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Crossroads


by tirnanog


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What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

-- T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," V


Richie Ryan stood at the intersection of the Rue St. Jacques and the Rue Galande, looking across the way at the west front of St. Julien le Pauvre. Saint Julien the Poor is right, he thought. It sure was a run-down looking little place. St. Severin just behind him was much more impressive. Little St. Julien, with the ruined north wall sticking out from the main building, looked like it had been hit by a bomb or something, and the ugly Neoclassical detailing stuck on around the door seemed very out of keeping with the rest of the architecture, even to an untrained eye like his. He was a little disappointed, especially after the build-up Mac had given him about Darius, to discover that his church was such a dive.

He wasn't really sure what he was doing here, anyway. What had seemed like such a good idea an hour ago now felt like a mistake. Hell, being in Paris at all felt like a mistake. Tessa didn't really want or need his company. It was painfully obvious that she would have preferred to be alone on the barge with her anger and anxiety. Mac had only sent Richie along with her to Paris to get them both out of harm's way while he took care of Grayson back in Seacouver. Or Grayson took care of Mac. That was also a possibility, Richie reminded himself grimly.

And Darius, the 2000 year old Immortal priest who kept the shabby church on the corner opposite where Richie was standing, was at the heart of the matter. Grayson's little killing spree was mostly a personal vendetta against Darius. And Tessa, although she hadn't said so, clearly felt the priest was responsible for putting Mac in danger because he had sent that bag of runes asking Mac to protect peace advocate Victor Paulus from being assassinated by Grayson. Richie had been eager to meet Mac's old mentor from the moment the plane had landed, but Tessa had managed to find a million excuses to avoid making the visit—unpacking, cleaning up the barge, stocking the kitchen, making phone calls about the show she was here to curate—anything to keep from thinking about what was really on her mind, anything to avoid the man she considered to blame for it. And her fears for Mac, while understandable, had made her extremely short fused.

Finally Richie had had enough. Tessa had snapped at him for what seemed like the umpteenth time that afternoon, and he had snapped back, so he decide they both needed a little time to cool off. He mumbled something about fresh air and practically ran down the gangplank onto the Quay de la Tournelle. It was a lovely autumn afternoon, and as he strolled west along the Seine, looking across the river at the picturesque flying buttresses and towers of Notre Dame, he started to feel better. Well, almost. Tessa wasn't the only one worried about Mac back in Seacouver, who at this very moment could be squaring off against an 1800 year old evil Immortal who might take his head, or worse. Even Mac hadn't been too certain what might happen if he beat Grayson and took in too much evil from his Quickening.

Suddenly Richie had a brilliant thought. At the cabin, Mac had told him the story of how Darius had been radically changed for the better a long time ago by the Quickening of a Holy Man he had killed right here in Paris. If anybody knew about the life-changing effects of a Quickening, Darius probably would. And Richie was dying to meet him anyway. So he left the Quay and went up to street level into the Latin Quarter, looking for Darius' church. After several wrong turns and frustrating attempts at asking for directions in his non-existent French, he found a bookstore called Shakespeare and Co. in the Rue de la Bucherie, where the owner, a little balding guy named Don Salzer, had pointed him in the right direction.

So here he was, at last, but now that he had found the place, Richie suddenly felt strangely reluctant to go in. Darius was practically a living legend, according to Mac. Maybe he wouldn't even want to talk to me, Richie thought. Plus, Darius was a Roman Catholic priest. Richie's early experiences with Catholics at the orphanage had not been particularly positive. He remembered all too well having his knuckles rapped with a ruler on a daily basis by strict Sister Martha in the second grade, and Father Roy had always looked at him as if he suspected Richie was up to no good (although he was usually right).

Oh, c'mon, Rich, that was ages ago. What are you scared of? The worst Darius can do to you is tell you to mind your own business and slam the door in your face. Taking advantage of a lull in the traffic, he trotted diagonally through the intersection and went through the opening in the iron railings that guarded the tiny forecourt of St. Julien le Pauvre.

The interior of the church was empty, shadowy, and still. Very little traffic noise made it through the thick stone walls. Richie's own footsteps echoing on the stone floor sounded loud in the silence. He stopped for a few seconds just inside the west doors to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He glanced around, taking in the neat rows of hard wooden chairs, the large stone columns of the nave with their carved capitals, and the dark wooden screen decorated with icons that blocked off the apse from the rest of the sanctuary. As he walked down the nave for a closer look at it, a tall man in brown robes stepped through a door in the screen. In appearance, he seemed about Mac's age, or maybe a year or two older, with light brown hair cropped short in a style that might have been popular during the last days of the Roman Empire. He stopped and examined Richie intently for a moment with his penetrating blue-gray eyes, then his thin, ascetic face relaxed into a welcoming smile, and he held out his hand. "I'm Darius," he said in a melodious German accent.

"Richie Ryan. I'm a friend of Duncan and Tessa." The boy took the proffered hand, and his eyebrows shot up. Darius might look like a scholarly monk with his slender build and thoughtful demeanor, but his hands were still a warrior's—large and strong.

"Richie…oh, now I remember. Duncan has spoken of you often in his letters. How nice to see you in Paris! Have you been in town long?"

"Just a couple of days. I came to help Tessa. She's curating a big art show here."

"So Tessa is here as well. I'd love to see her. Why didn't she come with you?"

"Um..well, she's sort of busy…with the show and all, and getting the barge cleaned up. She sends you her best, though." Richie's cheeks burned furiously as he told the fibs. Damn! Usually he was a pretty smooth liar, but Darius had this disconcerting way of looking at you, almost as if he could tell what a guy was thinking…

"I understand. Maybe she can come over for tea later when she has more time," Darius replied as if he hadn't noticed anything amiss. "But since you're here, how about some tea for you? I was just going next door to the rectory to make some."

"Tea…um, yeah, tea would be great!" Richie actually hated tea, but was glad of any excuse to turn the conversation away from Tessa. Besides, this might be the opportunity he had been looking for to pump Darius for information about Quickenings.

At the rectory, Darius left Richie alone in the study while he went to put the kettle on. He managed to sit still for about ten seconds before his curiosity got the better of him and he got up to explore the room. It was a good sized space, but so much was crammed into it that it felt a little cramped. A large four-poster took up most of one corner, indicating that the study also doubled as a bedroom. The rest of the floor space was taken up by a small table with a chess game in progress, a large library table, a prie-dieu, a huge wooden cabinet, and an ornate fireplace. The stone walls themselves were mostly covered with bookshelves crammed with ancient-looking volumes. There were so many books that they spilled off the shelves, and lay in little piles here and there on the floor and on the deep windowsills. Richie picked up a red, leather-bound volume with gold lettering on the spine and opened it. It was in German, printed in an unreadable black-letter font, and the dust from the pages made him sneeze. He put it down hastily and turned to the long table Darius used as a desk. It held, among other things, an antique-looking dial phone, a lamp with a green glass shade, stacks of papers written out in a graceful italic script, an inkstand with an assortment of dip pens, and an open-work metal globe thing that squeaked accusingly when Richie spun it.

"I see you have found my armillary sphere," Darius commented, appearing at the study door with a tray in his hands. "The different bands represent the movements of heavenly bodies in relation to the earth."

Richie turned around quickly. "Oh, yeah. So that's what you call it. Interesting." He stuffed his hands into the back pockets of his jeans. Darius carefully removed the chess board to the desk and set the tea things out on the small table. "I hope you like this," he said, pouring tea into two delicate china cups. "It's one of Duncan's favorites."

Richie sat down at the table and took a big swallow of the tea. Christ! he thought blasphemously as he struggled to control an overwhelming urge to gag. The stuff tasted like old gym shoes smelled. Darius peered at him over the rim of his own cup. "Sugar?" he inquired innocently, the corners of his mouth twitching slightly as he pretended not to notice the expression on the boy's face.

"Thanks," Richie croaked politely, shovelling several large spoonfuls into his cup and stirring vigorously. "So what kind of tea is this?" he asked, making polite conversation, although he wasn't at all sure he really wanted to know the answer.

"Oh, this is one of my own blends. Mostly arctic reindeer moss. It's very good for you. There is a lot of Vitamin C in reindeer moss. I have a friend in Finland who keeps me supplied." Darius took another long draught from his cup. "Mmm," he said, as if savoring the taste. Richie bravely tried another small sip. The sugar hadn't done much to improve the flavor. Surreptitiously, he tried to slip what was in his mouth back into the cup without spewing. As he did so, he shot a glance under his eyelids at Darius, to see if he had noticed, and found the priest watching him with those remarkably intense eyes.

Seeing Richie's guilty expression, Darius snorted and completely lost it. His mouth curved into a wide grin, and his shoulders began to shake with repressed chuckles. Reaching down into a pocket of his habit, he pulled out a can of Classic Coke and tossed it to Richie. "I think it needs a chaser, don't you?" he asked, breaking into a hearty laugh.

After a second's hesitation, Richie joined in. The joke was definitely on him. Who could have guessed that the solemn-looking priest would be capable of such a prank? He popped the top on the can and lifted it in salute. "Here's moss in your eye, guy," he toasted Darius, as the foaming soda spilled down the can onto the table. Darius raised his cup. "Cheers!" he answered, wiping away tears of laughter with the sleeve of his habit. After the mirth had died down a bit, and they had mopped up the spilled Coke, the priest folded his hands on top of the table and looked across at his young guest.

"So, what's on your mind, Richie Ryan? Are you ready to tell me what you really came here for?"

Richie's eyes widened. "How did you know?" he asked in awe.

Darius shrugged. "It's not hard to guess. You're a young man, it's your first time in Paris, it's a beautiful day to be outside watching pretty Parisian girls, and yet here you are, coming to church to visit an old priest. It doesn't take a mind reader to figure out that you have something that you wish to discuss."

Richie nodded, and looked down at the empty soda can in his hands. "I'm worried about Mac taking on Grayson," he admitted. "Tessa's worried sick, too. That's why she's been running around trying to stay busy—she's trying to keep her mind off things. But it's not working very well, for either of us. See, it's not just about whether or not Mac can beat Grayson. I mean, I am worried that Mac might lose, but I'm also afraid of what might happen if he wins. Mac said Grayson is one really old, really bad dude. Suppose Mac takes his head and Grayson's Quickening turns out to be too much for him to handle? Will Mac become evil?"

Darius pondered this for a moment. "A Dark Quickening, you mean. A lot of Immortals have wondered about the same thing over the centuries, but to my knowledge, it has never happened. Not that this means it never could happen. I simply don't know."

"But you actually experienced the exact opposite once, didn't you?" Richie pursued eagerly. "Mac told me about how the Holy Man's Quickening changed you and made you good. Wouldn't that tell you something about whether a Dark Quickening is possible, and what might happen if it is?"

Darius didn't answer. Instead, he got up and went over to the window, and just stood there looking out into the garden. Oh, man! Richie thought in dismay. I blew it! Just when it looked like I was getting somewhere, too. A couple of minutes passed , and still Darius said nothing. Richie decided it might be a good idea to leave, and started to stand up. As he did so, he accidentally jarred the table and sent the empty Coke can rolling noisily across the stone floor. Darius turned around, a faraway look in his eyes.

"Sorry!" the young man said hastily, retrieving the can. "If I was too being too nosy, I apologize. I didn't mean to upset you or anything."

"It's all right, Richie. I'm not upset. I was just thinking." He came back to the table and clapped Richie on the shoulder with one large hand. "There is a nice view of the cathedral from the garden. Why don't we go outside and talk there?"

They found a stone bench under an acacia tree that was so fantastically old it had to be propped up with two concrete supports, and sat there in companionable silence. After a moment, Darius spoke. "I don't really think you need to worry about Duncan becoming evil from Grayson's Quickening. Grayson is very old, yes, and he has done many bad things in his 1800 years. But he is at heart just a self-centered, bitter, and disappointed man. There is no great evil in him, just an obsessive desire for revenge. He has wasted most of his long life and his considerable abilities in his attempts to hurt me. He could have been a great man, but for this."

"So, you're saying if there's a scale of one to ten for Evil, Grayson would be like, what? A five?"

"Something like that, give or take a point. There are much greater evils abroad in the world than Grayson. I believe that the good in Duncan is more than strong enough to handle his petty malice. Duncan may find him a challenging opponent with a sword—there is still that to worry about--but I have no fears for his soul."

"And you believe this because of what happened to you with the Holy Man's Quickening?"

"I believe it because of what I know about Duncan and Grayson. They were both my students, you know." He paused, and added softly, "What happened to me was something else entirely. There is no scale by which that could be measured."

Richie stole a sidelong glance at the priest. The faraway look was back. Darius stared off into space, his face quite still, as if he were gazing through time itself into some distant place. The boy held back the questions he was burning to ask—What was it like? How did it happen? As if he had heard the thoughts, Darius turned back to Richie and asked gravely, "What would you like to know?"

Richie's face lit up. "Everything," he said.



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Darius' Story

If you would understand who I am, you must first know who I was. If you would understand how I came to this place, and this life, you must first know the road that brought me here.

I was born in Northern India around 2000 years ago, an orphan, as all Immortals are. A Brahman family took me in, and raised me in the Hindu faith. They called me Arya, which means "noble" in Sanskrit, and treated me as if I were of their own blood. My adoptive parents were wealthy and respected, and I was, for the most part, accepted in the community. The children still teased me, though, for compared to them I was pale, large and clumsy. They called me Darius, after the Persian king who had invaded Northern India long ago. They meant it as an insult, to rub it in that I was different--an invader, if you will--but I rather liked the name, and wore it like a crown, because it was a king's name, the name of an empire-builder and I wanted to be like that when I became a man.

Later, though, as a young man, I met a bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint, and influenced by his teaching, I became a Buddhist monk, a follower of the Eightfold Path. In those days, before I became Immortal, I was a believer in the possibility of Enlightenment, of achieving union with God through contemplation and detachment from worldly things. A group of monks, myself included, traveled northwest through what is now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to found a new monastery in the wilderness. But one day, on the banks of the Oxus River, which the natives called the Amu Darya, my group was attacked by nomadic tribesmen from the steppes, and we were all killed. That was my First Death, and after that, my entire world changed.

The leader of the tribe was an Immortal, and why he did not take my head then and there, I don't know. Perhaps he didn't think it was worth the taking at the time, but for whatever reason, he became my first teacher. As I learned from him what I was, and about the Game we were part of, I came to see my earlier training and beliefs as a lie, fit only to deceive ignorant mortals, and I fell in love with the idea of living forever, and of possessing the Ultimate Prize. I saw myself as one of a superior race, born to dominate and rule over lesser men, and subject to no laws besides the rules of the Game. Much of this had to do with my teacher's own attitudes. He was an arrogant and brutal man, and power meant everything to him. Under his tutelage, it became everything to me.

He taught me to fight, and when I became good at it, he made me his second in command. Together we led the tribe westward across the steppes, terrorizing, killing and taking whatever we wanted: horses, weapons, supplies, and naturally, women. It was a wild life of violence and pleasure, the complete opposite of everything I had previously known. For a while it pleased me, for I was young, and it was all so exciting and different. But I soon began to see it wasn't leading anywhere. We took what we needed and enjoyed ourselves, living in the moment, but we achieved nothing of lasting value. I was more ambitious and far-thinking by nature, like the Persian king whose name I had assumed, and I had a dream of our tribe conquering and ruling over all the lands from the Urals to the fabled Western Sea.

When I expressed these thoughts to my teacher, he was furious. I suspect he thought I meant to take over his position as leader, and on an unconscious level, perhaps I did. It came to words between us, and then to swords. And I won. I became the new chieftain, and led my warriors into the West like a whirlwind, and nothing could stand against us.

As we progressed, my reputation grew, and other tribes allied themselves with us. Before a century had passed, I was the leader of a vast army of barbarian warriors. Grayson rode at my side. I had discovered him among one of the Germanic tribes that had joined my armies, and recognizing him as Pre-Immortal, I took him for my own and raised him as my son. When he died his First Death at my side in battle, I taught him about his Immortality, and elevated him to the position of my second in command, as my teacher had done for me. He practically worshipped me in those days, and I suppose this made my later betrayal all the harder for him to take. But at the time, I could trust him implicitly. He was ruthless and brutal, but fiercely loyal to me.

The Romans knew us as the Visigoths, the Western Goths, and they soon learned to fear us. We slaughtered Valens' army at Adrianople in 378, and not daring to challenge our power the new Emperor opted to make treaties with us and give us land inside the Empire. A fatal mistake for them, inviting the wolves into the fold. In the early 5th century, using the excuse of a broken treaty, I led the Goths first into Greece, then Italy, and in 410, we took Rome itself. Then we moved northward into Gaul.

We secured most of southern Gaul over the next few years, and I was well on the way to achieving my goal of reaching the sea. Then I received a message from a powerful Ancient Immortal in northern Gaul, in a place the Romans called Lutetia, which is now called Paris after the Parisii, the original settlers. The Holy Man of Paris was influential, and greatly revered throughout the region. I knew that I would eventually have to deal with him in order to completely establish my supremacy in Gaul, and now this Holy Man claimed he wanted to parley with me. I took this as a challenge, and I decided I couldn't allow it to pass. Leaving Grayson in charge of the main army, I took a small force and rode north to either obtain his cooperation, or take his head.

We rode swiftly, making good time to Paris on the main Roman road, which was nine meters wide, smooth and straight, paved with huge stones. A couple of those old stones now sit in the courtyard of the church, near the old well. We encountered little opposition along the way. My reputation as a warrior had obviously preceded me. The main settlement at the time was a walled city on an island, the Ile de la Cité, protected by the arms of the Seine and also to the north by a vast swampland, called the Marais. But a settlement had also sprung up on the Left Bank, where we are now, and it was an important center of trade, being located at the crossing point of two major roads, just at the corner over there where the Rue St. Jacques and the Rue Galande intersect. The roads had been there from ancient times; the Romans merely paved them. When I arrived, the Left Bank appeared deserted. The inhabitants, having been warned of my approach, had all gone to the Island for safety.

It was at the crossroads that we met, the Ancient Immortal and I. I had sensed his presence from a distance as I approached, and this worried me. I had never faced one so powerful before. But when I actually saw him, my fear evaporated. He wasn't even a warrior--he was just a priest! A grubby little provincial priest at that.

He must have been middle-aged when he got his First Death--a small man, balding, with a bearded, unprepossessing face, wearing the simplest of rough clothing, and standing there barefoot with mud on his legs. He had built a small oratory near the crossroads, out of wood and thatch, a rather poor structure, and next to it stood a hostel for travelers, equally humble. As I arrived with my soldiers at my back, he came out of the chapel, weaponless, and stepped into the road to bar my way. I looked at him, and at his small group of solemn monks gathered off to the side, and wanted to laugh. It was ridiculous. How could this puny priest and his followers, none of whom carried a sword, presume to threaten me? I rode right up to him, forcing him to back up a step to avoid being trod on, but he didn't turn and run as I had hoped. Instead, he met my gaze steadily, with eyes that were serene and blue.

"So where is your sword, Old One?" I taunted him. "How do you propose to stop me from killing you where you stand and sacking your city?"

A look of determination came into his eyes then, and he actually had the audacity to smile at me. He extended his arms out to the sides, palms forward, the very personification of the Christian Cross. "Your only way is through me, Soldier," he said. But although most of my soldiers were Arian Christians, and for practical reasons I had nominally accepted the faith, I thought their beliefs were superstitious nonsense. Religion no longer held any sway over me. However, I understood well the power it held over others. For the benefit of my soldiers, as well as any others who might be watching from hiding, I had to deal with this man quickly and forcefully, lest the situation get out of hand.

"Do you know who you are addressing, Priest?" I drew my sword and held it up for him to see. It was a splendid gladius, with a gold hilt which terminated in an eagle's head with rubies for eyes. I had taken it from a Roman general at Adrianople. "I am Darius of the Goths," I told him loftily, "And no one stands in my way and lives."

He did not appear impressed. "I know exactly who you are, Soldier--Arya, the noble one, born into the light, Darya, the river that flows through the wilderness, Darayavahush, Possessor of Good. You are the one who does not know who he is, Darius of the Goths, taker of life, would-be ruler of the world. You have no idea what your role in all this is, do you?"

Then he stepped closer, and spoke softly in a voice only I could hear. "You shouldn't be taking part in this, Darius. You have been entrusted with a great gift. Our kind should use the gift of Immortality to help those who are not so blessed, not for domination. Nor should we Immortals fight each other. You believed once in finding inner peace through contemplation and right action. You sought the truth and the light. Have you forgotten so much in 400 years? Has power so blinded you that you no longer see the Path?"

I hesitated for a second, wondering how he knew about my past. But then I grew angry. He was merely trying to trick and confuse me, to divert me from my purpose. "You know nothing about me, Old One. How dare you lecture me about my duty to humanity? I know all I need to about mortals--they have brief, pointless existences and then they die. Whether I kill them or not, they all die. And they are little better than animals. Why bother to help them? They were born to be our subjects and servants. We are Immortal, and one of our kind is destined to rule the world. That's how I see my role--as that One. And as for you, your part in this is over. There can be only One!"

I drove my horse at him, but the beast would not obey no matter how deeply I cut him with my spurs. In a fury, I dismounted and went for the priest on foot. He waited for me, arms still outstretched, like a father welcoming his long-lost son. And as I swung my blade in the stroke that ended his life, he looked at me with those still serene eyes, and said a few words in an ancient language, words that I recognized from my past in India long ago:

"The Eternal in man cannot kill, the Eternal in man cannot die."

Then he and his head parted company and fell sprawling at the center of the crossroads. A great cloud of glowing white mist rose up from it, driving my soldiers and the frightened monks before it, and engulfing everything that stood in its path. It was so dense and bright that I was blinded by it. Then the Old One's Quickening took me like a white-hot firestorm. My body was racked by violent spasms and burning with unbearable pain, my mind seared, wiped clean, and overwritten by the passage of his energy. He had spoken of himself as if he were a gate that I must pass through, but it was he who passed though me, like Vajra, the Diamond Thunderbolt, Bringer of Truth, sudden, adamant and pure.

When it was over, I was alone. Everyone else had fled, terrified by the strange mist and the lighting that had sprung from it. It was raining hard, and the rain washed away the Ancient One's blood from the stones and from my hands. His body was gone, and my sword was gone, too, vanished into the mist which still lingered, glowing slightly, around me. I sat in the rain at the center of the crossroads, naked (for my clothes had been torn away), weaponless, and as helpless as an infant. If another Immortal had chanced by, I would have been easy prey. But I couldn't have cared less. My mind was emptied out, and stood open like a cup waiting to be filled. I have no idea how long I sat there. Time had lost all meaning. But eventually someone came to me.

He was an Immortal, for I could feel his presence, although I no longer recognized what the feeling meant. He was a tall man, with thick silver hair, curly like a sheep's pelt, and eyes that burned like coals deep under his shelving brow, and there was something rather noble and lion-like about his face. He was dressed in the same rough robes as the Ancient Immortal had worn, dark gray-brown in color, belted with rope, and he was barefoot. He didn't speak, but just looked deeply into my eyes for a moment. Then he picked me up in his powerful arms as easily as one might lift a child, and carried me the short distance to the hostel.

They took care of me there, he and the other holy brothers. They had to--like a newborn child, I couldn't do anything for myself at first. They fed, washed and dressed me, kept me warm, and sang to me, chanting strange words in their harmonius male voices. They talked to me as well, and encouraged me to talk to them, but I could not recognize the words, and simply mimicked the sounds. Soon, I could once again associate certain words with people, things, actions. I formed a rather special bond with their leader, the brother who had found me, because I knew we were in some way alike. He told me that his name was Daray. This sounded strangely familiar, but I didn't understand why. My name, the one they gave me to use, anyway, was Paul, the name of the apostle who had been struck blind on the road to Damascus by a vision of Christ.

My sense of time and connection with people and things eventually grew more well-defined. It helped that the brothers had a very predictable routine. Each waking hour had a task, a prayer, and a song. My life fitted in easily with the rhythms of their days, and as I grew stronger, I joined the brothers in their work, looking for all the world like one of them, in the gray-brown robes which they had made for me.

Inevitably, one day a group of armed horsemen came galloping up the Roman road from the south. They came to the oratory and the hostel at the crossroads, looking for a missing comrade, and demanding to see the new brother Paul who had arrived around the same time as the man they were seeking had disappeared. Daray brought the news to me as I was working in the kitchens baking bread. "You don't have to talk to them, Paul," he said, sensing my alarm. "But they say they know you, and declare they will not leave without seeing you."

So I went with him to the oratory where the leader of the soldiers was waiting. As I got to the door, I felt the presence of another Immortal, one who was not Daray. And then I saw Grayson, exhausted by his long journey, but still carrying himself like a soldier, dressed in his battle harness, sword at his side. And all at once, I remembered. Remembered who he was, who I had been, how I had come to be here, what I had done. And it was as if I saw all these things through new eyes, and a new understanding. The memories fell on me like a rain of great stones, and I wanted to cry out, but could not. I felt Daray behind me, his hand on my arm, holding me up so I would not fall, because my knees had turned to water.

Grayson crossed the room and stared in disbelief at the pale, shaken man who had once been his commanding officer. His face was a study in shock and concern. "Darius?" he said, reaching out to embrace me, "It's Grayson. Do you remember who I am? When your troops came back without you, talking of magic and saying that you had vanished without trace, I rode here as soon as I could to find you. What has happened to you? Tell me you remember who you are!"

I did remember, but the knowledge made me sick with horror. All that I was, all that I had been, was anathema to me now. I looked into the anxious eyes of my friend, but all I could see were the eyes of the Ancient One I had killed. I found my voice then, and said, "Grayson, it is over. Disband the armies and send them away. I cannot lead them any longer."

He refused to believe me. Tried persuasion. Argued with me. Finally told me I was a fool. "How can you just throw away everything we have worked for, Darius? You are the greatest commander the world has ever known! Have you forgotten your vow to rule all of Europe from the Ural Mountains to the sea? You have come too far to give up now. The sea is just a few day's ride from here! We can go there together! Come with me!"

I refused him, again and again. It was painful for me to do this, for we had been very close. He was more than my second in command--he was my adopted son, and my best friend on earth, and I hurt him deeply with my rejection. Finally he gave up. His look of pain was replaced by one of frustration and rage. I thought he might kill me then and there, Holy Ground notwithstanding. But he didn't. Instead, he spat on me, turned on his heel and walked out. Before he went through the door, he paused and snarled a warning, "You'd better plan to stay on Holy Ground for the rest of your life, Darius, because if I ever catch you outside of sanctuary, you're a dead man." Then he rode away. My best friend had just become my lifelong enemy.

After Grayson had left, I stood there in the oratory, downcast and uncertain about what to do. Despite his threat, I felt I had no right to remain here among these good brothers after the crime I had committed against them. I thought perhaps I ought to leave and let Grayson or some other Immortal end my life as quickly as possible. Seeing my distress, Daray tried to help me. "Come, Brother, it is finished. Let us pray together, that you might find healing."

I shrugged off his hand. "I am not your brother, Daray. I am the one who murdered your brother. How can you bear to call me by that name?"

"Because the Eldest asked us to." Daray said simply, as if that were all that needed to be said.

"Are you saying that this Ancient Immortal knew beforehand what was going to happen? How could he know?"

"He was the Eldest of our kind on the earth, Brother," Daray said reverently. "He knew many things which the world has since forgotten, and many things which have yet to come to pass. He knew of your coming and your mission long before you arrived here, and it troubled him greatly. The other barbarian invaders were only mortal, he told me, and while they would cause chaos and destruction, they would pass away in time. You were Immortal, and the Eldest knew that what your ambition had set in motion would have far more lasting consequences if you were allowed to continue. But he could not battle you warrior against warrior. His power had always been of the Spirit and not of the sword. And so he sent to you, hoping that his spirit could prevail where weapons could not, in death if necessary. And it has. By his death, you were reborn."

I remembered the "challenge" the Ancient One had sent to me, which had brought us to that fateful meeting at the crossroads. He had taken a great chance, hoping to appeal to the man of peace I had been before I became Immortal, knowing full well how the encounter might end. But realizing the great sacrifice he had made was no comfort to me--it merely added to the already enormous weight of my guilt.

As if he had read my thoughts, Daray said, "Your death would change nothing, brother, and honor no one. Do not waste the gift of his spirit which is within you. Live, and remember, so that the sacrifice he made will not have been in vain."

"But how can you forgive me? How can I forgive myself?" I asked, "I no longer feel I can stay here, burdened with the knowledge of what I have done."

Daray said patiently. "If forgiveness is what you crave, then forgive yourself, and accept the gift with grace. Between us, it has never been a question of forgiveness, Brother, but of acceptance. Do you remember the last words the Eldest spoke to you?"

"They were the words Krishna spoke to the great warrior Arjuna on the battlefield, in the Bhagavad Gita," I answered slowly. " 'The Eternal in man cannot kill, the Eternal in man cannot die'."

"Do you remember what comes just before? 'If any man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain, neither knows the ways of truth.' In the realm of the Spirit, nothing has been lost, and there is nothing to forgive. The Eldest believed this, and so do I. How can you do any less? You were a great warrior and leader of men--be one still. We Immortals have our own battle, but it is not against mankind or against each other, whatever you may have been told. The greatest wars are not fought on earthly battlefields, Darius, but within the minds and souls of men. This same Krishna also said, 'There is no greater good for a warrior than to fight in righteous war.' Will you join me in this fight?"

How could I refuse him? Despite my doubts, he persuaded me to remain with the monks and strive to continue the work the Holy Man had begun there. It was long before I could do as Daray asked and forgive myself for what I had done. At first, I thought of my work as a self-imposed penance to atone for my sin. But Daray would not let me get away with it. He forced me to face myself, and insisted that I go back to using my old name, because, he said, to deny what I was would be to deny what I am. "Besides," he told me, "It's a perfectly good name. I know, because it is mine as well. Before I became Immortal, I was known as Darius II, a Persian king of the same dynasty as the Darius you are named for. So, you see, we are brothers in more ways than one." And with his help, I left the shadows to walk once more in the Light. We served there together for more than four centuries, until the Normans came. They burnt the hostel and oratory, and we parted ways to go to different monasteries until such time as we could rebuild. I later returned here, and he did not. But the bond we shared has survived over time and distance, and I still count him my dearest friend on earth.

As for my former friend, when Grayson returned to the army, he told them I was dead, and forbade any mention of my name in his presence thereafter. He even went so far as to remove my name from all the Goth chronicles, and did everything in his power to destroy or alter every document he could find that recorded my deeds or even my existence. While he could not kill me outright on Holy Ground, he could at least see to it I was forgotten by history. He didn't disband the armies as I had asked, but neither did he possess my abilities as a leader, and some of the men would no longer follow him, especially those who had served with me for many years. But he went on with the forces he had left, into Spain, and did what I had vowed to do--he reached the sea, and helped to create a Visigothic kingdom that encompassed southern Gaul and most of the Spanish peninsula. In the first part of the 6th century, the Visigoths lost their holdings in Gaul to the Franks, and in the 8th century, the Moors overran Spain, destroying all that they had achieved there. Afterwards, Grayson left Spain and became a mercenary, fighting for whoever would pay him the most, not caring whether the cause was just, as long as the money was good. He went on several Crusades, fought on both sides in the Hundred Years War, and was involved in countless other campaigns. In this century, he fought on the side of Germany in both World Wars, and now he has turned to illegal arms dealing and international terrorism. His underground organization has branches all over the world. But in all this time, after 1500 years, he has never forgotten or forgiven me.



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"Wow," Richie said quietly when Darius had finished. "That is awesome. And to think that I'm actually here in the place where all this happened. I walked through that crossroads on the way here, right over the spot where you took that Quickening. It's unbelievable."

"Oh, you can believe it, all right," Darius said with a wry little smile. "You have the word of the one who lived it."

"But there's something I don't quite understand, though. That thing you were quoting from, that the Holy Man and Daray also knew about, it was Indian, right? But this happened here in France, and weren't all those monks Catholics?"

"You're right, yes. The Christian church was fast becoming the dominant religion in Europe, and all the mortal monks were Christian. We Immortal ones adopted and observed its forms and rituals because we felt that was the best way we could meet the spiritual needs of the people in that time and place. But our Immortality had afforded us a unique perspective. The Ancient One had been a priest of countless religions in his time, Daray had been a Zoroastrian, and I had been, as I told you, a Hindu and a Buddhist, and nominally an Arian Christian. Yet together we shared a belief in One who set the universe in motion, and in the Immortality of the Spirit. The Spirit we believed in transcends all the various forms and names mankind has assigned to it over the centuries, and remains timeless, ageless, and ever One. People try to limit the Eternal to something that they can understand, because the human mind has its limits, yet the Eternal itself is limitless. Does that make any sense?"

Richie nodded thoughtfully. "When you put it that way, it does. So, is Daray still a monk? Do you guys ever get together to talk about old times?"

"I haven't seen him for a few years, no, but he still writes and calls frequently, from wherever he happens to be. He left the Franciscan Order awhile ago, and now he travels a great deal, and doesn't stay very long in the same place. But he always knows that I am here, and we have remained close."

"I hope I get the chance to meet him one day," Richie said. "He sounds like a cool guy."

"I hope so, too. I think you two would like each other."

They sat for awhile, each lost in his own thoughts, until the sound of a telephone coming through the open window of the study broke the reverie. Darius went inside to answer it. A few moments later, he called to Richie from the window. "It's Tessa!" the priest announced excitedly. "She's on her way over now. Mac just called her from the airport and he's coming to meet her here."

"Yes!" Richie shouted, jumping into the air like a little kid.

It was a joyous reunion. Tessa got there first, beaming and breathless. She wanted to apologize to Richie for her earlier bad temper, but he wouldn't hear of it. They were both so relieved Mac was OK that their earlier spat was mutually forgotten, as was any resentment Tessa had harbored against Darius. She greeted him with a kiss on the cheek, and actually made him blush.

Darius sensed Mac coming before anyone actually saw him, and hurried out of the church door to embrace his old friend and former student, with Richie and Tessa close behind. Mac looked tired, but seemed otherwise to be his usual self despite having taken Grayson's head to protect Victor Paulus. Darius was obviously relieved and happy that Duncan had been victorious, but Richie thought he could detect a little sadness in the priest's eyes when he spoke of Grayson, sadness perhaps for the unfortunate waste the man's life had been.

Later, as they were ready to leave, Duncan pulled Darius aside and said, "Rich tells me you two spent some time today getting to know each other. I hope he didn't talk your ear off."

"No, no, no," Darius replied with a chuckle. "As a matter of fact it was the other way around!"

"That'll be the day. I didn't know you'd taken up doing miracles, Darius. Or are you casting spells now?"

"I really like your young protégé, Duncan. I think he has a lot of potential. You're doing a good job."

Duncan winked at him. "Well, I had a good teacher." He and Tessa waved goodby and went off arm in arm, with Richie trailing slightly behind. As the boy reached the opening in the iron railings, Darius stopped him and shook his head.

"I think they need a little time alone together," he said quietly. Then he placed something in Richie's hand. "This is for you," he said, "A little piece of my history."

"Way cool!" Richie looked curiously at the small ivory-colored piece of bone. It was a runestone like the ones Darius had sent to to Duncan, with a symbol scratched into the worn surface. "Looks like an X. So does that stand for 'X marks the spot' or 'X, the unknown quantity'?" he asked jokingly.

Darius laughed. "Well, depending on the context, it could mean either of those things, or you could also read it as the symbol for the crossroads."

"But what does it mean in the rune language, the one you taught to Mac?" Richie wanted to know.

"In the old Germanic rune alphabet, this symbol represents the same sound as the English letter G," Darius explained. "It's name is 'gebo', and it means 'gift.' "

Richie pondered this for a second, and then a sudden glimmer of understanding crossed his face. "Thanks," he said, as he turned to go. Darius watched the young man dart across the intersection, narrowly avoiding an oncoming car. We all believe we are Immortal at that age, he thought with a smile. And for some, it is true.


the end
finis


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