Methos handed over cash to the barman and sat down, a pint of Fuller’s in hand. He had heard tell that “Jack Horner’s Ale & Pies” on Tottenham Court Road had good pies. What the reviewer failed to mention was the sheer number of suits. Getting to the bar had been a pain. He pressed through a wall of people hanging around at the bar who had no regard for pub ettiquette. Mixed into the busninessmen and women were a handful of students, lager-louts the lot of ‘em! Service was prompt courteous and the table he chose was tucked into a corner with a good view of the transient population of the bar. The only thing missing seemed to be some relaxed regulars. Surely the pub couldnt run entirely on business pub lunches, students and tourists escaping the shopping crush of Oxford Street?
He finished his pie, ordered another pint and settled back in his seat to think.
“You done here?” a balding mid-fifties gentleman asked with a rude edge to his voice.
“Not in the slightest. Bugger off.”
The man humphed and muttered something about “manners” and moved on to try to evict another punter from their table.
Somewhere about a third of the way into his second pint he felt a familiar buzz. He looked around for Mary and her dog. Nothing. Methos checked the beer – was it playing tricks? Then he flt it again and it struck him that someone outside the pub felt the buzz too, they’d walked back to look for the source. With agonizing slowness the buzz built in magnitude, ebbing and flowing, to and fro. It completely ruined the experience of a nice pint of beer! Methos could imagine someone outside the pub circling at a distance getting slowly bolder with each pass. Abrputly the buzz ceased. His stalker had given up the chase.
Methos sighed and decided to try something a little stronger to take the edge off the lingering headache the encounter had given him.
Vermin knew immortals were tricky prey. Solitary creatures like himself for the most part yet they ran in packs with normal humans. His senses told him one was close and he spent close to an hour tracking them but none of shoppers looking at over-priced gadgets the shop windows had reacted to the buzz. In the crowds he mingled. He waited and backed off until the buzz settled down to an almost imperceptable level. He could wait. The hunt would be so much more rewarding this way. He lit a cigarette and scanned the street.
All of the Watchers approach missions differently. Methos’ approach to finding the Chinaman was to make regular calls back to Geneva to placate Joe and Mary while working his way through Chinese restaurants each evening. He loved the ambiance of Leicester Square with its street performers, large theaters and ready food. He’d been careful to avoid other watchers and immortals as he mingled in the crowds. He chose a Chinese at random – Joy King Lau – though he’d heard a rumour that the forty varieties of dim-sum were worth the visit alone. He was not mistaken, the food was good and atmosphere enjoyable. When this trip was over he decided that he’d wait a century and see how many of the current establishments were still here.
One place in particular – Won Kees – seemed to have vanished. It was high on his list despite being rumoured as being a hole in the wall, a dive, packed to the gills. Service was monumentally bad with staff hassling customers to eat quicker and a disregard for English social custom with groups mixed simply to fill tables. The “cash only” rule fueled gossip that the restaurant was money laundering for the Triads which was what intrigued Methos. Had they helped the Chinaman escape? Try as he might he couldnt find the place so he opted for Joy King Lau instead, his theory blown. A shame really, he’d heard that portion sizes at Won Kees were “huge” and the food had been “tasty”. The place had been frequented “mainly by locals” and a few tourists coming to experience the decided lack of courtesy that the waiting staff afforded them.
A few cups of saki after his meal dulled his headache and gave him the chance to think. There had been several immortals enter the restaurant over the course of the evening. They had reacted to his presence and he’d flashed them a smile and small wave. An older looking man had asked a waiter to pass his business card over to Methos. The back held a single handwritten word, “Pax”, and Methos had nodded agreement. He was here for one man. The buzz lingered in his head even after all of the other immortal customers had left. Someone in the waiting or kitchen staff was being careful to not give away their secret.
Methos was finally ushered out, in a very polite but firm way, by the manager. He looked around and found his way around to the back where staff began to leave in small groups. Finally he spotted the man and they made eye contact. There was a flicker of recognition and they both felt the familiar buzzing then he’d hurried away for the safety of the main streets. Methos followed at a distance glad to have his quarry in sights.
Vermin had been existing in a twighlight zone on the edge of society. He had none of the trappings of the modern age, no cellphone, no wallet and no ID. He had been befriended by a number of store owners over the months. In return for keeping a certain segment of troublesome youth culture away, they had given him food and clothing. It appealed to his nature. Some of the drop-out kids, wasters who spent their days high on a variety of substances, picked fights but they were easily overcome. The human part of Vermin moderated his response and kept him from a killing blow. The human part whispered that the wolf could track and kill immortals but it had to pity the humans for their short futile lives.
He had eaten well this evening. He feasted on leftover Chinese food earned by chasing off a small gang. Easy work for one as large and menacing as he could be. All the while he kept the scent, that distinctive mental signature buzz, in the back of his mind. He stayed at a distance watching his prey eat and drink. He watched as the prey began to hunt his own target. They were not so dissimilar then. The scent of a pair of immortals was driving his wolf nature insane. It yelped and howled within and gradually wearing down his respraint. He tracked the pair to a small inner city housing development and settled down in a kid’s park to watch and wait.
He slept on a parkbench.
The wolf siezed its chance as human nature descended into the realm of dream. It surged to the fore pulling flesh through a tortured transformation. It shredded any semblance of weak human thought patterns thrusting the remaining tendrils of restraint behind it. The wolf exulted it its freedom. It leaped off the bench, took the park fence in a single bound and loped directly for its immortal prey.
Methos shivered in the night air. He wished he had something for the nasty low-grade headache that had been with him all day. It was miserable waiting in the dead of the night while the Chinaman slept inside the block of flats nearby. Cold and cramp seeped into his bones.
There was a flurry of activity across the street and the surge of a familar animal buzz in his head. Warning enough for him to draw his sword, keeping knife in reserve for the moment, and dive out of the way as huge jaws snapped the air.
If he ran he knew the animal, the wolf, would kill him in an instant. It had both the speed and weight advantage. What it lacked was subtlty and swordcraft gained over 5000 years. The fight was brutally swift, teeth and claw verses soft man-flesh and steel. The wolf was careful to avoid his blade but a feint by its prey had opened a chance for it to leap for the throat. That was a mistake and a knife found its way into the beast’s ribcage. It retreated with all the speed its failing body could muster.
With blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline spiked he almost took the head of the man who quietly tapped him on the shoulder. The Chinaman, all five-feet-nothing of him, beckoned him to come inside.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” the old man had said, part statement, part question.
“Indeed.” Methos nodded slowly and followed him inside the dingy apartment building.
The little man bustled around in the tiny kitchen, little more than an annex off the main living room containing sink, stove and small fridge under the countertop. The chemical rush of the fight was draining out of Methos bloodstream. He wobbled and the Chinaman’s hand were suddenly there to guide him down onto the couch.
“Drink.” A small cup was pressed into Methos’ hands and he sipped an aromatic herbal tea. As he let the herbal infusion work through his system the Chinaman was poking various parts of his body. Methos yelped as fingertips pressed his left hip. A deep gash, probably a slashing claw, that Methos estimated would heal over the next week.
“You trust me?” the Chinaman asked him.
“Uh, sure…” he ventured.
With a nod the old man unrolled a fist-sized fabric roll. Hundreds of silver needles were threaded on the inside surface and he started back spilling his tea. Duncan!
“Ssshh. Let me deal with your leg.” the man urged.
Three needles were selected and inserted at points around the wound. A final, shorter needle was selected and he paused before inserting it into his own palm. Methos watched with a grim fascination as the old man closed his eyes and hovered the hand above the gash. The air was prickling. He smelled ozone. Hairs along his thigh stood up. Then the first needle crackled with electrical fire. A small ball of lightning formed in the Chinaman’s palm and without warning all four needles flashed over. Methos groaned as the electrical discharge surged through the open wound. He openned his eyes as the Chinaman grunted his approval, reaching to tweak each needle back out of Methos now pristine leg. Pink skin had replaced open flesh.
The Chinaman looked up from his work, “I gave a little of myself to speed the recovery. Ancient Chinese medicine, adopted and ammended by mortals who dont share our energetic nature.”
“You’re telling me that you invented the precursor to accupuncture?” Methos asked with surprise.
“No. I learned it. My master from his master before him. Sadly I have no student and none these days are willing to give the lifetimes it would take to learn. The secret will die with me.”
“But…” Methos looked confused, “someone else must surely know these arts?”
The Chinaman shook his head, “I have guarded my secret for countless ages. The tradition of the masters states that I may pass it on to only one other. After passing mastery on, my student would take my head to preserve the knowledge. It is the way of things.”
Methos got up off the couch. “So, you’re telling me that not a single soul on this planet knows your secret arts? Not a single soul knows your special brand of accupuncture or how to manipulate these anergies?”
The Chinaman shook his head solemnly.
The phone woke Joe and he answered it with a tetchy “Yes?”
“I’ve found him. We’ll be back sometime tomorrow. There were a few complications but nothing I couldnt handle.”
“Good. I’ll look forward to it. Oh, by the way, Mary took off yesterday. In her own annoying way she completely dissed your efforts and claimed we should check another hotspot in Chicago. She’s going to miss all the fun.”
Methos laughed from the other end of the line, “Well, serve her right. Did she take that dog?”
Joe looked down at the end of his bed. The huge rottweiler had its head resting on paws where his feet would have been. “No, Gabe is right here.”
“Damn. Oh well, one can always hope! I’ll see you tomorrow Joe.”
“Be safe” Joe answered and hung up. Gabe had cracked an eye open, an ear cocked slightly. “Yes we were talking about you. Now sleep. It’s far too early.”
Methos made arrangements with Watchers in London. He kept an eye open for the beast that had attacked him but so far the crowed streets haadnt yielded any buzz what so ever. Through his contacts he got a passport for the old man: he would travel under the assumed name of “Wang Chun”. Methos grinned hoping he would get the joke. Tickets on the Waterloo to Paris express were quickly followed up with a booking on a tran from Paris to Geneva. The two men travelled light, arrived early and picked seats in a private carriage in first-class.
Vermin had managed to claw the knife out of his ribs but it was no good. He died during the night. In the morning he rose with the sun finding himself in human form again. Naked, dew covered and shivering. He scooped up the knife claiming it as his own and set off along the street looking for clothing.
Men were loading people’s garbage into a large smelly truck. One looked about the right size and Vermin tailed them as they did their rounds. Finally he spotted his opportunity and he seized the man as the truck was pulling on to the next set of houses. He dragged him into an expensive garden at knife point and demanded his clothing. The human part of his nature was resolutely keeping the beast in check so he limited himself to simply intimidation and theft. The wolf bayed in his head demaning blood. He ignored it, dressed and set off following the scent of his prey. His wolf nature interpreted the subtle chemical tang in the air finding the places where the two immortals had stopped to cross streets.
Eventually he found himself in a busy railway station and heading for the trains. He bumped one of the baggage handlers behind some industrial sized buffers at the back of the train. Two swift kicks and the man stayed down. Vermin took his jacket and began pushing his baggage cart onto the train knowing he was mere hours from claiming his prize. Wolf and man anticipated it with equal pleasure.
Joe and Gabe met Methos and “Wang Chun” at the train station. As the two men approached Methos felt the familiar buzz. The dog growled menacingly causing Methos to pause. The dog was looking right at him with a blood rage in its eyes. The dog sprang and Methos stepped aside at the last moment and with suprise saw Gabe attacking a huge baggage handler behind him.
The platform was empty save for the three men, the huge rottweiler and Vermin. He hadnt expected this, another of his own kind. The dog knew nothing of his true nature it had simply reacted to the annoying buzz. It was a dog though, his inferior, the wolf surged to be released to teach the mangy cur a lesson. Vermin the man stepped aside and let his flesh flow even as the rottweiler was tearing into his arm.
He answered it with jaws of steel, a bite that should have severed its spine had it not broken off at the last moment. Still, a satisfying wound had been inflicted. The two animals circled then clashed in a flurry of teeth and claw. One hundred and fifty pounds of trained muscle and sinew met a wolf who’d survived on mere scraps for most of the civilized age. Years of good feeding, grooming and training came to the aid of Gabe as he hammered his opponent to the ground. At last he stood over him. Vermin fell back to his oldest patterns, back to his time as a cub, rolling over in defeat to claim mercy from the alpha-male of the pack.
Gabe looked up at Joe and the Chinaman. Part of him understood the importance of the man. Something in Mary’s nature and words over the preceding weeks told him what he must do. At all costs he must defend this man. She had been insistent. Told him that he would know his foe by the buzzing in his head. He’d made a mistake in attacking Methos but when the wolfman had stepped onto the platform he’d known. This was the one Mary had been telling him to watch for. She’d known.
Gabe regarded his fallen foe for a moment then tore out the unguarded throat ending a legend. The wolf who’d been born in the alps died close to his place of birth. Six hundred years and untold quickenings erupted into the space between the two animals. Mist roiled and lightening arced first to the train and then blowing out the flourescent strip lights one by one all along the platform. Gabe yelped as the energy coursed through his form. When it was over he began to feel a strange fire burning in his belly. “The beginnings of the change” a voice whispered inside his head. He limped over to the three shocked men and followed them out to their car.
Nigel woke up in a dark room. He couldnt move. He desperately fought breath into his lungs to stem the tide of rising panic. What had they done to him? Figures moved outside of his range of perception. Turning his head to and fro only have him a splitting headache. A silent familiar presence joined him and rested her cool reassuring hands on his temples. The pain, along with his concious thoughts, receded. Sleep claimed him again but the presence remained nearby to comfort him.
He woke some time later in the brightly lit room with a Frankenstien feel to it. He was still naked except for three small gauze pads at throat, chest and abdomen. Standing next to the chair was the smiling surgeon herself. What was her name? Nigel frowned, “Romany Jackson” she prompted.
“The procedure was a complete success though it was touch-and-go at one point. You pulled through OK.” she explained.
Nigel regarded her flawless pale skin, black hair pulled back into a severe bun and sea-green eyes. Some might have thought her beautiful but he now knew the monster that lurked within. She showed him an aloof disregard, carrying herself as queen of the whole domain.
“What he hell did you do to me, your highness?” he demanded
“Immortals posess an innate sense attuned to the bio-electric signature of their own kind. Most people barely make it above the background noise of the planet but a few rare individuals, anomolies like yourself, throw off the data-set. You’re clearly no immortal.”
“No shit, Sherlock. Now what did you do to me?”
“Ive given you a gift. You are the pioneer of a new cycle of development. I know, I know, you dont want to be my lab rat. But think of it this way: other people need to carry their equipment with them. It can be lost. It can break. They can forget it. You carry yours within you and if all is well, will outlast even you.”
Nigel flinched as she pressed a stud on the remote controlling the chair he was in. It folded him back to sitting position and released the nerveblock along his spine. Pain seeped back into parts of his body that had been abused these last hours.
“Yes. The bio-electric equivilent of anti-noise – noise cancelling – headphones. You my friend are invisible to immortal senses. Your bio-electric signature has been suppressed and redefined. It now looks something like a small cat as far as they’re concerned.” The witch-queen shifted around in front of Nigel. “You need to move around and get blood flowing again. The implants will sting – just make sure to wash with antibacterial soap twice a day and you might find a sea-salt soak will be comfortable. Your clothes are over there.” she pointed, ” and you may leave when you wish.”
Nigel shot her a look of pure contempt, dressed and left the infirmary heading for his bunk and a good night’s sleep. As he reached his room another soldier bumped into him and he yelped slightly in pain. An appology quickly followed, with Nigel placating the man that things were fine, he’d just had his medical thats all. A big grin flashed across the soldier’s face and he extended his hand in a warm, welcoming gesture.
“You’re one of us now then!” he said, pumping Nigels hand enthusiatically.
“Uhh, us?” Nigel asked, extracting his hand from the handshake.
“Welcome to the legion of the damned.” He said.
Nigel left with no more clue than he’d started with just added aches and pains.
Duncan had been ignored by the two children, the archetypes of change, for quite some time now. Their attention span seemed short, almost childlike, with the arrival and departure of other immortals he fell further and further off their radar. He was glad. He didnt want any more changes. Change hurts! The current immortal to mist into view was a huge beast of a man – six foot eight if he was an inch – heavy set with long hair. Duncan had retreated to one of the children’s beds and had the rocket-ship bedspread wrapped around himself. From his vantage point he could see that they only went through the motions with this particular candidate – there was little enthusiasm.
“What was different with him?” he asked afterward
“He’s boring” the little girl said, “we had our fun with him a long time ago.”
The boy chimed in, “Around the time I got her the teddy bear. He was the first big project, the first wholesale change. We tested and tried things…”
The girl grinned, “…but now we have the puppy!” she interupted.
Duncan looked confused, “So you’re telling me that there’s an immortal dog running around?”
Both children smiled, “yup!”
Further conversation was cut off as the children backed away from him. Mist seemed to be seeping out of the bed covers around his ass. In another time and place he might have made a quip about bowels and gas but right he had more important things on his mind. Like leaving this place.
After they had returned to the Watcher’s campus Joe took Methos and the Chinaman to the laboratory complex at the back of the main building. The access panel at the main door opened without even prompting him for a password, he grinned, such a delight to have unlimited access! Duncan was much as they’d left him – dead with a bunch of needles sticking out of his flesh – but Joe was sure that the frequency of the electrical discharges was down from the last time he’d checked.
The Chinaman – or Wang Chun as Methos had dubbed him – hurried over and inspected the body.
“Who did this?” he demanded.
“We dont know. We were hoping you would know.” Joe answered.
Methos looked at Wang and back at Joe and nodded toward the door, “A word?”
They stepped outside and waited for the door to shut before continuing the conversation, “Joe, he says that his art is limited to one person – one immortal – who has to give up their head once a student gains mastery. I dont believe him.”
Joe nodded, “Give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself though. Let’s see what he’s up to.”
Returning to the room they saw that he was preparing to remove a needle.
“Are you sure it’s safe to take that out?” Methos demanded.
“Completely. The feet and hands are a decoy. You should be concerned about the other seven needles. I am very concerned for your friend. What you see is a perversion of my art, an abomination of the highest order. By any rights it should not exist. The line has never been broken.”
Joe frowned, “The line?”
“Im sure that your friend told you – my master gave up his head to me to preserve the secret. I taught no-one.” The old man slipped the needle out of Duncan’s palm, walked around and the other out of his other hand. The two needles were handed to Joe, “they arent needles. Destroy them.”
“Look pal, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck … “
The old man interrupted him, “… then I will eat it, with plum sauce. If you do not believe me, examine them under a microscope.”
The old man removed the needles from Duncan’s feet then tilted the table to vertical. He prepared a second table facing Duncan. As he was doing this Methos was slipping a needle under a microscope and peering down the eyepieces.
“Jesus H Christ Almighty on a skateboard!” he swore, then looked heavenward muttering an appology. “Take a look at his Joe.”
Joe stepped over and peered into the eyepieces. At first he thought he was looking at elephant skin. He looked back up at Methos, “What am I looking at here?”
“Its not metal. It looks alive dont you think?”
Methos rummaged in one of the messy desks drawers. He came up moments later with a nasty looking scalpel. He took the “needle” from Joe and ran the blade along its length, returning it to the microscope. Sure enough, there was some sort of fluid leaking from a few spots where the scalpel had sliced into the surface.
“What the hell are those thing?” he demanded, turning to face the Chinaman. He was unrolling his fist-size fabric container of needles. He handed one to Methos and nodded toward the microscope. Wang’s needle was aged, judging by the texture of it’s metalic looking hide. Methos handed it back to the old man.
“So this is why there can be only a single practitioner of your arts?” he asked.
The old man nodded, “The tools of my trade were handed down from master to student for thousands of years. When my master felt I was ready I became their custodian. Until I have a student they will live with me.”
Joe shook his head, confused, “Live?”
“Yes. They are alive – in the way that trees and snakes might be thought of as being alive. They have no sentience.”
“Do they die?” inquired Methos
“Yes. They feed off a miniscule amount of my life energy, our life energy, to survive. I must be careful to choose them carefully so that each may have sustinence. These – ” he waved his hand at Duncan, “were first starved and have gorged on your friend. The electricity you see is his life essence drawn by the needles and bleeding away now that they are sated. If we do not act he will eventually be no more. He will fade away and be lost to us.”
“That sick.” Joe responded.
Methos looked at the second vertical table, “Whats that for?”
Wang sighed, “For the procedure to work we need to infuse your friend with my energy. I give of myself that others might be healed. I do not know how much it will take, it may cost my life.”
Joe stepped up to the table, “Then take me.”
Methos laughed, “Joe. I dont think you get it. The old man needs an electrical substation, and you’re offering a car battery. You dont have enough juice in you.”
Joe looked to and fro between the two immortals, “OK old man. Why cant he do it?” he asked, hooking a finger in Methos’ direction.
The old man looked thoughtful and responded, “There is no English word for the concept. There needs to be a partity, a balance, equality in their spirits. I have been unable to select a student because I have yet to find one who can be a universal donor, who can give to all.”
Methos cut in, “Like blood tpyes?”
The old man nodded, selecting seven needles from his bundle.
Methos stepped up to the table, “We shared something …” and he heard Joe snigger behind him, “…no not that kind of sharing. When we took down the four horsemen we shared a double quickening.”
The old man walked over to the desk and took the scalpel and handed it to Methos. “The life is in the blood – let me see.”
Methos sliced his palm and the Chinaman laid a needle in the blood droplets that welled up. He closed his eyes and moved the needle close to Duncan’s body. He nodded slowly then opened his eyes, “You are correct. My small friend here confirms the match. Get undressed and join your friend.”
Methos stripped, tossing clothing onto the ruined metal cage in the corner. He returned wearing just a pair of Garfield boxers. Joe pointed and raised an eyebrow, receiving a shrug and grin in return.
The “procedure” involved matching needle for needle the arrangement that Duncan’s body displayed. The old man explained that each needle represented an energy chakra, seven of the living needles for the seven energy chakra points. The placement had been no mistake: Duncan’s attacker knew not only the secrets of his art but also had access to the tools of the trade also.
Methos lay against the vertical table and shivered at its cold touch on his skin. The old man stood on a stool to insert the first two needles – crown of head and slightly above but between his eyebrows. He felt a miniscule buzz – were the needles not only alive but also immortal? The needles at throat, heart and solar plexus were all reasonably easy to accept, slight sting but after that the needles exuded a comforting glow of pleasure as they fed. The insertion of sixth needle made Methos realize where the last needle had to go.
“OK, Joe … if I dont survive but Duncan does, remind him just how much I went through on his behalf…”
With the last needle inserted the Chinaman straightenned up. He moved the tables together and Joe gasped as seven electrical arcs formed joining the two immortals. Methos grunted and stiffened. Painful convulsions wracked his body as life energy poured between him and Duncan. He finally sagged and it looked to Joe as if he’d died. With energy still crackling the Chinaman reached for two needles, starting from the lowest, and extracted them symmaltaneously from the two men. With the removal of the last needle there was silence.
“Now we wait.” explained Wang, “Both will live, or none at all.”
After a minute of silence, Joe figured that to be respectful enough, he turned on the old man and as he opened his mouth to speak he heard a tortured breath from one of the dead immortals closely followed by another. He turned around to see both Methos and Duncan blinking, breathing and looking like they’d both had the stuffing knocked out of them.
“Methos? You look like crap.” Duncan joked painfully.
The older immortal laughed, then doubled over in pain, “You dont look so hot yourself.”
Joe and the chinaman helped them to dress and lead them off to his car, and to a discrete hotel room where they could recover from their shared ordeal.