Dedicated to the fine author, eveninganna.
The Warlock and the Cowboy
"Have you never done something purely for the thrill of it?" Black Hawk asked.
"No," Machiavelli said. "Not for a long time."
Black Hawk looked shocked. "But that seems like such a waste of immortality. I pity you," he added.
"You pity me?"
"You are not living, you are surviving."
Niccolò Machiavelli stared at the Native American for a long time before he finally nodded and looked away. "You may be right," he murmured.
–"The Necromancer," Michael Scott.
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli stepped into an American diner for the first time in his life, and wrinkled his nose.
To his refined senses, the scents of hamburgers, chips, and all things greasy, were like a full olfactory assault. The Italian blinked, and looked around for his friend.
He smiled slightly. He hadn't called anyone "friend" in hundreds of years.
Finally, Machiavelli spotted the man he'd come to meet.
He was perched on a stool at the bar, five chairs away from the door. With his worn jeans, battered denim jacket, and relaxed face, William H. Bonney looked like a typical young man out for a burger.
Machiavelli knew better. Billy the Kid was one of the most capable and dangerous immortals in America, perhaps the world.
He was also, in Machiavelli's opinion, one of the goofiest.
"Velli!" Billy cried when he spotted the Italian. He hopped up and strode over. Without missing a beat, he gave the genius medieval author a big, manly hug.
"Velli" was Billy's less-than-inventive nickname for Machiavelli.
"Everyone needs a name their friends can call them by," he'd explained.
"But everyone calls you Billy," Machiavelli had quickly said.
"That's because everyone's my friend!" Billy had declared. "Well, unless they're trying to kill me. But if things get to that point there's no point worrying about what they're callin' me while they're guttin' me."
Machiavelli endured the hug for a record-breaking fifteen seconds, before breaking away. "How are you, Billy?" he asked as they sat down.
"I'm good, Velli, I'm good," Billy replied, ignoring Velli's undisguised wince at the use of the nickname.
They had a few minutes of small talk, chatting about such little, inconsequential things as whether they'd recovered from the deeply traumatic battles on Alcatraz, when the last time they'd faced the yawning void of death together had been, and whether or not their Elder masters were going to hunt them down and skin them like pigs.
"But why did you really ask to meet me, Velli?" Billy asked, as their lighter conversation topics ran out. "I'm sure it wasn't to hash over war stories."
Machiavelli had mastered his poker face over the centuries, and had faced down everyone from a megalomaniacal king to an even more megalomaniacal ancient Egyptian deity, but he still couldn't conceal the awkwardness that overtook him just then.
"Well," he said, after spending a moment staring into his milkshake, while Billy looked on with an amused expression. "Do you remember when we were on Alcatraz, and I said I would teach you some finer points of magic, some more advanced spells and skills?"
"You bet," Billy replied, his face lighting up with a pleased grin.
"And do you recall how I said that I could have spent my immortality better?" Machiavelli went on.
"I would like to offer you a deal," the Italian immortal said. "I shall teach you some magic, if you help me to catch up on some of the things I've missed."
"What?" Machiavelli said, taken aback.
"Well, knock me down with a feather," Billy muttered, and drained his glass. "I've heard plenty of people say they were gonna live differently if they got out of this or that life-threatening situation, but hardly any of them ever did." He paused, before adding, "Maybe because a lot of them ended up dead just the same, but still."
"So do you accept my proposal?" Machiavelli said, extending his hand.
"You bet I do!" Billy said, meeting the extended hand with a low-five, even though it was intended as a handshake.
"And I know just what we're going to start with," he went on.
Machiavelli paled slightly. He had planned to carefully orchestrate exactly which new activities he would take part in - old habits die hard - but it seemed that Billy had other ideas.
"Oh?" he said carefully.
"Yeah," the American grinned. "We're gonna teach you how to drive!"
Billy knocked on the door of the dressing-room, and called, "How you doin', Velli?
The answer was an incoherent mutter coupled with a violent rustling. It sounded as if a T-shirt had gone rabid and was trying to suffocate someone.
Billy knocked again. This time the reply was more audible - though the American couldn't understand it, he was pretty sure it was a foul Italian curse.
Finally, Niccolò Machiavelli, famous immortal, schemer extraordinaire and advisor to kings, stepped out wearing jeans, Converse, and a "Just Do It" T-shirt.
Billy tried not to laugh.
But he didn't try very hard.
Machiavelli could only glare as the American laughed profusely into his sleeve. After all, Machiavelli himself didn't even have a sleeve.
"And why is it necessary for me to wear such clothes?" the Italian asked, for the tenth time in a quarter of an hour.
Billy recovered his composure sufficiently to reply.
"I'm not going out thrill-seeking with you dressed like you've just been in a meeting with the President," he said, clapping Velli on the back. "If you're being casual with friends, you gotta dress casual, talk casual, be casual!"
Machiavelli rather thought that "casual" meant wearing a shirt but no jacket, and trousers without a crease in them, but, respecting Billy's opinion, he said nothing, and tried to smile.
They bought the clothes (Niccolò wanted to pay but Billy insisted: "It's a gift to you as a friend!"), and made their way out to the Thunderbird, which was parked around the corner.
To Velli's great alarm, Billy got into the passenger's seat.
"Er, Billy," Machiavelli said, standing by the driver's door and staring at the steering wheel as if it were about to blow up. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"It's a great idea!" the Kid declared enthusiastically. "Immersion is the best teaching method there is."
"Billy…" Machiavelli said slowly. "I think you've underestimated how bad of a driver I am."
"Oh, you can't be that bad," the American said airily. "People always think they're worse than they are."
"No buts, my friend! Hurry up and drive. We're not getting any younger here. Well, we wouldn't be getting younger, because we're immortal, but still…"
"Well, I did warn you," Velli muttered, as he got into the car.
It was a warm day, with the sun high in the clear blue sky, but Machiavelli still shivered slightly. He'd been wearing full-length shirts and coats for the last four hundred years - his arms weren't used to being bared to the world.
"Well, let's go,' Billy said. "We're on the edge of town. There's a nice forest half a mile down the road, we can go there and have a nice ride around the woods."
Normally, the Italian playwright would've shuddered at the idea of driving within a hundred yards of a tree, but Billy's optimism and cheer were infectious.
"Sounds good!" he said, cracking a smile.
–pulled out onto the road, and began to trundle in the direction of the woods.
It wasn't until a eighty-year-old woman with a walking stick outstripped them out that Billy said, "You could probably open up the throttle a little more, man."
Machiavelli gave the accelerator the smallest possible twitch known to man, and Billy could've sworn that the car actually went even slower.
"A bit more than that," Billy suggested.
The Italian twitched the accelerator a little more, and, to Billy the Kid's eternal relief, they actually overtook the old woman, though she looked rather disappointed by this development.
It was a three-minute drive from the clothes store to the edge of the woods. By some feat that could have been down to magic, or possibly magical levels of trepidation, Machiavelli managed to take almost eight minutes.
"Your driving is very, er…" Billy began.
"Careful?" Niccolò supplied quickly.
"Well," the Kid said flatly. "That's one word for it."
Three minutes later, and they were almost fully under the tree-line.
"You know, for someone who's immortal and powerful and experienced," Billy said, "you're a big scaredy-cat."
Machiavelli gave him a sharp look, one caused largely by trained habits and so many self-defence mechanisms a psychiatrist would have enough work for a lifetime.
Billy held his gaze, however, and the Italian soon put his eyes back on the road.
"I used to be quite adventurous," Velli said quietly. "Back when I was young, when I could measure my age in double digits."
"What happened?" Billy murmured.
"The Dark Elders happened," Machiavelli said ruefully. "Centuries of service to them taught me to be cautious. When you know that you face immediate death at any moment should you fail, you tend to become more cautious."
"But that's not really true, is it?" Billy said. "I mean, look at me. Look at John Dee."
Machiavelli sighed. "You know, for someone meant to be a wild bandit, a legendarily furious gunman, you certainly are perceptive and, in fact, rather wise, Billy."
The American immortal grinned. "Quetzalcoatl didn't hire me for my amazing personality, you know."
The two of them stayed quiet for a few minutes, as they drove on a few more metres. Finally, Machiavelli said, "Perhaps my extreme cautiousness is caused by fear of loss."
Billy said nothing, but looked at the Italian intently.
"Twenty years after my apparent death, I had very little," he went on. "I had plenty of material goods, certainly, but most of my friends and close relatives were dead, and I was meant to be dead, so I could not go on to make new friends. My immortality was the one thing I had that I truly valued, and so I have gone to extreme levels to hold onto it."
"Well, you sure don't have to be so careful now," Billy said. "It's time to let go, Velli."
Velli looked at Billy, and nodded.
"So why don't you open up the throttle, and really try to drive?" the American said, his grin reappearing on his face.
And, despite his ingrained instincts screaming at him not to do it, Machiavelli obeyed.
"How did we end up here?" he muttered.
"I think you know," Machiavelli said drily. "It all began with the words, why don't you open the throttle. Personally, I rather lost track after that. Hopefully you managed to notice exactly how we ended up in a ditch."
The two immortals sighed, and began to extricate themselves from the car.
As he'd said, Machiavelli didn't really remember what had happened. All he knew was that he'd floored the accelerator, and a moment later the car had been upside down in a ditch. He didn't know at what point he'd lost control of the car, but the scream of terror he'd accidentally let fly from his throat just before they'd careered off the road was certainly fixed firmly in his memory. More importantly, it was no doubt fixed firmly in Billy's memory.
Machiavelli began adding up the cost of the bribes he'd have to pay the American in exchange for his eternal silence. Reputation was the currency of the immortal world, and if his moment of fear got out, the Italian would spend the next hundred years being called Screamavelli.
The two immortals surveyed the car. To Velli's deep relief, it wasn't badly damaged, but it was upside down. Machiavelli didn't need to know a lot about cars to see that this was a problem.
"Any ideas?" he asked Billy.
"Well, I could call Black Hawk, but he might not want to help," the American said thoughtfully. "He kind of got annoyed after the last time."
"The last time?"
"Yeah, a few weeks ago, I was driving up in the mountains, and I sort of angered a Native American spirit, and then the spirit kidnapped me," Billy said nonchalantly. "Hawk had to come up and rescue me, but it turned out the spirit was an old enemy of his, so things got a bit heated."
"What exactly do you mean by 'heated'?" Machiavelli said carefully, his curiosity aroused by Billy's tone.
"Er," the Kid said, looking awkward. "The spirit sort of - temporarily, I should emphasise - turned Black Hawk's skin a pleasant shade of green…"
"And Hawk was due to go to a Native American convention the next day," Billy went on, his tone apologetic. "So. Yeah."
"Well," Machiavelli said flatly.
They both continued to stare at the car, as though the mere force of their gazes would miraculously flip it over.
Then, they heard someone - or something - crashing through the woods towards them.
Velli and Billy glanced at each other. In the blink of an eye, both their auras had flared. Machiavelli gathered a spear of energy in his right hand, whilst Billy reached for his gun.
Then, a hook-handed man broke through the trees, and came to a halt in front of them.
"I sensed a change in established patterns!" he said, his tone urgent, his blue eyes wild.
Billy and Velli exchanged glances again, and Machiavelli said, "Do I know you?"
The hook-handed man stared at them for a moment, his expression confused. Then, his eyes widened in realisation.
"Ah, no," he said, his tone careful. "I, ah. Got my wires crossed."
His eyes fell upon the overturned car, and he smiled.
"Let me fix that for you," the man said cheerily. He waved his hook, and a breeze blew past them and over the car. Machiavelli and Billy both blinked. The car was upright.
"Thank you," Machiavelli started to say, turning back to the hook-handed man, but he'd vanished without a sound.
"Uh…" Billy said slowly. He exchanged glances with the Italian once again, and they wordlessly decided to pretend that hadn't just happened.
Some mysteries are better off unsolved.
"Perhaps you should drive," Niccolò said, waving at the car magnanimously.
"Maybe you're right," Billy conceded. "But I'm driving us to the coast. I know a secluded spot. You're gonna teach me some magic."
"Okay," Billy said, lowering himself onto a wooden bench that overlooked the coast. "Where do we begin?"
Machiavelli sat down next to him, and paused to take in the view. They were in the upper reaches of a small, secluded beach. The main beach was visible to the right, behind a rocky headland, while in front and to the left, the sea stretched into the horizon. The sky was clear, apart from a few jet trails that were, Machiavelli noted, hanging around for an oddly long period of time.
"What do you want to learn first?" the Italian asked the American.
"How to see through the eyes of animals," he replied promptly.
Machiavelli nodded. "Very well," he said. "Now, the best creature to begin with is the common rat. It has a simple, easily controlled mind, and is not overly dangerous."
"What's being dangerous got to do with it?" Billy asked, looking alarmed.
"Oh, if the spell goes wrong the animal can become a little demonic," Machiavelli said airily. "You'll do fine."
Billy said nothing, but his expression looked completely unconvinced and unassured.
"You begin by focussing on the rat," Velli went on. "You envision the creature with which you would like to connect. Then you reach out to the creature with your power."
The smell of cayenne filled the air as Billy's aura crackled into life. He closed his eyes, frowning in concentration.
"The first few times that you do it, the spell can be draining, so I'll give you a little of my power to help you along," Machiavelli said, placing his hand on Billy's shoulder. The Italian's own aura glistened as it materialised, and the scent of fresh parchment mingled with the smell of pepper.
Billy's frown went from one of concentration, to one of puzzlement. He opened his eyes.
"Did you change your aura smell?" he said.
Machiavelli coughed. "Ah, yes."
Billy smiled, and closed his eyes again.
The scents of the auras grew stronger as the immortals focussed, and Billy's flared up to its full intensity.
"Okay," the American finally said, after a few moments. "I have the rat clear in my mind."
"Good," Machiavelli said quietly. "Now, reach out to it with your will. Imagine yourself entering its mind, seeing through its eyes."
Billy nodded, and put his head in his hands as he strained with his power. He began to tremble a little, as he pushed to a level of magic-use previously alien to him. The Italian poured a little more of his own power into Billy, and the American stopped trembling.
"Wow," he breathed. "I can feel the rodent's mind."
"Excellent," Velli said, almost rubbing his hands with enjoyment. He'd forgotten how fun it was to share the secrets of magic with another practitioner. "Now, try to look through its eyes."
Billy drew in a shuddering breath, and opened his eyes.
"Woah," he said, nearly losing concentration. "This is hardcore, man."
"It is certainly rather amazing," Machiavelli agreed. "What do you see?"
"Uh…" Billy frowned. "I can see… you."
Niccolò looked up quickly. Sure enough, around fifteen feet down the beach, sat a small grey rat. It was staring up at the two men, and Velli could have sworn that its eyes were the same colour as Billy's.
"And I can see some skinny guy next to you," the Kid went on. "Wait, is that really what I look like? Hell, my teeth…"
"Focus, Billy," Machiavelli admonished him. "Now would be a terrible time for you to lose concentration."
"It's only a rat, man."
"Yes, but if it were a lion, what then?" Machiavelli said crossly.
Billy's response was notable for its non-existence.
The rat took a few steps forward, and the breeze coming off the sea picked up a little. The sand stirred and the grass waved.
"Try to make it move away," Machiavelli suggested.
The rat came a little closer.
"Perhaps make it move to the left?"
The rat moved to the right.
The wind suddenly blew harder. It pulled a covering of sand off the top of the beach, and blew it right into Billy's face.
The American sneezed.
The Italian cursed.
The rat stood up on its hind legs.
"Oh dear," Machiavelli said slowly. "This may be a problem."
"Huh?" Billy said, looking a little frazzled by his foray into the mind of a rodent.
"I forgot to mention," the Italian said, standing slowly, staring at the rat as if it were a wild animal, "rats have minor psychic links with their own kind."
"And this is important because…"
"It's why it is so easy to control many multiples of rats at one time," Machiavelli went on. "However, when a rat is threatened, all the other rats in the pack tend to… come together."
The rat turned around, and squeaked.
From tiny crevices, gaps between rocks, and hollows in the sand, a small army of rats, grey, black, and large, flowed out like a furry tidal wave. Billy jumped to his feet in alarm as the rodents gathered around the original rat. As one, they turned and stared at the two immortals.
"Oh dear," Billy said.
The rats surged forward.
Machiavelli quickly took up a defensive position, flinging blasts of grey aura at the oncoming tide, but it only took down a few rodents. They came on inexorably, and leapt up at the two men. Billy batted them away, and tried to summon his aura up again, but he had not yet recovered from his previous exertions. Machiavelli took to sending out waves of raw energy, knocking back various battalions of the rodents, but such attacks had little effect on the vast army.
The warlock and the cowboy retreated to the bench, and climbed up onto it. The rats came to the legs of the bench, and started to climb up as well.
Then the music rang out.
It was a strange, primal tune. It resounded through Machiavelli's being, making him want to run, hide in a cave, and curl up into a ball. He held firm, but the rats did not fare as well.
The rodents had surged forward as one, and now they fell back as one. Each one squealed in terror, and curled up into a ball, as if a terrible monster was bearing down upon them. Then, the music grew louder, more intense, more terrifying, until the rats turned and fled.
Machiavelli watched them disappear with his mouth slightly open, and an expression of amazement upon his face.
"Well," he said.
"Look!" Billy cried.
Velli obeyed, following Billy's outstretched finger, which pointed in the direction of the main beach. Machiavelli squinted, and saw a slender figure standing at the very edge of the shore. As he watched, the figure raised a hand in salute. In that hand, he could see, was a long object that was almost certainly a flute.
"Is that…" he muttered.
"That's Virginia!" Billy declared happily, waving back at her enthusiastically. She waved back once more, before turning and striding away.
"Well," Machiavelli said again. "It would seem that luck is very much on our side today."
They both stood in silence for a minute, as they recovered from the invasion of killer rats.
"I think that's enough magic for now, don't you?" Machiavelli said finally.
Billy nodded, and they made their way back to the car.
"You know, Velli, I've been thinking," Billy said as they climbed in.
"That's rarely good news," Machiavelli said drily.
"Hey, I'm known for my cunning," Billy sniffed. "It's on my Wikipedia article."
"You read your own Wikipedia article?"
"I felt obliged to make sure it was accurate!" the American said defensively. "Anyway. I was thinkin' that we ought to stick with what we know."
Velli frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, we tried doing some new stuff today, right?" the Kid replied. "And it didn't work out so good. So I'm thinking we should stick to what we're used to, and go face death."
"Is death in these parts today?" Machiavelli asked, thinking that he sounded like a badly-written Hollywood hero.
"Yup," Billy nodded. "Black Hawk was telling me that there's a band of cucubuths hanging around a little out of town, terrorising travellers. I reckon we go terrorise them."
Machiavelli nodded thoughtfully. He couldn't help liking the sound of the idea - even though his time on Alcatraz had been frightening and dangerous, he'd actually rather enjoyed it, in a strange way.
"Sounds good, my friend," he said.
Billy grinned, and turned on the engine. "Hell yeah," he muttered, and pressed on the accelerator.
They drove off, heading for the horizon,.
And on that day, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli could say, for the first time in centuries, that he was truly living.
(Even if he still thought that his clothes were ridiculous.)