Chapter 13

Duncan’s days were spent in a limbo never quite a part of the UN security detail or part of the field researchers who were working the dig. He rose each morning with the first of the soldiers but ate his breakfast some time later when the scientists roused themselves. In the interim he found a quiet spot outside the camp to train or he followed one of the trails for a run through the rugged terrain. Other than the occasional mountain goat he never had company on the runs.

One morning he realized that he had company while running. Whoever it was they were good, keeping just enough distance behind him that he didnt see them. Something told him that they were there. Up ahead the trail forked, left curving off downhill slightly, right curving into trees heading further uphill. He knew that the left-hand option would eventually return him to the camp. Today he turned right making for the cover of the tree line before his tail had a chance to see what he was up to. His eyes scanned for an opening. There. He turned sharply left and slipped between tangled tree branches. The ground was damp with dew as he knelt on it, slowing his breathing and waiting for signs of the pursuer.

He heard the footsteps stop and a muttered curse as they looked at the fork in the trail. There was the sound of fumbling and a quiet electronic bleep. Duncan trailed his left hand through the decomposing leaf matter and twigs at his feet. His fingers found a branch about two inches in diameter and he slowly extracted it trying to stay quiet. He hefted the branch in his hands: about three feet long with a kink in the middle, tapering from two inches down to about an inch on the other end. He flipped it around. Not up to pro-baseball standards, but should allow him a home run nonetheless.

Footsteps came up the trail toward the trees. His pursuer had clearly got his scent. Without warming Duncan leaped back out of the trees where he was hiding and swung his improvised club. The young soldier tried to doge the blow but it caught him just above the hip on his left side. There was a howl of pain from the guy and the sound of plastic shattering. Pieces of black pastic rained to the ground. Duncan readied another blow but the soldier was already backing away, his hands pulling at his jacket then under the jacket to his shirt. Duncan caught the flash of a needle in the morning sun, it looked to have been driven deep into the man’s flesh and bent by the club blow. Pieces of electronics hung from the needle.

With a grunt of pain the man pulled the needle free. Duncan dropped his weapon grabbing for his head as it felt like it exploded. From nowhere a full-scale invasion was launched on his brain. He stepped back a couple of paces. The immortal buzz that slowly built as another of his kind came into range had exploded with full force in his head as the soldier pulled the needle free. A boot connected with his jaw. The world went pitch black.

—-

Methos put his feet up on the coffee table and raised his glass to admire the way the brandy coloured the light.

“Where was I?” he asked.

Joe prompted hiim, “Eighth century BC, you were telling me about the prophet Isaiah. Im not a religious man but I know he’s got a book in the bible.”

Methos sipped his brandy, “Yes he does. I’ve watched all these years for a mistake too. His accuracy scares me.”

Joe offered more brandy.

“So you mentioned a magic sword? Did Isaiah give it to you?”

Methos laughed and ruined a mouthful of brandy by spraying it into the air, “Isaiah? I cant imagine there being a less likely person. He denounced sorcery in all its forms. Have you read what he’s got to say on the subject of pagan idols and witchcraft?”

Joe handed him a napkin.

“So where did you get it?”

“The bigger question is why. Tiglath-Pileser III was an unstoppable force. He swept through the ancient near east in a series of brutal military campaigns. My friendship with Isaiah and a few other, uhh, favours I did for the king gave me a favoured position in the court. I heard the same stories the king did – people were calling Tiglath-Pileser a god. Did they forget that only a couple of years before he was simply Pul, an army general?”

“I began asking around to dig up more on the stories. Other than the military campaign what had he done to warrant being called a god. My methods were crude and I had to leave a trail of bodies as I worked my way up the Assyrian chain of command, but eventually I found someone that knew something substancial: key commanders in the army were immortals, and they were under orders to bring back any immortals or pre-immortals as captives. What Pul needed with them wasnt clear but the orders dated from before he usurped the throne. Before I took the head of one of these key commanders I learned the truth: Pul, Tiglath-Pileser III, whatever you want to call him was an immortal with an instatiable lust for power. His ambitions had been crushed once before when he had risen to power in the Hittite empire, ruling as Tiglath-Pileser I, but this time he had an advantage that kept even his immortal commanders in line. He owned the Methuselah Stone and was effectively invincible.”

—-

Duncan woke up when it started to rain. The water was warm on his face. No, rain out here should be cold. He opened his eyes to see a large tongue licking him. He rolled out of the way of the lick and up to his feet finding himself looking at Gabe.

“Good dog.” he said, slowly backing away down the path. When he felt a safe distance he turned and walked to the fork heading for the camp. He head paws padding along the path and found the dog keeping pace with him, tail stump in the air and panting happily. As they passed the edge of the camp he felt the beginnings of a buzz, an immortal was close by on the other side of the tents. To his surprise Gabe began to growl seeming to react to the buzz too. Duncan felt naked without his sword so he hurried back to his own tent to get cleaned up.

There was an explosion of interest around lunch time that day when one of the research teams arrived back in the camp. Duncan hurried out to see what was going on. People crowded into the largest of the temporary buildings that had been erected to hear the news.

“We wont know until tomorrow whether this find is what we have been looking for.” announced Judd, “What we know so far: we’ve found late bronze-age cooking utensils in one of the caves. We dont know if these are significant in themselves or whether they are the appetizer for a feast yet to be found. Thank you.”

Duncan returned to his cold sandwich. Judd arrived minutes later to grab some food and Duncan called him over.

“So, you found some pots and pans, huh?”

Judd smiled, “From what we can gather, someone might have been living in these caves. The fact that this is the first find of its kind here suggests that this wasnt a common practice – this area has extensive legends speaking of djinn – my guess is that a fugitive came here looking to hide using the legend as camoflage. How goes progress on our mystery disappearances?”

Duncan shrugged, “Not there yet. I have a couple of leads on the UN’s lost soldiers – my guess is they deserted. As to the beheading and two dissapearences, I have to look further. Any objections if I tag along with the next research trip to the Wadi?”

Judd considered the request for a moment, “No objections, just respect their space and dont contaminate the dig.”

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity. The first team out was going to be attempting to map the caves that they’d found lining the steep sides of the valley, a three day expedition. Duncan was introduced and promptly forgotten as the team – two men and a redheaded Irish woman – readied their sonar imaging equipment. His offer to help to carry items was politely refused.

The walk up to the caves took a different path to Duncan’s normal run. The wadi, a seasonal stream swollen during the rainy season and dry at other times, had followed a natural fissue in the hillside. Over the years it had eroded it still further creating a natural channel wide enough for three men to walk abreast.

“Do you hear that?” The Irish woman asked him, “The fissure is a natural wind tunnel. The caves act as resonating chambers, at least that’s the current theory. Maybe the wadi really is haunted?”

Duncan nodded, turning an ear to the wind and closing his eyes. There was a quiet sound, a whisper, like voices in another room talking. He couldnt make out discernable words but there was a cadence and rhythm to the sound. The volume built as they progressed into the fissure, building from quiet whisper to general wheezing sound. Occasional random gusts created an echoing groan or howl from along the rock walls. It was eery! He shuddered.

The fissure widenned and Duncan saw what might become a pool in the rainy season. A red rope ladder had been fixed to the rock to the left of the team, next to the dried up pool, leading to a cave mouth about twenty feet above ground level. Ahead the fissure narrowed rapidly. The walls shoed signs of climbers, small metal pitons at intervals leading to various small openings. Clearly the teams had been searching the caves for some time.

While he had been admiring the scenery the team had climed to a cave mouth, dropped a rope and begun hauling equipment packs upward. Duncan’s eyes were drawn back to the rope ladder though, there was something about this particular cave that drew him. He stepped closer with the groanings of the wind warning him back. Unafraid he climbed the ladder increasingly aware of a presence inside the cave.

“Hello?” he called.

“hello?” said his echo.

Moments later a short wiry little scientist appeared out of the darkness and extended a hand. His face and clothing were covered in dust and there was a brush in his left hand.

Duncan introduced himself, “Duncan MacLeod.” he shook the man’s offered hand.

“Oliver Forbes. You’re the new UN guy – looking into our security arent you?” he asked.

“Uhh, yeah. Did you know the people who vanished?”

Oliver ran his dusty hand through his greying hair, not improving matters at all, “Well, yes. They were all part of the same team. I didnt know them all that well – I dig, they were more on the interpretation side – ancient history, anthropology, that sort of thing. If you dont mind, I’d like to get back, and would prefer you not to step on anything.”

Duncan headed back to the cave mouth feeling useless, noting that the sensation of the presence diminished as he moved to the mouth of the cave but it didnt change as Oliver slid back into darkness. Something was in there.

“Hey, Oliver.”

“Yes?”

“Any chance I could see the dig site?”

“If you must. Follow me.”

Duncan turned and walked into the gloom, letting his eyes adjust. The cave narrowed turning into a tunnel and the room came down to meet him. He stooped taking careful steps to avoid knocking his head on the rocky roof. Oliver didnt seem put out by the height. After a few yards the tunnel took a left turn running parallel with the wadi outside. A few yards further later it opened into another chamber. Light filtered in through steep holes in the roof, and the groaning of the wind seemed stronger here. The chamber was kidney shaped, about twenty feet at its narrowest point.

Oliver pointed to the roof, “See the big openning on the far left? We think that might have acted as a chimney. We found cooking utensils over there.”

Duncan closed his eyes feeling for the presence again. It was here. Nearby. He raised a hand and pointed, eyes still closed.

“What’s over there?” he asked.

Oliver sighted down his arm and shook his head, “Nothing. Why do you ask?”

Duncan paused. How could he explain his sense of a presence in the room without having to explain his own special nature? “Would you take a chance and run on a hunch?” he asked.

Oliver nodded, “Its as much as we’re going on right now. Now, if you have no other business, we have history to unearth. We’ll take a look at that spot if our present excavations dont prove fruitful.”

“Thanks.”

Duncan turned and found his way back to the cave mouth. The sonar imaging team were busy, the archaeologists were busy. He kicked at the dirt of the outer cave – it was flat – so he pulled a sleeping bag out of his pack and settled down for a nap.

—-

Joe sat and looked stunned at Methos.

“What? I thought you told me that the Methuselah Stone was a myth?”

Methos grimaced, “And I would tell the rest of the world that if I could. The last thing on Earth I want is some freak getting his hands on the thing and cutting a bloody swath through the known world.”

“The immortal Pul had heard the rumours and used his network of spies to retrieve the fragments. It was the work of centuries but he was successful. He became master of the stone, and more. An old scroll suggested that the stone would respond to it’s owner’s desire for appearance. Pul had shrunk it, by force of will alone, from palm size to resemble a large facetted gem he mounted on the pommel of his sword.”

“Ela-Jehu, a fellow refugee who’d pledged himself to my service, brought me a rumour that a foreign sorceror was offering me a deal. I agreed to meet him. It was simple: he wanted the stone, to stop Pul’s advance. He offered to enchant my sword to render the force of the stone impotent. In return for killing Pul, I would get the quickenning and would save the kingdom of Judah. There was something powerful about the sorceror despite his short height. He had a presence that made my skin crawl that spoke of great age and power held in check under an iron will, blazing out through the most piercing blue eyed gaze I’ve ever seen. I couldnt refuse him. He took my sword and told me to send Ela-Jehu over the following day to claim it back.”

“As I said, a pretty average bronze sword enchanted by a sorceror. The sword creeped me out almost as much as the sorceror himself. It whispered to me when I held it. It had a presence all of its own. I began making arrangements to be able to get close to the commander of the Assyrian army, and avoiding handling the sword until it was absolutely necessary.”

—-

Duncan killed time waiting for the mapping team to get done. He explored the narrow end of the fissure looking for more caves but came up blank. He tried climbing and looking in some of the other caves, hoping he might find clues to the missing team. Late afternoon on the third day he heard his name being called. He wriggled back out of the cave he was worming his way into and found the Irish redhead holding his bag down at ground level.

“Time to move out.” she called.

Duncan was not upset to be leaving the caves with their eery groaning and howls. The relative quiet of the wide valley near the camp was, in fact, rather restful. The team arrived back to see the tail end of people hurrying into a big meeting. His team dropped off their gear and hurried inside to get a look at what was going on. He was struck on entering the room of a brooding presence somewhere close to the front.

“Can we get some quiet please?” Judd called.

“Is it true?” someone shouted.

“Did you find him?” another voice asked.

Judd waved his hands for quiet, “I cannot confirm anything right now. Yes, we found a man poking around the outside of the camp this morning. Yes, he seemed inordinately interested in recent finds. Now, Oliver, I believe you have an announcement?”

Oliver Forbes bustled out of the crowd and stood at the front smoothing down his shirt and hair.

“As you know, we recently found cooking utensils. Yesterday evening we began excavating a new position in the cave and I believe we have found their owner. The bones were in remarkable condition. The figure was male with a clear break in his left femur. My guess is that he died of complications brought on by the broken leg. Tough cookie though to have climbed back to his hiding spot in the cave we found.”

Forbes waved to his team mates to come forward. In their arms they held bundles, one fat and short the other long and thin.

“In the figure’s arms was a clay jar … ” Forbes pointed to the team member on his left who unveiled the prize. “… and a plain bronze sword.” Forbes pointed to his right where his assistant unveiled the sword.

Duncan paced too and fro across the back of the room. He found himself stalking the presence, gauging it, attempting to triangulate it. The feeling was clearly strongest as he approached the left side of the room. He stepped outside to get some fresh air, not sure what to make of the latest revelation.

—-

Nigel and Shannon had been separated soon after arriving at the dig site; their kit bags had been delivered to different barracks tents and they’d been assigned to different guard details. Nigel noticed that Conwel was also taking additional steps to avoid him. One morning he arrived late to breakfast looking flushed with a muddy stain on the left side of his jacket. He walked with a slight limp suggesting the mud might indicate a deeper problem.

Nigel wandered over, “Hey… long time no see!” he said, landing a friendly gut-level punch to the muddy patch. Conwel grunted in pain and mumbled something about “Good to see you too” before he sloped off to wherever or whatever he was assigned to be doing. Nigel nodded to himself. Some kind of wound, that’s for sure.

Nigel made his way to Conwel’s bunk in the barracks tent. The room was empty – some sort of exercise going on – and he rifled through the younger man’s kit bag. The Nosophoros handheld tracking device was hidden at the bottom of his kit bag. Nigel fired it up and waited for it to get its bearings. The now familar blue ghosting was there, which stood to reason since he was using the device, what he found interesting was the extra green trace. It seems the muddy mark, Conwel’s wound, also knocked out the bio-electric masking unit he wore.

Nigel laughed to himself – “wore” – Romany Jackson and her team had modified a normal insulin pump with GPS transponder and other gizmos that he didnt care to inquire about. “Wearing” the device involved sticking themselves with a needle and allowing the pump to run its chemicals through the host blood-stream. For once Nigel was thankful for the surgical approach they had taken with him. He guessed that whoever landed the muddy blow to his partner managed to destroy the small unit. He couldnt help but smile at the discomfort it must have caused to remove the broken remnants – the needle espectially – afterward.

The sound of boots outside the tent brought him back to the here-and-now. He dumped Conwel’s bag back where he found it and pocketed the tracking device for later. As the footsteps approached the front he slipped out of the back of the tent making for his own bunk and some quiet space to think.

Over the next few days he took the tracking device with him on guard duty. The UN soldier’s who had “disappeared” werent his concern and he had told the dark haired security guy so. What he was interested in were the researchers who had gone missing. Was a rogue immortal to blame? His measurements with the tracker didnt yield any results. He saw his own, Conwel’s and the security guy’s traces. Then, one night he spotted it. A blue trace. Clear and distinct heading away from him. He followed at a safe distance and noticed that it was heading toward another smaller blue trace. The tracker had no additional information to offer on either of them so he put it away and resorted to the old fashioned method: he applied stealth and came up behind the intruder and put a gun to his head.

“Hold it right there. Move your hands slowly up behind your head.” He paused, waiting for the short dark haired man to comply, “Good. Now walk … past these next two tents … make a left …”

Nigel herded his prize into the nearest public shelter and radioed for backup. He flipped on the light to get a better view of the man.

He was about five foot six inches tall with a full head of dark brown hair. He was wearing the wrong outfit to be stalking around in the shadows – study shoes, yes, but dark blue pin-stripe pants and a twead jacket? Certainly no fashion sense. The hands were those of an academic, that was sure. There were no callouses as far as Migel could see and the nails were all neatly trimmed. He stood absolutely still facing the wall.

Backup arrived in the form of two burly UN soldiers who made short work of handcuffing the stranger and both turning him around and sitting him down in one fluid movement.

“I believe I should get a single telephone call to my lawyer?” he asked as the men stepped back from him. His accent was Scottish yet quite unlike the trace of Scottish that the security guy had.

The man spoke again, this time in a foreign tongue. The two UN guys looked at each other then at Nigel clearly confused. Nigel closed his eyes and concentrated, again letting the memory of the words play lightly over the surface of his mind and sink in. Closer this time. Yes, much easier. The meaning bounced into the forefront of his mind like a happy puppy. He’d merely repeated his demand for a phonecall in one of the local Kurdish dialects. The man tried again, this time using Turkish, then Arabic. Finally in aggitation he swore in a language that turned Nigel’s blood to ice. A language he thought was utterly dead. A language no-one on the planet had any right to know. With a smooth movement he swung a backhand slap across the man’s face to silence him and stalked off into the night to alert his superiors.

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