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Copyright © 2007 J Armstrong
Copyright © 2008 Pax Britannia, The Hunt, Backspace by J Armstrong All Rights Reserved First Electronic Publication, 2008

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Table of Contents
Part One
Stolen Property ............................................................................................5 Satisfaction ...................................................................................................11 Street of Souls ..............................................................................................19 Choices..........................................................................................................23 Ritual .............................................................................................................30 Peacemaker ..................................................................................................37

Part Two
Saints and Sinners .......................................................................................50 Critical Failure .............................................................................................54 The Other Side .............................................................................................64 Clem’s Gambit .............................................................................................70 Forever Tomorrow ......................................................................................75

Part Three
Crown Imperial ...........................................................................................81 Mushrooms ..................................................................................................88 Eve of War ....................................................................................................96 The Winged Crown.....................................................................................108 Music Box .....................................................................................................117 Ambassador Demon ...................................................................................123 Death or Taxes .............................................................................................131

Part Four
Pax Britannia................................................................................................139 The Hunt.......................................................................................................145 Backspace .....................................................................................................152

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4 . it’s a matter of perspective.Part One Not all stories end in a typical happily ever after.

closed the door behind him. The smell of old fish. The Sea Mistress looked down at him with a faded expression of seduction and creaked on her hinges. The front door burst open. Elnis’s lip curled with distaste.Stolen Property The stink of low tide almost made Elnis gag. spare frame. and their awful nasal accents. He would find his prey here. He’d had enough of their rough ways. their bad manners. he had business. sailors and dockers. he stepped into the tavern. The din lessened as people turned to stare. They’d obviously stopped for a cleansing libation before heading home. No wonder the port workers congregated in the drinking establishments. Adjusting his charcoal-grey robes around his tall. The night breeze was gentle enough to keep the stench lingering. raucous noise erupted and two men stumbled onto the street. mud and rotting garbage hung in the air with the vague scent of seawater. The men were grubby.no matter the urgings of his friends. unless they made it so. and Elnis tried not wrinkle his nose. then resumed as they decided he was no one of note. attempted to sing but were laughing too hard. They came to wash away the flavours of the tide. stank of fish and sweat. the taverns and alehouses were overflowing with stevedores. At this time of early evening. 5 . He looked up at the gently swaying sign. they had invited him. after all. Elnis wanted out of this rank city. They were not his concern. He quelled the urge to spit the horrid taste out of his mouth. business he couldn’t let go . Unfortunately.

” The burly man said. he held a tankard. blue and faded by time . I have business here. Elnis looked up at him. Protests cut off with gasps as the brute followed him. “’op it.” He indicated the door with his head.” Elnis reached into his robe and pulled out a circle of silver. looking for the two familiar men. “Didja not ‘ear me? ‘op it or I’ll be makin’ yuh sorry. and trying to protect me from the… less fortunate in this tavern. “Dis ain’t no place for the likes o’ yuh. Both gaped at him for a moment. puzzled. then smiled at him. 6 . but he’d seen the shock of carrot-coloured hair before the bulky man stood before him. “Aye. looked at each other. The man stared down at the gleaming money. “Good evening. “I’d be more grateful if you would watch my back for me. and he nodded as his fist rasped across his jaw.” “I don’t think so. “Here. sir.” He rumbled.” Elnis bowed to the orange haired man.attempted to focus on Elnis without success. “Aye. gentlemen. were you speaking to me?” He asked and earned a sneer from the thick-lipped man. then the dark haired one. Elnis stepped aside and pushed his way through the crowd.blurred by ale.” “You are obviously a man of distinction. The man’s eyes . Elnis smelled the bitter brew and quelled his rebelling stomach.Elnis scanned the crowd. In one meaty hand. “I’m sorry.” He handed the man the coin.” The man scowled. Fat fingers curled over the silver. He almost missed the couple as someone stepped in his way.” Elnis smiled.

What you own. squire. Dak and Merrick grinned at each other. “A small matter of your thieving from me. However.” He gave a small shrug. “You gonna call the law on us? Oh. “The local guard take a cut of the proceeds.” He nudged his companion and he slid across. Surely a merchant of your standing can understand that?” Elnis smiled. “Some even expect it. “See. but to other merchants. will do that.” Elnis drummed his manicured fingers on the scarred tabletop. “Of course I can.” “What?” Merrick laughed. It’s the way of trade. they take such things in their stride. “Welcome. you can sell.” he nodded to the dark haired man. you’ll not 7 . “Can do that.“Elnis!” The dark haired one said. the giant stood back and watched with a sip of his ale. you own. sit down.” He shook his head. come.” “Sure we will. No. Elnis. what brings you here?” The dark haired one said with false cheer. my very name and I simply can’t have you stealing from me. Nor do I take it lightly. in this town. I’d like to say I’d be laughed at. my business. warmth coming into his eyes.” he smiled at the orange haired fellow. Elnis. I do not.” Dak wriggled in his seat. okay?” Dak said and looked past the giant. what you get is what you keep. “So… Elnis. we’d be laughed at. Elnis sat. I have spent many years building my trade. sit down. Merrick. “Can’t do that. and you won’t be laughed at. What you can keep. leaned across the table. “Dak. “Aww. No hard feelings. it’s what we do. “Why don’t we get you an ale and be friends?” “Why don’t you return my property and we won’t have any unfortunate… repercussions?” Elnis murmured.

as did Merrick.” “I do not care for the refreshments in this establishment. for they will bring you nothing but harm.” Elnis said. “Not going to happen. should bring a good price. Elnis lifted an eyebrow. no doubt. the wealth he would gain. He gently blew on it and the mark moved slowly towards Dak. better you write your losses off and call it day. all I wish for is the return of my property. They should have.” Dak’s brown eyes lost focus as he imagined. “Yeah. Merrick.” Dak sat back with a satisfied smirk. When he was done. Elnis thought. Even with Wido standing over you. Elnis could see it in the way he held his too skinny body. “That’s your final word?” “Afraid so. there is no way you could overpower us two and steal from us. I think they’re enchanted or something. “Oy. Merrick and Dak glanced at each other and giggled.” Merrick agreed and the same expression came over his face. Elnis’s face lost all expression.” Dak grinned again.” Merrick said. let us buy you a drink. And just so you know.find any recompense or satisfaction there. the way he looked. Give it up. “And what makes you think you’ll ever get to sell the pieces?” He asked. “It is most unfortunate you have decided to keep the rings. 8 .” Elnis said and leaned back. So. “You have the… items with you?” Dak smile widened. Merrick. they most certainly should have. a magical sigil had formed. Elnis and move on. the way he smiled. but neither men saw it as any danger. Come now. “That would be telling. I’m afraid. his finger moving in a circle of spilled ale.

but you can explain your actions to the demon Mordai when you see him. Elnis drew another sigil and blew it towards Merrick. and the smell emanating from the two would surely be most unpleasant. he’s a friend of mine. Merrick glanced back Dak then reached into his tunic and pulled out a leather pouch. the patrons were wondering why the two men were turning a rather unattractive shade of green. The sigil slid up the side of Dak’s ale tankard and crept onto the back of his hand.” Dak said with mock regret. Dak and Merrick were staring at each other will undisguised greed. And don’t worry. “Thank you.” Elnis stepped away from the table without looking back. As he reached the door. he knows you’re coming. He’ll be most interested. Dak’s eyes widened in surprise and he turned to his companion. slid it across the table. and who not to sell to. Elnis glanced at Merrick as the other mark reached the same destination. We know who to sell to. With a final smile. these are our people. “I would suggest you never try to steal from a merchant wizard. gentlemen. 9 . I’m sorry. Dak returned his attention to Elnis. “You will give me the rings. He opened the door and quietly closed it behind him. The translucent magic slid under the sleeve of their tunics. No doubt. this is our town.” Elnis stood and tucked the pouch into his robes. the noise in the tavern lessened until it was a well of silence.” He said in a low voice. Elnis dragged in a deep breath and slowly let it out again.Neither man noticed. He flicked another silver coin at Wido who caught it in a meaty fist and gave him a salute with his tankard. “Elnis.

Ah. but he was sure Mordai would be entertained for sometime yet. not just this time. when done right. but his laugh would play in the night air whenever anyone thought about the strange happenings this night. is its own reward. He patted the pouch and walked away. Maybe the Sea Mistress would no longer tolerate thieves. it was a sound that echoed into the alleyways and reverberated off the walls. Elnis laughed into the night. He would never know. revenge. he would not return to this city. 10 . a most satisfactory way to conclude business. well. It was a given the tavern wouldn’t be having any business for some time.

He swallowed it manfully and Grigor watched as his cheeks puffed out and little noises squeezed through his mouth until he couldn’t contain himself and began coughing.” Grigor turned to his new friend.” Mal squinted at him. tell scary stories and freak ourselves out.” He said. Still.” Mal agreed sagely and sat next to him. “It’s what?” He unscrewed the dulled silver cap and breathed in the red wine. “It’s a grave yard. D. And it’s du jour. “it’s soup dew jaw.” Mal coughed and hacked and wheezed. But we wouldn’t be teenagers if we didn’t drink in a graveyard. O. They’re supposed to be creepy. “You do know this is terribly cliché of us. “That’s what I said. He turned to Grigor. “I told you to get something with less kick.” Grigor snorted and reached under his jacket for his flask. “Dew jaw. “Jaysus… wept!” He lifted an arm and wiped his eyes with the sleeves of his jacket.” “Yep. “You know when they say. It’s dew jaw. R. Pronounced ‘du shore’. only that it had a hint of blackberry in it. Well…” “I get it. I get it. U. He had no idea what type of red wine it was. U. “We like to know about the less fortunate than us.Satisfaction Grigor spied a concrete-edged grave with his flashlight and sat down. “Of course it is.” he put on a snooty voice. It is an education.” He resumed his normal tone and shrugged. Grigor’s smile was smug. I just didn’t know you knew.” Mal pulled a half-bottle of Jack out of his backpack. confident he could do this. J. “I never thought a rich boy would want to hang out with the likes o’ po’ ol’ me.” Grigor grinned and affected the same posh tone Mal had used.” He opened his bottle and took a mouthful. “this is creepy. “I get fed up with the ‘you should know this 11 .

“Did you hear that?” He asked softly. “that the trees don’t rustle?” “What?” 12 . See. not who the folks think of as acceptable. “This flask belonged to my great. great? Grandfather. been handed down from generation to generation. “you can see were the silver is slightly worn. blocked one nostril and blew. you’ll make yourself sick. “Did you know. remember?” Mal took another slug of bourbon with the same result.” But both sat in silence and listened anyway.” he offered the flask. Grigor. “Waddaya reckon they’d say about you hangin’ in a graveyard?” Grigor put the back of his hand to his forehead and spoke like his mother. “Jesus.” Mal shook himself. “If they only knew what you were up to. “Nup.person’. Grigor looked around. but saw nothing unusual. “Now this. pal. or ‘don’t talk to him/her.” Mal giggled. they are not of our class. “‘Oh. um. you.” He looked around.” “So why’ve you got it? We’re too young to drink. but it’s got a nice flavour.’ Bloody Hell. common!’” They both laughed. Don’t wanna think about it. how could you? He’s so. I want to choose my own friends.” Mal laughed. all he heard was the breeze through the trees. so. once you get past the…” He broke off and tilted his head.” Mal leaned to the side. “You rebel. Then he did the other side. “Yeah. searching for the noise Mal had said he’d heard. “I could have sworn I heard… Nah.” Grigor held up the flask. Grigor listened.” Grigor leaned towards his friend and spoke softly. his grin wide enough for Grigor to see the shine of his teeth.

“Here lies the faithless Adam Paul.” He shone the flashlight lower.” Mal agreed. they spelt ‘to’ wrong. good to know you paid attention in English. it’s the sound of steam.” He spoke slowly and failed to squelch his smirk. Maybe it was because they were in a graveyard.“The wind in the trees. One wife to many and died in a brawl.” Grigor snickered. “You are such a dick. “Crap!” Grigor snickered.” “Shoulda kept his pecker in his pants then. it don’t rustle. He was a young’un.” Grigor grinned. but look at the date.” he whispered.” Mal griped and took a tentative sip from the bottle. The leaves. “1720 to 1748. He aimed his light behind him to read the headstone.” He leaned closer until his lips almost touched Mal’s ear. Twenty-eight.” Mal jerked away from him. and yet still hushed. his tone more normal. You know how we’re always reading at school about ‘leaves rustling in the wind’? Well.” “Rustling. “Hiss. He’s dead and buried and with the Lord. 13 .” His whisper rose and fell as he drew out the sound. in a constant breeze. “They don’t?” “No. “Hey. He took a sip of the wine. they don’t rustle. clutched his jacket tighter around his thin body. make a sssss sound. “is a momentary event. “Steam. Isn’t it supposed to have two ‘o’s’?” “Yeah. “It’s true.” He said. If you listen carefully. “It’s the sound of a…” he softened his voice until the last word. “That’s what we’re here for.

Grigor got up and walked to the next headstone. It held nothing of interest and he moved on. Mal followed him. “This is boring.” Mal complained as they hunted for more entertaining headstones. “I thought graveyards were supposed to be, you know, haunted or something.” “They are. I saw a thing on PBS one night? This guy, he left a tape recorder turned on in the middle of a graveyard and when he replayed it, he could hear voices on the tape.” “That’s bullshit, man.” Mal said from behind him. “Some asshole probably spoke into it.” Grigor shook his head. “Nope, he had a video camera hidden so he could watch.” He put the flashlight under his chin and turned slowly towards his friend. “No-one showed up. Only the voices of lost souls.” He intoned. He saw the glimmer of light in Mal’s wide eyes. “You are shittin’ me.” Mal’s voice quavered and he slurped down a mouthful. “Nah. Scared the spit outta me when I heard those voices. They played the actual tape.” He clicked off the flashlight and whispered, “help me, help me. I’m lossst and I don’t know where I am…” “Cut it out.” He turned the light on, shrugged. “Just telling you what the voices said.” “Can’t be true.” Mal muttered and took a swig of Jack. “You don’t believe in ghosts?” Grigor asked and continued to wander though the headstones. “Nah, s’all made up, isn’ it. I mean there ain’t no proof.”

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Grigor thought Mal was trying to convince himself, that he tried to be strong, cynical, manly. Through the gloom, he saw a low stone-built structure and smiled. “Huh. Goober thought so, too.” He sneered. “Goober. Wasn’ he the guy who dis’ppear’d las’ year?” Mal, Grigor thought, was getting well and truly pissed. In a show of solidarity, he sipped his wine again. “Yeah, homeless guy who ran around screaming about the end of the world and the dead rising and stuff. Man, he was weird.” Grigor remembered the man, unwashed with food stuck in his black beard, smelly, a feral gleam in his gold-coloured eyes, ratty clothes. Mal chuckled in response. “Guy was a nut job. Disgustin’ ol’ scrote. Prob’ly lyin’ in a ditch somew’re.” “Could be, Mal, could be.” The beam of the flashlight lit up the stone door of the crypt. He turned back to Mal. “Whaddya think?” He leaned into Mal. “Wanna look and tell ghost stories to each other?” Mal giggled. “You can’t scare me, Grigs. I betcha ya can’t.” Grigor’s grin was lopsided. “How much?” “Wha’?” “How much do you bet I can scare yah? Make ya squeal like a girl?” Mal punched his arm. “You caint. I ain’t ‘fraid of no dead house.” “Crypt, Mal, it’s a crypt.” “I bet there’re lots of skel’tons in there, rottin’ corpses, dead, stinkin’ zombies with hollowed out eyes jus’ waiting to suck ya brains out through your nose or somethin’.”

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Mal was grinning like an idiot, slurping down his drink. “Car’n ya wuss, let’s do it.” Grigor smirked with conspiratorial glee. They both all but ran to the door, pushing and shoving each other. In front of the stone edifice they paused, saw the metal-wrought handle with the bar keeping the door shut and grinned at each other. “You do it.” Grigor nudged Mal. “No, you do it.” Mal nudged back. “No, you.” Grigor nudged him harder and Mal stumbled. “It was your idea, you do it.” Mal thumped him again with his fist. “Girl.” Grigor sneered and walked up to the door, the light firmly on the ornate area. He pulled the bar from the handle. “Bitch.” Mal sneered and reached out for the lever, ready to push it down. Grigor stepped aside, held the light firm on Mal’s white knuckles as he lowered the handle. He paused for a moment, then pushed. Stone ground against stone as the door moved inwards. “Holy Hell!” Mal coughed and turned his head. “What a stink!” With his other hand, he lifted the bottle, now almost empty, and took a swig. He covered his nose for a moment then looked back at Grigor with an impish smile. “C’mon, girlfriend, let’s party!” Inside the crypt was dark. No, Grigor thought, not simply dark, but black. The black only the blind could know, but he didn’t bring up the light as he stood in the doorway. The smell was appalling. It stank, as Mal had said, of rotting corpses.

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He could clearly see in his mind the panic on Mal’s face as he realised he’d been locked in. Both men spoke of the man in fearful. but still didn’t bring the light to bear. 17 . at this time. Last year was Grigor’s first time. grabbed the handle of the door and pulled with all his might to close it.” Grigor heard Mal’s trainers shuffling across the stone floor. he backed up. The steel bar leaned up against the wall. “I wanna see. slower scrape against stone to the left of his friend. “Shine the light. Grigs. great. He couldn’t hear Mal. He picked up and jammed it under the door handle and doorjamb.Mal was ahead of him. The blood in his veins iced over as he heard another. He couldn’t utter a sound.however that happened. nor grandfather. except for one thing. he didn’t know. He wiped his mouth and swallowed. managed to become the living dead. the slowly rising voice. whatever grandfather. All he knew was that Grigor the First needed to be fed every year on this night. sick and sorry tones. Instead. His heart began to race as he realised Mal. Probably like a hysterical girl. but could imagine the complaints. the homeless man. Grigor back up further and lifted the light to the top of the door. nor did his father. the shouts. How his great. and it was his progeny who bore the burden of providing the meal . midnight. in his drunken state.” Mal called. no doubt looking for a place to sit. feeling his way over the cold covers of the sarcophagi. Then Mal would hear the noise behind him and begin screaming. Everything in here was stone or metal. Then he back away. or have the creature come after them. hadn’t heard the noise.

His father waited last year. checking over his shoulder ever ten seconds. Grigor walked back out of the graveyard. His father was waiting. Grigor the Fourth clapped a hand on Grigor the Fifth’s shoulder and guided him to the waiting limousine. Grigor drank down the rest of the wine. Once enclosed in the comfort of luxury. too.When his breathing settled back into something resembling normal. “How many more?” He asked hoarsely. Without a word. “Until he is satisfied. 18 .” His father murmured and indicated the driver to move on.

thieves. if you could call this refuse-strewn. 19 . prostitutes and beggars. but the Councillors never seemed to appreciate that. Aladaar drew in a breath and smelled his target: an ale-ridden old man. eased the burn. he cautioned. He glanced to the right. up into the night sky. Patience. A curve of pus yellow moon hung low. the light barely reached the sides of the road. Bright lanterns hung on wooden posts at each end of the street. Its sharp tang stung Aladaar’s nostrils and he flinched. a shadow swathed in night. more seductive scent: magic. this night. He couldn’t let the beast inside overwhelm him. watching with gleaming black eyes for his prey. A smile lifted his lips as eagerness rose. He stared out at the empty street from the stygian maw of the alley. and then… well. the mad and the drunks… they all lived here. He cocked his head to listen. To be caught meant instant death. No. No. the burn of hunger sharp in his guts like claws. stamped his feet. towards the docks. Aladaar huddled in his black cloak. The inns would close soon. he mused with surprise. The elderly man was surrounded by another. He’d chosen his spot well: the alleyway off the centre of the thoroughfare. I should have chosen a more heavily populated area. why couldn’t they leave these people alone? Why must they hunt the down-trodden and desperate? He helped them far more than anyone else.Street of Souls Darkness suited him. A door opened and noise fell into the air. Cutthroats. Damn them. Anticipation swelled in his chest. It was bitter. darker. sewer-stinking street as ‘home’.

do you?” He asked gently and she shook her head. “You… don’t know me. One shouldn’t be too much trouble. This woman oozed with magic. The woman gasped and stared at him. It was why chose this as his hunting ground. He called to his own brand of magic. kept her eyes on him. “I would take him. not on this street.They would not stop him. upright. too inexperienced to stop him. but there was none.” The woman shuffled backwards. “Can you not feel him slipping away? Can you not hear the slowing beat of his heart? He has suffered much in this life. The old man was being held up by one of the Councillors and he felt the smile crease his chilled face.. and the old man. Aladaar stepped out of the alley. He kept his voice soft. Aladaar stepped closer as she squeezed the old man to her side as if to protect the wasted shell of humanity. This Councillor appeared raw.. but he was so addled. 20 . too young. His lip curled in a sneer as he shifted on silent feet and peered around the corner. And it struck Aladaar as odd. The old man didn’t react. a fine ripple shuddered through her body. glanced around for help.” Aladaar murmured and stared at the wrinkled and stooped man. Could it be that she didn’t know? The tension tightening his shoulders eased and Aladaar felt the thrum of excitement course through his veins. “No!” The woman shook her blonde head and struggled to hold herself. He could see her tremble. cajoling. he was drooling even as he swayed at the sudden stop. eased out a breath and waited.

and they know me. doesn’t mean I should ignore the… less fortunate of our citizens. doubt in her eyes. I truly am here to help.” He gave a sad sigh at her wary expression and slumped his shoulders.” “You?” She asked.” But not for the reasons you’re thinking. sweetling. I’m supposed to escort Mr Ellirod home. every one of them.” “Well.“I’m sorry if I startled you. “Not someone. “Like you. awe filled her eyes and she shifted her grip on the old man who’d slumped against her.” 21 . but she was a neophyte.” The woman adjusted her hold on the man. “no-one should be here. filled his eyes with kind warmth. “If you have any doubts. This place. for the old man’s milky eyes had closed and he leaned more heavily against her. “In desperation and desolation.” He lifted his hands slowly and pulled back the cowl of his cape.” His eyes met hers. keeping close watch on those who need it.” he gazed around at the garbage-strewn street. smiled at her. I don’t know. as if he were growing heavier. He gave her a beguiling smile. He tilted his head. in poverty. I’m often down here looking for the imperilled. living in squalor. Aladaar’s chuckle was rueful. perhaps you could speak with a representative of the Council?” It was daring of him to mention the ruling body. “Just because I dress like I live uptown. which is where I do live. “I need to use my wealth for more than self-indulgence.” He nodded at her charge. “I’m often down here. And he must have been. “You… you know someone on… the Council?” She asked. The mere mention of the Council had her eyes widening. I have a calling and I understand your hesitancy. “I am Aladaar.

the woman eased the limp man into Aladaar’s arms.“Then indeed.” He said persuasively and smiled. the weakening life force.” The first woman intoned. then he’ll be completely protected and you’ll be doing exactly what you were charged to do. He listened to the gossips seated at a table next him. I heard.” The second.” He kept his tone seductively low and with a relieved smile. 22 . but then again… Aladaar took a deep breath and held out his hand. emaciated woman agreed. Immediately he could feel the waning strength. Then he could hunt again.” A well-dressed corpulent woman loudly pronounced to her companion and bit down on a flaky pastry. why don’t I assist you?” He flung his cape wide in preparation of her passing the old man over. “He must be heavy. heard the horrified cries of the woman and old man inside of him. Aladaar made sure she touched him. maybe the fat one. *** Aladaar sat on a carved chair outside the King’s Tavern enjoying the sun and his breakfast. and revelled in her power. There wasn’t much to sustain him. With some reluctance. “A soul-sucker for sure. Aladaar patted his full belly and sighed. too. He held the old one easily in one arm and pressed a hand to the man’s chest with the other. “Left only desiccated husks. “…The White Council said two more bodies and that the killer left no clues. the woman wrapped her arm around the old one’s waist. “Why don’t you take his other side. He flicked a glance over his shoulder to the women. It would be a couple of days before their life forces were completely digested by the beast.

released. No. After all the effort to get here dodging citizens and soldiers alike. her family were renowned throughout the land as the premier acrobats. tumbled for royalty. you vengeful. water. dodging witnesses by hiding behind the cargo or 23 . When he suggested this mission. Sando. spiteful sadist. masts. black water. she thought. If the Guard caught her out after curfew… She brought her knees up to her chest and tried to still her rapid breathing. a challenge. out of sight. star-speckled sky. failure meant prison.. hunkered down. buildings. Kelso rested her forehead on her knees. Oh… crap. or worse. She was in a bloody crow’s nest. her pounding heart. she was out practicing. dock. Not that she was up to anything nefarious. Oh. sky… Kelso swung around the spar once more. lantern-lit dock. made a fortune. they did. shadowed buildings.Choices The world tilted crazily: ships masts. until… the ‘accident’. what kind of proof would she be able to garner up here? Her gaze moved up the mast to the capped end. An acrobat could never have too much practice. Kelso raised her head and looked around. excitement surged through her veins.. and don’t forget the proof she’d made it this far. Now. Once. if she could get herself down again without attracting any attention… oh. sails. dark sails. then landed lightly in the crow’s nest of the merchant ship Mortal’s Bane. at last. She could imagine herself clambering all over those ropes and spars. concentrated on measured breathing to calm her nerves. It was a mantra she lived by.

Maybe Sando was going to make some headbands? Certainly. not much to them. massaged her leg and knee. But it was his guilt. Kelso decided and stretched out her legs. he’d make damn sure everyone’s life around him was as miserable as his own. she wanted nothing to do with it. She would get him the accursed flag and then leave him to his own devices. it seemed not only foolhardy. Whatever he had in mind. she hadn’t escaped injury. wretched wreck. her blue eyes sad. Now. “You can either die like a man. or live your life as a snivelling. He’d milked that for all it was worth and more. if you wish. though. too. The Mortal’s Bane’s flags were a rich red and burgundy colour. Friends shunned them. too.” She said softly. self-indulgent. angry. the irony of the ship’s name wasn’t lost on her. She’d looked at him.if he couldn’t fly as an acrobat. making everyone’s life as torturous as your own. pitiful. Sando. “Get over it? How do you get over not being able to use your legs. but they were narrow. either! But Sando . of giving in to his every demand just to assuage her guilt. they were long. Sando’s shout echoed through her memory. you insensitive lack wit!” He yelled at his last and best friend Bethna. stared out the grubby window. I’ll help 24 . “What do you know about it?” Sando grumped and folded his arms across his chest. but pointless. no longer expressed sympathy and merely shook their heads in disgust at his inability to get over it. Seven Hells. destructive Sando . selfish. too. What would Sando do with a spar flag? Sure.above the lantern-light’s reach. “Do you not want to live anymore?” She’d asked. “I can take care of it.poor. Nah. She was tired of doing everything for him. If you choose the former. She understood that now.

you will never see me again. she searched the dock for foot traffic. “You would have me murdered so you can be free of me. ignored Bethna to sneer at Kelso. so disgusting. drowning out Sando’s vitriol. 25 . Once she had her prize secured under her shirt. were alone. you’d have this witch kill me? Is it so tiresome. Then he turned away from the window. felt the sharp pain in her heart at his accusation. “So be it. She looked up at the cap and shook her head. If you choose the latter.” His lip curled again as he flicked a glance in Kelso’s direction. you have to take that final step?” Kelso felt her face pale as she remember the poisoned and embittered tone in her brother’s voice. “I will stay in this place until I am satisfied my… bane has been punished properly.” Sando curled his lip. walking. like Sando. Rumour had it she’d left town and that saddened Kelso because she had always enjoyed the other woman’s company. and down to the deck for the ship’s watch to change.” She had turned then and walked away. Bethna raised an eyebrow.you go to sleep in peace. Sando made his choice. for I will not put up with this abuse. her dress swishing against the floor. Look at you! Whole. talking… and no doubt fuc…” “That’s enough Sando!” Bethna shouted. Her toes gripped the wooden mast and she climbed up. That was last month and Kelso never saw Bethna again. you would have me assassinated? I’m such a burden. “Speak your choice!” He’d turned his fiery green eyes to her. “So. dragged his body higher in his bed. Kelso stood and wrapped a hand around the mast. to help me. One last foolhardy exercise and no more of Sando’s escapades. sister mine. thought Bethna and Sando might one day… Now she. your own brother? One betrayal wasn’t enough.

Really. still had the talent. Keslo climbed over the crow’s nest. All was silent. Just you and I. “E… e… exercising. walked the spar to a rope and climbed down. almost back to normal. “There’s no one out tonight. She stopped and stretched out her muscles. one sat in a giant coil of rope. what’re you doin’ out beyond curfew?” A deep voice demanded. I was in an accident and…” Kelso said in a trembling voice and tried to steady her pounding heartbeat.This late at night. The planks felt smooth under her toes as she silently lowered herself to the deck near the bow. She felt good. She hopped over the side of the ship and onto the stone pier. The sailors below her did as she expected. she thought with a grin. As soon as her feet touched stone. slid down her spine and across to her waist. missy. sir. his hand crept around her stomach. A giant. “P… Please… sir… Let me go! You’re making me feel…” 26 . really good. she felt an enormous weight lift off her shoulders and a wicked grin pulled at her mouth. “Alright. hand-over-hand. You can exercise all you want with me. She still had it. Kelso all but skipped down the alleyway that led home.” His voice was rough. pulled her against his big body and she felt a surge of pure adrenalin. rolled her shoulders and flexed her arms. meaty hand came down hard onto the back of her neck and she sucked in a breath of surprise. The crew would catch Seven Hells for the missing flag. the watch was more ‘find-a-comfy-spot-and-doze’. settled down to sleep while the other leaned over the stern and stared at the dim lights of the dock. The hand moved from her neck.

All she could do was clean up: him and the room. a better acrobat you could have saved me. “If you’d been thinner. “I think you’re so filled with guilt and self-hate that you 27 . Kelso kept her eyes on his. Sando? I think you like to keep me around to punish yourself as well as me. “You know what I think.“I don’t think so.” She tried out a smile as she handed over the package. catch the scent of desperation. faster. She could smell the illness in here. she’d had enough.” His eyes crawled up and down her body. but he’d flung them at her so often. She waited for what came next. she was becoming numb to them. “You’re too fat and slow to be able to climb up there. and throw more humiliation on her brother’s head by demonstrating that he couldn’t look after himself – at least in his eyes.” His green eyes narrowed as they met hers. wasn’t ready to face that yet. It wasn’t anything she could do about. but he didn’t want to. He didn’t thank her. it is. Well. Sando. “And this is from the crow’s nest mast?” “Yes. He could have if he tried. merely took it from her with ill-grace and tore it open.” His mouth came down on her nape and both his hands wrapped around her slim waist. I think you’ll have to pay a toll.” The words hurt. “I don’t believe you. *** “Did you get it?” Sando’s terse question interrupted Kelso’s thoughts as she walked through the door to his bedroom. anger and self-neglect. “Yes. I think you screwed one of the crewmen into giving it to you. This is your fault. Sando. it always did. I did.” His face paled. Kelso.” Kelso stepped closer to the bed and tilted her head.

“Sando. it’s time to face up to the truth. But you’ll punish me. guess what.cannot stand to be alone with yourself. It sticks in your craw that I’m almost recovered and you’re not.” She went to the door and opened it. You did this to yourself. nor will you ever be. I may have been able to save you this never-ending pain. Get used to it. Kelso massaged her hip. “The horrible thing is.” “How dare you!” White rimmed his mouth he was so furious. “And I’ve let you because if I had been faster. too. Well.” Tears sprang into his eyes and she bit her lip. you dragged me off the wall. the balcony wasn’t that far away. you don’t want to be alone.” She snorted out a laugh.” She looked away from the grief and knowledge in his eyes. Sando. you can’t be totally to blame. You had no business scruffing with the princess. You had no right to demand I help you escape. but kept her eyes on her brother’s. too. as she had so many times before. 28 . Kelso lifted her shoulders. Sando. You nearly killed me. But you didn’t. dislocated her knee and ankle. Kelso began to pace. Worst of all. watched is rage-filled eyes. can you.” she paused. She’d broken her femur in the fall. brother. you’ll twist the truth until you can convince yourself it was me who did this to you. She would not give in on this. It’s been more than a year. You are to blame. or get over it. This was your doing and no one else’s. “I’m not going to let you do that anymore. because you didn’t want to die alone. you panicked when you heard the palace guard and I couldn’t get to you in time. “you lost your nerve and you know it. quicker and fitter. Kelso stepped back. Any acrobat would have made that leap. You had no right to drag me into your sordid affair. Yet. And still.

you’re right about that.” She gave him a half smile. “You were half-right. He can rejoin the living.” “You can’t leave me. without vitriol. on the wall facing him.” 29 . Kelso shrugged and walked into his arms.” He grinned. without spite. and yes… loved without reservation. She brought her hand down. “And a fine choice it is. I am screwing someone. or he can join the dead. In his mirror.” The door snicked shut behind her. Sando. “You do whatever you need to do to live or to die. He encouraged and nurtured and gave me back my courage. Kelso.“Where are you going?” Sando croaked behind her. Make your choice. her head bowed. what will I do without you? How will I survive?” He sounded so pitiful. so handsome face. She ran a hand through her black hair and turned away. smug calculation in his eyes. “Kelso! Don’t go!” “How did it go?” The giant guard asked. I can’t facilitate his needs anymore . she saw the sly. too. like I have. “Where? I’m going where I’m needed and wanted. “All he has to do is choose. “He’s actually one of the guards. and mine.” She looked up into that oh. “Wait!” She heard his plaintive cry. “It’s his choice. You’ve made me understand it’s always been his choice. All those times you sent me out on errands to test my skills as an acrobat. so lost and she hesitated.” She turned back to him. hoping I would fail and fall so I could be like you or worse? He watched and he helped.

towards the rose garden and beyond where I knew the family rested in eternal slumber. sometimes with violence. surrounded by lush plants and night darkened glass. the one that disturbs me on a deep level. James has that look in his eyes again. for it was a family trait to rule with iron fist and short commands. whether through tragedy or illness. This monument. Again. William. Every evening. following dinner. I looked through the glass. surrounded by lush blooms in spring. into the night. He would join his ancestors soon enough. As if… as if… I gently snorted. There was no apology in him. closing windows against the cool air. None reached the age of sixty. this testimony to convict labour has stood since 1810 following a land grant by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to John Ogilvy for services to the Colony. gunned down by 30 . The quiet seeped into my soul. struck down in their prime. So many out there. Control of business meant control over his home and those who inhabited it. Poor James. the ritual began with my wandering the house. Maybe it’s the house. I’m probably imagining things. naked sticks in winter. “Let the servants do it. “It’s what they’re paid for. soothed my pounding heart. shutting doors to hold in the heat.Ritual The ritual didn’t go well. lost at see off the coast of Eden during a storm in 1859 and his brother Joshua. I sat in the conservatory. The son of wealth and influence and it wasn’t enough.” James’ harsh comment echoed in my mind. Virtually all Ogilvy men died young.” My poor James. sometimes with raw language.

no doubt. the armed services rejected his application on health grounds. Tonight. some survived the conflicts.an escaped convict. I don’t know who the poor wretch is. It is for this reason that I perform the ritual of wandering the house. but. It’s to keep out of his way lest he… We do not speak of such things in polite society. Suffice to say that the women of the family have always known when their menfolk are… unhappy. Sons of Ogilvy served in every war so far. Yes. John and Albert during the Great War. Andrew killed himself in 1934 while Scott determined to go on. his brother Daniel. one at Gallipoli. But what kind of men will they be when they return? Bitter and angry like their father? To James’ great shame. And still it’s not enough. but he’s snarling with barely leashed violence. I’m proud of them. he maintains and grows the family’s wealth and influence. James will recompense them in the next wage payment. He’s shouting at a servant. However. 31 . the family had a military tradition. the shame returned. while Thomas sails the seas in the Navy. proud they continue the tradition. It would tarnish his public reputation to be charged with assault. rested my hands in my lap and lowered my head. My own sons serve: Richard in the Army. is a Brigadier and never lets James forget who succeeded and who did not. Martin returned from the Boer War covered in glory. Andrew and Scott came home from the Great War with their own medals and neverending nightmares. His brother. Is it wrong for me to be absent when he is in such a mood and allow someone else to withstand the worst of his temper? He knows not to strike an employee. Another Albert struck down by cholera at Changi. To James’ credit. I can hear James. two in France. David. James. I sighed. I don’t know what provoked it. shot down over Germany.

though some days. thanks to some herbal remedies. but James has no interest in such… arcane things. and I will do the same for the next generation. Aborigines weren’t considered civilised humans. the ritual had not gone well and it’s probably my fault the poor unfortunate suffers the consequences. “There’s nothing wrong with me. Agnes. it is beyond difficult. nor do the records say. wife. I don’t see my situation as sad or tragic as others might. The bruises didn’t take long to fade. Every evening.A smile tightened my cheeks. but pests to be removed from arable land. this land was sacred to an Aboriginal tribe. I do this because I think he’s cursed. Every evening on my wanderings. for there is no other word for the slaughter of men. taught me how to avoid the worst of the male behaviour in the house. and that was the last time I made comment on the issue. I see it as a challenge: to save this family and create a haven of happiness is my goal. James’ mother. and his father. According to the records. Again. James finds a sprig or two and is enraged. even if it would help him with his mood swings. only that there was an encampment here. 32 . In those days. I shook my head. all the way back to the land grant. women and children. it is tradition in this family that such knowledge be handed to each new bride. No. How dare you suggest such a thing?” He’d ranted when I suggested he see a doctor. Which one. I sought to remove the curse. John Ogilvy and some of his friends chased the inhabitants off or… murdered them. So much death surrounds this house. as his father before him. I place a sprig of rowan on the windowsills to ward off evil. I have no idea.

the Lady of the house. Why should I believe your promises now?” Fear. Is that understood?” He growled. flashes through my veins. I can hear her weeping which was his goal. But why does he look scared? James never uses violence against the boys. “You’ve defied me before. firmly. “James.James will look at me with a gleam in his eyes and smile and… I promised to love and obey. He’s on the second level. the bruises don’t take long to fade. but James’ demands come first. If I don’t go. so I continue on to the hand-carved stairs. cold and insidious. I’ve always a smile for Matthew. his wrath will be fearsome. James. empty of any emotion. not replies faint with fear. All of seventeen and already has the girls seeking his attention. He hates wishy-washy. but I stand and make my way towards the stairs. freezing me on the spot. My hands are shaking. I slowly lift my head and James’ eyes are the cold blue of a Winter sky.” I replied. He wants obedience and subservience. indeed. not from me. “Yes. filled with threat as he steps closer. only the women – to remind them of their place. that includes the bedroom. His voice turns soft.” A respectful nod with head bowed assures him of my subservience. I brush by Matthew. 33 . Again. who turns with a startled look on his handsome young face. Tears are an aphrodisiac to him and he will be searching for me. waiting and I make my way up. He’s done with the servant. “You’ll not walk the house of an evening. Jane.

because men could resist until a woman smiled at them. no proof could I present would convince him that I did indeed meet with the gardener to discuss the grounds. was guilty of lust.” I said and his mouth twisted. No. embarrass me in front of the staff and meet with… less desirable members of society. his eyes lingering on the red marks. That was James’ belief. “Now you understand.” I stared into his eyes. hmm?” His fingers brush my cheek with mock affection. What good are you if I can’t control you. your behaviour corrected.” His eyes flared with heat. and I will not be cuckolded by you or any man. “Why can’t you simply do as I say?” I said nothing. his breath smelling of 34 . I know of the gardener. I swallowed hard. even as I felt the warmth of his fingers. “I do not believe you ‘consult’ with him on the design and flora of the grounds. yes. Jane.” He gripped my upper arms and leaned in close. “Oh. “Release me.” he dropped his hand. treacherous Jane. madam. James was not the kind of man who believed that I loved him and only him. gripped my jaw.“You constantly defy me. I’ve heard stories. Nothing I could say.” His smile was cold. my sweet. That meant I was guilty of worse: of seducing them. “I am still sore from last night. that I don’t want to. “You make me do things. in his eyes. His jealousy knew no bounds and any man who looked at me. I know you have an assignation with him. “you seek to evade your just punishment. James.” His fingers were cruel and hard as the pressed into my cheeks. but you do know you have to be punished. for to speak would incur violence. He tilted his head and eased the pressure of his fingers. I don’t want to hurt you.” “Again.

raised my arm to protect myself. tasted blood. turned his head at the landing. The boy stood on the landing.” He drew back his hand and slapped me once. I will see to it no man looks at you again. “Mom?” Matthew called up the stairs and I turned. He held me fast. twice. I started to fall backwards. his strength increasing as his control slipped away.brandy. “I will beat you to within an inch of your life. but I would protect Matthew from this. His arm raised.” James sneered.” He ground his mouth against mine in an act of violent possession. “And you… to be reminded of your place. I would not have the boy witness this and I wrenched away from James. shuffling from one foot to the other. I cast a quick glance over my shoulder. “It’s time he learned the ways of the Ogilvys. I’d never defended myself before. stared at my murderous husband. as he struck me. “You… struck me. he hit me with as much force as he could. He swung his fist again as I tried to pull away. You bitch!” James said. chuckle of amusement. as if unsure. horrified that he’d seen. “Stop. hand clenched. I wrenched my mouth away. My head snapped back. dropped my arm. Matthew continued up the stairs. I slapped him and he jerked back in shock. a deep. I will kill anyone who comes near you.” I cried. then used his fist. He retained hold of one arm. astonished and I slowly turned back to my husband. 35 . blood flew from my mouth. but James laughed. His eyes were triumphant.

.. brief pain shot through my neck and then darkness enclosed me. I’m probably imagining things. and none at all and I hit the steps with a thud. rolled down like a doll. Again. James has that look in his eyes again. nothing. Matthew’s mother replying to him. As if… as if… I gently snorted.I had all the time in the world. the one that disturbs me on a deep level. Maybe it’s the house… 36 . Bright. through Matthew. *** The ritual didn’t go well. I heard James’ laughter and Isobel. then.

formed circles of gold on the white paint of the walls.Peacemaker Carriage lamps flickered on either side of the entrance to the White Horse Inn. too soft to be music. painted in a dark colour. My party awaited me. Here. listening. nothing in nature. burring hum. it was almost a sin. for a single woman to enter an inn without a male escort. I turned my head to the left. I could hear an odd humming sound and tried to identify from whence it came. wrapped in an emerald coloured cloak over my pale green dress and bustle to ward off the chilly late Autumn air. Was it of consequence that the irritation came from the very place I was to enter? I would not find out standing here. 37 . It was too constant to be conversation. except for that damnable humming. an invitation to assault and worse. yet. the noise emanated from the interior of the inn. I pushed open the door of inn. All sound at the bar to my right ceased. Set between the lamps was a wooden door. I knew. in this age. I could not linger and taking a deep breath. could make that high rhythmic. on a lonely road empty of houses but surrounded by rolling green hills and farmsteads. I scanned the surrounds carefully. but all was hidden by the fog-laced night. in Wiltshire. but I would be remembered for it and that was not my intention. I had no doubts I could deflect any unwanted attention. Standing outside. then the right. it would be… unfortunate should anyone interfere with me.

The handle moved smoothly as I opened the door. The man with the knife tried hard to cut the first. attracting their attention.” He bobbed his head and the conversations resumed at a lower level. It was known as ‘the ladies lounge’. hung my cloak on the cedar coat rack and pulled the kid leather gloves from my hands. They gave each other an evil glare before slowly releasing their holds. The room held three tables with two chairs each and a high backed lounge against the wall. I’ll see to them myself. polite conversation as gentlemen should.” I said and smiled back at him. Lady Scott. I strode down the carpeted hallway. I stood in front of an equally dark door and took another deep breath.” The older of the two muttered and looked away. “Gentlemen!” My voice was loud. His blond hair 38 . ignoring the dark wood of the panelling and the portraitures of previous owners. mutinous expressions on their faces. since women of breeding didn’t drink with men. “’Tis no business for a lady to be involved in. he had matching mutton chop sideburns to compensate for the receding tide of red hair. The two men I had come to met had not sat calmly in idle. determined to kill him. “Good evening. I gasped at the sight before me. but he was held off easily. your party has already arrived. Mr Devon. The other didn’t bother looking at me. One man had the other by the throat and second man had a knife to the jugular of the first. for all appearances a man at ease with himself.The barkeeper turned towards me. but sat with his long legs under the table. removed my cloak. “What’s this all about?” I demanded and closed the door behind me. Both men resumed their seats. his smile peeking out from his handlebar moustache. “Thank you.

not brawlers. I knew and. I gave him a smile.” He grumbled. Sebastian. they held cold defiance. He’s supposed to be 39 . He raised his fingers to his temples and rubbed. accentuating the grey at his temples. “we are diplomats. Or has that changed since my mission to India?” Both men looked momentarily chagrined and rose.” I clasped my hands in front of me. “What was that all about. His eyes were green. “Indeed. His long forefinger was busily drawing in a pool of water left by the two ale glasses. I know that a gentleman always rises when a lady comes into the room. here I am.” His ruddy face flushed.” He dropped his hands and sighed. that would be lovely. Both gave me a bow with their heads. Bastian?” I asked. The rest of his hair was an unremarkable brown. Yet. “It is only by the Queen Victoria’s command that I am here at all. perfectly groomed.was short. “I don’t know.” He bobbed his head and left me with Sebastian. although at the moment. “Thank you.” I chastised the older man. “All I know is that the Inspector has been most confrontational since I arrived.” I turned to the other man. at most times. It’s almost painful. gripped the strings of my clutch bag. “Detective Chief Inspector Morecombe. And you. And she thought you would be the most… reasonable of all her Guardia. “I would have expected more restraint from the King’s vassal. a lady of both courts. as were his eyes. A deep throb in my head. and neither of you have seen fit to correct your manners and address me as such. not the mark of a gentleman. Inspector. but that humming noise is beginning to piss me off. Morecombe went so far as to hold out a chair for me. were filled will amusement. usually at someone else’s expense. “I’ll go fetch some refreshments. He leaned his elbows on the table.

as if I found such childishness impressive. As it slammed. I could tear his throat out and drink every last drop.” “I would suggest. but Morecombe’s eyes began to water before he jumped up and ran to the door. Perhaps I could look into purchasing the winery. my thanks. trying to keep the smirk off my face. Machismo: to see who to take the largest mouthful. It will have to wait. Who had the better manners? Sure enough. and with a knife! How could you be so careless?” “I heard you coming.” he said. quietly burped into his fist. “I know you like the French variety from our meeting yesterday morning. that he is afraid of you. The men took big gulps of ale and I nearly smiled. I didn’t want to hurt him. wine for me.” “And so he should be. just restrain him. Bastian. 40 . “Chardonnay. I heard the expulsion of air and snickered. dry wine and tried not to smack my lips.” “Why didn’t you? Why did you let him grab you like that. See who was the loudest? The longest? I waited. This treaty is too important.the Queen’s counsel in the negotiations. a golden ale for him and Bastian. he comes. but all he can do is sneer and belittle and snipe.” The door swung open and Morecombe came in with a tray. Bastian. for the Dark Goddess’s sake. And so he should be. I wondered how they would deal with the impending belches.” “Indeed.” I took a sip of the crisp. He set the tray on the table and placed the glass of white wine in front of me. It was delicious.

And my suggestion is that the Vampire King be given hunting rights.” he murmured and resumed his seat.” I nodded to Morecombe.I had my diplomat’s face on when he returned. I digress. “The Queen. the Queen told you. “I think we should get started. It was they who defeated the Romans.” “Not so. 41 . What we need here. only to feed. Both men nodded. to keep this country pure.” “’Tis nothing but murder!” Morecombe groused. “I might remind you. It was truly of good stock.” I held up a hand to forestall another comment from the policeman. “Excuse me. is a solution. “wishes that the Vampire King.” I took another sip of wine. that vampires have been around a lot longer than England’s civilisation. Inspector. flushed with embarrassment. It was only through marriage that the Saxons got a foothold in this land at all. it would have been pointless. “cease and desist all… taking of humans. I ignored him. the Vikings. in her private library. “The Vampire King wishes to feed his people. don’t you?” I asked glancing from one man to the other. A taste here. It is written in some of the oldest texts known to man. a… spell of compulsion to make the victim forget. I know. “Excuse me. “Yeah.” I nodded to Bastian. the Saxons. Chief Inspector. but not to kill the victims. a taste there. you would think…” I bit off what I was going to say. Who do you think wrote those books? The Celts had no written language at the time. And.” Morecombe nodded. to save everyone from being slaughtered.

” Morecombe muttered and watched as Bastian all but drained his glass. “We only wish to be left in peace as we always have been. “What have you done to me?” He whispered hoarsely. He was getting well and truly angered by Morecombe’s attitude. “Chief Inspector. you blood sucker. then the liquid turned red. that’s why it affects you so. Blood ran from his lips. His eyes overflowed with stained water. I know that you are here alone with two humans. stunned at the growing pink tinge. Condemned. What he did was murder vampires. Van Helsing destroyed… infestations of vampires in Europe.” Morecombe sneered. his fingernails had turned a dark red and he coughed. and I couldn’t blame him.” his triumphant eyes met mine. until…” “Yeah. It’s set to above human hearing.” Bastian rose unsteadily to his feet.“I don’t know that the Queen will go for that. “I know that the humming noise you hear gives you a bloody great headache. “The King will. didn’t he. “You talk to me of damnation? What do you know about it?” Morecombe grinned as Bastian slumped back into his seat. It’s a little invention of mine and I thought I might test out the frequency on you. He held out his hands. “Vampires are nothing but animals.” Bastian narrowed his eyes and I could see a tic start beneath his right one.” Bastian’s eyes met mine and I sat. I would advise you not to mention that. “I know a lot.” Bastian murmured. as it’s meant to.” He turned towards me. eyes fierce. “Him and his troop of slayers. the very thing you accuse them of. 42 . damned. evil.

I stood up. “I’ll just say he attacked me and I had to defend myself. I shifted backwards. and let me clean up this mess. “The Vampire King’s vengeance will be terrible indeed when he hears of this… abomination. Not with this and drug I’ve invented. Quite safe for humans. Oh.” he nodded at me. but it’s barely ten o’clock.” We both watched as a pool of blood spread from beneath the table. “What have you done?” “Lady Scott. flicked a switch and the humming ceased. “What have you done?” I whispered.” I shook my head slowly.” Morecombe rose and came to stand next to me. “but quite toxic to vampires. horrified at what I was seeing.” His shoulder’s lifted in a shrug. his nose began to bleed and red leaked from his ears. I can’t wait to inform the Queen. He pulled out a square metal box. much to my relief. “You should leave. long way from dawn. “Don’t need this any more.” “Bah. appalled. I will not let these animals feed on us like we’re a Sunday roast! The Queen will understand when I tell her. the dead sleep you have would heal you in time.” 43 . “No. backed away from him. Morecombe. And I will take great pleasure in killing him myself. amoral creature. blood flowing from all orifices now. you have started a war. “A little drug I slipped into your drink. sickened by what was happening. You saw him when you came in. Bastian’s head slumped to the table. I have rid the world of a disgusting. I imagine if it was closer to daylight. He would have followed you home and bled you dry. what can he do? He’s damned already. A long. She’ll believe the both of us.” His laugh was a bark of sound and he reached under the table and fiddled with something. I must say it is gratifying to know it works. We have no need for a treaty now. Lady Scott. We can hunt his kind down with impunity.” I was aghast.

Morecombe. The name of Alexander Morecombe will be known as the greatest vampire slayer that ever lived. A vampire who can walk under the sun. of course.“You seek to take Van Helsing’s place in history. Morecombe. “And I will too.” Morecombe stared at me. “Have you never wondered why the Queen is desperate for a treaty?” I asked harshly. “Have you never thought of why the King wants peace?” “He won’t get it. the enhanced senses. so much blood from one body. Peace is paramount because some of the vampires have evolved. who drinks blood 44 . fiddled with the box before putting it into his top pocket. “What are you talking about?” “Day Striders Inspector Morecombe. then gripped both and eased me to the side as the blood pool spread. We humans have to stick together if we are to survive. stood in front of him. not while I’m still standing. Nothing foolish about that. His eyebrows rose in surprise.” I murmured watching the growing pool. who has the strength of an immortal.” I waved off his comments.” His laugh barked out again. drained off the table.” He shook his head. “I’ll make sure your name isn’t mentioned in the investigation. A vampire. Who can watch the sun rise and not burn to ash. “You are a fool. “Eh? Why’s that? I’ve killed myself a vampire.” I shook my head and tore my eyes from Bastian to stare in disbelief at the smug Inspector.” He patted my shoulder.” Again he chuckled. Inspector. I looked at poor Bastian. “Not that there’ll be one. the sound rich and deep with happiness. “Then let me inform you. Peace is essential if humans are to survive. I swallowed hard and turned back to the foolish man.

an extra half an inch longer than usual. “Some myths.” I gave him a benign smile and extended my razor sharp eye teeth until they were points.and who can walk amongst humans. gave him the full measure of the elongated teeth. his breath short and trembling. pushed him back into a chair and I leaned into him.” “Day…” his brows lowered and he paled. nor fear for some vampires.” Morecombe leaned back against the wall.” I slowly shook my head. 45 . you shouldn’t believe. the scent of fear ripe and delicate. but who is much. A vampire who still has vulnerabilities. Oh. nothing more. The barrier that is dawn no longer holds relief for humans. “No cross. and I didn’t know.” His hand dived into his pocket and he dragged out a tiny gold cross and waved it in my face. “Your box doesn’t work on Day Striders. He fumbled with his little machine and I grinned at him.” He drew his knife and I batted it away from his hand. I can hear the hum. “You mean vampires can now walk during the day?” “I mean exactly that. or garlic will help you now. There was no mistaking what I was. I ran my tongue across my teeth. “Oh. I jerked back. but because I didn’t want to be poked in the eye by it. but it is an irritant. I grabbed the front of his jacket. my God! They’ll hunt us day and night! Slaughter us! But… how do you know this? I’m the Queen’s representative. I lowered my mouth to his and he whimpered. Not because it was anathema to me. watched as he went white. much more lethal.

I am a true lady of both courts. we are able to regenerate after an assassination attempt without the benefit of the healing sleep. both of them trust me to resolve this to the satisfaction of two peoples. His job was to discuss things with you.” he whispered the words like a prayer. it was not up to me. isn’t it? You wanted the glory all to yourself. and that could not go unpunished. “Your job here was to deal with the finer points. He had killed. murdered a vassal of the King. Oh. either and keeps the Day Striders as emissaries and… problem solvers. The King would not see mass slaughter done. Fortunately for him. but it was too late for that. It wouldn’t do to share it. We would be the same for our Queen. the Queen is aware of the… problem which is why she wants the treaty. aware of a deep disappointment that it would be someone else who would mete out justice. but you don’t need to know my history. Inspector. Morecombe. felt the quiet grief at the death of a friend and colleague. a promise. not kill the King’s representative.” I said and stepped away from him. should it be necessary.” 46 . I won’t tell. I have the power of both Monarchs. My job was to act as an intermediary. perhaps? It is only you and I who know about your little… device and drug. “In answer to your question. I won’t tell. yes. “What do you think the Queen will do to you? Give you to our King. “We Day Striders are powerful enough in our own right to resist corruption. would it now?” “I won’t tell. what is the penalty for murder.“Now then. my lips brushing his.” I stared at Bastian. skilful enough to fight our way out of trouble. I eased back. Inspector?” I asked softly.

I didn’t know if he was still listening to me, he was still praying. His eyes were wide with fear, unfocused. I think I really scared him. How unfortunate. “You may have destroyed the only chance of peace, Inspector.” I looked at him. He was still praying, though it eased off when I spoke. “Did you not think of that when you came up with this plan? Did you not consider how many you would have to hunt?” He looked away from me to Bastian and I still saw the satisfaction in the policeman’s eyes. Ah. I had his plan now. He killed one with a small box. If he could make the device bigger, he could kill us in a wholesale slaughter. Too bad greed had blinded him to the greater truth. “It would never have worked, Inspector. Once a mass murder had been discovered, the Day Striders would have hunted the killer down. There would be no place you could hide.” I assured him. His eyes flicked to mine, filled with hate and loathing. “There will be others after me. If I have started a war, it will not be done until all of you filthy creatures have been wiped from the face of the earth.” He snarled hoarsely. I approached him and he sucked in a fearful breath. “If it comes down to natural selection, Morecombe, humans are our food; we have no natural enemy. You do. Us.” I lifted my cloak off the coat rack, slung it around my shoulders and fastened the clasp. Morecombe rose slowly and eyed the door. “You can try, but you would not get far.” I said and tucked my hand into his elbow, held him hard enough that he couldn’t escape. I eased the door open and guided him down the corridor. As I passed by the door to the bar, Mr Devon raised his head in question.

47

“I’m afraid we’ve made a bit of a mess in the ladies lounge,” I said with a smile, keeping my teeth from showing. “I’m going to escort the Detective Chief Inspector to Her Majesty. Would you take care of it, for me please?” “Of course Lady Scott, anything you ask.” He gave me a brief flash of fangs before turning away to serve a customer. I murmured just loud enough for Morecombe to hear me. “Who’s damned now, Chief Inspector? Let’s see what Their Majesties have to say.” And I guided him into the night.

48

Part Two

And sometimes, stories are about what came before or false assumptions.

49

Saints and Sinners
It was an hour before dawn when Byzzie Jones wiped her stained hands on a cloth and stepped back from the brick wall. The high school was long empty for the day, but in her mind, she could still hear the noise of children playing, fighting, teachers calling out for better behaviour, the bell sounding. Out on the street, beyond the fifteen-foot high fence, a car passed by but she had no fear of discovery. In this neighbourhood, nobody cared what people did, nobody saw anything; nobody wanted to know. The light on the corner of the building shone pale yellow light onto the wall and she moved back further, studied the artwork. Another masterpiece, she smirked. The colours merged where they should, and sharper, bolder colours blazed a path through the picture. This would cause discussion, she thought, just as she was commenting on social justice – or the lack of it. It depicted gangs of black men preying on the neighbourhood. It showed last week’s drive by shooting that took the life of a five-year old boy who’d been playing on the front stoop of his house. It showed two police officers beating another black man while a crowd turned their backs; and in the bottom corner, almost unseen, was a picture of a blended family having a picnic in her vision of the revitalised park, surrounded by light. Anger, despair, ignorance and hope. Always, her pictures had hope in them. Byzzie began to pack up her spray cans and heard the mournful echo of a

50

A destructive mess that someone else will have to clean up.” She didn’t want this man to know her grief. Why did you do this?” His voice bordered on the musical and it gave her pleasure to hear it. He was dressed in what she called his ‘uniform’: Black turtleneck sweater. never had been. her anger. Byzzie slowly straightened and turned. her own despair. A foolish thought. hands clenched in fists. “Why do you follow me?” She glanced at him and continued to put her cans carefully into each compartment of her paint rack. and then resumed her task. They contrasted well with his shock of long blonde hair and icy blue eyes. She painted 51 . He never called her by her nickname. black pants and boots. her eyes on his beautiful face. His eyes were drifting over her painting and she wondered if he liked it. “Byzantine. I saw that the first time you painted a wall.” “Graffiti. She wasn’t afraid of this mystery man. “Why do you care what I do?” One corner of his mouth lifted in a smile and she looked away. but he made sure she knew how he felt about what she’d painted. She faced him. sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he spoke. She froze. an easy chair and a beer at the end of a hard day’s work. black leather trench coat that reached the ground. even when she asked him to.harmonica. Even when he’d first appeared. He was like a warm fire on a cold night. not wanting him to know how he affected her. “Your artwork is brilliant. It’s a blight on the neighbourhood that the council will spend money on to remove. She shrugged her indifference. It’s graffiti. she’d taken… comfort… in his presence. pal.

” He said from behind her. You’ve even answered that question by the family in the corner. Sadness filled his eyes and she felt a twinge in her chest. Byzantine Jones was a troublemaker – everyone said so – she just continued their impressions of her. “Doesn’t matter what I feel.because she could. “This is how you feel?” She shrugged his hand off.” She walked to the driver’s side door. One that had taken her all night to do. you’re wrong. “No. 52 .” Byzzie picked up her rack and walked to her truck. nothing more. She didn’t want to make him sad. Bye. I’m going home to sleep. barely a foot square on a painting that cover the side of a building. You’re wondering if there is any redeeming feature to this world.” Byzzie looked at him sharply. “I can see the emotions in this. it was just a… okay. for Christ’s Sake. He stepped forward and rested a hand on her shoulder as he looked over her work. That piece was small. “Are you looking for an argument?” He raised an eyebrow at her and she shook her head. He had to have taken a closer look to see it. She ignored him and went back for her ladder. He picked up one end and helped her stow it on the roof of the rusted out truck. Byzantine. it was a painting. because of the controversy she might stir up. “It’s late.

Did he play? Or was it some bag person on the street? She’d never seen him with one. but then she ignored him when he was leaving. but who cared? Paint something nice? There was nothing nice about the neighbourhood. No one had any right to such a sweet voice. Warmth trickled through her. it was again nearly dawn. Rude. people will feel anger. It was a shame. hand on the door handle and looked at him. “If you paint something happy. “Human nature. people will feel hope. Byzantine. sometime during the day. Byzantine. The harmonica sounded when she was almost done.” He stepped back into the darkness and she heard the harmonica again. “If you paint despair. Of course. It always amazed her how she lost track of time when she painted. though. hand resting on the keys. what would she do? *** Byzzie spent the first hour after sunset rolling white paint over the previous night’s work. it will bring hope to the people. Paint something nice. If you paint anger. it was one of her better pieces. “Beautiful. people will feel despair.” he said softly and goosebumps rose over her body at his voice.” Her eyebrows rose in surprise and he smiled. If you paint hope. someone had written obscenities across the bottom. 53 .” She stopped.” “And you know this… how?” She opened the door and got in. She waited half an hour for the paint to dry and then chose her first colour: yellow.“Byzantine. She carefully sprayed the pale blue and walked back to where he stood staring up at the picture.

Byzantine. Think about what I said to you last night about 54 .” He said pointing the image of a smiling woman staring down with love at her newborn. Only once had she asked him and that was when he’d first appeared all those months ago. How could he be so intuitive? “When the sun rises. “Yeah. “Redemption?” He nodded. I’m proud of you. I am redemption. wasn’t it?” One hand went to her hip in defiance. You know who I am. “Think about it. Byzzie lowered her head. it’s what you wanted. He’d demurred then.” He smiled down at her and she felt heat rise in her face. “No. something about there being more things under heaven and somebody called Horatio. “A beginning.” His hand slid away. “Who are you?” She asked. all will see this. what I am and why I came to you. All good things must have a start. Byzantine. just as bad things do. Byzantine. “So it is a beginning. Would he answer truthfully now? “Redemption.” Her heart stuttered in her chest and she stopped still. No one had ever been proud of her. “A beginning?” She lifted her container and went to her truck. well…” His hand rested on her shoulder again and massaged it lightly. No one had ever said that before. Byzantine.” “So what?” She packed up her cans. How could those few words from a stranger affect her so deeply. That’s what you wanted.“Rainbows and joy.

and try to make the neighbourhood a better-looking place to live. Tomorrow. maybe she’d paint two men: one in uniform.” He gave her another smile.painting what people need to see to feel better. and the court building… something… about freedom… 55 . but he just stood there. the side of the police building was blank. warmed her. perhaps. Then there was the council building… something amusing.” She heard the harmonica. eased the cold grip of anger and… she returned his smile as if it were the most natural thing in her unnatural world. her mind blank but for the image of his disappearance. Maybe others would feel the same. Byzzie wasn’t surprised to see a nimbus of light encircle him then fade and he was gone. felt her spirits lift with each pass of the spray can. “I will see you again. paint another scene. Hmm. His reasoning was right: she’d felt happier painting tonight’s scene. this one reached down inside her. hands at his sides. she would find another wall. to create a better world for themselves. along with the sound of the harmonica. She went back for her ladder and tied it to the roof of her truck. shaking hands. Byzantine. she thought as she drove away from the school in a cloud of blue exhaust. the other in gang colours.

Rise and greet the new world. waited for movement. parted in a rippling wave to reveal an oak casket. She hated that. The man lifted a hand to his eyes as the beam struck him in the face.” Imogen Trace chanted and sprinkled droplets of her own blood around the grave. though. designed to penetrate the blackest of nights and she carefully breathed out again. Imogen glanced at the well-manicured turf of the grave. The power entered the droplets as she moved. A gust of decay-filled air erupted from the interior and Imogen held her breath. She reached behind her and fumbled for the Maglite. When the circle was complete. North. “You wanna give our position away?” If the situation hadn’t been so sad.” In the depth of the night. She walked the grave. I bound thee to me. She felt it ease throughout her body. “Rise. “Turn that bloody thing off!” He said in a husky British accent. Rise and greet the new world. Now she could see the grass stirring. pushed more power into the circle she’d created. Nothing. She half closed her eyes. splashed onto the grass. It was a large one. 56 . It shifted as if alive.Critical Failure “Rise. surge down her arm to linger at her fingertips where blood coalesced. sank into the dirt. she would have chuckled. she crouched down at the foot of the grave and laid her palm flat. nothing she could do. North. There it hesitated. The top slowly and silently opened. as if unsure where to go. concentrated and felt the warm power rise from within her.

plumped out to cover high cheekbones. he had dark blue eyes that were filling out to fit into eye sockets. his chest filled out. 57 . “Ah. unsure of what to say. “That bastard buried me alive?” There was no easy way to say it.” He rose to his feet and staggered.” He raised a disbelieving eyebrow at her. He’d probably be offended if she said it was him. “What’s that god-awful smell?” Imogen cleared her throat and didn’t answer. accusations flickering through his eyes. The dozen bullet wounds on his torso were still clear to see. You’re actually dead. “Like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. and what happened in Sydney. “What the hell?” Imogen stared down at him. As she watched. though no blood oozed. no. and that. He looked up at her. He’d been a fine specimen of manhood in life. obviously hadn’t changed with his death. reached out to steady himself on the side of the grave. The flesh on his face thickened.” He grumped and sat up. He was dressed in Armani. She gave him life. he had none in him except that which magically made him live.“How do you feel?” She asked softly and lowered the flashlight. “Give me a hand will you? Then you can explain how the bloody hell I got in here. It wasn’t everyday a body was raised from the dead. she gave him blood. His dark hair was brushed back from a broad forehead. then tilted his head and frowned as if trying to remember. Mr Grosvenor. Then he unbuttoned his shirt. full sensuous lips and a rounded chin. his arms tightened the sleeves and his legs filled out the trousers.

not even from me. how much of a view can there be when you’re six feet under?” He tried to take a step forward and found he couldn’t. don’t answer that. “Wow. why can’t I…?” “I have to release you from the circle first.” He said disinterested and looked around.” Imogen said with a small smile. “You’re a necromancer. Mr Grosvenor. It is my blood. “Right. out of the circle. to the edge of the circle before he could walk no further.” “Oh. Do you understand me?” North snorted and climbed out of the grave. of course.” Imogen nodded. I just assumed…” He narrowed his gaze. It had to be tough for him and that was probably an understatement. I. He did the same to all the holes scattered across his chest and abdomen. “How did you… no. I already know. “Assumptions are what got you here. “Hey. and only I have the power to put you back. It came out clean. and no matter what happens to you. Mr Grosvenor. you live. His legs would take him only so far. Can’t see a blessed thing. “Hmm. Is there a view? Not that I care. my magical blood that sustains you. Should I die. You’ll never need to eat or drink. you will live.“Holy shit!” He stuck a little finger into one of the holes. you will still live until I put you back or die. “I have reanimated you. I mean.” Her voice dropped. “While I live. 58 .” Imogen waited him out. Imogen stepped back. “Even if you lose your head.” His face twisted with disgust at that comment. you will too.” His eyes lifted to hers and something flickered in them.

you taste. Vintage?” He said and stared down at her in astonishment. “You may as well have a seat. “Do you understand everything I have told you?” She asked. Mr Grosvenor.” He waved a hand for her to continue. Whether you come out or not. That’s bloody good. madam. It was a smell that would always be around him now. North looked on with interest as she poured herself a glass. “Of course you were. this might take some time.” “Very well. impatient. While you’re alive. He licked his lips again.North lifted that eyebrow again and crossed his arms over his chest. I’m alive and so on. What I taste. His expression was priceless as he licked his lip and breathed in. She didn’t bother to offer him one. but it was only a hint. sustains you. “Good.” she muttered and took a deep breath. Imogen shone the light on her backpack and pulled out a lantern. The taint of decay still lingered.” She said and sat crosslegged on the grass. “Yes. depends on your answer. Get to the point. “Not yet. and took a sip. She reached into her Esky and pulled out a stoppered bottle of shiraz and a plastic glass. A little aftershave would overpower it.” “Were you this arrogant in life?” He gave her a charming smile as a reply. “What sustains me. not until you’ve heard what I have to say. turned it on and the flashlight off.” 59 . You sustain me. Imogen shook her head.

but probably her expression. North said. it was the end of an era. although mirth shone from his eyes.” She had another sip then lowered the glass and sighed. “Now.” North nodded smugly. “When you died.North sat down at the edge of the open grave. “Just remember. I sound like an address. “‘What sustains you.” He grinned at her wickedly. so I can only assume that…” “What did I say about assumptions?” “Right. Imogen thought. wait. as M no doubt said to you at the time. 60 . he was a fine specimen of manhood. Mr Grosvenor. I’ll do that. mussels or spinach. you really were the best and only hope we had. He sat there grinning at her.’ That’s what you said.” She threatened and he subsided. sustains me. Regardless of your overblown sense of self worth. the idea of freedom died with you.” He said and manfully tried to quell his humour and failed. Now there was a question! “Ummm…” “Oh.” “Call me North. don’t go all stuffy and proud. “I wish you’d succeeded in your last mission. “Can I still… or do I feel it if you…” Imogen felt heat rush into her face. No.” Imogen chuckled. but do not call me by my full name. “Okay. I don’t like avocado. to begin.” She dragged in another breath and eased it out. I mean that when you died. As if reading her thoughts. Yeah.” His mouth lifted in a smile and dimples flashed in his cheeks. “Any more and I’ll tip the wine out.

Imogen sipped her drink and watched him swallow again.” It was a cruel way to put it. Knew how to defeat you. she’d made headway. Everything we knew was gone and now there is a new world. but she had to break through his arrogance and make him understand the consequences. There is a death sentence on anyone caught. At least he was enjoying it. There are no magical creatures anymore. She’d known it was one of the 61 . haven’t you?” “Yes. the rest of us went emotionally. in a hundred different ways. What do you think he’ll do when you confront him again?” “Try the same thing again.“When you failed. North.” He continued to stare out at the darkness. And no.” North looked away from her. “I mean it North.” He lifted his shoulders.” North stated grimly. you cannot die unless I want you to. You went physically. “Then what can I do? I always used magic to complete my missions. And third… Third. and then eyed Imogen. strip you of your magical protection. I’ll put you back if you refuse and find another way. “There is no magic practiced anymore. actually. because this was the only mission you failed at. they are all in hiding after the purges. That I cannot return to you. Killed you. She’d never been a fan of red wine. Remember. but she’d brought it for him. And you don’t have my magic either. Any child that shows any predisposition to magic is destroyed. One which is not to our liking.” “Murdo knew you with magic. you failed us all. or I die. socially. “Got it all planned out. your magic is gone. Second. too. “What makes you think I want to face him again?” “Three things: the first is revenge. their parents.” She took a sip of wine and he swallowed. before you ask. From his shocked look. You died and so did we all.

” Imogen said quietly.” He said bitterly.” He turned to look at her. his eyes sad.” “You’re not alive now. The world. That was me. The creatures will return. wasn’t it?” “I’m afraid so. will be better. if you can return to us the world. North.” Imogen looked behind her. “But you’ll still put me back. That meant his answer would have to be swift. but didn’t ease back.” She said softly and held his gaze. There’s the knowledge you got Murdo… and there’s the change the world gig. “What’s in it for me?” He asked without looking at her.” “But I won’t be here to enjoy it. Other… things. North. while changed. “Aftershave?” He snorted then grinned. She could feel the approaching dawn. It was a question she’d expected. Kill me off again. “That smell. magic will happen again. when I first woke up. then would you be happy as you are? Would you be happy to exist like you do? Would you be content to be with me for all my days? Would you be happy to wear aftershave?” She found herself leaning forward. “How long will you keep me…?” “If you succeed. but had hoped not to answer.things he’d enjoyed when he was alive. “There’s not a lot in it for you. “That’s up to you. she wasn’t willing to provide. “If you kill Murdo. If he found out. What he didn’t know was that she couldn’t return him during the day. all he had to do was delay her until the sun rose and he would have a full day to do what 62 . He nodded slowly. There’s the satisfaction of always completing your missions.

Just to see the look on that murdering bastard’s face when I turn up again.” She replied in a cultured British accent. North drew himself up.” “Job first . what’s the rush?” She closed the lid and turned to him. If I’m caught out here…” “Oh.” She said apologetically and set her now empty glass back into the Esky. 63 . She could not control him in daylight.he wished. He didn’t breathe. “What’s you’re name?” “Trace. should he decide to help. “Okay then. larger than life. “You can kill me anytime. but no need to tell him that. “By the way. one he could never know. It was her secret. She unsealed the circle and he stepped out.” He gave her that wicked grin as his eyes roamed over her body. “Haven’t you been listening? Magic use is a death sentence. Imogen Trace. but gave the impression that he’d taken a decisive breath.bonus later.” “I can’t give you any.” he asked as he picked up her Esky and backpack and they walked back to her car.” She promised. It was almost too late. although she wasn’t going to fulfil his bonus in the manner to which he was accustomed.” She could feel the first brush of ambient light on the horizon. “And maybe I can convince you that all work make a dull necromancer. “I need time to think about this. I’ll do it. necromancer.

their hopes and dreams. but he smiled back at her. shimmering blue halter-neck evening gown. “I’ll be taking a break now. well-heeled male. His interest in her was clear. patrician nose.” She gave the men a seductive smile. Her eyes settled on another man as she sang the end of Underneath Your Clothes. Her almost violet eyes settled on each man in the crowd as she sang. his black hair combed back. Her target shifted uncomfortably and adjusted his necktie.” she murmured into the microphone as she finished the song and the applause rose. He even had dimples beside his firm mouth. but she didn’t really see them. She unhooked the tiny pickup. Each man would feel as if she was singing just for him. Pandora Le Fleur crooned a torch song as she leaned against the baby grand. but he was just another attractive. they were money and it was her job to extract as much as she could from those heavy wallets. clean-shaven cheeks and strong jaw. their passion. from her collar and tossed it onto the glossy piano top. Sun darkened skin stretched across Slavic cheekbones. 64 . wanting her personal attention. She used her voice to reach deep inside to draw out their longing. straight. His midnight eyes were warm. but I’ll be back in half an hour. The siren’s lure of her song had more than one man smiling secretively at her. It was an archaic piece that was more prop than useful. the real microphone. a song from twenty years ago.The Other Side Dressed in a long. “Thank you. she mused. just a slight lowering of her eyes in promise and placed the microphone on the top of the piano gently.

those tips were great. shook the plastic container. shutting out the noise of the patrons and she walked to the dressing table ignoring the decor. Youth was fading. He poured himself a glass of water. Not many left. brushing against grasping hands and declining offers for companionship and propositions as she made her way to her dressing room. saw the answer and looked away. she thought. How long could she do this? Singing in this nightclub for the tips she drew. “Who are you and why are you here?” He looked up at her and grinned. There was something… familiar about his smile. she slumped into the hard seat. but she was under pressure by the management to provide a more… lucrative service. she’d have to get more. He was the last man she’d sung to and her mouth opened to protest his intrusion.Pandora strode through the crowd. The door closed. but couldn’t put her finger on why. She stared into her own eyes. Granted. Silk slithered against silk as she crossed her long legs. Pandora eased the frown from her forehead and swivelled the chair to face him. The pill had just melted under her tongue when there was a quick knock on her door and she turned as a man stepped through. He held up a hand and loosened his tie before collapsing onto her huntergreen sofa. drank it down and slapped the glass onto the coffee table with a satisfied sigh. settling into a more mature image. Pandora rubbed her sternum to ease the aching throb. 65 . Staring at her polished image in the mirror. The pill bottle was in the drawer and she drew it out. then her arm where the prickles were starting up again.

but his cavalier attitude had her reacting in a manner she would usually reserve for the sticky fingers of her audience. “There are so many weird names out there. sensual and made her skin tingle. yes. Whoever he was. “Reaper.” “And what do all these people want from you?” “A night of peace and contentment.” She pursed her lips to apply deep red lipstick. he had power. “I know so many people.“You know me. and you know why I’m here. Before that there was Jack Ripper. Just last week. Mr Reaper. some idiot introduced himself as Michael Archangel. So. Pan.” she waved him off and turned back to the mirror to freshen her make-up. Kennedy and a woman… what was her name? Ah. Her eyes met his in the mirror. His voice held an accent.” It wasn’t like her to be deliberately insulting.” His voice was deep. Again. he chuckled. but she couldn’t decide what kind.” “You don’t look grim to me. the sound caressed her skin.” “Reaper?” “As in Grim. Harold Potter. “And you don’t seem to be annoyed or shocked by my name. Liberty Bell. Jesus Nazareth. John F. Julian Caesar. Let’s not forget.” 66 .” His teeth were very white against his skin. He chuckled and her eyes met his in the mirror. carefully outlining her lips to make them more lush than they were naturally. pal. “You’ll have to be more specific. Pandora shrugged and returned her gaze to her mouth. “oh. your name is just one of many. some old guy called George Bush and…” she tapped a finger against her lips. They want me to give them serenity.

“Your songs are powerful, Pan.” He acknowledged. “Even I wanted you to take me in your arms and give me my very own night of tranquillity.” “It’s the world we live in.” She shook her head and sighed. “There are too many wars, too much death and destruction. It’s been going on since the invasion of Iraq, what, twenty years ago?” Grim nodded. “And it’s never stopped. One by one, countries are at war with their own fundamentalist groups, vying for control and eventually, it’s got to stop or someone is going to drop a bomb bigger than the one that wiped out Israel.” “I agree, Pan. But I’m not here for anyone else but you.” “And what are you going to do with me?” She wiped some of the lipstick off her teeth and turned to him. He was sitting back in the sofa, his arms outstretched along the back. “I’m going to take you home.” His smile softened. “I don’t need an escort or a bodyguard.” “It’s my job to take you.” Pandora sighed. “Mr Reaper, I don’t want to be rude to you, but no thank you.” “Would it help if I had a scythe?” He lifted an eyebrow. “A scythe? What the hell is that?” Grim frowned. “How about a black cloak and skeletal hands?” “Whatever lights your candles, pal.” Another nut job, she thought and turned back to the mirror, picked up a brush and gently pulled it through her tea-coloured hair. Maybe it was time for another shade. Black? Blonde? A cinnamon colour? “I guess I’m not explaining myself very well.”

67

“Gee, you think?” She pursed her lips, replaced the brush. There, back to perfection; then she looked closer at the lines at the corners of her eyes. “Ms Le Fleur. I’ve come to take you home. I represent Death…” Pandora cut him off, pissed at the wrinkles more than at him. “Well, I’ll agree you’d be death to a number of swooning hearts, but not mine. You’d probably spoil a lot of women; you’re certainly nice to look at. But I’m immune to your kind of charm. Now, I have a show to finish, so if you’ll excuse me?” She walked to the door and opened it. She heard him sigh. “I try to make myself acceptable to people and this is what I get. Try to make myself look like a modern man and all I get is rejection.” “Maybe you should change your name, too.” She said over her shoulder. “Ms Le Fleur, please, I’m trying to make this easier on you.” “I understand that, but I have things to do and places to go.” He was really beginning to tick her off. Maybe she should call the Enforcers. There were laws against stalking. “Yes, with me. To The Other Side.” He said. “Other side?” She stopped for a moment. He could only mean one thing. “Oh, my God!” He nodded and his shoulders slumped with relief. “Yes…” “Hot damn! I’m finally going to get a shot at Las Vegas!” She ran up to him planted a big kiss on his mouth. “I’ll be back in an hour to pack.” Pandora raced out of the room, face flushed with excitement while Mr Reaper stood with his hands in his pockets and his jaw slack with astonishment. Maybe he should check his phrase book again. He’d only spent two months learning the language and it still confused him. It wasn’t that big a deal, was it?

68

He made himself comfortable on the couch. He had time, and when he left, he would have Pandora Le Fleur with him. The world needed her; she would expand that circle of inner peace to encompass a lot of people. He doubted she even knew she was descended from the Ancient Greek Sirens. But he did. So did his organisation. And he, Grim Reaper – once Etienne Foucault - of Death Incorporated Records and The Other Side label would be the one to get her out there; though why the company insisted on macabre names, he didn’t know.

69

“The beginning? Lemme see… Are you sure you don’ want no drink? “Okay. If’n you want to. let me clean that off for you. Here. las’ night. This is a museum. How she ain’t no good. if’n you look ‘round. the walls’re coated and we got an escape hatch anyways. Yes. sure. ain’t it? You. that she don’ do nuthin’ right and how 70 . it’s the safest place.Clem’s Gambit “Clem Saunders never did have a lick ‘o sense. Yeah. All them sensors and cameras are set up along the gutterin’. missy. we should git started. “Um… “Well. “Up here? Well. Las’ time I saw Clem was… Toosday. have a seat… jus’ a sec while I clear these old magazines… There. Where was I? Yes. wanna libation or someit? “Okay. There’s lotsa space here. Hmm. it is a little crowded. ma’am it does squeak a bit. Toosday. Miss. “Why do you want to record what I say? I thought you Si types just sucked the memories outta people’s heads. Not too many buildin’s have attic space no more. you can record. ma’am. yeah. Too much rakit down there and all… “Oops. but it’s comfy. but it’s outta th’ way and we ken talk in peace. missy. Clem was soundin’ off about his wife agin. ev’yfing’s old. Right. ah. It was my night to sit in the com section. Been meaning to fix it. okay then. afta all. And this one is the length of the buildin’. “A fire? No. too. “Damn right it’s impolite! Oh. No one can get to them with the com section looken on. lookin’ down and out.

I’m gonna make sure nobody’s gonna want her’. ‘What did you do?’ an’ he said. Walt. ‘Clem. So he’s goin’ about how she said she don’ want him no more. Tha’ bitch won’t be rejectin’ nobody no more’. he hit this guy so hard.’ I said. Plays g-ball down at the arena. you know? He’s gonna go down there and take her back. Wen’ an saw’d him play coupla weeks ago and wow. cuz I got me a disrupter. why you do such things? “It ain’t a job I’d like to have. But let me tell you about it so you’re unnerstan’ing how it happened. Anyways. he’s got this plan to get her back. okay? 71 . and that’s a fact. Miss. he won’t. “Well. “Clem just wouldn’ shut up.he has to… discipline her all the time now.’ I said. Sorry. And he says to me. He’s all messed up right and proper.’ I said. Came through the door with a big shit eatin’ grin and I said to him. I dunnit already. ‘Clem. don’t worry. “You have? Lord. now. but he was done by the time they got there. “Do about it? What could I do about it? He walked out an’ went an’ did them things right away. uh. yeah. Miss. but not from me. he did.” “I surely did. If she don’t want me. He winked at me and said. ‘that boy will clean your chrono and then some’. I said to him. “I’m sure you have. ‘you go around poppin’ people and the Si’s’ll be down on you like my missus on a choclat bar. so I said to him.’ I said to him. ‘Walt. Walt. ‘Clem. ‘No. “Yeah. Got herself a real fine fella. He was madder’n a cut snake. I don’t care anymore. Right. I figured he was gonna do ‘em both. girl. he’s good. ‘you’re better off without that whore…’ uuhh…‘scuse me ma’am. Yeah. ‘Clem. the boy… Er. I called the cops. An’ man. it ain’t polite. I don’ reckon a pretty young thing like you should see it.’ I said. ‘nuh.

You don’ know where you’ll end up or what that cussed thing is for. ‘Clem. So I follows him. Lemme think. “Yeah. don’t you worry none.’ “And I said to him.’ I said. “Okay. ‘where do you think you’re goin’ where the Si’s won’t git you?’ He jus’ grinned an’ pointed to the… the… Seeker’s Room. ‘Walt. ‘Clem. made of plastic or somefin’ that people who make clothes dress up so’s you can see what it looks like. Yeah. it’s a room filled with them relics from the twentieth century back to the year dot as far as I can tell. I guess the Prof didn’ think it was dangerous or that anybody would touch it. A map that glows an’ makes people disappear. “I said to him. a mangkin. as I was sayin’. An’ I said to him. so I follows him. just rememberin’.’ he said. Just rememberin’ makes me queasy.’ I said. ‘Clem. I understand just fine. ‘don’ do this. “Oh. That dummy in there…’? “A dummy. one of them human-type things. got a lick o’ sense. He knowed I did. ma’am. An’ I ain’t usin’ that kinda language ‘round you… “Sorry. He says to me ‘Walt. not with me and Clem and the others to watch out for it. Clem. Y’know. I didn’t say ‘cussed’ but what I said weren’t polite. ‘It’s covered in a map.’ I said. y’know? Okay. I seen it myself when Professor Gerhardt did some testing on it’. Miss. So 72 . Well. and there it was. okay… phew. Clem said to me ‘Walt.“Uhhh.’ Course. ‘you don’ want to go messin’ with stuff you don’ unnerstan’. Where was I? “Yeah. I’m goin’ now.” “Like I said. An’ he said. Ain’t had no formal education. everythin’s fine now. From ships that go on the water and stuff. you know. he ain’t.

but that’s what it said.there she was: standin’ tall. Puked up some.’ I said. God’s truth. ma’am. Kind of like… I dunno. “Right one said: ‘Behold the truth’. But the one on the left said: ‘I will take you to the stars’. ma’am. Everywhere! I… I called it in. ‘Walt. an’ he was real angry. he said to me. I know you probably don’t believe me. Miss. well. I don’ think you need to know that. no bitch is ever gonna reject me agin!’ “Jus’ like that he touches her hands. That mangkin. I can go off world and no one’s gonna know where I gone.’ An’ I said to him. “Beats me ma’am. well. but I called it in an’ went into the room. An’… an’… “I’m okay. It was pain’ed right an’ so. 73 . he was spread all over the place. Miss. she weren’ smilin’ no more. she was grinnin’ like a fool. “He says to me. ‘See Walt? It’s pain’ed all over with a map to anywhere. there was this light that jus’ went everywhere! I couldn’t see nuthin’ for a while an’ when I could… Clem was… he was… “Yes. you do? “Yes. she was grinnin’ like a whore hittin’ the jackpot in Vegas. ‘you don’ know nuthin’ about this! Don’ do it!’ An’ he said to me. It was small writin’. I’m okay… Okay. Miss. ma’am I did. Blood an’ guts an’ other stuff…. Uhh. I stepped right up to that mangkin. Didn’ touch it. I did not touch that thing. No. wearing nuthin’ but a half-smile. “On her palms. but… “Uhh. ‘Clem. swirls with bright points all over her. He was grinnin’ like a fool. Clem walks up to it. both arms stretched out as if to hug you or… Yeah.

behold the truth’ not the other way around? Missy. either. I overhear’d the Prof talking about it. if I’d knowed about the code. “Yes. coz he’d done evil. ma’am. “That’s okay. ma’am. What would he know about pilots? Clem musta figured that with a Navi-gat-ure pilot he could tell it to go anywhere he wanted. that is real funny! “Do I know what the mangkin’s called? Yeah. the mangkin rejected him? Oh. The one’s who wear them grey robes? “That’s what they’re called? Navi-gat-ures? What kind of a name is that? “Yeah. he surely was an idiot. you’re saying that because he lied to himself. Well. ma’am. Still want to go back down there? Yes. I still wouldn’t touch it. heh. I knowed you want to know it all. an’ he sure wasn’t pure in intent. ho! An’ Walt took it as ‘I will take you to the stars.“Heh. So. That’s why I didn’ want Clem to touch it. Said it was a gift from them solemn big-eyed alien types. He ain’t had no formal education. I’m glad to help.” 74 . ma’am. that would be impolite. “Yes. the Prof said so too. I’ll take you. or you would suck my thoughts outta my head.

they were magnificent. He leaned on his hydrostatic mop. An enormous fireplace. On the carved black rock walls. large enough for a man to stand in. just inside the doors. They were beginning to fade. Standing next to empty cavern. “Ah.” he muttered. It came from the planet Sargossa in the distant galaxy of Cyrian. pulled a stained cloth from the pockets of his uni-alls and wiped his nose. On the high perch. like the room. and let his eyes wander around the room. He would wash it later. with exposed beams of smoke darkened ironwood. colourful tapestries of past battles and rulers drooped forlornly. in between the arched windows. as he’d done so many times before. The whole room was. Rendo straightened and slowly walked to the thrones.Forever Tomorrow The great double doors of the throne room slowly opened as Rendo shouldered his way inside. Today it was empty. The material slid to the floor with a gentle tug. made of Nagan crystal. “Blessed doors need oiling again. He bowed his head. From the crossbeams hung chandeliers. then. Still. Fordan. the multi-hued bird sat eyeing him with black eyes. The old Carillion – a gift from a planetary president. He muttered a prayer that echoed around the empty hall then raised his head at the sound of trilling. was an eight-metre tall and three metre wide cage. though he couldn’t remember 75 .” Rendo walked slowly to the fireplace. still with us. on the left. empty today. covered by the Royal Blue cloth. to lie down in dominated the left and many a morning he’d come in to spend an hour or so cleaning the ash from the previous night’s fire. Hard to come by now. Above him was a vaulted ceiling. that crystal. Two gold embossed thrones stood on a raised stone dais.

It watched him. There’s a lot of palace to clean. I’ll fill your trays for you before I leave. “What do you think. Though I wonder if you’re eating something I don’t know about. Fordan. he pulled a soft cloth and began polishing the king’s throne until the gold shone and the white marble sparkled in the sun pouring through the window. “Aye. ruffled all his feathers and crapped onto the bottom of the cage. you know. He gave the chairs one last swat and backed down the dais. Rendo began to glide his mop across the floor. dancing to the bird’s song as he swept away the dust. he began on the queen’s throne until it too.” He eyed the mess on the cage floor. It took him a solid two hours to finish the floor and the bird had subsided into silence. Fordan. you shouldn’t be such a greedy guts and eat it all in one sitting. The upper part of the cage was empty and he felt a growing fear as he approached the cage. “Well. matched the gleam from the king’s throne.raised himself.” From another pocket.” The bird chirped and chortled as if chastising him. “what shall I tell the masters?” 76 . “Lifts my soul.who .” he whispered. eases the ache in these old bones of mine. jumping from perch to perch to water tray to food tray. Fordan? Could they be any more clean?” There was silence from behind him and he turned. in the bottom. “Oh. mighty Fordan. his fingers wrapping around the wires. When he was satisfied. the bird lay dead. Then it settled down and trilled a song for him. There. “My thanks to you. a bright rainbow against the dull silver metal. that you can still sing me a song after such an effort. Rendo chuckled and shook his head.” Starting from the corner behind the cage. puffed out his chest. Now you’ll just have to wait. Rendo leaned his mop against the fireplace and placed his hand on the cage.

across the tops of desks. Fordan.” He murmured. The day was waning. Tonight. now stuck up out of the dirt as thorned sticks. he decided. When you fly to your reward.” He laboriously dug a grave for the bird between two red roses and wrapped the creature into a cloth before lowering it into the sun-warmed ground. The kitchen. mantelpieces and making mental notes of what needed to be cleaned and what didn’t.He opened the cage and gently removed the body. but you picked a fine day for it. chairs. he lowered his head and said a final prayer. The sun is shining. “Aye. Dark brown dirt covered the corpse and Rendo muttered a prayer for Fordan as he filled in the hole. but Rendo remembered them in full bloom. “I am sorry. like the rest of the palace was empty. too. They are of the rainbow. the sky is a clear deep blue. A tear rolled down his pale cheek. once beautiful in the summer. He could have his choice of food. he would have salted pork and potatoes. awaiting the return of the Royal household. The roses. The afternoon’s light became hazy and he glanced around. It was time to head to the kitchen for supper. the stores would be replenished when the kitchen staff returned. When he was done. 77 . amongst the queen’s favourite flowers. sing a song for me so I know the heavens still see me. so very sorry and I shall miss your morning welcome.” Rendo wandered through the palace. Fordan. “You’ll like it here. running his fingers along architraves and skirting boards. His footsteps echoed as he walked through the corridors. talking to the bird until he found the queen’s garden. Rendo cradled Fordan in his hands.

After he finished the meal.” He replied. “It’s an empty building. Cap. 78 . the entire household would return from wintering in the north. his eyes constantly moving. Private. Corporal. Tomorrow. Tomorrow… *** The bronze bullet of a ship lowered into the courtyard with a quiet hush. It took little time to report that the palace was empty of all inhabitants. “Search the palace.” He stared at the great castle. “the squad is reporting sounds. No one and nothing is left. A door opened and a blue spotlight glowed on the ground. All human life exterminated and quarantined until the virus ran its course. he felt a thrill of excitement. “Funny thing is.” Another marine came up beside him. “This place gives me the creeps.” the Corporal reported. He stepped out of it and removed his helmet. There was a bright flash and then a man stood in the centre of the light. Make it so.” The Captain said.” The Corporal saluted and returned to the ship to make the proclamation. A squad of marines appeared and formed up behind him. “Doesn’t matter. Maybe there’s some anti-static tech that keeps it clean.” “This planet was infected with the Ferrian virus over a year ago. he returned to his quarters and lay down.” The marines fanned out with thermal imagers and vibration detectors. then shrugged. Tomorrow. “The palace is amazingly clean. their majesties would see how well he kept the castle clean. sir. Even the stores have disintegrated according to my report. though he dreaded telling them about Fordan. As his eyes closed. sir. This planet is now ours. odd noises but can’t locate a source.

” Rendo said and paused in his mopping of the throne room floor. It’s sterile. look.“Yes. He stopped just inside the doors and tilted his head.” the marine lowered his voice.” “I don’t believe in ghosts.” He gave a shudder. but. Someone was here.” The marine squirmed. the swishing. The bird trilled back at him and he grinned. “Bird?” “Yes. Fordan. Private. “I was in the throne room? And I could hear the swishing of a mop. just like the Private had said. just the swish. sir. There’s one in there. “Then there was the bird. yet he couldn’t see anyone and his scans were empty of life. sir. ”Oh. leaning up against the fireplace. “I could hear bird song. uncomfortable. swish of the mop. The place has no electronic or biological signatures at all. “Think we should invite them to stay?” 79 .” The Captain raised his eyebrows and looked at the marine. The bird song.” The Captain glared and marched toward the throne room. but no source. more visitors. Nothing showed on the bio-scans.

there is hope for a better future. 80 .Part Three Even in failure.

as if kicked off in haste. Arriving in the winter. tucked behind the open door. The secure. I was happy with the hard work and mediocre wages. The customers were an eclectic lot.Crown Imperial I had worked under an assumed name in the bathhouse for two seasons. Down on my hands and knees. I was to clean out rooms and tubs. no matter what the labour laws said. and aliens could be truly disgusting in their ablutions. sometimes apologetic. however. when I glanced back to check my direction and found the shoe. but. scourer in hand. scrub tiled floors and walls. it all depended on were the insecurities of the client. The bathhouse used migrant workers and paid them accordingly. I was thankful to be out of the bitter weather and in the steamy warmth. not yet. I worked my way backwards to the door. but I was pissed so many migrant workers survived on a pittance. That hadn’t changed in a thousand years. I had nothing to buy . polite and were not above sneaking outrageous tips to me. then leave pleased that their behaviour demonstrated they were higher on the social scale. Today was a good day. 81 . we were the best. cursing the hands-on approach when a sonic cleaner would be easier. A bad day meant toilet duty. I was grateful I could get away with an unchecked alias.everything I needed was supplied and nowhere to go. On this leisure planet. sometimes demanding. As if to clearly delineate our differences in status. by the Gods. For the first time in many years. a blue marble of a world called Wellspring. check supplies and prepare for the next day’s influx of regulars and tourists. we weren’t the only bathhouse. were pleasant. the insecure would complain and whine.

sent personally by the Empress. A Hunter had come. was I working in a bathhouse light years from home? Because my life depended on it. It didn’t matter. The thought dissolved my shock and frozen state. regardless of my many aliases. I finished the room with one eye on the door. rippled for a good grip and silent: an assassin’s shoe. for the style could only be found on my home world. For me. Pride led the Imperial Hunters right to me. Bellar. I chewed my inner lip until it bled and I ordered myself to stop as I made my way downstairs. was determined to put his daughter on the throne and Bellarine was the biggest. To unnerve me? It worked. My uncle. Why? Because when I came to Wellspring. My arrogance had killed me. with downcast eyes lest someone speak to me. if I was part of such an august household. But while they made their allegiance to the Empire. but she felt it was a natural part of democracy. and recognise my accent. emptied the bucket down the drain and scooped the shoe into it. 82 .Cold fear froze my muscles. I had tried to persuade the Empress to stop the factionalising. I didn’t touch the shoe. nastiest bitch I had ever had the misfortune to be related to. my heart pounded and chill sweat popped out on my forehead. I could not imagine working in nothing less than the best establishment. ill-educated. A Crown Imperial had no place being a scrubber. I was a migrant worker. The Hunter meant me to know he or she was here. I recognised it for what it was. no one else would. I worked in well-known and established businesses wherever I went. It was a black reo-beast leather slip on with a sole made of flexible polymer. I saw it as division in the ranks and intolerable. They were killers. they had their own personal… loyalties. And why. Tracking me was easy.

The only way he could achieve power was through Bellarine and she would let him. Unfortunately for Bellar. “Room 128. Countess of Forgillia. Her heirs. however. I sat on the edge of the tub and considered my options. one of the biggest in any galaxy. but I turned away before she could engage me in conversation. That did not. I knew he was behind the deaths of my two older sisters. her wealth incalculable. The Empress’s power was absolute. I am Crown Imperial Jerrian. the universe listened. written into the constitution. When the Empress of Verbarr spoke. her influence in other political areas enormous. were fair game. Imperial Judicar of Westland and half a dozen other titles. Machievelli. My mother had acquiesced to my suggestion of getting off planet for a while. Duchess of Morgarth. a dozen of them had died in my service.I tipped the shoe onto the counter. I had bigger worries than whether I offended her. negate intrigue. Palace politics made even the Terran. I was on my own. Bellar’s talent evolved around assassination plots. I returned to my level and the next room on my list. My survival had depended on the very best of the Imperial Guard. he was afraid of her. My home planet. and I am working as a low paid worker on the fringe of the Pacific System. 83 . however. Knew. but he never went after the Empress. but couldn’t prove.” I mumbled. Verbarr. an octopod. After that. Her other hands were busy under the counter. look inept. It was law. Before I left Verbarr. Only she and I knew of my initial plans. swept the shoe off the counter and made a note in her book while tagging the object. Ceri. it was a matriarchal Imperium. was the Imperial stronghold and seat of government for four star systems.

With slow hands. but I was no one’s whore. only the assassin was punished. shop in the noisy.no one escaped their net. This suited me down to the ground. The day was drawing to a close. overlooking the river and the city. How could I evade the unevadable? A disguise. Three bunks lined the walls. I would have to keep out of sight. It paid more. Besides. 84 . with the added benefit of ‘companions’. The night clients would be coming in. only until the Guard found the proof needed to condemn Bellar. I would probably have given myself away. snowy mountains. again. not and maintain my imperialistic self-esteem. I demurred when that job was offered to me. not even the Empress. all of whom were companions. It was why assassination was favoured.I lowered my head into my shaking hands and sank to the floor. Nor the white beaches. fragrant markets. They doubled as seats as well. Keep my head down and ignore everyone. I understood that mother knew of his plans. I would continue as I always had. eat the flavoursome foods or anything else. being invisible to just about everyone. I was doomed. In the centre of the room were six chests where we stowed our gear. I shut the door on a sigh and turned. his condemnation would be considered murder and no one was above that law. the Imperial Hunters were the best . I had to leave. It might be legal but I could not do it. In fact. First I had to get off planet without the Hunter knowing. I finished my job. I shared a room with five others. I had never intended to be away forever. but. That’s all we needed: a place to sleep and another for our gear. without proof. That was it. Square windows were set at two corners. I would be murdered and I mourned that I would never see the lush forests of Verbarr again. It meant I had privacy. Maybe. Light years from home and friends. all because of a shoe.

rested my head against the door and slid down into a ball. Hunters.” I whispered. My mother was dead. as I said. I turned away from him. my voice hoarse. My mother was dead. but couldn’t. but it was all in the effort. I agreed. The heat of rage and grief surged through my body and I trembled at the effort to keep calm. “You know we never travel alone. Imperial. but the Hunter. making it difficult to breathe. “I would suggest. m’lady. without taking his eyes off me and I knew. that Bellar had taken direct action after all. Then he sank to one knee and I gaped at him. Hot tears spilled over to trail down my pale cheeks. Black uniform. Empress? But that meant… “No. “I have come to take you home… Empress. m’lady. He was suggesting was that this was my fault. wanted to block out what came next. black eyes. certain elements of court felt free to act. Since only the Empress knew if I was dead or alive.“I’ve been waiting.” Devastating pain spiked my chest. He stood straight. black hair. “The Empress Kerrian was killed in an aircar accident. leaned against the door for support. black… shoe. did not spare me. I didn’t question how he knew it was mine. I waved a hand.” He said softly. not that it would have made a difference. not making any threatening moves.” I had no weapons. He slowly stood. that… since your disappearance.” A man unfolded himself from my bunk. not wanting to know. my heart in my throat as he slowly shook his head. were very good. wasn’t it? All I could do was pray it was quick. as he did. I was the only direct Crown Imperial left. “Why?” I asked. I backed up to the door and fumbled for the handle.” I felt my knees wobble and my whole body went numb. Bellar would 85 . ever dutiful.

was complicit and forgiveness would come hard. so shall it be done.” I could imagine Bellar on his knees. “The Empress thought that if she could deflect certain factions. guilt-stricken. and certain member of the Imperial Hunters. “I would have justice for this misdeed. “As you command. I would have bloody and terrible justice for the machinations of my uncle. too. Bellar would succeed. Now I could see it for what it truly was: an acceptance that without me splitting his attention.” “I condemned her.” My eyebrows rose. “I killed her. Hunter. “Come now. have known of your whereabouts at all times.” I mumbled. Yeah. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Why hadn’t the Empress? Then I remembered the look in her pure blue eyes when I made my suggestion. his assassinations. The Hunter helped me up and bowed his head. his arrogance and contempt for people. Hunter. his plans. my lady.” I raised my eyes to his. it would give you a measure of peace. A sneer curled his lip as he held out a hand. on his belly. m’lady.” the Hunter said as if reading my thoughts. one day. “He’s here?” 86 . She. Your absence would also be of benefit for you. that her sorrow was for my lengthy absence. he was right. I’d thought the weary grief was for my departure as was my own regret.” He accessed the comunit on his wrist. We knew.see just one barrier to his ambitions: the Empress herself. but I. “Take him. as if I had raised my hand against her myself.” He said with derision. I would not give it. “You are correct. begging for his life. if ever. “We know who is responsible and we only await your command. I would have his life for the lives of the others he had murdered for no other crime than to be an annoyance to him. After all the years of his plots.

The days of deadly political intrigue were over. I am in your debt. Bellar and his staff will have disappeared from his estate.” He gave me a smile. my lady. “A… fire. I could be ordinary.“No. It is our honour to serve you as we failed to serve the Empress Kerrian. an accident in the kitchens. “Thank you. We did not do our job. One of the first things I would do when I returned was purge the Guard and Hunters. “Make sure you do. not the Empire. “Your justice will be ours and we will revel in it!” We. for there will be blood on the court floor before I am done with my own brand of justice. Hunter. By the time I returned home.” “No. My voice had gone cold and resumed the Imperial tone I had thought I’d left behind. or I would use my Hunters without mercy.” His eyes light with a demonic fire. I would have to don the persona of Empress.” “And his daughter?” I asked. m’lady. I would only have those who swore absolute fealty to me. 87 . I had my first convert. They will send the message to Verbarr. we would not be here. By the time we return. Hunter. my lady. otherwise. Bellarine’s disdain for people of a lesser stature was about to come back and bite her. I would have a week to grieve for my mother. I snorted. We would have peace. I have contacted the ship Imperial Watch.” He gave me a brief smile.” His eyes gleamed with triumph. feral and sharklike. “The duchess will also be detained. But until then. He will be at the Imperial dungeon for your return. The Imperial Watch was the flagship of the fleet and hearing the name again tore away any façade of the migrant worker I had left.

On closer inspection. threaded by darker pink veins. socially inept. I don’t think this guy knew what hit him. The heart. but this kind of slaughter always pissed her off.Mushrooms “Retractor. In the centre of the organ was a tear. but no. almost black smear along the edges of the wound. but we’ll go with the complete autopsy anyway. She leaned forward and studied the small injury. She just assumed it was going to be one of his ‘quiet’ days. he was damn good. pink. insidious and fatal. as a person outside of the morgue. she could see half a dozen minor tears on the muscle.” Doctor Emma Hawthorne held out her gloved hand and her assistant placed the instrument into it. Emma got to work cracking open the chest cavity and using the retractor to expand the gap. There was a darker pink. well. so his silence didn’t bother her. she’d worked with him for long enough. they have to go all macho and expect bullets to bounce off them. All she could hear was his rapid breathing against the facemask.” She murmured and began cutting the major arteries so she could lift it out of the body cavity. Sometimes that personality invaded the work area. he was shy. Emma shrugged off his silence. “You’d think these people would learn to duck. was exposed. Sad way to find out they don’t. Jeff?” Jeff made no comment.” She knew she was terse. Emma had known Jeff to remain silent throughout an autopsy regardless of what she said. What did they use on him? A chain gun or did they all decide to claim to have shot him. “You know. they were a well-practiced. As an assistant. highly efficient team. tight-lipped and. Once a guy was down 88 . small. She didn’t look at him. huh. “This guy has more holes in him than a sieve. Jeff.

There was a dent in the surface. then back to Jeff’s face. Emma froze. She heard Jeff emit a strangled sound. “Load up your troops with nukes. it would have…” Again they looked at each other.” “Look. but within normal range. In the cavity!” “Hmm. Emma. or if I’d nicked it wrong.” Jeff whispered and cleared his throat. Her throat dried and she swallowed. “How does one get what looks like a mini nuke into a living man?” She asked softly and stared down at the shiny. From one of the needler bullets. He shrugged. They could prove they’d shot the soldier because. Sweat pearled on her forehead and a shiver of pure fear trickled down her back.” Jeff murmured. “Is that…?” She lifted her eyes to Jeff. Of course. “Look. “Yeah… I think that was the intent.and dead. Emma glanced up. His skin was almost translucent. there was the small matter of body count to ammunition expended. She found her eyes drawn to the alien thing resting on the dead man’s spine. she thought. “What’s up with you?” She asked a little impatient and lifted the heart out. “You do realise that if the bullet had hit that dead on. Will I find more organs?” She asked with a smile and did what Jeff asked. revealed when she took his heart. She slapped it onto a scale and looked up at the weight. as if the very volume of his voice would set the bomb off. gee. slowly. down. 89 . blood smeared silver cylinder. “A little heavy. then backed away from the table. a bullet or two dozen. I wonder what I’ll see if I do look. leave the poor bastard alone! It was de jour among the troops to claim a kill just because an enemy soldier had fallen down. lookee here. The whole thing was the size of her hand. his doe brown eyes wide as he stared down at the body.

“Just… stands to reason. “How do you know all this?” Jeff tugged his own mask down. agree with that. 90 .” She agreed. “Holy fuck. her eyes on the cadaver. Make sure they’re in a populated area and wait for the enemy to gun you down. I suppose it does. His eyes never left the body. “Yeah. aggressive voice said answered.” Emma stared at him and pulled her pale green mask down. Emma followed him out – backwards. a trail of moisture slid down the side of his face. “I can categorically.” Jeff said and slumped into a chair in her office. if the bomb went off. doesn’t it? Fear makes the mind work. “I think we should call someone about this. or in the next building or one street over. taking. The whole area would have been one large and unattractive crater. Of course. gave her a wan smile. oh. He licked his lips and swallowed. it wouldn’t make any difference whether she was standing next to the remains or in the office.” He backed up towards the door and levered his way through. As she watched. don’t you?” “As you command. as if he expected it to blow at any moment. doctor. so much faster. The local militaria were on speed dial and she punched the button.” She tugged off her cap and reached out for her comunit. when the door shut. don’t you think?” His cap had a thick patch of sweat across the forehead. the tension rushed out and relief surged into her. a few of the bastards with you.separate them and send them on a suicide mission. Still.” A cold. “Captain Hartog. of course. unequivocally.

well. calibre of bullet and striations on said ammunition. He’s got a bomb inside of him. It was too… “Come now. Jeff. I suggest you get someone over here to disarm it. Doctor Hawthorn.” She pressed the button and cut him off.” “Ahm. 91 .” “Yes.” She was about to disconnect then said: “What killed your man was lack of oxygen to the brain. Doctor. only that he was dead. so I’ll need verification of the weapon.” *** Emma’s finger rubbed the edge of the brandy glass.” He looked at her. but didn’t reply. Can you do that?” They had a… betting pool? On who killed him? What was wrong with these people? It didn’t matter who killed him. “You were right. what can I do for you?” His voice cooled and an element of distaste crept into his tone. collect the staff and evacuate the building. “You’re boys dropped off a Kadizurite a couple of hours ago. “We have a pool on which bullet killed the bastard. children were confused and lonely from not seeing their father! Damn it! Outrage cleared her head and straightened her spine. this is Doctor Emma Hawthorn over at the morgue. we’re interested in the cause of death. it’s a mini-nuke. that some mother was grieving for her son.” “Yes. Seems doctors who opened up the dead were less useful than those who opened up the living. a wife was mourning the loss of a husband. From what we could tell. sir. Then he made a coughing sound.” She hedged.” Emma frowned at the comunit. Doctor.“Captain. unsure of how to tell him about the bomb. Emma cleared her throat. “We have another problem. “Right Jeff. The Captain sounded… amused.

“Jeff…” 92 .” “You are kidding me!” Emma gasped. I cannot imagine what kind of a sick mind came up with this. they take as many people with them as possible. Same thing with the bullets. “The bullet hit our bomb at just the right angle and disabled the sensitivity unit. then blowing themselves up and taking half the city with them. Jeff. That way. sickens me to the very bones. balcony. “I spoke with Captain Hartog before he went in. Jeff shook his head and unbuttoned his shirt.” She said with a smile that she didn’t feel. “The weekend I had off…?” Emma felt the hair all over her body stand on end. beneath his collarbone was an angry red surgical scar. “I would think that was bad enough. No war is worth this. Em.” Jeff finally said. They have their own surgeon implants the bombs and insert a sensitivity monitor.She stared down into the rich amber liquid. The terrorists can throw themselves to the ground. but the thought of people deliberately wandering into high population areas and shooting people. Seems a new thing for the Kadizurite militants. off a staircase. “Thanks. There. “How about kidnapping civilians and inserting micronukes. What could possibly be worse?” Jeff drained his ale.” She sighed and sipped her drink. the suicide bomber can choose a passive or active ending. It was the first thing he’d said since they’d evacuated. “That’s not the worst of it. whatever and the shock will detonate the bomb. Either way. The barman came over and poured more Brandy for her.” She gulped the rest of her drink down and raised the empty glass. building.

. " He lifted a shoulder. They granted that. too. okay?” He leaned down. “One day. And we both know that’s what would happen. Emma watched him go. desperately trying to think how to save him. Em. this war will be over.” “A… a timer? And you thought to tell me now?” Emma slid off the stool. “So. it’s been fun. Em.” He slowly stood. "We've got to get you to a. that much was explained to me.” His expression went sad.“I can’t take it out. he could see the city that he would soon reclaim. could have…” “Done nothing. to go and do." He reached out a hand and cupped her cheek.” He said and walked away. I’m no hero. so I’m nowhere near civilians. Em. without killing yourself and a half million people. “No. spoken to Hartog.. In the distance. 93 . maybe. no matter what they said their motives were. but maybe I’ll be able to do some good. either way. I don’t want you to die too. Em.. “Bye. "Well.. given the time! I could have neutralised it.” He gave her a wry smile. brushed his mouth against hers. whether it was still standing or not. A couple of hard hits over the device and… It’s also on a timer. “I wanted one more shift with you. Just… just live for me. This land belonged to his people and he would not give it up to the invaders. I’m a dead man. *** The Kadizurite leader leaned back against the rocks of his mountain home and stared out across the plains. something. I'm leaving now. it’s motion and metal sensitive.. so no horizontal position and no scalpels. Emma’s eyes filled with tears and she clutched at his hand.. Jeff! I could have taken it out. Take a walk in the desert. There’s no time.

laughed and shook his head. To him. perhaps that he lifted his head and saw the beginnings of a mushroom cloud out by the edge of the city. Wiping the blood from his mouth.” The son giggled. More like imperialism! It was instinctive. And if his bombs killed the faithful. they died for a good cause. Anyone who consorted with the invaders was a dog who needed to be destroyed. “You wanna know what the worst thing about being a terrorist is? 94 . The lowering sun illuminated the cloud as it expanded and grew. The best part was that no one knew who a bomber might be.” “What do you want with me?” the prisoner asked softly. Jeff looked up at the son. and the surrounding houses of the traitors. Martyrs all. The leader smiled at him. and you all look alike to me. too. sure. To bring him back for a proper burial and I bumped into this one. I’m not doing anything for you stinking…” The son smacked him to the ground. I went to get Lario. The captive grinned back and opened his shirt. That must have been one of the police stations. His name gave new meaning to the word ‘terrorist’ and he revelled in it. in the destruction he wrought. “Yeah. then the leader. “My lord. “So I took him.” He slapped the man on the back and the captive winced. “He was all alone.Humanitarian! Pah! He spat into the dirt. “Where did you find this one?” “Down at the morgue.” He turned to his son and grinned. it was beautiful. “You seem familiar to me.” He narrowed his eyes. I have captured another one for you. well. He chuckled. Go ahead and kill me now. This new plan of his using mules to destroy the invaders was brilliant.

*** In the city in the distance. you won't suffer like your victims did. Still. Problem is. Emma stood staring at the mountains. "Bye. “No… You…!” “Hell has a special place for assholes like you. She watched until the night blotted the cloud from her view. dark and sinister. pressed both hands to her chest and felt the surging grief as the mushroom cloud rose." She whispered and blew a kiss towards the mountains.” The Kadizurite stepped back. you dead is good enough for me.Yeah? Being terrorised right back. 95 .” Jeff thumped his naked chest twice with his fist. You'll always be in my heart. Jeff.

his shoulders slumped and he rose to step away. don’t we. “No good. Whether they could achieve that was another matter.” The fire in her eyes reflected her determination. and we know what happens then. The darkness was being pushed back.” “I’m aware of that. Rick smiled down at her.” Rick murmured and crouched down to brush the blonde strands off Shalimar’s forehead. And we will get it done if it’s the last thing I do. Rick sighed. rolled onto her side and tucked a hand under her jaw. Rick. Harl. so exhausted. Rick.” Harley tugged on his sleeve. Stars still sparkled in the night sky but there was a… silence. “The sun rises. Harley was right: he had to go.” She said and tugged harder. C’mon. Harley. as if the world held it’s breath for the majesty of sunrise. Rick lifted his eyes. her thirst for vengeance. He shook his head in disgust and sorrow. Shalimar was the key and he stared down at her. “This is too important. “This rebellion will fail if we don’t do something. Wake up!” Rick cupped his hands around his mouth. He could see the outline of the trees’ foliage.Eve of War “Shalimar. He shook her off and glared. but he’d be watching. pal. but bitching about it won’t get it done. let’s go. “Shalimar!!” The woman merely stirred in her sleep. unlike the supposed guards of this camp who dozed at their posts. 96 . She looked so… soft and gentle in sleep.

The sun was low in the morning sky. paced in front of the fire. Eaden. “You offended them. her frustration evident. She’d awoken feeling lost. “And all we can afford is here. fresh produce brings a premium price. “Bastards! Control the weather. “A bitter joke on me.” He muttered. you idiot. A puff of dust rose. “I know.” Eaden rose.” Fists on his hips.” He thumped a fist onto the ground. a dream of Rick lingering in her memory. “Why won’t the Sprites help? We need them. I wonder if it’s because you called yourself the ‘King of the Forest’?” Shalimar pushed up from the ground and walked around the fire to him. He forced himself to move away.” “It was a joke!” He protested and threw his hands up. they need us!” “Gee. Who knew they didn’t have a sense of humour?” 97 . I know. “We must have allies.Rick lifted a hand to his heart and rubbed his sternum. “Already. Everyone wants it to rain again. Shalimar!” Eaden growled. he turned to Shalimar. “around us. *** “The Sprites will not help us. control the water and you control the population. but already the forest was warming. and precious little of it is edible. “The Aristocracy has to be destroyed. from corporate king-pin to forest dweller. alone and tearful. I don’t want the outland to dry up anymore than you do. as did his longing.” He turned in a circle.” He ran a hand through his dark hair and stared off into the still green trees. to turn his head to the forest.” Shalimar tossed a twig into the fire. The ache in his chest came whenever he saw her. arms out to indicate the forest. to follow Harley deeper into the forest where the sunlight was barely a memory.

Not from Eaden’s tight grip. But. now. “I don’t know. her shame wouldn’t allow her.” Shalimar murmured and felt his name echo within her. 98 . too. “He betrayed us both.” Shalimar winced and lowered her head. while he…” Eaden looked off into the forest. touched her mouth. You have no right.“Rick knew. ‘Yeah. in the direction of Mademar City. but from guilt. Slowly. but her head rang from the punch to her jaw. her face throbbing as Eaden stood over her. Eaden grabbed her upper arms and dragged her to her feet. “You will not mention it again. If that was the only damage she took in the coming campaign. “No. Everyone in the camp had turned to watch. I’m an outcast. Eaden shook his head and dropped his hands. Shalimar. She lifted a hand to rub the ache in her heart. remorse and hurt. Without the Sprites and the other forest dwellers. It stung and her fingers came away bloody. Is he… okay?” She asked and looked into his eyes. she got to her feet. She lay there for a moment trying to regather her thoughts.” He spat on the ground. Shalimar. his fists up and ready should she try to retaliate. Shalimar blinked. stunned. Shalimar couldn’t meet their eyes.” She never saw him move. “Don’t you speak about my brother. their rebellion wouldn’t last long: the first battle would see an end to them.” She followed his gaze. between her knees. and walked off into the forest. I don’t. she’d be lucky. She expected to die.

she’d damn well take a few of those assholes with her. I know I cannot save her from her course. “You could try to be more helpful. This afternoon would be her last sunset. you know. Harley. none of whom noticed them. against the might of the Aristocracy’s powered weapons and shielded city… Shalimar looked away. but didn’t look at him. I know all this. the rest of the population would see the folly in not supporting them. “Oh. by the next one. Rick.” He waved a hand around the encampment. yada. Really?” Harley said. she must do. Shalimar went to her sleeping roll and drew her sword out of its leather sheath. if they do not attack tomorrow. They would die slowly. If she was going to die. temporarily.” Rick said as he sat by the sleeping Shalimar.” He glared at her. like she was some kind of superhero. With only humans. they never will and everyone outside the city will die. And after the rebels were slaughtered. then. What she must do. “We need to get her away from here. pleading and praying for the water that wouldn’t come. painfully. she would be dead.” “Yada. Her lip curled with self-condemnation. one last attempt to destroy the Aristocracy’s brutal power and free the world. Time to make sure it was as sharp as a razor. gee.She lifted her eyes to the stark blue sky. What did she care? She’d be dead and buried by then.” 99 . *** “We need a plan. Free the world. “Nor them. They’d have one last hurrah. most of them untrained. Her focus was on the rest of the camp.

“Come with me. “But not you?” He asked. or gutted like a fish. “Shh. her expression tight.” “Rick. Shalimar bolted upright. 100 . amused. Or a sword. blocked out Harley’s vengeful diatribe. He lay down next to Shalimar. the ache in his heart bringing tears to his eyes. Rick!” She turned away so he couldn’t see what was in her expression. “Oh. “Shalimar. I need you. or…” Rick turned away from her and studied Shalimar.Harley got into his face. But he knew anyway. I want this as much as you do. Her lips began to lift… “Get on with it. her eyes remained closed. I want the head of that prick of a Lord Garia on a spike. pal. “You…. why had he thought he could… “Rick…” Her eyes slowly opened and he was struck by the pure emerald coloured depths.” She murmured and turned towards him. honey. wake up. he’d heard it all before. Ad nauseum. can’t be here!” She whispered harshly. rubbed her eyes then slowly turned to him. Oh.” He said and kissed her ear. “Shalimar.” He said and she winced at his loud tone. Rick sat up slowly and got to his feet. A betrayed mistress was a tiresome thing. You’ll wake everyone and they’ll kill you!” Shalimar scrambled to her feet. his lips caressed her ear. but no one was awake. “You…” Her glance swept the camp site.” Harley muttered above him. She blinked at him. “Listen. focused as he smiled. there is much to discuss.

The woman shook her head and snorted with disgust. “What is it. A year away from this man and nothing had changed. but… “Are you and he…” The woman was attractive in a sharp-featured way. Shalimar approached and sat cross-legged before him.” She came to a stop and sighed. Shalimar saw Rick sit on a log and turn his head toward the sky. Rick would easily be tempted by her opposite. His profile was similar to Eaden. not now. She had a sharp tongue too. no one else. with a high forehead. She never cared that he’d betrayed them to the Aristocracy.” She muttered. so kissable mouth and a pugnacious jaw. “That’s my girl. not ever.” Her lip curled. but I must speak with you. relieved and turned to face Rick. shit. “Go on. long nose. A disgruntled Harley brought up the rear. crystal grey eyes and black. “Besides. “Ah. *** Five hundred metres from the camp.” he murmured as she lifted her sword and followed. a lump in her throat and pain in her heart. an oh. it hurt her soul to ask. Rick?” He lowered his head and stared at her with such love she had to look away. She wouldn’t betray her comrades.” Shalimar tilted her head. She didn’t want to ask. cold.” He moved towards the forest and then glanced back at her.” She growled. a blade of a nose. She glanced back at the scowling woman. but she wanted to know why before letting him go. it’s you he has googly eyes for. “Not even. pointed chin. surely he wouldn’t ask her to? If he did… that would be the final 101 . “Not anything touchy-feely.“This won’t take long. I’m doing this for revenge. Shalimar. black short hair. I promise. it’s important.

Maybe they wouldn’t all die after all. then. The hurt of his refusal to touch her remained and it took all her willpower to suppress the tears or to press a hand to her heart. the Aristocracy will destroy the outland and protect their own cities.betrayal. “They’ve refused Eaden. but you understand their ways.” She snorted.” “Fairies have no wish to involve themselves in the matters of Men. “The Sprites are ready to parley. “I’m not the leader of the rebellion. She had to live or die with her decisions. Elf. 102 . The outland. he did not.” She said bitterly.” “No.” He said and she stared at him. “Indeed. Business first. They are well aware of what’s going on. However. “Better yet. “I wish… I truly wish things were different.” Shalimar nodded over the surge of relief. “They would prefer to stay hidden and wait until we destroy ourselves. “Oh.” Shalimar got to her feet. move on!” The woman called over. “They will not refuse you. the fairies are coming. sweetheart.” Her hands lifted towards him without thinking and he drew back.” She said and cleared her throat of the huskiness. Were… She gets it. but didn’t touch her. It hurt and she dropped her hands. if you recall. honey. The one she couldn’t forgive no matter how much she loved this man. but their pride is such that they won’t deal with someone so arrogant.” He reached out with a hand. Rick. and Sprite. and…” “Demon. includes the land of Fairy. They have stated that over and over again. Vampire. out of reach.

before the sun rises. “Okay. “Now. Listen… go the Sprites. To… see you…” “But…” “No. “And I.” Rick stood and went to Harley. Speak to them.” Shalimar threw up her hands. I’m going. Ever and always. “I don’t have much time. but you must act quickly. by consensus. I just wanted to tell you about the Sprites. The pre-dawn chilled her bones and the warmth from the flames only seeped into the front of her. You’ll have their support and their legions.” Shalimar murmured. I should be going. “What? But I thought…” 103 . deeper in the forest. “Go. *** “You don’t look well rested at all. sweetheart and remember I love you. Shalimar. “The Outlanders are going to be here before we go in.” Eaden walked over to the fire where she sat. How could she hear them from thirty metres away? Shalimar wondered. Shalimar didn’t lift her head. Ever and always. Eadon sat across from her. Shalimar. then put it down to the forest’s acoustics and faced Rick. The Aristrocracy will fall. I’ll… see you later?” He gave her such a sad smile that she felt it all the way down to her very core. now. They represent all of the Outland. On a sigh. Shalimar. okay. “Rick…” She began but he held up his hand.Shalimar glanced at Rick’s companion. in fact.” She said without preamble. you. Rick. Shalimar.” He turned away and vanished into the forest. she turned and began walking towards the home of the Sprites.

Eaden didn’t interrupt as he. “Shalimar.” Her grin was fierce. he simply rose and came to sit by her side. “We are gonna kick the spit outta the Aristocracy.” She raised her gaze to his. 104 . “You… didn’t… You couldn’t have! By the Gods. He told me to go to them because they wouldn’t deal with you. saw it happen again.” She had been tainted by Rick’s betrayal because of her relationship with him.” he said hoarsely and swallowed. Was it something else? “Shalimar.” “Do you remember when we escaped?” “Sure. “Without them. You and I ran for it. In fact.” She said quietly. he was with them. don’t you?” She snorted. He’s… he’s…” He sighed and hung his head. “I went and saw them last night. and had failed. I couldn’t believe what Rick had done. Shalimar…” “Eaden! Calm down. he was positively averse to touching her. I had to try. “It couldn’t have been Rick. Eaden. She thought it was because of her relationship with his traitorous brother. we wouldn’t be able to even enter the city. “You. “You had to drag me away. Eaden had escaped the mistrust due to his fiery relationship with his brother. Rick showed them where we were. me and Rick. His smile was so much like Rick’s.” Her mouth twisted. stared into the fire. It was to her shame that she could have done something.Shalimar lifted a shoulder. Something he’d never done before. anything to stop Rick.” The smile vanished and he paled. “Only three of us knew of the complete plans to over throw the Aristocracy. threw an arm around her shoulders. you know my spy resources are quite good. We have the allies we need. Eaden!” But he wasn’t as cheerful as she expected. she blurted: “Rick told me to go to them. too.” She murmured and stared into the fire. When the troops arrived.

She could… see through him to forest beyond. finally!” Rick grinned then looked at Shalimar and his smile faded. and thought that if the Aristocracy could get me – his overbearing. I spoke with him. Shalimar. he was wrong. The blood drained so quickly from her head that she felt light-headed. You finally told her. She stood and turned. “I’m sorry. “Eadon. He stepped forward. “What bullshit. she knows!” “Rick?” She asked again and staggered forward reaching out to him. I knew how much he meant to you. arrogant. “There. Shalimar. “You’re wrong. nodded to his brother.” Shalimar shook off his arm. “Rick?” She asked faintly. you see? He’s standing right over near that burned stump!” She began walking towards Eaden’s brother. I had hope that you… that I… that we…” Her voice jammed up in her throat and she couldn’t speak.” “I did. Shalimar. how much you meant to him.” Shalimar shook her head. “I told you this was a bad idea. Eaden. Shalimar. tortured the truth out of him and he tried to make a deal. he told me to go to the Sprites! He’s not dead!” Her voice rose and she pushed away from Eaden. “Rick! Tell him. brother. Rick is dead. Shalimar. smiled.“He knew everything.” Harley bit out.” Then she saw it and stopped. His companion. Rick tried to trade me for you.they’d spare you.. so… desperately sorry. I only wished to…” “You died on me? For the past year. selfish brother .” “Well. Lord Garia planned to murder us. 105 . And when we got away… they…” Eadon took a deep breath. I spoke with him last night!” “I… I couldn’t tell you.. and has been for a year. “Now. too. “They killed him. They caught him.

” Rick’s eyes filled with glee. or I’ll be back. “Eaden will be waiting for you. Free this world. Shalimar. too. and I couldn’t let that happen. “Eaden?” “He has loved you. my life.” Eaden reached out his hand.” “Rick?” She asked and saw he was fading. Rick… without you? I can’t!” She fell to her knees.“You expected to die today. my warrior woman. all peoples. “Take care of her. though Shalimar only felt the brush of chill air. with him. but he touched nothing. Shalimar.” Her head came up. you’ll have passion and a deep abiding love. “Now.” He rose and nodded to his brother. Shalimar. cupped her jaw.” He leaned in closer. Eaden. as he has done for all these years. “Be safe.” His smile was sad and sweet. I’m lost without you Rick. I’ll be watching over you… Shalimar. you have a chance to live. Destroy the weather machine and let the peoples live without oppression. Now. brother. “When this is done. “I… can’t…” He crouched down in front of her. I know you love me. my home. go and kick some lordly butt.” 106 . “Know that I. too. I’ll be waiting for you. But there is a greater love: that for the people. you’ll see the value in what I say. “The people won’t keep me warm at night or share my bed.” he said softly. “What we had was flash and spark. Shalimar.” She lifted tear-flooded eyes. and spoke for her ears alone. but honey? You know I love you.” “Farewell. love you.” “God. “I know this is hard. “and I wish it could have come at a better time.” Rick said and reached out to her. renew grief surging.

“Yes. gee.” “Why. “Their love for me would blind them to ever finding someone else.Rick’s image became more solid. *** “Did you have to lie to them?” Harley asked sourly. Their love for me…” He shook his head.” “Huh. I did. It worked for me. no one should walk through this life without love.” Harley said smugly. Shalimar and Eaden would spend the rest of their lives alone.” He grinned and walked into the forest. and look who you’ve got as a companion shade? Did you ever think that the Gods might be trying to tell you something?” 107 . and no one. brother. “Oh. Harley. “I love you. for the Gods sake?” “Because if I didn’t plant the idea.

He lifted his eyes to the messenger. a ferret standing on his back paws. fit man. After five years. The residents worked for him. even now. but Finrael knew the picture of unstudied grace was faked. Kenro was a trim. Just like him. sly creatures who could wheedle their way through the smallest of gaps. He appeared at ease with his surroundings. Behind those ill-fitting wooden doors lay hidden wealth. snout in the air. and deep blue eyes that watched Finrael’s every move. Ferrets were. made for him by master craftsmen at the behest of Her Majesty. 108 . regardless of the poverty-stricken appearance. enabling them to live in fine comfort. This coin was special to him.and others like it were his. he chuckled. The Bowman’s Arms was Finrael’s turf in this small town. They were savage. sitting across from him in this very private booth and put the coin in his money pouch. It was a measure of how Queen Tarrin regarded him: with admiration. Etched on one side. clean-shaven cheeks. lived for him and died for him. the Queen’s profile. but not adverse to a good. It was nice here. pride and no small amount of amusement. it still made him smile. He wondered if the Queen knew he’d recognise what she was trying to say? Wondered if. as if scenting prey. with its dirt streets and grubby two dozen thatch-roofed cottages. slicked back hair. if only on the inside of their domiciles. hamlet really.The Winged Crown Finrael rolled a rare gold coin over his knuckles and back again. cunning. after all. solid bribe. the one he kept hidden at his waist. In return. he gave them a percentage of his profits. too. The people of this town . she smiled to herself at the thought of him demanding an explanation from her messenger. with a pointed black beard. on the other.

Without taking his eyes off it. He’d been here a turning of the glass without once mentioning his mission. Kenro had tossed a coin down. you’ve taken up more than I’m willing to part with. knew its’ legend. “The Winged Crown. he slowly sat. really. Tarrin should have known better than to send a fop like Kenro.This man. The smirk faded and Kenro swallowed. had no idea that every single inhabitant of this hamlet had more money than he did. though. Kenro waved a negligent hand. Fin felt the blood leave his face. “For the last time: What does the Queen wish of me?” Finrael asked with aggrieved patience. He heard the thud of metal hitting wood and glanced down at the table.” “Of which. tarnished to a deep golden colour as if dirt in the surface stained it with a darkness no amount of rubbing could erase. “It is a small matter.” He breathed.” He stood.” Kenro smirked and Fin slowly lifted his gaze so the man would not mistake how close he’d come to death. although ‘money’ was a misnomer. but kept his finger just above the surface. The hulk known as Bando approached with lumbering slowness that belied his intelligence. turned away and nodded to one of his henchmen. He knew this piece. “Er… I mean…” He took a hasty swallow 109 . This coin was old. He thought it destroyed or lost. “She thought you might recognise it. Many a fool had underestimated Fin’s bodyguard to their detriment. leaned back against the scarred wooden booth. reached out to touch it. He lifted his hand and waved Bando off as he stared at the money. And now it had returned. It won’t take more than a couple of hours of your time. dressed as if he wanted the peasants to know how wealthy he was.

A pair of wings faced him. He’d been given the coin in exchange for guarding a merchant’s train through a corner of the neighbouring country. “She gave it to me to give to you as a measure of her urgency. danger surrounded them and he knew the coin was cursed. A man’s profile against the tabletop. Kenro shrugged. A subtle buzz ran up his finger and into his hand before he withdrew. interesting. And then. until he recalled the coin and remembered where he’d left it. Once in his hand again. And that had nearly ended in disaster. He’d thrown it from the tower into the forest below. But then. he’d helped the Princess Tarrin against assassins and court intrigue to ascend to the throne of Lath. “Where did the Queen get this?” He asked and raised his eyes to the man. one morning. Every plan he made dissolved into disarray. He’d thought the coin pretty.” “And what does Her Majesty want me to do?” 110 . Tro. it seemed they’d be murdered. too. Fin stared down at the dark gold. he left the crown sitting on the window sill after he’d shown it to Tarrin. At every turn. That day had gone well. looked away to the few other patrons in the Arms.of his ale and licked his lips. insanely brutal mother. How had it come to be in Kenro’s possession? Into Tarrin’s possession? Fin touched the pad of his finger to the face of the coin. and played with it. He knew this because he’d held this coin in his hand once before: when he’d helped Tarrin take the throne from her paranoid. The coin knew him and he suppressed a shudder. and those after.

for what remains is only servitude to the conqueror. “What makes you think this time is any different?” “The Queen seems disturbed. Didn’t she know that prophecies always came true? Never in history had one failed. and his father before him.” Fin felt his lips twist. “There is no one else to do this. “Tarrin has closed off every border. “Darik and his army are massing at the border. You could easily slip in and kill him. He used to run with the boy in the wilds of Tro before Darik went to military school.” Kenro replied. “You know of the prophecy.” Fin shook his head. earning him another glare.” He shook his head. “The 111 . Finrael. a killer. She charges you with stopping that prophecy. You know him. a mobster. “Yes. There is something different about this impending assault. and you know it. he knew Darik. as his father did before him.” Kenro hissed. You: the worst of the worst. Kenro. armed every man. you know the consequences if it comes true. “frightened her enough to send it to you.” Finrael said. He didn’t back down. “No. Darik will fail.” He said quietly.Kenro abandoned his relaxed stance and leaned forward. “The Queendom of Lath shall fall. have the skills to do this!” “There are others to can do it.” he tapped the tarnished surface. Fin curled his lip. “This coin. From the west comes a man with a body of armour and lust for power in his heart. a pimp and standover man. Yes. Nevermore shall women rule. “You mean Darik thinks the prophecy is about him?” Kenro nodded and quoted the prophecy. however and Fin gave him points for courage.” He said. You. no matter how people tried to change it. He will throw down the bastion of women with blood and fire. for the Gods’ sake. reinforced every citadel. a thief.” Kenro leaned closer. Silly bitch.

“That the offender in the prophecy was an outcast?” “Darik thinks he’s the one because his father tossed him out for failing school. He eyed Tarrin’s man.” “For a smart woman.” Fin leaned back and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Does the Queen not see this a Morik’s way of forcing the prophecy? That everything Morik and Darik have done is to fit in with the prophecy?” Kenro shook his head. I remember my great grandfather speaking of it in hushed tones. It might even play into the prophecy. so it wasn’t him after all.’ Then you get to wait for the next mutt 112 .” Finrael narrowed his eyes. boy.” Kenro replied. there will be a battle for the throne of Tro. then you can say. I’m only her messenger. It will not stop the prophecy.prophecy is not so old as to be forgotten. the Kingdom of Tro won’t succeed?” “Do you remember the rest of the prophecy?” Fin asked. was not as well versed in prophecy reading as she should be. Everything that is happening now. “Oh. nor even delay it. Have you or she thought of that? These prophecies are always vague for that very reason. Whoever wins will be an outsider and probably have the same attitude towards the prophecy as Darik and his father. “I don’t know what the Queen is thinking. ‘oh. “Does Darik have an heir yet?” “Not that I’m aware of. Tarrin.” “Then think on this: if I kill Darik. that was unconscionable given that Darik was the first in centuries to fail. You can put whatever interpretation on it as you like. and heard it from his own great grandfather. he thought. has happened before. If one man fails. To Morik. Who’s to say this time. she can be remarkably dumb sometimes.

” Bando said quietly.” He made a shooing motion and Kenro rose. uncertainty on his face. “I don’t know what to say. drained his tankard and walked out.” Fin said drolly. sir. Tell her she’ll have her answer before dawn. just in case. But the Queen wants this. It will not stop. “Yes.” *** Fin read what Bando had found for him and smiled. But. kept it and the prophecy alive. Surely that meant something? Maybe it was just old magic that filled it. “Bando!” He called and the giant of a man strolled over.” Kenro shrugged helplessly. Bloody prophecies: always turning up at inopportune moments.thought he was destined to be king of the world. He had business to attend to. “It was remarkably easy to find the information. It will take years for Tro to stabilise if left without a legitimate heir. You have to do this!” “Just in case.” Kenro nodded. I know what you say is true. Not now. Some… research. Hmmm. It knew him. “Sir?” “I’ve got something for you to do. “Leave now or I’ll have you thrown out. 113 . The coin. She feels it’s the only way to ensure peace in our time.” Fin shook his head again. there’s a thought.who thinks the prophecy is about him. now Tarrin wanted him to run off and murder his childhood friend who – through his father’s urgings . not a hundred or a thousand years from now. “Return to the Queen.

This held a shape that coalesced into a man dressed in robes. “Bastard son of a whore!” The spectre spat. Fin watched as the big man settled himself with parchment and quill. Fin stepped back as the metal began to spark and smoke. things of antiquity were not what they seemed. Bando cleared his throat and eased into a still position. The fire was hot. sit in the corner and write down everything you see happens next. Good. The smoke thickened until almost solid and Finrael could see the features of a white bearded man in black robes.” Fin instructed. The wings held their shape for a moment then dissolved. the crucible ready and Fin dropped the coin in. wizard. A column of smoke drifted up. If I’d gone to kill Darik you would have found that man. “Sheer bloody arrogance on your part. sank into the contours of the cup. If you weren’t looking directly at him.” Finrael smiled benignly.” 114 . the buzz of magic in the coin and a good deal of research. but then sometimes. you might not see him at all. You were looking for the right man to fulfil your plan of destroying Lath. huh?” “How did you know?” The shape shimmered then firmed. Fin turned his attention to the next part of his plan. “Thought you could manipulate events. Jastro.“Indeed. Now. you have my thanks. Bando bowed and found a shadowed corner of the blacksmiths forge to hide in. The metal began to soften. but it wasn’t ordinary smoke. It seemed a shame to destroy something of antiquity. the late and unlamented wizard. “Ah. as Lath once destroyed you.

written by you to forment mischief. the prophecy has no sway.” The wizard snarled and began to fade. We rule Lath together: her. but the rantings and threats of an old man thwarted by the first Queen of Lath. or will be once another story is spread across the land. But you and I both know it wasn’t a prophecy. and me.” “You said prophecies always come true.” Fin held up a finger. as the face of the underworld. a killer. You’re nothing but filth for what you do to your own people. Now…” “Now that you will shortly be truly dead. But. a prophecy!’ And history did the rest. “I don’t. I may be a mobster.” 115 . “Fancy that? Your fear-ridden prophecy has now been reduced to simple literature. Killed Darik and taken both kingdoms. the Witch Queen. a poor one at that. You might want to think about during eternity. Together we make Lath great: Two sides of the coin creating a balance and filling the needs of all citizens. not just the law abiding. What makes you think this one is any different?” The shade sneered. You could have ruled this world. I believe. I believe what I said. as the face of respectability. “And it’s a big one. It is now nothing more than a poem. wizard.” Fin tilted his head and chuckled. Someone picked it up and the coin you’d magicked yourself into and thought ‘gosh.“I thought it could have been you. Your so-called ‘prophecy’ was never going to be fulfilled in Tarrin’s or my lifetime because she doesn’t rule on her own. thief and the Gods know what else. the filth of the earth. The current bitch queen? She’s my wife. If anyone could rid this world of the bitch queens. one that begins with a cursed coin and ends with the cleansing of that coin. “One more thing before you take off for Hell. Fin shrugged. it would have been you.

not just a friend and body guard to Fin – Fin didn’t need one. Bando would do his best.The wizard was still gaping at him as the smoke dissipated and fragmented into the night.” He murmured. the warning flares would be lit. He used tongs to lift the crucible off the fire.” Fin turned to the west and stared out into the night through the open doors of the forge. “Let’s hope the news gets through in time. He tipped it into the cool water. but it was expected that a mobster would have one – and he would make sure as many people knew about tonight’s happenings. He’d sell it for a handsome profit. Now you can spread that story. waited for the gold to cool before collecting it. “Aye. *** It was a week before he saw the distant glow of the fires in the blackness. eased back from the rising steam and spitting water. He and Tarrin would have to make other plans if that happened. “Great. strode away with a purpose. but for now he’d keep his own watch.” Bando agreed and packed up his tools. In the bottom was a puddle of gold. He was a storyteller. Bando nodded as he finished the last sentence. 116 . “Get all that?” Fin turned to his henchman. sending explosions into the sky and Darik was on his way to fulfil the wizard’s plan. All Fin could do now was wait. If Bando failed. He would soon know if Bando succeeded: the watch fires of Lath would remain unlit and Darik and his army would depart.

The wall itself was luke-warm. Rainbows of colour undulated d across the surfaces in a dizzying display. “‘Partly’. rippled around until he had to close his eyes against the vertigo. not well at all. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in here. 117 . Blinked. Walder rubbed a grey eyebrow.” “‘Mostly’? What does that mean? It’s your fault we’re in here!” “Partly. The rainbows spread out. “Am I not the world’s greatest magician?” “Not even close. how do we get out?” Rocheros asked. ‘Mostly’. rippled across the floor. “Calm down. bounced off other rainbows. “That’s wizard-speak for ‘I don’t know’.” Walder said and rubbed his chin.” “Walder. We need to get out of it!” He loosened his tie. stared at the swirling colours of the four walls. isn’t it. the ceiling and floor. Is that all you can say?” “Generally. “So.” Walder smirked.” Walder agreed and stamped his pink slippered foot. not the cool he’d expected. The colours were making him nauseous. I promise. “Ahm…” Rocheros rolled his eyes.” “Mostly. Was the air getting thin in here? Warmer? “I need to get out of here!” He peeled off his suit jacket. I’ll get us out. “Nope. up the walls and into the ceiling to meet at a point then bounced back. We are stuck inside a cube the size of a toaster oven. that didn’t go well.Music Box “Well. He shook his head.” He walked to the wall in front of him and touched it. Colours fanned out. pal.” Rocheros muttered and twisted around. Rocheros could hear the rasp of bristles and looked around again.

“Mmmm. “My point is that only a powerful spell can get us out of here. He could see that now. and his excitement and greed knew no bounds.” “Again. he was still a struggling. “Okay O Great Magician. he would be much richer and happily married with the required two children with maybe one on the way. It should have been easy to go back in time and adjust things that he’d done. Rocheros walked around the cube. The rainbows rippled towards Rocheros and he grimaced. It should have been simple: a legendary. I need to meditate. A time capsule. though… Walder began crooning in a foreign language. Now. magical cube that allegedly could change time: backward and forward.” Rocheros muttered.” Walder said happily. “And it was a powerful spell that brought us here. If it had worked. no surprise there. I need things. “No shit. almost like scraping against fine sand. As it was.” Rocheros brushed his hand over the surface. Rocheros ignored him and continued to walk the walls.” He finished. soon. While Walder meditated. Sherlock.” Walder said from behind him. Walder gave an aggrieved sigh and sat down. “It’s not that simple. single businessman with visions of grandeur. caste away. There was a vague roughness. things that he’d said.“We’re in a magical item. I need to…” “Get on with it! I have a meeting in…” Rocheros checked his watch. my boy. The only way to get ahead in life was to 118 .” Walder clicked his tongue. “Great. but it had stopped.” He dropped his hand and turned to the magician.

Walder’s crooning deepened to a hum. Rocheros felt vibrations buzz through his buttocks. draped his jacket across his lap. it clubbed him until he thought he would simply dry up and blow away. The rainbow continued to flicker outwards from his hand. Was it his imagination or was the wizard… Holy shit! He was sinking through the floor! Rocheros opened his mouth to say… something. Jesus! Now he could feel the vibrations through the soles of his shoes. it was getting warmer in here. yeah. Rocheros jerked awake. “Walder!” 119 . Walder was a highly respected wizard. He should have known: any time he took a short cut. Rocheros shook his head. but the wizard made no reply. He walked to the spot. How could he? He must have slept for a while. World’s greatest magician. he was well and truly lost now. but before he could. “Where are you?!” He shouted and ran his hand across the floor again. “What the hell are you doing?” He demanded. Walder had gone straight down and disappeared. from his knees. Rocheros stared at the old man. His skin tingled unpleasantly and he jumped to his feet. The rainbows rippled out. He closed his eyes and waited. he sneered and undid the top two buttons on his shirt. He hadn’t thought he’d be able to sleep. Damn. The thirst didn’t sneak up on him. he lost.work for it. just not geographically. His hands brushed over the spot but nothing remained. with Walder at the centre. that’s what he’d get the first time he was out. A big glass of beer. though. the colours rippling out from where Walder vanished. He slumped down in a corner and watched the wizard. Well. if there had been a breeze. and not try to take short cuts. He smacked his lips.

Nothing happened. crossed his legs and closed his eyes. Rocheros. was him and he felt the tension ease out of his shoulders. “Be at peace. 120 .” The word lengthened and the lines of the rainbow softened. Rocheros kept humming while he slowly opened his eyes. colouring every surface with a sky blue. Hum.” He intoned and the acoustics changed. And abruptly stopped. “Bloody hell!” “Hum. Hummm. He tried another tune. The rainbow reacted. “Mmmmm. ricocheted around the walls. Still nothing. closed his eyes and hummed a ditty.” Didn’t the voice know any other word or tone? Rocheros blew out a breath.“Hummm.” Came the voice again. “What?” Rocheros yelled and the rainbow lines appeared. How was humming going to help him? He wasn’t a goddamn wizard. He cracked an eyelid. He kept doing it even when he felt cool air brush across his cheeks. He didn’t know any magical words or spells and it sure as hell wasn’t going to make him feel better! “Hummm. “Hum.” came a sonorous voice. Right. around him. kept the note until he had to take another breath. He slapped the floor in frustration.” “Hum. It was almost as if the single note was inside him. He no longer felt the resonance of the note. Rocheros sat where the wizard had.” He caught the end of the word and repeated it in the same low tone. the colours blending.

In fact…” He strode to the dining room and picked the cube up. where he’d left it. He went to the window. “Or perhaps I could…” He waggled his fingers. his laminated granitepattern topped counters. Do with it what you will.” Rocheros did as asked and swallowed a gasp.” “Take it. The brushed steel fridge was genuine. I’ll work at being a success. I won’t try any more short cuts. “I’ve learned my lesson.He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his kitchen. take it. Mr Rocheros.” Walder said from behind him and he jumped. Walder.” “Why thank you. Look closer at your surrounds. I’ll try to pay you.” He gripped the old man by his arms. brought it back and handed it to the magician. “So. were real. “Good thing you’re not tone deaf. but…” Walder sent him a warm smile. the windows overlooking the park. The outside of the box lit up with the rainbows again. bank statements and bills stuck under a rock on the counter. not one with brushed laminate surface. and the accursed cube sitting. “Here. positively promise. no. The granite tops. He was much higher 121 . on the dining room table. how about some coffee?” The wizard asked. Mr Rocheros. “Send me a bill for your troubles. Rocheros shuddered and stepped back. “No! God. I have no doubt about that. Rocheros nodded. His legs ached. when he touched them. I absolutely. “Oh.” Walder hummed a few bars from a commercial. There was his faux-brushed steel fridge. Rocheros cleared his throat and rose. but it looked like his own kitchen. too. this is a fine gift. Nothing had changed.

The top page was his bank statement. my God! I’m… I’m…” “Rich.” “Token?” Rocheros turned his stunned mind to what Walder was saying. “Beloche’s Music Box. both he and the box slowly disappeared. yes. He went to the stack of papers.” Walder grinned. You gift me with one of the most precious items in wizardom.” He held out the box. For soothing souls among other things. I’m sure you’ll be happier now. Roch. you know. “Sure. he snorted. it makes people… happy.up than he expected. the World’s Greatest Magician. lifted the rock. I know. “Good luck. That’s what music does.” Walder chuckled. he knew: he was Walder. it would be churlish of me not give you some reward. I’m sure you can take it from here. then to Rocheros’s astonishment. of course. “Oh. 122 . “Just a token of my appreciation.” Rocheros stared at the empty spot and wondered who or what the wizard was. But.

too. His flesh gleamed with the colours of sunset. I returned to business. I suppressed a shiver. like silken water. if you’d been a nineteenth century religious zealot. if you ignored the curling and ridged. black horns that sprang from the sides of his forehead. but that is what we diplomats are employed for: to find solutions to the impossible questions. reds and yellows. red-skinned. rippling through gold. square with a dimpled chin. that what you ask is impossible. My hand twitched as if to touch him. but flowing.an insipid description of the Ambassador. I turned my head as his lips quirked in a knowing smile. Clearing my throat. fire-eyed demon . deep. scarlet. sliding over and under my skin like velvet. He wore a very 123 . And his voice. to see if his skin was as hot as the colours and I clasped my hands in front of me. “Indeed. Bezaroth was epitome of Hadean masculinity. Ambassador. a two-and-a-half-metre tall.” I glanced sideways at the Hadean Ambassador and found my gaze stuck. you would dispense with clothes.” His laugh was a rumble. lit by the walls that pulsed with red and yellow light through the rock. Not mottled. His hair flowed black and curling down to his shoulders. deep in his naked and well-muscled chest.Ambassador Demon “You must understand. His jaw flexed with strength. The Hadean’s eyes were fire. He was. the long. that much I understood from the briefing file. sensual. We were walking through a tunnel. flickering with moving light. If you came from a hot planet. mesmerising. gentle fem. aristocratic and human nose and the full-lipped mouth that covered spiked teeth. His head was human like.

Bezaroth’s laugh rumbled out again. and almost obscenely high on muscled thighs. “I’m sure they do. the desert in the centre of Europe was expanding and would.” 124 . but I was not so bold to touch it and find out. we have time for small talk. Only the coastal fringes of the continents were still fertile enough for crops. The question of whether the Hadeans would share that technology was paramount. “Of course. his clawed feet clicking against the stone floor and nodded. Up ahead lay the answer to Earth’s water problems. “I have heard it said that on your planet. humans were dying of thirst.” He clasped his six digit hands behind his back. Ambassador. puzzled. This mission was too important to take his attempt at friendliness as an affront. Even as we walked the corridor. Earth did not have time for ‘small talk’. Ambassador.short skirt that rode low on his hips. I glanced at him again. “I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I would do the people of Earth no good if I offended the only man capable of influencing his Prime to allow us the machine. The material gleamed wetly. but not to the diplomats. “I meant no offence. in a few years. before we get down to business?” He said into the silence. a diplomat is someone who will tell you to go to hell in such a manner that you will look forward to the trip. join with the Russian desert. at the cliché. What would you like to talk about?” I murmured. I reigned in my frustration.” I let the comment slide.” My smile was short. “Surely. pained.

” His words did not make me feel any better. lowered my eyes so he wouldn’t see the anger. 125 . Hadean children didn’t acquire the lush. They lived in cooler quarters. Pale Hadeans blistered under the heat of their world unless protected. I knew that it meant desire and I flushed. This mission is too important to us.I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You have no need to twist your own words. this treaty is important to both of our peoples.” he murmured. and it was offensive to point out such differences.” My cheeks and chin darkened further.” I bowed my head slightly. He meant it in humour. solemn. species. “Ah…” “I understand you are considered attractive on your world.” He interrupted. darker Hadeans. Earth no longer considered skin colour as meaningful. At least they accepted the offspring. Never give any advantage away at the negotiation table. but I still resented the implication. It was no secret the Hadeans liked to… explore… other. the flame in his eyes expanding. I already know that you need us more than we need you. “There. “Thank you. As an ambassador.” I drew in a tiny breath and silently cursed. “I know what you meant.” His fiery eyes looked down at me. considered diseased and separated from the main communities. Ambassador. nor was I an alien to be toyed with. though not through any racist ideology. red heat crawling up my face. were outcasts. That was one of my first lessons and I had no excuse. “I mean. knowing. The Hadeans did think it significant. not like some other species I could name… But I wasn’t a child to be patronised. the briefing read. but I tried to take his remark in the spirit it was meant. Bezaroth sucked. compatible. vibrant colours until puberty. “now you are approaching the right colour. kept away from the main population.

I saw the massive five-metre tall stone doors that led into the machine room. dreams and future of Earth lay behind those doors. To say what was said is to suggest you are without life. 126 . The ashes of a fire are a source of fertiliser – there is a purpose – and mixed with soil.” “You flatter me.” “Yesss. His gaze rested on my face for a moment as if trying to follow my logic. it creates new life. my good Ambassador.Up ahead. “I would do much to avenge this insult.” I felt him tense beside me. The same shade of hair as the night sky and yet your eyes are the cool.” I said stiffly. “We have no use for ash. I am intrigued. gentle fem. it is a sign of renewal. without purpose. but his words had a double meaning that I was sure he meant to convey. “Would you?” “Yes. sir.” I raised an eyebrow. deep blue of the sky at dusk. “but not everything.” The words hissed between his sharp teeth.” “I am. I merely speak the truth. how did one of your guards put it? As cold in appearance as a dead fire.” “Nothing but the truth. It is an intriguing concept you present. This was what I had travelled a hundred light years for and I swallowed. “It bears future exploration. He took in a deep breath.” He said softly. “Flatter? No.” I shrugged. “I understand that is quite an insult. the flame in his eyes the flicker of interest.” He stopped at the doors and turned to me. The hopes. “It is an interesting colouring you have.” he replied. that you are nothing but an irritant blown away by the wind!” “Indeed not.

” “Can we not take a cutting? Grow it back on earth?” “No. enjoying the moisture after the hot trek down the corridor.” He put his broad hands on the panels and shoved hard. I closed my eyes. “Here is the machine. ground against each other as he pushed inwards. The stones squeaked. It was so big I couldn’t see the top of it and it was at least twenty metres in diameter. The door edges separated and a gust of warm humid air breathed through the gap to dampen my face. I would be the first to see how Hades cooled itself. It was an effort not to return his interest. the breeze pushed the leaves together. That was the squeaking: the thick leaves rubbing against each other. My heart thumped in my chest in anticipation.I stared at the door.” he murmured and faced the doors. created water enough for the Hadeans to survive on this hot world. 127 . It requires the climate of Hades’ underground. silent but for the drip of water into a multitude of puddles on the roughly hewn stone floor and an odd squeaking sound. In the centre was an incredible plant. “just so.” “But… the machine…” I breathed in the moist air. Verdant green and so lush. my eyes wide on the plant’s abundant foliage. fragrant with the spiciness of the plant. “Just so. I lifted my lids and stared. willing him to turn away from me. We walked in. The room was cavernous. Unsure of what I was looking at. “Now you understand why it is impossible for us to share our… technology with you.” Bezaroth announced with reverence.

It curled backwards.” “Come. many more of the Seraph Plants on Hades. “Mother Nature at her finest. but the very gentleness of his touch made me want to weep. we will leave this place and go somewhere comfortable. The thought tightened my chest.” He reached out and touched a leaf. I did not mean to cause such anguish.” He was comforting. “I can see by the translucence of your skin that you are upset. it cannot stand to be touched. “No. There are many. My own planet would wither and die. But his voice held an element of barely suppressed smugness. Ambassador. They were wrong. I waved his unspoken question away. nothing more and I turned my head away. I suspected the Hadeans had lied to us.” I felt my shoulders slump. they have condemned the home world. The claws were sharp. My mission of mercy was for nothing. clogged my throat and my eyes stung. I would speak to you about your problem and how it can be reversed. this was a natural event. Cuttings die. as if he knew a secret. 128 . And in assuming that. soothing and sad. It is they who make life here possible and they refuse transplanting. This was no machine. gentle fem. Worse.“Is Hades herself. but generations of my own people with their arrogance in thinking the Earth would always be able to fix herself. They are a power unto themselves and should they die. no matter what we do. “As you can see. It was a caress. like an unwatered vine.” I said and his brows lowered in puzzlement. a yellow spot appearing where Bezaroth had brushed the surface. I had come all this way and I would get no result. The foliage muted my bitter laugh. and I let him brush the skin of my upper arm. It is not you who caused this vain hope.” His clawed hand reached out to touch me. I only wished to impress upon you the unique nature of this world. we die.

But. now you want more of the same thing without learning how not to make the same mistakes. It is time to put away greed and negotiate on a more lasting solution. You are most child-like. I couldn’t help but watch the display of rippling muscles in his back and wonder what the red skin would taste like.” He said and took my arm once more. I had to close my eyes and turn from him. His palm was smooth. the implications were too painful. “Of course. I think it is time humans learned the value of what is given them. almost hot. It cannot be reversed. and just as temperamental.” He released my arm at the door and turned to grab the hand inserts at the door. that we must have outside intervention or we are doomed. gentle fem. warm. unwilling to see the flickering flames in his eyes. Our scientists have millennia more of knowledge and experience. Bezaroth turned and ran a hand over his chest as he saw my expression. your scientists are limited by what they know. I did not look back. you humans are so restricted by propriety. gentle fem. With a mighty heave he closed one. gentle fem. I gaped at his forthrightness.” I allowed him to wrap his hand around my arm and escort me out of the room. too? The rumbling laugh came out again and I stared at his chest. Were the Hadeans telepaths. then the other door. yes.” 129 . charming as only a babe can be. You have something and nearly destroyed it. “There is no shame in admiring beautiful things. “Ah.“Our best scientist have determined that there is no solution. but pleasantly so and I stepped closer to him without thought.” “Are you suggesting we are greedy?” “In your own way.

It is the tantrums we fear most. much older race than humans and somewhat staid in our ways. For like a child.I tilted my head. you are also open to the learning and exploring of new things... I believe. spreading his fingers between mine. Amaroth may already have a solution for you. He returned it with a snort.” 130 .” He gave me a courtly bow and took my hand in his. but gave him a professional smile. we go to the Science Hall. “Come. where. but you. You have a sense of adventure... you can teach us on a more. “Then we can negotiate.” His eyes flickered with heat. “I’m wondering if I should be insulted by that remark on behalf of my race. “We are a much. a fearlessness that we can only admire.” His voice held a promise and I wondered if it was as personal as his low tone made it. intimate level. indeed not. The Hadeans may be able to teach you a many technical things. I refused to answer. the fire in his eyes flaring with humour.” “No.

sputtering in Spanish. The middle-aged and fleshy woman before her was genuflecting so hard she looked like she was swatting flies.” 131 . I’m here to collect. No other colour would do. The woman backed up to the double glassed doors and closed them.” “Devil child! You no take Pilar! My girl. “Well. She crossed her pale hands over one another on top of the narrow black briefcase resting on her lap. you must speak English. you know your taxes are due and well. That's where the profit is. “Pilar is safe from you?” She asked and took another step forward. “Infanta el Diablo. of course. let me show you the bill.” Angela shot the cuffs of her Armani suit jacket and moved her knees to the side to examine her perfect shoes. “Now. no. Or she does something… foolish.” she replied with a smile and smoothed a hand down her long midnight hair.Death Or Taxes “Madre Dios!” Came the soft cry and Angela looked up from her seat on the ornate wooden staircase of the Rothschild estate. all black. Mrs Rodriguez. a scowl emphasising the lines on her flabby face. actually. yes. It must something of yours.” Her words brought the torrent of words to a sudden halt and Angela smiled. Maria Rodriguez continued to wail in her native tongue. “English. Mrs Rodriguez.” Maria took a hesitant step forward. “Of course not. she good girl! You no take her!” Maria clutched her hands to her ample bosom. Mrs Rodriguez. now. of course. “Come. How could I tax something that I own? No. until it is her time to go. from crown to tip.

she sat down. Father was a good teacher. They get your souls if you’ve been good. You must abide by that deal.” 132 . her grey-streaked brown hair bouncing. “I should never have bargained with you. To offset the… discrepancy in profit earnings.” She leaned towards Maria. patrician nose.” Angela chuckled and patted Maria’s thick fingers clutched in her lap. “You do remember that it has been two thousand years since the Vatican made their deal with us?” Maria tightened her lips and gave a sharp. That’s me. “It’s not your fault that the Vatican never really took us seriously. It’s not your fault that they had spread the story about the Devil’s playground to ensure obedience of parishioners. black eyes dancing with humour. you must deal with the Devil. I’m the representative. “But don’t worry. well. they never understood we were as real as they. The Pope and the Cardinals all agreed in the profit sharing venture.” She tapped her long. while the Church gets an equivalent donation. He’s very astute in determining the needs of people. they are taking the Slide down to Hell. “Well. slowly mounting them until she was level with Angela. “I’m aware of your history. at least. we get to tax you.Maria nodded. disapproving nod. To buy your way into Heaven. Now. I let you into a little secret. For all their grab for power. I’m aware of everyone’s history. then. Angela shifted aside to give the large woman room. With a sigh. or. If you think the higher ups in the Church are going to Heaven because they saved all those souls. we get them if you’ve been bad.” Maria spat and walked to the staircase. they do.” “Eh?” Maria turned a puzzled glance to her and Angela leaned on the staircase railing. “They’re not taking the Stairway to Heaven.

” Angela opened the suitcase. You should tell your Church to stop overcharging.” Maria stated. “That’s right. she’d written it.Maria gasped. “You get us coming and going!” “And isn’t it a wonderful thing?” Angela laughed and turned her gaze to the glowing paper. ignoring Maria’s gasp of outrage. are all skills we look for in souls.” Angela sighed with pleasure. Time to get business out of the way. Manipulation.” Maria muttered.” “My girl. her face squishing together.” Angela ignored the sharp-eyed glare. “My girl is good girl. if she’s bad. “Now. the better she is. “Your bill is for twenty-three thousand. Tsk. you know. Her skin was pale with a sheen of sweat that Angela hoped wouldn’t drip onto her suit. “It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that. She take her vows!” “Of course. “Pilar. We get equal remuneration. psychological threats of damnation. “And so to your tax bill.” She pretended to read. her eyes all but hidden in the fleshy folds of skin. it seems. it deserves punishment. the more profit we make. 133 . Such a good Catholic girl. The sour smell was bad enough. “Then again. That does not deserve reward. her mouth tight. then. She knew what it said. coercion. And we’re very creative.” Maria wrung her hands together and said nothing. It’s going to be expensive.” “Coming and going. They sold you lot out to us. And the church? They are true masters at it. seven hundred and forty-nine dollars and fifty-two cents. we get her anyway. Papers glowed a fiery red and she pulled the top sheet out. she good girl.” She presented the paper with a flourish. is addicted to Papal bread and sacrament wine.

” “NO! My girl is good girl!” All expression left Angela’s face. “The Age of Litigation is what led to the Vatican’s deal. Mrs Rodriguez. “I can make you a deal.” Angela’s smile was predatory. 134 . “We can.” “I no pay! I no pay!” Maria shouted.” Maria started to shake and Angela frowned. I like that idea. of course. the smell of brimstone wafted into the air. repossess Pilar or you for that matter for noncompliance. She’d have words with the Bishops about this… and then present the bill for new shoes and clothes. She’d have to buy another pair of shoes and skirt. Hmm. “I appeal! I know my rights. She looked down. “Is that your final decision? Make very. thank you. Too many civilians were using Holy items these days to keep the devils at bay. I appeal!” “To whom. You can only appeal to me.” Angela moved further down the staircase. but flattery will not get the bill paid. very sure of it. Damn it. “What you care?” Maria said. Her father would be pissed. “Why.“I can no pay that! Cheat! Liar! Thief!” Maria flung herself down the stairs to stand glaring up at Angela. Mrs Rodriguez?” She asked. It wouldn’t do to lose a source of income. Dad would be so proud. All that flesh and fat wobbling couldn’t be a good thing. her breath coming out in wheezy huffs. You either pay in coin or you pay in blood. “Are you alright. dear woman?” Angela laid the sheet on the stair and closed her case. Smoke rose from where she’d sat and from under her feet. “D… d… deal?” Maria asked. as arbitrator of the case. Bloody Holy water.

“Okay. I gave her to the church!” “He’s our agent. consecrated to God. of course. And now you understand why all those Popes and Cardinals are currently enjoying the tortures of the Hotel California. “Bad Maria. ‘do anything to have a child’. You agreed. Pilar made her own 135 . You understand then. for giving away something that wasn’t yours. Your bill must be paid. It had to be her choice. lied to me! He said once she took her vows. remember him? He was the priest with whom you prayed. and I quote. her breath wheezing in and out and held a hand to her chest. on so many levels. You would.” “I… he… lied to me! A priest. “There are two ways to go with this: Death or Taxes. you guaranteed the taxes upon her life. contestant number one. signed in blood. Your choices. It is not our responsibility to tell the truth. That puts her. for the moment.” Maria sat on the bottom step. We took surety from you via our agent. “wrong. While she has no income of her own. I am housemaid. We have to get a return on our investment. no one could touch her! Or me. “And you thought it was just a classical song.” Angela pointed a sharp fingernail at Maria. not yours. “I cannot pay it. with compound interest. Heh. out of our purview. And you. or behind door number two: your death and we tax Pilar until the outstanding debt is paid. are these: Pilar’s death and your taxes for the outstanding amount. that’s just…” Angela tilted her head.“Yes. You took on the responsibility when your prayers were answered and a child was born. Pilar is about to take Holy Orders. Of course he lied to you. Father Mendez.” Her smile slowly slid away. “Had no right to give away a life to anyone. You were the guarantor of her life. Nope." Maria’s pig-like eyes widened.” The woman's nod was shaky.” A smirk appeared.

Death. I came to tell you about the remuneration package.” a bell-like voice said from behind her and she turned. no matter which one they pick. “You have me.” “Lucy. she not be corrupted. Angela.” “Yeah?” 136 . I raise my girl right. too. but it’s too good a joke to waste. I am ill. there’s an end to it. “Yeah.” The blonde haired.” “Not so. facing her. “How’s Dad? Smite any sinners lately?” “I’d snicker. Angela threw up her arm to protect her eyes from white burst. “I’m to be punished for being a good mother? Where would I go?” Angela’s lips twisted in dismay. them upstairs interfere.” She said softly. she blinked and stared down at the dead woman. I live good life. “Everything is beneath Heaven. Her hand clasped around the handle of the briefcase and stared at her smoking shoes. I no fear you. “Death and Taxes. well. Maria was standing. we simply upgrade the financial situation of the client. blue-eyed angel said. hands clamped in front of her and a triumphant smile on her face. Infanta. Me. She go to Heaven. In the silence. “Bugger. Pilar is good girl. “Where else?” She hedged.” Angela gave the angel a twisted smile. Taxes.” She spread her arms wide and there was a bright flash with no sound. The one question she didn’t want to answer. I go to Heaven.” She murmured. long time. “we simply… facilitate. I just encouraged her.choice.” Angela sneered. then. but it’s beneath me. no see. When she lifted her gaze.

So. “Bitch. though the loss of a client to upstairs stung she could always buy another.” She sniffed and brushed a hand down the side of the left wing to remove the taint.“Mrs Rodriguez used the same priest as a witness for her will. alright. Ange. Lucy. I don’t want to mess up my manicure. 137 . See you next time. damn it! Pilar’s safe… until she trips up. waved a hand over the piece of paper on the stair. I'd say. “Sure. Lucy waved the pungent haze away.” Angela chuckled. Ange.” Angela vanished in a puff of black smoke and brimstone. well. The sheet’s red glow faded until the paper was a pastel pink. uh. she’s refused everything from her mother. Nice doing business with you. Oh.” Angela smiled.” “Great!” Angela rolled her eyes. move over it. Let’s just say all is well above and below. I’ll just have to see if Pilar…” “Uh. you get her estate. “Ah. White lettering crossed across the bill: Paid in Full. we get Maria’s soul.” She held out her hand but Lucy waved it away. then disappeared.” Lucy raised an admonishing finger. With Pilar taking her Holy vows. “Oh. Build that bridge. “The deal is done. by the way? You have a smudge on your wing. She checked her wings. Profit sharing all around. “You’re smoking too much.

138 .Part Four In other worlds. nor should it be. not all is perfect.

to stop the killing and negotiate a peace between this world and Yerin. more guards appeared. “You hear me. Since I was the only one standing in the middle of the green-coated area. I simply waited until the humans formed a circle around me. “Throw down your arms and raise your hands!” The guard bellowed and I heard a kind of whining sound. why? I had glimpsed this world and dressed accordingly. with very short black hair. I looked down at my arms. but slim and firm’.Pax Britannia “You’re surrounded. so don’t make a move or we’ll kill you where you stand!” The artificially-enhanced bellow of the guard echoed around the raised walls of the amphitheatre. There must have been a centon of them. 139 . yes. He wanted me to separate them from my body and then raise my… hands? What a strange request! I did as he first requested: I didn’t move. I had slightly different colouring. Did something mark me as different? I was taller than these people. but it wasn’t that uncommon. I slowly turned in a circle. As I watched. uptilted dark blue eyes and a body my creator described as ‘buxom. some twenty metons from me. They pointed their sticks at me. I assumed they thought I would do something… deadly. Did all that tell these people of my alienness? The guards on the lower tiers stepped cautiously down onto the field. mutt?” Mutt? What was a ‘mutt’? Was it a derogatory term? If so. I did not. Did they think me so dangerous? All I wanted was to discuss this war with the government of Atrea. saw the uniformed guards with strange looking sticks on the tiers of the arena.

holding a little stick. Now do as you’re told or my men will drop you where you stand. his mouth a tight line of determination.” He tugged silver bracelets off his belt. I tried again. hands behind your back.” He growled.” He said with satisfaction. it should be the first. I studied him. He stopped in front of me.” He kept his red-rimmed eyes on me. not with that belly overhanging his belt. sure. tell it to the judge.One guard barged through the crowd. but not the one you probably imagine.” 140 . “I am no spy. “Merely an emissary from another world to stop this fighting. hoping this wasn’t the scenario he’d painted for me. but addressed his troops. “I don’t care if you’re Holy Moses! I’m gonna cuff you!” As my creator often said: Violence is the last resort. you stupid mutt. “You’re under arrest. “Keep an eye on her while I cuff the mutt.” His mouth split in a broad smile and I thought I’d finally got through to him. “Oh. what else. He was red-faced with anger. at my head. “And then what will you do?” I asked. pointing it at me. but alas. “Turn around. use the judgement I have given you to find the way. spy.” “My name is Pax Britannia and I don’t want to be ‘cuffed’ as you say. He didn’t appear to be a fit human. “I’m gonna seal your hands together.” The man laughed at me. but his steps were confident. you’ll see a leader.” “Yeah.” I said. but for some people. “Take me to your leader. no.

but that did not mean I was to be treated with such disrespect. “You bombed up?” “No. “I do not wish to hurt you or your men. but he moved his hand and struck me on the side of the face. The area stung where he’d split the flesh over my cheekbone and I could feel the red fluid called ‘blood’ slide down and drip off my jaw. and yet. but that did not matter to him.” His reply was to put the end of the stick to my forehead and press in against my skin. all he knew was violence. I could see they had no compassion. only a determination to do as ordered. you must let me speak with the government. My eyes rolled upwards to the black weapon. 141 . My eyes went to the sky and saw the clouds gather in the pale lilac heavens. sir.I looked around at the circle of blank-faced men. no sense of right or wrong. I am…” a weapon I was going to say. “Stop jerking me around. I will oblige. “One last time. “Sir?” I said gently. “I have no weapons.” I assumed he meant the stick he pushed against my forehead was a projectile weapon. and I’ll speak slowly so you understand: turn around and put your hands behind your back.” His ruddy face blanched white and the stick trembled. He knew not what or who I was. “If it is violence you wish for. mutt!” He lifted his fist again.” I frowned. I may have been created illegally. and then back to him. My head jerked sideways. but please. but I did not move. I did not want to act. if I did not. or I’ll spread your tiny brain all over the park. my mission would fail before it started.

Others simply turned and ran. “Sir. I reached out my other hand to the ground and made it tremble. I let them. every piece of metal melted: buttons. rapid and his complexion did not look healthy. I crouched down before him and he flinched as I laid a hand on his shoulder. merely persuade. I twisted the man’s fist until he went down on his knees. lifted a wave of dirt and pushed it towards the troops. I stepped back. heard the rumble of thunder then the ear-shattering snap as the bolt of lightning filled my hand. The weapons melted in the hands that held them. I had not caused him lasting damage. so why did he curl around his fist like that? His breathing was harsh. The earth settled and I turned back to the leader of the troops. Some panicked and fired at me. Feel the energy of the cadecaus. I was not here to kill. but in slow motion. the lightning blocked the charges. Feel the power of the lightning. 142 . everything. I had all the time in the world to stop his strike. I would speak to your government. but the dirt absorbed their shots. and did so. My fingers curled around his fist and squeezed. helmets. My other hand reached up into the sky. belt buckles. I heard my creator’s voice in my head from the training he’d given me.I saw his fist come towards me. The charge left me and I lowered my hand. draw the warmth from Mother Earth’s Heart. I lowered my lightning-struck hand and swept it before me.” His eyes glazed over as he stared at me. Feel the solidness of the earth.

Stood up and breathed deeply. I lifted my hand and backed away. his hot. I will blow your fucking head off. You would do well to either guide me.” He sneered. or stay out of my way. the swiftness of the raptor. didn’t turn back. I will. The projectile pinged off my back. fetid breath close to my ear. As I lay there stunned at the effrontery. And when it was done. crushed it. I got to my feet. the man firing his weapon at me as he did fell sideways. I rolled him off me and he fired as he lost his balance. Cuffed. As with the Yerin. “Alien mutt. The blast from his weapon caught me square in the middle of my back and threw me forward. but I healed him anyway. I hovered there and regarded the man as he climbed to his feet. stank of rot.” I said and looked into the sky.” I muttered.” 143 .” “That you won’t. I broke the cuffs and then plucked the thing out of his hands. “Your people will be at peace whether you wish it or no. “I will speak to the government.” “I should have left you to suffer in the dirt. and by God. Me! A meaty hand clamped down on the back of my neck and leaned in. “That you should have. my job is to protect the citizens of this world.” I walked away from him. “I don’t give a shit who or what the fuck you are. but I could not take it back.” Feel the strength of steel. And I rose off the ground. “I am done with you. but you give me any trouble. so it will be with Atrea. he was riven with disease. Feel the lightness of the air.I focused on healing the man. and I should have. This man was not worthy of the gift. you miserable war-monger. he cuffed me. he still glared at me.

and I would not fail the legacy of my dead creator. I am unique in the galaxy. with easy access for its citizens. I am. unfortunately. a wanderer of worlds. 144 . I rose into the sky to search for the government building. so far. But I also have a mission: to bring peace where it is needed. I am also. I am: Pax Britannia. invulnerable. my mistake was that this world did not govern in an open forum. new to life and must learn new ways and that will take time. My creator gave me much: the ability to draw power from planets. Obviously.With that.

If he would argue with her once in a while. enjoyed every extermination job they did. She didn’t want to reach for the mask.” She said through tight lips. I hate this job. too. much to her annoyance. Though she was trying to train him. “Sometimes. Yes. But as the junior partner. “But he’s got to be down here somewhere. and his constant cheer didn’t help his cause. she’d respect him more. Ches had to prove himself first. only shadowed movement. 145 . She couldn’t see the rest of his face. said cheerfully behind her and she silently sneered. Ches. she still kept some of the job secret. he thought agreeing with her would ease his way to a senior exterminator position. it was upon her recommendation that he rose through the ranks. the mess took weeks to clean and months to cover up. tasting it would be worse. no matter what he said. He was wrong. the chemical tank was heavy. His teeth gleamed white in the gloomy subterranean sewer as he grinned at her. Raisa rolled her shoulders. She shook her head in disgust. The stench was bad enough.” Her partner. “Me. that would limit one of her senses. though. It’s the only place he could be. but the smell strengthened. “Are you sure that tank isn’t too heavy?” Ches asked. grew worse. lest the air touched her tongue. but no way would she let her partner take point. gripped the barrel of the gun and cautiously stepped forward.The Hunt The constant trickle of stinking water was getting on her nerves. Ches.” Raisa glanced back at him. Raisa thought she’d be used it by now. The last time he did.

“It’s fine. “A hundred metres. “Unfiltered and undiluted industrial and human waste? Surely not. subtle movements. Raisa nodded. Now focus.” “Let’s catch him first. Gotcha.” Raisa returned to her stealthy vigil.” Raisa said with a raised eyebrow. “Get ready.” He replied with a jerk of his chin.” “Kill him anyway I can. If he gets past me. “That bastard is going down. He’s one sneaky bastard. you know what to do. “This has got to be an environmental hazard. Ches did the same with the left tunnel. and they’re my favourite. “Distance?” She asked in a whisper. no more. saw no sly. And they waited. Their quarry wasn’t down the right side. So much for focusing. Raisa heard nothing but the trickle of water.” Ches promised darkly.” He said with a smile. viscous liquid oozed sluggishly around his lower legs. she crept down the tunnel to the t-intersection.” There was a splash behind her. “I’ll never be able to wear these boots again. 146 . “Now keep quiet so we can find him. She lowered to one knee and cocked her head to listen down the right tunnel. a muttered curse and Raisa rose from her crouch to turn and stare at Ches standing in the middle of the sewer. She gave him a nod and crept past him.” One slow step at a time. Ches snapped his fingers to attract her attention and pointed down the tunnel when she looked at him. stepped back up on to the rim and shook the other foot.” He said. Black. felt the same steady air current. okay? You can take it out of his hide. He picked up one foot and shook some near solids off his boot.

the unwashed. riding polished handsome cabs. too. just a penny!” One boyish voice cajoled. the ladies and gentlemen in their finery. she’d dressed in rags picked out of the garbage and tied together. She’d slept in doorways. on the rocky beach. their pockets and reticules jingling with coins. eased one foot then the next through the stuff. yes. all to survive the mean streets. mister. “Be off with you. the coal-smutted buildings and air. eighteen hours a day to feed their hordes of grubby. She’d been poor once. worse. Raisa paused to listen. her hands gripped the barrel to stop them from shaking. no. above the high tide mark under the pier. Raisa resigned herself to getting mucky and stepped into the sludge. She could hear the clop-clop of horses on the cobbled streets above. under bushes. Here was a perfect place for an ambush. ate rejected and rotten vegetables from the markets. She recalled the beatings from local thugs. She’d seen the filthy streets. Ahead. Oh. “C’arn. you filthy beggar!” One man shouted. she knew well the desperation of the poor. 147 .The rim of the sewer was too narrow for the work she needed to do. the chatter of street urchins begging and the angry curses of the patrons approached by the orphans. The morning light flared down. and her killing of a couple of them. the factory stacks belching smoke. emaciated children. Memories flashed behind her eyes. breaking her out of the ugly memories. she saw a grate in the ceiling of the sewer. ignoring the less fortunate as if they were invisible. She’d seen. Ches tapped the tank. discarded food from the restaurants. barely clothed people who worked sixteen. blocked the rest of the tunnel from view. She rolled her shoulders and continued on.

The muck was now up to just below her knees. moist and fetid air huffed against her face.She crept past the square of light. “D… d… don’t kill me!” Came a whispered plea from the darkness.ground factories. a step. my ass. but the tunnel’s acoustic bounced the words back at her. Raisa squinted to find the source. this winter. not enough to push her over. using the muck to hide her footsteps. One hundred metres. no one else would venture down into these filth-strewn hollows unless paid handsomely . There must have been an outflow pipe from one of the above. heat. The muck began to steam. Her partner was big enough. 148 . strong enough and fast enough to stop the bastard in his tracks. It had to be him. slowly lifted her right hand and pointed. stepping down. was harsh.like she and Ches – and only for a very good reason. Here and there. the warm wetness leaking through her trousers. It was barely noticeable at first. Ches lightly pushed her tank. she saw the scrape marks of someone reaching out to avoid slipping into the muck. and moved deeper into the gloom of the slime coated tunnel. using the rim. to survive and England. but the warm. Ches would stay behind. enough for her to know he’d seen her signal. The temperature slowly rose. She saw a flicker of movement up a head and stopped. warming her feet inside the boots. and she eased forward. acted as a barrier if her quarry got past her. Their quarry needed warmth. Her toes touched an edge. her eyes straining for more movement. Onward she slid.

Chez should have ripped the night-vision lens from her face. All she needed was to press it against him and zap! Raisa slowly let herself relax as if drowning. She raised the gun. a twitch there and finally. He stayed atop of her for a minute longer.“What?” She asked and shifted to the left. “Don’t kill me. a twitch here. She dropped the gun and shoved her hand into her trouser pocket.” The creature pleaded. held it’s limbs together as if to plead for his life. “It wasn’t me. “it was…” Raisa slammed into the muck. should have asked about what weaponry they’d need for the Acanthus. stared hard into the stinking gloom and raised the level of her night vision goggles. hit from behind. pushed her away. She tugged out the re-breather and shoved it over her nose mouth with one hand. There. but safe for humanoids. The micro-machinery of the equipment cleared the rest and detoxified the recycling air. no doubt what he intended but struggled hard to push up. she let him push her all the way down to the bottom of the sewer. The tanks were too heavy with Ches on her back to lift up. 149 . please!” The creature shifted. thumbed the safety catch and prepared to spray the area with a toxin lethal to the race of reptilian Acanthus. He would not get the opportunity to make any more mistakes. then got off. blew hard once to expel the awful slime. Then she pulled the stunner from her other pocket. She pressed the tabs to release the tank and let it slide off. She held her breath as Ches – for who else could it be – forced her under.

kicked at the beast.” She said and hauled Chez out of the muck and rolled him onto the shelf of the tunnel. The Acanthus had protective dark grey scales all over his eight-limbed body and tail. Was he a pacifist? Raisa pushed off from the side of the sewer and swam closer. “I want off this putrid world and you are going to take me. He looked down. Chez must be out of his mind to take one on. “Wha…?” She pressed the button and her former partner dropped into the muck. I live in squalor. muttering curses and accusing the beast of betrayal. “You sorry-assed lizard! I give you your freedom and this is my repayment?” “I am not free. Now she could hear Chez. His mouth held sharp teeth that regenerated should any be lost and solid bone reinforced his head. Exterminator. She 150 . “I thought you dead. shuddering and shaking as the electrical charge coursed through his traitorous body. the Acanthus made no move to protect himself.” The Acanthus said without any effort.” “I’ve been at this too long to go into a situation blindly. He really was a murderous idiot. She reached out and pressed the stunner against Chez’s calf.” “I’ll kill you!” Chez shouted and pressed harder. Raisa stood and pulled the re-breather off her face.She allowed her body to rise and surfaced without a ripple. Twenty metres away. Chez had his hands around the metre and a half Acanthus’s throat and she shook her head. Then again. Raisa was as close as she was going to get.

” The Acanthus gave her his species version of a smile. “offered to free me for money. To this world. away from Chez’s still spasming body. He’s gotta be cleaned up before his trial.” “And an extermination warrant was sworn out and handed to me. “You have proof of this?” “Yes. In the meantime. I did not know the Terrans were struggling to enter the Machine Age. “A worthy deception. we’d better get this scum-sucking. at the very least. used their knowledge to set me up. “Sewers equal water equals a re-breather. Your companion… took bribes from my enemies. “We’ll deal with that when we get back to Galactic Central. “Now.tugged the cuffs off her utility belt and snapped them around Chez’s wrists.” The Acanthus rose.” He hung his head. I fled. to here. But I could not go through with it. “Sometimes. gentle fem. “That I did. clasped his clawed hands together and bowed.” 151 . She couldn’t smell the sewer any more. as if it were a spa. I do. Having lived here for two of this planet’s moon cycles. I hate my job. grimacing as she did so.” Raisa sat on the shelf. you said ‘it wasn’t you’?” The Acanthus sank lower into the warm slush. bottom-feeder back to the ship. Raisa wiped muck from her face and flung away. I accepted.” “My thanks. not when it meant another death.” Raisa shrugged his comment away.” the Acanthus glanced at Chez. He.

Fenella. What do you think of… um… The match scratched noisily across the rusted metal…” He typed as he spoke. though. 152 . but her eyes were firmly focused on the T. He really wanted to write an adventure. Two black words. “What’s that. in a rather nice cursive script. “That’s the first line of The Guns of Navarone. sweetie.” He chewed his lip and sat in thought. I can’t remember by whom. “I should be able to think of something. Rubbing his grey-bristled chin. You read it last month. He gave her a wan smile. “Nothing. honey?” Mike’s wife. he returned his attention to the blank screen of the laptop. that’s already taken. I think.Backspace “I can’t use ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. just thinking out loud. Fenella went back to the television. honey?” He rolled his shoulders and glanced back. poked a finger on the backspace key until the words were the two he started with.” He said. but she’d already turned back to Oprah.” He muttered. looked away from the television to glance absently at him while the knitting needles clacked and clicked in her long fingers.” “What’s that. “Don’t you remember?” She asked. her knitting needles clicking away.” “Oh. “I’m trying to think if an opening line for my book. Fenella had tilted her head. topped the page: Chapter and One. He stopped as she looked at him and shook her head.V.

No.” He sighed. It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America that the toils and dangers… why did that sound familiar? He shrugged and continued to write: of the wilderness were to be encountered before the… adverse… hosts… He sighed and backspaced again. So that’s what he’d write. “there extended in ancient times a large forest. He jabbed down on it. In fact. And cursed: Bloody Dickens! Backspace. He scratched his stubble. backspace. He cleared his throat. Done to death. rested his fingers on the keyboard again. Last of the Mohicans. he loved history. he was sure. “Eh?” He lifted his head and turned to her. which for many reasons. Although… he hunched over his keyboard and began typing. Mike knew history. his index finger moved to the backspace again and pressed down repeatedly. “In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don. then rubbed his hands together as words appeared in his head. Among other public buildings in a certain town. Wasn’t that what everyone said? Write what you know. Write what you know. Is that what comes after the dedication?” “No. it will be pru… His fingers hesitated then went to that key again.Okay.” Fenella said as if in conversation. covering…” “Sir Walter Scott would be pissed with you. his mind. had taught history for the past thirty-five years. He’d chuck that idea and write a… hmm… western.” he said aloud. backspace… 153 . History. Damn it! Okay. okay. “You’re quoting from Ivanhoe.

You will be the toast of the literary world. I meant Sheila Burnford’s book. then.” Click. the area. I am a Professor of History and English Literature. the book had merit. “Honey.” She said.” He tossed to the screen.He stared at the page. You will write something genius. at the blinking cursor and sneered at it. Readers will want to know about the journey. but his fingers froze at his wife’s voice. The Incredible Journey? I read it as a child. He’d write about travelling. Not history.” She snorted. “I thought you were writing about The Incredible Journey. Comedy. Right. and he felt a spark of creativity. “What’s that. “This journey took place in a part of Canada which lies in the north-western part of the great sprawling province of Ontario. He hunched over the letters.” He hunched back over the keyboard. Mike growled and hit the button again. clack. For many days we’d been tempest-tossed.” He said with strained calmness. backspace… Still. Wonderful story. I should be able to create something of worth! Fingers lightly tapped the keyboard without pressing hard enough to write on the screen. click. “Hah. honey?” “Um… my beginning. Smith-Bloody-Family-Robinson! Backspace. I’ll write a classic comedy! He thought with some desperation. backspace. Mike whimpered. Something that starts of innocuous and builds… 154 . too. There’s a good start. “And it will be once I’ve finished it. I have you now. something special.

” His shoulders slumped. “Published? Already? By whom?” He grumbled.” “I remember some years ago. “You got them to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and…” she prompted. honey. though. The words came to him.” She said with a sad smile. “What?” He asked with trepidation. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. “What do you mean? These are perfectly good words. “Ah. there isn’t. I’ll read. but your near photographic memory is coming to the fore. Not a thing wrong with them!” “No. I’ll let others write.” She pulled her lower lip between her teeth. and then let it go.” “Douglas Adams. There. They’ve already been published. Douglas Adams. then back.” 155 . “No. Fenella was staring at the screen over his shoulder. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: A trilogy in four parts. I’m done with this. He tilted his head and thought. Again. you had your students do an essay on comparative literature.The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village.” “I have a suggestion. Nothing wrong with that. “Ah. “I know you don’t like me to mention it.” His finger slowly pressed the backspace key again and again and again.” She murmured gently. Not a remark… He looked up.

He kept going until he hit upon ones he liked. Then he minimized the screen. that’s why you married me. that’s not like you. a classic. I know you can create a masterpiece.” She lightly slapped his shoulder and returned to her knitting and Oprah.“Honey.” She said smugly. He was on a roll now. Chapter One. The frown eased to puzzlement. He held the disk as if… Mike’s fingers flew over the keyboard.” She turned the laptop towards her and began pressing keys. Mike watched her with a frown between his brows.” “Of course. you just need to get your head away from what’s already been written and set in your mind. and then lifted in surprise and flattened out as he smiled. Mike clicked the mouse over the words and more appeared. “And there I thought it was for your good looks and stunning personality. honey. and all because his wife knew about Story Generators and he didn’t. It would be brilliant. lauded throughout the literary world. you’re a genius. he read and flexed his fingers. 156 . “Fenella.

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