The Brothers of the Golden Tiger Slam Hong Kong: Four Trained Fists of Blazing Fury Meet Kang the Puppetmaster’s Minions in a 1970’s Kung Fu Fantasy Guaranteed to Make Your Chi Flow Like Blood Spurting from a Compound Fracture!

by Peter Huston

 

“Cash. I need your cash.” The mugger blocked the Hong Kong seaport alley, waving a switchblade stiletto. There wasn’t time for this. I took a deep breath of cool, early morning salt air and struck, my years of training serving me well.

A crescent kick disarmed him. As the knife clattered to the pavement, a quick pivot and a spinning side kick caught the man mid-chest. He flew back, stumbled, recovered and brought his hands up ready to fight.

It surprised me a mugger still had such fight in him.

I lashed out with my hands before he could catch his balance, a double single-fingered cobra strike to the nerve centers on each side of his neck, and with a sigh and a rolling of his eyes he fell to the ground, breathing deeply as if asleep.

“Took long enough,” said the deep voice behind me.

“No jokes,” I said. “A ship awaits and people depend on us.”

I was tense. I had a job to do. Thousands of lives hung in the balance, perhaps the very fate of the free world, but, worse, I felt guilt for having misused my art. Kung fu was supposed to be about self-discipline and devotion to a spiritual path, not casual violence against a down-on-his-luck street thief.

Behind me Barbed-wire Jackson chuckled. I glanced back noting the grin splitting the face of my large afro-ed friend. “Nelson, you bad-assed kung fu honkey. Up ahead our ship awaits.”

I gave him the power sign in answer, and headed down the alley, knowing he’d watch my back. He’d die for me and I’d die for him. We were both sworn Brothers of the Golden Tiger and we’d been sent here to stop a shipment of heroin destined for the streets of America. But this wasn’t just any simple shipment. It was so much more.

By the side of the alley, a beggar woman waited in the early morning dawn, wrapped in rags, leaning on her staff, the bowl in front of her holding just a few coins. I paused, placed a bill in the dish, then moved on.

“An Andrew Jackson? A twenty? Man, you sure are some soft-hearted honkey.”

“A warrior must show compassion even while heading into battle—so says the ancient proverb.” Kung fu was a deep philosophy handed down for thousands of generations.

“Man you so silly. I bet that chick is jiving you and there’s nothing even wrong with her. If you grew up on the streets like I did, man, you’d know that score.”

I adjusted the straps that held the backpack with the satchel charges and kept walking. “To the ship, Barbed-wire. Save it for the ship.”

We wove through the side streets of the Hong Kong seaport arriving at the docks. The ship, a large freighter, floated, conspicuous among the harbor full of Chinese fishermen’s junks.

It was a large ship with a large crew, some of them hand-picked warriors and assassins sworn to fight, kill and die at Kang’s whim. Aboard were countless kilos of heroin, heroin specially treated by that arch-nemesis of all that was good, Kang, the puppet master. Our job was to stop that shipment.

The moment of truth awaited, that sublime moment when a warrior looks in his heart and learns what he is made of, when life and death become one and action and justice are all that matter.

Gaining access to the large freighter was no problem. Hand over hand, we pulled ourselves up the anchor chain, then climbed a few feet and raised ourselves over the edge of the ship. It was dark and all was still save for the hum of a crane that lowered pallet-loads of plastic-wrapped crates into the recesses of the ship’s hold and the Cantonese chit-chat of its bored tenders. Barbed-wire Jackson and I watched from our perch in the shadows. We knew what was in those crates.

Heroin is a plague that destroys souls just as it rots minds and bodies, but Kang’s special heroin was even worse. Kang specialized in using Western science, Chinese tradition and the dark hidden sorcerous teachings of myriad cultures to fulfill his nefarious goals and increase his personal power.

The special heroin was part of his latest plan.

First he’d used occult inter-species breeding techniques to create the ravenous creatures known as “scorpion-mosquitoes.” A swarm of these fist-sized flying things could easily surround a man, paralyze him with their sting and then strip him of his flesh with their razor-like claws while simultaneously draining his blood and bodily fluids. From beginning to end the agonized victim was frozen, unable to scream. Three minutes later, nothing was left save for bare bones and a fleshless skull, its jaws locked in a horrible grimace.

There was only one known repellant to attacks from the scorpion-mosquitoes, and, of course, Kang controlled that too. His plan was to distribute it as an additive to heroin. The addictive drug laced with the repellent would then be sold on the streets of America’s greatest cities to desperate junkies eager for a fix.

That was phase one of the plan and these sales alone would fill Kang’s war coffers with dangerous wealth.

Phase two was even worse. Kang and his minions would then release swarms of scorpion-mosquitoes upon these same cities. Just as the few good citizens who managed to survive began to recover, they’d then find themselves surrounded by desperate heroin-addicts who emerged from the assault unscathed, desperate for another fix, already amoral and soul-damaged, and now completely willing to do anything Kang asked.

When our contacts at Interpol first learned of this, they’d realized it was far outside their expertise. Naturally, they’d contacted the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.

This is the sort of thing we specialize in and the sort of plan we’d learned to associate with Kang the Puppetmaster and his ilk. We knew how to stop it, by using the ancient art of Kung Fu and fighting fire with fire.

Kang, his followers, and the Brothers of the Golden Tiger studied the same arts of personal development. Of course, while traveling these paths, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger kept to the light while Kang the Puppetmaster and his like kept to the shadows. We were like the two sides of the classic paradigm of yin and yang. We knew society needed us to protect them from people like Kang, but we also knew that without villains like Kang, our art, our skills, our years of disciplined study would be of little value to society and we’d remain untested as warriors. Yin and Yang. Evil cannot exist without good and good cannot exist without evil. So says the ancient philosophies underlying our art.

We watched the workers steady the pallets and load them into the ship.

“So, Jackson, what do you think?”

“There’s only twelve of them, Nelson. Let’s do it.”

With a grin we charged. I aimed my flying kick so that I would take out two, one after another, before I landed. Jackson took a different approach and used a double flying kick, also taking two at a time, one with each foot.

This left us, two men, unarmed but skilled in the deadly art of kung fu, versus eight thugs. Hardly a fair fight at all. But they’d brought this upon themselves when they’d taken Kang’s pieces of silver.

We attacked, again without hesitation. They were aggressive and showed little fear, but they were clearly undisciplined. Our feet, fists and elbows cut them down one, two at a time.

It was just when we started to taste victory, things changed. Overhead came a high-pitched whistling sound. Hurtling towards us was Odo Mal, the death dwarf, one of Kang’s Twelve Deadly Assassins from his Inner Circle!

Using a kite to guide himself and with razor spurs fastened to his heels, the small muscle-bound man was like a cannonball of death. As he shot towards my head, I threw myself to the ground. I dodged the blow but I still felt him pass.

I jumped, pivoted and watched him land. Dropping the kite, he turned and threw himself towards me, closing the distance with cartwheeling leaps. Only four feet tall, as he built momentum his spinning little legs turned faster and faster, the slashing blades fastened to his heels cutting the wind as he closed the distance.

By my side, Jackson was holding his own against the thugs, so I focused on Odo Mal. We’d never met but I’d seen his handiwork. In fact, there were nights when the memories of the mutilated bodies of his victims haunted me, depriving me of sleep. Perhaps now I could avenge those deaths.

I grounded myself and prepared to block as he tumbled forward. My rising forearm caught his falling leg on the back of the calf. With a shock and a recoil, the leg glanced away and came down again. This time the razor spur bit my shoulder.

Pain like fire burned through me as I grabbed the wound, slowing the flow of blood. “Zounds!” I cried.

Odo Mal faced me, grinning.

I raised my hands, lowered my weight and assumed a tiger stance.

I blocked out the sensations of warm, sticky wetness and pain from my shoulder and focused.

He hurled himself forward and I easily stepped aside.

He recovered and prepared his next assault. Barbed-wire Jackson seemed to be taking his time defeating the thugs. There were five still standing, but it was clear those five were beginning to suspect they’d hired on with the wrong tyrant. In a few minutes, I figured, they’d either be down or have retreated, jumping into the sea over the ship’s edge.

Despite Odo Mal’s appearance, the ship would soon be ours. Or so I thought.

A search light scanned the deck of the ship, followed by the roar of whirling rotor blades. With wind and swirling dust, a helicopter landed, and a horde of violent men discharged from the chopper, fists waving, ready for a fight. Yet I almost didn’t notice them. That’s how much their leader dominated the scene.

He wore a large red face-mask and was dressed in shining, metal plate armor of an oriental style. About eight feet tall waving a pole arm that had a massive blade almost three feet long and weighed nearly two pounds. When I say red-faced I mean “red,” red like in “scarlet.”

“Fight, you dogs! Fight,” he cried as he waved the weapon. “There’s only two of them.” With heavy mechanical strides that shook the deck of the freighter, he advanced into the melee.

It was Salazar the Decapitator! Another of Kang’s Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. All I could do was take solace in the belief that a warrior must be prepared to die without fear.

A voice like a shaken can of rusty nails interrupted my thoughts, and I turned, knowing it was Odo Mal behind me. “So, Brother of the Golden Tiger, do you choose to admit defeat or are you prepared to die?” A leer so large that it almost split his oversized head in two marked Odo Mal as he steadied himself for his next attack.

I faced off, again in a tiger stance. “If you understood the Brothers of the Golden Tiger you would not even ask such a question.”

With a giggle he somersaulted towards me. I sidestepped and shouted. “Jackson, how you doing?”

“Five by five, my man. Five by five,” he said as he downed one attacker with a side kick to the ribs and then the next with an open-hand palm lunge to the forehead. But the thugs were still coming, not to mention, Salazar, the Decapitator.

Almost as if hearing my thoughts, Salazar stepped into the fray with a mighty klunk, swinging the polearm. True to his own name, he hacked off the head of one of his own, less enthusiastic henchmen.

“At them, I say. At them! Fight harder. I will reward success with fortune and failure with death.” Reaching down, he lifted the thug’s decapitated head and dangled it by its hair as it dripped blood. “Let this man serve as an example to you all.” From within his red-metal mask, he stared deep into the eyes of the bodiless head. Apparently seeing little of interest there, he then hurled the head at Jackson.

Jackson blocked with a classical rising forearm block and the head soared upwards, still dripping blood, like some macabre volleyball from hell.

I turned just in time to sidestep Odo Mal’s next somersaulting attack. With a maniacal giggle, he cartwheeled on, disappearing into the crowd. I had no idea how we were going to survive but we’d been in worse fights before. The key, I knew, was to rely on my training and handle things one step at a time.

I took a position by Jackson’s side.

“About time, you got here,” cried Jackson as he smacked a pair of heads together using a technique that had been generations-old when the Shaolin temple had been founded. I was impressed by his style, but worried by the sheer numbers matched against us.

“Jackson, there may be too many.”

“So?”

“So,” I gestured at the satchel charge in my back-pack, “how do I leave you behind and blow this ship?”

“Ain’t you enjoying yo’self?” he asked as he punched, pivoted and chambered, then struck in a way that masterfully combined an elbow strike to the rear with a front punch that caused an actual bulge in the backside of its victim.

“That’s not the point. We have a mission.” I blocked an attack from behind feeling the attacker’s wrist snap as it came into contact with my forearm.

“Fair enough. Step one, I suggest, is we take out every single one of these dog-nappers.” And as if to emphasize his point, he downed one with a roundhouse kick to the head, then without pausing, cut the next one down with a hook kick.

I knocked out two more with a palm strike and a backwards axe kick. “But there’s so many, not to mention Odo Mal and Salazar the Decapitator.”

At the mention of that name another bodiless head came flying towards us dripping blood. “Fight harder, fight harder! See what happens to those who do not fight hard enough?” cried Salazar the Decapitator. “There’s only two of them. Wealth to the one who brings them down. Death to those sniveling puppies who fail.” I used an outer forearm block to deflect the flying head and it bounced to high left, trailing dripping blood behind like part of a sanguine fireworks display.

I soon downed two of the on-coming thugs; the first with a knife hand strike, the second with an oldie but a goodie, a punch to the face. Above I heard the roar of another helicopter and realized why the horde seemed never-ending. Kang the Puppetmaster knew just as we did that the fate of the free world hung on this battle and continued to send reinforcements.

“Jackson,” I cried between punches, kicks and blocks. “We’re outnumbered and more are coming. We’re never going to blow this ship.”

“Don’t think about me,” he answered while engaging in some very impressive foot-to-the-headwork. “Think of the mission.”

A man charged at me with a pipe and swung it down with both hands trying to split my head. I sidestepped, grabbed the pipe, gained control of his balance and momentum, pivoted and then threw him back into the crowd, watching him fly over the others as he did. No reason Salazar the Decapitator had to be the only one allowed to throw people today. “I am thinking of the mission. Unless something changes, and soon, we’ve lost this fight. We may have to postpone this mission.”

“And take the chance that Kang releases his plan upon just one or two American cities? No way, my man. It’s too terrible to think about. Not even the honkey side of Cleveland deserves that.” Barbed-Wire Jackson grunted and hit the next two thugs particularly hard to show what he thought of that. The sound of his fist crunching bone made even a hardened warrior like me queasy.

We fought on, weaving through the thugs, knocking them down where they stood, so that the bodies wouldn’t pile up and cause us to trip. Part of our training—practiced countless hours, blindfolded—had been maneuvering around scattered sandbags in the depths of secret dojos and kung fu training schools whose names were known only to the inner core of the deadliest fighters on Earth.

From behind the mob, something changed. Although most wouldn’t have sensed it, we were trained kung fu warriors, attuned to the rhythms of conflict. The thugs moved differently. Their rhythm was off, as if distracted. At first, we were merely grateful that it was now easier to down Kang’s thugs one after another. But in time we sought an explanation and moved the fight closer to where these new events were unfolding.

And there she was! The beggar woman from the alley was attacking Kang’s thugs from the rear. But she moved like no beggar woman I’d ever seen.

She waved her four foot jo staff like a conductor directing a massive symphony of carnage using motions that were carefully honed and centuries old.

Around her the thugs fell like bowling pins.

“You!” I cried. “But you were a crippled beggar lady.”

She tore off the rags that covered her face, revealing herself to be an astonishingly attractive woman with long, flowing obsidian hair and heavily lidded eyes. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Suzuki Chen, daughter of Tanaka Chen.”

In my astonishment I almost let myself be struck from behind, only sidestepping the blow at the last moment. “Tanaka Chen, the Grandmaster of Iron Fist Karate?”

“Of course,” she said as she pivoted and leaned low, returning to the melee. Her jo staff destroyed two more thugs almost before they realized they’d caught her attention. “And as you can see these spastic, arrhythmic monkey-boys have not only hijacked my father’s art and fighting style but they are performing it quite badly. I was raised from birth to restore the name of Iron Fist Karate by first taking vengeance upon those who misuse it for evil, and, secondly,” she emphasized her upcoming point with a front-to-back pair of sliding thrusts of the jo, “by taking special vengeance upon those who misuse the art of Iron Fist Karate in a sophomoric and flacid manner. I assure you gentlemen that if these thugs had been trained by my father himself we’d all have a much more serious fight on our hands. I, for one, feel more disgusted than fearful because of their attacks.”

Soon she spun, thrust, tripped and probed with the jo staff so quickly that I had lost count of the number of men she dispatched.

I blocked, kicked, and took down two more thugs myself, feeling barely adequate as I did. “But the beggar woman disguise?”

“You ask too many questions, Nelson Kane. I was simply, as your friend Barbed-wire Jackson told you, ‘jiving you.’ You should listen to him more. Now go, fulfill your mission. I will protect him.” She spun to the left and spun back to the right, striking a thug on both sides before he could fall from the first blow.

I was astonished by her flowing and deadly movements and could have watched her fight all day if there hadn’t been a mission to accomplish. I began to punch and kick my way to the hold, shouting back over my shoulder, “It’s nice to have you fight by our side.”

Between a block and strike combination that could only be described as elegant, she smiled a cynical smile. “No, Nelson Kane, please remember it is you and Jackson, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger, who fight by my side.”

“Fight, you dogs, fight. Two men and a mere woman? Fight harder!” And, again Salazar the Decapitator sliced the head off of one of his own men and threw it, but this time he hurled it at Suzuki Chen. She deflected it with the jo staff like a batter at a softball game and the head flew above the fight, dripping red like an aurora borealis of blood.

Then she stepped forward aiming at Salazar himself.

It was as if the melee stopped. All eyes were upon them. Their leader challenged, the thugs had forgotten about me and Jackson.

“Insolent she-whelp!” cried Salazar as he stepped towards her. “I will make an example of you.” He raised the deadly pole arm with its many-pound blade over his head and aimed it straight for her skull, bringing it down.

She stepped under the blow, catching the handle of the pole arm with the middle of her sturdy jo staff in a block that took both arms and all her strength. The battle paused, as strength against strength the contest continued. Then she spun the jo quickly, allowing the pole arm to fall and then striking it on the back to drive it down to the ground even harder. The pole arm bit deeply into the metal deck of the ship. As the deck shook, men tumbled, slipped and fell but Suzuki Chen held her ground and stood firm while Salazar the Decapitator struggled fruitlessly to pull his weapon free.

She spun, pivoted, cocked the jo staff back and with a solid two-handed strike aimed for Salazar’s armored head. With a mighty klang like a deep Buddhist funeral bell the blow connected. Salazar froze, still gripping his pole arm, his now unconscious state marked by only a slight loosening of his thumbs on the handle.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! My sworn brooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooother! I shall avenge you. No one does this to one of the Inner Circle of Twelve Assassins without suffering agony.” I turned. The screams came from Odo Mal, the Death Dwarf who waved his hands in fury.

To my left, Jackson was dispatching thugs with machine-like precision.

“I just did,” answered Suzuki Chen, as she gave her jo staff an idle spin. “Would you, Odo Mal, care to try me in a bit of sport?”

With a wordless scream he launched himself towards her in another attack somersault. I knew Suzuki Chen and Barbed-wire Jackson could take care of themselves and headed for the entrance to the depths of the ship. The mission awaited.

I ignored the conflict behind me. I even ignored the thought that Odo Mal and Suzuki Chen would soon be locked in combat in a fight remembered for generations to come. Worst of all, I ignored that I was leaving my sworn brother, Barbed-wire Jackson, in danger. The mission, the heroin, the fate of the free world awaited and, for the moment, all depended on me. I adjusted the satchel charge on my back and headed for the doors leading into the depths of the freighter.

Two men tried to stop me but I made short work of them. As I made my way to the engine room, the few crew members who saw me turned and fled. The trained fighters were up on the deck and it was clear that they’d had little success against the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.

Placing the satchel charge was easy enough. I sighed as I worked. High explosives somehow lack the elegance of the ancient weapons of my art, the sword, staff and nunchaku, not to mention the most ancient and elegant of all weapons, a man’s hands and feet. Still, I had to use the explosives. The fate of the free world depended on destroying this shipment. I set the timer for three minutes and made my way back to the surface.

On the way, I pulled a fire alarm, setting off bells and horns. Not only did I expect this would add to the confusion and encourage the crew to flee, but I also felt it important to show mercy whenever possible. Confucius asked, “Why slaughter the deluded when you could be merciful and educate them in proper behavior instead?”

Few tried to stop me as I returned to the deck. When I arrived, the fight was continuing but its intensity had diminished. “Jackson, Chen, to the lifeboats,” I screamed. They looked up from the punch, kick, block of endless battle and saw me. “To the lifeboats!” I cried again.

Suzuki Chen defeated her opponent of the moment with a sweep of the jo staff to his ankle. “Got you with the Shanghai cobblestone maneuver!” she exclaimed as he landed on his back with a thud.

Meanwhile Jackson took out his opponent with a side skipping side kick. The man flew backwards four feet through the air and hit the deck.

“To the lifeboats!” I cried, gesturing.

“Right at you, my man,” answered Jackson as he turned and ran.

Suzuki Chen said nothing as she too turned and followed.

I was first in the lifeboat and began to lower it into the water. A couple minutes later, Jackson, then Suzuki Chen, dropped themselves next to me, forcing me to grip the sides and steady myself as the boat rocked. Soon after I’d regained balance, with a splash the boat hit the water. We undid the oars and began rowing.

We only had a minute or so before the ship blew.

Around us crew members were jumping into the water while other lifeboats, some jam-packed and others almost empty, did their best to escape. In their panic, the thugs, like the proverbial rats sinking a fleeing ship, chose to ignore us.

The ship exploded with a blaze of fire and a sound like a thousand cannons. Pieces of deck, hull and cargo flew through the sky as we covered ourselves, shielding our eyes.

We knew that, for the moment at least, Kang’s plan was foiled. His special heroin would never reach the streets of America, making his scorpion-mosquito attacks unnecessary and pointless. The free world was safe, for now.

The three of us looked at one another. “Odo Mal?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

“I defeated him,” Suzuki Chen answered. “But before we could finish the matter with a fight to the death, his own men dragged him off while he kicked, screamed and begged to be able to finish the combat. Yet even they could tell he was completely out-classed.”

“We’d best be ready,” I said. “He might have survived the blast and soon be seeking extra training.”

“And Salazar the Decapitator?”

“I didn’t see,” answered Jackson.

“Say,” I said, looking at Suzuki Chen, “Kang’s still out there as are most, if not all, of his Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. Why don’t you join us in our fight against evil? I see no reason why we couldn’t have a Sister of the Golden Tiger.”

“Yeah! Why not?” said Barbed-wire Jackson.

“Hah!” she replied. “Although I must thank you for the offer, Nelson Kane, Barbed-wire Jackson, I also must decline. You two may, if you wish, follow me for a while. And Mr. Kane, one more thing I expect you to understand, do you remember the twenty dollars you placed in my bowl when you thought I was a beggar woman?”

“Yes,” I said wondering what she was going to say.

“Please understand I am keeping it.”

 

True Brothers

by K.C. Cooper

 

Hundreds of thoughts flooded Danny Russell’s mind when he saw his best friend, Michael Hart, standing on his doorstep looking like a rabbit running from a hunter, the most prominent being, “Aw, hell, Mike. You’ve really done something this time, haven’t you?” To confirm his friend’s suspicions, Mike said, “I’ve signed my death warrant, Danny. I’m a dead man.”

Mike’s face was too pale, his soft brown eyes too wide in the dim glow of Danny’s porch light. “Uh, hi Mike,” said Danny, unsure of how to respond to this statement. “Come in?”

Mike shook his head. “No. I’m endangering you and Missy enough just talking to you.”

“Ok,” Danny replied. “We’ll talk out here.” He turned back to the house, and called to his wife of only eight months. “Missy, Mike’s here. We’re going to sit outside on the porch.”

Missy popped her head into the hall. “Hi, Mike. You boys want anything to drink?”

“Sure, sweetheart,” said Danny. “I’ll take a Coke.” Mike shook his head, and she disappeared into the kitchen. Danny stepped out onto his back porch, just behind his friend.

“She’s beautiful,” said Mike. “You count your blessings, and take care of her.”

“That’s the easy part,” Danny replied. Missy brought him his Coke, and he kissed her hand. “Go on back inside, baby. You’re missing ER.

Third Watch,” she corrected sternly, then smiled. “I’ll be in the living room if anyone needs me.” She left the two men alone.

Danny followed Mike to the porch swing. He ran his fingers through his short black hair. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

Mike dragged a finger across the mass of white scar tissue along his outer left forearm, and Danny thought of the matching ones on his own hands, and just above his right eyebrow. The true symbols of their friendship. “You don’t want to know. It’ll put you in more danger.”

“Then who? Mafia? CIA? KGB?” Danny had been joking, so he was shocked when Mike shook his head solemnly and said, “Worse. But that’s dangerous information. For you and Missy.”

Flashes of their childhood together poured into Danny’s mind. Mike was always the more adventurous of the two, addicted to adrenaline, sledding down a steep hill onto the interstate, rock climbing without safety gear, driving too fast. He had come to Danny and Missy’s wedding with a broken leg from a skydiving accident. He would try anything once. It was just a matter of time before his amazing run of luck ran out.

Danny dropped his head to his hands. “Oh, man, buddy. How much trouble are you in?”

Staring off into the distance, Mike replied stoically, emotionlessly, “Big time.”

“How big?”

“Like I said, they’re gonna kill me.” He was unable to meet Danny’s eyes. “And it won’t be quick.”

“What can I do? I’ll help in any way I can, you know that. Anything.”

But Mike shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do. I came to say goodbye.”

“No way! There has to be something. We’ve been friends for nearly twenty years! I can’t just write you off! We’re Frank and Jesse James, Maverick and Goose, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday!” He paused, adding their childhood hero and his best friend. “Connor and Duncan MacLeod.”

Mike stood up. “Yup. Jesse James. Goose. Doc Holliday. All three of those pairs were split by death. Maybe, if I disappear, we won’t be. And you saw Highlander IV. Duncan took Connor’s head.” He paused, debating. “Do you remember where we first met Connor MacLeod?”

“Huh… Oh!” It hit Danny suddenly. Mike was telling him where he was going. He was going to his mom’s friend, “Aunt” Jenny’s farm in rural Massachusetts. When they were kids, they had spent a week with her. During that time, they had first seen Highlander, and were fascinated by it. They spent countless hours having “swordfights” with tobacco sticks, taking turns being the immortal Connor MacLeod. Hence, “Aunt” Jenny’s was where they had first met Connor MacLeod.

“I got it,” said Danny, then he fell silent. After nineteen-plus years of friendship, so much was understood, yet they both felt so much needed to be said.

“I–” Danny started.

“So–” began Mike.

Danny paused. “Go ahead.”

“You’re a brother to me, man. No less.”

Danny replied in the words of their favorite of the Highlander series. “Goodbye, Duncan. My true brother.”

Mike smiled. “You got that backwards. You’re Duncan, and I’m Connor, remember? I’m older.”

“Yeah, but two months isn’t fifty years,” said Danny, glad to have this moment of their childhood. He hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

Mike met Danny’s eyes and held them for several moments, like they were the last safe, stable, solid thing in his world, and Danny was reminded of the scene in Highlander IV just before Connor convinced Duncan to kill him. That was the expression on Mike’s face. “Promise me something?”

“Anything.”

“Never forget me.”

* * * * *

Danny lay awake beside Missy, his mind fighting to process what Mike had told him. It couldn’t be that bad. Mike was exaggerating. He had to be. But what if he wasn’t?

The fact that Mike’s greatest fear was fire suddenly occurred to him. He wondered if whoever was after him knew that. A look of pure and absolute terror crossed his face if someone even struck a match in his presence. This brought forth such terrible images of the kind of hell a sadist with this knowledge would put his friend through that Danny shuddered involuntarily.

“Danny?” muttered Missy. She clicked on the lamp to look at her husband, the tension and despair on his face wiped away the last traces of sleepiness. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

He briefly contemplated telling her, but realized that both of them losing a night’s sleep wouldn’t help Mike any. “I’ll tell you in the morning, doll. Don’t worry. Just go back to sleep.”

She wanted to protest, to say that if something bothered him, it bothered her too, but she knew that it would upset him more to worry her. “Ok, but first thing in the morning.” She snuggled up close to him, and closed her eyes.

Meanwhile, Danny was coping with his sudden knowledge of the frailty of life. For his tough, brave, arrogant friend to be scared, not just worried, but actually frightened, it had to be bad. Real bad. With the exception of his pyrophobia, Mike was fearless.

“Missy?” he whispered quietly, hoping she wasn’t asleep.

“What?” she asked.

“I–” The words solidified in his throat, and it was a moment before he could get them out. “I just wanted to be sure you know that I love you more than life itself. I would do absolutely anything for you.”

“I love you, too, Danny. More than life itself. Whatever’s wrong, we’ll get through it. Please try to get some sleep.”

“Ok.” He kissed her, then turned over. Miraculously, he actually did fall asleep.

* * * * *

Some time later, Danny woke to a large crash as their front door was kicked in. Sitting straight up in bed, he saw three strange men shoving their way into the bedroom. He grabbed for the Smith & Wesson he kept in the nightstand drawer, but one of the men pulled out a strange-looking pistol and fired. He barely registered the pain in his shoulder.

The last thing he heard was Missy trying to call out his name and being silenced in the middle. Then it all faded to gray.

* * * * *

Suddenly aware of his surroundings, Danny fought his way through the fog to come fully awake. The bare bulb that was the only illumination in the cellar-like room seemed too bright to his eyes. From what he could see, it looked like a typical unfinished basement room. The exposed beams of the ceiling held the light by an exposed wire. Dirt and dust covered the concrete floor. The worn, filthy gray of the cinderblock walls was interrupted by a series of cracks, and one large black spider crawling lazily up the wall.

He was tied to what felt like an operating table, wearing only the gray sweatpants he had gone to sleep in. He shuddered. Hospital equipment gave him the creeps. The ice cold metal against his bare back sent a chill through him. A deep ache filled every muscle of his body, and his mind involuntarily recalled the events that led to this: The crash, the man with the odd-looking pistol—Holy hell! He’d been shot!—Missy only being able to get out the first two letters of his name before she fell inexplicably silent.

Missy! Was she okay? Was she dead? Was she somewhere in pain while he was stuck there unable to help her? He tugged on his restraints, but there was no give. Thick, rough ropes held his arms over his head, and bound his feet at the ankles. He twisted and fought against them, but all he was rewarded with was exhaustion, and the unpleasant sensation of the frayed ropes abrading his bare skin. He had no doubt who had them; it had to be the people who were after Mike. His questions revolved around the immediate future: Is Missy alive? Is she hurt? Can I get her out ok? What are they going to do to us?

He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

“Mr. Russell?” called a voice from the door. It was an older man, the type who would put one in mind of Anthony Hopkins. He had short white hair, and a rather evil grin that Danny hated instantly. Dressed all in black, from his combat boots to his t-shirt, he was the perfect symbol of evil. At least to a person tied helplessly to a table.

“Is my wife ok? I swear to God, if you’ve hurt her–”

“Your wife is fine, Mr. Russell. May I call you Danny?”

“Yeah. Sure. Melissa’s ok? W-what do you want?” he asked, his heart hammering.

The man held up a picture of Mike. “It’s very simple. Where is he?”

Hearing the words out loud drove home just how bad things could be. What would Mike do? he thought. Simple answer: Mike would bluff. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me,” he stated, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak and scared as he knew it did.

“I think you do.”

“No!” exclaimed Danny. “He was afraid of this, so he wouldn’t tell me!”

The man actually seemed to be considering this, then shook his head. “Nope. I have the tape right here.” He pushed the button on a microcassette recorder, and Mike’s voice filled the room: Do you remember where we first met Connor MacLeod? The man clicked it off. “Sounds like code to me. So you do know. Now, for future interactions, there are three rules. Rule number one: You WILL tell me what I want to know. Number two: You will NOT lie to me again. I still hold not only you, but your wife, and you will not be released until I have Michael Hart in my custody. And if you tell me the wrong location, well, let’s just say I doubt your wife would appreciate it.”

“He was just making a comment about our favorite movie! I started it, then he said that.” Danny pleaded.

The man looked at Danny angrily. “Didn’t I just tell you not to lie to me? If that was all, why didn’t you answer him.” Pushing the play button again, he allowed Danny’s recorded voice to fill the room: Huh? Oh!… I got it! He stepped back and smiled coldly as Danny tried to hide his wince. “We’ll give you a moment to think about it.” He paused. “Highlander, huh? Well, remember what they said. ‘There can be only one.’ That seems to apply here too. You, or Mr. Hart?”

They left Danny alone to his thoughts.

* * * * *

Time passed in a crawl. His wrists and ankles were torn and bloody from his struggle, but he was no closer to getting out. He knew he could never give in. He had to protect Mike. Because he was his best friend in the world, but it was more than that. Because fourteen years ago, Danny had established himself as Mike’s Angelchra n’etyel, his guardian angel.

* * * * *

“I am Connor MacLeod, of the clan MacLeod!” yelled ten-year-old Mike, launching himself forward with an attack with his “sword”.

Danny blocked easily, and launched his own attack. “I am Kurgan! There can be only one!”

For two ten-year-old boys, the hayloft of Aunt Jenny’s barn was the perfect place to play Highlander. It was about ten feet up, and there were rolls of hay on each side, if one knew where to jump. If a person was careful, they could jump into the hay and take falls just like the immortals in the movie. But as Mike countered his attack, he lost his balance at the wrong spot. With a terrified yelp, he fell backward. He was silent as he hit the ground two feet from the safety of the hay, and a sickening crunch resounded through the confined space. Mike screamed in pain. Scared and hurt, he fought to get up, but instead, he knocked over a kerosene lantern. Flames rose around him, and thick black smoke filled his lungs.

“Mike!” yelled Danny, leaping safely to the ground and rushing toward his friend, but a wall of fire separated them. “Mike, are you ok?”

“My leg hurts, Danny! I think it’s broken! I’m scared.”

“Look, it’s gonna be ok,” Danny replied, though he wasn’t sure how. Should I get Aunt Jenny? Nah, Mike would be a goner before she could get here. That only left one choice. The small bucket of water by the door wouldn’t even make a dent on the growing blaze, but it would provide Danny with a little protection. He doused himself with it, wetting his clothes and his hair. “Hang on, buddy!” he shouted, taking a deep breath, covering his face with his sweatshirt, and running through the fire.

Picking Mike up with a strength born of pure adrenaline, he told his friend to hold his breath and braced himself. His hands, the only exposed part of him, seared with second-degree burns, but he ignored it and sprinted for the door, shielding Mike as much as he could.

Once outside the flaming barn, Danny screamed for help. Mike was in pain, and they were both dizzy and light-headed from smoke inhalation. Danny collapsed beside his friend. Mike was badly burned, especially his left arm, and was still recovering from the terror. He would never look at fire the same way again. “Danny?” he said, with sirens screeching in the distance.

“Yeah?” he replied.

“You saved my life.”

Danny thought for a minute, then grinned. “Yep. Someone’s gotta try to clean up your messes.”

With all the seriousness a child of that age can muster, Mike stared off into the distance. “Thank you.”

Returning the tone, Danny replied, “Any time.”

* * * * *

They tortured Danny mercilessly for almost four hours, his screams of agony filling the small room. Through all the standard forms of interrogation, and a few unique ones, he screamed, and begged for mercy, but refused to divulge Mike’s location. Finally, realizing that no amount of physical pain would give them what they wanted, they left the room.

Danny’s entire body was one massive wave of pain. Each of his fingers was broken, as were his toes, and the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet were slit open and doused with Clorox. At least nine of his ribs were cracked, maybe more, and there were two more incisions down each side of his chest, with salt crystals kneaded into them. Most of the skin had been flayed from his stomach and lower chest by a power sander, and that had also been coated with bleach.

He squirmed, trying to ease the agonizing waves of pain that were coursing through his body, not even looking up as his tormentor re-entered the room.

“Well, Danny, we’ve decided that we’ve done enough to you. We’ve hurt you a lot, and you never even came close to giving up your friend. Quite admirable.”

“Who are you?” Danny spit out in the strongest voice he could manage.

The man smiled. “I guess we’re what most people would call terrorists. We are actually revolutionaries. Like Patrick Henry.”

“Why do you want Mike?”

The man leveled the gun over Danny’s heart. “He is a traitor.” He pulled the trigger. Missy’s face flashed through Danny’s mind just before the world went black

* * * * *

The world was still black when Danny came to, and only the pain convinced him he wasn’t dead. The fear, which had dulled his senses was receding, taking with it the mild anesthetic of endorphins, flooding him with anger, confusion, and of course, pain. Time was running out, he knew that. He had to be strong. Mike needed him, and he and Missy had just begun their lives together.

He was sitting up this time, tied to a chair with twice as many ropes as before. The rough bonds cut into the raw flesh of his stomach, making him hiss sharply.

“I see you’re coming out of it. That’s nice.”

“I-I’m not dead? You shot me in the heart! Point blank.”

“Tranquilizer dart. But don’t be too disappointed. Soon you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Why can’t I see?”

“You’re blindfolded, you idiot! Not as bright as I gave you credit for.”

“I’d love to see how well your intellect works while tied to this chair!” The cloud of fear temporarily replaced by anger, he yelled as strongly as he could, “Go ahead and kill me if you’re going to! I don’t care what you do to me, I’m not giving you Mike!” Drawing strength once again from a Highlander’s words, he said, “The bonds are all that hold us in this world, and I won’t break this one!”

“Aren’t you forgetting one thing?”

“Danny?” a terrified female voice called.

His heart froze in his chest. The receding fear flooded back in with such a force that it took his breath. “Oh my God! Missy!?”

Allowing a moment for this revelation to sink in, the man continued. “This is round two, and here’s how this one is played: You tell me where Mr. Hart is, and I don’t hurt her. You have three seconds.”

Danny’s mind barely had time to process this before the man broke in. “Time’s up.”

Missy’s scream tore into Danny’s soul. It was as if a ton of lead had been heaped upon his chest, and he couldn’t draw in a breath. The fear and anger were shoved aside by a new feeling: complete and total vulnerability. He couldn’t help Missy, he couldn’t help Mike, hell, he couldn’t even help himself. Another scream shook his concentration, and sent a stab of pain all through him. He had to think. Oh, God. What did these sons of bitches think he was made of?! How could he choose between his best friend of twenty years, and the woman he loved more than life itself? How could he choose, and how could he live with himself? Which life was more important? What would Mike do?

One more agonized shriek destroyed the last of his resistance. “Okay! Stop, please! I’ll do whatever you want!”

Missy’s scream faded to sobs, and it was difficult to tell hers from Danny’s own. He couldn’t let them hurt her. That was the only thing he couldn’t endure for the man who was more of a brother than a friend. “Please,” he begged through his tears. “Let me see her!”

“Not yet. You’ll see her when we have Mr. Hart.”

His mind racing, he called out to his wife. “Missy, honey, I’m sorry. Are you alright?”

“Danny?”

“Yeah, it’s me, baby.”

“Who are they? What do they want?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m gonna give it to them.” His tears fell harder and faster. He knew he was killing Mike just as surely as if he cut off his head, and it killed him inside. “Rural Harmon County Massachusetts. Route 6. An old farmhouse, abandoned for years. He’s there.”

“Thank you,” the man said. Without warning, the tranquilizer once again hit his shoulder, and he was out.

* * * * *

When Danny came to, he was still tied to the chair, but the blindfold was removed. Missy was still tied to a metal platform, unconscious. The door was open in front of him, and he heard a struggle going on outside. Three men were shoving Mike down the hallway, and they paused in front of the door.

Mike and Danny locked gazes for the last time, and a million messages were exchanged in milliseconds.

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Forgive me.”

“I held out as long as I could.”

“Brothers.”

“Brothers.”

The men drug Mike away, struggling violently.

“We have him now, Danny. Do you still want to know why we want him?”

Danny nodded numbly, no longer sure at all.

The man leaned in close and whispered in Danny’s ear. “We want Michael Hart because he spoiled one of our… protests. He informed on us, and now he must pay.” He paused dramatically. “And yes, we know he’s pyrophobic.”

This hit Danny hard. The only thing keeping him sane was the thought that Mike had messed up, brought it on himself. But Mike had saved other people, and now, it would cost him his life. Danny tried to clear his head. Gotta get Missy out. I’ll worry about my conscience later. Maybe I can get help. “You got Mike, now let us go.”

The man smiled sadly. “You disappoint me, Danny-boy. I told you there were three rules. You never asked about the third.”

“What’s number three?” Danny asked, fear oozing back into him like half-melted ice.

The man drew out a real pistol. “Rule number three, Danny-boy, is common sense.” He walked over to Missy’s unconscious form. “Rule number three is never trust a terrorist.” He put the trigger to the young woman’s head and pulled the trigger.

“NOOO!!!!!!” Danny’s tortured scream echoed in the confined space as this final act of violence shattered his heart seconds before the next bullet shattered his brain.

 

The Guardians

by Nikolas Everhart

 

The rogue dragged the small boat ashore, and hid it among the boulders littering the craggy beach. Drayse drew out the map, laughing to himself that something so precious was won in a backroom card game, but the gods moved men in strange ways. He just hoped the worn vellum was as genuine as it appeared. His mouth watered as he imagined holding the fabled gems of the Guardians. With those gemstones he could buy his own duchy.

Long fingers swept his shoulder-length dark hair from his eyes. His angular features animated with amusement and more than a little anticipation. Drayse threw back his head, and laughed, his black leather trousers and white silk shirt out of place on the stony beach. He smoothed his dark vest as the wind blew in from the tumultuous sea.

Turning inland, his hand fell to the slender long sword belted to his waist. The gray sand shifted beneath his tailored boots, crabs scurrying underfoot. Silver rings glittered in the noonday sun as he hitched the pack higher on his shoulders. Sighing, he followed the map inland, cutting through vines that encroached upon the fading trail. After a few hours he cursed the oppressive heat, tangled flora, and buzzing insects. It would be a long journey to the tomb.

Heedless of the beauty that rose around him in colorful jungle flowers, he did notice a curious lack of animal life. Drayse wasn’t certain whether that boded fair or foul. The swordsman made camp after a long day of hacking through the dense underbrush, his limbs leaden. The coming of darkness brought with it a biting chill he combated with a fire that threw up green smoke.

Morning came, finding Drayse stiff after a restless night of sleeping under the stars. He was no lover of wilderness even under the best of conditions. Renewing his trek inland, he frequently referenced the tattered map. Midday came and went without incident, but shortly afterward Drayse heard a clamor in the brush. He crashed through the foliage to find a tall beauty entrapped by vines as thick as his wrist. Overwhelmed by her predicament, he doubled over laughing, his sides threatening to burst. Pale blue eyes glared at him from a face contorted with fury. A northern barbarian wench, she was tall and lean, with ivory skin and as muscular as any lancer.

His laughter evaporated, however, as Drayse noticed that the vines writhed with a life of their own. The gambler felt his stomach lurch as he saw barbs twisting into the flesh of the pale haired woman. Anyone else might have surrendered to the inevitable. From the woman’s fury, he doubted she knew the meaning of the word. Drawing closer, he could see that the savage bled from scores of puckered wounds. Her lips curled in a snarl, refusing his aid. Drayse was never one to swoon over a maid in distress and he turned to walk away. Most of those maids would put a knife in his back as soon as they were rescued and this one seemed more dangerous than most of the men he’d crossed steel with.

Frowning, he turned back to the woman. Despite his better judgment, he couldn’t leave anyone to die alone in the jungle. He stepped forward, leather hissing against steel. He raised the thin blade and a look of fear stole over the woman’s face. Sinuous muscle rippled beneath his shirt and the blade came down on one of the tendrils, cutting through it easily. It was short, unwholesome work with sap spurting as he struck at the rubbery vines. He cursed as he continued chopping and finally the vines sought easier prey. She flopped to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and Drayse wondered if his efforts had been in vain. He noticed the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest though, and fell to one knee to tend her wounds as best he could. As he cleaned blood and sap, he was struck by her beauty. She was a full head taller than any woman he had ever seen before and her arms bulged with hardened muscles. Her face was a plane of angular features that seemed angry even in unconsciousness. Even more shocking was her lack of clothing. She wore only the briefest of leather garments, barely covering her ample bosom and waist. No woman of his lands would ever walk the streets in clothing like that, but then again she was a godless savage. Shaking his head, he tried to put thoughts of the odd woman out of his mind as he sponged blood from her pale cheek.

The young gambler’s thoughts were interrupted as a calloused hand snaked upward to seize his throat in an iron grip. He had time to mutter one strangled gasp as the air was forced out of his body. Her pale eyes snapped open to gaze into his own darker ones with the anger of a wild beast. He found a round-bladed dagger thrust under his chin as she forced him to his feet. She released her grip and air surged back into his lungs.

“Well, I now see where the phrase, ‘Hospitality is a red blade in the north’ comes from,” Drayse said, his mouth turned upward in a sly grin. His humor was lost on her as he only found her dagger shoved that much further into his throat. He gave way before it, until the woman had him backed into the base of a broad tree.

“There is never hospitality for a thief!” She spat, shoving her dagger into his throat till a drop of blood trickled down his chest.

Drayse brought his knee up into her abdomen and then punched her in the jaw. The woman sank to her knees, clutching at her mouth. Smiling to himself, he sauntered over and delivered a lazy kick to the side of her face. The barbarian woman was thrown up and over by the force of the blow. She did not attempt to rise. Satisfied that she was out cold, he retrieved her strange weapon.

Clucking to himself, he stuck the dagger, along with its mate into his pack while retrieving several thick strips of leather. Rolling the inert woman onto her face, he bound her wrists. Yet again he was given reason to regret his soft heartedness.

When the savage woke, she maintained a cautious silence, eyeing her captor. Drayse felt a small measure of guilt for the ugly bruise that crept from the base of her neck to her high cheekbone but it was short lived. He remembered her dagger digging into the flesh of his neck. For her injuries she gave no regard, but only spat a desperate oath at him, which he didn’t think was altogether possible, even for an agile man. Drayse smirked. He grabbed her silken braid and pulled her eyes close to his own dark orbs. His face darkened as he demanded her name and the reason for her coming to the island. As if he didn’t already know.

“Kesira,” she grunted, and spat in his face.

The infuriated rogue wiped saliva from his face as he resisted the urge to cleave her head from her shoulders. Instead he pulled her to her feet. It was a shame he was without a steed. He’d relish dragging this hell cat over a few leagues of rough ground. Not that there was a league of land on the whole of the island.

“Come on then, wench, we’re only hours away from the tomb,” he said as he consulted his map again. From her surprised expression, it was evident that she had no similar guide. Most likely he’d been betrayed by one of the cartographers he’d consulted to find the location of the island. It was getting harder and harder to a buy a man’s loyalty these days.

“You should kill me, thief!” she snarled, stumbling before him.

“If I wanted your death, I’d not have saved you from the vines. After saving your life, I would expect a little appreciation,” Drayse murmured.

“Appreciation? For a thief? That’s grand. What respect is there for a greedy burglar or a cutpurse, or footpad? You’re no better than any other.” She spat on the ground as she sidestepped a root.

“So you berate me for being a treasure seeker, eh? To what great and noble purpose would you ply the gems of the Guardians?” He asked her, layering his words with the proper amount of sarcasm.

“Revenge!” the pale barbarian snarled as she trudged on without missing a step.

“You buy your revenge with jewels?”

“Spoken like a true thief!” she exclaimed. “My village was sacked by a rogue who pressed my entire clan into slavery. It was there they died. I have sworn to take his life, but he is too well guarded. However, I found the legend of the Guardians when I studied on the eastern islands. With them I can tip the scales in my favor.”

“How so?” he inquired, his curiosity piqued.

“Whosoever wields the stones, will also wield godlike powers. It was said that swords broke on the Guardians’ skins, their weapons clove through armor and stone alike, and they could rain fire from the sky. With the gems I can crush Balthis’s horde. That is if not for your meddling.” Scorn dripped from her lips like a stream of venom.

“You are young for a heart so cold,” he said, his voice tinged with regret. Kesira lapsed into a sullen silence that the rogue was loath to break.

Finally the grim duo arrived at the sepulcher which was little more than a long low slab of granite. It was set with a door leading down into the earth, covered with thick rope-like vines and dense lichen. Rats scurried along the top of the age old stone. A thick bodied serpent, roped in broad orange bands, slithered off as they approached. The young man swore, raking a hand through his shoulder-length ebony hair.

“If I cut those bonds, will you give me your word not to slit my throat until after we recover the gems?” He turned and asked the woman, as he unsheathed his dirk. “I’ll walk with you as an ally, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave you at my back as an enemy.”

She looked at him, her pale eyes shifting from his face to the glittering blade. Woodenly, Kesira nodded in assent. His eyes betrayed just a hint of uncertainty before sawing through the leather cords. He took a step back, tossing her daggers to her. She caught them and slid them into her boots in one fluid motion.

“Aye, but after we are safely away, we battle for the stones! I’ll hear nothing of splitting them between us. One stone is useless to me without its mate.” She massaged feeling back into her hands as she spoke and Drayse did not doubt the sincerity laced in every syllable.

They grunted over the panel for several minutes before managing to heave it free. As they laid it aside, Drayse found himself mesmerized by the intensity in the pale woman’s eyes.

The pair looked down into a ten-foot drop to a bare stone floor layered with dust. Drayse withdrew a knotted rope from his voluminous pack and lowered it into the inky darkness. Together they scurried down, and lit torches.

The air in the dank tomb was fetid and despite years of experience wandering similar haunts, Drayse’s nose wrinkled. Kesira’s more acute senses left her choking in the foulness. The swordsman swept cobwebs from his dark hair. Drayse had expected to find the walls washed in gold and jewels but this seemed more like a dreary corpse hole.

The light of their torches revealed a squat stone room with rough hewn walls. The only exit seemed to be the hole above. Kesira snorted as Drayse swung his torch around the room. They faced three blank walls, while the fourth held an austere seal of corroded metal. Frowning, Drayse leaned forward to inspect it. The seal was encrusted with lichen and verdigris but it clearly depicted a thin-bladed sword. Coiled around the blade was what appeared to be a snake. He cleared his throat, thinking that he’d seen enough snakes already to last a lifetime. Looking more closely, he perceived glyphs scrawled in an inexpert hand. The symbols etched onto the wall did not seem as old as the seal itself, and unless he missed his guess, they’d been inked in blood or some other viscous liquid. Touching the greenish seal, he felt the aged disk give beneath his fingers. He rotated the disk to the right with no results and then turned it to the left.

Drayse took a cautious step back while Kesira eyed him as the chamber began to vibrate. The wall with the seal shook and sunk into the floor with a crash. Drayse smiled, but his blood turned to ice as a mechanism shot down from the ceiling. Kesira dived at him, carrying them both to the floor as something whistled overhead.

Drayse got to his feet and inspected the passage that had opened up before them, while the barbarian sighed, holding her torch to the opposite wall where dozens of barbed darts were embedded.

“Something is out of place, thief.” The pale northerner commented, and she pulled one of the projectiles from the stone. Drayse glanced at her curiously, as she continued. “These darts are like new. That launcher is a few years old at best. This tomb has been entered since the Guardians were laid to rest.”

Drayse only nodded and held his torch before him as he started to descend through passage. Kesira followed, as he proceeded by the steady light of his torch. Gray walls crowded the pair, capped by a low ceiling that barely allowed them to walk erect. The rogue frowned, thinking it more like a dungeon than a tomb.

Hours slipped by while the pair wandered the cramped tunnels skirting pitfalls and traps designed to deter treasure seekers. Dusty stone crowded them on all sides as their progress came to a crawl with each dead-end. Curses filled the age-old passageways as they were forced to turn and retrace their steps dozens of times. Soon even Drayse was daunted. In a half day of searching they had yet to find even a single clue that these dank walls held the bodies of the ancient rulers.

Just as the duo was near surrender, they came upon a wide room decorated with vast friezes running from floor to roof. Misty red swirls marred the ancient artwork as Drayse ran a probing finger along their surface. The immense renderings were of such intricate detail that a single handspan held centuries of lore. The rogue exhaled at the beauty of the etchings. Behind him, the pale barbarian gasped, drawing his attention from the antique mural. She pointed to the fore of the chamber and Drayse felt his breath hitch in his chest.

A large bronze disk the height of a man bore the same seal they saw in the entry room but in finer detail. The serpent he thought coiled about the blade was actually a whip. Even the savage gaped in awe. The stone was seamed and on either side of the broad disk was a life-sized depiction of one of the guardian. Dalan was on the right and Sepsis on the left. Beside each startling image was a palm-shaped depression. The intention was clear; he pressed his palm to the space beside Dalan’s head, motioning Kesira to follow suit. She did as he asked, but not without complaint.

The stone behind the seal rumbled and rose into the ceiling. Kesira threw herself to the floor in preparation of an attack that never came and Drayse bent double grinning at her. She kicked at him playfully after she had risen to dust her self off. The rogue’s mirth died down to a few stifled chuckles as he gazed into the darkness.

Then, they heard a soft slithering behind them followed by an angry hiss. The two whirled to face six creatures cast from the mold of a nightmare. They stood a head and a half taller than any man on elongated tails. Each had four sinewy arms with hooked talons in the place of fingers. Their skin was a pasty grey, like the underside of a snake’s belly. Set upon bony shoulders, they had spade-shaped heads ending with snake-like snouts, forked tongues darting in and out of their lipless mouths. Hell had spewed forth its demons to protect this foul place.

Kesira faced the serpent-men, brandishing the torch in her hand, but they paid it no more mind than if it was a burning twig. Like lightning a barbed tail shot out, sending the lanky woman flying through the air. A snake man darted at her, eager for the kill, but her arm shot up, dagger in hand, to impale it through the chin. It thrashed in its death throes, chaos erupting among its brethren. Drayse lunged into action, drawing his blade and spearing one monstrosity through the eye while Kesira crawled to her feet. He withdrew his sword a moment too late, as its talons raked furrows in his chest.

Drayse and Kesira fought for their lives against the serpent men. Drayse distracted one with his blade, while Kesira leapt to its back like a mad woman. She sank her daggers into its tough hide until it shuddered. Another lost his head to Drayse’s blade, though it cut the thief with a wide gash along his torso. Exhausted the warriors backed toward the yawning doorway, seeking a respite. The serpents spat and hissed following them as Drayse swung his blade in wide arcs, his left arm hanging limp at his side. Nearly beaten, the pair retreated through the open doorway.

Almost before their heels crossed the threshold, the enormous stone rumbled and slid back into place. Drayse sighed with relief in the darkness as he put his back to the wall, blood flowing from his arm. This was more than either of them had bargained for. Leaning against the cold stone, Drayse thought he could feel a slight tremor and hoped that the serpents didn’t have a battering ram.

Piercing the black veil before him were dual glimmers of light and he felt his skin prickle in response. Beside him, Kesira muttered a prayer, while Drayse uttered a few less pious epithets. His hands shook as he drew the last torch from his leather pack, cursing as he dropped the tinder and had to stoop to fetch it. Light soon flared in the small chamber illuminating it with flickering flames. Kesira gasped as the bare walls of the room leapt in stark relief to the figures on the floor.

A man and woman lay bound with hundreds of chains designed to restrict even the most basic of movement. The two were beautiful beyond description, bronze with golden hair and frosty eyes. They were laid side by side, with barely a hand span between them but instead of serenity those bronze faces held agony. On the brow of each tortured visage was a glittering gem, one an emerald, the other a ruby. Garish light spilled from the jewels even as his torch showed walls, ceiling and floor of featureless stone.

“Thief, what deviltry is this? This is no tomb but a prison.” Kesira breathed in a whisper. Though the guardians appeared as alive as she, they neither moved or drew breath.

“Gods that I knew, woman. Gods that I knew,” was his only response, as he inched forward, sheathing his sword. Behind him, came the rasp of Kesira replacing her weapons.

Drayse knelt beside the silent pair reaching out to touch them. At his back, the faint vibrations behind the hidden door had become steady hammering. He jumped with every crash, as if the stone might give way at any moment.

Steeling his nerves, the young gambler wiped perspiration from his brow and reached out again to touch the golden brow of the male guardian. The flesh that his fingers found was like nothing he’d encountered in his entire life. It was warm to the touch, but felt hard as steel. Drayse shivered, as the ruby on the man’s brow pulsed with a life of its own. When he looked over his shoulder, he thought he could perceive a faint tracery of cracks spreading from the top of the stone wall.

Kesira knelt over the woman, evidencing none of the wonder that befuddled her companion. She perused the golden woman grabbing a length of chain in her pale fist as if to pull the Guardian to her feet. Though the northerner’s muscles bulged with strain, the dead woman did not raise so much as inch from the floor.

Kesira might have been tugging on a slab of granite as the body of a woman. Grunting her frustration, she withdrew a dagger from her boot and waved it at the unseeing eyes of the Guardian. Drayse raised a gloved hand to reprove her, but the words died on his lips as Kesira struck the statue-woman’s cheek with the pommel. The sound of metal on metal rang through the room like an iron gong. The warrior woman shook numbness from her arm. When she checked the head of her dagger it was warped from the impact, but the smooth face of the long dead woman was unmarked.

Drayse shook his head at the barbarian and turned back to Dalan, the male Guardian. A chuckle escaped him, as he ran his leather clad hand over its skin with the texture of metal and the feel of a boiling sun. His hand trailed past the chained chest, along the smooth neckline to the high forehead as he ignored the cursing savage. His finger caressed that glittering jewel that broiled with the fire of a sun at Dalan’s brow. His entire body was enveloped in scarlet light that burned his senses and he fell to the ground. The warrior woman screamed beside him as her own body was wreathed in emerald flames. In moments the light withdrew to leave them both shuddering.

Shaking like a leaf on the wind, Drayse rose to his knees, barely noticing the blows which now rained on the door outside. Cracks crawled from floor to ceiling but he had no mind for them. Kesira gasped beside him, fighting to draw breath. He saw two glowing forms rising over the bodies of the Guardians. Illumination wreathed them as if sunlight given life. Their brilliance blinded the treasure seekers.

“Malah’s ghost!” Kesira exclaimed, as she scuttled back on her palms. Behind her, the cracks widened in the time worn stone. The ghost-like form of the woman snorted, as she gazed down at her body. Her paramour bore into Drayse with luminescent eyes that peeled away flesh and blood, to regard his soul.

“Silence!” He commanded. “The gauntlet has passed.” His words were like the rumble of a god. Drayse felt his heart thundering in his chest. He and Kesira were like gnats to these beings who had lingered here for centuries.

“That which you sought, will now be yours,” the female said and laughed. “The gods have mercy on you.” As the woman spoke her final words, the pair drifted into nothingness. They were left alone in the room as chunks of stone fell onto the floor.

Drayse rubbed at a painful swelling in his wrist, only to find the glittering ruby embedded in the underside of his forearm. Shocked, he looked over to see the emerald pulsing at the base of Kesira’s throat. She clawed at its eldritch glow, trying to pry it free to no avail. He wondered how he’d ever manage to fence this lot but it would give him an excuse for separating the woman’s head from her shoulders.

Kesira shook his arm, pointing to the bodies on the floor. The pounding of the serpent-men was like a drumbeat in his mind as he saw the bodies crumpling to dust beneath their heavy chains. In moments there was no sign that they had ever been there, except for two fine weapons left in their place.

He crept forward by the glittering light of his torch, to withdraw a magnificent rapier from the pile of chains. The fetters fell away with the sound of broken crystal, as he brandished the weapon in the dim light. The sword was a dazzling blade of some metal as dark as night with glittering flecks of silver. A sword of the night sky. Beside him, Kesira uncoiled a glittering whip of interwoven silver links, crisscrossed with filaments the color of blood. She flicked her wrist and twined the whip around her arm.

Rubble crashed to the floor and serpent men slithered into the chamber, like death’s harbingers. As they saw Drayse and Kesira, they drew up short, hissing and spitting. The swordsman fell back, mindful of the ferocious speed of the serpents.

“’Ware! The Guardians are reborn!” The serpent spoke as if venom dripped from its darting forked tongue. The rogue crouched low, his blade outstretched.

Drayse felt power flowing through him and he swept his blade in a broad flourish, slicing the creature’s arm from its body. Beside him, Kesira’s whip was like lightning and a moment later the spade shaped head tumbled across the floor. Smiling in unison, they advanced on the remaining serpent man who screamed, hurling his blade at them. Drayse parried the spinning sword without even thinking. The creature began to speak in a series of clicks and gasps that made little sense to the advancing warriors.

By the time they had backed the creature into the large anterior room, realization dawned on Drayse. Snakes, by the hundreds, converged on the serpent man, who laughed with a fury that made the swordsman’s sweat run cold. Soon, the creature was covered in thousands of writhing serpents that doubled its mass, insuring no bite of blade or whip would reach it. In turn, every square inch of its body was alive with a hissing, spitting mouth.

The adventurers now began a wary dance with the beast, one they seemed fated to lose. Drayse whirled and cut at the creature like a dancing butcher, his blade raining gore throughout the spacious chamber. Kesira’s whip sang like an angel’s fury slicing snakes from the writhing reptile fury but like her companion, she couldn’t harm it.

Drayse parried a blow from the creature, only to find tiny fangs trying to wrest the blade from his hand. Infuriated, he struck with his other fist but his arm was scored by dozens of tiny mouths. Screaming in pain, he ripped his blade free and hacked with desperation, while Kesira looked on grimly.

For hours the battle was waged like that, with their strength waning by the moment, until Drayse noticed something that took him by surprise. While dodging away from the monster’s tail, Kesira brushed his arm and he felt a rush of power. Startled, he jumped back, but then gave a wondering glance to the ruby at his wrist. Biting back his dislike for the woman, he grabbed her hand and felt wonder like never before. The pair was suffused in boiling light. She looked at him with terror in her eyes, but didn’t try to break away.

Energy burst from them, a maelstrom of scarlet and green that arced toward the serpent creature. Flame, hotter than any natural fire, burned flesh and bubbled blood. Snakes fell by the score from the writhing mass. Charred and blackened, they continued to fall, as the energy came brighter and hotter from the two who now flowed together in an unearthly gestalt.

The last snake fell from the serpent man, still boiling in its skin, and the duo struck as one with blade and whip, until there wasn’t a body that could be recognized. They made short work of the remaining serpents in the catacombs who threw themselves against the pair in hopes of overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Like dervishes of myth, the Guardians reborn swept through the tomb, leaving a trail of blood and severed limbs in their wake. Hours later, the pair crawled from the tomb covered in blood, sweat, and stinking green ichor.

As Drayse got to his feet, Kesira eyed him in deadly earnest. He returned her gaze, as he fingered the hilt of his newfound blade. The rogue attempted to brush past her, but found himself shoved to the ground. He clambered to his feet, burning with embarrassment.

“I’ll have that gem now, city man. Give it freely or I’ll carve it from you,” she said, fingering her whip. Drayse gaped at her. “That bauble at your wrist holds the key to my destiny, and I mean to have it, one way, or another.” The whip uncoiled from her arm.

“Witch! Do you miss the very point of the Guardians?” he said, sweeping his blade before him.

Almost quicker than thought, the silvery links of the weapon flashed, but just as quickly his blade parried in the fading sunlight. A twist of his wrist twined the glittering weapon around his own and a fierce tug of war began. Lightning raced along their weapons to envelop them in an explosion that sent them hurtling away from one another. A dozen times they tried and a dozen times they were rebuffed in the same way. Drayse sat up and regarded his unwilling companion.

“Looks as if we are stuck with one another, barbarian.”

“Do not speak to me! Do not look at me! Oh the gods, but I am cursed with this lout!” She retrieved her whip from the ground, grinding her teeth. Drayse bent to fetch his own blade with a wry grin.

“The Guardians are dead. Long live the Guardians!”

As they made their way back to the beach, and an uncertain destiny, the sound of the woman’s curses mingled with the laughter of the dashing rogue.

 

Shining Armor

by James Scotte Burns II

 

From the gates of an immense fortress rode a resplendent knight, sunlight glittering off the burnished steel of his fine plate armor. Cheers from the walls and towers embraced him as his mount tossed its head and stepped high through the flowers cast under its hooves. Amidst such revelry, the warrior’s first real battle beyond the spires of his home proved to be with his swelling pride; a struggle in which the outcome at that moment seemed uncertain at best.

Leaving the old stone keep behind, he took to a road through the nearby forest, reveling in the sounds of the wood and the smells of leather, horse, and newly oiled steel. His harness creaked slightly as he reached into his saddlebags for a small wineskin and waxed roll of hard cheese. Although he had broken his fast not two hours since, a simple meal taken on the trail completed his vision of the soldier perfectly, and he had been anxiously anticipating fitting that figure for so very long. The moment’s satisfaction of his martial desires was made even sweeter by the nobility of his cause—the rescue of an innocent and the slaying of the wretched beast that had taken her. His training was superb, his bloodlines beyond question, and his weapons, armor, and mount the finest that his house could provide. His attention, however, was at that moment not all it could have been, as a steel bolt glanced off his gorget and embedded itself, quivering, in a young tree beside the trail.

Choking on surprise, he spun his horse in time to see the next missile fly from a stand of thorny flowering bushes. With no time to pull his shield from its saddle harness, the knight’s left hand raised quickly to protect his face so that the bolt took him in the gauntlet, punching between its fine scales and lodging in the mail and flesh between his fingers. At the ratcheting noise of the crossbow being drawn once more, he bit hard on the shaft of the bolt just below its barbed head, screaming with rage and pain as he pulled it through his hand and spit it contemptuously onto the trail. Snatching a fine dagger from his belt, he let the blade fly in a whistling spin just as the next bolt flew past him from the hedge.

The master-at-arms would have been proud as the knight did not wait for his attacker’s next move, but immediately followed his flying blade in a rush, drawing his long sword and hearing a startled howl cut short behind him as the errant second bolt found another mark behind him. The knight’s dagger flew wide at the last, but caused the crossbowman to leap sideways and up to avoid its flight, exposing him perfectly to the slash of the knight’s sword. With full arm strength and the momentum of the horse’s charge behind the stroke, the brigand was cloven nearly in two, splashing the horse with gore and collapsing in an unpleasant heap. Wheeling, the knight turned to find the source of the second voice. The other highwayman, a larger and evidently slower fellow, was pinned neatly to the bole of a tree. The bolt through the ruffian’s throat seemed a more than equitable reward for the bruise the knight had suffered on his own.

Assuring himself of no more ruffians hiding nearby, the knight dragged the bodies into better view on the roadside. The detritus having been cleaned from his mount as best he could manage using the shabby coat of the crossbowman, he disdainfully tossed the rag on the midden pile and washed his hands from his water skin. Some woodsman would no doubt alert the sheriff and the mess would be disposed of properly. Lamenting the damage to his accoutrements, not the least to him the distasteful stains on tabard and horse blanket, he still congratulated himself on his martial skill, his field dressing—the bandage stopped the bleeding while the salve took nearly all the pain—and his luck with that final bolt. Luck was not something one could learn after all, but was certainly a part of any successful warrior’s desired equipment.

Clear of the forest, the knight took to wide plains that stretched out like the parchment of a tale waiting to be written. On the horizon lay the mountains that were his destination, their folds harboring his fearsome fate. No one knew from where the würm had come, but its travels in this realm were well marked in burnt countryside and the scorched remains of partially devoured livestock. Some thought that it had wakened from a long sleep, angered to find its lands now in the hands of a human king and peopled by his subjects. Others believed it the conjured horror of some amoral dabbler in arcane arts, no doubt slain for his efforts and leaving his creation without purpose or direction. Whatever the truth of the matter, the beast had developed a curious taste for the company of young ladies of high birth. The latest was the daughter of a noble of his father’s protectorate, hence the mission upon which the knight now found himself. A righteous cause indeed, but one that caused him no little concern, his armed prowess with brigands and the like notwithstanding.

Several evenings under the stars, pious prayers, meditations, and reflection upon his cause and his nobility fortified not only his faith, but also his righteous pride. He felt the very essence of chivalry and valor as he ascended the foothills and began the final days travel to his destiny. The hills gradually rose, becoming slopes too steep and rocky for his mount, so he found a small glacial valley with good fodder and a small stream carrying runoff from the heights. Removing harness and saddle, he curried the horse and picked its hooves, speaking gently to it of its part in his righteous mission, and his hope that it would wait faithfully for him to return with his rescued maiden. Then he hobbled it, not as a question of faith, but in goodwill toward the stablemaster, whom he knew held less stock in the horse’s honor.

The day’s climb in armor to the lofty cave mouth was difficult, the sweat running off his chest and back dampening the breeches underneath his leggings, his boots chafing at the heel as he scrabbled for purchase once the path became little more than a rocky cliff. Panting lightly, he finally pulled himself over the lip of an outcropping and spied the objects of his quest. While lying prone behind a slight rise that hid him from the cave mouth, he saw a young woman, plump and pretty for all the dirt that smeared her face, hints of tiny rivulets under her eyes showing the flow of tears now dried. Aside from her battered clothing and nearly matted hair, she appeared unhurt. Coiled about the stone pillar on which the lady was somehow fixed lay the würm.

Scales shifted as the creature breathed deeply with a broad rushing sound like distant wind through an olden forest. Wings folded along its back, the skin a golden leather, it stretched thirty meters or more, blocking the cave entrance behind and nearly encircling the small hill on which the pillar stood. Dreaming, its claws scratched narrow furrows in the soft stone. For a moment, the knight was taken with its beauty—a creature of immense power and legendary grace in flight. The maiden’s quivering sigh, cast from the depths of her own tortured sleep, broke his reverie and the knight cursed himself a fool for finding anything worthy in such an evil beast. It would die by his righteous hand, and he would return the young woman to her father.

Gently, the knight circled the cliff edge to his right, hoping to slip behind the beast’s flanks and take it from behind. Such a creature surely knew nothing of honor and deserved no better. The good leather boots he had donned for the ascent made for surprisingly quiet and swift passage as he rounded the little hill and silently drew his blade from its scabbard. A few more steps and he could clearly see the back of the beast’s head, the great horned crest protecting the softer flesh of the neck and throat before scales took that duty for the balance of its sinuous body. As he neared the creature, carefully choosing the place from which he would drive his steel into its tremendous skull, he could feel its heat, smell the ancient musk of its body. He envisioned the grateful kisses of the maiden and the gold her father would lay before him at the banquet in his honor. With great humility, he would at first gently protest, then accept graciously and later use the gold to purchase land and keep suitable for a slayer of dragons. He hoped he did not have to buy another horse, but that remained to be seen. For now, he raised his blade in the thrusting form he judged best, preparing the stroke that would see him into the ranks of heroes.

Silently, the dragon’s calm amber eyes slid partly open. Not that she needed to see the knight to know where he was and what he was doing. His clanking and stink had been a burning splinter in her rest since he began his ascent hours before. Relieved, she resolved to find fresh bait tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. Her tail whipped around, curling elegantly in a blur of sinewy grace over her back and toward the spot where she knew the knight stood ready. At the moment his thrust began, the small bony mace that was the tip of her tail caught him below the small of his back, snapping his spine and sending the blade darting over her head, splintering itself on the stone pillar inches above the maiden as she woke to the sudden tumult. The force and swing of the dragon’s blow having sent him skyward, the knight’s final vision was a jet of searing flame that caught him at the top of his arc over the far side of the cliff. Trailing smoke as it spun toward the ground, the carcass in its shining—and in places now glowing—armor crashed into a pile of rusting plate and chain, bones and broken weapons scattered at the base of the cliff’s far side. The dragon leisurely reached up and lightly tapped the pillar with a long foreclaw, releasing the maiden from the spell that had held her there. Blowing delicately at the tiny thing to encourage her flight, she hoped the girl would find the horse in the valley below like the others had. Then she closed her eyes once more and dreamed of the glory that would one day be hers when she returned home a great slayer of terrible knights.

 

High Pass Bridge

by Anthony Snodgrass & Bill Snodgrass

 

Based on the world of Siliar created by Bill Snodgrass and Cameron Walker

 

“Sergeant Idryan,” one of the men in the Second Squad declared, “you know you said if we ever had a problem, you’d listen to us?”

“Yes, Tim,” Idryan replied. “I meant it.”

Idryan, Tim and the eight other men of the Second Squad rested on High Pass Trail five miles below their goal. It had been a hard march for the last day and a half, climbing the winding mountain trail from Fox Hollow on the way to investigate a traveler’s claim that a horrible attack had occurred at High Pass Bridge.

“Well, seeing as how Corporal Jessup is off taking a moment of privacy,” Tim replied, “now’s about the only time I can say this…”

“What is it?” Idryan asked.

“Well, Sergeant, the other guys in the squad and me think Corporal Jessup is a coward. We don’t like it,” Tim began. “A few weeks ago back in Fox Hollow, there was a report of baines in the area and the captain told us to go for a short patrol. Jessup looked at the captain, all nervous and such, and said that he had a pain in his stomach. He asked if the other squad could go instead. Now, I know the face of a man having stomach pains, and his face was not like that. He was shaking like a leaf in a strong wind too. This gives me plenty reason to think that he is just a plain ol’ coward.”

“Well,” Idryan started, “this is a serious accusation.”

“I know it is, but I am sure of it,” came the reply.

Idryan pondered the situation for a few minutes, struggling to find the right course of action. His thoughts carried him back to an easier time, before becoming the youngest platoon sergeant in Cliff Haven’s history. Back to a time when he would not have been responsible for such a situation. Yet, despite the burden of being leader of the First Platoon of Cliff Haven’s Third Company, Idryan was glad for the challenge.

Idryan was a large man, which partly explained his rise through the ranks. At the height Idryan stood, the average man’s eyes barely met his chin, and his weight was half again that of a normal man. He was built like an ox, but had agility that some said could match that of the best court acrobat. Yet, for all his strengths, he was humble and a faithful follower of his religious beliefs.

“Sir?” Tim asked, sensing the sergeant’s distant thoughts. “What do you say? Can you do something?”

“I don’t know,” Idryan replied. “There seems a far stretch from declining to take a patrol to calling a man a coward.”

“That was not the only thing,” Tim replied.

“Yeah,” replied Shumglen, another of the soldiers. “Back a month, we were cutting cross-country from Iron Creek to Silver Lode an’ I thought he was going to perish from fear. You know, you have to cut through the woods and all… You know that old farm up on the hill with the fallen down barn?”

“I know it,” Idryan replied.

“Well, coming to that, he got the idea baines or goblins might be holed up in the old house, and led us a quarter mile out of the way to go around it. I’d say he was just flat scared.”

Idryan shrugged, not sure what to think.

“Although I don’t dispute your information, I will have to get Jessup’s story before I can take action,” Idryan stated.

“Well, looks like his ‘private moment’ is over anyway,” Tim declared.

“Alright, tell him that I wish to speak to him. I’d better get to the bottom of this before we go on.”

* * * * *

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Jessup said nervously as he adjusted his belt, and re-buckled his sword.

“Yes, Corporal Jessup,” Idryan said, “before we go forward with this mission, I need to have a word with you.”

“Sure, Sergeant.”

Idryan led Jessup down the path an arrow’s flight from the others in the squad, and confronted him with the charges, mentioning the accounts shared by Tim and Shumglen, but mentioning no names.

“Why, that’s just not so,” Jessup replied. “I mean, I did those things… But it wasn’t fear. It was the not-yet-ripe berries I found on the way that upset my stomach. And you, yourself, are always telling us squad leaders not to take unnecessary risks. I thought the farm up there was an unnecessary risk. That’s all.”

Idryan considered his excuses silently. Jessup fidgeted nervously, swaying his weight from one foot to the other, and looked around, unable to make eye contact with Idryan, as his sergeant processed the information.

Finally, Idryan declared, “Well, I hope you’re telling me the truth. You are the squad leader. The men look to you as an example, and they need to know that they can depend on you.”

“I am telling you the truth.”

“I hear your words now,” Idryan stated with a knowing look, “but I will see your deeds in the future.”

Jessup nodded his head, but said nothing in reply.

Idryan continued, “I used to have a mentor that told me ‘the truth will make itself known.’ Do you know what that means?”

Jessup shook his head negatively.

“Well, it means that, even if someone is falsely accused, or tells a lie, the truth will eventually come out. I have experienced this many times. Once when I was on city patrol in Crossroads there was a string of robberies. When we found the suspected thief he claimed that he was innocent. We put him in a jail cell while we collected evidence. While he was in the cell, we caught another man in the act. We realized we had wrongly accused an innocent man.”

Jessup understood what this meant, and re-stated his innocence.

“On the other hand, I have dealt with people who say one thing, when another is true. Eventually, the truth comes out. My mentor used to say, ‘Hear the words, but believe the actions.’ Your actions will eventually prove if you are telling the truth or not.”

Again, Jessup insisted he was no coward. Idryan accepted his remarks without further comment, and then the two men made their way back to the company and resumed the march.

As they walked up the rugged road to the east, Idryan looked back over his shoulder toward the afternoon sun. Great white clouds floated over the mountains, mounded in the sky like vast bolls of cotton, breaking the blue behind them into intermittent patches. Rays of sunlight, as they looked back over their shoulders to the west, slanted like downward great columns of light descending from the sky to the ridge across the valley. Idryan traced the rays with his eyes down into the valley of Cliff Haven, and, thus measuring their climb, estimated that they would reach High Pass Bridge within the next hour.

* * * * *

As the eleven men—the Second Squad and Sergeant Idryan—drew near High Pass Bridge, they began to see more and more of the carnage that the traveler had described. All along the road was refuse—bones, scattered items, and mangled victims—evidence of the obvious presence of some vicious enemy. Jessup became paler than anyone could ever recall, drawing his sword to give himself some sense of security.

Leading his men onto the bridge, Idryan drew his own sword and said, “Okay, everyone, be alert.”

Just then, a noise was heard, even over the din of the cascading stream below the bridge. It was a sound of rock rolling against rock, as if someone—or some thing—was ascending to the road from the stream below.

Curious as to the source of the sound, one of the soldiers, Jeb, leaned his head over the wooden rail of the bridge. At that, a great claw swept upwards, plunging into the flesh of his neck below his helmet, dragging him instantly over the side. None of the squad paid attention to the sound of his body striking the rocky streambed below. They were too busy clambering to bring their weapons to bear.

No one in the squad had ever seen one, but they all knew immediately that the creature leaping onto the bridge before them was a tain. Towering nine feet tall with sinuous agility, the strength of many men, spines tracing from its wrists to elbows ending in a vicious dagger-like projection, and hands bearing four black claws, nothing else in Siliar matched the lizard-like form of the beast that assailed them.

Moving with unbelievable speed, it plowed into the squad using elbows and claws equally to flail at its enemy. But for Idryan’s skill and swift reaction, the squad would have quickly been slain. Moving to the forefront of the melee, Idryan engaged the tain defensively, fending away its blows with his shield, and blade alike.

“Circle it!” he ordered. “Attack it all together!”

Facing the raging quickness and raw power of a tain, it was all the squad could do to keep one man slashing at the beast’s back. Yet, attacking its back was the only hope they had to defeat it.

As one man after another was struck by the tain’s razor claws or pierced by the elbow spike, Idryan began to doubt their chances. Nothing that walked on two legs under the Siliar sun could move so fast as a tain. Few things matched them in strength. The men of the Second Squad were in peril, and they all knew it.

“Stand fast, men!” Idryan shouted, knowing that their only chance was their advantage in numbers. “Stand fast!”

As it whirled on them, endlessly slashing at them with its fierce claws, the men of the Second Squad heeded Idryan’s words and finally began to get into a pattern allowing one or two men in the back to slice at it, while the rest of the men in the front defended themselves from its ferocious attacks. Despite being outnumbered, the dim reasoning of the tain drove it, like a hunger-maddened animal, to lash out at the men before it.

“Steady, now! It weakens!” Idryan yelled.

Their resolve redoubled by their sergeant’s remarks, the men of the squad held the ring about the tain and, little by little, began to nip at its thick hide with their blades. The last blow that met the flesh of the beast was made by Idryan. When the tain spun away for a moment to engage the men behind it, Idryan stabbed his sword a final time into the chest of the tain, and then beheaded it as it fell past him to the ground.

As black fluid oozed from the many gashes in the tain lying dead on the boards of the bridge, staining them darkly, Idryan surveyed the wounds of the squad. Most of the wounds appeared superficial, but Marshal appeared to have a broken arm, and Trey had suffered from a severe gash to his torso. The fate of Jeb, who had suffered the slash to his neck, and fallen twenty feet to the rocks below the bridge, was obvious.

Idryan told all the men that many of them would likely receive a sickness called “tain’s revenge,” and, unless they did not get their wounds cleaned and then rest, they would die. He told them that they would have no time to lose getting back to Fox Hollow.

Idryan took the head of the beast and—cutting a long straight tree branch from one of the nearby hardwoods—placed the head of the beast onto it, bracing the other end in the ground with large rocks to show all travelers that the bridge was safe from the threat.

Finally thinking the work at High Pass Bridge complete, Idryan surveyed the situation one last time, then turned his attention to his men.

One dead, me and eight others bashed up, Idryan thought. Tains are as tough as they say.

Just then, it occurred to Idryan, and the rest of the squad, that something did not add up.

Eight hurt… One dead… me makes ten. There should be eleven.

Idryan shook his head sadly and looked at his men, glad that no harm had come to them from their squad leader’s betrayal. Idryan’s mentor was right.

The truth will make itself known.

Wanted

by Ron McClung

Part 1: Dawn On Dwindlelight

She sat on a hilltop on a remote world, in the western forest of the northeastern continent, in the far reaches of the galaxy, alone and scared. She sat in peace, however, for the first time in a long time. The pre-dawn wind ran through her once-beautiful, now-soiled blonde hair, waving in the air like yellow flame from a raging solar flare. They called this world Dwindlelight because at certain times of the year the star at sunrise had a strange flickering property like none other. The rising sun at those times appeared as if it were a dwindling candle, flickering rapidly then returning to its original state.

Maronim Galactic Researchers had an automated research station in orbit monitoring this phenomenon. She had just come from that automated station. Yet, another grungy job, in a long line of rag-tag jobs, she thought. It was the best she could do while she ran and hid from whatever wanted her dead. In all her travels, all her hitching rides on dilapidated freighters, stowing away on space-liners and a series of other horrid and unspeakable things she had to do to stay on the run, she escaped death many times… too many to count. Others weren’t so lucky. Sometimes they were simply victims in the way of a stray blast, while others who got too close to her became victims of circumstance. She shed a tear at those memories. She remembered the odd and sad feelings she felt as she watched them die, as if she could feel their soul drain away. Some people just wouldn’t turn away, no matter how hard she pushed.

For every tree in this forest below her, she could come up with a face or a name of a bounty hunter or assassin that had tried to kill or take her. Or a face of an innocent that got in the way.

She only knew that she was different. She had never shared just how different to anyone, and it only manifested at points of high trauma or stress. But that wasn’t reason enough to put so much effort into killing her. Who wanted her dead THAT badly?

She raised her hand and extended her index finger. It flared with fiery light. She wrote her name in the night air with that light: Diara Lynwyn Lightwind. It hung in midair for several minutes like a neon sign, before she waved it away.

Diara looked at her hands—greasy and calloused from hard labor, her dirty and tattered coveralls that of a remote system service person—and grimaced. To think, she had been a noblewoman at one time. She thought of all the other disguises she had worn and the skills she had to learn. Her special talents didn’t seem so special then. From an evening gown at a royal gala, to a stolen police uniform, to a male Corvanian’s envi-suit, to full-combat powered armor on a mercenary ship. Now she wore the coveralls of a deep space technician. At least she had a ship. She looked through the trees in the direction she had come, where she had landed her small one-man repair/scout vessel. She couldn’t see it because it was still at least four kilometers away, but she knew it was there, safe and sound. It was no bigger than a shuttle, but it got her from jump-point A to jump-point B. And as long as B was farther away from the Core, she had no problems.

Diara had stopped crying and wondering why years ago. At least she thought she had. She wiped away a tear. She was a tired 28-standard-year-old woman, tired of running, tired of not having a normal life. She began to cry again…

“SEVEN YEARS!” she screamed.

The sorrow turned to fury quickly, which welled up deep inside of her, powerful and uncontrollable. Diara closed her eyes, and all she heard was a thunderous clap. When she reopened her eyes, there was nothing around her but scorched ground… for a three-kilometer radius.

Damn, I knew that would happen… she thought. She was glad she parked her ship far enough away this time. Why me?

She had heard the authorities sometimes hunted down people with Psi abilities because of what they could do, but she had never heard of anyone with abilities like hers. The most she had heard of was a person who could move a pen across a table or start a small fire. Nothing like what she could do. She looked at the devastation around her. Nothing like this! With all the technology in the galaxy—matter transference, terraforming reactors, sentient machines and hundreds upon thousands of ways to kill one another—she had not heard of anything being able to do what she could do.

Something flickered in the smoke and the darkness of the night. Cloak field. She reached for her tool bag where she kept her blaster pistol. How did they find me this time?

“You shouldn’t leave such an easy trail, Lady Lightwind,” came a voice.

The cloak field dropped to reveal an armored figure walking towards her through the flame and smoke. It lifted from the ground, obviously using an anti-G belt, and produced an assault rifle. The figure drew closer, landing only meters away on a scorched and smoldering tree trunk. There was no place to hide, thanks to her outburst, so she knew he could see her plainly.

This was where some wavered.

She watched as his rifle dropped ever so slightly. He too found her irresistibly attractive. Yet another part of her power, a power she didn’t understand.

The figure, obviously male and human, tried to stay strong, “You are a threat to someone very important.” Another waver. “I am here… to kill you.”

Diara stared into his faceplate intently, seeing beyond it, seeing his face—a blonde young human male, probably younger than she. He was weak and very easily manipulated.

“Who wants me dead? Who wants you to kill me?” she asked as she stood up. The commanding voice was yet another power of hers. But something was resisting her.

Diara could not count the number of times she asked the question, or the number of times she felt the same resistance when she asked it. But this time, she hoped she was far enough away from the source that perhaps she could make this one crack.

The resistance was strong, but not as strong as in the past. The weapon dropped even further as he felt his mind being probed.

“I… can’t tell you, that, pretty lady…” Blood started to drip from the boy’s nose behind his mask. The resistance wavered at that moment. She lashed out with her power and suddenly the rifle was gone.

It was weaker this time.

The bounty hunter grabbed for his pistol, “Oh, no you don’t, bitch…”

KILL HER!

She heard an unfamiliar voice within his mind—one that had similar command powers to hers. Who was he?

“You don’t want to die, do you?” she said to the boy. “Look around you, you think you can kill me?”

He could only stutter and step back, pistol wavering in his hand as he felt the power of others surging through him. “No… I can’t… You must die…”

“I feel doubt in you, strong doubt.”

KILL HER!!!

“But she is so beauti… aaaaaaaahhhh!” With a blood-curdling scream the boy grabbed his helmet and fell limp to the ground.

“So, that’s how it ends now?! Your power is not strong enough to control your minions out here, so you kill them?! Show yourself!” Her voice boomed like thunder, boosted by her powers.

The bounty hunter lurched one more time and rolled over. Maybe this one carried a clue. He looked over-confident, perhaps to the point of ignorance. Diara began to strip his clothing and search his body. She looked at the armor, it was just her size. She smiled. He must have a ship nearby.

On the horizon she could see the flicker of the morning light… Well, at least I got to see it.

 

Part 2: The Cyber-Mutant Underground of Kara’Kresh

Gadaron Port Authority believed her to be the bounty hunter easily enough, with the help of her powers. The boy was too over-confident. He had left a data trail light years long, leading to this backwater world, where he was hired in the first place. And what a world it was…

Gadaron Space Port, on Kara’Kresh, was a seething city on a hot world that had seen way too much corporate development in its time. Over-industrialized, over-populated at one time, it was finally forgotten after the Second Karian War. It had now become a wet, polluted, hopeless world where the rejects of Expanse came to hide, to make a living or to scavenge the ruins of industrial plants of old. It was a pinnacle of technology at one time but was now a wasteland of obsolescence.

However, there was one thing that thrived on Kara’Kresh: the techno-underground, where anyone could get anything for almost any ruinous price. From illegal cyber-ware or enhancement drugs, to hard-to-get experimental bio-ware or booster-nanites, anything was there.

The young dead bounty hunter, Harming Ellos—former soldier from the cyber-brigade turned AWOL, now dead—turned out to be heavily modified himself. With bio-ware implants for strength and agility, and cyber-implants for just about everything else, he would have been formidable if he hadn’t been so weak minded. The problem with having that many implants was that it weakened the mind and the soul. One needed both to be able to resist her powers.

It was raining. A stinging rain, with a slight chemical smell to it. Diara was glad for the armor suit. It helped her avoid any skin burns. Damn acid rain. In the mist caused by the rain, hover-skiffs and repulse-bikes flew by above, while ground vehicles battled their way through traffic below. This was the busiest city on the planet because it had the spaceport.

Diara spotted what she was looking for. It’s always a bar. Why is it always a bar? One of the drawbacks of her physical assets was the harassment she constantly received when she walked into places like this. Thankfully, she was wearing the bounty hunter’s armor and helmet this time. But there was no telling how popular this guy was here either. Standing a block away from the bar, she took a deep breath and reviewed the facts in her mind.

She had a name: Jarus Nell. He was the contact person the boy dealt with. Nell was a cyber-demon—a street term for a heavily mutated human with cyber-ware. Mutations were another problem on worlds like this. Over the last several centuries—since the Terran Expanse discovered FTL flight and started colonizing and terraforming worlds—mutations had grown worse and more radical. Kara’Kresh seemed to have been the extreme of that, perhaps because of the terraforming and re-terraforming that had occurred throughout its colonial history.

Nell paid Ellos half up-front, and would pay half on proof that Diara was dead. Diara knew from Ellos’s logs that Nell had four bodyguards at all times, all cyber-demons of one kind or another. Most members of his entourage were addicts to tree’deshian spice also known as Tree-Dew, including Nell himself. She had heard of the degenerative effects it had on its addicts, from the addicts that existed in the noble courts back home. Initially, the buzz is a slow one, but as time goes on and the user becomes an addict, the buzz is instantaneous, and debilitating. Tree-Dew normally comes in liquid form, to be injected intravenously or dropped under one’s eyelids. However, a very rare and potent powder form existed, and that is what she had.

Very few people knew the effects it had on the mind’s eye and on the internal defenses most sentients had against her power—their sense of reality and unreality, their willpower and their soul. This, coupled with the amount of cyber she hoped Nell had, would make him an easy source of information.

The bar was called the Grinding Stone, a hole-in-the-wall place set near a dark alley lit by neon light and a single street light. Several beings stood outside. One was a bouncer/guard-type. He was Untharian, a huge multi-limbed hulk of a beast with a carapace-like skin and a head somewhat reminiscent of a rhino merged with an insect. Perfect for his job. And there was no telling how much cyber this one had, or if he was a mutant.

Diara had to play it cool, in hopes that Mr. Ellos didn’t frequent this place as often as she suspected.

“Not you again, hot shot!” came the reverberating voice of the Untharian.

Damn. Diara disguised her voice the best she could. “I have to see Nell. I have what he needs.”

“Oh, really? Hmmmm…” the creature scanned her with it’s antennae. “Leave your cannon at the door as usual and keep the rest holstered this time. We’ll be watching you, hot shot. No funny business.”

Diara removed the assault rifle from her shoulder and handed it off at the check-counter by the door. She then walked into the smoke-infested room and was assaulted by the collage of smells, sounds and sights of the Grinding Stone. It was a haven for cyber-demons, nitro-geeks, transients and addicts of the area. It lay in the midst of what was once the industrial zone. The overall industrial theme of the bar cast a dark and dreary tone.

It was pretty crowded, with assorted aliens from all corners of the region, some she didn’t recognize. Who she didn’t see was Nell. She had seen a picture on Ellos’s logs, so she had an idea what she was looking for—short, slouched, grayish skin and cybered with second clone-tech. Her first instinct was to go to the bartender.

“You again? I thought Nell said not to allow you back until you had what he was looking for…” the gruff towering beast of a bartender grumbled.

“Maybe I have what he was looking for…” disguising her voice again. The bartender stopped and raised an eyebrow… or what would pass for one if he were human.

In a matter of minutes the word had spread around fast. She was soon accosted by two large thugs and escorted to where Nell resided on busy nights. They took her upstairs and across noisy catwalks to his office, hidden in the latticework of girders, catwalks and ladders.

Nell hated crowds; some said he even feared them. His “office” was indicative of that. The smoke seemed to get thicker as she was brought into the office area. The smells became even worse. Her distinguished nose was never meant to come this close to any of the sights and smells she was experiencing here. How things change for a noble woman.

Nell’s room was as attractive as the rest of the place, with a little more leather and fewer steel girders. It was a small room with a barred back door she spied in the shadows. Nell was surrounded by four female “beings” behind an old office desk and his bodyguards were spread out around the room. Assorted old furniture was littered around the room, a pool table in the far corner.

“Well, if it isn’t little Ellos himself, already back from his adventures… She scare you away, boy? She is said to be rather persuasive.” Nell blew a cloud of smoke from his gor’an-weed cigar. Yet another vice.

Diara scanned the room with her inner senses and detected others behind a wall, listening in—two others, armed and anxious. She focused on them for a short minute while she spoke in her Ellos-impression. “I have what you want…” She held up a leather satchel. Inside was something she wished she hadn’t had to bring, but the bounty hunter’s data insisted that the evidence of the kill was her severed head. Thank the gods that the bounty hunter was blonde. It might buy her more time.

Diara heard the quiet thud that told her that the hidden two had fallen asleep, just as she wanted.

Nell dismissed the females, who reluctantly left. He looked intrigued, but disgusted. She knew his type couldn’t stomach a severed head. He probably won’t even take it out of the bag. He opened the bag slightly and peered in. He made a face as he saw the bloodied blonde hair, “Did you have to be so messy?” As she suspected, he didn’t pull the head out, only saw the hair.

“I’m changing the deal,” Diara said abruptly. This drew the attention of the bodyguards. She instinctively moved her hand closer to her holstered blaster pistol. That move was followed up by the sound of a sword being unsheathed, the mechanical hum signifying a slight modification to the blade—vibro-sword. Probably mono-edged as well. That thing would cut through this armor like hot Ow’oonga fat.

“Easy now, gentlemen. Let’s hear the whelp out.” Nell eased back in his desk chair as if it was his throne.

Diara’s senses told her that the one with the sword was inches from taking her out. Adrenaline surging in her veins, she found new levels of control and strength in her ability. She conjured up a little surprise for the swordsman and stored it in the back of her mind, just in case things got nasty.

“I want to take it to your benefactor myself. In return, you can keep half the bounty.” She figured he was already keeping half, but now he’d be getting three-quarters of it.

That got his attention. He leaned forward in his chair. “And all you require of me is the identity and location of my benefactor, is that it?” She couldn’t glean it from his mind that easily. That part of her powers was not completely developed. But she did sense he knew something she could use.

She also got the feeling he wasn’t giving it up so easily.

“Well, to be honest, boy, I am not authorized to give you that information…” His cybered left eye gleamed at her. She knew he had that information somewhere in those extra data-chips he had installed in his left lobe. She just had to get in there, past his natural defenses. She gripped the small bag of Tree-Dew powder in her hand. She just needed a moment.

He leaned closer. “Did you hear me? Hand over the head and walk away. You can pick up your pay at the door.”

Diara had to make the move now. He was close enough that the powder would lower his defenses just long enough for her to pick his brain. It was a complicated invocation, but she learned that non-organics were easier than organics to pull information from, if you knew how to read it.

Diara leaned closer and sensed the bodyguards’ heightened awareness. She had the closest one covered; the rest would probably get one shot off, at most. She took her chances.

The cloud of reddish dust exploded from her hand with a thought, and Nell was suddenly thrown in a daze. She searched hard and as soon as she knew she had found it, she triggered her next surprise.

The blade in the hand of the bodyguard suddenly vanished. The bodyguard then abruptly went rigid. Blood began to pour from his mouth. The bodyguard then grotesquely split in half, vertically, and the sword fell out from between the pieces. The sword had re-materialized inside him.

Nell slouched over in his chair, blood seeping from his nose. The cloud was probably too potent for him. He would probably OD before she even left the room. Diara was not hanging around to find out. One blast struck near her as she dove over the desk. She lashed out with her power, again.

Two bodyguards had moved in and were in close proximity to each other. Big mistake. In a flash, the still-hot blaster in the one guard’s hand exploded. The fiery eruption engulfed them both, killing at least one of them and incapacitating the other. That was going to attract attention from the outside, she thought, picturing the lumbering Untharian already running from the door to the back.

Another blast struck her in the shoulder, knocking her back. The armor absorbed most of it. Diara lifted her blaster and fired back. Two quick blasts felled the oncoming guard. She looked at her blaster. Conventional means are not beneath me, she thought and smiled for a moment.

Diara got up, the burn from the shoulder wound telling her the armor didn’t absorb as much as she thought. Nell was still in his chair, twitching and drooling, as the powder wreaked havoc on his neural system. She removed the helmet to show Nell her face. She knew some part of him could register the sight. She saw in his eyes that it had.

“Sorry, partner… Deal’s off.” Diara searched his body and his desk for any credits. She found his half of the bounty. “You can pick up your share at the door…”

Before the Untharian came bursting into the room, she was out and through the back. She left a small surprise for the Untharian however—in the form of a small detonator in Nell’s hands. As soon as his neural systems shut down, which she guessed would be soon, the device would drop out of his hand, the spoon would be released and BOOM.

She was a block away when she heard the explosion.

Damn, that was some potent stuff.

 

Part 3: The Psychotic Psi-Casters of Bedlam

The data she had taken from Nell’s neural pathways was encrypted. It took her three days sitting in Ellos’s ship while in orbit around Kara’Kresh’s second moon to translate it. All she got was what she liked to call an “astral image” of the data, which she had to translate into real data and let a machine decrypt it. It turned out the ugly cyber-demon could only afford a cheap operating system and encryption algorithm for his implants, making her work only slightly easier.

But now she wished she wasn’t able to decrypt it so easily.

The data gave the name of Gram Bellington as the person that had contacted Nell. That transmission was heavily encoded, but with some work was traced back to a relay-sat orbiting a planet called Bedlam. The transmission itself originated from Bedlam.

Of all places in the region, it had to be Bedlam.

Bedlam was claimed by the Expanse Fleet at the end of the First Karian War and set up as a special military training facility. Its existence was said to be one of the causes of the Second Karian War. It seemed the Karian apes didn’t like the humans experimenting with the psionic sciences. It scared them.

And Fleet didn’t think of the drawbacks to all their experimenting either. Now it had become a special asylum for the Fleet’s special projects and “prototypes”—projects that revolved around the powers of the mind. Psi-Casters. It was rumored that the military spent considerable time studying the sciences surrounding psionic powers, attempting to boost them, find new powers, and discover new ways to use them. They found that overuse tended to fray the human mind. Hundreds upon thousands of sentients that had enrolled in the program had gone insane. They and their children and their children’s children now resided on Bedlam and were watched over by a special division of Fleet.

Bedlam was a harsh world. Fleet attempted to terraform it once and regretted it. The storms only got worse. Now, the eight cities on Bedlam existed only because of transparent-steel bubbles over them or, as in two cases, because they were underground. There were roughly twenty other cities, built on the gamble that the terraforming would hold, but all those were abandoned.

All eight cities were guarded asylums for some faction of the Bedlam-Psi society. Without special Fleet permission no one was getting into any of the cities of Bedlam.

However, Diara had her own way in. Her mother had died there when she was a young girl—admitted just after Diara was born. She still had her free passage codes to visit her mother’s grave. All she had to do was cover her trail once she was in. She had developed her hacking ability over the past seven years to be able to crack even the best Fleet security systems.

No one ever explained to Diara why her mother was admitted into Bedlam. She remembered very little of her mother, being raised by her aunt and uncle in the Noble Courts of New Avalon. She was told the circumstances of her conception when she was eighteen. A Terran soldier had raped her mother during the Second Karian War. That’s all she was told.

But what did that have to do with anyone wanting her dead… and this badly. This Mr. Bellington had better know.

A few more hours of hacking into a local Expanse Fleet node found that Bellington was not an inmate, but a member of the Fleet “Psi”-chiatric Staff on Bedlam. Dr. Bellington, actually. To find him, she had to go to the city of New Arkham—one of the smaller ones, underground and near the coast.

The trip to Bedlam would take three weeks in void-space. Diara had time to rest. She climbed into the sleeper pod, after engaging the void-engines.

* * * *

In her dreams, she heard her mother’s voice, saw her mother’s face. So kind, so gentle… And then it was gone, replaced by a demon. Diara felt her body being ripped to shreds, her organs thrown to the four winds. Sounds of a horrid battle could be heard behind the scene. A single man standing at the top of thousands of bodies, holding a sword in one hand, her mother’s head in the other.

That’s the biggest problem with sleep pods. No matter how badly your psyche wants you to wake up, you can’t. People had been known to go insane while under pod-induced sleep.

She awoke on the edges of the Bedlam System. Instead of locking onto the guidance beacons of the system, she took the ship in herself. The beacons would log her presence. She would be expected, however she didn’t want to knock on the front door quite yet.

The flight from the system’s outer edge to orbit took another three and a half weeks, at full thrust. Fortunately, it was a small system.

* * * *

The city of New Arkham was a dark and morbid place. Attempts to make it look like a normal city, with normal citizenry, were corrupted by the occasional mad scream or pointless babble from a wandering passerby.

It was a twisted place that she didn’t want to be in for very long.

As Diara walked the streets, she felt something strange, like she was being watched. More than watched… scanned. But from where?

Something else made her nervous. Diara thought that maybe it was because she had never been to this city, her mother’s grave residing in New Providence. However, it seemed to her that there was a deficiency in regular personnel.

Diara walked to the place where the transmission originated—an Expanse Fleet office complex. She could see its tower from a distance and, as she turned a corner, saw the entrance.

The entrance was ransacked. Expanse Fleet symbols were defaced, the front gate and door destroyed, the front foyer burned out by fire. This happened a while ago. Diara drew her pistol. It appeared that the staff was no longer in charge of the asylum. At least not this one. No telling how many others had been taken over.

She looked around nervously as more faces appeared out of the darkness of alleyways, street corners and windows, all looking at her. She turned on the night vision visor on her helmet and saw more faces in the darkness.

Diara started to run. A shower of debris came from upper level windows of buildings as citizens of New Arkham started screaming and howling. She turned down an alleyway that had fewer windows and found a “bunker” of garbage to hide behind, taking aim down one direction of the alleyway. She kept one eye on the other direction, not really sure where it ended. All she saw was darkness.

The screaming and the howling stopped. If the city could get any more ominous, it did in that moment.

Diara suddenly heard a chorus of hums coming from down the other end of the alleyway. She shifted her aim. She saw movement but waited to see what it was. Four figures, all dressed the same, came into the light, followed by four more, followed by four more. All in formation, dressed in black and brown leather tunics and pants with eyeless leather masks straight out of a bad S&M vid. They were all humming the same monotonous note, never changing it. She felt the pressure on her mind, as if the chorus was penetrating it. She fought back, pushed against them.

The chorus and the formation stopped. Oh? No one has ever done that before, have they? she thought as she sensed the bewilderment in their minds.

Diara lowered her pistol in their direction and fired. The blast struck just in front of the left-most lead man and deflected. Damn, Psi-shield… these guys are good.

The man looked in her direction—first one to do that—and lifted his hand. A blast of force hit her and, in an explosion of garbage and debris, sent her sliding down the alleyway. The blow nearly knocked the wind out of her but her armor absorbed most of the force.

She fired again as she got up. The blast was deflected and went wild. The chorus of hums started again as they began to march towards her. She needed more time than she had to drum something up with her power. She thought of something small and released it.

A ball of flame launched from her hands and exploded at their feet. Diara gambled that, with all the garbage in this alleyway, there had to be something flammable on the floor. There was. Flames engulfed the formation of leather-bound men, obscuring them from her vision.

Diara smiled at her minor victory.

Movement from within the flames told her just how minor it was. The formation marched on, in full force, despite a few charred members. They released another telekinetic ball of force, which she dodged. It went across the street, toppling the small building there in a cloud of dust and smoke.

The humming continued.

She ran down the street, across it, not looking behind her. In her rush, she attempted to conjure up some of her own defenses, which deflected a few of their attacks. Diara turned a corner, down another alleyway, just as the walls of the building she passed erupted. She was covered in a shower of brick dust.

She stopped only for a moment to catch her breath when she saw a figure in the alleyway, dressed in what looked like a lab coat, waving to her. She wasted no time heading in that direction. Anyone not wearing leather had to be better than these goons.

The figure was gone before she could reach it, but a door stood open. She went into the door and closed it. Inside was darkness. She moved to switch on her night vision but a whisper stopped her. “They will sense that if you turn it on. We have your essence covered as long as nothing else gives us away.”

She heard the humming approaching. She also heard the whimper of someone else as they got closer, someone in the room with her. She sensed that there were several people here, but did not reach out with her power to find out. The leather boys could probably sense that too. The humming soon faded.

A few minutes afterwards, a candle was lit.

In the small cramped room, no bigger than a broom closet, were a dozen ragged figures and a single male in a lab coat, with the letters “GB” stenciled on the pocket. Any Fleet symbols that might have been on the coat were gone. “Gram Bellington?” she asked.

He looked shocked. “You know who I am? How?” He looked suddenly suspicious, reaching into his pocket. The group of people in the room suddenly cowered.

“Whoooah, wait. I’m a newcomer here. I got a transmission from here that had your name on it and I have a few questions for you.” Being careful not to reveal too much of herself, Diara removed her helmet. Her blonde hair fell loose over her shoulders, sweat beading from her forehead.

Bellington’s twelve “disciples” all gasped at her sight. Bellington removed his hand from his pocket and produced a handful of medicine bottles. He opened one and began passing them around to each of his disciples. They devoured the substance as if it were food.

“The only way to keep the upper hand around here—take advantage of their addictions. It’s one of the few things he can’t seem to overcome.” Bellington said as he passed out the last of the meds. Bellington looked as though he could use some of the therapy that he was handing out.

“What? What’s going on here?”

He paused a moment and gestured to the group around him… “These kind folks are what’s left of Ward 19. They were in isolation before he took over. He killed most of them, but I was able to save these twelve. They are my only defense against him and everyone else he controls, like those guys out there—the Hummers.” He gestured back to his group of addicts. “Meet the Maskers.” The group of twelve grimy faces smiled and snickered as they saw the look of approval from Bellington. He snickered back. “They don’t talk much though.”

“He? He who? What the hell is going on?”

Bellington looked shocked. “You mean you don’t know? I thought you got my distress signal. You’re not Fleet here to save us? Oh god, who are you?”

She was tired of the games. She put her blaster to his head. “What the hell is going on?!”

Bellington froze. “I don’t know what transmission you received, but whatever it was, I didn’t send it. I only sent a distress signal a few months ago. Could he… Is he that powerful?”

“WHO?”

“Patient 991-09-1009…We call him the Sovereign. We have no other name. His records were lost in the fires. He took control a few years ago… about seven, I would say. He keeps the other administrators out by controlling everyone, somehow, and making them believe New Arkham is operating normally. New Arkham is one of the least visited cities here on Bedlam because of the strange cases it gets.

“Since then, I’ve survived. I was only recently able to get into the offices and find that transmitter. Oh god, what did he do? Did he change the transmission? How could he? His power must be getting greater. No one has been able to manipulate EM waves at that level, let alone hyper-EM transmissions… Oh god, help us.”

“The Sovereign?” Who was he? Is this who wanted me dead? Why? Was I a threat to him while he was here in this asylum? Why?

Her only choice was to find him, to go to him and present herself to him and ask why. And if possible, kill him. “Take me to him.”

The entire group cowered at the suggestion. “What? We can’t. You must be crazy.”

“I am Fleet and I am here to kill him. You must take me to him.” A slight glint of hope flared up inside Bellington’s mind. But he was hiding something also, and she sensed it, even past the psi-shield the other twelve were still forming.

“But it’s suicide. He is all-powerful. There are rumors that he even controls parts of New Providence. You can’t possibly go alone.”

She stared sternly into the doctor’s eyes, one of which was obviously cybered as a medical scanner. “Let me worry about the dangers. Debrief me on what you know of the threat on the way and I will deal with the rest,” she said in her best gung-ho-military tone. She had learned that from the mercenaries.

The doctor sighed. “We’ll have to take the tunnels. There are only a few citizens there, and we can hide from them.” He looked at the twelve of Ward 19. They all nodded that they would go along and help. “The Hummers are just some of his minions, and they are the least dangerous.”

Great. She rolled her eyes. Who was this guy?

* * * * *

The tunnels turned out to be old service tunnels used by the staff to avoid the regular population. It seemed to Diara that the staff was more imprisoned than the regular population.

The doctor continued to speak as they walked down the hallway. “The Sovereign took over by first controlling some staff, then some inmates. No one knows how he did it. Unlike most of the population, Fleet didn’t make him… well, not entirely.”

“How long has he been here?”

“Too long. Before I started, that’s for sure. They say he’s been here since the Second War. That’s at least thirty years or so, isn’t it?”

“And he wasn’t one of the Fleet’s toys?”

“Not in the paranormal sense, at least at first. He was a regular soldier who lost it on the battlefield during the Second War.” He paused. “I can’t remember much else, other than that when he was brought in he showed signs of paranormal abilities beyond anything anyone had ever seen.” His thought was interrupted by a sound down the hallway. “Damn…” The twelve disappeared in corners, cowering in fear. “I should have seen where we were. Ward 32 – Pyrokinetics.” Bellington hid in another dark corner near his twelve.

Diara stood alone in the dim light of the hallway. She heard the noise again, like something being dragged across the floor. She smelled something burnt, like scorched meat. Her mind raced to conjure something up. She tapped deep into her reservoirs to find the right ability.

A hulking beast of a man turned a corner as Bellington spoke, “They’re very powerful. I would be careful. Oh, and they’re cannibals.”

The beast-man, muscular and dark skinned dressed in tattered and charred clothing, pulled an inert body, presumably lifeless, along with it—a young female, with one leg gnawed on already. Diara’s senses told her it was dead, but not totally useless to her.

The pyrokinetic beast-man roared as he saw Diara. The air around her warmed as his rage built. She felt his fire building up inside him. She prepared a defense as she looked at Bellington. “Find cover. This is going to get a little hot.”

The man roared again, as flame built up around his mouth. Oh, he likes to breathe fire, does he? Probably the only way he knows how to use his powers. How one-dimensional.

The beast bellowed as a fireball launched forward from his mouth, striking Diara dead center. Steam erupted around her as she withstood the blast. The fire cleared and she stood unmarked. Her defenses held. She summoned up her own attack, while at the same time attempting to conceal her power from Bellington. She pointed her gun at the pyro-beast and manipulated its power with her own to create a much more powerful blast. Diara fired. The blast was met with another blast of flame, deflecting it.

Going to have to try another tactic. Diara thought as she prepared another defense. She started to feel fatigued from over-use of her powers. She couldn’t let this next strike hit her. She waited, shifted to the side behind a pillar just as the second attack came.

She had just enough strength to try one more thing. The body. She left her defenses up and concentrated on the body, attempting something she had never tried but had a gut feeling she could do. She felt its limpness, its empty shell. She then separated her own self from her physical body. Part of her filled the emptiness, and soon it had life again.

The beast was lumbering forward to get a better angle on Diara’s body. Diara, now giving the corpse temporary life, caused it to stand. She waited for her moment. As the beast angled closer to Diara’s body she waited until she knew another fireball was welling up. When it did, the corpse moved.

As the beast was about to release the fireball, the body of the young girl grabbed the beast’s head and kissed him, blocking the flame. Her last action was to blow back into the beast’s mouth. Then Diara was out, and back in her own body.

She ducked as both heads exploded in a ball of flame. The smell of burned flesh filled the hallway.

Bellington came out of the room amazed. “She must have not been completely dead. Pretty crazy sacrificing her life like that.”

“Yeah, well, this is a crazy place.”

* * * * *

They crawled out of tunnels into what Bellington said was Ward 99, the special cases ward.

“He was one of five that stayed here. He killed the other four in the first few weeks of his takeover.”

“What else happened here? What did they do to the special cases?”

They walked into an atrium, where they could see multiple levels of hallways, like the central area of a prison. “Well, I’m not really at liberty to say. It’s all top secret.”

Diara turned and grabbed him. His twelve disciples, already scared to be there, turned and ran. Her power welling up inside, she roared at him, “What happened here!?” He shriveled in her grip in fear.

“That voice… I know that voice, that power… you’re one…. You have that power…” the doctor cowered in fear. He scanned her with his cyber-eye. “Yes, I see it now, surging through you. You do have his power. You are another one…”

With her voice again, Diara flared, “Tell me!”

“They experimented. Did everything to him, short of killing him, to determine his power.” They tortured the special cases, beyond any being’s imagination, with test after test, she realized.

Suddenly Diara doubled over in pain. Flashes came to her mind. Imagery of a battlefield. Dying soldiers. Horrid scenes of death and destruction. Screaming Karian ape-men being slaughtered by an unknown force. Tortured soldiers on pikes. Heinous war crimes beyond anything anyone had seen. A voice calling to her. Come to me, child.

And another voice pushing her away. NO! Run, Diara, run away and never return! She recognized this voice. It was her mother’s.

She still gripped the cowering doctor. A roar of thunder came from above. They were showered with debris from an already faltering ceiling. “Take me to him!”

* * * * *

The Sovereign resided at the top level of the tower of Ward 99, overlooking the underground waterway that led out to sea. The room at the top was a dark and dank one, solid cement walls, with restraints lining them. When Diara saw it, she could only think it looked like a dungeon. But what shocked her the most was the Sovereign himself.

He lay upside-down, suspended in the air by chains and steel cable, spread eagle, in the center of the room. His body was wrapped in leather restraints and connected to electrodes that were long dead. His face was covered in a horrid clinical mask. Only the rise and fall of his chest told her he was alive. He was a big man, a warrior, with a lot of rage and anger inside of him.

She could tell he was insane. Insane from all that he saw in battle and the nightmares that haunted him afterwards. Insane from the torture and pain the scientists put him through. So insane that his body was nothing more than a shell and all that was left was his power, small fragments of memory and his insanity.

But she could tell something else. This was her father.

This was something she had suspected since she arrived, but something she denied as well. She had felt her mother’s spirit pushing her away, but she knew she had to face him. This was where she got her power, the originator of it all. And the one that wanted her dead so badly.

How can I be a threat to you like this? This is hell. Why would you want to protect this? Are you controlling more than I know? Maybe you have your own little empire already. Is that what I threaten? She realized he wasn’t protecting anything.

She sensed something else in him. An implant left in his brain by Fleet. A small array of memory, enough for him to use as a journal. They never saw it, but she did. She captured that data image and stored it away. Then turned to the doctor.

Diara could hear her father talking to her now, and she understood why. She looked at the doctor. In an instant he was dead on the floor, a twisted ball of flesh and bone. Her rage continued to flare up. Anger not toward her father, he who had chased her down and tried to kill her uncountable times. Not at him for all those that died trying to kill her or trying to protect her. She had lost friends, family and lovers to this, but that didn’t make her angry anymore.

She was angry with those that did this to her father and would have done it to her.

The anger was at a boiling point, higher than it had ever been. She walked away, not tapping it until she was well outside Ward 99. She was twenty blocks away before she finally focused it.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it, Father?”

In a flash, the Ward and all twenty blocks around it suddenly disintegrated to dust.

A final release.

* * * * *

She decrypted the journal on her way back to New Avalon. Most of it she had guessed. Her father considered himself not of this universe, but from another with different laws of physics. He had powers beyond what this universe would allow, and it drove him insane. His life was a living paradox. What he brought into this universe of technology and science was what some people would call magic. The forces that rule what was right and wrong, what was real and unreal, battled against him, even as he battled against the Karian enemy during the Second War. It drove him insane but never destroyed his inner compassion. Even though he had no control over his own actions, deep down he knew what was right and wrong. When he raped her mother in one of his fits of rage, he knew that a child would be conceived. When they put him in Ward 99, his inner self could only hope that his child would be nothing like him.

As they experimented, he sensed that the child was different. Through the years, he worked hard at his powers, even as they poked and prodded him. No matter what happened, he never wanted another person to live through what he had—the insanity and the experiments. When her mother was admitted he got a name and a location. It turned out that her mother was a psi-talent Fleet had been watching. She too went insane.

So his quest to kill her was to save her from a life of insanity and a life of Fleet experiments. But what he didn’t realize was that she was a child of this universe. The axioms had reformed to fit her into this universe. She belonged to this universe. And she had made sure no Fleet doctors knew of her existence. She was no longer wanted and she could lead a normal life again.

It was over…