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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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Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Satisfaction
Grigor spied a concrete-edged grave with his flashlight and sat down, confident he could do this. Still, “this is creepy.” He said. “Of course it is.” Mal agreed sagely and sat next to him. “It’s a grave yard. They’re supposed to be creepy.” Grigor turned to his new friend. “You do know this is terribly cliché of us.” “Yep. But we wouldn’t be teenagers if we didn’t drink in a graveyard, tell scary stories and freak ourselves out. It’s dew jaw.” Grigor snorted and reached under his jacket for his flask. “It’s what?” He unscrewed the dulled silver cap and breathed in the red wine. He had no idea what type of red wine it was, only that it had a hint of blackberry in it. “Dew jaw.” Mal pulled a half-bottle of Jack out of his backpack. “You know when they say,” he put on a snooty voice, “it’s soup dew jaw. Well…” “I get it, I get it. I just didn’t know you knew. And it’s du jour. D. U. J. O. U. R. Pronounced ‘du shore’.” Mal squinted at him. “That’s what I said.” He opened his bottle and took a mouthful. 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’s smile was smug. “I told you to get something with less kick.” Mal coughed and hacked and wheezed. “Jaysus… wept!” He lifted an arm and wiped his eyes with the sleeves of his jacket. He turned to Grigor. “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. “We like to know about the less fortunate than us. It is an education.” He resumed his normal tone and shrugged. “I get fed up with the ‘you should know this 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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an escaped convict. James, John and Albert during the Great War; one at Gallipoli, two in France. Another Albert struck down by cholera at Changi, his brother Daniel, shot down over Germany. However, some survived the conflicts. 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. Andrew killed himself in 1934 while Scott determined to go on. Yes, the family had a military tradition. Sons of Ogilvy served in every war so far. My own sons serve: Richard in the Army, while Thomas sails the seas in the Navy. I’m proud of them, proud they continue the tradition. But what kind of men will they be when they return? Bitter and angry like their father? To James’ great shame, the armed services rejected his application on health grounds. His brother, David, is a Brigadier and never lets James forget who succeeded and who did not. To James’ credit, he maintains and grows the family’s wealth and influence. And still it’s not enough. Tonight, the shame returned. I don’t know what provoked it, but he’s snarling with barely leashed violence. It is for this reason that I perform the ritual of wandering the house. 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. I can hear James. He’s shouting at a servant. I don’t know who the poor wretch is, but, no doubt, James will recompense them in the next wage payment. I sighed, rested my hands in my lap and lowered my head. 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. It would tarnish his public reputation to be charged with assault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“You seek to take Van Helsing’s place in history.” I murmured watching the growing pool. “And I will too. The name of Alexander Morecombe will be known as the greatest vampire slayer that ever lived.” Again he chuckled, the sound rich and deep with happiness. “You are a fool, Morecombe.” I shook my head and tore my eyes from Bastian to stare in disbelief at the smug Inspector. “Eh? Why’s that? I’ve killed myself a vampire. Nothing foolish about that.” He shook his head, fiddled with the box before putting it into his top pocket. “I’ll make sure your name isn’t mentioned in the investigation.” His laugh barked out again. “Not that there’ll be one, of course.” I waved off his comments, stood in front of him. His eyebrows rose in surprise. “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, not while I’m still standing. We humans have to stick together if we are to survive.” He patted my shoulder, then gripped both and eased me to the side as the blood pool spread, drained off the table. I looked at poor Bastian; so much blood from one body. I swallowed hard and turned back to the foolish man. “Then let me inform you, Inspector. Peace is essential if humans are to survive. Peace is paramount because some of the vampires have evolved.” Morecombe stared at me. “What are you talking about?” “Day Striders Inspector Morecombe. A vampire who can walk under the sun. Who can watch the sun rise and not burn to ash. A vampire, Morecombe, who has the strength of an immortal, the enhanced senses, who drinks blood

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

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

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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.

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“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.

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Part Two

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

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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

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

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

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“Byzantine.” She stopped, hand on the door handle and looked at him. “If you paint something happy, it will bring hope to the people.” Her eyebrows rose in surprise and he smiled. Warmth trickled through her. “If you paint despair, people will feel despair. If you paint anger, people will feel anger. If you paint hope, people will feel hope.” “And you know this… how?” She opened the door and got in, hand resting on the keys. “Human nature, Byzantine. Paint something nice.” He stepped back into the darkness and she heard the harmonica again. 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. Rude, but who cared? Paint something nice? There was nothing nice about the neighbourhood, what would she do? *** Byzzie spent the first hour after sunset rolling white paint over the previous night’s work. It was a shame, though, it was one of her better pieces. Of course, sometime during the day, someone had written obscenities across the bottom. She waited half an hour for the paint to dry and then chose her first colour: yellow. The harmonica sounded when she was almost done; it was again nearly dawn. It always amazed her how she lost track of time when she painted. “Beautiful, Byzantine,” he said softly and goosebumps rose over her body at his voice. No one had any right to such a sweet voice. She carefully sprayed the pale blue and walked back to where he stood staring up at the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.”

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“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?

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part Three

Even in failure, there is hope for a better future.

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

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

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

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

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

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see just one barrier to his ambitions: the Empress herself. 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. I’d thought the weary grief was for my departure as was my own regret; that her sorrow was for my lengthy absence. Now I could see it for what it truly was: an acceptance that without me splitting his attention, one day, Bellar would succeed. “You are correct, m’lady,” the Hunter said as if reading my thoughts. “The Empress thought that if she could deflect certain factions, it would give you a measure of peace. Your absence would also be of benefit for you. She, and certain member of the Imperial Hunters, have known of your whereabouts at all times.” “I condemned her, Hunter, as if I had raised my hand against her myself.” I mumbled, guilt-stricken. “I killed her.” I raised my eyes to his. A sneer curled his lip as he held out a hand. “Come now.” He said with derision. “We know who is responsible and we only await your command. Yeah, he was right. We knew, but I, too, was complicit and forgiveness would come hard; if ever. “I would have justice for this misdeed, Hunter. I would have bloody and terrible justice for the machinations of my uncle.” I could imagine Bellar on his knees, on his belly, begging for his life. I would not give it. After all the years of his plots, his plans, his assassinations, his arrogance and contempt for people, 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. The Hunter helped me up and bowed his head. “As you command, my lady, so shall it be done.” He accessed the comunit on his wrist. “Take him.” My eyebrows rose. “He’s here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part Four

In other worlds, not all is perfect; nor should it be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. He really was a murderous idiot. The Acanthus had protective dark grey scales all over his eight-limbed body and tail. His mouth held sharp teeth that regenerated should any be lost and solid bone reinforced his head. Chez must be out of his mind to take one on. Then again, the Acanthus made no move to protect himself. Was he a pacifist? Raisa pushed off from the side of the sewer and swam closer. Now she could hear Chez, 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. I live in squalor.” The Acanthus said without any effort. “I want off this putrid world and you are going to take me.” “I’ll kill you!” Chez shouted and pressed harder, kicked at the beast. Raisa was as close as she was going to get. She reached out and pressed the stunner against Chez’s calf. He looked down. “Wha…?” She pressed the button and her former partner dropped into the muck, shuddering and shaking as the electrical charge coursed through his traitorous body. Raisa stood and pulled the re-breather off her face. “I thought you dead, Exterminator.” “I’ve been at this too long to go into a situation blindly.” She said and hauled Chez out of the muck and rolled him onto the shelf of the tunnel. She

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

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

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

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

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

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

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