X-Factor: Chapter 6: Rivers

Author's notes: THANK YOU TO ALL MY REVIEWERS!! Sorry this is a bit later than planned. I wrote the second half of the chapter while on vacation in Guatemala and then lost my notebook. I do hope this is intelligible and that you enjoy. Everyone you recognize from Jericho, Ahriman, Methos, and Matthew are not mine.

X-Factor: Chapter 6: Rivers

Eric

I kept a close watch on Jake out of the corner of my eye. He was sullen this morning despite the thaw we were enjoying and experience had taught me that sullen Jake was generally a Jake planning something spectacularly stupid. That he was still sullen on horseback was unprecedented. I'd always had the impression that riding was as close to Zen as Jake got. He might love flying but it wound him up, riding always calmed him down and brightened his entire outlook on the universe except today.

The letter and talisman were dragging my inner coat pocket down as if they were made of something far heavier than lead. If Dad realized I'd taken them to give to Jake, I shivered blaming it on the cold. Except Jake had a right to know, it didn't matter if I believed it or not. So much of both our lives made more sense when you added Dad's fear and Grandfather's belief into the equation. Like Grandfather's insistence that I learn to ride and hunt neither of which I had the slightest interest in. Jake had already carved them out as things he excelled in. By the time I was old enough for guns and horses I'd given up on trying to best Jake on his own ground. Jake was rapidly becoming the 'problem child' and I was on a mission to be the 'good boy'. I had none of Jake's knack with animals and no desire to prove it but Grandfather had been adamant. Insisting that I would thank him on the day when I couldn't drive. I'd scoffed until Dad had pointed out that there were plenty of places where a horse was better than truck. When I'd heard about Gray accusing Dad of murder when Mr. Remy died I had been ready to pound him with a baseball bat. Now, I wasn't so certain Dad wasn't guilty. We should have been better prepared. Grandfather had kept the shelters meticulously stocked and the info up to date. Granted Dad had had the town hall shelter in good shape but he'd let everything else slide. How many things could have been done differently?

A shove that almost took me out of the saddle yanked my attention back to the here and now. Jake had urged Fire ahead before I could return the favor. "This isn't a pleasure ride" he snarled "pay attention."

"He might come back" I said without much conviction to his back. He shouldn't even be using that ankle but the only person I'd ever met with a prayer of out stubborning Jake was Dad and he had been all for getting him back in the saddle.

"No, he won't" Jake retorted with the Green authority that I just didn't have. It would be nice to believe that it was an offshoot of the family 'magic' but Grandfather hadn't been able to 'hear' animals anymore than I could and he'd had it in spades. I started to reach into my jacket to give Jake what was left of the bag and the coded letter that went with it but my nerve failed, again. Mom and April were already furious with me I didn't have the guts to rile Dad up too. Besides maybe it was for the best.

Yeah, right. It certainly wasn't for the best for the undead werewolf, probably wasn't for the best for Jake either. I'd been carrying it around for two days since Pal had vanished and just couldn't seem to gather the courage to do it. I was a damn coward.

Jake suddenly hauled Fire up and around.

"What?" I asked yanking my shotgun free. Jake had a nose for trouble that would put the best bloodhound to shame but instead of pulling a gun he pulled his walkie-talkie.

"Bill you guys have your ears on?" We were preciously hoarding the few working walkie-talkies and their batteries so even on patrol the talkies weren't always on.

"Something moving?" Bill's voice in reply.

"What's up?" Stanley's in the background. He wasn't supposed to be back out on patrol anymore than Jake.

"Have the auxiliary mounted patrol meet me on the river bank near the Millers. And come at a gallop."

"Why?"

"Trouble" Jake retorted as he kicked the gelding into a flat out run. I gave Chief a quick kick but the big bay I was riding today didn't have a prayer of keeping up with the quick Thoroughbred / Quarter horse cross.

Jake

Eric had that look. The 'I've done something I shouldn't and I need to confess but someone is going to be pissed at me' look. God, I was not in the mood to deal with one of Eric's confessions, assuming that he ever gathered the nerve to say something given his phobia of making anyone mad. I considered just point blank asking him since as April had put it sometimes Eric needed a good swift kick in the ass to get him moving.

I drew a deep breath trying to find the calm alertness that being on a horse always gave me but I just could not shake the nagging sense that I had SERIOUSLY screwed up somehow. I'd lost dogs and horses I'd had for years and while it had hurt it had never felt as WRONG as Pal being gone. Mom hadn't wanted me back out and she would be having fits if she knew I was on a horse instead of planted at a checkpoint but Dad had practically pushed me out the door and onto Fire. Granted I'd been a bit snarly but…I noticed that Eric was paying even less attention than I was so I gave him a shove to rattle us both back to reality. The first words out of his mouth rubbed salt in the wound. Was it that obvious?

"No, he won't" I snapped rapping Fire hard enough that he grunted.

Feeling like a heel I started to pull up to apologize to both my brother and my horse when a wash of icy cold more brutal than being trapped under the truck washed over me, the sound of a boy yelling, a desperate snap that yielded only a mouthful of frigid water and trailing hair, swirling muddy water. Pal! I snatched at my handheld transceiver. The flash had vanished as quickly as it had come. I'd convinced myself that he'd left town but that crystal clear moment of contact had been SENT as a plea in hopes that I would hear as a desperate call for help. Something ugly had happened at the river involving Pal and kids.

I gritted my teeth. Fire was the fastest horse I had ever ridden but a jackhammer would probably give a smoother ride. My ankle would just have to get over it. We cleared a fence and I whited out for a second before a familiar voice calling "Mr. Jake, Mr. Jake, you gotta save 'em." pulled me back

I had a moment of serious déjà vu when my little friend Lucas from The Day a lot thinner, a little more threadbare, and even more desperate blinked up at me.

"What happened?" I demanded wondering how long it would take backup to arrive.

"We were ice fishing" What had they been thinking? A week ago everyone had been out but the river had been frozen solid then. The day after the faux marines had left we'd had heavy snow followed by a warm front and rain. The ice would have been pockmarked with weak points and the river raging beneath.

"How many?" I demanded.

"Just me and Julie. Your wolf was barking and barking so I went to see what he wanted but she had a fish on the line. Just as I got to the wolf the ice broke. Your wolf went in after her. You gotta save them."

"You stay here. Eric and Bill are on their way." I grabbed the transceiver "Stanley, are you out there?"

"Yeah, what the hell is going on Jake?"

"Couple of kids were ice fishing."

"How many in the water?" And people think Stanley's stupid.

"Just one, Julie. Pal went in after her. Get something we can put a stretcher in out to the bridge."

"You got it."

I whirled Fire and kicked him into a gallop while reaching. I brushed against Chief. Eric had nearly caught up but I wasn't getting anything from Pal. If he had been a regular dog that would have been a very bad sign but he came and went so much I didn't know what to think. Eric bellowed at me to wait. I hesitated, two sets of eyes were better than one.

He pulled up "What happened?"

"The kids were ice fishing. Pal got one off the ice before it collapsed then he went in after Julie."

"Are you picking up anything?"

Eric had given me no end of grief about my 'supposed' ability. Now he was treating it as if he believed it was real. I glared at him and he drew a deep breath. Julie didn't have TIME for this. I turned Fire but Eric blocked me with the sturdier Chief as he held out a few tattered scraps of ancient looking leather, feathers, and beads.

"Take it, it'll help."

I gave him a dubious glance but snatched it, anything to get us….I couldn't breathe, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't breath, and the icy water was rapidly leeching my strength. I scrabbled desperately at the ice as the current flung us back to the surface. My lungs were burning, crying for air, spots dancing before my eyes, vision darkening. I started to shake my head without thinking until the taste of blood in my mouth reminded me of how I'd gotten into this in the first place. Little fools, where the hell were their parents? Can't breathe, can't breathe. The river rolled me again slamming us both against the bottom. I kicked off angling toward the shore hoping if I could get into the shallows I would at least have better leverage. I took a couple of desperate gasps getting a paw through the hole trying to get the girl up into the air but the river denied me the opportunity. What had I done (recently) to offend Neptune and Volturnus? I sent a plea to both along with Statilinus….

"Jake! Jake!" Eric was shaking me while both horses snorted nervously.

"I'm ok" I was feeling everything Pal was as he was tossed like a leaf in a tornado under the river but I was ok. They were even further downstream than I would have thought. I lashed Fire leaving Eric to eat my dust for a second time as the river spun poor Pal like a cork.

Fire easily leapt a second fence as we raced along the river. Pal had gotten a nose up through the ice twice more but the glimpses of sky didn't tell me if I was catching up or falling behind. I actually yelped as Pal's side slammed into something mercilessly solid. He spun round losing his grip on Julie's arm as ribs shattered.

"Get her!" I shouted. Fire flicked his ears back and nearly unseated me when he pulled a quarter horse sprint out of nowhere. Pal kicked off what I belatedly realized was one of the bridge supports snapping and diving after the girl's waterlogged body as it rolled along the bottom like a tumbleweed in a dust storm…

I called on Abeona and Adeona whose place it was to protect children when they were out of their parents' sight, on Volturnus Lord of Rivers, Egeria Lady of the waters, to the Lars of the House of Romulus from whence I came, and in final desperation to the crucified Judean criminal she undoubtedly worshiped but my jaws closed on nothing but muddy water. I dug into the bottom surging forward broken ribs screaming in protest and at last my jaws closed on the heavy sodden fabric of her coat. Kicking off I strained for the surface, scrabbling in wild desperation against the ice, whining in protest as I felt Viduus approaching making this not only a battle against a mere mortal river but against the baneful Lethe beyond whose bank I could not venture….

I gagged, coughing and trembling as I leaned low over Fire's neck. It wasn't the first time I'd felt one of my dogs die but never so close. It was as if my own heart had given up the fight, as if the breath that had been stolen was my own as water invaded my lungs, as if the river water had frozen my own limbs. Fire started to slow but I slapped him with the reins and cursed as the curve of the river brought us within easy reach of the bridge. So damn close. God, it wasn't fair! I wanted to protest but there was no justice in this world.

Eric

Damn him! Always charging in, never thinking anything through, like the fact he'd just gone off cross-country on a horse that fell through more jumps than he cleared though if anyone could get him over the fences it would be Jake. I knew I should have put Jake on Chief this morning then I would have had a chance of keeping up, at least until we ended up tangled in a fence or ended up under him when he slipped and fell in this slushy muck. It wasn't until we were past the bridge that I caught sight of him and only because he'd slowed to an amble.

He swiped at his eyes as I rode up and I pretended not to notice.

"Where's Pal?"

"He drowned" Jake muttered in his trying not cry voice.

"That's impossible" or everything in Grandfather's notes was utterly wrong. He was essentially immortal and hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old and he certainly couldn't be killed by our usually pathetic little river.

Jake stared at me "Why? Where did you get this? What is it? What's going on?"

"I'll explain later, just call him. He isn't what he seems." Oh, that sounded brilliant.

Jake looked at me like I'd lost my mind "How?"

"Ummm" good question "Look the water is freezing. Even if they did drown we still might be able to get them back if we can find them."

"They're probably half-way to Rouge River by now" Jake retorted softly, eyes distant. No, more like shell shocked.

"Hey, that's Emily talking. You're the one that used to do God knows what on this river, is there somewhere they might have gotten caught?"

I was surprised that I had to even say it. Jake might charge in without a plan and without a second (or even first) thought but he certainly didn't 'freeze up' and unlike me you never had to give Jake any help to get him moving.

A quick shake of the head and he kicked Fire into a quick trot, rubbing the talisman like a worrystone and muttering something as he grabbed his walkie talkie.

Jake

Eric was loosing it. Not that he didn't have a point about the water temp. I felt like a complete idiot, of course we might be able to get them back…if we could find them. The river made a hard turn about four more miles downstream and I'd noticed a snag in the outside of the curve a few weeks ago while out on patrol. If they'd gotten hung up there we might just get lucky. I wanted to kick Fire back into another hell for leather gallop but it would take both us to get them out, if they were there at all and if we did get them out I might need Fire's speed later. My 'gift' only went one way. I could receive but I couldn't send, but I tried as held Fire to a pace that Chief could match letting 'Pal please don't die, get your ass back here' become a mantra to try and ignore the agony in my ankle which was NOT ready for Fire's jackhammer trot.

I hauled Fire up so hard he squealed in protest and Eric barked something about break lights.

My ribs shrieked a protest as I threw myself against the traces but I ignored it as best I could. They would heal in a few more minutes but the girl didn't have time for me to cosset my battered flesh.

"What the hell, Jake?" Eric complained (he really should give up trying to curse).

"He's alive" I was elated and angrier than I had ever been in my life "He DIED Eric and now he's alive. And you KNEW he would be. What the HELL is going on?!"

Eric licked his lips and I swore for a second he was going to scream for Dad to come save him like he usually did when we were kids. "Is Julie alive?"

I could feel every bruise, broken bone, and strained ligament complain as he pulled himself up from the bend in the river and onto higher ground. I could smell, God, the world was alive with more scents than I had ever dreamed of. Pal took several deeps breaths ignoring the grating of bone and then leapt into a ground eating trot heading for town through the slush and half frozen mud at a punishing pace. I turned Fire on an intercept course without answering Eric.

I wasn't sure if I hoped that Jake had heard me and help was on the way or not. If he had, gods, if he had…

A violent shiver that had nothing to do with the chilly wind against his drenched fur ran through him. Fear warred with hope and curiosity. Pal wanted to be able to trust me every inch as much as I had want Maggie to really be a marine but he was far warier than I had ever been in my life.

If he hears then so does his father and that explains much.

I could smell the stench of my father's fear, and the calculating anger that followed it. Pal was far more afraid of Dad than he was of me and I had a flash of him just out of sight of the house towering above, hand raised. Had Dad hit my wolf? I was already pissed at Eric for keeping secrets but now a boiling resentment flared against Dad. Son of a BITCH! Lying BASTARD. I took a couple of deep breaths. Pal was still a good mile maybe even two ahead of me but we were both covering ground at a good clip I needed to be calm or he was going to bolt on me.

They do not have the look or smell of half breeds but we are not far from where the Kikapu were 'resettled' and their medicine bloodline was certainly very gifted. It can not be, they would never have permitted it to mingle with the invaders that had stolen their homeland. Perhaps it's something in the water hereabout.

I spared a glance for what had to be the remnants of a medicine bag and at the stone it had barely been able to contain when Eric handed it to me. Grandpa had mentioned the Kikapu only once but it had been memorable. I'd been in that cowboy crazy stage every boy seems to go through about the same time the girls go ga-ga for unicorns. He'd taken one look at me 'shooting Injuns' and given me 'THE LOOK'. Despite how much I'd disappointed Mom and Dad I had rarely disappointed Grandpa but the couple of times I had had cut all the way to the quick. He'd handed me some books, taken me to visit their reservation. I'd never been on the cowboys side again and while wild horses couldn't have drug the confession out of me I'd cried when reading some of those books and on the way home from the trip. Dad had been livid at Grandpa and had grilled me. There were clearly a lot of questions I should have been asking.

I shouldn't be going anywhere near that town. Except there was nowhere else to take the girl. Not if I want her to survive. Things would be touch and go as it was and there was April to consider. I had heard rumors that there was another physician in town but I had certainly seen no evidence of it at the clinic. If complications arose she would need the services of an extremely talented surgeon. And how' I snarled back at myself 'Aurelius Catalus Paullus do you propose to make them believe that a boy of apparently a mere nine summers is in troth one of the best emergency medics on the planet?'

I nearly hauled Fire to a stop. Pal WAS Paullus? That wasn't possible. Except that it fit. Impossible but it fit. Even if my head couldn't accept it my gut knew it was true. He came and went because I could only 'hear' him in wolf form. Pal…Paul? gave a little mental sigh of long-suffering patience glad that his shattered ribs had finally healed and he could now lope without stabbing pain, exhaustion and cold were easier to ignore… for now

Given what I had learned on the banks of the Lethe it might be better if I let April, her unborn, and the girl die. Kinder, gentler than what was likely coming. Gods, Goddesses, Fates, Muses how was I to…what could I, least of my kind, hope to do against, against Him? But then when had the Gods ever helped anyone? Except the mighty had already fallen. Brave, valiant, proud Tomarchio had already stumbled and delivered us into His hand. Chivalrous Sir Matthew, dear friend, confidant, and deliverer was trapped in His web. How was I to save myself never mind the rest of the world?

The welter of despair, stark terror, grief, and betrayal made me what to kill whoever 'He' was as a mournful, haunting howl drifted across the dips and rises that separated us.

It would be easy enough to slow my steps. Another half hour and she would be across the Lethe, from whence none (unless the rumors about a certain Judean criminal were actually true) had ever returned. Less than that if Jake hadn't heard (you know damn well he heard and he's coming) because I was her only hope of making it back to town and I was likely to freeze first, all depended on the wind.

"Don't you DARE" I commanded and I noted that his beeline for town never faltered.

Except she made the choice not to cross the Lethe and asked to be returned despite hearing…but what does she of what is coming? To be told that the Champion has fallen is one thing to survive it is another. But then what do I know? Six times a thousand years have come and gone since the last Champion fell and even amongst my kind there are but a handful old enough to remember the Horsemen's Reign.

He missed a step nearly falling on his face as it dawned on him that the handful left who remembered the fall of the last Champion WERE the Horsemen.

I spoke to Methos only yesterday. Surely if he had reverted to being Khloros, the 'Pale' Rider I would have heard the difference in his voice?

Another long shiver Or not, no one lies like Methos. Consummate survivor, ultimate chameleon, unmatched schemer.

In Pal's mind's eye I was in what looked like something out of Ben Hur except a whole lot more risqué.

I sipped my wine keeping an eye on Nero as Master had commanded. I remembered clearly when Master had made the Republic into an Empire and set young Octavian on Rome's 'throne'. Nero had forgotten that Caesar was merely 'first among equals'. Master was and would always be the 'Pater Familias' for every child of the city he founded. One would think that a man who had invoked the vitae necisque potestas, the power of life and death, over his stepbrother to secure is position would recall that it could equally be used against him. Paunch spilling in every direction he started singing one of his own compositions. I wanted to cover my ears. He played passably well but I'd rather listen to mating cats than his singing at least I could chase them through the streets to shut them up. Methos, Master's advisor was doubling as my guardian at this particular revel since Master had business elsewhere, followed my glance as he savored the honeyed larks' tongues.

According to April, the man lounging on a fantastically embroidered couch in the middle of a full Roman bacchanal with things going on in the background that had never made it into my wildest dreams was Dr. Benjamin Adamson the big nosed Brit who was studying death, sort of. April had said 'they' were very much their own little cadre, but a cadre of what? For a second I almost reined Fire in but even if I was afraid there was still Julie to consider. I couldn't afford to be afraid because he would smell it and knowing that I knew I had no doubt he would bolt. Grandpa had taught me friends close and enemies closer I didn't know which Pal was yet but he knew more than anyone about what was going on and the town needed that even more than the prey and potatoes he had brought in.

"A denarius for your thoughts."

I preferred the dormice to the larks' tongues and peacocks' brains. I wasn't certain if I should speak. Master didn't always approve of what Methos told me. Methos wasn't a proper slave, like me. He'd run wild for millennia before Master sent Caesar and his legions to Egypt to capture him (and incidentally as an added bonus to add Egypt to Rome subjugated provinces). Aedilius Lucius, Giacus, and Constantine wanted Master to take Methos' Quickening because they said he was a great danger and very powerful. I hoped not, I liked Methos, even if he wasn't a good slave.

Master had assigned Methos to be my tutor but not everything he said was correct for a good slave so I was to report everything we spoke of to Master so he could put things in proper perspective except that I knew that if I told all Master would punish Methos. It wasn't good for me to disobey. I resented Methos for putting me in such a position and did my best to avoid it but Methos was determined that I should learn to think no matter how inappropriate such a thing was. As Methos argued some slaves undoubtedly could better serve their masters with sharp wits but I was a pet.

I sighed, I was not worthy to match wits with Methos and never would be "The world changes tonight."

Methos rolled his eyes "Because that fat fool will lose his life? Hardly" he set his goblet down and continued more gently "Your Master"

"Our Master" I corrected.

"Romulus" Methos retorted and I sucked in a breath at the sheer audacity "will still be Master of Rome at the end of the night no matter who wears the purple. Oh, there will be a mad scramble to fill the vacuum but for you the world will not change so long as Romulus lives."

I blinked at him "Master is a God, gods don't die." I didn't precisely understand this death thing. I had heard it spoken of since leaving Master's Den (at Methos' urging during the days of Octavian. I wasn't certain how many years I had been in the Den but Giacus was only a few years my elder and he remembered the second and third Punic Wars) but I had never seen it. The other slaves came and went and those that died never returned. The notion that Master might not return someday sent panic through me.

"Even gods falter and fall. The day will come when you will stand alone" he warned his eyes going green/gold, hard as adamantine and bottomlessly ancient, wells of horrors beyond thought and ken. I rolled over giving him my belly in petrified submission but he snapped in the Babylonian he'd taught me "You aren't a puppy Aurelius no matter what Romulus thinks. You are a yazatas, gifted beyond these mortals that we walk among. You can not claim that your master is responsible for your actions. You ALONE are responsible to keep the asha and the daena for yourself. What will you do if you find yourself one of the Amesha Spenta?"

I wanted to flee. Never had Methos gone so far. Never had he spoken like this. Yes, he had spoken of Zartosht who claimed to have been one of the three Amesha Spenta to hold fast to the asha during the Horsemen's reign but only in mocking tones when Master had sent armies to capture him. Methos scoffed at the notion of gods and demons. He had belittled those few who spoke of the Great Cycle, the Dark One, and the Champion. Master did too. His interest in Zartosht was only because he, like Methos, was one of the rare Ancients not because of his bizarre religion. Now Methos sounded like he was espousing it. Master would be furious if I told him that Methos had even implied that I should be responsible for myself. Good slaves were an extension of their Master having no will or desire of their own. I had been a good slave before Methos. If I hadn't been so frightened for us both I would have been angry myself at Methos for doing this. I should tell, he deserved to be punished.

The memory vanished abruptly to be replaced by familiar wind and sky. I was upwind and about a mile away, unless the wind turned we would be on top of him before he realized it.

According to Zartosht before that piece of filth Alaric slaughtered him Methos had BEEN one of the Amesha Spenta. One who fell, one who had been for a thousand years the worst of the Horsemen, the Pale Rider. And he was by no means a monster these days. There was hope for Tomarchio. There was hope for us all. There had to be. 'In a thousand years' a more cynical mental voice threw in. I didn't KNOW that Tomarchio was the Champion and that he had fallen. Yes you do, you can hear it in his voice. A year ago he never would have destroyed two countries in vengeance. He has changed radically and now I know why

He stopped, threw his head back and howled like a lost soul again. Eric shouted "Julie?" over the pounding of the horses hooves. I shook my head and focused on Pal.

The whole bloody world has changed. The question is – how many of the six Amesha Spenta have fallen? Does it matter? Zartosht said that as long as one of the Amesha Spenta stands firm the Dark One can not triumph and as long as one falls the Dark One can not be banished. Tomarchio fell, I can not afford to I might be the only one left.

The thought was enough to make him start hyperventilating. I was getting the feeling that whatever else Pal was he was a serious chicken shit. I caught my own scent via Pal's nose (and made a mental note to bath more frequently despite the lack of heat and water), the wind must have shifted without my noticing. And picked up significantly. Not good. To my surprise his first emotion was actually relief as he started to turn away from his course toward the road, followed by the becoming entirely too familiar fear.

God less fortunate, he hears, he knows. He swallowed hard and his mental voice dropped to a whisper maybe it will be alright, sometimes it is. Then the other voice And how often has THAT been the case through the centuries?

I was suddenly drowning in a nightmare cornucopia of memories, a woman whose life I had just saved shrieking "WITCH" as her husband finished lashing me to the stake and the boy I'd taught to track set the torch to the wood then came the too familiar sickening stench of my own flesh slowly roasting. The sound of a bone saw and the sharp sting of the scalpel as merciless leather straps kept me bound to the table for yet another dissection. The baying of hounds as the woodsmen I'd helped survive the winter came for the bounty on my 'wolf's' head and the price my pelt would fetch. A man with a strange tattoo on the inside of his wrist slid a needle into the vein as he hissed 'abomination' and the memories were too much, too horrible, too.

I raised my hand to my burning face. Eric had both our reins and the stone in one hand and had the other drawn back ready to hit me again.

"Are you ok?"

No, I wasn't. I swallowed hard to keep from retching. I was no 'virgin'. I had seen things that would have Eric screaming into his pillow for the rest of his life. That sometimes had me screaming into mine. But never like that, never like that, and hell be damn sure never from the victim's perspective. Funny thing was I was nearly as angry at Pal for letting them, and there were times when I was certain that rather than hurt someone he'd let a few of those things happen. Suppose it was noble or …something but someone attacks you you hit them back. Turning the other cheek only gets you slapped harder. And God but it had gotten Pal slapped in spades. If it had been me I'd be meaner than a junkyard dog with rabies. Proof that the 'kid' was probably a better human being than I was if he was anything resembling human at all.

"Yeh" I muttered and kicked Fire back into canter because whatever else he was Pal was damn near done in.

It didn't take us long to come up on either side of Pal whose entire mental world seemed to have shrunk to one paw in front of the other. I wonder if he was really that exhausted or if it was his way of playing dumb. Well, according to Dad and Eric I could play dumb with the best of them.

"Hey Pal." I suppose it shouldn't be a surprised to find that Julie had been stripped of her soaked clothes and bundled in a sky blue sweater with the bulky cowl pulled up round her head like a hood and an emergency blanket tucked up tight around her but I was. Pal himself wasn't so lucky. He was soaked to the skin and NOT shivering which wasn't a good sign. It wasn't nearly as cold as it had been that night with Stanley but Pal was half my size and still nearly dripping wet. And the wind was a damn sight stronger. The question of how he was getting several times his own weight in prey back to town was answered as well. Very clever little rig, it hovered on a pocket of air so that the little wolf wasn't really pulling any significant weight at all. I noticed here was a little fan at the top that was blowing warm air over Julie too as I checked her thready but steady pulse. He didn't even look up, just methodically kept putting one paw in front of the other as I jogged along side to check the girl.

"Eric take the reins" I said as I started to slide a hand under her. Pal growled and pulled just a little ahead.

"You can't, the bouncing could send her into cardiac arrest."

"OK, switch horses with me. You ride on ahead and guide them in."

"Jake the roads are covered with slush and we don't have the fuel to waste on the plow."

"Waste?!" I snapped at him.

"You know what I mean Jake. They aren't going to be able to meet us until just outside of town."

Pal gave a deep, resigned breath and picked up the pace just a touch. I had the distinct impression that there wasn't much acting going on on his part. Between whatever he had been doing earlier today, the river, dying, reviving, his panic attack, the cold, and trotting for miles through the wet slushy muck he was fading fast. Maybe I could tie that floating air platform of his off to my stirrup and take him up on Chief with me? He shook his head to clear it and drawing air deep into lungs that were no longer waterlogged tried to pull a second wind out of nowhere. I could tell he didn't get it but he kept putting one paw in front of the other anyway.

"Just a little further, boy" I said softly but I knew those sharp ears heard each word of the litany of encouragement I fed him and by the time we reached the road he was following it blindly, beyond thought, in a complete fugue state. Damn it there had to be a better alternative because I was beginning think to that he was going to die on me again if we didn't get him rest and warmth soon. I felt like an ass for doubting his courage earlier. A true coward would have let me take Julie up on the horse.

Eric's return didn't even register with Pal.

"Where's the ambulance?"

"Close" he glanced down at Pal with a flicker of worry and then dismissed it. I wanted to slug him especially when the 'I've done something I shouldn't and am scared shitless' look returned. Eric and Pal had a lot in common.

"Dad's with them" a lick of the lips "you can't let him know that I."

His hand was wrapped around the little stone talisman so hard that the imprint of if it was going to give him away. I was pissed enough at them both I could chew iron and spit nails but now wasn't the time. I'd never ratted Eric out despite the fact that he couldn't wait to make me look even worse than I was. I wasn't going to start now. I glared at him.

"There are more important things right now" like Julie who was still unconscious and Pal who was about to literally drop dead. "But I had better know everything you do the instant we have an opportunity."

A nod and the van we were using came fishtailing around the curve and nearly doughnutted to a stop. Pal trotted right into the front tire, bounced off, blinked at the offending rubber, and dropped like a rock into the dirty slush the little platform sinking slowly to the ground as its fans died. Had he somehow been powering them as well? I tossed Eric Chief's reins and dashed to Pal while Dad and Todd rolled Julie carefully onto a backboard. The 'harness' was a simple affair with no buckles or hooks of any kind that slid easily over his head and rest collapsed with a touch now that the air was out of it. I wadded it up and tossed it into the back before sliding into the truck with him. Dad's protest died at my glance and he silently gave up his seat in favor of riding home with Eric.

"You had better meet us at the clinic" I mouthed at Eric who nodded.

April yanked open the doors of the van almost before we'd stopped "What's the bullet?"

"Hypothermic BP high at 140/100, core temp 85.9 and slowly rising, reps shallow and slow, heart rate 60 bpm, lacerations to the right forearm."

April glanced at the limp and only slightly less soggy Pal in my arms with hate in her eyes. I'd tried the entire way to get any response while toweling him off as best I could with some rags but I'd gotten nothing at all. He was considerably colder than Julie and his heart rate even lower and both should have been higher but that didn't worry me half so much as how erratic his pulse was. I'd kept telling myself he was a werewolf and werewolves clearly don't drown so they can't die of hypothermia either. It had to be silver bullets, nothing else would do. Of course he didn't seem to care much about the moon.

"He didn't attack her. He saved her life. He went into the river after her and he's the one that got her out and to help."

"Keep that thing out of my clinic."

"April, he's going to die if we don't get him someplace warm. He won't make it home." She glanced up from listening to Julie's chest face hard and I cursed inwardly as she spat "I'm not a vet."

"Please don't make him die for being a hero" I begged. I had absolutely no intention of going anywhere but the clinic with him but I still had to live with April.

Thank God for Lucas to the rescue as he tugged on her lab coat, tears rolling down his face, lip trembling "But you just gotta save him. He tried and tried to get us off the ice before it broke but Julie didn't listen."

"Keep him away from the patients" she snapped as she stalked alongside the gurney with Julie. Lucas followed me in.

"It's all my fault. I'm the one that wanted to go fishing."

It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him it was just an accident "You didn't mean for it to happen" I said instead. More accurate and not quite as brutal as agreeing "but you have to think before you do things."

"I just wish there was something I could do to help."

"There is. I need tubing, a thermometer with a cover, warm blankets or a heating pad, towels, warm water, and some broth. Can you go find someone to get that stuff for me?" I laid Pal gently on a gurney just outside the trauma room where it was slightly warmer. Mom met my eyes clearly torn between me and the trauma room with Julie.

"Go" I mouthed as Bruce came barreling in with an armload of something. It never ceased to amaze me how fast some news could still travel in a town with no phones.

"What did you do to my beautiful pup?" the words were an accusation but the tone was a soothing purr. He could have saved the effort Pal wasn't hearing anything and was a close to dead as you could be and still be breathing. He started to pull up his lips to check his gums and eyes widening ran them down his side.

"Sweet Jesus, he's an icicle."

"He went swimming in a mostly frozen river" I retorted editing the idiot out as I riffled through what he brought looking for something to warm the little wolf back up with. Blow dryer and a heating pad. A warm bath would have been better but the hot water heater was normally turned off and any hot water that was to be had would be going to Julie. I plugged both into the wall knowing that at some point I was going to get a load a grief for wasting power on a wolf. I was really looking forward to hitting whoever it was that gave it to me.

He glanced up at me "Are you ok?"

"I'm fine" I said but now that he'd asked the world did seem distant somehow. I thanked Lucas' mother for the broth and blankets. Bruce swore staring at the thermometer that he'd brought I elbowed him out of the way so I could tuck the blanket around Pal then tested the blow dryer to make certain it actually blew warm air before tucking it so that it blew a constant stream of warmth into his cocoon of blankets.

"61 degrees" Bruce muttered looking a little grey.

"That isn't a core temp" I countered but I was willing to bet Pal's core temp was at least 10 degrees lower than Julie's. Blasted wind. "Do you know how to get the broth into him?"

He nodded, resolutely put the thermometer down and started to tilt Pal's head back when it happened. I felt the lurch, the falter and roared a "NO!"

Bruce must have picked up on it too because he wrapped his lips around Pal's entire muzzle and started breathing for him while I shoved the blankets aside to do compressions. What had I been THINKING to bring him in here? I should have taken him home. He'd returned from the dead once already today. He could undoubtedly do it again. I should have quietly taken him home where he wouldn't do it in front of the whole damn clinic. If he died here he would never be able to set foot back in town as Pal. I was a grade A 200 proof IDIOT!

"Jake" April snapped "I'm trying to" a pause and then she was beside me.

"Julie" I protested.

"Is stable and improving" she retorted. Listening as Bruce and I continued CPR. I didn't understand why he'd crashed now.

"Don't you dare" I ordered sounding more like a drill sergeant than Dad at his worst "nobody gave you permission to die. You get back here right this instant." Bruce gasped and my fingers tingled as a flicker of what felt like a weak electric current ran through him and he jerked awake eyes wide and terrified. Pulse alternately racing and stopping.

"It's ok" I soothed as he yipped and cringed. Awake wasn't precisely the right term. He had no clue where he was or who we were, only that there were hands on him and hands usually meant pain. He was so out of it he couldn't even assemble the thought please don't hurt me.

"It's ok" I repeated as I caught his head trying to get him to see me but his eyes were glazed and unfocused with pupils dilated so wide the blue was the thinnest of ribbons around the gapping black. He wasn't capable of seeing anything but he could smell. He recognized my scent as someone he knew even if he couldn't put a name to it right now and some of the fear bled away as he tried to nuzzle into my hand but had no coordination and missed.

"Good boy" April murmured into his ear. There was a quick change of attitude. Pregnant women frighten me. "Nobody's going to hurt you."

He whimpered as his eyes sagged back shut "Oh, no you don't" I said giving his head the slightest of shakes "you open those eyes back up."

Tired came the faintest of thoughts but where my immediate reaction to any order was defiance Pal's was unquestioning obedience.

"We need to warm you back up" his pupils weren't reacting to light "so we're going run this tube down your throat so we can get some warm broth into you. Don't fight us."

I didn't think he'd understood a word I said until a sluggish gastric lavage tumbled back and he tried to turn his head a little to make it easier but he had no control.

"Hey, you let us handle everything" I said.

'Kay he still didn't really know who any of us were but he'd recognized all three scents as familiar and relaxed enough to just drift in an exhausted daze. Getting the tube in proved to be a challenge since none of us were vets and I finally ended up sitting on the gurney with Pal half across my lap.

Hot he complained as the broth finally started to flow and he whined.

April gave his ears a scratch and his tail twitched before she left to check on Julie. He sighed against me eyes starting to sag shut again.

"Don't let him sleep" Bruce insisted but I shrugged the fatigue rolling off him like waves making it tough to hold my own eyes open.

"I don't think we can stop him. He's pretty done in."

"Jake" Bruce wasn't going to give up "you know better."

"Wakey, wakey" I said moving the blow dryer a little so it didn't scorch his fur.

The whine of cold was accompanied by what I knew from recent experience was only the first shiver.

About half the broth had drained into him before his head snapped up eyes finally focusing the girl?! He wiggled a little in my arms trying to catch her scent despite the tube, relaxing a little as he recognized April's voice in the next room assuring her mom that the prognosis looked good even though she wasn't awake yet.

"Welcome back" I said and as those utterly human blue eyes looked up from my lap I wondered how I had ever believed they belonged to a wolf "Didn't think you were going to make it there for a little while."

With the return of awareness came the fear that was beginning to annoy me but I gently stroked his head not letting it show as the shivers increased in virulence and frequency. He burrowed his head into my chest as the burning began. Having just been down this particular road myself I could sympathize with the little whimpers. Apparently being a werewolf didn't get you off the hook when you essentially froze yourself.

"You have anything in there we could give him?"

"I'd rather not. I'm not a vet and he's already crashed once."

Not all the shivers were from cold. I didn't remember my own pain being quite so sharp.

"I think it'll be ok. Now that his coat's dry he's warming up fast." I gently tugged the tube out and he sighed with relief since it itched where he couldn't scratch. One less annoyance in the agony.

Bruce considered for a minute and then went fishing in his bag "Use these. SPARINGLY. No more than half a one at a time." He glanced out at the sky "I have to go." But he watched Pal breath for a good minute before actually tearing himself away.

I broke a pill in half and offered it to Pal who gratefully gulped it down, further proof that he was no real dog and within a few minutes bone rattling shivers and all he was fast asleep. Now were the hell was Eric? He should have long since been back. Almost as if he'd heard me he came sneaking in looking like the kid caught with one hand in the cookie jar and the other in the liquor cabinet. Not for the first time I wondered if one of us was adopted. And how blind everyone must have been to miss the fact that he was cheating on April. Shmuck.

"How is she?"

"Not awake yet but all of her vitals look good." I dropped my voice to a stage whisper "Any time you'd like to start talking."

"Dad doesn't know that I took this stuff to give to you and you CAN'T let him know that I did. He threatened to disown GRANDPA if he gave it to you."

"But it's ok for you to know?" I could feel old resentments flaring.

"Not really, no. You must be rubbing off on me because I stole it."

Eric STOLE something. Maybe we were actually related and some latent genes were finally kicking in.

"I couldn't take all of it, he might have noticed. He still might notice." He passed me the stone which I pocketed and a letter in one of Grandpa's codes. It had been a while since he'd taught me this one and it took me a couple of minutes to get back into the swing of deciphering them.

Hey son, if you're reading this than I'm dead and you didn't make it back home before I went. It's ok. I know how your Dad can be. I wish I'd been able to tell you this in person though you'd likely think I'd been drinking a little too much from my still out back.

There's so much you don't know. That your father absolutely forbad me from telling you or Eric and that's partially my fault. I should have worked harder at making him understand. I never should have let him go alone but I'd always loved going to see her and it never occurred to me she would terrify your four year old father witless and, not to be to melodramatic, apparently scar him for life.

There's a lot to be said so best I get to the point. My grandmother was a Kikapu medicine woman. The best they had. How she ended up marrying a white man is quite an adventure. Your dad knows the story, if the stubborn mule has finally given you this get him to tell you. You get your knack with animals from her, so does Johnston though he's spent his whole life trying to deny it exists. She was also a seer and she made her last prophesy the day she met your dad. Had a stroke screaming about the horrors she'd seen. I don't know if the war's come yet or not. Given how your father feels about it all the fact that you're reading this likely means that the bombs have already been set off. Twenty-three cities have been reduced to rubble, an EMP has knocked out power across most of the US, and Iran and N Korea have been left in smoldering ruins.

I froze staring at the page and then at Eric. DAD HAD KNOWN?! It was a damn good thing I was already sitting down and that he wasn't here.

I hope your dad wasn't an idiot and had things ready but I doubt it. He's always done his best to forget it, to pretend it wasn't real or never happened. I'm sure things are ugly and getting uglier by the day. Thing is this is just the beginning. Something even uglier might be coming and that's where you come in. You're a Raven Child. Not being born with any 'gifts' I've never been quite sure precisely what that means. Best I can figure it means you touch and see the world a little different than everyone else and you walk a different path. It's part of the trouble between you and your dad. He's scared, son, of you and for you. There's someone your path is supposed to cross. He's someone damn important to our family even though none of us have seen him in a few generations. The Kikapu call him Medicine Wolf. Way back when white men weren't much more than a rumor out here two lawmen showed up in the village with a yellow wolf pup tracking the kind of monster that thinks dumping poison in the well is a cute joke. They caught the sob but not before he had half the tribe at death's door. Scar Face couldn't care less and took the prisoner while Long Knife stayed behind to try to help. Problem was the People didn't believe in his magic, wouldn't take his medicine not until the wolf became a child with big medicine. The People wanted the wolf to stay with them forever.

"Glad to know it wasn't all bad" I whispered into Pal's ear as he shivered still deeply asleep against my chest. And I was doubly glad that MY family hadn't turned on him.

But he refused though he came again in times of great hardship bringing supplies in famine, sage advice in both peace and war, and his great healing skill. Without him the Kikapu might have ended up just another 'lost' tribe. He saved a lot of lives including my Grandmother's entire family more than once. From the sound of things you get to be the one to try and pay back the debt. The stroke robbed her of her knowledge of English and slurred her speech so badly that she was almost unintelligible but I could make out this much – it wasn't seeing the bombs and whatnot that gave her the stroke. There's something after Medicine Wolf. Something twisted and evil. Something that knows his weaknesses and how to exploit them. An evil that wants to do something worse than kill him.

Back in the War I actually ran into Long Knife. His 'English' name is Matthew. He's living in New York right this moment. Still a lawman. You get this before the bombs you look him up, going by the last name of McCormick. One of the best damn men I ever met. Saved my whole squad back in the war. When my grandmother died I went to see him. Told him I knew what he wasn't a regular human, told him how I knew begged him to tell me what he could about Medicine Wolf. He didn't want to at first, didn't half believe me but he knew me and my grandmother when she was young so he finally caved.

I remembered that flash I'd gotten from Pal of 'Sir Matthew' pale and still after stopping the New York bomb. Had to be the same guy. Pal hadn't completely given up on him yet. Wasn't much given to prayer but I breathed one in both their names for a fallen friend.

They're called the Quickened. They stop aging the first time they experience a 'little death' meaning something bad enough to kill a normal person quick. They die, they just don't stay dead. Way I understand it they can survive damn near anything except each other. Damn fools could live forever but about half of them go about hunting each other down and committing bloody murder. But let me tell it in as near to Matt's exact words as I can remember.

I can't tell you how old Paullus is. Age is equated with power. The older one of us is the more avidly those younger than him will hunt him to take his head and with it his Quickening and power. I'm nearly eight hundred which puts me a bit older than most. Paullus is older maybe a lot older than I am. Child Immortals usually don't last long. They're too easy prey for the headhunters. Most don't survive their first year because they haven't got a prayer of defending themselves in a no holds barred fight to the death. I only know of two who have ever survived their first decade. Kenneth is about my age though he looks about ten. Nastiest most twisted piece of work you ever want to meet. Kills anything that gets in his way, sneaking, backstabbing little bastard. You meet a ten year old name Kenny with empty eyes don't turn your back on him because he'll but a knife in it. He's a monster but I understand him. I understand why. Kenneth was made into a monster by the hunters.

Paullus is an entirely different matter. Most of us aren't really that different from regular mortals. We live a little longer we get to do a little more but we're really just people. And like you we have our monsters and our saints. Paullus is one of, if not THE, best of us. In over 750 years of being a 'law man' I've done a lot of things I'm proud of. Saved a lot of lives. Made things better for a lot of people but little Paullus runs rings around me. If I had to list the three things in eight centuries that I proudest of one of them is that I've saved Paullus' life. He's a damn fine doctor but it's more than that. Most days when I wake up I'm looking for my woman, my cup of coffee, and a newspaper. When Paullus wakes up he's looking for a way to make someone else's day better for pretty much every day of at least the last thousand years. He's also a true pacifist which when you happen to belong to a race that considers combat a sacred duty is vanishingly rare. Paullus would sooner be burned alive than harm someone. If there's a vindictive or vengeful molecule in his body I've never seen it. Mind you he isn't perfect and a bundle of contradictions. He manages to be simultaneously the bravest person I've ever met and the worst coward. He can and will run out on you in a heartbeat if it means saving his own hide. He can be moody as hell too.

Something else you have to remember about Paullus, even though there's at least a thousand years of life experience behind those baby blues of his – he's still only nine or maybe even eight. We stop physically aging the first time we don't die when we should have. For most of us that doesn't mean too much because we're physically mature. Paullus isn't. He never hit puberty, his brain just as much as his body never got a chance to grow up. One minute he will have the wisdom of Solomon and in the next he'll blindside you with a stunt you wouldn't expect out of a four year old. Some of the things kids think and do is lack of experience but Paullus has proved to me in spades through the centuries that some of it is fundamental to the fact that their brains are still developing and Paullus is stuck there. Which brings me to the wolf thing. It's not something all of us can do. Point of fact its something that only three of us have EVER been able to do. For most of us all the Quickening does is make us exceptionally difficult to kill. A handful of us can do some minor tricks. I happen to fall into that category myself and Paullus thinks he falls into that group too. About once a millennia one of us comes along who is a full sorcerer. I suspect if Paullus had had the chance to grow up or even now if he really applied himself he'd discover that there's a lot more talent there than he thinks there is. Actually it's one of the things that drives me nuts about him. He sells himself way too short. I can name six CITIES that wouldn't exist today if it wasn't for Paullus and if you call him a hero he'll tell you he was barely involved and give the credit to anyone present so long as it isn't himself. There are days I could shake him but he'd probably hide from me for the rest of eternity if I did. Nothing wrong with humility but he takes it a couple of miles too far.

I don't know what else I can say that would help you. I don't know what this thing is that Wiitekoa saw. I would lay my life down for Paullus. You tell your Jake that. Anything he needs to help Paullus that is in my power to give is his.

I'm afraid I can't give you much help either. If my grandmother knew anything about how to fight this thing she never managed to make herself understood. She did convey a few things about the sob that's after Mahweea. Damn thing doesn't have a body; it's some sort of malevolent spirit. Every so many years it targets the best of the Quickened, tempts them, seduces them, threatens them, whatever it takes to get past their guard and twist them up and make them into monsters then feeds off it. Better they were before, the more power this thing gains and the more it can do to everyone else. The 23 US cities destroyed, the EMP, the wiping of two whole nations off the face of the earth is because of this thing taking just ONE of its targets. Little Paullus will be an even bigger prize for it. Unless you figure a way to help him it's going to take a 'boy' whose raison d'etre for over a thousand years has been to brighten up the world and make him into a monster that makes Hitler look like a choir boy. Apparently it's had the chance before but it's been waiting for the perfect shot. I know this is a hell of a lot to dump on you and you probably don't believe half of it. Not sure I believe half of it but I know the stories and I saw Matt come back from the dead once. The Quickened are real. Your great-great grandmother's gifts were real. Guess it's not too much of a stretch to believe that evil is real and has a face.

Don't know how to end this. Keep trying to think of some brilliant words of wisdom, something that will help. Never was much for church, just went to please your grandmother but I always like the story of Ester even though I never had much time for the notion of Fate. 'Thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this'. If there's Evil, stands to reason that there's Good too. Don't know if you'll find the notion you were chosen for this comforting or as something else to get your dander up about but know this, son, I believe in you and I love you. You can do this. My grandmother saw that he didn't have a prayer alone. She saw that you might be able save him. You be the hero I've always known you were.

Don't make me come back there and kick your ass.

I stared at the letter in my hand wondering if I'd completely forgotten Grandpa's code and misread the entire thing. Wondering if I'd lost my mind. Feeling like someone had just changed all the rules on me and had given me one quarter of the playbook with every third word in Japanese. I looked up at Eric who was frowning down at Pal.

"How out of it is he?"

"You could run a freight train through and not wake him."

He gave a slow nod, swallowed hard twice, dropped his voice to a whisper "It might be best to kill him now."

If I wouldn't have had to dump Pal on the floor to do it I would have knocked him through the damn wall. He actually backed up into wall hands spread, eyes wide, "Just a thought."

"Don't think it" I growled. Somewhere in the stuff Eric hadn't seen fit to give me were instructions on how to murder Pal, permanently. I needed to know everything.

"Eric"

He shook his head "No way, Dad'll kill me."

"I need to know."

I thought for a second he was going to go through the wall without my assistance. And when Mom popped out of the trauma room I thought he might achieve orbit. Never knew he could jump that high. He probably didn't know himself.

"Julie's awake and she's demanding to speak with you alone."

I'd been so focused on Eric and Grandpa's letter I'd somehow missed noticing the hysterical screaming behind me.

"Mom, would you mind keeping an eye on Pal?" there was no way in hell I was going to leave him alone with Eric right now.

"Sure honey" he didn't even twitch as I disentangled myself and Mom took my place "That's my brave boy" she said sinking her fingers into his still river water 'scented' coat. I gave Eric one more hard glance of warning before walking through the trauma room door.

Julie

"I need to talk to Mr. Jake" why was Mom being this way? It was really, really important, the Captain said so. I wasn't quite sure what had happened except that I'd fallen in the river and died and Jake's wolf that really wasn't a wolf 'cause he was the cutest boy I'd ever met had saved me and I'd seen things I really shouldn't have that Mr. Jake had to know about before the funny river where dead people go made me forget. I didn't want to shout at Mom and throw a temper tantrum but she just wouldn't listen. And I couldn't really explain 'cause the Captain said to tell no one but Mr. Jake and that bad things might happen if I forgot before I could tell him which meant I had to do it as soon as I woke up.

I sighed with relief when Mr. Jake came in. Dr. Greene whispered something to him and led my Mom out. I didn't really what her to go but I didn't want the bad man to hurt Mr. Jake's wolf-boy either.

"Hey, how are you feeling?"

I shook my head "It's not important. The Captain says I have to tell you what I saw before the river makes me forget."

"OK" Mr. Jake looked very sad and serious and maybe a little afraid. Maybe he'd been there before too. Except he wouldn't have remembered because of the river.

"Lean down so I can whisper."

I blinked up at the big cruise ship. Maybe I was dreaming, except if I was dreaming I shouldn't know I was dreaming should I? And the last thing I remembered was the ice breaking and falling in the water. Was I dead? If I was dead shouldn't I be in Heaven? Maybe you got to Heaven in a cruise ship? Mom and Dad had gone on a cruise ship last year while I stayed with Gramma and had really liked it. The ship looked much too big for the river. I hugged myself even more scared than when we hit the deer. I wished Mr. Jake was here and then I felt mean because that would mean that Mr. Jake was dead too. I liked Mr. Jake and I didn't want him to get hurt anymore. It seemed like Mr. Jake was always getting hurt. I looked around. Nobody else seemed to be doing that they were all just getting onto the boat. Except the blond boy over there. I tried to go towards him but I couldn't walk away from the river. I could walk along it but I couldn't take a single step away.

"Hey" I waved at him.

"There you are" he sounded out of breath and his eyes were just dreamy "come on." He took my hand.

"But I can't" I started to protest when my feet suddenly moved where I wanted them to.

"You can with me" he said "I'm not bound to the river."

"Are you an angel?"

A quick shake of the head.

"Who are you?"

"Do you want to die today?"

"No."

"Then you need to come with me, quickly." He was soooo cute. Cuter than anyone in school. Cuter even than any movie star.

"You can bring people back to life?"

"Sometimes. Only if you haven't crossed the Lethe yet. Watch your step ground's rough here" how could he tell since he was walking backwards with his pretty blue eyes fixed on me? I'd seen those eyes before.

"How did you know?"

"I've spent a lot of time here."

"Where's here?"

"Between tick and tock, between life and death."

I dug in my heels "Will it hurt?"

"A little" he admitted "you're going to have hypothermia the water and I'm going to have to do CPR to get you breathing again. Your ribs, hands, feet, and face are going to be sore for a few days but you'll get better. You'll be fine but we have to hurry."

I looked back at the cruise ship.

"Your mom will cry" he said. "And I won't get to meet you properly." He smiled at me and something inside went all fluttery.

"What's it like?"

"I don't know. I only go to the river bank" he let go of my hand I could feel the river tugging on me. He held it out "Your choice. Please come."

I grabbed it and he jogged backwards so fast I nearly stumbled trying to keep up. I gasped as a mean looking bad man stepped out of the mist along the trail. The boy didn't see him and backed right into the circle of his arms before I could yell a warning.

He looked up in shock as the man grabbed him and then he went very, very pale. I thought he was going to faint but he whined like a dog. Like a dog, that's where I'd seen his eyes. Mr. Jake's wolf when he followed me into the river.

He swallowed hard and whispered "Unterstumfuhrer Rindfleisch."

The bad man said something in a foreign language.

"What did he look like?" Mr. Jake interrupted.

"He was wearing a uniform like the bad men in the movies Daddy likes."

"Does your Daddy still really like WWII movies? The ones with Japs and Germans?"

I nodded but that wasn't important and I went back to telling Mr. Jake what happened.

The boy shook him off, straightened up and said something that I could tell was 'sassing' just from the tone. Mom would send me to my room if I talked like that. The bad man hit him so hard that I ended up on the ground beside him. His eyes were out of focus and his lip and nose were bleeding. He blinked at me as I wiped it off with a tissue.

"Is that supposed to happen?"

He shook his head and winced. "What are you? You aren't the real Unterstumfuhrer Rindfleisch."

"I believe you know me as Ahriman."

The boy made a little whimpering sound and let go of my hand "I want you to run for the ship."

"But" I started to protest.

"Don't look back just go and find the Captain and claim his protection. GO! RUN!"

He scrambled to his feet too but he ran in a different direction. The bad man chuckled and started after him at a walk. It reminded me of a Peppy LePue cartoon except it wasn't funny. Maybe the Captain could help the boy.

Just as I was about to run up the gang plank an old, old, OLD man stopped me. "If you set foot on the ship you can't leave."

"I need to speak to the Captain" I said in a rush.

"I am the Captain."

"Will you help him?" I pointed to where the bad man was still following the boy well actually the wolf but like one of the scary movies we'd snuck and watched at Stacy's sleepover no matter where he went the bad man was there.

"I can't" he sounded really sorry about that "but I can protect you from him if you ask."

"Please, and please help him."

"Neither of them is under my authority so I have no power over them. I would if I could. He's always been a very good boy but your friend can not come aboard and I can not leave. This is for you" he picked up a handful of sand from the river bank "it will keep the Lethe from affecting you for a little while. Long enough for you to tell Jake Greene and no one else what you have seen." His brown eyes were very sad and very serious "It's important. Only Jake and as soon as you can."

The bad man had chased him all the way to the river bank where he knelt trembling with nowhere left to run.

"Can he hurt me?"

"Not any more."

I ran and jumped at the bad man's knees. He made a very satisfying thump. The boy was still cute even with his mouth wide open in shock.

"I told you to go to the ship."

"I did. The Captain gave me his protection."

"You should take the ship" he said softly "get out while you can."

"I thought you wanted me to go back."

"I did but" he bit his lip "you go to Sunday school right?"

I nodded.

"So you've heard of the Devil?"

"Yes."

"Now you've met him. Every thousand years or so he gets to test seven souls. One of them is the Champion. That's the only one that can banish him again. That's the one that's most important even if all the other six stand firm then world will still be a darker place if the Champion falls." He paused, "The Champion has fallen."

"But what does he want with you?"

He looked SO scared "I'm one of the other six. As long one stands there will always be some good in the world."

"Then let's go home." I said tugging on his arm.

"You don't understand. Things are going to get a lot worse for a very long time."

I gave him a hug because he looked like he really needed one "But it will be ok. You'll make certain there's always some good in the world."

He blinked at me like I'd sprouted wings or something and stammered "I'm not a hero."

"You're my hero"

He flushed beet red, ducked his head, shuffled his feet a little "You would still be safer on the ship."

"I want to go home."

He raised his head "Ok, let's go" he said taking my hand and slipping past the Devil who leaned down and whispered "You know this isn't over."

His hand shook in mine but his voice was steady "I know."

I'd never held hands with a boy before and the whole turning into a wolf thing was way cool. He was like a real live animangus. It was like something out of Harry Potter (not that I was allowed to read the books but I'd snuck a little at Stacy's). We were nearly even with the ship when a different voice speaking another strange language called to him. The words were funny. They were stern like when Mommy very disappointed in me but there was something else too. The boy gave a strangled little gasp and staggered like he'd been shot or something.

"You aren't real" he was crying.

"But it could be" the bad man whispered.

"Who is he?"

"Someone who has been dead far too long to return" he said around a sniffle. I passed him my last tissue.

"Thanks" he gave me a weak, watery smile. Knight in shining armor material he wasn't, except he'd gone into the river after me.

The Devil slid in close wrapping an arm around him, whispering into his ear. He tried to step away but the Devil followed him.

"You leave him alone" I yelled.

"You get on the damn boat because you aren't going to make it home, little girl."

"Yes, she is" he countered tossing his head, grabbing my hand, and turning away from the guy in the bed sheet. We started running away from the river. But it was really far and I ran out of breath. I stopped holding my side.

"Is…it…always…this…far?"

He shook his head, not even breathing hard, not even breathing at all, spooky. "No Ahriman is still toying with us."

I swallowed "How long can I be dead?"

"There's no time here, we're between. He could keep us here for a century and not a moment would pass."

"But I wanna go home" this time I started to cry.

"You'll get there."

"He said I wouldn't" this time he gave me a hug, rocking us both a little and singing something I didn't know. His voice was as pretty as he was.

"What a lovely picture" the Devil said softly "you would make a beautiful couple. Pity neither of you is ever going to be old enough."

"What do you want?"

"You know exactly what I want. You know you may be the best informed of all of the chosen down through the millennia. The question is what do you want?"

"There is nothing I want enough to give you what you want."

The Devil just smiled and vanished.

We walked and walked and walked and all there was was the same swirling mist. I finally dropped onto my knees.

"Please get back up."

"I just wanna rest a minute."

"You mustn't sleep here. If you don't keep moving you will."

"Are we just supposed to keep walking for a hundred years?!" I yelled at him.

"He won't wait that long, just until I'll tired, until my guard is down. And you can't sleep here."

"I can't but you could couldn't you?"

"We need to keep moving" he canted his head "do you know how to dance?"

I looked down at my feet and shook my head. Mom and Dad hadn't had the money for lessons. Stacy and Brittany's parents had more money. THEY knew how.

"Then milady" he gave me a deep bow, took my hand and gently brushed my knuckles with his lips "would you be so kind as to permit me to instruct you?"

"Do you know ballet?"

"But of course ma cherie."

We danced and danced. He would show me the steps and then we would do them while he whistled the tune. I think if I had been allowed to sleep I could have done it for a hundred years but I was so tired.

I blinked at him as suddenly swung me around "No sleeping milady" but his own eyes were sagging too.

"What's your name?" I asked since I was getting a little sick of thinking of him as 'boy'

"Not here, cherie."

"Does it hurt?"

"Does what hurt?"

"Turning into a wolf, silly."

"No, it's kind of…tingly."

"I wanna see."

He looked a little embarrassed.

I looked down "You don't have to you know" I swallowed and whispered "get naked do you?"

"No" he shot me a smile that left me all tingly and more awake than I'd been in a while. He took a couple of steps back and in a swirl of blue white that reminded me of heat lightening he was just there wagging his tail. He hunkered down forelegs straight out rear in the air and chuffed at me. I wished I had a ball or a stick or something cause I bet he was really good at fetch.

When I looked up the man in the bed sheet was back. He needed to get some real clothes. Didn't his mommy ever yell at him about going outside like that?

He called and the wolf went tail wagging so hard he shimmied as he reared up on his hind legs to lick bed sheet man under the chin. Maybe he was his daddy. If my daddy was dead and came back I'd be happy too. If that was the case then the Devil was even meaner than Mrs. Dawson said he was.

"Boy" I called but he was too busy trying to lick bed sheet man's whole face to pay any attention. I think I might have just messed up. Did he think like a person when he was a wolf? If he didn't he might not realize that it was a trap.

"Wolf" I snapped before starting to go over but the Devil blocked my path.

"You can't hurt me" I said chin up hands on my hips.

"No, but you might as well go back to the boat since you can't walk away from the river without his help. Besides, he's happy. You want him to be happy don't you?"

Mrs. Dawson said the Devil lied. That he offered you what you wanted but when you got it it wasn't what it seemed. I was trying to remember all the things that Mrs. Dawson had said about fighting the Devil but I was so tired.

"Yes, a nap would be so nice wouldn't it?"

I glared at him. Big bully but I didn't know what to do. The boy had gone away from the river to bed sheet man and I couldn't take a step toward them even if the Devil left. Then I heard Mr. Jake's voice.

"Pal, here boy. Where are you at boy? Come on Pal answer me."

"Mr. Jake?"

In a sweep of light the boy was back. Eyes blinking too fast and a little squinty. He started toward me and bed sheet man snapped an angry command. The boy winced but didn't stop and then bed sheet man turned into a big black scary wolf. I guess he was his daddy. Mr. Jake was still calling for Pal, over and over. The Devil had disappeared but the big bad wolf was between us. The boy licked his lips, eyes flicking from me to the wolf.

"I'm sorry" he said.

"No" I shook my head, he couldn't leave me here, he just couldn't. The little golden wolf offered his throat to the black one who nodded before looking over towards where the Devil had been. As soon as his gaze shifted the little wolf dashed under his belly and before I even realized it he had tackled me and we were rolling under real sky. I could see the river. I could see my, my body still under water caught in the roots of a fallen tree with the little golden wolf at the waterline jaws clenched around my sleeve. I clung to the boy.

"If you really want to go home you have to go back."

"But I drowned."

A little shrug and a cocky grin, "THAT I can handle. Come on, almost there."

"I won't tell."

He brushed my hair back off my face "Thank you, that is extremely kind of you."

I caught his hand "What aren't you telling me?"

Jake

Julie blinked at me rising fear and confusion on her face "Mr. Jake why am I in the clinic? Where's my Mommy?" that last was half wailed.

"It's ok, you're ok. I'll get your Mom."

"OK" she snuffled.

I retreated leaving her crying and confused feeling like a heel as her mom pushed past me. She probably hadn't had much more to say but I would never know because the Lethe had finally washed it away. Charon had clearly meant for me to pick up on something in all that but I wasn't sure what. Eric was no where to be found. Chicken. Mom looked up from where she had Pal's head pillowed in her lap.

"Do you know if he's been eating?"

I shrugged, it had never crossed my mind "Why wouldn't he be? He's certainly capable of bringing down prey."

"I don't know" Mom said as she ran her fingers across ribs that I knew had been shattered only a few hours ago "but he seems awfully thin."

"It might just be the hypothermia but his gums seem very pale" April said as she moved to check on Julie "remind me to double check them later."

Old Doc Thompson had been out of town on The Day so we'd lost our vet but I took a peak myself and he stirred, blue eyes peeking through slits, the slightest hint of tension, a touch of fear even though he wasn't anywhere near truly awake.

"It's ok, go back to sleep" he sighed sinking back into a dark sleep beyond the threshold of dreams. April was more than right. His temperature was nearly back to normal but his gums were very pale. I pressed against the flesh over his molars, watching it go completely white then releasing to see how long it took to regain what little color it had. Too long if he was a regular dog but what was normal for him?

"You should have been a vet" Mom commented for perhaps the six thousandth time.

"I loved flying too much."

"I know."

I didn't have a clue what to do about any of what I'd learned today. What I really wanted to do was pull up a barstool next to Kenchy and get drunk for week but that wasn't going to solve anything. Short of that….short of that I really needed to let it all sink in before I could even begin to sort it out. Pal was right the whole bloody world had changed or was simply different than I had ever thought it was. Either way I felt adrift. I looked down at the tubing Bruce had left. Pal was too thin, his capillary refill was poor, and I was willing to bet if I drew blood and ran tests he would show as more than a little anemic. Odds were good he couldn't die of it but he was bringing in more food than the rest of the town combined, we could spare him so more broth and what I'd poured down him earlier should be out of his stomach by now.

He didn't even stir through the entire process and I had to wonder just how much today had taken out of him.

"I'd rather let him sleep it off here. Is there anything you need help with for a few hours?"

"I think I can find something" I wasn't certain I liked that little smile of Mom's at all.

I'd never been a huge fan of doing laundry back when it had involved pouring some soap into a machine this absolutely SUCKED. I was ready to consider doing handsprings when I felt Pal finally start to stir. Apparently all that broth I'd dumped into him was having an effect and then he abruptly vanished. Damn it was going to be a lot harder to find him as Paullus. I wrapped one hand around the talisman in my pocket and went hunting.

He turned out to be surprisingly easy to find. Given how easily he'd given Dad the slip I'd expected it to be a lot harder but all I had to do was check on his stuff. He looked kind of cute with just his blond curls sticking out of the top of his sweater. He froze for an instant then finished pulling the sweater on fixing the cowl before turning to face me.

"Paullus, I presume?"

A slightly wary inclination of the head. He looked like hell. Too pale, too thin, and down right haggard with great dark circles under his eyes. He'd looked fine in April's pictures so either the months between now and the bombs had been even rougher than they'd been here or today had take a good bit more than a single pound of flesh. I'd have to ask Dad if he'd looked like this.

"Mr. Green"

"Jake, Mr. Green is my dad. You did good work getting Julie breathing again. Must have been cold out there without your sweater. I sent the guys looking for you but" I shrugged. I didn't know if I was making a mistake or not but I didn't want to tip my hand either.

"I didn't see them" a mix of confusion and relief in his eyes. He knew that I heard but he didn't know how much I heard "I'm just glad you found her in time" a nervous lick of the lips "What sent you down that way?"

"Gut feeling that the wolf pup was in trouble down by the river. My Grandpa's grandmother was some sort of Indian medicine woman sometimes I get….little flashes."

Tangible relief.

"Speaking of the pup. Is he yours?"

"Don't you know that wolves are wild? They belong to themselves." Hard glint in those eyes on that one. That was a warning pure and simple. Interesting change from the slave boy in his memories. I wondered how many centuries he'd been a slave and what finally broke the chains.

"My Mom's been really worried about you ever since Dad mentioned you. She'd love to have you over for dinner and we have a very comfortable couch."

Odd that his eyes looked more feral and wolf-like right now than they had earlier in wolf form. "Maybe later." Those eyes had checked the entire area and I knew as he shouldered his backpack that he was planning to make a break for it. I couldn't quite figure how but I wanted him to come home but I didn't want to spook him any more than I already had.

"Please. Mom isn't the only one that would feel better if you weren't out there somewhere in the cold and you look like you could use the rest."

"With only 48 shopping hours 'til Christmas Eve?" a touch of a grin graced his lips and his cheeks regained some color. "Santa's helpers are far to busy for that."

"Busy with what?" I asked more as a delaying tactic than because I expected a response.

"There's shopping to do, smuggling to arrange, bribes to be placed, blockades to be breached" given the way he was moving his hands they'd completely recovered. I hadn't been nearly as frozen and had had days of recovery and mine still throbbed. A guy could get very, very jealous of that. "Busy, busy, busy" by the end his eyes were positively sparkling despite still looking like death warmed over.

"Blockades?"

"Do you really think the rest of the world CHOSE to abandon you? President Tomarchio" despite the fact he was in human form I could feel the pain. Pal had genuinely liked the guy and I felt like an ass for bringing it up. He'd had a rough day and had actually been finding the bright side of life despite it. "closed the boarders. The excuse was for reasons of national security."

"Need any help?"

A cant of the head "Not that I'm aware of at the moment but I'll keep the offer in mind. With your pardon I really must go or I'll be late for my appointment on the island of misfit toys."

I was tempted to try and stop him but my gut told me it would be the wrong move "Be safe and you're welcome at the house any time."

He paused and turned back "Thank you" and as he disappeared into the dark of a December evening his voice floated back on the wind

We're a couple of misfits
We're a couple of misfits
What's the matter with misfits?
That's where we fit in!

We're not daffy and dilly
Don't go 'round willy nilly
Seems to us kinda silly
That we don't fit in.

We may be different from the rest
Who decides the test
Of what is really best?

We're a couple of misfits
We're a couple of misfits
What's the matter with misfits
That's where we fit in!

And despite everything I had to laugh. At least two thousand years old and he was singing songs from Rudolph the Red Nosed reindeer….

Author's note continued: For any Highlander fans reading this it is an AU for that universe as well. I am writing this generally under Highlander rules but without Duncan MacLeod and so some things are just the same and some things are very, very different without Dunkie around…..

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