flat out, but she was still a block away when the lightning began.
It was all over when she reached the small alley. Dierdre was lying in the ground, her head a few feet away from her body. The ground around her was scorched and soaked with blood, as were her clothes.
Aislyn dropped the sword she didn't remember drawing. She heard it clang against the pavement, blending with a thousand other sounds, of seagulls, and foghorns, of footsteps running away. It all faded behind the rush in her ears as she knelt beside her friend's body, smoothing the flannel shirt with one shaking hand. She could still sense Dierdre's Quickening in the air, her friend's sword was still in her hand. Ais touched it, still not quite able to believe what her eyes were telling her. Dierdre...gone?
The distant sound of sirens pulled her partly out of shock. Automatically, she checked Dierdre's pockets for a clue to who she had fought with, finding only a hotel key. She pocketed absently, reaching for Dierdre's sword, the katana that had been her pride and joy. *Damned if the police will get it.*
She rose and stumbled out of the alley.
Ais had been gone for less than an hour when Michael heard the slight thump from the doorway. He left the bed instantly, paranoia hitting. It was too soon for Aislyn to be back. He took her spare sword from her duffel and moved silently to swing open the door.
He saw Aislyn sitting against the wall, staring ahead into nothing. A strange sword lay on the floor next to her, partly bundled up in her leather jacket. With shock, he realized that tears were running slowly down her cheeks. They, with the sword, told him, everything he needed to know.
"I'm so sorry, Lady," he said quietly, kneeling beside her. She didn't seem to hear him, just stared off into space. He reached out and gently pulled her against his chest, lifting her easily as he stood and carried her into the room, shutting the door behind them.
He carried her to the couch and sat with her on his lap, stroking her hair tenderly.
"Someone killed Dierdre." He could barely hear her forced whisper.
"I know," he whispered in return. "I know."
She began to sob then, racking sobs that shook her body as she clutched him. He held her tightly and let her cry, feeling a burning rage begin to rise at the bastards who had caused his lady this grief. As the tears soaked his T-shirt, he remembered the first time he had held her like this....
Connaught, Ireland, 1183
The small Norman patrol moved carefully through the forests on the edge of Connaught. The chiefs controlling the area had proven to be aas hard and as treacherous as the rocky territory they had been successfully defending since the invasion had begun fifty years earlier.
Michael followed the patrol more out of amusement than hunger -- for blood or for revenge. He felt a certain liking for the people of Connaught -- anyone who could present such frustration to the Norman bastards, a frustration his own Saxon people had not been able to cause -- was worthy of respect. Still, war always presented opportunities for a feast....
The distant sound of screams had become ordinary, so it took a moment for these to penetrate. A woman's screams, high, harsh and agonized, piercing throght he night.
He tried to ignore them, as he had ignored so many others. But something in them struck at old wounds he had thought healed. He ruthlessly shoved away the old memories, but the woman's screams kept pulling them back. Finally, he gave in and took to the air, following the sound of the screams.
It was a only a few minutes before he found the woman, a child really, not more than fifteen, lying on the forest ground trying to fight off five soldiers. Three bodies were stacked near her, friends or kinsmen perhaps. But it was not the bodies that prompted the sudden rush of rage. It was the sight of the girl's kirtle, torn and bloody, pushed up around her waist, her blouse torn open. It was the sound of her cries for mercy, mixed with the laughter and curses of the soldiers as they crouched over and around her.
Memories blurred his vision, as the girl's pale red hair became blond, her cries became his sister's, mixed with his own bellows of helpless rage.
That same bellow, no longer helpless, burst from his chest. He flew intot he clearing, running into one of the soldiers with all of his vampiric strength, sending him flying into a tree. Bones broke audibly before he slumped to the ground.
Michael landed and faced the other soldiers, disarming and killing two more of them before they had time to blink. He turned and faced the other two. They had begun to reach for their swords, but froze at the sight of his glowing yellow eyes and the fangs revealed in his snarl.
He reached for them, and they ran. They didn't get very far.
Micahel finished with them quickly, resisting the bloodlust with all of his strength. The girl needed him now, He could help her, as he had not been able to help his sister.
He went to the girl, gently pulling down her skirts. She fought him, not understanding. she was too weak -- he barely felt her blows. Admiration for her courage mixed with renewed rage at the bastards who preyed on a child such as this.
"Hush, cuilain," he soothed her in her own language. the endearment felt strange on his tongue. "Hush now, you're safe. They can't hurt you any more."
He didn't know if she heard him, or was just too tired to fight anymore. Either way, her body went limp in his arms. She met his eyes, shivering, trying to hold her blouse together. He wrapped his cloak around her, cradling her in his arms, feeling a long-dormant sense of protectiveness rise in him. When the shivers became sobs, he held her tenderly as she wept.
How could he have known then what would happen? He reflected. That the child in distress would become his partner, his best friends, for better than 800 years? That she would share his long-life, though in her own way?
He looked down at Aislyn, who had finally stopped sobbing and sunk into a restless sleep. He smoothed her hair out of her face, wiping away soem of the tearstains. She felt so deeply, always had. Her emotions had always been the one thing he could never protect her from.
"And would I want you to stop feeling, Lady? As I had before you?" he murmured, knowing the answer even as he asked.
Aislyn woke hours later, rolling over on the couch and blinking swollen eyes. Memory returned when she saw Dierdre's sword, still lying on the coffee table.
Michael heard her moan, and rose from the easy chair opposite her. He didn't speak just put a hand on her shoulder and kept it there while she struggled again with the grief.
"Thanks," she said a minute later, pushing his hand away. He let her get away with it, and stood, giving her privacy while he walked to the room service tray across the room. He returned witha sandwich, pushing it into her hand.
"I'm not hungry," she tried to tell him.
As usual, he didn't listen.
"I will stand here and watch until you eat that. And if I become vilely sick watching, it will be your own fault."
Despite his matter-of-fact threat, he was already turning a little green at the smell of the roast beef. Aislyn took a bite to placate him. It tasted like sawdust. She took another. Michael nodded in satisfaction.
He went back to his chair, taking Dierdre's sword with him. He unwrapped it from the jacket, inspecting it, reading its history in the thousand tiny nicks and scratches on the blade.
"Where did you find her?" he asked quietly.
Aislyn kept eating automatically. "An alley by the Embarcadero. I just missed the fight."
"Do you have any idea who she fought?"
She shook her head, trying to force down a mouthful of bread. "She never said. Just that she had run into something that had become dangerous to all of us. Nothing else."
He nodded,s till looking at the sword. He could remember the woman who had wielded it, remembered how she had made Aislyn laugh so long ago. He adjusted the jacket to look more closely at the hilt ot the katana. A small key fell out of the jacket's pocket.
Aislyn reached for it instantly. "Maybe..." she muttered, looking at it, then at Michael. "Maybe she left something in her hotel room, something about who ....killed her." She dropped her sandwich and started for the door.
Micahel caught her before she went three steps. "It's another two hours to sunset, Ais. We'll wait."
She started to argue, but he held up his other hand, still holding the sword. "One Immortal has already die today, Lady. You will *not* become the second. We'll wait."
She glared at him, but he held his ground. She had no choice but to give in.
Dierdre's motel was smaller than theirs, an inconspicuous one on the edge of Tourist Central. The rain had started a few hours earlier -- Ais turned her collar up against the damp chill as they got out of the cab.
No one looked twice at the couple walking through the parking lot. Streetlights reflected off the puddles on the asphalt, the sound of Michael's heavy boots echoing in the darkness. Ais' soft leather boots were soundless.
They found Dierdre's room easily. Ais started to insert the key, but Michael's hand shot out abruptly, shoving her away from the door.
"What?" she started to complain, rubbing her bruised wrist. He silenced her with a look, then carefully turned the knob. The door was unlocked.
He raised an eyebrow at Ais in a silent question. She shook her head -- there were no Immortals nearby. He shoved the door open.
When nothing jumped out swinging a sword, Ais impatiently shoved past him, turning on a light and stopping cold.
The room had been trashed. There were clothes all over the floor, bedcovers and toiletries strewn everywhere.
"Someone needs to call housekeeping," Michael commented, stepping over a pile of fabric that had once been a canvas suitcase. Out of habit, he picked up a pillow and put it back on the closest bed. It didn't make a noticeable difference in the mess.
Aislyn walked through the room in a daze. Here and there, she spotted something familiar - a scarf Dierdre had worn in China, emerald earrings that dated back to Elizabeth I.
The small photo was almost hidden under an open makeup case. Ais knelt to pick it up with trembling fingers, brushing away broken glass. It was an old sepia print of two women in brief saloon clothes. Behind their solemn faces lurked laughter. Her fingers brushed over it again and paused at the faint rattle.
She turned the frame upside down, shaking it. A heavy silver chain slowly worked its way free. Aid pulled it the rest of the way out. Michael flinched away from the heavy silver cross that dangled from it, cursing involuntarily.
"Sorry," Ais said, hiding the cross in her palm. "I gave this to her, a few hundred years ago. Told her she should always wear it. Made her promise." She clenched her fist, rubbing it against her cheek and drawing in a shaky breath. "I guess she forgot."
Michael said nothing, just laid his hand on her shoulder. She shook it off, wiping angrily at her cheeks and standing up. She shoved the picture into her pocket and draped the chain around her neck, hiding it under her shirt.
"Whatever was in here, it's gone now," she said, pulling her hair from under the chain.
"What are you looking for, anyway?" Michael asked.
"Whatever the bastards who did this were looking for."
"Why? She's dead, Aislyn. Isn't that part of the Game?"
"No!" Aislyn spun on him, her eyes burning. "This isn't about the Game! This is about...."
"Revenge?" Michael finished.
"Aislyn glared at him, then looked away, her hand coming up to clench around the cross under her shirt. "She called to ask for my help. She needed me and now she's dead. " Her voice went cold and flat, her eyes hard. "I will not let that pass."
He sighed, and sank onto the bed. "Then where are we going to go from here?"
She heard the plural, and appreciated it.
Her eyes scanned the room again, her fist still clutching the necklace. "I don't know. There must be something...." Her voice trailed off as she slowly turned, staring intensely, as if she could find something through willpower alone. Her eyes narrowed when they fell on the phone. The red message light was lit. She almost lunged for the receiver, sitting on the bed as she dialed the front desk.
She hung up the phone a minute later.
"A Kurt Walden called for Dierdre about three hours ago," she told Michael. "He left a phone number."
"Do you know him?"
"I used to know of a Kurt. It might be him, but I can't be sure. Immortals change names like we change socks."
"I'm familiar with the concept," he said wryly. Ais almost smiled. It faded quickly, her hand reaching out to finger a scarf lying on the endtable. She looked perilously close to tears again. Michael watched her with sympathy, if not understanding. It had been a long time since he had grieved for anyone....
"Come on, " he said, standing up and holding out a hand. "Let's get out of here and go call Mr. Walden."
She took his hand and let him pull her easily to her feet. "Yeah," she said, looking around her one last time. "Let's get out of here."
They found a pay phone a few miles away. Michael huddled in his trenchcoat while Ais dug for quarters to feed the phone.
"Hello?" The faintly German accent was the same one that had been on the message.
"Kurt Walden? This is Aislyn De Connaught."
He recognized the name. "Aislyn. What can I do for you?"
He apparently didn't believe in wasting time on pleasantries. Ais approved. "You talked to Dierdre recently. I need to know what about."
A pause, and a faintly suspicious "Why?"
Ais didn't see any point in lying. "She's dead. She was killed this morning."
She kept talking, ignoring the muffled exclamation. "Her room has been tossed, so whoever killed her was looking for something. I want to know what."
Another pause, longer this time. "You'd better come to see me," he said finally. He gave her the directions, then hung up.
Aislyn left the phone booth, walked back to Michael. "He knows something."
Kurt lived on the outskirts of Oakland, in a neighborhood which had once been rich, but was going rapidly downhill. His house was huge, but old and showed the signs of decades of neglect that not even the darkness could erase.
"What a shame," Michael observed, looking the house over. "It was once a lovely place."
"Mmmmmmm, " Aislyn answered, not really hearing him over the buzzing of an immortal inside her head.
The knocker on the door was in the shape of a sword, point up. "Cute," she muttered, before grabbing the hilt and knocking. The sound echoed through the house, but there was no answer. She knocked again, shouting, "Kurt!"
Michael's vision caught a glimpse of motion. "Coming around from the back," he warned quietly, moving behind Ais.
She nodded, slipping her sword out of its sheath. *Why the hell is he sneaking around?* She searched for him with her own senses, but heard nothing. she spared a moment to be thankful she had lost the argument about Michael coming along. It was comforting to have him at her back.
"Where is he?" she whispered.
"Lost him." His whisper screamed frustration. He kept looking, but the yard was heavily overgrown, offering plenty of cover. He finally spotted a glimpse of red body heat -- just as it lunged for Ais.
Aislyn heard Michael's shouted warning just as she spotted the moonlight gleaming off of Kurt's blade. Her own slashed out, blocking his swing, the clash of the blades sending a jolt up her arm.
Michael started forward, but Ais stopped him with a quick sideways glare. *Damn those rules* he thought a little wildly, but stayed back.
Ais met Kurt's next attack with another block, but made no attempt to attack -- just bound his blade with her own. They stood toe-to-toe, frozen in fighting stance.
"What the hell are you doing, Kurt?" she asked calmly, hiding her anger at the sneak attack beneath casual conversation.
The other made no attempt to hide his own rage -- and fear, she saw with a little shock. "You can ask that when the two of you stroll in here, ready to take my head as you have taken the other?" he snarled, the accent much thicker now. "I warn you, I'll be harder to kill then they were!"
He lunged again, full-out. Ais barely twisted out of the way, parrying with an unexpected strength that almost knocked his blade from his hand. she backed out of reach while he recovered.
"Get over it Kurt," she snapped, sounding more like an annoyed valley girl than an 800-year-old warrior. "Listen to your senses, he's not one of us, and I have no intention of breaking the rules! I just want to know who killed my friend!"
It was the annoyance that got his attention. He relaxed a little, enough to listen to his screaming senses. "No, he's not one of us."
Ais saw his blade begin to drop, and took a chance, letting her own fall to her side and holding out her other hand in a gesture of peace. Kurt looked at her, then sheathed his own sword.
"I apologize, Aislyn," he said formally. "I...overreacted when I saw your companion. Forgive me."
Aislyn nodded and relaxed her stance, making her own sword disappear. *How do they do that?* Michael thought absently. He stayed on guard, which was not lost on either Ais or Kurt.
"If he is not one of us, who is he?" Kurt asked, gesturing at Michael.
"A friend," Ais answered, not looking away from Kurt. She changed the subject fast. "Why did you assume we were breaking the rules? Who were the others?' "
Kurt started to answer, then stopped. "You had better come inside. It will be easier to show you."
The inside of the house was in marginally better shape then the outside, but cold, with bare walls and floors. Kurt apparently didn't believe in furniture. He led them down a long entryway and a flight of stairs, then shoved open a large oak door, showing them into a parlor.
It was a complete contract to the rest of the house. A fire blazed at one end casting a glow over thick carpets and glowing wood. Antiques were scattered everywhere. A single Tiffany lamp hung over a beautiful roll-top, the only other light in the room.
Kurt headed straight for the bar, pouring himself a large snifter of brandy. Both Aislyn and Michael refused his offer, taking the chance to look him over. He was physically in his mid-forties, of average height and weight, with brown hair and brown eyes. He was deeply tanned, and his face showed the lines of age. He replaced the decanter and took a healthy drink, then walked across the parlor to the desk.
"Dierdre came to see me yesterday," he said. "I was quite surprised -- I am not used to such old Immortals seeking me out for anything other than a fight. I am 58," he answered Aislyn's eyebrow.
"So, I met her in public to increase my chances of keeping my head," he continued. "But she did not want a fight, only to warn me. She gave me these."
He picked up a pile of newspaper clippings and handed them to Ais. She took them and walked over to the fireplace, sinking onto the carpet to read them in the flickering firelight. Michael leaned on the mantle next to her, keeping a cold, wary eye on Kurt.
Kurt tried to ignore him, but it wasn't easy. "Dierdre collected those articles over the last four months. She found the earliest one in Berndt, and thought nothing of it, just another beheading. Then, she began noticing the others."
"Dierdre always was a newshound," Ais murmured, flipping through the clippings. "I knew most of these Immortals. David, Paul, Gabrielle...." she looked up. "All of them were children, your age."
Michael gently pried the articles out of her hand, smoothing out the wrinkled left by her unconcious death grip. They were in several languages, but all of them said the same thing -- murder by beheading.
He frowned a little. If they were not so close together, he would have dismissed them as an ordinary part of the Game. Two freak lightning storms were reported in the vicinity, all of the victims displayed wounds from a fight -- that was interesting, all of them had deep wounds in the back.
"Were there any witnesses?"
Kurt nodded. "The third one. A witness saw two people running from an alley in Paris, where Gabrielle was found."
"Two?" Aislyn looked up, remembering another alley and the sound of footsteps running away. Two sets of footsteps, she realized suddenly.
Kurt nodded again. "Yes, two, that's what caught Dierdre's attention."
"And that's why you went crazy when you saw me," Michael finished grimly. "Someone's decided to team up."
Kurt tossed back the rest of his brandy. "Dierdre managed to track them from Paris back to Berndt, and forward to San Francisco. As you noticed, they seem to prey on younger immortals. She assumed they were coming after me."
"They're going after youngsters, less well-trained, easier to kill," Aislyn said slowly. "Even two against one, they're cowards."
Michael saw her eyes turn to nearly silver. Although her voice hadn't changed, he knew that sign -- she was perilously close to losing control.
She heard his voice through a red fog, rage burning so hot and deep it obscured everything else. Cowards, preying on the weak, like a pack of jackals. And Dierdre, beautiful, strong Dierdre, dead because of them.... She began to tremble violently as the rage continued to grow. Blindly, she stumbled to her feet, obeying the urge to find, to *kill!*
Michael caught her before she went two steps. "Dammit, Aislyn, stop! If you go after them like this, you'll get yourself killed! Remember what Rebecca taught us?"
"They killed Dierdre, and children," she spit. "I want their heads!"
"You'll have them, Lady. I swear to that." His voice was as cold as hers was fiery, and it stopped her as nothing else could have. For the first time, she saw her own anger at Dierdre's loss reflected in his eyes. She saw death there as well.
"You're damned right I will," she answered finally.
Kurt watched them with fascination, and not a little fear, making sure to keep his distance. Neither of them looked young at the moment -- even Michael's face, for all that he was not Immortal, looked ancient.
He felt a moment of pity for the Immortals who were about to face these two. Then his glance fell to the pile of clippings, scattered on the carpet where Michael had dropped them. His own face hardened and the pity left him.
"I'm in," he said. The other two looked at him as if they'd forgotten his presence. "They came here to kill me. I'm in."
Ais just nodded. Some degree of sanity had returned to her eyes. But they were still silver.
"The question is, how do we find them?" Kurt continued.
Michael shrugged. "We don't have to. They're hunters, or think they are. They'll come to us."
Aislyn nodded in agreement. Kurt blinked, then got it.
"Of course. Bait."
They didn't come that night, or even the next. Dierdre's death filled a small space on the second page of the Chronicle -- as usual, the police had no leads, no suspects and no explanations for the freak lightning storm that same morning.
Aislyn and Michael traded shifts on guard outside, Aislyn keeping watch by day, while Michael slept in a closed room. By night, Michael watched while Aislyn slept.
The third night, Michael hovered over the peak of Kurt's roof. Thankfully, the fog had rolled in right on schedule, hiding him from Kurt and his neighbors. Fortunately, in San Francisco, most people probably wouldn't even blink at a flying man, he thought.
The same fog that blocked normal vision was enhancing his infrared -- so far, he had spotted three dogs, four cats and a couple who apparently wanted to be alone. He'd left them with amusement and only a faint twinge of envy.
He left the roof to circle the area again. Kurt had chosen a quiet neighborhood, where the houses were spaced widely apart and everyone minded their own business. a good place to avoid trouble. Too bad it had come looking for him.
He baked to avoid a chimney, never taking his eyes off the ground. Nothing moving now -- even the young couple had gone looking for someplace warmer. He headed back tot he house.
Ais was waiting for him on the porch stairs.
"You're supposed to be asleep," he informed her, landing easily at the bottom of the stairs.
"I couldn't," she answered, rubbing her arms against the chill of the night. "I couldn't settle down."
Michael had learned, over the years, to respect Aislyn's instincts. "Then it will happen tonight?" he only half-asked.
"He fell asleep in front of the fire," Ais almost smiled. "He's not used to this, poor lad."
Michael snorted. Only Ais would refer to a 58-year-old man as a lad.
Ais raised an eyebrow at him, then looked away to scan the grounds, shivering from more than the cold.
Michael watched her rub her arms. They had fought in countless wars, seen death and destruction in every form -- Aislyn herself had taken 23 heads. Yet she still shivered. He didn't comment on it.
"Tonight," he repeated. "You'd better go wake Kurt."
She nodded, and stood to go back inside. The Buzz hit her like a 2x4. Michael heard her gasp, saw the involuntary grab for her sword.
"They're here," she answered his unspoken question. "Very close." The sword was out now, her body tense, every sense straining. She wasn't shivering anymore.
"Where?" He had turned and was hunting as well. Only cool green and black met his sight. Nothing glowed red.
"I can't tell," she answered.
"Go wake Kurt." He was in the air before she made it thorough the door.
"Kurt!" Aislyn started hollering the second the door opened. It echoed off the empty walls of the hall as she ran for the stairs. There was no answer. The hall lights reflected off her blade.
The study door was open. The Buzz warned her, stopping her in the doorway. It also saved her life.
A sword swung out of nowhere. She parried automatically, ducking under it into the room. She took in the scene at a glance. Kurt's body lay in front of the fireplace, a sword sticking out of his back. Thankfully, he still had his head. But a short, blond immortal, curiously unimpressive despite obvious muscles, stood over him, Kurt's sword raised over his head to make the final blow.
Ais ignored him, her attention on the taller, blond Immortal who had attacked her. He smiled, a cold, evil smile. *Michael does that better,* Ais thought calmly. Both Immortals were young, and stupid to take her on.
"You bastards. This is against the rules," she spit out.
"We're Immortal. Who cares about rules?" With that, the blond immortal lunged for her again. She dodged instead of blocking, kicking him in the gut as she went by. He almost dropped his sword.
*Pathetic,* she thought. The rage was back, but instead of obscuring her vision, it made everything strangely clear.
The other Immortal saw his ally stumble and howled, running to attack the woman who had appeared out of nowhere. She barely got her sword up in time to stop his insane lunge. She parried and returned his attack, but he forced her back through sheer strength. Aislyn sensed the other Immortal recovering his breath, coming around to flank her. On some unspoken signal, both of them attacked.
She met them in a clash of blades, forced back another few steps. One blade got through, cutting into her arm. She felt blood begin to flow.
But for all of their strength, there was little skill there, and she was able to stay a thought ahead of them. She felt the pain from her wounded arm dimly, from a distance. She could almost head Rebecca's voice in her head, guiding her through endless practice drills. Her movements flowed together.
But they had a distinct advantage and, swashbuckling movies aside, she knew it was only a matter of time before one of them got through again. So she attacked.
The driving lunge caught the blond Immortal by surprise. This time, it was he who barely parried and fell back. She pursued him relentlessly, until his foot caught the edge of the rug and he stumbled. A twist of her blade sent his sword flying to land near Kurt.
She lifted her sword for the killing stroke. But her Immortal senses warned her of the other Immortal's attack. She whirled to face him.
But instead of the clash of blades, she heard his scream and saw him hanging several feet off the ground, his feet dangling uselessly. He was staring straight into glowing yellow eyes and snarling fangs.
Michael hissed in the Immortal's face in genuine fury, getting another panicked scream from his victim before throwing him casually across the room. He hit the wall with a sick thump before crashing to the ground next to Kurt.
"Behind you," Michael half-hissed. Aislyn was already turning and leveling her sword, batting away the blond immortal's sword in the same movement with which she took his head.
For a moment, it seemed as if the fog from outside had drifted into the room, surrounding the body with a silvery glow. Then it rose to wrap around Aislyn. She threw her head back in silent agony as the Quickening took her. Lightning struck her body, rebounding to the rest of the room. The lamps in the hallway shattered one by one, the Tiffany over the desk exploding. It went on forever.
Finally, Aislyn fell to her knees, the last of the lightning still playing around her. Michael knelt beside her, supporting her in the aftermath. She tired to speak, and finally managed a harsh whisper: "What took you so long?"
The deadpan answer surprised her into a laugh, which turned quickly into a coughing fit. She held onto him tightly until it passed.
"Thanks," she said hoarsely.
"I'm not sure." He turned to look for the other -- and saw the dark Immortal going for the sword lying next to Kurt's body.
He shouted, grabbing Aislyn's sword with vampiric speed and parrying the blade aimed at her head. Moving faster than his opponent could even see, he parried the feeble swing, then back swung. There was a soft thump.
"Oh God," Ais moaned numbly. It was all she could get out before the second Quickening hit.
When this one passed, she couldn't move, just slumped forward on the carpet. Michael came to sit next to her. Across the room, Kurt's body jerked. His eyes opened and he moaned, his words the only sound in the room other than Aislyn's harsh breathing.
"What did I miss?"
For once, the evening was clear. the fog had apparently chosen to take a night off and the lights of the Bay Bridge gleamed and flickered against the last remnants of the sunset.
Kurt dropped Ais' duffel bag at her feet. "I wish I could think of some way to thank you," he said again.
Ais smiled. "You've done more than enough, Kurt."
He shrugged. "No, not enough. I wasn't there to help you fight those bastards."
"You did well," she tried to assure him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You fought fairly against bad odds. It's not your fault they chose to cheat. And I handled them fine on my own."
Michael looked away. They had agreed not to tell Kurt who had actually killed the second Immortal -- it could raise too many questions, and there was no need for him to know.
"Still..." Kurt stared off into space, reliving the night, as he had a thousand times in the last two days. He had sensed an Immortal's approach and had turned to greet Ais, only to find a sword at his throat. The fight had been short, his opponent unskilled and he had been winning. Until he had felt the sudden agony in his back, felt himself falling to the carpet. Until he had known he was going to die.
"I have something for you." Aislyn's voice broke him away from his memories. He focuses on her with an effort, and saw her holding out a sword. Dierdre's katana.
"I can't," he protested automatically.
"Yes, you can," Ais said firmly. "I have my own sword, and this one needs a worthy holder. I think Dierdre would want you to have it."
Kurt slowly reached out and took the hilt. The balance was beautiful, the blade keen..."Thank you, Lady."
Ais blinked at hearing him use Michael's name for her, but let it pass. She smiled again, leaning over to kiss him. "May your sword always be faster than your enemy."
He blushed faintly, turning hastily to hold his hand out to Michael. "I hope to see you again."
Michael shook the offered hand. "Perhaps you will."
None of them believed it.
The ferry left a few minutes later. Ais waved until Kurt was out of sight, then let her arm fall to finger her cross. "He'll do well," she said, a little wistfully.
"Yes, he will," Michael agreed, stroking her hair. She smiled up at him, then looked at the small pottery urn he held, biting her lip.
He handed it to her gently. She unsealed it, murmuring an ancient Gaelic prayer. He surprised her by saying it with her. She clutched the urn for a moment, then, in one smooth movement, spilled its contents out into the air.
In a strange trick of the fading light, the arc of ashes seemed to glimmer silver, before settling into the waves.
"Rest in peace, my friend," Aislyn whispered. Michael saw her shoulders shake, and turned her face up to his. But she was smiling through tears.
"Why are you laughing, Lady?" he asked gently.
"Because it hurts less than crying."
He pulled her back into his arms, holding her. She laid her head against his chest and they stood together, watching the lights of the city fade away.
That was enough to jumpstart my brain. Before I quite knew what was happening, this 800-year-old Immortal calling herself Aislyn De Connaught started babbling happily away in my head about herself and her partner, Michael, a vampire. I finished What's Past is Prologue in due course, only to discover that the wench had no intention of shutting up!
Michael and Aislyn are not now, nor will they ever be lovers, but the relationship is an interesting one, nonetheless -- both Immortals and vampires are usually forced, by their own natures, to live basically solitary lives, and the interactions between people who have been together for 800 years is... unique, to say the least. I barely got to scratch the surface in Prologue, due both to lack of room in the plot and lack of skill (this was only about the second fanfic story I ever finished). But that's why sequels were invented...