I’m Game

The Holy Ground Highlander Forum Midweek Challenge

Archivist’s Note: The stories and vignettes offered here from various Rysher Forumlanders have not been edited or changed other than having a spell-check performed and being reformatted for this website. Please accept my apologies for the wandering formatting in this document. This particular Mid-Week Challenge took place at a time when the Forum was “migrating” between various different Forums, hence the different formats.

Contents

The Challenge by Leah CWPack
There’s a First Time for Everything by vixen69
I’m Game by Kat
Welcome to the Game by Ghost Cat
Preserver by HonorH

MID-WEEK CHALLENGE: "I'm Game"

Posted by Leah CWPack on 10/4/2000, 3:21 pm , in reply to "Thoughts for MWC. Maybe you'd like to use it."

Your challenge, should you decide to participate:

Write a scene or short story where you somehow discover that you are actually an Immie. Any mood will do. If you wish, you may use an established HL character (but it's not required).

Good luck!

Thought about the MWC a little bit--decided I was Game.

Posted by vixen69 on 10/6/2000, 5:53 pm 

I don't know where this is going, but I liked the idea.


There's a First Time for Everything (Even Death)


Ever die in a particularly stupid and embarrassing way?

Okay, you probably haven’t. Most people who’ve died tend to stay that way, only I didn’t—not that I’m complaining or anything. No, it’s just the way I did. You see, I always expected that when I went, it would be in a stupid and embarrassing way—story of my life, after all. I mean, I treat the posted speed limit as a suggested minimum. I have been known to snort back large quantities of fermented agave in badly-lit areas of the world. My mouth has caused me several moments of distress in close proximity to rough-looking individuals.

So of course, my CD-player falls into the bathtub while I’m reaching for a cup of coffee rather precariously perched upon a stack of back-dated Vogues, causing several volts (I’m no scientist, people, I dunno how many volts) of electricity to rather rudely course through my soggy, albeit gently lavender-scented body. Thus assaulted, I croaked.

Now, dying in the bathroom is a kind of cool way to go—good enough for Elvis Presley and Frank Rizzo, good enough for me, I figure. And that Marat guy even died in the bath. But I totally screwed up a relatively new CD-player, not to mention destroying my “Nirvana: Unplugged in New York” CD, so I was way steamed.

Heh heh. Steamed. It would be funny if it wasn't.

I came to with a horrible case of prune fingers and the smoke alarm going off. I’ve woken up that way in the bathtub before—I mean, falling asleep in a warm tub can happen to anyone, and the smoke alarm is practically my theme music—I’m a little accident prone, if you haven’t guessed by now. But I very rarely do so with a ten-pound bit of useless electronics in my lap, so I took this as being something of a special case. I had the vague memory of scorching pain, and, with a bit of distaste, tossed the sodden black device over the edge of the tub—where it landed on my coffee cup, much to the detriment of both cup and player, and quite turning my collection of back-dated Vogues to papier mache. I rose, damply, and uttered a mantra I have in reserve for such occasions, not to be printed here, of course. I staggered to my feet, peered at the floor, grabbed a towel, and pondered the possibility of managing to safely bring both feet out of the tub while completely avoiding any of the broken ceramic, cracked CD-player, Irving Penn photo-illustrated bits of wreckage below.

I reasoned that the most sensible way was to stretch first one leg, and then the other, over it, using the shower rod as a support. Although I can’t be said to have your long, dancer-style legs, I can be fairly limber. I lifted one foot out of the water, reached up for the shower rod, gingerly placed the afore-mentioned extremity on the farthest edge of the mess, and then slid ungracefully into a split. A position which, if you can imagine it—is not comfortable, nor very easy to maintain. Cursing and on the verge of a nasty hamstring strain, I lifted off with the other foot—banging my knee on the edge of the tub, causing the other foot to slide further, and finally, landing in a twisted heap mostly on top of the mess I was attempting to avoid.

It was at this moment that I made the rather important discovery that I was Immortal.

I am, despite high school yearbook pictures which would tend to attest to the contrary, a natural redhead, and as with many of those with copper locks, I tend towards a complexion one could safely call a lighter shade of pale. And I bruise. I’m…or rather, I was…one of those people who sport nasty welts that make other people wince, while blithely confessing, “I don’t know how I got it.” I, expecting the worst, inspected my slightly askew legs to discover—nothing. Not a mark on me. I poked at my knee, which I anticipated would be sensitive. Nothing. Sound as a bell, I stood, and then bent down to look at the terrible mess I’d made. I lifted up the remnants of the CD-player, and took note of the tag on its cord, which served to remind the user of the necessity of not dropping it into one’s bathtub. At that instant, it all became clear.

a) I should be dead. b) Perhaps I was dead, but now, wasn’t. And, c) It was a good thing I wasn’t dead, because it would have been a pretty ridiculous way to go, all things considered. The idea of being discovered dead in a bathtub with a CD-player in my lap, and…beyond that, being discovered as a person who reads Vogue, would do absolutely nothing for my reputation.

Luckily for me, there was no one home, so I was able to clean up the mess, shush the smoke alarm, dry up…well everything, because the entire bathroom looked like some klutz seriously went to town in there, and then straightened myself up, beyond drying myself off and pulling on some shorts and a tee shirt. And then I took a good, long look at myself. I didn’t look very much changed, other than being a little red and exasperated. This isn’t such a huge change over how I usually appear. But it seemed to me that something definitely had to have changed, or otherwise, I would be one large bruise from the knees down, with other, smaller bruises on the more soft and generally bruisable parts of my anatomy. Simply put—I felt that I was in the midst of something very strange and possibly wonderful.

(Which is a thought I have often had after an accident, but that frequently involves a head injury of some kind or possibly a state of inebriation, and therefore would be something I’d discount. In his case, however, I was neither seeing auras or pink elephants, so I trusted the instinct.)

It appeared to me that I had escaped, first death, and then serious, or at least, possibly humiliating, injury. I had to test the situation. While I am not a person particularly strong on theory, I am something for experimentation. I located a brooch in a box of jewelry that I didn’t care for, and I, after some deliberating about whether it would hurt, how much, and if I was just hallucinating things, stabbed myself with it. I bled a tiny bit, and then, with a small spark, not unlike what you get when turning on the TV. after scooting along the rug in bunny slippers on a cold morning, my finger looked fine. Which was fascinating, but not conclusive. After all, how much can a pin prick bleed, after all? I decided, in the name of Scientific Inquiry (which sounds much more compelling than “morbid curiosity”) that I would go to the kitchen, and get a knife. And a beer.

I looked through the drawers with a few important criteria in mind—the blade should be sharp, because, as one tends to pick up through first aid lessons and painful experience, sharp blades cut cleaner, hurt less, and the wounds heal quicker, and also…the knife shouldn’t be a very big one. I had no intention of butchering myself over a little thing like possibly having become Immortal. I found a paring knife that seemed suitably pointy, and then…just as I was about to lay it against my waiting palm…

My mom came in the front door with a grocery bag. She set the bag on the counter, and then stared at me. I hadn’t had time to do anything less suspicious-looking with the knife.

“Jennifer, what do you think you’re doing?”

I looked up, guiltily. What I looked like I was doing was attempted suicide. There was no satisfactory explanation that I could grab hold of while standing there with a knife against my skin, until I held my arm at an angle, squinting.

“Does it seem like this knife has spots?” I asked, trying to keep the edge out of my voice. “What are you using—Electrosol? Because…I don’t know….I was about to make a tuna sandwich, and the knife just seemed….”

“We already have tuna salad made…and we’re out of celery. Besides, I don’t like you playing with knives. You’re accident-prone.”

I heard that. I found myself making a sandwich that I didn’t especially want to cover myself, and I ate the whole thing, wondering if I wasn’t kidding myself. After all, near-death experiences have been known to bring about a kind of satori-state in which the body throws out all kinds of endorphins, and adrenalin, and all these other lovely hormones that could have kept me from bruising up. I could be experiencing nothing more than the semi-ecstatic, trippy state of a fire-walker, or one of those yogis who sleep on beds of nails, or…you know, those schmucks who survive ten-car pile-ups, when you know they were the morons who caused them. You know, the ones who always stare into the camera during the interview on the scene going, “Wow, man, that was just like…scary.”

And then, I had an idea. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do—I would bite my tongue. After all, teeth are sharp. I could draw some blood with my teeth-— have fairly sharp teeth. Canine, one could say…not just the canines themselves, but the entire set have a certain, rugged-Milk bone-enhanced charm of the type that caused my family orthodontist to raise his hands in disgust. And so, I endeavored to bite my own tongue. From experience…this can be a grave thing. It does bleed. It doesn’t heal quickly, or at any rate, never as quickly as one would like.

Disaster.

Not in the sense of, “Ow, that hurt and I kept bleeding,” disaster. Disaster rather in the sense that I made another important discovery—it is genuinely difficult to bite one’s own tongue to the point of bleeding. I mean, I just couldn’t do it. I tried, but it was more of a “chewing gum” sort of effort than anything else. I gave up after ten minutes of dedicated gnawing, and decided that if I had become Immortal by some strange means, I would be no less Immortal if I had a masochistic urge at some later time, and would, certainly, have time. And so, other than having to think up and excuse in re: my broken CD player and the soggy Vogues, I put the incident out of my mind, until I went to bed.

Having moved back into my parent’s home (I like to think of it as the “ancestral abode”) after my divorce, I found that I had to take the accumulated furniture, books, bric-a-brac, etc, of four years of married life, and shove it into a room approximately eleven foot by nine. As a result, I had to take the headboard off of my bed to make things fit, which left a nasty, jagged metal piece hanging out the bottom in just such a place as is obscured by blankets—and is easily found by an unexposed ankle. My unexposed ankle. More nights than I care to mention. Climbing into bed, I caught my ankle on the jutting-out metal bit, and rolled on the covers, hugging my knees to my chest in an effort not to make a wounded, moaning noise. And then I looked down.

I gashed it, all right. And it was a sight…but then, a static-y zing and I was good as new, save for a touch of dried blood. I blinked. How the heck did that happen? I asked myself. Myself wasn’t answering. Myself was still hugging my knees in a touch of awe. I scolded myself, and told her she really shouldn’t behave like that, and then realized I was talking to myself, and unless I was beside myself, that was weird. I pulled myself together.

Visions of B-movies as rendered by “MST3K” danced in my head as I considered the possibility that the high dose of electricity I had experienced somehow mutated my cellular structure. I shuddered. That would not be good. It generally resulted in outgrowing one’s clothes and developing a Bisquick complexion. Or antennae. Although I was puzzled, it seemed that all I could really do was sleep on it, and so I did. But when I dreamed, it was of growing a set of antennae, and, oddly enough, living with Bill Bixby, only he was the Incredible Hulk, and I wondered what was the deal with that, but at least I wasn’t a Martian. It might be weird to be an Immortal, but it definitely would not be easy being green.

Upon waking, I decided that I would not let this new development in my life turn into some kind of media event or anything tacky like that. I mean, I could take the story to the National Enquirer, but the idea of people reading my life story while on line at the supermarket decidedly lacked charm. Nor, I decided, would I turn super-hero, a la Spiderman. I know, it is less than generous of me, but I want you to imagine how great the temptation was for me to go right out and purchase spandex. When other little kids dreamed of being firemen and ballerinas, I used to dream about being a superhero. And now, I had superpowers…well, power, anyway. It was heady stuff. But I was determined that I should not let this stand in the way of my leading a normal life—or, whatever I could manage nearly approximating one. I went to the library, it being Saturday, and I requiring research.

As you may or may not have guessed from my verbosity, I am a writer. I’m a hack, but I am a writer, mostly of the historical fantasy, swords and heaving bosoms sort of thing. I don’t know why it is, but swords have held a certain fascination for me for as long as I could remember. Freud, perhaps, would consider it some kind of …well, the heck with Freud. I personally think there’s simply something more…sporting…about dueling with swords than drive-by shootings or bar fights. Not that bar fights aren’t great fun, don’t get me wrong. And I am genuinely fascinated with all things historical—not because of the ways in which things used to be different, perhaps, as in ways in which people were the same, only with certain differences. I was in the middle of a story involving 19th Dynasty Egypt and a band of ruffians on horseback, and I needed to know some more about temple rituals in Thebes, so I made my way up to the third floor of the Northeast Regional and began browsing…but I was having a difficult time concentrating on the books.

First of all, I found myself with a rotten headache—but having skipped my morning cup—or two or three—of java, that was not a huge surprise. And second—I found something far more interesting among the stacks than boring old khipry-burning, linen-wearing, kohl-schmearing, Sekhmet-worshipping old Ancient Near Easterns—I found me a man!

Ahem—pardon my drool. I had not done a terrific lot of dating in the past year, and so was, shall we say—looking. And this was worth looking at. Tall, but not too tall. Slender, muscular—I do like muscles on a man. Fascinating features. I’m a sucker for great face, honest I am. And he had what you might call “Classic” good looks—strong nose, cheekbones. He was only just barely hiding how seriously fine he was with an over-sized sweater and less-than-tight jeans which—nonetheless, revealed just enough from behind to make me look twice. Okay, three times, maybe. Okay—I stared at the poor man, what do you want from me?

And when he realized I was looking at him, he looked back. Eye contact was made. My heart thrilled. I like flirting. I do. And I found that I liked his eyes—green, or were they golden? Or possibly gray? I couldn’t make up my mind. I noticed he was perusing ancient history as well—I crossed my fingers. Okay, I told myself. He’s gorgeous…we have eye contact…he’s interested in ancient cultures. He’s in the sights. Wow…he picked up a book on Akkadian…

I was enthused. I special-ordered “The Curse of Agade” from Amazon when I went through my whole Babylon thing. And then, an amazing thing happened—he was approaching me!

I wasn’t even quite sure what to do with myself. I was sure I should play it cool—but I have never had any success with that. I braced myself for the inevitability that I would do or say something immensely stupid—because this is a personality quirk of mine. I wondered if my hair was okay or doing something humidity-inspired and psycho-looking. And then he spoke—a fabulous accent. I am a not-so-closeted Anglophile. But his words took me aback.

“Are you just looking at books or do you have something more in mind?”

Well, if that didn’t sound like an invitation! A bit forward, but I’m an open-minded kind of gal. I smiled and said,

“Depends on what you have in mind.”

“Well, we certainly aren’t doing anything here.”

I looked around. There were some very old people checking out travel books, and the very portly librarian was giving baleful looks to a group of teenagers, as if daring them to ask for assistance. Hardly a romantic place to get to know anyone, come to think of it.

“No, I guess not,” I admitted. “We could…leave. I suppose. My car is just outside…and I know a…quiet place.”

I was thinking of a coffee shop nearby. He said, “Let me get my coat.”

So far, so good, I thought.

He pulled on a long, black trench coat that he had draped over a chair, and I gave a bit of thought to why someone would have a trench coat in the nice, albeit slightly humid, upper-seventies weather we were having, but I stopped thinking about it when I remembered the old stereotypical thought of a Britisher always having an umbrella. Perhaps it was merely a quirk of being used to a climate in which humid=rain, as opposed to what we native Philadelphians know—humid=normal weather. I smiled once he had it on and let him follow me down the stairs. I thought he looked rather cute…big sweater, big coat…he seemed lost in his clothes. I thought…briefly, about undressing him, and then escorted him to my little Mitsubishi.

“Wait…” he began.

“Don’t trust women driving?” I asked, coyly. I know there are some men who don’t. My ex-husband hated watching me drive—but then, he was the one who taught me, so he probably has his reasons. My father believes I shouldn’t be allowed to—to wit: drive, pump my own gas, wash my own car, change my oil…or any of the other things I did perfectly well before moving back home.

“No…” he said, testily. He looked around. “This isn’t the way these things usually…”

I grinned.

“My name’s Jennifer Mc…Drew. Jennifer Drew.” I was only just getting used to my maiden name…even though I used it for a good twenty-three years prior to being married. But I felt uncomfortable laying my legal handle on someone I wanted to date. I offered my hand, and he shook it.

“Benjamin…Adams.”

I thought it was weird that he gave a pause when giving his name, but figured that was just how things were. Nothing seems stranger than telling someone your name for the first time—you almost suspect it tells them a world about you. It gives them clues about your ethnic extraction, your parents’ taste. From any syllable, someone might get a glimpse into who you are, and decide not to like you from that. Or so I told myself.

“So, I know you aren’t from around here,” I went on, attempting small talk. “What are you doing in the neighborhood?”

“You could call it research,” he said, looking none too happy about answering my queries.

“Same here—I mean, being in the library. But I’m local. I don’t really live far from here,” I mentioned, but then bit my tongue. Explaining that I live with my folks is not easy for me. “I write…I mean…I try to. What do you do?”

“Listen…where exactly are we going?”

I rolled my eyes. He was shy. I figured him for being a bit older than me—maybe in his early thirties, but I didn’t expect him to be shy. “A coffee shop. Although I guess they’d have tea…other things. You seem…tense. I don’t bite,” I said, trying to be humorous. He looked at me as if I was from Mars. Shades of my dream from the night before.

I pulled up in front of the coffee shop and got out of the car. He looked around before getting out, and then looked at me.

“This place is a bit…public.”

I gave him a strange look for that. “It’s quiet. But you can’t exactly expect me to be…I don’t know…taking you off to my boudoir, or whatever, right?”

He gave a short laugh at that. “I guess not!”

I laughed as well, and tried not to do some embarrassing-sounding snort that I would never recover from. “Come on…we’ll talk, get to know each other…”

He stopped dead in his tracks. “You don’t have a swor..” And then he clammed up.

“A swo? Swore? What are you talking about?” I asked. This was getting a little strange for me. I decided to be upfront about myself—it’s really the only way. “Look, I am not much for picking guys up-I mean…I haven’t dated in, like…six, seven years, maybe. I’m probably very awkward about this whole thing…but you seem like a nice guy. So I want to talk first…and if you aren’t okay with that…”

He breathed a sigh something akin to relief. “You aren’t…you don’t…?” he started, and then backed up. And then he looked at me very strangely. A light seemed to go on in his head, and then, his eyes narrowing with a look of intelligent curiosity, he asked—

“You don’t even know what you are, do you?”

And my heart pounded, because, in all honesty—I didn’t. And also, I was very unused to being asked questions about myself—but it was certainly a good way to get my interest, all things considered. I shook my head.

“I’ve…had something weird happen to me lately. And honestly…I do wonder if I’m not…” I searched for a suitable word. I didn’t find one.

“Crazy? Imagining things?” he offered.

I nodded. He was standing very close to me. “I feel like…well, I can’t explain what happened.”

“Did you live through something that should have killed you?” he asked. I nodded again. He took my hand. His face showed a bit of amusement, but more than that, concern. “This was supposed to be…a pick-up?”

“What else?” I asked. “I looked at you, you looked at me…”

He mouthed something then that I couldn’t catch, but took to be a curse. He seemed hesitant to go on, but then, found something to say.

“What if I said that what you are…I am?”

Man, I seem to get all the weirdoes, you know that?

Link: Vixen's Den

MWC: My first attempt at writing, like, ever.

Posted by Kat on 10/10/2000, 11:23 pm

Okay I know this isn't good, but I'm posting it anyway. I'm not a writer so I won't pretend to be one. I just thought this looked fun and I couldn't get this story out of my head so I gave it a shot. Feel free to take the idea and do it better! I'd love to see it done well! I'll warn you all that it has some four letter words, some graphic stuff (no sex, though) and it is pretty dark and twisted. But here it is...

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I should have seen it coming, but I did not. I should have been listening to what she was saying into her phone in her hushed, even tones. But to be honest, I really didn't give a rat's ass what she was saying or
who she was talking about. Instead, I sat in her office wondering why I had come here when it was clear there was nothing she could do for me. I stared out the 8th floor window and wondered what the drop would be like. If only it would have worked.

When my parole officer dropped me off there a half-hour before, the doctor had smiled knowingly and tried buddying up to me.

"What brings you here Doris?" she'd said, glancing down at a file as she said my name. "I understand you were found in an alley and are back with your parents. I'm sure they were very worried."

She didn't know the half of it. My father may have noticed I wasn't there when he was out of gin. My mother was probably being blamed for my running away, and she probably had the bruises to show for it, as if showing them wouldn't just get her more. I'd had enough of those bruises to last a lifetime, in just 15 years. If only the f**king cops hadn't found me.

"You must have been very frightened on the streets. Did someone try to hurt you?" She had that sad puppy dog look that my father always got after he hit us. I was starting to understand why people hate shrinks.

I wanted to scream at her. Yeah, the cops hurt me, you dimwit, when they brought me back to *them*. I really didn't want to get into it with her. I knew it wouldn't help but I couldn't contain the rage inside me another minute. "I'm not going to make it 'til I'm 18. I can't wait that long. Three years is forever." I didn't know then that I'd never even *look* 18.

"You can't live on your own yet, Doris. You're too vulnerable. There's a lot out there that can hurt you." Like the DSS was paying her enough to care.

"I *wish* someone could hurt me. I wish they'd *kill* me. Then I wouldn't have to go on like this! Don't you get it? I'd rather die than to spend another day in that house, with those people! I can't take it anymore!" It was so pointless trying to explain it to her.

"Is that really true?" she asked quietly, with a growing concern in her voice that hadn't been there before.

Where could I have begun with her? How could I have told her that I'd tried it before? That I'd woken up shaking in a tub of cold water and so much blood I'd thrown up at the sight of it. How could I tell her I'd tried everything, endless drugs with dirty needles, my father's gin and a stolen car. Sleeping pills hadn't done it, nothing had. I just kept waking up. It was the nightmare that would never end. I was just this sick worthless freak, stuck in a life I wanted no part of. To this day, I have no idea why I am still alive. My parents, if you could call them that, were the least of my problems.

It was when she touched my wrist that the tears started to come. She'd touched my wrist where I'd cut it, where there wasn't even a scar. I turned away to the window, and looked at the 8 story drop that I knew even then wouldn't kill me. That's when she called.

So I shouldn't have been surprised by the knock at the door, by the uniformed security guard, by the stretcher waiting in the hall, just out of my view. I shouldn't have been surprised when they all converged on me when I made a run for it. I should have anticipated that even the "extras" in the hall were in on the plan. And I shouldn't have been surprised when they stuck me with a needle, and took me away. And it shouldn't surprise me that they gave up trying when I'd only sit and bang my head against the wall instead of talking to them. And there shouldn't be such a jolt when I wake every morning, strapped to the bed in a five-point restraint, in the ward I'm in now, with no end in sight. But there always is.

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If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I am an engineer, not a writer, so I know this will have flaws.

My response to the "I'm Game" MWC: "Welcome to the Game"

Posted by Ghost Cat on 10/14/2000, 2:29 pm

Welcome to the Game

Deb may have had her nose in a book, or she could have been imagining a scene for her next short story. Both had been known to keep her attention miles away from anything as trivial as Reality. Of course, it didn't help that it was October, the first snowfall of the season; that magical time when scores of people who've lived in Alberta all their lives spontaneously forget how to drive on winter roads. Hundreds of sudden stops and starts had polished a layer of fluffy light snow to a glasslike sheen. An impatient driver, his thoughts already on the upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend, panicked as he hit that patch of ice.

The massive SUV-- "one of the safest vehicles on the road today"--swerved wildly, becoming nothing more than a giant steel projectile, aimed squarely at a young head-in-the-clouds dreamer. She looked up, one second too late, to find Death bearing down on her at 50 kph. Her scream harmonised eerily with the screech of brakes and a blast of horns, a symphony of chaos ending with a sickening thud.

§ § §

She awoke with a frantic gasp and a sense of having clawed her way up from a nightmare she could not remember. Vague impressions flashed through her mind: incredible pain, a sense of being taken apart and put back together. Her first desperate breath of air was tainted by a chemical stench, all the more terrible because it was familiar. Anyone who ever set foot in an anatomy lab had the scent of preserved bodies burned forever into their brain. A wave of nausea swept through her; springing in equal parts from the smell itself and the revelation of where she was.

My God! They were going to pickle me. The thought was rejected so violently that her mind reeled with shock. Instinct took over as she reached out blindly in search of her glasses, tumbling off the narrow metal table onto hard white tiles. As she lay in a heap, naked, half-blind and retching her guts out, she had never felt so helpless.

The sounds of her struggles brought footsteps from much closer than she expected. Her efforts to cover herself were interrupted by a bolt through her skull that made the word "migraine" seem small and insignificant. The sound of her own voice echoed harshly in the- she shuddered- morgue, "What's inside my head?"

"I am," the male voice brought her head up sharply. "I never liked the term Buzz, makes it sound almost pleasant, like drinking too much coffee." A tall dark-haired figure loomed over her, which was itself a surprise. At this distance, she shouldn't have seen more than a vague blur. That didn't stop the instant flash of recognition.

"You're DM; I mean Mac; I mean, you can't be!" She fought down a fainting spell and an even stronger urge to hide.

"Yes I am. Introductions later, for now-- get dressed," a set of clothes were tossed her way which, to her own surprise, she caught easily. Somehow she managed to get dressed under His impatient gaze.

Stubborn curiosity overcame her confusion; she dug in her heels. "Wait a second. How in Heaven's name do you know that I know who you are?"

"I've been doing a little light reading." He waved a thick blue folder, somewhat battered but still unmistakable…

"My portfolio!" The sight of her writings was like an anchor to reality until it struck her that over half her work was DM stories, and here was Duncan himself (well, a rather fuzzy, half-focused Duncan) standing before her. "Look, umm, a lot of people write fan fiction. I never imagined; I mean, part of me may have secretly wished that it was…"

"Real? Trust me, this is as real as it gets. And if we don't get out of here it's going to be a bit too real for comfort!"

Another wistful gaze at her precious folder; "I don't suppose the floppies survived?"

No response, only a plaintive "Writers!" growled half under his breath. He took a quick glance at the mess around them, mentally decided that it might be passed off as an early Halloween prank, and left it as it was. The girl was still half in shock, he practically had to drag her out of the room.

The next few minutes were a blur, quite literally in fact. The world had a soft-focused, unreal quality and it was by architecture alone that Debra recognised the University of Alberta hospital. She wondered briefly if she had been DOA or if she actually got treatment. It was her first step towards accepting that she was--had been--dead.

§ § §

"This isn't true, it can't be true." The same argument had been going on for hours, and it showed no signs of stopping. "Orphans, foundlings, adopted children: that's not me. I have brothers and sisters; more aunts, uncles and cousins than I could count; I've got nephews, a niece who at age 5 could break a boy's heart--" Deb pulled herself back from the edge of babbling. "I have… a family," she finished, with a half-apologetic smile.

"But is it your family?" Duncan asked the question gently, guiding her carefully toward her own conclusions. If her writing was any indication, this one was smart enough to work through it on her own.

She hesitated, looking almost defensive. "Sure, my siblings are all from previous marriages, but we don't talk about that." A moment of silence, while familiar facts were seen in a new light. "There were a lot of things we didn't talk about. Like why they never wanted me to research my family tree. Or how I came to be born after my father's vasectomy." A gentle smile was marred by furrowed brows; "Mom liked to call me her Miracle Baby; but she always had such a strange expression when she said it."

Suddenly she jumped to her feet, pacing the length of the hotel room as if she could chase down the truth--or run from it. "But I'd heard my birth story so many times: how I was a preemie, a difficult birth; I'd almost been born in my parent's front hall. Mom told me about the search for the doctor; that stupid nurse yelling 'hold her back, we're not ready;' coming out feet first so I'd hit the ground running. My father's first sight of me was an incubator flying past him in the hall."

Mac nodded slowly throughout the telling; "The same story again and again-so you'd never forget it, or repeated until you believed it?"

She turned as if she wanted to pounce on him, her voice rising for the first time. "My mother would never knowingly hurt me! She-She'd…" anger suddenly dissolved in an unexpected burst of laughter. "Damn that old woman, she'd probably do it; just to keep me from feeling like an Outsider. I always wondered where I got my flair for fiction."

At that moment, her whole demeanor changed: she stood up straighter, her eyes lost that desperate gleam and she nodded crisply as if coming to a decision. She took a deep breath as if leaping into cold water; then, "I want to see it."

Her train of thought had shifted so suddenly and so completely that it took him a moment to catch up. "What?"

Her voice seemed more confident and she spoke without hesitation; "You can't pretend you don't have it, it's practically a part of you. Your blade, Highlander." Her lips twitched a smile at the last word.

"Be careful what you ask for, you may get it." If asked, Deb couldn't have said where the sword came from; that is one trick I have got to learn. Despite his harsh words, MacLeod held the katana presentation-style; lying across open palms. She accepted it the same way, with a crude but sincere half-bow.

It was heavier than it looked, yet somehow not as heavy as she had imagined. The enormity of the situation struck her and she was forced to sit down. Her fingers traced the detailed carvings on the cool ivory. "At rest more like a work of art than an instrument of war," she whispered.

He smiled, recognising the words; "Do writers always quote themselves?"

"Only when we discover our words are true." She looked down at her lap; noticed with silent pride that her hands, one on the blade, the other holding the hilt, did not tremble. She let out a slow, even breath; then, before she could change her mind, she squeezed both hands tightly--

Pain! Nobody ever said that Immortality took away pain. Reflexes screamed at her to drop the blade, to escape from danger. She fought down the instinct through sheer will, holding on until she saw blood. She gasped as she forced her hand to open; spreading the long, deep wound even wider. MacLeod did nothing to interfere. He had to admire her; it took a special kind of courage for a writer to maim her own hand.

Her hand was laid open to the bone, yet she could not look away. Watching the wound close itself layer by layer, she discovered that restoration could be as painful as destruction.

Seeming calmer than she actually felt, the new Immortal handed back the bloodstained blade. "Some lessons can be taught; others you have to experience for yourself. Thank you."

Duncan nodded solemnly, "You've been through enough for one day. Get some rest."

§ § §

Debra lay on her back on the hotel bed, thoughts and events from the past day (has it only been one day?) running madly through her brain. Even the image of who lay a few feet away in the adjoining room, his well-toned body spread across the sheets, could not distract her from her morbid state of mind. It had been her curse for as long as she could remember that everything she pushed aside during the day came back to haunt her as soon as she tried to sleep.

Tired, so tired, she let her eyes close slowly. Lying on pavement dazed and in agony, the wail of an ambulance, voices: "this one's not going to make it." Lids snap open, she can feel her own heart pounding, reminding her, at least, that she is alive. The room is so empty, so quiet; she had always hated silence, now, more than ever. The silence of the grave. Slowly she forced her body to relax, one set of muscles at a time, until at last she felt calm. Eyes slide shut once more-- cold hard table, harsh fluorescent lights and that horrible, unforgettable smell.

This time she barely held back a scream. She flipped on the table lamp to chase away the darkness. Her automatic reach for her glasses (hopelessly shattered in the crash) encountered instead a pen and paper set. Why not? It wouldn't be the first time she had written half the night away.

She awoke with a frantic gasp and a sense of having clawed her way up from a nightmare she could not remember. Vague impressions flashed through her mind: incredible pain, a sense of being taken apart and put back together.

Debra looked down at the words on the page, "No!" Viciously, she tore the page and tossed it away. She tried again--

She looked up, one second too late, to find Death bearing down on her at 50 kph. Her scream harmonised eerily with the screech of brakes and a blast of horns, a symphony of chaos ending with a sickening thud.

Both pen and pad went airborne, so violently did she thrust aside the offending words. Beyond the small pool of light, something fell and shattered. Seconds later, the small door flew open and another bolt knifed through her skull. "Duncan!"

He heard the note of panic in her voice; saw the huddled form on the bed heave with sobs. He swiftly dropped the blade before she could see it, rushing to her side. Desperate fingers clutched at him like a lifeline; she gasped out words between the sobs: "Duncan, I can't…I'm afraid…if I close my eyes…I'll never wake up again."

She was taking it hard, some of them did; the first night was always the worst. He had to get through to her somehow; "Deb? Debra!" He remembered the nickname she had signed to some of her stories: "Cat?" Surprise more than anything got her attention, "Look at me." Green eyes met brown and, inches apart, she could finally see him clearly; gasping sobs subsided into a single low whimper. "Now listen: you're not alone, I'm not going to leave you."

"I'm crying. Crying accomplishes nothing," she whispered, quoting her father's harsh opinion; "Crying just proves you're weak."

No wonder the poor girl was falling apart; "Don't ever think that. Tears are what reminds us we're still alive inside, and crying is sometimes the only thing that keeps us sane."

Her smile was like sunshine after a storm; "A sensitive, sensible man-and it only took 400 years." She had gained one small foothold on her self-control and it was holding, for now. "I'm not built for this kind of thing; I have no strength, no stamina, all the grace and agility of a wounded gazelle. I can't even bloody well see. Altogether a rather sorry specimen to make Immortal."

"The only thing you're lacking is confidence. As for the rest, things change."

"Will you? Stay with me, I mean."

"Of course."

She hesitated for a moment; then "Could you just--keep talking? I can't stand the silence."

He sat on the bed, reached to turn out the light. She leaned into him, closing her eyes with a sigh. He held her gently and, like the bards of his clan, began to recite from memory--

Duncan stood alone, saying one final goodbye to the closest thing he had ever had to family. He felt it was his duty to bring his kinsman home, so that Connor and Heather would at last have their forever….

§ § §

Morning: roll over, reach to night table, grab glasses, open eyes, and put on glasses. The habit had been drilled into her over 20 years; she wondered how long it would take to get out of that same habit. Quickly she realised she was alone in the bed; not surprising, but a girl can dream can't she? For a moment she basked in the memory of lying in the darkness having that voice reading her own words. She signed deeply. No time for fantasies; Debra strongly suspected that very soon would her training would begin; starting with the first lesson, "How to fall down", which usually ended up being "How to fall down, frequently, and in as many painful ways as the teacher can think up".

Deb noticed a newspaper on a nearby desk. "Thanks Mac," she said to the empty room. She picked it up, browsing leisurely; she got halfway through an article before it hit her. She was reading-- without her glasses, and without getting ink stains on her nose. She remembered the night before, her frustrated "I can't even see!" and the tiny smile as he replied "Things change."

They say you never appreciate something until you lose it, but that isn't true. You truly appreciate something when you've lost it, and get it back. A thought struck her; she grabbed a pen and held it between two fingers, a sure trigger for the hand tremors that had plagued her for years…nothing. She grinned, putting aside vivid images of being the first Immortal to ever take her own head.

A Buzz ripped through her idle thoughts, a sensation she could almost tolerate now. Someone was trying the hotel door; she dove off her chair, rolling behind the bed. She popped up quickly with the first object she could find; just in time to hear Duncan's burst of laughter; "Good reflexes; bad choice of weapons." Debra was holding the ubiquitous hotel Bible as if ready to club someone. It was her turn to erupt into peals of laughter. "Well, you're looking a lot better today," he remarked with a smile.

Speaking of looking, now this was a sight for restored eyes! It took all her effort not to quip "And you're looking pretty good yourself." Instead her glance strayed to the newspaper; "Yes, I'm much…better."

"I've been making a few calls, looking for a teacher for you."

Deb looked devastated; "But I thought--"

"Not a chance, I'm can't have a student who's more interested in the teacher than the lessons. I'm not even sure I should send you to Amanda, considering you had her killed."

"An author has to be willing to expand her horizons." A hearty sigh implied this wasn't the first time she'd defended that particular tale. "If you only do what you've done before, then you never truly challenge yourself."

"That sounds like something I'd say."

"That doesn't mean it's not true. I'm willing to challenge myself, and not just on paper." She paused significantly, "Of course, I'm really not much for Gatherings myself anyway. You could just put me in a library somewhere, I'd be happy to read and write my way through the ages. I promise I'll come up for air every century or so."

Writing through the ages? Mac had an idea…

§ § §

Almost a year had passed and MacLeod was back in familiar territory. An anonymous note had aroused his curiosity, saying that the "Canadian reference" he had requested was now available at Shakespeare and Co. He hesitated for a moment outside the door before entering.

The Buzz hit him a few seconds later, followed by a joyful voice coming from upstairs. "Duncan! You came. Don't move!" He froze, cautiously. "You are… in paperback fiction, about, hmm, 2 meters from the back stairs."

Mac still couldn't see anyone, though Debra's voice was a welcome surprise. "Yes, but how…" The woman at the top of the library stairs, fit and graceful and radiating confidence, was a far cry from the uncertain girl he had rescued a year before.

"Cassandra says I have some very interesting talents. I'm usually accurate to around a half meter, just from the Buzz. Cass hasn't seen anything like it before. Between training with her and ghost-writing the Methos Chronicles, I've been busy."

He watched her coming down the steps; "Debra, it's so wonderful to see you again."

"Please, it's Felicia now, Felicia DuChamp." He glared at the incurable punster, who merely shrugged; "It seemed appropriate for a prairie girl." She paused for a moment, some of her old shyness showing through, "I wanted to ask you a favour, before I go home."

"I'm not going to give you a loan."

She laughed, "Don't need one. I've got an advance to do some Highlander novels, Rysher approved and everything. Just one thing…"

Mac had a bad feeling, "Which is?"

"The pen name I suggested, they loved the idea." She cringed in anticipation of the worst, "Debra Campbell?"

He didn't even need to think about it; "I'd be honoured."

Old MWC: Finally working on "Preserver again. Wanna see?

Posted By: HonorH the Arctic Wolfe
Date:
Saturday, 28 October 2000, at 8:41 p.m.

I'll give you the whole thing so far, just in case it's been so long you don't remember it:

"Preserver"

"Preserver"

Two pairs of bright blue eyes watch me as I sharpen my blade. The scrape of sharpening stone on steel is a familiar sound to them, but they seem a little awed today. They're not used to seeing me like this.

To the children of this settlement, I am Aunt Katie. I'm the one who tells them stories as they gather around me on cold evenings.

To the adults, I'm the Preserver. I keep within me the old knowledge--the way the world used to be.

~~~

My unique calling began when I was 26. It was a car accident that took my mortal life from me, a strikingly mundane entrance to a bizarre world. When I awoke, I was in a dark room, lying on a bed wearing a white nightshirt. It took me a moment to spot him.

He was sitting just across the room from me, shadowed and quiet.

"Who are you? Where am I?" I immediately demanded. I was completely disoriented and frightened out of my wits.

"Don't be afraid," he said softly, his voice warm and gentle. "I won't hurt you. You're in no danger, but there is much you need to know."

"Where are my parents?" I asked. "I need to tell them where I am."

The man's face grew troubled. He was handsome, tall and blond, and he had an openness of face that would normally have made me trust him. "I'm afraid calling your family is out of the question. They believe you are dead, and it's just as well."

"What?!" I was beyond frightened by now, and starting to get angry. "Get me a phone. I'm calling my parents. I'm not going to let them think I'm dead when I'm not!"

I was starting to get hysterical. He tried to speak several times, but I shouted him down. Finally, he grabbed my face between his hands.

"Fine," he said. "I'll let you call your parents . . . provided you let me speak first and tell you what's happened to you."

I don't remember the specifics of his explanation, but I do remember my response.

"You've been watching too much Highlander," I told him bluntly. "Now, who are you, where am I, and when are you letting me go home?"

The man sighed. "You are Immortal, and in almost the same way as the Highlander Immortals. We suspect someone leaked to Hollywood about us."

By now, I was terrified. I was the captive of some madman who was trying to convince me I was a Highlander-style Immortal.

I guess my fear was showing itself. He relaxed a bit himself, then pulled out a knife.

"I can prove it. I'm an Immortal, too; watch." With that, he cut himself.

And healed instantly.

I shook my head. "Immortals aren't real," I whispered.

"We are real," he insisted. "We're real, and you're one of us."

He suddenly caught my hand and cut it. The pain was real enough; it pulled me out of my shock. I watched as the wound bled, then resealed itself without so much as a scar.

When I looked at the man again, his face was full of sympathy.

"My name is Airon," he said softly. "Let me tell you about what you are."

"We're very like Highlander Immortals," Airon told me over a cup of tea. "You've seen the quick healing and no doubt realized you'll never age another day now that you've met First Death."

I nodded numbly. It was a lot to take in.

Airon took that as the go-ahead to continue. "Where we differ is in the ways we can be killed." I noted the plural. "Decapitation will do it, as will incineration. Repeated starvation will do it. Getting caught in an explosion might. If you are damaged badly enough over a large enough percentage of your body, even our healing won't bring you back. However, decapitation is the one sure way to kill us."

I didn't want to ask, but I had to. "The Quickening?"

"Is real." Airon took another sip of his tea. "Unlike Highlander-style Immortals, we have no nihilistic prophecy of 'there can be only one'. But there is power to be gained by taking the Quickenings of other Immortals. Therefore, there will always be hunters. It would behoove you to learn how to defend yourself."

"Are the rules the same?" I asked. "I mean, holy ground, one-on-one combat, all that?"

He smiled. "Yes. And we, unlike Highlander Immortals, have power to back it up: the Watchers."

I actually laughed. "Watchers. As in Joe Dawson. As in, 'observe and record, but only interfere if MacLeod's in a spot'."

Airon laughed at that, too. "Watchers as in, 'observe, record, and interfere'. The Watchers have kept Immortals honest time out of mind. If an Immortal starts cheating, he finds himself set upon by every other Immortal out there. And if they don't get him, the Watchers will. If you don't go in for fighting, though, chances are you'll never have to worry about them."

"What else do I need to know?" I asked. "What are we like?"

"Immortals are stronger and faster than mortals," Airon said. "You'll notice that right away. Your metabolism will increase. Any internal problems, like hormonal imbalances, chronic illnesses, old injuries, even bad eyesight, will also work themselves out over the next month or so. Needless to say, you'll be a bit of a wreck, but when you come out of it, your body will be much improved. Your heightened immune system will wash illnesses out of your body in a maximum of 24 hours."

"Sounds good so far," I said, hoping to push away the sense of foreboding I was feeling.

Airon caught it. "I'm afraid, though, that the news is not all good."

"So what's the catch?" I asked.

"You've seen part of it if you watched Highlander," he answered. "You can never have a normal life. No children, and you will outlive every mortal in your life: your siblings, your friends, your lovers, everyone."

I felt sick. Airon's eyes drilled me.

"That's why it's best to make a clean break now. They believe you are dead; they have closure. If you were to try and stay, you'd have to leave when it became clear you weren't aging. That would be harder on them."

It was hard to breathe. I understood what he was saying, but to never see my parents again, or my sisters, or my brother, to not be able to watch my niece and nephews grow up . . . it was too much to bear.

Airon waited a moment, then apparently decided it was best to give me all the bad news at once.

"There is also the fact that you will be forced to fight for your head. Even though we can live forever, there are always those who hunt out of lust for power or fear. You must learn to defend yourself, and you must be willing to kill."

"I don't think I can do that," I interrupted. "I can't kill."

"Then you will die," said Airon simply. He watched my face, then said, with more sympathy, "Learn how to defend yourself, at least. I know a teacher in Europe who will help you."

I didn't know whether I wanted to throw things, throw up, or throw a fit. "Is that all?" I asked, suddenly feeling angry.

Airon sighed. "Almost. The only other thing is: start journaling. It's important."

"I hate journaling," I muttered.

"The Watchers believe it's important," Airon pressed. "They believe a time will come when the personal remembrances of the Immortals will be the only thing that holds civilization together. It's their oldest prophecy, and not one of the Watcher Prophecies has ever proven false."

I nodded again. Start journaling, learn to swordfight, leave my family . . . hey, it's all in a day's work.

Airon took my hand. "Come on. I'll make some dinner for us. Then you need to rest; tomorrow we'll fly out."

"Won't there be the danger of someone recognizing me at Anchorage International Airport?" I asked.

Airon looked me in the eye. "What makes you think you're still in Anchorage?"

I was to later learn that I was in Seattle. Airon and I ate, then I went back to the room I'd awakened in. There were some clothes in one of the drawers that would fit me, and I knew that tomorrow I'd be leaving for another life. At that moment, all I wanted was to see my family's faces. I didn't have so much as a picture of any of them, and there was no way Airon would let me get at a telephone or computer.

Many years later, I appreciated the wisdom of his actions. At that moment, however, as I curled up in bed and sobbed my eyes out, I hated him. His reasons didn't matter. I was left with only one piece of knowledge, which I carry with me to this day.

I never got a chance to say goodbye.

Looking back, those years of training in Europe were some of the best of my life. Katharina Thereza von Ebersole, Kat to her friends, became not only my teacher, but my best friend. That wasn't to say she couldn't be tough; within two months, my formerly soft body had shed nearly twenty pounds and hardened with muscle. Staying in shape, Kat told me, wasn't an option for an Immortal: it was a duty.

So we trained and we traveled. Kat took me all over Europe, teaching me languages, culture, and history as we went. She wanted me to be able to blend in seamlessly wherever I was. It wasn't long before I could speak near-flawless German and French and had started on Spanish, Italian, and Greek.

I also learned how to work the Immortal system. The network of Immortals and Watchers was such that an Immortal could go anywhere in the world and have a place to stay and work within 24 hours. That, you must believe, was a great relief to me.

While I was in Europe, I kept a distant tabs on my family. I noted when my second sister got married, when my brother's son was born, and later his daughter, when my second sister had her twins, and when my oldest niece graduated from high school. With every milestone in their lives, I died a little more inside. After my niece's graduation, I stopped watching. I couldn't bear it if the next milestone was a death. Somehow, I thought that would keep them alive in my mind.

In many ways, it has. I still find myself keeping track of things to tell them later. Call it a form of denial. When you have a family like that, it's not a simple thing to let go.

After I concluded my training with Kat, she suggested in her offhand way that I might like to go to Japan. I went and took up training and work with an ancient Samurai named Yoshio Shimuda. He taught me Japanese and Mandarin at the same time he taught me the arts of a warrior.

It was in Japan that two things that irrevocably changed me happened. First, I found my perfect weapon. I could already use most swords, but I found that the naginata, a long staff with a blade at the end, was even better for me. I had one custom-made with a titanium staff--very light, very strong, and the two pieces could not only be hidden very easily, but twisted together in a heartbeat.

Secondly, I fell in love. Koji Shimuda was the mortal "nephew" of Yoshio. He was young, handsome, brightly intelligent, and a rare Christian in a Shinto land. Though both Yoshio and Kat had warned me of the difficulties of marriage to a mortal, it didn't take long for Koji and me to set a date.

My only regret, then and now, is that my family wasn't able to attend.

I lived with Koji in various places around the world for the next forty years. During that time, I had my first Immortal challenge.

I don't like to speak of it, so forgive me if I don't give all the details. Kat and Yoshio had drilled it into me that a challenger seeks out any areas of weakness, and if you don't kill him, he will kill you. My opponent wasn't prepared to fight someone with a naginata, and the short version is, I joined the Game.

I still don't know if that was the right decision.

Koji's death of cancer at 71 sent me back to the States. I would stay on the East Coast for another fifteen years before being drawn slowly and inexorably back to the Pacific Northwest.

It's while I was there that the world ended.

The world as I knew it ended on a Wednesday. That was the first day I heard about the virus that would kill an untold percentage of the world’s population. It was actually a type of influenza, if you can believe that, only extremely virulent and deadly. Normal vaccines were of little help. There were two things that aggravated the pandemic. One was its long incubation period. For two weeks, you could carry the virus and pass it on with no symptoms. In a world where 24 hours could get you anywhere on the globe, that was devastating. The other thing was its traveling companion: a bacterium that attacked the lungs. Those in a weakened state from the virus, but who could have survived it, often succumbed to the bacterium.

In the end, I believe the only thing that saved humanity from extinction was a virus that spun off from the main one. It was a milder form of influenza that could be survived by most people who didn’t already have weakened immune systems, and it left one with an immunity to the other virus. Infection by the second virus was characterized by a sandpapery rash that itched like Hell. Everyone with that rash suddenly found themselves very popular.

But it was too little. The pandemic didn’t stop until it had burned its way through every continent and every country. It raged through population centers. Entire cities were depopulated, and small towns walled themselves off to outsiders, only to discover the infection was already within their confines.

Too many died. The infrastructure of civilization itself fell to shreds. The global economy collapsed as raw materials failed to make their way to factories, factories shut down for lack of workers, retailers failed for lack of goods and consumers. It was the end of the world in a very literal way. Less than a year after I heard of the virus, the airwaves were silenced. No more news, no more communication. The Information Age fell, and the Stone Age was born anew.

I was living practically on the Oregon Coast at that time, near Tillamook. I lived in a large house with a small farm. My nearest neighbor was a young woman named Julianne and her family, and I could tell she was of my own blood. My brother’s granddaughter, named for my mother. She, of course, didn’t know of our relationship, but she did comment occasionally that I reminded her of her mother.

When the pandemic struck, the isolation served us well. Julianne and her family were able to feed themselves off their land, so they didn’t have to face the danger of going into the city for supplies. As I began to realize how serious the pandemic was, I myself made forays into Portland to buy supplies and books. I already had an impressive library, accumulated over my seventy-some years of life. What I wanted, though, was to preserve knowledge for those who would be born after the pandemic ended. I bought hardcovers whenever I could: literature, science, history, art, and, most importantly, books on how to make things from raw materials. How to make soap, herbal medicines, how to cook with raw ingredients rather than pre-packaged ones—anything I could find that would tell us how to survive with the infrastructures of civilization itself broken down.

Soon, though, buying became impossible. Portland was depopulated as healthy people fled the illness and the violence that spread in its wake. The people left in the cities either died or went feral. Guns worked long after computers stopped. I still went into the city, deadly as it was, because I wanted to save all I could. I was even there in Portland when you could look across the Columbia to see Vancouver burning. It was a horrifying sight, and one that made me realize what was truly happening. I always thought the Apocalypse would be a sudden thing.

It was slow. I got to appreciate every horrible detail.

A virus as vicious as the one that destroyed the world has one weakness: like a fire, it had to stop when it ran out of fuel. Due to the breakdown of global communications, I will never know how many died, or even what percentage of the world was devastated by it, but I do know that in Western Oregon, at least ninety percent of the population died. I would think that in some areas, it would be even worse. For some time, the stench of death was inescapable. Vancouver wasn’t the only city that burned, either.

Finally, the virus burned itself out. I had purposely acquired the milder virus and gave it to Julianne at the first opportunity. Her family survived, much to my joy. It wasn’t long, either, before refugees from the cities found the coastal farmland. Over a number of years, a community grew, with everyone lending a hand.

Working in the warm, moist Oregon spring, we farmed the land. Grains were tricky—our first wheat crop failed, but we had enough barley to make up for it. There were also orchards nearby, so we had apples and hazelnuts aplenty. Grapes, too, from the vineyards. Furthermore, greenhouses were one type of technology that loss of electricity couldn’t disable, so we were able to grow vegetables year-round. On one of my forays into the old cities, I found seeds and cuttings, and we were able to plant boxes of herbs. Slowly, we made a life together.

But I knew my own secret wouldn’t keep. Years passed. I watched Julianne’s hair start to gray and crow’s feet crinkle her eyes, and I made up my mind. One day, I took her out for a walk and told her the truth.

She took it well. “I can’t say I didn’t notice how well-preserved you are,” she said with a nervous little laugh. “I didn’t know what to make of it, though, until now.”

“I don’t want to have to leave,” I told her. “You’re my family, Julianne, maybe the only family I’ve got left in the world. I can’t lose you. I swear to you I’m not a threat.”

“I know.” She smiled at me. “You’ve never done anything to hurt us, and I know you never will . . . Aunt Katie.”

That evening, our community called a meeting, and I told them what I was. Most of them knew me well. I told them that I would leave if they wanted me to.

Silence reigned for a moment after I finished speaking. It was finally broken as Samuel Gray, an Episcopalian minister, stood up.

“God has created all things with a purpose,” he declared to the gathered people. “Who knows but that Katie was brought here for this time and this situation? I, for one, will not quarrel with God’s purposes.”

With that, I “came out of the closet.” I became the Preserver.

Years turned into decades, and decades turned into a century, then two. I stayed as I was, but my community changed. We were soon ensconced somewhere between the Iron Age and Little House on the Prairie in terms of technology and lifestyle. We created our own textiles, our own art forms, our own, unique culture. We became a seafaring folk, unsurprisingly. Goods we pulled from the sea became our contribution to the economy that sprung up in the wake of civilization’s loss.

As we strengthened, we became aware of other pockets of community around us. Trade grew up between the communities. Those further inland were able to grow different crops, and we traded for those. There were also some traveling merchants, including a happy-go-lucky Immortal who called himself Scooter. He would raid the old cities and towns for whatever he could find and make a circuit of the Western Oregon communities trading his goods. Whenever he acquired books, he knew to bring them to me. I’m happy to say I saved the collected works of C.S. Lewis for future generations. Harry Potter, too.

As for the cities—it wasn’t long before they became known as No Man’s Land. The inhabitants had gone wild. Fortunately, they did us the favor of killing each other off a lot of the time.

Does that sound harsh? You weren’t there. The city people raided outlying communities for things they wanted, and they left destruction in their wake.

Our people were far enough away from Portland or Salem that we didn’t attract much attention from the armed raiders. We still had some guns, and we knew how to use them if the need was there. And believe me, we knew we’d need them someday.

I became, in many ways, the focus of my little community. They asked me to give it a name, and I, in a fit of irony, decided upon Honor’s Steading. I told the children stories of what life had been like before the pandemic. For them, the Internet was as fantastical as flying dragons. I watched as generations were succeeded by new ones.

Something peculiar happened along the way. I often looked at the children and remarked that they reminded me of someone Before. Family members, most frequently. I never knew how much I did this until one day, a young mother brought me her baby and asked me what his “Preserver name” would be. I’d created a tradition. Each child had a name given to him or her by their parents, plus their “Preserver name.” That particular boy, by the way, was Caleb Seth.

And one day, I realized that I had become the community. I was present at all births and most deaths. I recorded names and lives in my journals. I was never the head of the community—they voted on the Steaders’ Council—but I was the advisor. I was a constant among change.

It’s odd how that affected me. Honor’s Steading became my family, and not just because my brother’s blood ran through it. I was Aunt Katie to the entire community. Its joy and its grief was my own. I watched, frustrated, as people died of diseases that could easily have been controlled in my day. Injuries that would have been treatable when I was a child were deadly to my Steaders. Soon, though, my emotions receded.

It’s true. Most times, the most you can work out of me is that I really miss chocolate. I think it has to be that way for me, because otherwise, I’d drown under a wave of grief. I can’t, though. My people need me too much for me to fall apart. That’s what keeps me together. Even though I don’t feel much actively, I am still instinctively protective of my people. I would die to protect them, and the thought doesn’t bother me at all.

Which brings me to today.

Two days ago, Scooter came through Honor’s Steading again. He’d unearthed a library in Estacada and discovered that most of the hardcovers were still in good condition (God bless library binding). However, he didn’t just stop by to fleece me.

“Estacada got hit by a Salem gang a month or so ago,” Scooter said in his offhand way as we haggled over the collected works of Toni Morrison. “I sat in on a few drinks with the worse elements. They’ve heard about the coastal communities—my guess is, you’ll be getting a visit.”

“We can handle them,” I said. We’d gotten hit by raiders before, and the raiders came out on the bad end.

“I’m not so sure. Hey, I’ll throw in a few Danielle Steels if you’ll give up those butterfly hair clips of yours.”

“No deal, even if I thought Danielle Steel was worth rescuing from the ashes of civilization. What’s so special about these guys.”

“Well, they’ve got motorcycles. How about Rosamunde Pilcher?”

“Motorcycles?” I was taking notice now. “How’d they get them to run?”

“Ethanol does ugly things to engines, but it’s easy to make.” Scooter shook his head. “Idiocy. If they used horses, they wouldn’t move as fast or be quite so intimidating, so they use motorcycles and have to lug along their fuel, not to mention make repairs. It’s stupid, but hey—image is everything. Nora Roberts, perhaps? I can offer you great deals on romance authors.”

“No deal. How do they travel, aside from being on motorcycles?”

Scooter sighed. “You’re such a tough sell. They use the remains of the highways, of course. That’s part of the stupidity. It gives them even more limited mobility. Sandra Brown?”

I thought about it. “That means that the most direct route down here is via I-99. Most of the smaller roads have kind of gone over to nature. Diana Gabaldon’s complete works and a really good copy of A.S. Byatt’s Possession will get the clips.”

Scooter made a resigned sound. “I was hoping you hadn’t noticed those. All right, a deal’s a deal.” He unloaded the books and I handed over the hair clips. Scooter eyed them greedily. “There’s a woman in the Newport community who makes the most incredible apple bread. She told me that if I could get my hands on anything that matches her pewter butterfly necklace, she’d barter the recipe. Do you have any idea how much I can get for that recipe? Everybody from here to Sisters wants to know what’s in that bread!” Then he looked back at me, very seriously.

“I like you, Katie,” he said. “You and I get along just fine, and I think that’s as it should be. I think the leader of this gang’s one of Us. The way his guys were talking definitely implied that.”

I nodded. “I’ll have to be ready, then.”

I'm waiting. After Scooter's warning, I sharpened my blade, then trekked down to the turnoff from I-99. If the leader of this gang is indeed an Immortal, I have a proposition for him.

I'm not alone, of course. Even if I wanted to be alone, there's no way my Steaders would allow me to do this on my own. Several, including my niece Jane Grayce, have kept vigil with me. They are my self-appointed Watchers, there to make certain the fight is fair.

I'm not altogether certain that's necessary. We Immortals have been conditioned over the centuries, and few of us will even attempt to break the Rules.

But they are here nonetheless, and I'm glad to have them.

I hear the gang well before I see it. Idiots! Do they really imagine their motorcycles will last forever? It's a miracle they've held together this long.

Besides, I aim to do something about those bikes today.

Finally, I see them. There are between fifteen and twenty of them, all on bikes. I know there are more waiting to sweep in after this advance group.

I myself stand alone in the middle of the street, my steaders hidden in the woods along the road. My only obvious companion is my staff. The long blade of my naginata is hidden for now.

Don't say I have no sense of the dramatic.

One of the bikers thinks I'm an easy target. He roars out ahead of the others, heading straight for me. Someone is shouting after him.

That one has the Immortal buzz about him, I think.

Daredevil Boy accelerates as he closes the distance. He thinks this is some sort of game. It isn't. This is deadly serious. I feel no anger, however, or fear. Nothing at all. Nothing, as I neatly sidestep his charge and rake the spokes of his front wheel with my titanium staff.

His bike goes flying, and he goes flying with it. I'm afraid he makes a rather bad end. No helmet.

There is a mutter of anger from the other motorcyclists, but their leader stands up from his bike, motioning them to silence.

"You know what we want," he says, loud enough for all to hear.

"You know I won't let you have it," I shoot back.

He laughs. "Do you honestly think you alone can stop us?"

"No." I smile as the truth dawns on him. From everywhere around him, guns cock. "But do you honestly think you're the only people with guns?"

It takes him a moment, but he smiles. "Christopher Walker."

"Katherine of Honor's Steading," I respond. "I have a proposition for you."

"I'm listening." He actually sounds interested.

"I will fight you," I tell him. "If I should win, your people may leave or stay, provided they are willing to lend a hand. We won't kill them--you have my word. If I should lose, my people will give you the Steading. They will load themselves into their ships and find a new place for themselves. I ask only that they be treated honorably. Should you or yours try and harm any of them, they will fight--and believe me, you cannot take the losses they will deal you. Are we agreed?"

A few long moments tick by before Walker says, "We are agreed."

He draws his sword, a gothic bastard. Jane Grayce steps out of the shadows at the side of the road, bringing me the blade for my naginata. It fits onto the staff and is secured with a pin.

I note that Walker seems chagrined at my choice of weapon. That's good, but I know I can't take it for granted that he won't know how to fight me.

But he doesn't. It's only his pride that makes him go through with the fight, as well as his own wrong-headed belief that he cannot lose.

It's anticlimactic, how easy it is to defeat him. I don't think he's been in the habit of fighting Immortals. He goes after easy targets. People who can't fight back. I have nothing for contempt for him as I sweep his feet out from under him.

There's always this moment after you disable someone. A pause as the killing blow is readied and executed. In that moment, you honestly don't believe you're capable of this.

But I am, and I do. Christopher Walker won't be leading his gang in killing raids anymore.

As the Quickening ends, my Steaders step out of the woods. Walker's gang is stunned at his defeat. One of my men, William Edward, orders them to throw down their weapons and get off their bikes.

Jane Grayce helps me to my feet. I walk over to where my Steaders have the gang surrounded.

"You said you wouldn't kill us," protests one of the gang, a burly, scarred man of perhaps thirty-five.

"I won't," I snap at him. "You're free to go--on foot and without your weapons. Carry word back to the rest of your people that Honor's Steading is off your list. 'Cause I promise you, if you try and take us, you will lose more than we do." Burly Guy blanches at that. "But if any of you want to stay and make a life, we can always use another hand. We'll welcome you in provided you do your share. Stay, if you want. Or go."

Disheartened, the gang abandons their bikes en masse. Losing their leader, who they thought couldn't die, has shaken them deeply. We'll keep an eye out just in case they try anything, but I doubt they will.

As for their bikes--we can always use scrap metal. It'll make nice plowshares.

My Steaders bear the bikes back to town like hunters returning with their kill. Daredevil Boy and Walker are buried alongside the road. I'm afraid I leave my people to do the work.

I have to get away. I feel very little most times . . . except after Quickenings. I wander away, finally ending up at the seashore. I watch the waves and weep uncontrollably.

For my parents. For my sisters. For my brother. For their progeny. For Koji. For generations come and gone.

But mostly, I weep for myself, for the innocent I once was. Once, I believed myself incapable of killing.

Time has taught me what I am truly capable of. I am proud of what I have helped build in Honor's Steading. I once believed myself incapable of doing such things. I'm glad I was wrong.

But the killing . . . would that I could have done all I have done without it.

Epilogue: The Gathering

My weeping eventually stills, leaving me feeling vulnerable and a little melancholy. In a strangely masochistic way, I enjoy both emotions. I know they won't last long.

I head back to the Steading through paths I've memorized so well I don't need a light to see them. I don't want to be seen before I've cleaned myself up. From the town's center, I hear the sound of a grand victory party in progress. I know they're awaiting me, so I wash my face, change my clothes, and head to meet my people.

The moment I enter, the energy in the room changes. My sweet Steaders--they're so transparent. I always know when they're worried about me by the fact that all of a sudden, my favorite foods start appearing. Makes me glad my Immortal metabolism is as quick as it is. Steamed barley with beef gravy, sautéed onions alongside the roast beef, and apple tarts all at the same table awaken my appetite.

The band strikes up Steven Curtis Chapman's "Lord of the Dance" (well, I had to keep some of my favorite songs from dying out), another sure sign they've been awaiting my entrance. I load up my plate from the table, being sure to greet everyone who tries to catch my eye.

It's humbling, realizing you're the focus of all this love. Nothing I've done could have earned it. But then, grace never can be earned.

The children, God bless them, can't let me eat in peace. The twins who watched me sharpen my blade earlier run up with their friends. Seth and Megan, I named them, for my own brother and sister. They have the bright blue eyes and beautiful skin of my family.

"Read us more Harry Potter!" one boy shouts out.

"No, I want you to tell us more Star Wars stories," protests Seth.

"Tell us the story of Ladyhawke again," demands Megan.

Jeanne Elaine, Seth and Megan's mother, gives me a look of motherly exasperation over her children. "Children, I'm sure Aunt Katie will be only too happy to tell you a story after she's eaten," she says.

I wave Jeanne Elaine off gently. Tonight, my emotions are still in full swing, and I want to hold onto these children as long as I can. I've seen how quickly they grow. How very quickly.

There are certain stories I have never bothered to "translate" for my children. Stories too close to who and what I am. But now I am seized by an impulse to let them in on my own legends. I want them to know why this place is called Honor's Steading, why honor is so important, and I can think of no better teacher.

The band has quieted down now, as they know the children are demanding stories. I note with no little amusement that many of the adults are gathering for stories as well. They do carry my blood, don't they?

I wash down my food with some water and begin my tale. "I'm going to tell you the story of an Immortal who was only a legend to me when I was young. His name was Duncan MacLeod, the Highlander. He loved much, lost much, did great deeds and made many mistakes, but he never lost sight of who he was, and he never was without honor."

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