Part Twenty-One: The River and other Tales
Ash sat on the deck in the weak daylight, trying to meditate, trying to stop the thoughts rushing through her mind. Could she save him? Was she strong enough? She had to focus, to find the still place inside herself that had become harder and harder to reach, too many distractions, too many feelings, confusing her, diverting her from her purpose, muddying waters that should be clear. It had been easier before finding MacLeod, when she could drift through life, finding and killing those Immortals who needed killing. Except for Jacob Kell. That one she hadn’t tried to find, hadn’t dared to find, she’d known she had no chance against him, not after he had fulfilled the conditions required by the manuscript.
She couldn’t still her thoughts and gave up even trying to still her body, shivering in the cold wind, standing up, going to the rail, staring into the river at the images floating in the reflections of the clouds sliding on its distorted black mirror. The images were violent, ugly visions of a past she would much rather forget, if forgetting were only possible.
She was only distracted from this dark meditation when Joe drove up onto the quay and got out of the Jeep, limping up the ramp. Ash turned from her contemplation of the dark water with a small smile and sad eyes.
“Did Mac wake up all right?” Joe was concerned; the look on her face was as bleak as the gray sky overhead.
“Well, let’s leave it at he woke up. He was very angry and he’s severely depressed. It won’t be easy to help him out of this, and I’m afraid he won’t cooperate. I’m really afraid he’ll just withdraw from all attempts to help him.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He doesn’t feel he’s worthy of any help.” The bleakness had reached her voice.
Ash turned back and resumed her staring into the water, looking into the past with distant eyes. Joe could see her too clearly, and she wanted to shield him as much as she could. She began to tell him something else, anything to distract him and herself.
“There was an old monk at Kopan who knew about Immortals. He felt we were cursed, victims of karma so terrible that we had to drag our entire memories with us. For mortals karma is a wheel that turns and stops, allowing the soul to rest, to find a brief peace before beginning the next incarnation, all memory erased. But Immortals seldom get to rest, rarely find any peace, and never forget. He compared our karma to a river, doomed to go on and on. We only end by flowing into another river, until all the rivers become one.”
Ash shook her head and sighed. “But it always makes me wonder about the topography. Is the landscape the rivers flow through preordained? Are we fated to go precise places at predetermined times? Why was I on that certain Parisian street that night? Why was I driven to choose that particular day in Auschwitz to die?”
Joe remained silent, standing in the cold current of air coming off the water. He didn’t want to distract her, he knew she was about to reveal a piece of her anguish, and he wanted so much to know what drove her to be a deliberate outcast.
Ash went on, almost as if she were talking to herself.
“We were gassing Gypsies that day. They’d been rounded up by a Death’s Head unit and brought to Birkenau for extermination. One woman had stripped in the outer room and had hidden a baby in her clothes and left it behind in the hope that somehow it would be allowed to live, or maybe it was just that she couldn’t bear to watch it die with her. I found it. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but it was the first time I had been the one to find it. I held it in my arms and it looked up at me with the most trusting expression I have ever seen, and something inside me just caved in. I walked out of the gas chamber, out to the tracks. I don’t know what I was hoping to do, to get away, save it somehow, I don’t know. I heard shouting. I was being warned to stop, but I couldn’t let them have the baby and I started to run. I couldn’t outrun the bullet that ripped through my back and chest, and then blew the baby’s head apart. A high-powered rifle will do that, especially if the first body it goes through is as emaciated as I was. The last thing I saw was the spray of blood, brain, and shards of china-white skull. My last hope was that they would throw me in the crematorium and incinerate me before I could come back, that if I my body were totally destroyed I could never come back. My next sight was the sneering face of an S.S. Sturmbahnfuhrer called von Kaltenberg.”
In her desire not to think about what she was facing she had oddly come around to it again, as if she had no direction of escape.
Joe noticed how distracted Ash was, how deeply disturbed. He knew how fragile she really was and he worried about her, her stability, her strength. How long could she continue to hold up under the strain? Two thousand years. He’d wondered how MacLeod went on after four hundred years, but the pain of two thousand years of living was beyond his power to imagine.
“What is it Ash? What are you trying to hide from me?” Joe spoke so softly the words were nearly carried off by the wind.
“Why is it I can hide from everyone but you?”
Ash sounded almost angry and turned around, looking at him, but there was no anger in her eyes, only sorrow.
“Would you like another story?”
Joe might have thought she was joking again, except for those eyes.
“Once upon a time before time there was an evil Immortal who made a covenant with whatever dark powers he could conjure up. The contract was for power, power over other Immortals, the power to defy the rules of the Game, the power to destroy. Like all contracts there were conditions and a price to be paid. The price was the death of thousands, mortal and Immortal. It would dole out its power according to your death toll until you killed enough to receive all its power, but like all deals with the devil there was a catch. You had to reach the full total in one hundred years or you would lose everything. In those long-ago days there were few large settlements, and killing with a sword takes a little time. Even with the allowed help of enthusiastic followers killing the required number in the required time was virtually impossible. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that someone managed to fulfill the conditions, and the dark powers finally had to pay up. But not for long, because the one who succeeded didn’t enjoy his triumph for very long, killed by another Immortal. Or so you would think, but the power doesn’t end with death. The loser transfers with the Quickening and lives on in the body of the victor, separate, malevolently intelligent, tormenting him, making him torment others.”
“Jacob Kell fulfilled that covenant and now he’s torturing Duncan, an evil power, able to possess Duncan’s body and make him do things that torment him in an effort to drive him insane. The worst of it is that MacLeod doesn’t even know it; the influence is so subtle. He thinks it’s all his own doing and his own fault.”
“Other than tormenting Mac, what would Kell get out of this?”
“If he can drive MacLeod insane he can take over his body permanently. Duncan’s suicide was a last-ditch attempt to truly defeat Kell, to take him out of this world for good, even though Duncan didn’t realize that was what was driving him to it.”
“You said this thing is a contract, is it written down? Would Kell have kept it close to him? The Watchers went over Kell’s place carefully and took everything that looked like a book or manuscript into safekeeping.” Joe’s eyes narrowed in thought.
“In a manner of speaking it’s a manuscript, but you would have to know what to look for. It’s not a manuscript of the common type you’re thinking of. For one thing it’s written on gold, though it can change its appearance. For those seeking the Holy Grail it appeared as a chalice, for others it has other attractive disguises. It’s written in a tongue so ancient there is no Immortal alive who can read it, not until you touch it. Then its meaning and knowledge seeps into you like a poison that has no antidote. It plays in your head like the sweetest voice you’ve ever heard, singing the most beautiful song with the most profane words. You want to listen. Listen and it corrodes your life. Learn its words and you lose your soul.” Ash shivered, but not from the cold air.
“It should be destroyed.”
Ash laughed. “You can’t destroy it. It won’t burn or melt. Throw it in the sea it will wash up, drop it down a deep well and it finds its way out. The Watchers won’t be able to keep it. It will escape you, it seeks those Immortals it can corrupt and pervert. The only ones who have ever succeeded in using its power were as evil as it is.”
“How can we hope to fight it?” Joe’s words were a visible mist in the chill air, quickly torn apart by the wind.
“Now that’s a very good question.”
Her voice was colder than the wind, the look on her face frightening, her eyes shining with a fanatical intensity, and Joe wondered for the first time if Ash was entirely sane.
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