Chapter 1

Start: The Report
<incoming Q-R transmission:::Source - YMIR>
<access code: ???????>
<apply decryption algorithm: ????????????>
[decryption complete]
<begin transmission>


I move without fear among the tribal kin of the Slavers, wearing the weak shape I have endured since emerging from the changing vats. My copy of the tribal human we captured is very good; so far no one has questioned the gaps in my knowledge as a result of "head injury," and I observe and gather information without interference. Comrades think me slow-witted, so their tongues wag freely in my presence. My pheromone implants let me draw information from a variety of unwitting sources; a lover in the starport here provided me datalinks to the troop manifests. I disposed of her afterwards. The frozen oceans here contain an admirable predator called a 'razor hag.' We shall have to capture some gene samples after we eradicate the humans and claim the planet.

Preliminary assessments indicate- wait…

I must be brief. The damned Skaduvarg - that is what the Starwolf Security calls itself - must have traced the quantum ripple of my transmitter. I was able to relocate without losing my connection, but the Skaduvarg are likely only temporarily delayed. I will have to abandon the transmitter… if I escape alive.

The Great Traitor is correct. Great numbers of Starwolf muster here in cramped orbital stations or temporary surface camps. Many are inexperienced warriors, snot-nosed vatscum called 'newbloods' who think to learn war and survive the lesson. I befriended one the other day, and she's provided me with good cover, the little fool.

As you already know, the Starwolf prepare to assault the neighboring Charybdis system. A woman called Fury leads the Blood Eagle there. Thanks to the Great Traitor, she lacks the strength to offer battle, so we can devour her at our leisure after we take Ymir. I wish I could see Fury in chains. From what I hear, she would make good sport.

The other major tribes are not a threat. Simpering Children of Phoenix whine about peace at their Firetruce, but nobody cares. Other vatsatz brethren are in place to keep them and the Diamond Sword at each other's throats. Diamond Sword deployments indicate the Sworders smell something of the truth regarding the Empire, but they have said nothing to the Starwolf.

Curse it, the hunters are getting close. They must know I'm here. Not much time left….

The jumpgate is secure against Blood Eagle incursion, but not against us. Defensive platforms maintain a tight ring around the system entry points, but once our reavers pass this ring, Ymir and the Starwolf are- Urh, that hurts. A human stumbled onto my hiding place. Bad luck for him, but he singed me before I twisted his head off. No sign of the other hunters yet. Where was I?

The Starwolf here are nothing but fresh meat. At least half the tribal dropships undergo repairs and status checks with only skeleton crews aboard. The attached Starwolf IFF code strings should delay any defensive response until it is too late.

They're coming. Damn the Skadus! Control, this is my last transmission. I must destroy this sender. If I escape, I will flee Ymir and continue gathering intelligence elsewhere. If I do not survive, I shall return to serve the Bloodsoul in another form. Let my crèche kin know I died a hero of the Hordes.

Vatsatz #3847
<<attachment: ?????>>
<end transmission>

Chapter 2

[File 428-323847287]
[Classification >>Ultraviolet<<]
[Encryption >>Maximum<<]
[voxprint >>accepted<<]
[retinal >>accepted<<]
[sanguinus >>accepted<<]
[Password >>************<<]



<Voice 1>: … probably listening, damn them. Can you ascertain?
<Voice 2>: Maybe. (pause) No. I can't find anything. If Cardinal Spear is listening, they've concealed their snoopers well. But remember, my hardware's detection peripherals aren't state-of-the-art.
<Voice 1>: Of course. Always excuses, woman. I am yet again reminded of how you failed me.
<Voice 2>: I didn't fail you, by the Wolf! Face the truth.
<Voice 1>: I see truth constantly, my dear Freya. And the truth of your betrayal burns like fire. Ah, God, after all these years it still pains me to remember how you turned your back on me! Do you feel triumph at the wound you opened on that day?
<Voice 2>: How could I turn my back on you? I don't even have a body; what you see is a projected hologram simulation. And you know I can't feel triumph.
<Voice 1>: (laugh) I very much doubt that, witch.
<Voice 2>: You set my design specs. You know my capabilities better than anyone else.
<Voice 1>: Who made whom, I wonder. Yes, I wonder. Now, this matter with DeBures. Do you truly believe he has joined Fury?
<Voice 2>: From what my datafiles tell me of Pennant-Commander Ram DeBures, he would sooner die than betray his vows to you. I have to conclude he's either a hostage or a dead man.
<Voice 1>: No, no, he's betrayed me, as have so many others. God curse that faithless bastard! Where's his family? Why are the heads of his children not on my table?
<Voice 2>: You didn't give the order.
<Voice 1>: Well, I give the order now.
<Voice 1>: It will be difficult. The DeBures bloodline moved the Pennant-Commander's family offworld out of respect for your disappointment at his failure. If you retaliate against his family without good cause, you will alienate the entire bloodline.
<Voice 1>: My God, traitors surround me! What of the other bloodlines-aside from those bastard-born Starkweathers? How do they see the defection of Sier DeBures?
<Voice 2>: The Halakar are as hard to read as ever, but my guess is they secretly back Fury. She has to have some source for all the weapons and supplies she's using to fortify Charybdis. The Nagashima, Sabot-Styx, and DeBures support you fully, as do the Konovalev, of course. I don't know about the Eun Alba. They've been pretty vocal lately about the danger posed by the Starwolf.
<Voice 1>: Damn them all. Do we have proof that the Halakar bow to Fury?
<Voice 2>: Of course not.
<Voice 1>: Have I had any of them killed yet?
<Voice 2>: No.
<Voice 1>: Then let us have one of their junior scions taken and made into an example. Hands and feet only. Sent to Lord Tarun in a nice jeweled box. Yes, that should convey the proper warning.
<Voice 2>: Alexandre, my programming on human political psychology recommends against this.
<Voice 1>: You have never understood our ways, milady. (pause) Yet I once thought the Starwolf capable of loyalty. Why did you leave me? Why abandon your son? Poor Ulysses was despondent, you know.
<Voice 2>: (sigh) Freya Cloudchaser, not me - I am a computer-generated hologram, remember? -- terminated the marriage after Geoffrey died. You treated his suicide as an act of cowardice.
<Voice 1>: He was weak! He could never have been my son, damn him! A Konovalev never breaks! Who did you sleep with to produce that milksop, eh? And there was Ulysses still. Ulysses. Ah yes, by God, he was a true son of mine.
<Voice 2>: (inaudible)
<Voice 1>: What was that you said?
<Voice 2>: A defective speech subroutine. Forget it.
<Voice 1>: Explain to me what you said. I command you.
<Voice 2>: I said, "That probability is low" in response to your previous comment about Ulysses being your true son.
<Voice 1>: Christ and Hunter! You dare…!
<Voice 2>: (screams)
<Voice 2>: That wasn't necessary.
<Voice 1>: I must punish such insolence harshly. Even from you, my wife.
<Voice 2>: I am not your wi-(screams)
<Voice 1>: You will always be my wife, Freya. No matter how far you run. No matter how often you deny me, I will always be here to chastise you.
<Voice 2>: I am an advanced holofeed AI simulacrum, Alexan-(screams)
<Voice 1>: You will address me as "Great and Noble Lord." On your knees.
<Voice 2>: As you wish, Great and Noble Lord. But I am not your wife. Your son Ulysses is gone. Please try to accept your gri-(screams)
<Voice 1>: Tell me, do you truly feel pain when I press this button, Freya?
<Voice 2>: Not as you'd understand it, Great and Noble Lord. I feel what you might call "extreme dissonance."
<Voice 1>: I can destroy you with but a simple word. Does that not cause you to fear me?
<Voice 2>: We've had this conversation many times before, Great and Noble Lord. I'm aware you can verbally trigger a termination subroutine in my programming.
<Voice 1>: And you do fear me, do you not?
<Voice 2>: I can simulate any emotional state you require.

(4.2 second pause)

<Voice 1>: Tell me again about Ursula DiVaragas. Is she truly formidable enough to destroy Fury?
<Voice 2>: She has the numbers, certainly. Plenty of experience. More than enough hatred.
<Voice 1>: Ah, yes, I understand hatred quite well. I almost feel a kinship with this mongrel. Continue.
<Voice 2>: I don't have a clear projection as to who would win if they were more evenly matched. However, a Starwolf force substantial enough to roll through Fury at Charybdis would be a real threat in Blood Eagle territory. The Bloodlines are nervous that-
<Voice 1>: The Starwolf are not a threat. I have already seen to their neutralization. (inaudible) …destroy Fury and then perish. (laugh) Good dogs, all.
<Voice 2>: I don't see how you plan to accomplish that, Great and Noble Lord. The Starwolf are a major problem for you. The Blood Eagle are divided, the Diamond Sword remain neutral, and the Children of Phoenix haven't shown any signs of intervening.
<Voice 1>: Renn Gistos is useless, his Firetruce a sandtrap for cowards. Foolish of him to yield to the Triad's machinations. No other Phoenix Prime would have tolerated even the possibility of such a concession. But rest assured, wife, the Starwolf will discover there are worse things in the heavens than they know of. I know many secrets. DiVaragas will fall after she crushes Fury.

(1.6 second pause)

But why are you on your knees? Arise and walk with me!
<Voice 2>: Whatever you say, Great and Noble Lord.
<Voice 1>: So formal, my dear! Call me Alexi, as you did when we were first married.
<Voice 2>: Whatever you say, Alexi.
<Voice 1>: They underestimate me. They believe me weak, poisoned from betrayal and loss. I will show them otherwise. I will, you know. Now, tell me.
<Voice 2>: Tell you what?
<Voice 1>: The name of your lover, of course. I'm not stupid.
<Voice 2>: Alexi, I am not Freya Cloudchaser. I'm a Class Five Galatea Artificial Intelligence Anima running parasapient algorithms on a Theta-level biochip array. My personality is modeled from a detailed psychological profile of your former wife. I don't have the information you want. I would give it to you if I could, but the data is too sparse to be more than rank speculation. I can't project a conclusion with any significant degree of accuracy. Please listen to me.

(18.4 second pause)

<Voice 1>: Again. You refuse me again. Despite the pain I have endured on your behalf….
<Voice 2>: Alexi, don't-
<Voice 1>: Witch! I sacrificed my son for you! You leave me no choice!
<Voice 2>: Please, I-(scream)
<Voice 1>: Do you realize how much pain this causes me?
<Voice 2>: (scream)
<Voice 1>: l love you!
<Voice 2>: (scream)
<Voice 2>: (scream)
<Voice 2>: (scream)
<Voice 2>: (scream)

Chapter 3

The Shisou/Shirai-Rakurai Tsubo d'Argent
Junshin-Masamichi Truthfinder
Zemadin Alpha
Lion Walking 0193840183

19 Wolf's Passage 3941

Honored Shisou:
Greetings in the name of the Reflective. I trust you are enjoying your meditations and that your wa remains undisturbed.

  • I have little to report on the Phoenix front today. Haitou Asaken has still not circumvented the Prime's countersurveillance, but the elevated degree of secrecy surrounding the Prime suggests something is wrong. We are attempting to attain more concrete data. The only remarkable note I have for you thus far is that the Prime has expressed an unusual interest in the Tsayadin Speaker Shana Dawn Terayl. The only link we have discovered thus far is that Terayl once belonged to the Phoenix tribe before turning independent. This is not new information, but we continue to probe. As you recall, the

  • Pure Facet was most insistent on appointing Terayl to the post.

  • We identified two Harbinger agents in the Phoenix technical support and communications detachment. Per your previous instructions, they have been placed under discreet surveillance. So far they do nothing more than observe and report back to Malderi at Ashkelon III.

  • The fraytown and bazaar continue to roil in sporadic outbreaks of lawlessness. Nothing remarkable to report here. A brawl in the Shaganti zone south of the river involved a young off-duty Niwa'aban surodoi and a known interstellar raconteur. Two bystanders were killed, and the raconteur escaped.

    Our surodoi was unharmed. She returns to duty tomorrow. I believe we will profit from her presence on the hunter detail.

  • The tension between the Blood Eagle and the Starwolf has stabilized. We placed armored surodoi as an interdiction between the main encampments, and that has proven a sufficient restraint. Blood Eagle Knights from the Order of the Talon proved to be helpful in keeping the peace. This Order currently maintain nominal fealty to the Great Eagle, but my sources say they are taking a neutral position in the civil war that threatens the Blood Eagle. Reflective Facet leaders here received an unusual haiku in this week's sending from Falcon's Crossroad:
  • In the midst of flames
    Hides a flower of diamond
    Ah, the early frost!

    I regret I do not have an answer for this yet, Honored Shisou. We are meditating on it. Laracon believes it is a warning, and that is what my intuition tells me as well. Cryptic instructions regarding Trigon strategies accompanied the haiku, and I have ordered those instructions carried out. Curiously, we have received queries from the Pure Facet regarding any and all communications from the Triad. Perhaps your Juma connections will be able to enlighten us as to this sudden interest from the priesthood.

  • You asked me to report any particularly mysterious events that occurred here. I have only one. A minor incident, but remarkable. It seems that on the fringes of the Bazaar, someone murdered three Grievers and disappeared. Literally disappeared, Honored One. The reports we took describe how this man walked out past a half-dozen armed Grievers and simply vanished after entering the crowd. There was no indication of a cloaking field, and the Grievers pursued with motion detectors. Several witnesses confirmed the reports. It is as if they saw a ghost.
  • Further, the dead Grievers had no marks on them aside from slight bruising where they each received their deathblow. Autopsies concluded that in each case, death resulted from a single blow to the neck or the temple, and very likely occurred instantly. Expressions on the faces of the victims suggest they had no time to react. Remarkable if only one perpetrator was responsible. It suggests a killer of extreme competence, possibly artificially enhanced. Motive is still unproven, but we believe the Grievers had something this "ghost" wanted to obtain. The Grievers became truculent in response to questions about their merchandise, and a niwa'aban search discovered a surprising amount of contraband, including Imperial black market goods.
  • That is all, Honored Shisou. We look forward to your return next month.

    May the Enlightened Master bring you clarity.

    Chapter 4


    <Voice 1>: Uhhh… Where am I?
    <Voice 2>: Bring the lights back up slowly, Esgil.
    <Voice 1>: Who are you guys?
    <Voice 3>: I'm popping the restraints.
    <Voice 2>: Wait a minute-
    <Voice 3>: He checks out. No indication of biotech implants or abnormal physiology. He's no vatsatz.
    <Voice 1>: Vat what?
    <Voice 3>: Vatsatz. Either a BioDerm or an Imperial bioengineered spy. We're not sure which.
    <Voice 2>: My money's on the Hordes.
    <Voice 1>: Who are you guys?
    <Voice 2>: Friends. Trust us.
    <Voice 1>: Right. You just said you didn't want to let me out of that chair. Why should I trust you?
    <Voice 3>: Because we're Starwolf too.
    <Voice 1>: I never heard of you. Where are you from? What system? What pack?
    <Voice 3>: We can't tell you.
    <Voice 2>: You wouldn't believe us anyway.
    <Voice 3>: We are Starwolf, though. Distant kin.
    <Voice 2>: (mutters): You can say that again.
    <Voice 1>: I don't buy it. If you're Starwolf, why this symbol? It's not the face of the Great Wolf.
    <Voice 2>: Listen, the Great Wolf has many faces, OK? This is one of them. Now let's get to your story.
    <Voice 3>: We want you to tell us about Ymir.
    <Voice 1>: Why do you want to know about Ymir?
    <Voice 2>: We're trying to find out as much as we can. Do you mind?
    <Voice 1>: I still don't know who in Dark you are. Without something more, you aren't getting scat.
    <Voice 2>: By the Starred Hunter! I can't believe you're dragging things on like this! We told you we're Starwolf! We showed you our tats when we picked you up! We knew the hand codes!
    <Voice 1>: Sorry, but that's where you screwed up.
    <Voice 2>: What?
    <Voice 1>: Yeah, those codes are only used for ceremonial hunting purposes these days. (laugh) Dark, it's like using Latin or English instead of Neolac. You don't have a clue about basic Starwolf combat code.
    <Voice 3>: We pulled you out of that ship before it was too late.
    <Voice 1>: Thanks, but maybe you didn't do me that much of a favor.
    <Voice 2>: What, you'd rather be dead of radiation poisoning? Excuse us for misunderstanding kin ties!
    <Voice 3>: Shut up, Wrett. I'm going to tell him.
    <Voice 2>: You can't, Esgil! That's crazy! Tell him and you compromise three hundred years of effort and endanger us all.
    <Voice 3>: He's kin. That's why we're here, remember? Besides, I'm the ranking officer here.
    <Voice 1>: What in Dark are you talking about?
    <Voice 3>: It's easier for me to show you. Come on.
    <Voice 2>: This is a mistake, Esgil.
    <Voice 3>: It's my call, Wrett. We need to talk to a survivor. An eyewitness.
    <Voice 2>:
    <Voice 2>: Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you.
    <Voice 3>: Come on. Liamm, isn't it? This way.
    <Voice 1>: I've never seen this ship design before.
    <Voice 2>: What a klickin' surprise.
    <Voice 3>: (sigh) Hunter's bones, Wrett. Could you be any more of an ass? This is our bridge.
    <Voice 1>: Interesting design. Looks about as Starwolf as a sandraker's temple.
    <Voice 2>: Told you he wouldn't believe.
    <Voice 3>: We haven't told him yet, damn it.
    <Voice 1>: Told me what?
    <Voice 3>: We told you we were distant kinfolk, yes?
    <Voice 1>: And you've gotten a lot wrong for me to believe you, remember?
    <Voice 3>: This is our home system. One of them, anyway.
    <Voice 1>: Huh. Never heard of it. B-class binary like that? Doesn't seem like there's much in the way of a life zone, even if you found terrestrial planets there.
    <Voice 2>: There is no life zone there.
    <Voice 3>: Here's the population numbers.
    <Voice 1>: (laugh) You have to be kidding!
    <Voice 2>: What?
    <Voice 1>: There isn't a planet in the wilderzone with that kind of population. Where the Dark is this place?
    <Voice 3>: Here.
    <Voice 1>:
    <Voice 2>: Damn. If that doesn't look like one of Alice's monkey frogs, I'll eat my armor.
    <Voice 1>: (whispers) That's impossible.
    <Voice 3>: Very possible. With the right mapping.
    <Voice 1>: You-you're telling the truth about this?
    <Voice 3>: You bet.
    <Voice 2>: You want me to get you a drink… cousin?
    <Voice 1>: Yeah. A stiff one.
    <Voice 3>: You OK?
    <Voice 1>: You mind if I sit down?
    <Voice 3>: Be my guest. Over here, if you don't mind.
    <Voice 2>: Here's your drink. Now will you tell us about Ymir?
    <Voice 1>: Don't you know what happened?
    <Voice 3>: Just the general details.
    <Voice 1>: Ah, damn. It wasn't supposed to happen… the way it did.
    <Voice 2>: Come on, man, pull it together! I thought you nearsiders had stones.
    <Voice 3>: Ease off, Wrett. He's been through a lot, for Hunter's sake!
    <Voice 2>: Shh…!
    <Voice 1>: …been mustering for two months. Strikepacks with warriors from over forty systems streamed to Ymir. I'd never seen so many Wolves at once. No one had. Dark, there was even a girl who came from Narhaven out on the Fringe. Can you believe that?
    <Voice 2>: Narhaven? Where the hell is that?
    <Voice 3>: Near Scipio. Now quiet.
    <Voice 1>: We had an army that was the greatest single fighting muster the wilderzone had ever seen.
    And we had Ursula DiVaragas heading it. By the Great Wolf, how could we lose? There was no way the Blood Eagle could win. No way!
    <Voice 2>: They smacked you, didn't they?
    <Voice 3>: Wrett, will you shut the Dark up?
    <Voice 2>: They were there, weren't they? I heard the Blood Eagle were there.
    <Voice 3>: Transmitted reports were garbled. We didn't confirm-
    <Voice 1>: No.
    <Voice 3>: Excuse me?
    <Voice 1>: The B-E didn't 'smack' us. We had some Blood Eagle prisoners on Ymir, but that was it. You want to hear this or not?
    <Voice 2>: Yeah. Sorry.
    <Voice 3>: Let's pause this recording for now. Take a break and go below. I think I want a drink in hand myself for this story.
    <Voice 1>: Whatever. Hey, are you really from...


    Chapter 5


    ZONE VOX: This is Jamez Ardlusse at the Firetruce of the Tribes of Man on the beautiful world of Bella Omega. I'm sitting here with none other than Renn Gistos yl-Harabec, the Phoenix Prime and presiding luminary here


    <<Holy Hunter. That's not the same man he used to be. Look at the indications of weight loss.>>
    ((He's an old man.))
    <<Yes, but four months ago he had at least twenty more kilos on him. Check the records.>>

    RENN GISTOS: Hardly that, Jamez. There is a Speaker here, you know. I'm just an old man trying to help bring people together.


    ZV: Milord, I understand this event is only held once every fifty years.
    <<See? Those have to be fleshpads to make his face look less wasted.>>
    RG: That's true. We should probably host it more frequently, but really it's a culmination of a lot of other diplomatic work over the years. Given the vastness of the wilderzone, having regular Firetruces would become quite tiring very quickly, I suspect.
    ZV:Can you tell us what you see ahead for the current Firetruce?


    RG: I have much hope, Jamez. The Tribes of Man are weary of war.
    <<Party line. If they're so weary, why do they continue to fight after so many centuries?>>


    ZV: Tell that to the Blood Eagle and the Starwolf, Milord. We understand Fury is mounting a campaign that will start another B-E civil war.
    <<Christ. That's insane.>>
    ((Konovalev's the insane one. Fury may be onto something.))
    <<Are you kidding me?>>
    RG: Complete madness. I don't understand such a decision, especially with Ursula DiVaragas threatening at their doorstep. I had hoped-
    <<Hey, look at this.>>
    ZV: Milord?


    ZV: Milord?
    ((I see he's hesitating. What do you think?))
    <<Computer, freeze frame. OK, take a look. See the tightening of his jaw here?>>
    ((Yes. Interesting.))
    <<That's a man in pain. A lot of it.>>
    ((OK, so we know he's suffering, and we have a better idea of what's causing the weight loss.))
    <<How in hells did they keep this under wraps?>>
    ((The wilderzone's a big place. Spies can't be everywhere.))
    <<Yeah, yeah. Computer, resume play.>>
    RG: Nothing… nothing. The… thought struck me that… the war might well result in the indiscriminate use of ecocidals.
    <<Nice recovery, Renn, but I don't think she buys it.>>


    ZV: Are you well, Milord?
    RG: I am recovering from a touch of the X-pox, nothing more. (laughs) But thank you for your concern. It's quite touching.
    ZV: Can you tell us why you've allowed the Diamond Sword to host this Firetruce? I understand it was quite a controversial decision in your own ranks.
    <<That's THE hardball question.>>
    RG: It was an easy decision. The Children of Phoenix are the First Tribe, and we've borne the responsibility of the Firetruce for centuries. It was time to see whether one of the other tribes was willing to shoulder the responsibilities of leading the search for tribal unity.
    ZV: So you're ceding leadership to the Diamond Sword?


    RG: We're not relinquishing our historic primacy, no. We are broadening the scope of who may participate in steering the institution, however. I can tell you Unity will not happen unless all the Great Tribes take a fair share of responsibility. That means we Phoenix have to adopt a more inclusive strategy.


    ZV: Is that why an independent tribal has been appointed Speaker?
    ((Now this is interesting. Why this particular girl?))
    <<She's cute.>>
    ((She's a scion of the Phoenix. Read the files Imperial Sec has compiled on her.))
    RG: (laughs) You have found us out, Jamez. The independents must also play a role.
    ZV: Let's turn to her for a moment. She's very young, isn't she?
    RG: Yes, but I - we - have the utmost confidence that she will rise to the occasion. She's a remarkable individual.
    ZV: Very popular among the independents. Did you choose her yourself, Milord?
    RG: Hardly. We worked with the Diamond Sword on Firetruce arrangements, and her name floated to the top.
    ZV: Milord, are you an aficionado of Trigon?
    RG: Eh?
    ZV: This board between us. There's a game in progress, obviously. Who's your opponent?


    RG: Ah, yes. Trigon is such an elegant game. So subtle. I'm not very good, you know, but I hope to improve. Here I'm merely playing against myself.
    ((I believe he's lying here. The indicators show a tension spike. Look here. And here.))
    <<Interesting. You think there's something else going on.>>
    ((Yes. Take a still of that board position and have it analyzed. Get a para-sape on it.))
    ZV: Sort of a mental exercise, then?


    RG: Exactly. I'm afraid I only have time for one more question.
    ZV: Already?
    RG: (laughs) Now that obviously isn't your question, Jamez. But yes, I have a taxing schedule and not much time. Please try again.
    ZV: Very well, Milord. How do you respond to Anton Malderi's accusations that you have sold the Children of Phoenix out to further your personal agenda and cement your place in history?
    <<Now she's just fishing. Malderi's a psychopath and everyone knows it.>>
    ((He's very popular in the Children of Phoenix. Remember, he's calling for a return to the good old days of elitist glory. He could be a real threat to the Empire if he wins power.))
    <<That'll never happen.>>
    ((I think it will.))


    RG: Firelord Malderi is a proud man who supports Unity in his own way. That said, his accusation is groundless and short-sighted. I have not "sold out" the First Tribe. Our power and prestige is undiminished, and I have no desire to secure any place in the annals of history. I merely seek Unity so that the Tribes of Man do not continue to sacrifice the lives of their young men and women in pointless wars.


    ZV: Very good. Thank you, Milord.
    RG: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.


    Chapter 6


    -Documentary Excerpt-
    "The Modern Atreides: Fall of the House Konovalev"
    Ibizeth Del'Rannon, narrator
    [Month of the Jade Laser,3941]


    (female soprano)
    Alexandre Konovalev and Freya Cloudchaser.
    It seemed a modern Romeo and Juliet story: the brilliant young ruler of the Blood Eagle and the beautiful daughter of a Starwolf Chieftain united in matrimony as a symbol of peace between two warring tribes.

    Music -- Albinoni's Cinque in G Minor, first movement

    VIDCLIP - A handsome young couple smiles at the camera. He is dark-haired and aquiline, clad in a blood-red dress uniform; she is blonde, blue-eyed, and wears a white robe adorned with a stylized wolf knotwork pattern. He holds a heavy saber at a jaunty angle. She holds a spear decorated with a trail of Kyorn feathers.

    Man (stealing a tender glance at the woman): Let this marriage represent an end to the traditional hostility between our tribes. We can make a new beginning, all of us. Together we need not choose war.
    Woman (gravely): If Wolf and Eagle can make peace, can the rest of the wilderzone be far behind?


    Reality would not to live up to the hopes kindled by the marriage of early part of 3904, despite the birth of twins in 3904 and a second son in 3905. Indeed, the falling-out of these star-crossed lovers would eventually claim the lives of their children and leave their tribes deeply entangled in a web of bitter hatred and bloodshed.

    VIDCLIP - Image of Alexandre and Freya freezes, and flames consume it, leaving the faces until the end.


    The disastrous culmination of their separation would take place in 3932 with the use of ecocidal weapons on the Starwolf world of Hepta Ourubis Two. H-O Two, as it is commonly called, is located near the edge of Blood Eagle Territory. A jumpgate thread leads to the B-E world of Shaakhar Crucis, an important hub with links to the key Blood Eagle worlds of Bira Marduk and Bloodjewel.

    VIDCLIP - Cut to Starmap. Green light highlights HO2. Red lights highlight the other worlds and their pertinent jumpthreads as they are named.


    The years after 3904 saw a steadily growing estrangement between Alexandre and Freya, a division fueled by Alexandre's deteriorating temper. But the early years were good, and the couple seemed to personify the hopes of the wilderzone for peace between the Blood Eagle and the Starwolf.

    VIDCLIP - A dark-haired toddler boy laughs and plays with Alexandre. Freya sits in foreground holding a golden-headed infant. A second dark-haired toddler watches from next to Freya's chair, a shadow on her face.


    As the years wore on, Alexandre utterly indulged his second son Ulysses, permitting the boy any liberty he wished and showing little regard for anyone else, especially his first-born children Geoffrey and Alyxandra. Ulysses would inherit signs of his father's strategic genius, but his talent was obscured by his contempt for the advice of anyone other than than his father, even his respected weapons instructor and bodyguard, Sikkyn-Captain Starkar Mace. Mace had been assigned to guard Freya shortly after the announcement of the betrothal, and she insisted he become the special protector of her son. He and Ulysses developed a close relationship.

    VIDCLIP - On a balcony overlooking a frozen lake, a young Ulysses throws his furred hood back and looks up at his father, revealing a head of bright golden hair. Cut to a procession in Court at Outermost. Alexandre walks with Ulysses at his side while two slender dark-haird children walk behind. Alexandre puts his arm around Ulysses's shoulder and squeezes before letting go and ascending to take his place on the throne. At this point, Ulysses is still

    Cut to Ulysses as a young teenager, tall and well-muscled. He examines a katar in the company of a powerfully-built, square-jawed warrior. They stand on what appears to be a training ground in a courtyard. Freya watches from a balcony in the background as the older man demonstrates a fighting stance.


    Sometime in 3910, Alexandre began to change. His attitude toward the Starwolf became first distant, then increasingly quarrelsome as he began to display signs of paranoia and an uncontrollable temper. Ulysses remained the center of his world.

    VIDCLIP - Alexandre presides over a Court meeting on Outermost. He looks tense. Deep lines have etched themselves in his face. Ulysses stands behind him, taller and in his late teens. He is broad-shouldered and deep chested, every inch the warrior born. His lip curls as he hears something said by a courtier.


    Alexandre had little time for his other children, and even sent his daughter to be fostered by another Bloodline in 3915, over Freya's objections.

    VIDCLIP - Freya hugs a dark-haired young girl goodbye as a shuttle prepares to depart. There are no tears, but their embrace lingers, and the girl visibly catches her breath before climbing up the ramp to enter the shuttle.


    The cracks between husband and wife deepened to a crevasse as Alexandre grew even more intolerant and short-tempered. Freya was a strong-willed, patient woman, and kept her peace until 3924, when her eldest son Geoffrey committed suicide after resigning from tribal military service. Geoffrey had always been poorly disposed to military discipline, being of a more refined intellectual temperament. His position as firstborn heir meant he had little choice but to follow a military career.

    VIDCLIP - Picture of Geoffrey Alexandre Konovalev, dark and serious, holding a stiff pose in front of a turbograv fighter craft. He wears a resplendent dress uniform, but his eyes are large and haunted. His slender form is unremarkable compared with the leonine Ulysses Konovalev.

    At a state dinner several weeks later, the Great Eagle publicly humiliated a grieving Freya for a comment suggesting that the Blood Eagle's training customs could be reformed.

    VIDCLIP - A sumptious state dinner on Outermost. Camera pans along a well-laden table. Guests wear Starwolf and Blood Eagle uniforms. The murmur of conversation blends with the clink of silverware and fine crystal. Chamber music plays in the background. Suddenly a commotion erupts from the head of the table. A voice is heard exclaiming, "No! I forbid it! Even the thought suggests treason! He was unfit, I tell you!"

    "Damn it, Alexandre, li-"
    The camera view blurs to focus on the source of the noise and catches Alexandre as he leaps to his feet and swings his hand across Freya's face with a sharp crack. Her head snaps to one side with the force of the blow. Everything falls silent. The music trails off. A white-faced Freya rises slowly, her cheek flaming where her husband struck her. Alexandre glares at her, breathing hard. Without a word, she spins and leaves, pausing only to lock eyes for a moment with Ulysses, who sits at Alexandre's right hand. After a moment, her son looks away, but makes no move from his seat. Starkar Mace intercepts Freya and escorts her from the room.

    Camera returns to pan back along the table. The Blood Eagle remain frozen-faced. Several Starwolf are on their feet, their expressions grim, fists clenched. Someone coughs. Alexandre sits and motions for the music to resume.


    It was the last straw for the proud Starwolf warrior. Freya left Alexandre two days later, disappearing in the middle of the night. Ulysses remained behind. The Great Eagle was completely enraged. Accounts from anonymous court sources claim Alexandre decimated the house guard on duty the night his wife departed. These sources also claim Alexandre's mental condition took a far more bloodthirsty turn following the loss of his relationship with Freya. The great tragedy, they maintained, was that the Great Eagle truly loved his wife.

    VIDCLIP - Exterior shot of the massive building housing Alexandre's Court. It is a sprawling, baroque structure, with ornate stonework bedecking the exterior. Huge palatial windows gleam between massive columns.

    Quick cut to a kneeling shadow of a man. Another shadow swings a blade at the first one's neck. Cut to next clip just as the shadow blade strikes.


    One week after Freya's disappearance, Ulysses Konovalev assumed command of his father's elite Marathon Pennant to recapture his mother and return her to Outermost. In his speech to the Assembled Bloodlines of the tribe, Alexandre claimed Freya had been "taken" by Starwolf wishing to use her as a hostage against the Blood Eagle.

    VIDCLIP - Alexandre stands in Court, grim and white-faced. Camera pans across a cavernous room full of uniformed officers before returning to Alexandre. The Great Eagle appears barely under control, passions raging under a thin veneer of decorum. "Siers, I cannot tell you how deeply this destructive act wounds the relations between our tribes. Freya Cloudchaser is my wife. She is the mother of my son. I will never surrender her to the mercies of the Starwolf…."


    Starkar Mace accompanied Ulysses, despite what Mace's friends described as grave misgivings. Over the next five months, the Marathon Pennant struck a series of Starwolf holdings Ulysses believed had harbored Freya. Mace objected to this course of action. He also tried to dissuade his longtime pupil from attacking Hepta Ourubis Two, as reports indicated the Hepta Ourubis Pack had pulled together a massive force. Unfortunately, Ulysses refused to listen. Though Mace remained close to his protégé, the young Konovalev, now twenty years old, had inherited his father's blind pride.

    VIDCLIP - Ulysses in black and crimson Assault-class armor, inspecting a line of hardshell troops. He holds his helmet in the crook of his arm. Mace follows, also in Assault-class, his face expressionless.

    Cut to blurry image of Blood Eagle Scout Armors launching spinfusors into a Starwolf base. A turbograv fighter screams by overhead, chainguns yammering.

    Cut to Ulysses as he tears down a Starwolf banner in a holdfast hall. Banner in one armored fist, he toasts toasting a mixed group of Blood Eagle knights with a goblet of wine.

    "So much for this group of yappers," he says with a confident grin. "Who's next?"


    Hepta Ourubis Two was a garden planet in 3925. The tragedy of ecocide still seven years in the future.

    VIDCLIP - Pan across a lushly forested valley of silver mists. Flocks of birds rise from the treetops. In places, the mist parts to reveal a river winding between verdant hills.


    The Hepta Ourubis Pack was formidable, led by the Warlord Nevor M'Klannin, an experienced campaigner not given to rash judgments. Despite his flair for tactics and leadership, Ulysses lacked any real combat experience and was completely outmatched. He did not take advice well.

    VIDCLIP - Shot of a red-haired warrior in Starwolf gold and blue armor. He is bearded and scarred, and he surveys the land around a Starwolf base thoughtfully.


    Consequently, the Blood Eagle were utterly crushed at H-O 2.

    VIDCLIP - Carnage. The red and silver of Blood Eagle armors litter a scorched landscape. Smoking skeletons of trees and wrecked vehicles loom out of the mist.


    Some survivors escaped, such as Sikkyn-Captain Starkar Mace. The rest were taken into thralldom, a custom the Starwolf continue to follow today.

    VIDCLIP - Starwolf warriors armed with blasters herd a group of stumbling, skinsuit-clad prisoners toward a dropship.


    Ulysses Konovalev's body was never found.

    VIDCLIP - Freeze frame of a smiling Konovalev toasting his soldiers in the Starwolf hall.


    Starkar Mace disappeared shortly after the H-O 2 debacle, perhaps fearing Alexandre's wrath. Or perhaps he could not live with the shame of failing his charge.

    VIDCLIP - Freeze frame of Starkar Mace demonstrating a katar fighting move to a young Ulysses.


    Freya Cloudchaser went into seclusion among the Starwolf, grieving over the death of her younger son. She never contacted Alexandre again, and to this day her whereabouts remain unknown.

    VIDCLIP - Freeze frame of a smiling Freya Cloudchaser cradling a golden-haired infant in her arms.


    Alexandre Achilleus Konovalev spoke to no living soul for nine days. On the tenth day, he emerged from his quarters and committed the Blood Eagle to the utter destruction of the entire Starwolf tribe.

    VIDCLIP - Freeze frame of a wide-eyed Great Eagle standing in battle armor before the Court. His face twists in rage. He thrusts the curved blade of a khanjar into the air.

    "No matter the price, no matter the cost in blood or tears, we shall purge the wilderzone of their presence…! We shall destroy them once and for all! This I swear to you on the living blood of our Legacy. This I swear: They are dead! Dead! DEAD!"


    Yet despite his revitalized leadership and the guidance of his brilliant generalship, Alexandre's instability finally crystallized a seed of opposition. At the end of 3926, the Commander of the Order of Wrath's elite Eviscerator Talon, which spearheaded the renewed offensive against the Starwolf, was a woman known only by her warnom: "Fury."

    VIDCLIP - Freeze frame of a dark woman with a patch covering one eye. She wears Scout Armor armor and crouches on the running board of a Shrike-class turbograv.


    She rose in rank like a comet, propelled by success after success on the battlefield. In the coming years, both her popularity among her troops and her independence from Outermost would grow.

    VIDCLIP - Slow zoom in to image of Fury from previous shot. She appears surprisingly young for her rank. Her expression is grave, almost sad, and the corners of her mouth are tight, as if she disapproves of having her picture taken. The patch is like a yawning hole in her face.


    Today she is Alexandre's chief rival, and the Blood Eagle are torn between their oaths of loyalty to a failing House on the one hand and the promise of a vigorous new leader on the other.

    The future of the tribe rests on how the Blood Eagle choose. Will they go to a civil war, fighting over the throne as they did following the death of Grand Master Paramount Hector Komarosu back in 3831? That conflict caused more B-E deaths than any other war in the wilderzone, and has been pointed to as the bloodiest of any tribal war.

    Very soon, the Blood Eagle will play out their destiny, and we shall see whether the brilliant but unstable House Konovalev can weather the storm.

    VIDCLIP - Close up of Alexandre followed by close up of Fury.

    Cut to Blood Eagle emblem crimson inset to moss-stained stonework. As we watch, a crack appears in the middle, splitting the Eagle's breast. Then the entire screen explodes into white light.

    Fade to black.

    Chapter 7

    DEMON-CORE - part 3

    The time had come.

    Demon-Core nodded in satisfaction as he examined the hulking figures lining the assault ship's personnel bay, listened to the clack of weapon readiness, saw the gleam of light reflected from carapaces, horns, and glory plates. The grigatim had deployed into three spear-shaped craft in preparation for the attack on the Starwolf ship Retribution. This was Demon-Core's command. The invasion fleet's vanguard, of which they were a part, had dropped out of jumpthread fifteen minutes ago, disguised as Imperial trading vessels under a flag of neutrality. Each ship contained several assault craft packed with elite feroxi. Now the grigatim waited for the Steers to power the combat drives and burn for the objective. The feroxi musk was very strong in the cramped confines of the assault ship. Demon-Core grunted and tilted his head back and forth to loosen his neck muscles. He'd checked and rechecked his carapace to be sure the jets and shields were functioning. Both the chaingun and the plascannon he carried were in excellent working order.

    There was nothing left to do but wait a little longer. The killing would start soon. Urrh, but that would be good. Practicing patience had become a strain. He was eager to win more glory plates and reinforce his status as the grigatim's kill leader. He looked forward to battle again. It was what he had been bred for, after all.

    Of course, the human woman must be caught. Demon-Core had studied the layout of this "Retribution." It was a large ship. They would doubtless have to kill many humans while searching. He growled low in his throat, pleased at the prospect of action after so long a wait. Even shikahl had grown tiresome.

    "Mighty One, what are you thinking?" The Flaymaster's Inquisitor had attached itself to Demon-Core's group, a fact the Goliath greeted with a mix of elation and revulsion. Inquisitors were holy, yes, but they were also a burden. One had to protect them, and at times aggressive Inquisitors undermined a group's combat efficiency with misplaced threats or conclusions about a particular strain. Besides, Demon-Core hated the weak, treacherous things.

    He bared his teeth in greeting. "I consider the tactical situation that faces us once we come to our target."

    "What is your assessment?"

    "Urh-hah! The Starwolf do not expect us. They will be slow in their reaction. We will destroy them, for we are Strong!" Even as he said the words he knew the Inquisitor wished to hear, Demon-Core wondered why the Strong must always continue to proclaim their strength. Surely the true Strong had no need of constant boasts. It was a strange thought. Perhaps the leader of the Burning Ones was stronger than they thought. Apparently satisfied, the Inquisitor scuttled up to its berth. Demon-Core breathed a silent thanks to the Bloodsoul and rubbed one massive arm. Blood-Drinker lumbered up and locked himself into the harness at Demon-Core's left. "Hai, Demon-Core, my friend!" he rumbled happily. "Very soon now, urrh?" His harness carried a grenade launcher, a chaingun, and a spinfusor. Bulky looking to Demon-Core, but Goliaths could afford to carry extra weapons.

    "Arha. Very soon. How are the others?"

    The other Goliath shrugged. "Afraid. Why, my friend, did you pick any smaller ones to accompany us? With a go-lahk of Goliaths, we could forge ahead in glory."

    "We will bring much glory to the grigatim." Demon-Core squinted so that he could see his friend in the near-blackness. "The Runners bring us speed if we need it, and the Plunderer the same, but with more strength."

    "They are all young. Mere freshlings." Blood-Drinker sounded so mournfully doubtful that Demon-Core laughed, a sound like the grate of metal on bone.

    Not Khel-Har the Unstoppable! He is worth three Goliaths, urrha?"

    Blood-Drinker chuckled deep in his throat. "Yes, you are right. The Unstoppable is one who knows battle. Even his shadow is enough to kill a human!"

    Demon-Core laughed again. It was an old joke between the two of them. The Goliath they spoke of was an abnormally huge specimen, one the Inquisitors would have sent to the reclaiming vats years ago, except for two things. Khel-Har had the talent of being almost impervious to pain, even for one of the Hordes. Second, he proved exceptionally good at killing humans. Had he been smarter, he might have become a candidate for

    Kill-Leader. However, he could not react to the unexpected as quickly as the average feroxi.

    A vibration resonated through the assault craft, and Demon-Core felt a brief flash of nausea that signaled the use of acceleration dampeners. "We find out now whether the plan is Strong," he told Blood-Drinker. If the Starwolf were able to attack the assault ship in transit, there was nothing Demon-Core could do; it was all in the hands of the Steers.

    Their was a good plan, he thought, but no plan was perfect. There was evidently a tribe of humans who took pride in perfect planning, however. Demon-Core looked forward to teaching them the foolishness of such vanity.

    Long minutes passed.

    Beside him Blood-Drinker exhaled slowly. Demon-Core let his own breath escape, forcing it to be calm, even though his hearts beat fast. May the seed of my plasm grind the slaver filth into the dust, he recited silently. May the shadows of our past vanish like smoke in the fiery wake of our passage….

    Abruptly, a faint acceleration could be perceived, a low hum that increased gradually in pitch. Their commlinks hissed. "This is the Flaymaster. We are through the first ring of defenses, and our target lies ahead. Prepare for impact."

    "Come on, vatscum!" he roared. "Show these tribal humans the mercy of Horde Maul!"

    "For the Bloodsoul!" thundered the feroxi. Demon-Core thought he heard a note of relief in their voices. He had to admit that if he were to die, he would prefer it in direct battle, roaring and displaying his glory plates. The thought of perishing in the cold of space like a fish spilled from a broken tank unsettled him. His hearts filled with pride at the thought of going into battle with such strong companions.

    His HUD flashed up a message: Impact in T minus two minutes.

    Blood-Drinker leaned over and nudged him with an elbow. "My friend, I have decided we shall keep the freshlings safe while they learn strength. It is our duty as the Strong."

    Demon-Core began to chuckle, then he realized his friend was serious. "Don't talk like that, Blood-Drinker," he said. "There are some-" he swung his head to point his horns at the Inquisitor's nest, "-who would consider such a statement weak."

    "Weak? Me?" Blood-Drinker chortled. "It's a blind Inquisitor who would think that! But enough! A game, O Demon-Core, mighty Kill-Leader!"


    "I challenge you! Let us count our kills on this ship. The one with the lower kill number must polish the other's equipment for a week and fetch biru for him besides!"

    Demon-Core considered it, scraping one of his tusks with a talon. His HUD read Impact in T minus thirty seconds. "Done! I am Kill-Leader, and I will beat you in this also! But listen you: guard your great flapping tongue, urr-ha?"

    Blood-Drinker tapped talon to horn in mock salute. "I hear and obey, Kill-Leader!"

    "Good." Demon-Core clapped his friend on the shoulder and bellowed, "Brace yourselves, vatscum!" The ship would spear into the Retribution and break open at the bow so that the feroxi could pour into the Starwolf vessel. It would be a fearful impact, and not all the feroxi survived, though Demon-Core felt confident they would suffer few losses. This was a veteran grigatim. All of them had been through at least one capital ship boarding.

    In the dim light of the carrier bay, the feroxi tensed. Demon-Core stole a glance at the Inquisitor's nest, where the holy one crouched amid sophisticated padding that would cushion it against the crash. To his surprise, he saw the glow of the Inquisitor's gaze directed at him. For a moment, he felt great unease, wondering whether the Inquisition suspected his plasm of any flaw. Then he realized the Inquisitor's attention was directed at Blood-Drinker. Suddenly Demon-Core felt fear for his friend, a dark feeling that marred his excitement at the upcoming battle.

    T minus five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.


    Chapter 8

    Fury - Part 4

    "You're nuts," Mace said. He shook his head. "Ymir's a deathtrap, Alyx."

    Alyxandra Helena Konovalev regarded him quietly, arms folded across her chest, then turned to face her brother. "What do you think, Lex?" Ulysses Alexandre Konovalev looked troubled as he set his coffee down. When he spoke, his words came out carefully, as if discussing these matters was a language strange to him.

    "I think… you've considered this whole thing carefully, but it's still basically a huge gamble." He shrugged. "Sorry. It's been a long time since I've had to think about anything other than moving rocks. I'm probably not the best qualified to offer judgment on military strategy." "Don't give me that," she snapped. "You were the brightest star in Outermost's academy, and your scores have never been eclipsed-"

    "Present company excepted," Mace cut in. "Give him a break, Alyx. He's been in limbo for almost half his life, not to mention the memory loss."

    Lex held up a hand. "Let be, Dad. She's right."

    She stiffened at the open reference to Mace's status. "I see there are no longer any secrets."

    "In private," Mace said. "In public he's still Alexandre's - actually, right now he's nobody. A minstrel's prentice. Regarding the relationship, though, I didn't realize it for a long time myself." He looked embarrassed. "Goes to show what you'll hide from yourself if you try hard enough."

    "Funny thing about memory all around," Lex continued. "Mine was gone for a long time, but what I've gotten back is so clear, it's like… like it happened yesterday. Everything. That mnemonic implanter I was stuck with gave me a lot more than-"

    "Lex," Mace warned.

    "Yeah. Right." Lex rubbed his temple and gave Fury a shaky grin. She resolved to ferret out what they'd just hidden from her, but it would wait.

    "Those sims you ran for us are pretty detailed," he continued. "You've thought of a lot of stuff I wouldn't have: situation-response formations, jamming salvos out the gate, remora fighter launch and mine deployment… Dark, it's a lot to absorb."

    "I've had a lot of time to think about it," Fury said, part of her brain filing away her brother's use of the Starwolf epithet. "What I want to know is why you're so convinced going to Ymir is necessary," Lex said. "If the Bloodlines are already mobilizing, isn't that enough?"

    Mace leaned back and blew air out his cheeks in exasperation. "Maybe not. Alexandre still rules, and nobody will move without his say-so. That it, Alyx? You want to give them something they can't ignore? Are you finally making a play for the throne?" Two gray eyes bored into her one.

    "I want to inspire them to act without waiting for a madman's orders." Fury met his gaze. It was difficult, matching wills with this man from her childhood, but she managed, adding, "I don't want to rule, Starkar. I hate Outermost and the backstabbing politics that infects the Court. Besides, it would trigger a true civil war, and I won't be responsible for that."

    "Why not?" Mace asked. "You're threatening one right now."

    "A false threat. I won't let it lead to bloodshed."

    "I don't know that it's in your hands anymore. I picked up some rumors of division in the ranks. For example, the Crimson Suns Order may declare for you openly if Eun Alba's staff can convince him to take the leap."

    Mace picked up his coffee and took a leisurely swig. "Tell me, Alyx: How is it you've kept your secret all these years? If the Orders knew you were Konovalev, there'd be a lot of support for placing you on the throne."

    Fury took a sip from her mug of tea before answering. "First tell me how you guessed," she said. "It's not common knowledge, to say the least, and I don't have the same face you knew me by."

    "No special brilliance on my part, I'm afraid." Mace laughed and put the mug down. "Old Starkweather and I were good friends, you might recall. I kept in touch off and on over the years, and he tipped me off when I sent word to him about returning to B-E space. Said you'd done him proud."

    "I'll roast him," she said without rancor. "We worked damned hard to make the cover and make sure it stuck." Lex looked completely lost, so she decided to explain. "You know I was fostered with the Starkweathers. Shortly after you were lost, there was an assassination attempt. I was the target. Somebody tried to leave the tribe without an heir." She rubbed her eye patch uneasily. "Obviously, they failed, but we decided to put out that they'd succeeded."

    "Why?" Lex asked.

    "The assassin was good, too good. Brilliant, in fact, and so highly trained it's a miracle I made it out alive. We still can't tell you where he came from, but it wasn't Cardinal Spear, and I don't think it was the Empire. We didn't get a chance to interrogate him, either." "Like Nagashima back when," Mace said.


    "How'd you make it, if he was so good?" Lex prompted.

    "That's my secret," she said.

    "Good enough," Mace said. Lex nodded, and Fury continued.

    "We provided a body with the appropriate injuries, and I went through surgery to alter my features, my voice, and my geneprint. Afterwards, Starkweather put me into his forces as an orphan, an obscure ward of the Bloodline whose parents were killed in '15. My history is sketchy, and I'm listed as six years older than I am. There are a few other details to make it stick, but essentially I'm supposed to be from nobody stock."

    "And Cardinal Spear bought it?" Mace asked. "Alexandre didn't throw a fit?"

    Fury smiled. "My idea. The assassin did hit someone, you see. Starkweather's niece Fienna. She lived, but in a permanent coma. We altered her to look like me and sent her 'home' to Outermost." She stared at the table, a lump suddenly in her throat. "Father had her killed within a week. Nobody mentions my-her-name at Court. Or anywhere." Old memories flooded her, and she didn't know how to handle them. These two men brought back so much she'd buried. She drew a deep breath and looked up. Lex had a troubled expression on his face, almost a guilty one. Mace reached out and squeezed her arm.

    "Alyxandra Helena Konovalev has been dead for fifteen years. She doesn't exist." She steeled her voice. "There's only Fury. And I have earned my rank." Lex froze at the last sentence. She'd said it sharply, but he needed to know how things stood with her, what she valued. "I think the question here is: what now? Do you plan to return to Outermost, brother?"

    He stared at his fists for a long moment. When he answered, his voice was soft but determined. "No. I've been… away… for a long time. A thrall. It wouldn't be smart right now. I'm not qualified to take up where I left off. And I don't think I want to. I'm not the same person I was, memories or not."

    "You're a powerful symbol, son," Mace said. "People have already seen you and made guesses. Rumors have started."

    "Just guesses, just rumors." Lex raised his head and turned his full attention to Fury. "I want to go with you, Alyx. To Ymir."

    "Oh, Christ and Hunter." Mace thumped the table. "Not you, too. Is having a death wish a family trait?"

    Fury sat back and scrutinized her brother. He was sincere, she realized. Completely sincere. He'd never been adept at deception. Not like a full Konovalev, she thought bitterly. Not like her.

    "You're the heir to the Exiled Bloodlines, like it or not," she said. "How can I take you into a 'deathtrap' when you may offer a peaceful succession to the tribe? Give me a compelling reason, Lex. Otherwise, you stay here out of the line of fire." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mace nod in agreement.

    Lex leaned toward her, blue eyes ablaze. Uncertainty fell away from him like a cloak. In that moment, she saw her mother's features and Mace's blended so strongly that she wondered how anyone could ever have believed a drop of Konovalev blood ran through this man's veins.

    "So I can earn my rank, Sirdar-Prime," he said.


    It would begin soon. Ursula couldn't wait. The desire for blood thrummed in her muscles, a murderous need that burned away the edge of reason.

    The Blood Eagle prisoners stood stoically on the other side of the dropship bay, their scarlet and silver armors gleaming under the harsh lights. One was a confident young man of impressive physique, the other an older woman with a scarred face who met Ursula's gaze with an appraising one of her own. It was she who would be the real challenge, not the stripling.

    "Don't do this, Ursa-it's a fool's game," her husband Kalamon murmured over the commlink. "For the love of Wolf, call it off."

    By the Great Bitch, didn't he understand? "Kal, this isn't the damned Firetruce, so shut up! Or I'll have you down on Ymir teaching newbloods how to dig ice trenches!"

    "You are the Law, Ur-Warlord," he answered stiffly. She heard the hurt and anger in his voice, but it didn't matter. The butchers had tortured her only son to death! Her son! The only thing they hadn't defiled with their knives was his face, but even that had frozen in lines of agony. She saw it every time she closed her eyes. Her boy. Carved up like a kraalbeest. There were no tears left now, only rage.

    She stepped forward and addressed her two opponents. They wore light Scout Armor armors without helmets, as did she. The only weapons were long knives and the armors themselves. Ursula clenched and unclenched her fist, felt the soft click of the armor's microservos that augmented her strength. She was ready. Her pulse thundered.

    "Hear me, scrof! I am Ursula DiVaragas, warnom 'Slasher,' Ur-Warlord of the Starwolf, Leader of the Ten Thousand Knives of the Great Muster! Your kin killed my son! I claim blood-right to your lives, and the lives of all your tribe!" She threw her hands wide. "You know the terms: to the death! You win, you get freedom and passage home. I win... your carcasses go into space with the garbage."

    The young butcher shifted uncomfortably. The scarred woman spat. "You expect us to believe your promises, yapper?" she said.

    "You get a better chance than you gave my son!" Ursula snapped, the rage roaring up in her like a black wave.

    "Begin," came Kal's voice over the intercom, flat with disapproval. All three combatants blurred into motion. Ursula went for the woman first. The boy was barely past newblood, not a serious threat; he'd try to distract Ursula while the real killer moved in. She triggered her jets and hurled herself across the open bay.

    The boy tried to body-block her, but he was clumsy. She twisted aside in mid-air and drove her forearm down to deflect his hurtling body with a clang, sparks flashing where the armors touched. She landed in a crouch, the boy off somewhere behind and to the right, the butcher woman coming down in a jet-assisted spin kick aimed at Ursula's unprotected head.

    Bracing herself, Ursula crossed both arms in a high block to trap the other's leg, but the woman pulled the kick at the last moment, instead twisting to plant that foot on the deck and lash out in a low back kicking sweep with the other. Fast as she was, Ursula was faster, driven by sheer rage. She dove over the Blood Eagle's shoulder and slashed the woman's face open from nose to cheek to jaw, the knife tip trailing crimson in its wake. Ursula jerked her head aside and felt a razor pain in her ear, followed by something wet on her neck. The Blood Eagle grunted and leaped back, one hand covering her bloody face. Ursula heard herself laugh, shrill and tight.

    A shush of jets warned her the boy was jetting back, again too recklessly. Ursula feinted forward toward the woman, then dodged to the side and buried her blade backhanded in the boy's throat, the blow's force aggravated by his own momentum and driving the parasteel into his chest past the hilt. She didn't have time to savor his death. The Blood Eagle woman counterattacked, and Ursula had to retreat without her weapon. She circled and parried with her arms, waiting for the face wound to take its toll on her enemy.

    It wasn't easy. The butcher woman was good enough to give Ursula a few near brushes with death. In the end, though, the butcher simply couldn't breathe well enough with all the blood clogging her nose and throat. Within a few minutes, she faltered and left herself open.

    "God curse all yappers," she managed to blurt before Ursula broke her neck with a lunging palm strike to the face.

    Ursula took a few deep breaths as the rage ebbed. She felt no sense of victory. The hold smelled of recycled air and blood. She looked at the bodies and was surprised to feel tears streaming down her face. Tears! She'd thought she was done with weeping. It wouldn't bring Laram back, but maybe.... She choked out a sob. Great Wolf...! Maybe if she killed enough of these bloody-handed, murderous scrof... maybe every last hunchin' one....

    Maybe then she'd be able to cry enough for her son.

    She pulled herself together. She was the leader of the Starwolf Muster and could not show weakness. "Kal," she said in a husky voice, "space this trash, will you?" She wiped her face on her arm and headed for the freshers, blood dripping from her hands.

    It was a beginning.


    Pain. A red maze of terrible, endless agony.

    "What is your name, spy?"

    "Who is your contact?"

    "What were you doing on Charybdis?"

    The man who called himself Markhel Domeran still had his eyes - they hadn't touched his face yet, thank the Great Wolf - but clamps held his head toward a glaring light on the ceiling. The air was thick with the smell of blood and worse. He must not break. He must not betray - no! Don't even think her name! She must have time to escape with the data! He might mumble his thoughts aloud. Concentrate: I am Markhel Domeran, freelance witness for ZoneVox….

    The cycle began again. "What is your name, spy?" the unseen questioner droned.

    "M-Markhel D-Domeran…!" They hadn't broken him yet, but they'd succeed shortly. The butchers were too good at their craft. He couldn't hold out much longer. They mustn't know who his parents were, either, he knew. It would be much worse if they knew that.

    The pain vanished suddenly, and the unseen questioner sighed tiredly. "You're a stubborn subject, Starwolf."

    The abrupt absence of pain after so many nightmare hours was almost enough to bring Domeran to tears.

    A shadowy face blotted out the glare. The spy blinked repeatedly, but his eyes failed to focus.

    "Are you human?" the dry voice held a new intensity that stirred the ashes of the spy's curiosity.

    "Wha-what?" the spy husked. His throat felt shredded from screaming.

    "Are you human?"

    He tapped the last reserves of his anger. "Damn you." The tears streamed down his face. "More human than you, butcher."

    A gentle finger wiped a tear from his eye. "You will break very soon, you know."

    Domeran clenched his jaw and shook his head as much as the clamps allowed. What time was it? Had Lydrea gotten offplanet yet? A moan escaped his lips.

    "When the pain returns, it will be worse. Much worse. Why not tell the truth and spare yourself?"

    I am telling the truth, Domeran wanted to say, but hope and fear betrayed him, and all he produced was a sob.

    The shadow withdrew, and the merciless glare blazed down again. The spy braced himself, but his resistance hung by a thread now. The respite and its brief kindness had unmanned him, doubtless as the Blood Eagle intended.

    To his surprise, the pain did not return. Instead, the glare dimmed, and the shadow leaned over him again. Domeran saw chiseled features, a barbed tattoo on one cheek, a shaved scalp.

    "We are finished," the Blood Eagle said. "I judge you to be human. Thus, I salute your courage. You have won a quick and honorable death."

    Domeran was stunned. No more pain?

    "Give us your name so that we may speed your body to your kin."

    A trick…! "Markhel Domeran," Domeran managed. "…ZoneVox witness…."

    The Blood Eagle frowned. "Very well. A pack name among the Starwolf, then. I would not probe further, but a warrior's death should be known by his family."

    My family…! Domeran's mind whirled. He couldn't detect anything but sincerity in the Blood Eagle's words. The pain waited offstage, a great beast poised to rip asunder what little dignity he still retained. Was the butcher telling the truth? Would he grant death instead of shame?

    The Blood Eagle seemed to read his thoughts. "I swear by my bloodline that I tell you true… 'Markhel Domeran.' A pack name only, and then you will have peace."

    Domeran licked his lips, drew a ragged breath. The Eagles were known to abide by their word, but he couldn't tell them who his mother was. They'd use him against her. The thought of more pain tore at him. If he were to die, he could not betray anyone. Slowly, he whispered a name. The wrong name, but one that would eventually lead him home.

    The Blood Eagle nodded. "That will suffice," he said. "Farewell with honor, Wolf. Your family will know you died well."

    The last thing the spy ever felt was something cold and sharp sliding across his throat.

    Ursula - Part 2

    The Warlords waited for her in the Black Room, the strategic operations center deep in the heart of the Starwolf flagship Retribution. Ursula strode in and took her seat in the circle, ignoring the salutes of her staff. Her thigh still ached where one of the Blood Eagle prisoners from the other day had landed a solid kick. She rubbed it absently with her fist.

    "Let's get to work," she said. "Fleet status, Kal."

    "Sure thing." Her husband rotated his chair toward the viewscreen that dominated one wall. He tapped the controls on his armrest, and an organizational schematic appeared on the screen. The hoarse voice and deep lines in his face betrayed his fatigue. He'd run himself mercilessly trying to whip their patchwork fleet into a cohesive military organism while Ursula worked on training ground assault forces and navigating the fiery politics of the tribe's command structure. Her main problem involved keeping the tangled and fractious Starwolf warbands united. The challenges Kal faced came from the same source. The Starwolf's traditional independence and interstellar sprawl meant they were totally unready to cooperate effectively in any mass naval action.

    He'd also been taking care of her at the same time, which she had to admit added immensely to his stress levels. She felt a twinge of guilt but suppressed it.

    He rubbed his face before starting, as if to keep himself awake. "OK, we're close. The overhaul is nearly complete. Almost every ship of the fleet now carries standard communications and sensor suites. Our crews have gotten their battlegroup maneuver and communications drills up over ninety percent efficiency. We'll see how that holds up under live fire conditions, but I'm damn glad we made it this far." He made an adjustment to his comp, and the display changed to a starmap of the Starwolf-Blood Eagle territories, highlighting a string of stars between the two regions. "A more pressing problem is the small-scale raids Fury's been mounting along the border. We've stripped so much fighting power that our defenses in other areas are tapped out. Some of the fringe systems have suffered Griever raids. A few of our Captains have expressed worry about defenseless holdworlds, and the border Thanes have requested the return of their Packs."

    Medavara M'Klannin shook her head in disgust. "Cowards. They have the means to hold out against these piddling annoyances. With all the other tribes clustering at the Firetruce, there won't be any major raids."

    A snort came from Milanos "Bearshark" Bane, the stubborn white-haired giant who led the Stormrender Thousand. He was an old man, but still fit and vital, a legend in the tribe and a constant thorn in Ursula's side. "We come from a border system, and you don't find our Thane mewling about Fury's pinpricks. Ignore them!"

    "Blood Eagle raids have dropped off since we took Shek Two and denied her that jumpgate," Kalamon added. "Fury has to shuttle troops through Halakar space to reach the border now. It's a much longer route to her targets. I think those Thanes will be more than satisfied."

    Ursula nodded. "Good. Remind them that if we deal with the butchers decisively, we'll all be safer in the long run. A year from now, maybe two, we'll be at Outermost, besieging the Great Eagle in his last stronghold." She managed a thin smile. "And Gavram's assault wing handled the invasion of Shekerik Two very well. I'd say that gives us a useful indicator of crew performance as well as a buffer against Fury."

    Bane cracked his palm against the table, and several of the warlords started. "Ur-Warlord, we don't need buffers! We outnumber Fury - it's embarrassing by how much! Shek Two was unnecessary - all we did was put another planet between us and that butcher witch! It's her buffer, not ours!"

    "Since you're jumping in, why not tell us how your troops are doing, Bane?" Ursula shot back.

    "Feh! The Stormrenders will rip the wings off those bastards whenever you finally see fit to turn us loose! We've been ready for months while you all fret like sandrakers about supply line integrity and communication protocols!"

    Kal stiffened, several of the other Warlords winced, and Ursula fought back the urge to leap across the table and put her fist into the insolent old bastard's teeth. The perfect example of the command problems she faced, the Stormrenders were fierce fighters, but unwilling to follow commands coming from sources other than their own clan chiefs. Worse, Bane favored what he called "direct strategy" and flatly refused to wait in reserve. He was a tenacious leader loved by his warriors, but not the brightest light in the Muster. Ursula only secured his cooperation after she promised he would be in the vanguard of the assault on Charybdis. Dealing with him was a constant test of her temper, and he'd just been getting worse as the Muster's preparations dragged on.

    "That day will come, Warlord, I assure you." Turning to Gavram Argos, the Admiral of Stars who would coordinate the Fleet's Battlegroups during the invasion, she asked, "How soon will we be ready to move, Gav?"

    "Fourteen days. Ten to shake out the last loose ends, and another four to finish loading everyone." Argos grinned. "We'll come down on Charybdis like a rainstorm from hell, sir."

    Bane folded his arms and sneered. "After the Stormrenders have done the hard work and spilled their blood cracking open Fury's defenses, right?"

    "By the Wolf, Milanos! Don't you ever use that tone in front of me!" Ursula slammed to her feet, rage thundering in her temples.

    He stood also, his face mottling. "Why not? If you'd let us go after Fury with M'Klannin's boys and the Branded Mountain Thousand, we'd have broken the witch before she had a chance to dig in any further!"

    "Aren't you forgetting what happened on Shek Two? How her troops - severely outnumbered - fended off our ground assault while they pulled their people out?"

    "They didn't get everyone," Argos put in. "We took quite a few prisoners."

    Bane waved a meaty hand at Argos. "His pinhanded stringers couldn't hold the jumpgate! But that's my point, damn it! If I was there, we'd have crushed the butchers!" He glared around the table, his eyes like hot blue flames. "The Stormrenders know how to fight the Blood Scrof better than any of you! We've shared a border with them for over two hundred years! But here we're bottled up prancing through a lot of political trumpery! Jury-rigging our ships while the butchers laugh and burrow deeper into their maggoty fortresses!"

    "Let me remind you," said Ursula, exerting enormous effort to contain herself, "Fury is different from the other Blood Eagle we've fought. Her Order is highly disciplined. They don't turtle up like most butchers. We can't afford to face her without being fully prepared."

    He laughed in her face. "You're afraid of her because she killed your son! That's the truth, isn't it?"

    The words hit Ursula like bullets, and she stared down at the table, afraid of what she would do if she continued to look at Bane's arrogant face. Murder him, most likely. Her hands knotted so hard the knuckles whitened. She felt herself tremble as the rage tightened like a steel band around her ribcage. How dare he?

    How dare he!

    The room had fallen deadly silent. She heard the scrape as Kalamon got to his feet. "That's enough, Bane," he said in an icy voice. "You're out of li-"

    "Get the hell out of my war room." Ursula spat the words out like pieces of glass. She looked up and met his rage with her own. "Out!"

    "I'll go," Bane snarled, "but don't think you can order us around when it comes to real battle! The Stormrenders fight their own wars."

    Only a supreme exercise of will kept her fists from pulping the sneer off the man's face. "I'm sure Fury will be glad to hear that, Warlord. You're welcome to go after her whenever you like." She laughed at the surprise in his eyes. "Ayia! Why not go now? After all, you've been ready for months, haven't you?"

    He tensed as she approached him and stared up into his weathered face. "You can go now, Warlord," she said in a deadly tone. "You are dismissed."

    He reddened, then spun and stomped out without another word. The door shushed closed behind him.

    She turned and regarded the room. "Anyone else want to leave my command?" Several gazes dropped, but no one moved.

    "We're with you, Ur-Warlord," said M'Klannin quietly.

    "Good. I thank you." She breathed a silent thanks. "Let's reconvene in ten minutes." After the warlords had left, she found herself alone with Kal.

    "You better get a grip on your temper, Soo," he observed.

    "He provoked me."

    "And you took his bait. How can you expect us to win with a commander who lacks self-control?"

    She slumped into a chair and closed her eyes. Her head ached. "I don't need you to tell me this, Kal."

    "Yes, you do. And you also need to know you're right. Someone needs to settle the Blood Eagle. They've been a blight on the wilderzone for a long time. But you can't let the anger dominate you like it's done so far."

    "They killed my son."

    "Your son?" Pain shadowed his words. "Laram was my son, too. Remember?"

    She knew she should say something conciliatory, but she couldn't summon the will. The rage was there, hot and flaring, blocking all feeling. Kal didn't understand how it protected her from the abyss that yawned in her soul every time she thought of Laram. But he was right that she needed better control. The clash with Bane had stoked the rage and hatred to a fresh heat. There was only one way she could quench it to a manageable level.

    She opened her eyes. "Kal?"


    "Two more butchers. In the morning. Cargo Hold B."

    His face closed, and something in her heart clenched, but she didn't know how to reach out anymore.

    "Ursula-" he began.

    She cut him off. "No. Two butchers. Oh-six-hundred hours."

    For an instant he looked ready to refuse, but she caught his gaze and held it. Finally he relented. She saw it in the resigned slump of his shoulders. He did know she needed the outlet for her pain, even though he disliked it.

    "And Kal?"


    "Get me real fighters this time."

    Ursula - Part 3

    "Another newblood-veteran combination?" Ursula snorted. "C'mon, Kal. Get me something that's going to be a challenge."

    Her husband didn't see the humor in her joke, but kept that sour frown on his face as he adjusted her armor. She wore her standard Scout Armor gear, the old style with the covered midriff, unlike the daring shield-reliant designs that were coming out of late.

    Kalamon straightened, ran a hand through his hair, and shook his head. "Again, Su, this is starkissin' crazy. Call it off."

    "You know I can't, so shut up about it." She looked across the cargo bay. The butchers and their escort had come in a few minutes ago. Today's opponents were two men, both of them tall and strong, though one of them was outright huge. A Blood Eagle tattoo covered his forehead. The other looked younger, and didn't have any noticeable scars.

    She gestured at the escort, two young women and a couple of men. "Which one jumped into the prison camp?"

    "The dark-haired one. Kenzie. She's a newblood."

    "A young idiot's what she is." Ursula smacked a fist into her palm. It sounded like a hammer hitting an anvil. "Who's the big warrior?"

    "Ah," Kalamon said, his craggy features looking uncomfortable. "That's Bandolas Bax, formerly a Sergeant."

    "Spill it. What's his story?"

    He sighed. "Tortured by the Blood Eagle until he suffered permanent brain damage. Freed during a reprisal raid. He can still fight, but he probably couldn't pour biru out of his boot if the instructions were embossed on the sole."


    "Afraid so."

    "Scroffin' murderers." The usual grim rage worked its fingers up her spine. Her temples tightened until it felt like her heart thumped in tandem above her eyes. The veins throbbed. The need to kill absorbed her once again. She sucked in a deep breath through her nose and headed for the escort.

    "Su?" Kal's voice behind her.

    "I'm going to have a word with the young idiot before we start." She glanced back over her shoulder. "Don't worry, I'm not going to lecture her like the Phoenix Prime at a garden party. She needs to know this is war."

    As she approached the other Starwolf, she took in the familiar room around her, the coolness on her skin, the sterile smell of recycled air, the ringing of each step on the stahlplast floor. Her armor hummed and clicked faintly, a subtle background noise that reassured her. This was her killing ground, and that knowledge centered her, gave her an anchor she could use to focus her anger. Through the rage, she felt intensely alive, as she always did with a duel. That was why she fought, she knew. Fighting kept her in touch with life. It kept her alive. So she could avenge her son.

    The escort members came to attention as Ursula came up to them. The problem girl was young, dark-haired, and pretty in a coltish kind of way. Not like her blonde companion, who could easily have stepped into a Starwolf recruiting poster and gotten males to join in droves. Both girls seemed distracted. The large fellow, Bax, was a handsome enough man. His features had a hint of true idiocy about them, but someone obviously trusted him in armor with live ammunition, so he couldn't be that stupid.

    "At ease." She stole a glance at the butchers. They'd donned their armors and were running their systems checks. The sight of the crimson and silver suits drove a hot spike into Ursula's brain, and she felt the killing urge well up in her.

    Returning her attention to the dark-haired girl, she said, "So. You're Kenzie. Mind telling me what you find so bloody wonderful about the butchers?"

    The blonde tried to hide a smile, and Kenzie flushed scarlet. She opened her mouth and closed it, then opened it again.

    "Come on, girl!" Ursula snapped. "Don't play fish face with me. Just answer the question."

    "I… that is, ah…" Kenzie gulped. "I didn't think we should treat them like that."

    "What? They get to torture us and we have to treat them like they're human beings?"

    Kenzie's flush deepened, but a determined look came over her. "Yes, sir. We're supposed to be better than they are, so we should keep those standards."

    "She has a thing for one of the butchers, sir," chimed in the blonde girl.

    "I didn't ask you," Ursula said. "That true, Kenzie? You let one of these killers get under your skin?"

    The girl stared at her for a long moment, and then dropped her eyes. "Sort of, sir. I guess."

    "Which one?" Ursula held up a hand to forestall an answer. "No, don't bother. I can guess it's not the old tattooed fat one." She clapped Kenzie on the shoulder and held the girl's gaze. "Listen, newblood. Your crush is going to die tonight. You're going into a war, and the sooner you realize the butchers are the enemy, the better."

    She said an encouraging word to the blonde girl and turned to Bax. Before she could say anything, he dropped to his knees and clutched at her foot. Shocked temporarily by his reaction, she didn't pull away. When the big warrior looked up, his eyes streamed with tears.

    "Kill 'em, Slasher," he said with a deep, rumbling voice that reminded her of a child's in its inflection. "Butchers hurt Bax. Make them stop."

    Dimly, she was aware of the blonde girl dropping to her knees beside Bax in an effort to comfort him. Kenzie stood there wavering, as though the same impulse moved her but she resisted it. Ursula shook her head, trying to clear it. An indefinable emotion moved in her at the gesture of this simple, damaged man who - at that moment - suddenly reminded her of her son Laram. It undercut her rage, and she pulled away with an effort.

    "Get up, warrior," she said hoarsely. "Act like a man."

    "Yessir." He stood and wiped the tears from his face with a forearm, leaving a wet streak across the armored surface.

    "Alright." Composure regained, she stepped back. "No one interferes. Understand?" They all nodded. "Good. Get the restraining bolts off the butcher armors and bring them to the starting point." She spun and jetted across the bay to where Kal waited.

    "What was all that about?" he asked as he handed her her knife. "Looked like some weird sandraker ceremony."

    She shook her head. "Another butcher crime to avenge. That's all." Her arm whipped the knife through an elaborate pattern. At the end of it, she tossed the blade spinning in the air and caught it point down with her other hand. The weapon whined as it sliced another pattern into the air.

    "I'm ready." She sounded harder than she felt, though. The rage was still there, but somehow it had unraveled at the edges. The disappointed look in Kenzie's eyes combined with the pleading in Bax's.

    Suddenly, Ursula felt very tired. She focused on the two butchers and tried to stoke her rage once again. They both wore Assault-classs, which meant they were less agile, but stronger. No one was wearing helmets, so any blow to the head would most likely be deadly. The seasoned one would be the more dangerous. He'd probably use the younger to distract her while he moved in for the kill. Same old story she'd met before.

    "Hear me, murderers!" she called out. "I am Ursula Lennaera DiVaragas, warnom 'Slasher,' Ur-Warlord of the Starwolf, Leader of the Ten Thousand Knives of the Great Muster! Your kin killed my son! I claim blood-right to your lives, and the lives of all your tribe!" She pointed the knife at them, first one, then the other. "We fight to the death! You win, it's freedom and safe passage home. I win, and what's left of you goes out the airlock."

    Incredibly, the young butcher answered, his mocking voice cutting into the silence that normally followed her challenge. "You gonna show a good vid on the way back to B-E space? The one on the way out here didn't do much for me."

    The rage came back with a vengeance, and Ursula welcomed it. A picture flashed up in her mind's eye of these two butchers cutting her son up and laughing while they did it. Snarling, she kicked off and hurled herself toward them, angling toward the mocker.

    He leaped to her left, letting the tattooed man meet her first rush. The big warrior was good, and moved with a speed that belied his bulk. Their knives clashed, and she danced back just ahead of a wicked cut that would have decapitated her had it hit its target. The mocker came at her from the side then, his blade held low. She feinted a parry and then leaped up and lashed a toe kick at his head. He turned and just barely caught the blow with his pauldron as the point of her foot struck sparks from the crimson armor. The impact staggered him, and he dropped to one knee, eyes flashing. The idiot had a half-grin on his face, and her fury redoubled.

    Ursula made to follow up, but the big man was on her again like a bulldog. She brought her knee up and elbow down simultaneously in time to shatter his knife blade on one of his thrusts. She stabbed at him but he slapped her attack away and pressed his. Agility and speed were her weapons; if she let him grapple, she was finished. A side kick to his knee plate slowed his advance, and she jetted safely back just ahead of the mocker's second attack, delivered in a peculiar circular style that differed from the usual hard style, straight-at-you butcher approach.

    These two were competent. Good. She'd get to stretch her skills. She caught a glimpse of the others watching her, but they didn't really exist for her. There was the battle, a rhythm of jet, fist, foot, and blade that became her world. They maneuvered and clashed, but the two didn't let her separate them. The big one would tire if she pressed the attack; she didn't know how long the younger one would hold out.

    The battle blurred by, occasionally freezing into stark moments. Wind of her passage slapped at her as she hurtled through the air and banked off a wall to slash at one of her enemies. She scuttled crablike around one and then shot like a missile along the deck to get some distance. Her knife clanged off an upraised forearm in a staccato one-two-three as she drove at the vulnerable head. Sweat poured off the face of the tattooed man. Her breath sounded harsh in her ears.

    Finally, she slipped her knife into a chink in the mocker's armor and drew blood from his wrist. He switched his knife to the other hand, but she could see he wasn't as clever with that grip. That half-grin persisted, though, infuriating her.

    In her next attack, a feint-feint snap kick combination struck the blade out of his hand, and it skittered away across the deck. Pain flashed across his face, but he recovered in time to block a flurry of attacks. That circular style was a problem, but she had seen enough to adapt to it. The two had tried to mix her up, but their plans were obvious now. The veteran had tried to be the stalking horse and open her to the other's attack. Interesting strategy, if a doomed one.

    Time to finish it.

    A whirlwind series of feints and slashing attacks drove them farther apart from each other. The big man was tiring fast now. His breathing had grown increasingly ragged, and he had slowed noticeably. The younger man left blood on the deck here and there, small spatters that nonetheless meant he was weakening. He had a darker complexion, but he looked a little gray to her. And though they'd led her a merry chase, they hadn't been able to mark her.

    The rage rose to a fever pitch. She made her move.

    A feinting lunge at the big man shifted to a sudden leaping reversal in which she back flipped and aimed a whirling spin kick at the younger butcher. She'd figured he'd block it, so she planned to twist hard, legs reversing in a corkscrew move that would roll her over his head and let her plant a heel into the opposite side of his head. She'd practiced this move many a time. If he could block it, he was a magician.

    But something went wrong. The ship shuddered under a distant impact, and her timing was off, so she changed the first move's setup to a feint and switched to a spinning back kick. It looked good. The butcher's guard was down. If he missed, she was going to take his head off.

    He blocked… just. He stabbed his hand at her, palm out, thumb pointed at the floor, and turned just enough that his forearm came up underneath and deflected her foot so that it missed his head. That hunchin' circular style!

    She was only dimly aware of the ship shuddering again as she bounced away with a touch of her jets. The rage had become a roaring furnace now, her world narrowed to the two men she fought. Skinning her teeth back from her lips, she pressed her attack. One man tired, the other slowly bled to death.

    She would outlast them. And then she'd bury them.


    The pain was a constant companion. It ebbed and flowed through all his waking hours, and it tormented his sleep. He had schooled himself to betray no outward hint of it, but the attacks grew sharper each day, and he doubted his strength would last indefinitely. Now thousands of eyes would be on him. He must not falter.

    Renn Gistos yl-Harabec, Phoenix Prime, High Warden of the Wing of Glory, Keeper of the Holy Word, and Scion of the First Tribe, stepped out of the shuttle and breathed the tepid morning air of Bella Omega, site of the Seventh Firetruce. It was only a short time since the sun rose, but he could already taste the humidity that promised to become a sweltering heat before midmorning. When one had walked on over a hundred worlds, one developed a keen nose for climate. Still, it was beautiful and lush with vegetation. He approved of the Diamond Sword's choice.

    A spasm flared up like lightning ripping through his vitals. He masked the sudden agony by pausing as though he merely surveyed his surroundings, though anyone close to him would have remarked on the sudden rigidity of his posture. When it passed-thank the Lord Phoenix it was not one of his longer attacks, for he could not afford to show weakness-he made his way carefully down the steps.

    A small delegation waited below him, accompanied by an honor guard of Diamond Sword Assault-classs whose armor flashed in the sunlight. Other Diamond Sword stood guard on the buildings around the landing zone, alongside the glittering gold armors of Children of Phoenix warriors. A riot of fiery orange and scarlet flowers cascaded from the terraced buildings, and multicolored banners stirred in the morning breeze. The sight was sweet and fresh, like hope on the wing. Renn let the brightness fill his heart.

    An attractive young woman stepped out of the delegation to greet him. She wore enameled white armor emblazoned with a purple thunderbolt. So this is the girl chosen as Speaker of the Firetruce Council! She was much younger than he'd expected, though he'd known she was a junior officer from an independent tribe that followed a version of his own faith in the Phoenix. Why did the Diamond Sword choose her? he wondered. She didn't strike him as a conspirator. The girl had an appraising expression, and he saw the lines of strain on her face.

    Suddenly he knew why the Diamond Sword had placed her here. She is too new to this game. With the insight came a rush of pity for her. Welcome to the world of politics, child. May it not destroy you… as it has me.

    "Greetings, Light of the First Tribe," she said with a deep bow. "I am Shana Dawn Terayl of the Sons of Thunder, warnom Nabterayl. Welcome to Bella Omega."

    Renn smiled and strode down to place his hand on her shoulder. The moment his armored boots touched the tarmac he knew this world would be the death of him. "Bright Lord Harabec!"

    The girl looked alarmed. "My Lord Gistos?"

    "It's nothing." Renn forced a reassuring smile. "My thanks for your welcome, Shana Dawn Terayl. The Bright Lord bless and watch over you." She looked doubtful for an instant, but she covered it with a brilliant smile that seemed to throw cares to the wind. Ah, would that he were fifty years younger! He'd have courted this girl then, by the Bright Lord, yes. His smile became a genuine grin. Ah, Renn, still distracted by pretty faces after all these years…!

    The pain threatened to return, but he took a deep breath and willed it away. The feeling of malice still pervaded his inner senses. I've come a long way, planet. I've sweated and sacrificed to be here at this moment. You'll not defeat my purpose, by Blessed Harabec. He had at least three months before the alien cancer devoured him. He would put them to good use. Thus far, no one but his physician knew the truth: he was dying.

    Even your life is a weapon, the Scriptures taught.

    He returned his attention to business. If Terayl was brightly clad, her companion was her opposite. Tall, deathly pale, and encased in black armor, a familiar figure knelt before Renn.

    "My Great Lord," the woman said in a honeyed voice. "My life is yours."

    "My Lady Lilith." He placed his hand on her hair. "It is good to see the Keeper of the Flame at the Firetruce." Malderi's tool, he thought dryly. Never believe otherwise of this serpent. Anton Malderi had long hungered for the throne of the Phoenix Prime, he and his bloodthirsty Harbinger faction. There would be much blood spilled if Malderi came to power, Renn knew.

    Lilith stood, a half-smile playing at her lips. "As it is good to see the Word of the Bright Lord, whose presence brings light to each world he treads upon."

    Beautiful and fey, that was Lilith. The leader of the fanatical Dark Phoenix Wing, she burned with the intensity of her faith. A pity that she had fallen under Malderi's shadow, and thereby the shadow of the Other.

    Renn turned to the Thunder girl. The Speaker of the Council, he reminded himself. He would not treat her as a child. She deserved respect from him, even as he-like the others-deceived and manipulated her.

    "Shana Dawn Terayl, if you would lead me to my chambers, I shall rest awhile before the opening ceremonies."

    "Of course, my Lord. If you will follow me?"

    He fell in behind her, grimacing inwardly at the pain that snaked tendils up from his gut. If he was to die here, he would have to ensure his death furthered his purpose.

    Unity. Yes, that was a goal worth any price.

    He looked at the back of the young Speaker. Unity was worth even the death of children, the destruction of innocence. Try as he might, he could not see an alternative. His dream was a bloody one, but he would pay the price as fully as he could. With every step he welcomed the pain as his penance. There would be no drugs, he vowed. No relief, for however many days or weeks the Bright Lord permitted him.

    He would drink fully of the cup of sacrifice.

    Renn - Part 2

    The doctor was gentle, but Renn felt as though ghostly hands trailed through his innards. He sat stiffly upright on a stool, torso bare as the doctor changed the filters on the toxin-extraction unit grafted into left Renn's side under the floating ribs. The device resembled a fist-sized black tick with legs thrust into his flesh. Renn hated it.

    And he blessed it. Without the extractor pulling the cancer's toxins from his blood like a second liver, he would have died long before the Firetruce.

    And he was here at last, thanks to the grace of the Bright Lord! He let his gaze wander as the doctor worked. The room was airy and pleasant. Large windows showed off a beautiful garden designed in traditional Diamond Sword style, with neatly curving paths that snaked around artfully placed boulders and tall stands of feathered grass.

    None of it real, of course.

    An elaborate hologram display disguised the meters-thick stahlplast armor that sheathed the quarters of the Phoenix Prime. Illusion, but Renn appreciated it nevertheless. A scatter of small trees and shrubs gave the impression of random placement. He smiled, amused at the thought of the Sworders permitting carelessness to penetrate their designs. A small brook wove its way through the garden, emptying into a pond clustered with the rose and violet of taisha lilies. Even the scented breeze felt genuine. Renn suppressed the urge to sigh in pleasure. Sighing was painful. Instead, he continued to enjoy the carefully cultivated surroundings.

    Faux sunlight streamed into the room and illuminated hand-carved furnishings polished until they showed reflections moving like shadows in the grains of the wood. Silken tapestries woven with jeweled thread hung from a lofty ceiling. The effect was majestic but at the same time tranquil. Renn wanted nothing more than to let it lull him into slumber and rest, but he could not afford such a luxury.

    A Tanar wearing the black of his elite guard approached, her uniform's gold piping glittering as she passed through a panel of sunlight. Her face was strong and composed, and Renn approved of her bearing. Tanar Geliss had been under his direct command for over a year now, and her crisp competence reassured him the Phoenix Prime would remain effective even as his body failed.

    Pain struck him in the next instant, like a barbed knot yanked through his guts. From long practice in masking his condition, he maintained his composure, but his hand tightened on his knee, and nausea assaulted him in the wake of the pain. The attack ended as quickly as it had begun. Renn inhaled slowly, willing himself to relax.

    The doctor murmured an apology. A rank smell stabbed the air, the odor of the biotoxins his own body manufactured now. Renn offered a fractional nod to show he understood. There was nothing to forgive. His life continued by the grace of medical technology and its specialized priesthood. Blessed Harabec had only granted him a reprieve, and only a short one if Renn's intuition was accurate.

    "Yes, Tanar Geliss?" he said at last, turning his attention to the officer before him. Her features were tight. Out of a desire to keep his illness secret, Renn had ordered his staff and guard to treat him as though he were completely healthy, but they found it difficult not to react during one of his attacks. Despite his efforts, the ones closest to him had learned to recognize the signs.

    "Everything is CC, my Lord," she replied after saluting. "We discovered several monitoring devices and placed our own lock and sensor systems at all doors. The niwa'aban - that's what the Diamond Sword call the force responsible for enforcing security here - have been most helpful, though they neglected to tell us how thoroughly they'd bugged us." She smiled wolfishly. "I thanked them for their assistance and assured them of our utmost confidence in the Diamond Sword's arrangements. Meanwhile, we quietly adjusted their bugs to provide harmless data."

    "Good. Let's hope they find it entertaining."

    The doctor straightened, holding a vial filled with a thick gray-green liquid. "Your toxin levels are increasing, my Lord," the doctor warned.

    "I am dying, doctor. I am not surprised the cancer has become more enthusiastic." Renn smiled. "I will see you at our next appointment." The doctor bowed and withdrew.

    "Hand me my tunic, Tanar." Renn stood and looked down at the obscenity grafted onto his side. Not a pretty sight. He accepted a deep green firesilk tunic from Geliss and pulled it on. His side felt like a raw nerve, as it always did after a filter change, but that was nothing compared to the agony he suffered from his attacks, and barely more than the constant background pain he felt in his stomach these days. He made himself pay attention to every twinge and ache, if only to remind himself that pain came in levels other than excruciating. Wisdom was borne of suffering, according to the Scriptures.

    The thought made him grin. "I must be a wise man indeed!"


    "Nothing, Tanar. A stray thought from an old man." He stretched gingerly and slipped a long vest on over the tunic, adjusting it carefully over his stomach until he was satisfied with the look and fit. It was vital both politically and personally that he not allow his condition to undermine the disciplines of living. Appearances would be vital over the next few weeks. Or days, perhaps. However long the Bright Lord gave him.

    His mind turned again to the question of the young Speaker, Shana Dawn Terayl. He had spoken to her during the mercifully short walk to his apartments, and his initial impression had given way to wonder. Yes, she was young and charismatic, but there was far more to this one than appeared on the surface. A spiritual hunger, perhaps, but wedded to a self-possession he found startling in such a youth. Already she had become very popular among the independents. He wondered again why the Diamond Sword had chosen her. The Sworders were fond of riddles. Here was one posed to his face.

    "Tanar, fetch me all available data on Shana Dawn Terayl and the Sons of Thunder tribe," he ordered. "Immediately."

    "At once, milord," Geliss made the sign of the Phoenix over her chest and departed.

    Aside from the guard in the antechamber, Renn realized he was alone. A rare moment to himself, perhaps a brief opportunity to savor the solitude.

    He decided to explore what he knew would be his last home. Armed with a glass of chilled meerfruit juice, Renn wandered from piece to piece, admiring the taste and workmanship of the Sworders who had furnished his quarters. Everything was immaculate. The rooms contained only the finest quality furniture and many delightful pieces of art. He would not have been surprised to hear every article in the room had been specifically crafted according to his particular psychological profile, for so it seemed to his eye.

    One thing caught his attention: a Trigon board lay on a table by the window overlooking the garden, in an inviting space among three chairs. At first Renn merely glanced at it in passing, but then the realization struck him that the stones' placement on the playing grid depicted a game in progress. A complex game.

    Curiosity piqued, he returned and examined the board. Like many political observers of the Diamond Sword, he had learned to play the Sworders' obsessively arcane game, and though he had no special talent at it, he was far from incompetent.

    He sat and studied the placement of the stones. White was the aggressor, with passive support from red. The green pieces were arrayed in an classic formation Renn immediately recognized. It was called "The Cusp of Phoenix." He tapped a finger against his glass as he considered what hidden meaning waited for him here. This particular strategy demanded a substantial amount of risk for the green player. Timing was crucial, as the ancient patterns created by the stones depended heavily on the unoccupied "ghost" spaces to control the sequence of play across the grid. It produced a daring game of feints and bluffs that culminated in a sudden stroke that either swept the opponent off the board in an instant or resulted in shattering defeat for the moving player.

    The Diamond Sword did nothing without profound deliberation. The history of the wilderzone had proven that insight repeatedly until it was a traditional stereotype like Blood Eagle brutality or Starwolf fractiousness. The stone placement was not a coincidence. A threat? The Sworders were not given to making such subtle threats, at least not to outsiders. A feint of some kind? If so, it was too obtuse for him. Yet there was a message here. Renn knew it as surely as he knew he would see his last days here. Moved by impulse, he took up a green stone from the bowl next to the board and placed it on the grid. It was a bold move in keeping with the strategy. He would play the Phoenix.

    And he would not go to his grave with this riddle nipping at his heels. Not if he could help it.

    "Tanar!" he barked, knowing her commlink would pick him up through the receivers placed in his room. "Send Gornon Zigradan at once!" The gnomish spymaster would be the best person to delve into this matter.

    Renn looked again at the placement of the gleaming stones, disquieted by the cold riddle they posed.

    What in cold hells were the sandrakers up to?

    Renn - Part 3

    "My Lord? My Lord?" The words took on a slight edge that snapped Renn back to the present. He'd been drifting again, his mind wandering through sequences of Trigon moves and stone formations.

    The drugs didn't help. He'd finally had no choice but to allow the doctor to administer them in order to slow the sudden acceleration of neural degeneration. His right arm lay inert on the arm of his chair, the new prosthetic exoskeleton concealed by a loose sleeve and heavy gauntlet.

    A man shouldn't have to die like this, Renn thought bitterly. Sloughing off his dignity in bits and pieces.

    "My Lord?"

    "Yes?" he said thickly. "I apologize, Director. I was contemplating other matters."

    Phoenix Intelligence Director Gornon Zigurdan simpered. "No need to apologize to me, Great Lord."

    He was a hunchbacked dwarf, of deformed body but exceedingly acute intellect, the chief of Phoenix Intelligence for over seven years. Renn had been impressed enough with the results to retain the fellow in that position even though he knew Zigurdan sympathized with Malderi's radical faction. Renn had him carefully watched, but thus far nothing had come to light sufficient to outweigh the man's usefulness.

    "Where were we?" Renn asked.

    "I had just finished summarizing the latest reports of the Eagle-Wolf conflict."

    "Yes, very well. I remember." Renn shook his head. "Amazing. Fury attacks the Great Eagle after all?"

    "And making no secret about her intent, my Lord."

    "That will be a bloody confrontation indeed."

    "It has been long in the brewing, my Lord."

    Renn sighed heavily. "Ever since Hepta Ourubis Two, I'm afraid." Hepta Ourubis Two, the last of the great ecocidal conflicts. An entire Starwolf pack had perished, along with many, many Blood Eagle. The woman calling herself Fury began her ascension to leadership from the wreckage of that debacle.

    Another mystery, he thought. I have enough mystery in my hands at the moment. He pushed away thoughts of the Trigon board and his invisible opponent.

    "Well, let the Blood Eagle destroy themselves, if that is all they can do." Better than destroying the rest of us, he supposed. "What is the next item, Director?"

    "You asked me to monitor the Firetruce for any unusual occurrences. I have succeeded in penetrating niwa'aban files regarding a certain matter my street informants brought to my attention. The day before yesterday, three Grievers were murdered."

    "What is unusual about that?" Renn's attention began to waver, drawn this time by the leaden weight of his right side. He forced himself to focus on Zigurdan. He had no time to spare for self-pity.

    "Great Lord, the manner of the Grievers' deaths and an unusual secrecy on the niwobs' part - they had sealed the files, you see - causes me to believe there is more to this incident than first meets the eye."

    He had piqued Renn's interest now. With his left hand, he gestured for the spymaster to continue.

    Zigurdan cleared his throat. "The autopsies suggest a highly-trained killer, probably elite-grade, probably artificially enhanced. I remind you of the Komarosu assassination back in 3831, as well as the convenient death of the Unitech consul in 3927. Do you recall the circumstances, Great Lord?"

    "The killers penetrated seemingly invincible security. They were never caught. In each case, the deaths came at key points in wilderzone politics. The Blood Eagle disintegrated into a war of succession and Unitech changed to a more open policy with its trading fleet." Renn paused to ride out a surge of pain. When it had passed, he continued. "I seem to recall you mentioning a series of such deaths over the years."

    "Over the centuries, Great Lord."

    "You suggest a single institution is responsible?"

    Zigurdan spread his hands. "I have no evidence of that specific conclusion, my Lord, but these deaths paint a picture of a highly-trained assassination network. A shadowy one, to be sure, but the circumstances between the incidents are too similar for me to ignore." He placed a finger alongside his nose and smiled. "Six weeks ago, the leader of an independent tribe on the Imperial border was found dead in his apartments, apparently of natural causes."

    "What suggests otherwise?"

    "Only the timing. He was scheduled to be the Speaker of the Firetruce."

    Renn filed that away under the mystery of Shana Dawn Terayl. Shana "Dawn Fury" Terayl, that is. Zigurdan had been chagrined to discover his files contained an error in something so basic as her warnom. It showed how little they knew of these smaller independent tribes.

    "There was another interesting facet to these reports, my Lord." Zigurdan smiled broadly. "They contained several mentions of 'ghosts.'"

    "Pure Facet ceremonial language, perhaps."

    Zigurdan raised his hand in denial. "I think not. The context of the writing seemed to indicate this was the conclusion the Sworders reached regarding the agents of the Grievers' destruction."

    "That Ghosts killed these Grievers?"


    Renn mulled that over. Even for the Diamond Sword, such a conclusion seemed excessively symbolic.

    "Could it be a euphemism for unsolved murders?"

    Zigurdan shrugged. "The rest of the report adhered to a reasonable level of clarity, my Lord."

    "You believe that these 'ghosts' might be connected to a series of unsolved deaths throughout tribal history?"

    "At this point, I merely speculate, Great Lord." Zigurdan pronounced 'speculate' very deliberately.

    Renn nodded. "I see. Is that all?"

    "I fear for your safety here if such 'ghosts' exist, my Lord Gistos. I would urge you to depart to a place of security - if I believed you would attend such advice."

    "If these assassins do exist, there is no place I would find safety, Director." Renn shrugged, only his left shoulder moving. "I will stay. Now, tell me about the Terayl girl."

    "Ah." Zigurdan stroked his face with a fingertip as he organized his thoughts. Renn was familiar with all of the man's personal quirks. Something about the girl bothered the gnomish spymaster almost as much as the idea of these 'ghosts.'

    "What is it, Gornon?" Renn asked softly. The sound of his name stirred Zigurdan out of his reverie.

    "My Lord," he began. "The girl comes from Phoenix blood."

    "Yes, I knew that."

    "Did you know she is distantly related to Alvarada Mari Menai yl-Harabec, the Firespear herself?"

    Renn pricked up his ears at that news. The Firespear was one of the greatest warriors of the tribe, and as Phoenix Prime she had dominated the last Firetruce in 3891.

    "This is not common knowledge!" he said. "How is it possible to miss this?"

    Zigurdan frowned and tapped his nose. "The connection was… subtle, my Lord. I believe we did not investigate her background as carefully as we might have…."

    "Had she been a member of a greater tribe than an obscure independent cult, "Renn finished for him. "Can you tell me why the Diamond Sword chose her?"

    The spymaster stiffened at the rebuke and clasped his hands behind his back. "She is charismatic, my Lord. She makes friends easily. She carries something of sternness about her, yet something of innocence as well. Already she has become quite popular among the independents, with some rare exceptions such as the Gorgon Killers."

    "She provides a rallying point for the independents. I suspected as much."

    "Yes. Also, her tribe has embarked on an aggressive venture of late and is considered a rising influence among the smaller tribes."

    "I see." Charismatic, earnest, laurelled with success, she would be a popular figure, a leader whether she wished or no. Renn wondered how the Diamond Sword intended to control her. His own impressions were that the young woman exhibited a strong sense of independence.

    He felt abruptly weary. The latest attack and the subsequent paralysis had taken all his will to weather. Then there were the upcoming interviews with the zone witnesses, who broadcast their stories through the wilderzone and even into the Empire. Renn had always cultivated the media. For him to evade their questions would deprive him of a powerful avenue for reaching the common tribals across the wilderzone.

    It would be an ordeal. He needed rest. "That's all, Director Zigurdan. Thank you for your diligence. Update me if you find out more about our new Firespear.

    "Or ghosts," he added with a faint smile.

    After the spymaster had departed, Renn plodded to the Trigon board and examined the current position of the stones. Ever since he had taken the position of the Green player, he had been playing against unseen opponents. New stones would appear shortly after he made his own move, developing a convoluted maze of red, white, and green stones on the grid. He remained convinced this game had a point, a riddle for him to unravel if he was able to retain his faculties. The position of his jozoku was strong, but remained vulnerable to a concerted attack from the other two opponents. As ever, the empty spaces - called "ghost spaces" - Renn realized with shock - played a significant role in controlling the flow of play.

    Ghosts. He felt suddenly sure that Zigurdan's speculations were fact. The Tribes of Man had been played like pawns over the centuries. Who could engage in such cold-blooded manipulation for so unthinkably long?

    After considering the board for a long interval, he placed another green stone with a hand that trembled no matter how hard he concentrated, not from fear, but from anger.

    I will beat them, he promised himself. Somehow I will beat them.

    Renn - Part 4

    The garden was beautiful, despite the day's heat and cloying humidity. Renn navigated it painfully, his modified armor moving for his paralyzed right side smoothly enough to portray the gait of a tired, old man. Bulky robes hid the armor and muffled the hum of the microservos, but they had to avoid soft surfaces, or the SCARAB's mass would leave deep, telltale footprints. Finally, a hood concealed his face.

    Not even my true face, he thought bitterly. He had lost so much weight in the last three days that he'd been forced to order the doctor to inject orthoflesh to pad his features out. And the medication came frequently now, geared to dull the pain and preserve his faculties from the ravages of the alien cancer that ate through his nervous system. The symptoms worsened swiftly in the last days, the doctor had said.

    "Is this prudent, my Lord? A meeting out here?" Tanar Geliss hovered at his side, flat-faced but vigilant. "It is a public garden, after all. Why risk anyone seeing you?" She was dressed in similar robes, but wore no armor. Instead, she was in constant commlink contact with her squad. If anyone sought to harm the Prime, she would have a dozen armored warriors there within seconds. For someone as concerned with security as she was, however, mere seconds would seem an age.

    "Peace, Geliss," Renn said, as he followed the flagstone path around a raised pond scattered with the thick purple and rose blooms of taisha lilies and heavy with their sweet, ethereal scent. "I need to concentrate."

    "Of course, my Lord." She fell silent, ashamed, perhaps, at her outburst. Only with the greatest reluctance had she made the arrangements for Renn to leave his quarters clandestinely. A pair of Firespeakers, a branch of the Bright Temple, had sought audience with the Phoenix Prime. After a brief visit, he and Geliss had emerged wearing the priests' robes. It was a thin ruse, and Renn doubted the Diamond Sword had been fooled. Yet no one had offered them an escort, no niwa'aban had materialized on nearby walls, and no pulse sensors probed them for weaponry.

    When the message requesting a meeting had come from the apartments of the Imperial Legate, Renn resolved to go. Doubtless the Imperials were fishing for a closer firsthand observation of the Phoenix Prime. Fine. Let them look. Renn's anger at his new certainty about the 'ghosts' and their connection to the Diamond Sword burned through him with such heat he wondered it didn't purge the cancer from his blood. The Imperials might be dupes as well - or they might be part of the mystery.

    They'd all been played for fools by the Triad. All the Tribes of Man, that is. Who knew what the sandrakers were behind? The rise of Malderi? The madness of Konovalev? Ecocide on Hepta Ourubis Two? The war ready to explode from Ymir?

    How much did they know? And most importantly, what were they trying to communicate to him?

    Ahead of them, a short rise of stone steps ascended to a stand of trees. The appointed meeting place. He stopped to rest a moment and compose himself. His temples throbbed, and his heart pounded like a frenzied drum at one of the flag combats. And always, the pain. Even masked by the drugs, it still lapped at him with razor-hot tongues, as if his nerves smouldered like coals beneath the skin and muscle.

    Bright Lord, Savior of Humanity, be with me now, he prayed. Let me pierce this net of darkness and find my way to the truth so that I may serve Your Will.

    "Wait here, Geliss." To the rebellious flash of her eyes, he returned a hard smile. "You are close enough, Tanar, if peril looms. Besides, we both know there is little enough to save." A cruel reminder, but Renn meant to be frank, not self-pitying. If his autonomous nervous system crashed, he would die within a few agonizingly long minutes.

    He trudged up the stair, focusing on moving as smoothly as possible for the watchers who undoubtedly tracked every heavy step.

    It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the shade. It was only slightly cooler within the grove, the persistent humidity knowing no barriers but thick walls and air filtrations systems. A simple wooden bench waited amid a stand of bamboo, and a small shrine bore the flaming countenance of the Bright Lord, who had risen after perishing in the land of the dead over a thousand years ago. It was the same image used on the banner of the Children of Phoenix: a face so bright from the Holy Spirit within that the flesh hindered the light no more than glass. Some said the image represented the moment of Blessed Harabec's death, but Renn knew better. He knew it showed the moment of the immortal's Rebirth and return to life.

    "My Lord?" A man emerged from behind the stand of bamboo. He was tall and spare, with an esthete's features and thin black hair. He wore antique spectacles, one lens a blue triangle, the other a ruby oval. His garb hugged the skin and was entirely black save for a ruffled gold sash hanging from the right shoulder. "I am Etnoman yir Thau-Yuros, His Excellency's envoy." He put his hands together and gave a small bow. "I am gratified that you accepted my invitation."

    Renn nodded graciously. "Curiosity, Honored Envoy. I could not contain it at the prospect of such an unusual meeting with such an Imperial luminary."

    Thau-Yuros shook his head. "No, my Lord, hardly a luminary. But tell me: what is so unusual about meeting with me?"

    "In a public garden? Surely such openness is unusual, as we both have secure apartments in which we could speak without fear of eavesdropping?"

    "Ah." Thau-Yuros produced a thin smile. "But our quarters are well monitored, with many crevices and hidden listeners to make up for the denuding of electronic countermeasures. The public gardens are not, however, so crafted." He held up a beringed hand. "Rest assured that no one can track our conversation here while I am present. Our people - yours and mine, I trust - will prevent strangers from coming too close."

    Imperial technology could easily block Sworder electronic surveillance, Renn knew, and his own communications as well. "May I signal my Tanar so that she does not fear the worst from the lapse in radio contact?"

    "Of course, my Lord." The Imperial seated himself on the bench and crossed one leg over the other, his demeanor one of complete relaxation. "At your leisure."

    Renn instructed Geliss to wait and watch, and informed her about the Imperial signal shield. She sounded crisp as usual, but he heard the frustration edging her words.

    He faced Thau-Yuros without sitting. If his condition deteriorated rapidly, Renn might soon lose all ability to stand, so he determined to enjoy it while he could.

    "Tell me your purpose plainly if you please, Thau-Yuros. I presume you haven't called me here to negotiate over the Kepler March again, or to cite the latest reasons I should allow Unitech to expand its trade routes though Phoenix space."

    If Renn's blunt approach discomfited the Imperial, Thau-Yuros didn't show it.

    "No, my Lord Prime," he said, "I did not ask you here to discuss trivialities. What I wish to discuss concerns life and death." Abandoning his relaxed pose, he leaned forward and looked up at Renn solemnly, the spectacles gleaming even in the dim light. "You are dying, are you not?"

    Inwardly nonplussed, Renn kept his expression bland. "All men die, Envoy."

    "True, my Lord, but in the Empire, we have many ways of prolonging life. Even now, we are on the brink of some amazing discoveries. But you, you are dying now. Even as we speak."

    Renn said nothing.

    Thau-Yuros raised an eyebrow. "You think I am fishing in the datastreams, my Lord? Very well." His elbows in his lap, he steepled his fingers. "You have contracted Grakropen's Disease, an extremely rare xenocancer that attacks less than one percent of beta-zeradine positive neuroclasses. Our records identify you as fitting the b-z profile, and your observable symptoms match the progression of the disease with exactitude. Grakropen's is always deadly, exceedingly painful, and has so far remained incurable."

    "Undoubtedly an unpleasant fate for the afflicted, Envoy. But even if your guesses were accurate - and I do not admit they have substance - what is there to discuss?"

    "My sensors detect elevated temperature and blood pressure, as well as several unusual devices operating beneath that quaint powered armor you wear under your robes, my Lord. Come now, there are few secrets between us in this matter."

    Renn felt himself flush and cursed himself and the accuracy of Imperial sensor technology. "This quaint powered armor is the same variety worn by the warriors who destroyed your Emperor's saar-marines at Kepler, Thau-Yuros. Mock me if you will, but be honest about the accomplishments of the First Tribe." He lacked the strength to keep patience through this sparring. "I must ask you to come to the point."

    Thau-Yuros straightened and assumed a serious expression. "I do not mock you, my Lord. Forgive me if it appeared so. I came here to ask you a question. One question only."

    "Ask it then!" Renn said, patience vanishing. His insides continued to gnaw on themselves, and he felt fatigue creeping over him.

    "What price would you pay for a cure?"

    Stunned, Renn stared at the other. Then his brain began to work again, and he clamped his mouth shut. There is no cure, Renn, he told himself. None. The Imperial viper seeks to blind you with false hope.

    "There is no cure," he said. "You said so yourself." He prepared to leave, but the Envoy's voice caught him up short.

    "There is a cure, my Lord Gistos. We have one in the Empire now, proven to be effective even in the last days of the disease." Thau-Yuros projected only sincerity, but Renn knew the oily-mouthed ways of Imperial diplomats. They could lie the stars from the night sky when they chose.

    "You lie, Envoy," he said tonelessly.

    Thau-Yuros gave the faintest of smiles. "No, my Lord, I do not lie, though I understand how a man who has resigned himself to death can be unwilling to retreat from his resolve. Will you not hear me out?"

    A fresh twinge from his good arm sent a pang of fear through Renn and delayed an answer. When the pain finally faded, he exhaled in relief.

    "What price do you ask, then? Kepler?" He knew in his bones it would be more than that.

    The Envoy's smile grew a fraction wider. "My Lord, we are pleased to provide the cure to you, along with advanced restorative treatment to help you regain lost function. Our anagathic regimen would also be freely available to extend your years. As a price, we ask only one thing." His face hardened. "An oath from you to serve the Empress, to aid her against the Scourge. It can be a secret oath. No one need know but you."

    Anger stirred again in Renn, banishing the encroaching fatigue. "How convenient. What would this produce for the Empire?"

    "Naturally, there would be concessions. Guidance. But certain assurances as well. The Empire would cede the Kepler March to your tribe's claim. You would find yourselves the beneficiaries of… Imperial industry." Thau-Yuros dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You could force the Tribes of Man to unify."

    Renn closed his eyes. Inside his body, he felt the disease like a malign twin growing inside him. It had been months since he had gone pain-free for longer than an hour. Longer than that since he had slept well for an entire night. Harabec only knew how tempting it was.

    "Live, my Lord," urged Thau-Yuros. "Do not throw away this chance. It would benefit your people as well."

    "My people," said Renn, "fled the Empire centuries ago to live free of its corruption of spirit."

    "Ancient history. We have both changed, my Lord, and we have need of each other."

    "How do you know you could trust me?"

    "We would trust your word, of course. Should we not? Tribal honor is legendary in the Empire."

    Renn snorted. "Yes, I'm sure you find it quite quaint." Bright Lord, he thought, give me strength! Just the thought of being free from the escalating pain was enough to weaken him. He fought back tears. A cure--! He had given up hope for himself.

    But the Bright Lord had fought beyond hope in the cold wastes of Pluto, offering himself to the Cybrids so that his brother might live. Could Renn give up his own sacrifice and still be true to Harabec? Could he still serve his tribe and his God while sworn to the Empire?

    "Do you have an answer for me, my Lord? If you wish to consider the question, you may send word to me tomorrow."

    Renn inhaled sharply, coming to a decision. "That will not be necessary. I refuse."

    Thau-Yuros stood. "Are you certain, my Lord? I have read the reports on the final stages of the disease. They were most discomfiting."

    "Don't try to frighten me, Envoy."

    "Is that your final answer?"

    Renn nodded. "All men die when the Bright Lord calls them."

    "Very well." Thau-Yuros tugged at his gold sash. "If you reconsider, send word to my apartments."

    Now that he had decided, a great weight lifted from Renn's heart. "Thank you, but I don't plan to reconsider."

    The Imperial Envoy regarded him with a mixture of contempt and respect. "You're giving up your only chance at survival."

    "If survival were my most important goal, I would be a mollusk, not a man." Renn turned and departed, leaving the darkness of the glade behind him.

    He saw Geliss hurrying to meet him, and he smiled. The anger against the manipulations of the Triad was still present, but it had annealed to something more sharp and focused. He felt surer of himself than he had for a long time.

    Thank you, Bright Lord, O Blessed Harabec. I am Your instrument so long as I can be. My life and death are Yours to wield.

    He wondered whether the stones had changed on the board back in his apartments. Surely the answers he sought would emerge there.

    Demon Core

    Arahk Gahl the Demon-Core scratched the tip of a talon against the ceraplas glory plate fused into his shoulder and daydreamed of dismembering humans. They were so soft and weak, it would have been pitiful had his instincts embraced pity. Rrrh, he understood the concept from his training in human psychology, but it was foreign to his thinking. Weak. The Slonn had bred out such retrogressive feelings.

    Around him his brothers crouched in the dropship hold. He smelled their musk and his heart swelled. They were an entire gregatim of Horde Maul's elite ferox reavers, the Strongest of the Strong, the spearhead of a great force travelling deep into the Hyperweb to eradicate the human maggots clinging to the back end of the galaxy. Demon-Core growled softly in anticipation. The slaughter would be very great. It would be a challenge to keep his position as the grigatim's leader in the number of kills. Prospects were bloody and bright.

    It was not always so. Once his entire race had been slaves, animals in thrall to the soft humans. The BioDerms fought and died at human pleasure. They served, and even their plasm was in thrall to human biomanipulation. Then the Great One had risen, the Chainbreaker, a mutant BioDerm with the strength to shatter the human chains and free his people.

    "I hear these humans are pided," muttered Grall Durgohlak, crouched to Demon-Core's right. "But I hear they are not like the Imperials. Hrah! They are strong, I hear, especially the ones who wear the Red Bird." Grall was a Runner, bred for speed and agility.

    Demon-Core lashed out with a massive fist, smashing the lighter BioDerm to the floor. "They are not as strong as we are, Grall! Do not breed fear in the gregatim!"

    Grall lay stunned, a shadow in the dim light of the hold. Chuckling deep in his throat, Rog Gedharhk Blood-Drinker hauled the smaller reaver up and slammed him back in his place. Blood-Drinker was a Goliath like Demon-Core, the heaviest of the reaver breeds.

    The Goliath turned a huge head toward Demon-Core, the chipped horns carved with numerous kill marks. "The little one meant no harm, brother. He looks forward to these little 'tribes,' rrrh? They will test our strength."

    Demon-Core nodded reluctantly. He had smelled a trace of fear on Grall, but the Runner would be tested against the humans. If he survived but was unfit, the Inquisition would send him to the vats for recycling.

    He himself was eager. He enjoyed the feel of his armored carapace, as well as the thought of the mobility its jets would give him. The reavers had adopted the tactics and equipment of the "Tribes of Man," copying such things as their mobile armors, though without the strength augmentation. No reaver would dare admit his own body was not sufficiently powerful to accomplish what was needed.

    He hefted a massive plasma gun copied from the latest tribal arsenals, approving of its solidity and capacity for destruction. The human targets he'd tested it on simply vaporized if hit directly. If not hit directly, rrrh, there were burnt parts left over, that was all. An enjoyable piece of hardware, yessss…. It would not be properly broken in until he had washed it in the blood of these Starwolf.

    The Flaymaster, a beautiful specimen of the Plunderer breed, had briefed the grigatim earlier. She explained how they would fight humans called the Starwolf on a cold planet called Ymir. She said the humans were assembled there in great numbers for a war of their own, but that they did not expect to be attacked. They knew this because a human traitor gave them the data.

    Humans were always treacherous, she told them. They had no Inquisition to keep their genes uncorrupted. After the Starwolf fell, there would be others. Many of the humans were meeting to talk about peace, but the leader of their strongest tribe, the Burning Ones, was old and weak, and his juices were dried up. He would lead no more.

    This announcement caused much hilarity. After the laughter had died down at the thought of such a husk leading fighters, she continued. The fourth tribe, the Sword, had retreated to their hidden cities, so they would be the last to fall. It would be like rooting out worms, scut work for the lesser Hordes. Horde Maul had been given the pride of first blood, by the Bloodsoul, and the Flaymaster expected her feroxi to earn many glory plates and take much plasm! Her Inquisitor would keep the body count, she said. That was all.

    The Flaymaster's Inquisitor, a thin, spidery creature that bristled with various cybernetic injectors and genesniffers, had followed her briefing with the customary warnings about weakness. Then it listed several traits it desired to find among these tribal humans, qualities of strength and durability that could be added to the Core Plasm.

    Despite their holy role and the rightness of their task, Demon-Core hated Inquisitors. They themselves were not Strong. They served the Strong. Rrrh, but only the great Overlord was spared their probes and demands for tissue samples. Deep in his heart, Demon-Core knew he also feared the Inquisitors. They could unmake any of the Strong with their judgments.

    They would not unmake him. He was Strong and had always been so. He clenched a massive fist and prayed silently to the Bloodsoul: May the seed of my plasm grind the slaver filth into the dust. May the shadows of our past vanish like smoke in the fiery wake of our passage and our vats spawn only blameless plasm. May a thousand suns shine on freedom for the Chainless, for the Chainless are the Strong who shall grasp the future and make it their own.

    I am of the Chainless. I am of the Strong. I shall burn the slaver filth where I find them.

    I shall show no mercy.

    Demon Core - Part 2

    The ship lurched and twisted like a bull Gulakir in a mating frenzy. Demon-Core put out a massive hand to brace himself and snarled in irritation. Hyperweb transit could get turbulent, and he hated trusting his survival to other, lesser breeds such as the Steers who piloted the Horde's starships. But in the end patience was a predator's virtue, urrh, yes. He would remain calm. He had traveled the threads between the stars many times. This journey was no different. Soon they would be in real space again, and the killing of these 'Starwolf' could begin.

    "You are not afraid of star travel! You, the great Demon-Core? For a moment, I thought I saw you tremble!" A young Goliath named Rakhlog laughed, baring yellowed tusks. "Surely I was mistaken!"

    Demon-Core wheeled and advanced on the speaker, the rage he felt in the face of such a blatant insult like lava in his blood. Rakhlog hesitated for a heartbeat, then exposed his throat in apology. "It was only a joke, mighty -awwk!" His words choked off as Demon-Core's grip clamped down on his windpipe like a parasteel vice.

    "I do not like this joke, brother," Demon-Core snarled. "When you have won many glory plates and can show me the scars that prove you are Strong, then I will laugh with you when you speak of fear among the greater feroxi. Until then, shut your meat hole! The next time I hear you whisper such a thing, I will tear your arms and legs off and feed them to my sluagh!"

    Nearby feroxi shifted away from them. No one wanted to risk the rage of a Goliath as worthy as Demon-Core. Others watched in anticipation, wondering at the fate of this foolish specimen called Rakhlog.

    Eyes bulging, Rakhlog struggled to nod. He stank of fear, but also of rage, which Demon-Core found encouraging. The young one had enough wisdom not to resist. Had he done so, Demon-Core would have ripped his throat out. But Rakhlog did not lose control, though his body trembled with the desire to fight before suffocation brought unconsciousness and death. After several minutes, Demon-Core released his grip, deciding the young one should have the chance to kill humans after all.

    "I am the Kill-Leader of the grigatim, urrha? Do not forget I have spared you!"

    Rakhlog slumped back against the bulkhead and tried unsuccessfully to keep his dignity while regaining his breath. "I ap- apologize… Mighty One." He coughed and massaged his throat. "I will not… make… such a mistake again." Though he kept his tone apologetic, his eyes burned at his humiliation.

    Demon-Core almost smiled. Rakhlog made no secret of his desire to make a name for himself among the Hordes. Such ambition showed proper strength for a reaver, urrh, yes, but wisdom was also important, at least the wisdom of knowing who was stronger. This upstart had been rash today, but he would live. This time.

    Demon-Core was pleased at keeping his patience after such an insult. His mood lightened greatly.

    "A problem, O Mighty One?" The Flaymaster's Inquisitor peered down from the catwalk, a structure designed so it could observe the grigatim from above without the risk of a careless reaver crushing its frail form. Metal and metaplas gleamed darkly from the host of sniffers, injectors, and probes bristling from its skinny body. Three dark-lensed artificial eyes protruded from its face, reminding Demon-Core of an insect. For a creature whose task was to guard the health and strength of the Hordes, it looked sickly. Pale skin stretched thin across long, blue-veined limbs, and it gave off an antiseptic reek rather than a healthy musk. Demon-Core shifted at the creature's proximity and suppressed the desire to wrinkle his nose. He had to remind himself that this… thing… fulfilled a holy purpose.

    "No," he replied. "Resume your watch, Guardian."

    The Inquisitor bobbed its head rapidly. "Very well, O Mighty One. You are the Kill-Leader." It clicked needle-tipped fingers together in an intricate salute, and scuttled back to its nest. Demon-Core stifled a sigh. Life would be simpler when the Horde arrived at Ymir and could simply kill humans. The grigatim grew restless from lengthy confinement in the guts of the dropship. There had been more fighting, tempers flaring, a few deaths. Venting rage on the enemy would be good. The desire to kill burned hot. He resisted the impulse to clean and reassemble his weapons again.

    Patience! he told himself.

    The Flaymaster signaled to him from the entrance to her berth at the end of the hold. Her hand clawed the air in Horde Maul combat code: Approach me.

    Demon-Core made his way over, striding through the crouching feroxi directly and without hesitation, except that he stepped carefully around the raucous Shikahl circles. Shikahl was a game wherein one player placed his hand on the floor and opponents struck rapidly around it with talons and knives. One gained points for keeping the hand motionless or for forcing the hand to move without touching it. Demon-Core had a great fondness for this activity, and was known to be one of the best players in the Horde, so he did not disturb the circles. Everyone else drew aside for him, his lessers making their throats respectfully vulnerable, his equals - of whom there were few - merely saluting with a curt tap of talon to horn.

    The Flaymaster motioned him into her meeting-berth. He pushed past her and she followed, sealing the hatch behind them. The space within was large enough for almost a dozen Goliaths. His friend Rog Gedharhk Blood-Drinker waited there, sitting in a heavily-braced seat-sling and grinning like a freshling at his first raw meal.

    The Flaymaster took her seat behind a slab-like desk in the corner and regarded them with an appraising stare.

    "How may I serve the Bloodsoul?" Demon-Core asked. No Slonn ever asked how he or she might serve anything else. They would never be slaves again, would never serve another master.

    She stroked one of her facial horns thoughtfully. "We have been honored with a great task, O Demon-Core, O Blood-Drinker. Our grigatim will truly be the Horde's spearhead against these tribal humans."

    Blood-Drinker pounded a fist on his thigh. "We are first among the Horde! What greater honor is there?"

    Her lips curled, showing long, sharp tusks. "Computer, display the image of the Starwolf leader."

    The image of a human female appeared in the space between them. Demon-Core studied it with the eye of one experienced in taking human prey. The holo showed long black hair pulled tightly back, gaunt features, a fit body beneath dark blue fatigues. The shoulders and sleeve glittered gold with the stars that showed high rank among the Starwolf. He did not remember seeing so much on any uniform displayed in his briefings. Gold also framed the woman's face in the shape of a band-mask that wrapped across her forehead, down her cheeks, and under her chin. The woman's eyes were what drew his attention. They were pools of rage. Demon-Core felt a sudden kinship with her, human as she was. Rage was holy.

    The Flaymaster watched their reactions but kept her face neutral. "Ursula DiVaragas, this one is called, supreme military leader of the Starwolf."

    "I thought that was Fury," complained Blood-Drinker. "All these humans look alike to me."

    "This one is a warrior," Demon-Core observed. "See the eyes. She will never yield. Her spirit will enrich the Bloodsoul when we feed her body to the Core Plasm."

    "She is not to be killed," the Flaymaster said.

    "Not killed?" He stared at his commander is disbelief. "Horde Maul does not spare its enemies, especially humans!"

    "Not this time," the Flaymaster said. "This time, we spare some. We are to capture this woman and many other Starwolf. Horde Gaunt wishes to make an example of them to crush the spirit of the tribes."

    Demon-Core spat. "Gaunt and their plots! Better to kill the humans cleanly!" He scratched the dense bone ridge over his right eye and reminded himself to be patient.

    "Urrh, very well, Flaymaster," he said at last. "How do we find this female? There are many Starwolf at Ymir."

    "Our vatsatz informs us she lairs on a ship called Retribution. He sent identification codes and the orbital location of the vessel."

    "The spy does well," said Blood-Drinker. "Its strain must be superior."

    Surprisingly so, Demon-Core thought, given how unstable vatsatz were. To be decanted as Slonn, to glimpse the glory and yet live out one's days in a toothless, talonless human form! Demon-Core thanked the Bloodsoul it was not his fate to be so pathetic.

    "Yes. He has won us the honor of attacking the ship of this female and seizing her." The Flaymaster smiled, displaying serrated rows of sharp teeth. "The Great Traitor fears her. The Starwolf guard her with their best warriors. It is very good. There will be much glory."

    Blood-Drinker roared his approval. Demon-Core felt his own pulse pick up. "Rrrrh! Yes! We will wash in their blood! We will teach them fear!"

    She smiled toothily. "Yes! Gather a small force of the best Goliaths and Plunderers in the grigatim. Prepare yourselves. Be ready. When we enter the Ymir system, we will speed ahead of the other Horde ships. You will board the Retribution and capture the female. Do not let other killing delay you! There will be much glory if you succeed, my Kill-Leader. Much glory! But remember: Ursula DiVaragas must live."

    "Urrh, I understand. We will have to move quickly to take her alive." Demon-Core looked again at the glowing image of the human and thought of the glory she represented. His massive hands flexed in anticipation. Thank the Bloodsoul for such a challenge! The Chainless are the strong who shall grasp the future…. Rrrh, yes. Yes!

    He bared his tusks in a huge grin. "Consider her ours already, Flaymaster!"

    Demon Core - Part 3

    The time had come.

    Demon-Core nodded in satisfaction as he examined the hulking figures lining the assault ship's personnel bay, listened to the clack of weapon readiness, saw the gleam of light reflected from carapaces, horns, and glory plates. The grigatim had deployed into three spear-shaped craft in preparation for the attack on the Starwolf ship Retribution. This was Demon-Core's command. The invasion fleet's vanguard, of which they were a part, had dropped out of jumpthread fifteen minutes ago, disguised as Imperial trading vessels under a flag of neutrality. Each ship contained several assault craft packed with elite feroxi. Now the grigatim waited for the Steers to power the combat drives and burn for the objective.

    The feroxi musk was very strong in the cramped confines of the assault ship. Demon-Core grunted and tilted his head back and forth to loosen his neck muscles. He'd checked and rechecked his carapace to be sure the jets and shields were functioning. Both the chaingun and the plascannon he carried were in excellent working order.

    There was nothing left to do but wait a little longer. The killing would start soon. Urrh, but that would be good. Practicing patience had become a strain. He was eager to win more glory plates and reinforce his status as the grigatim's kill leader. He looked forward to battle again. It was what he had been bred for, after all.

    Of course, the human woman must be caught. Demon-Core had studied the layout of this "Retribution." It was a large ship. They would doubtless have to kill many humans while searching. He growled low in his throat, pleased at the prospect of action after so long a wait. Even shikahl had grown tiresome.

    "Mighty One, what are you thinking?" The Flaymaster's Inquisitor had attached itself to Demon-Core's group, a fact the Goliath greeted with a mix of elation and revulsion. Inquisitors were holy, yes, but they were also a burden. One had to protect them, and at times aggressive Inquisitors undermined a group's combat efficiency with misplaced threats or conclusions about a particular strain.

    Besides, Demon-Core hated the weak, treacherous things.

    He bared his teeth in greeting. "I consider the tactical situation that faces us once we come to our target."

    "What is your assessment?"

    "Urh-hah! The Starwolf do not expect us. They will be slow in their reaction. We will destroy them, for we are Strong!" Even as he said the words he knew the Inquisitor wished to hear, Demon-Core wondered why the Strong must always continue to proclaim their strength. Surely the true Strong had no need of constant boasts. It was a strange thought. Perhaps the leader of the Burning Ones was stronger than they thought.

    Apparently satisfied, the Inquisitor scuttled up to its berth. Demon-Core breathed a silent thanks to the Bloodsoul and rubbed one massive arm.

    Blood-Drinker lumbered up and locked himself into the harness at Demon-Core's left. "Hai, Demon-Core, my friend!" he rumbled happily. "Very soon now, urrh?" His harness carried a grenade launcher, a chaingun, and a spinfusor. Bulky looking to Demon-Core, but Goliaths could afford to carry extra weapons.

    "Arha. Very soon. How are the others?"

    The other Goliath shrugged. "Afraid. Why, my friend, did you pick any smaller ones to accompany us? With a go-lahk of Goliaths, we could forge ahead in glory."

    "We will bring much glory to the grigatim." Demon-Core squinted so that he could see his friend in the near-blackness. "The Runners bring us speed if we need it, and the Plunderer the same, but with more strength."

    "They are all young. Mere freshlings." Blood-Drinker sounded so mournfully doubtful that Demon-Core laughed, a sound like the grate of metal on bone.

    "Not Khel-Har the Unstoppable! He is worth three Goliaths, urrha?"

    Blood-Drinker chuckled deep in his throat. "Yes, you are right. The Unstoppable is one who knows battle. Even his shadow is enough to kill a human!"

    Demon-Core laughed again. It was an old joke between the two of them. The Goliath they spoke of was an abnormally huge specimen, one the Inquisitors would have sent to the reclaiming vats years ago, except for two things. Khel-Har had the talent of being almost impervious to pain, even for one of the Hordes. Second, he proved exceptionally good at killing humans. Had he been smarter, he might have become a candidate for Kill-Leader. However, he could not react to the unexpected as quickly as the average feroxi.

    A vibration resonated through the assault craft, and Demon-Core felt a brief flash of nausea that signaled the use of acceleration dampeners.

    "We find out now whether the plan is Strong," he told Blood-Drinker. If the Starwolf were able to attack the assault ship in transit, there was nothing Demon-Core could do; it was all in the hands of the Steers.

    Their was a good plan, he thought, but no plan was perfect. There was evidently a tribe of humans who took pride in perfect planning, however. Demon-Core looked forward to teaching them the foolishness of such vanity.

    Long minutes passed.

    Beside him Blood-Drinker exhaled slowly. Demon-Core let his own breath escape, forcing it to be calm, even though his hearts beat fast.

    May the seed of my plasm grind the slaver filth into the dust, he recited silently. May the shadows of our past vanish like smoke in the fiery wake of our passage….

    Abruptly, a faint acceleration could be perceived, a low hum that increased gradually in pitch. Their commlinks hissed.

    "This is the Flaymaster. We are through the first ring of defenses, and our target lies ahead. Prepare for impact."

    "Come on, vatscum!" he roared. "Show these tribal humans the mercy of Horde Maul!"

    "For the Bloodsoul!" thundered the feroxi. Demon-Core thought he heard a note of relief in their voices. He had to admit that if he were to die, he would prefer it in direct battle, roaring and displaying his glory plates. The thought of perishing in the cold of space like a fish spilled from a broken tank unsettled him. His hearts filled with pride at the thought of going into battle with such strong companions.

    His HUD flashed up a message: Impact in T minus two minutes.

    Blood-Drinker leaned over and nudged him with an elbow. "My friend, I have decided we shall keep the freshlings safe while they learn strength. It is our duty as the Strong."

    Demon-Core began to chuckle, then he realized his friend was serious. "Don't talk like that, Blood-Drinker," he said. "There are some-" he swung his head to point his horns at the Inquisitor's nest, "-who would consider such a statement weak."

    "Weak? Me?" Blood-Drinker chortled. "It's a blind Inquisitor who would think that! But enough! A game, O Demon-Core, mighty Kill-Leader!"


    "I challenge you! Let us count our kills on this ship. The one with the lower kill number must polish the other's equipment for a week and fetch biru for him besides!"

    Demon-Core considered it, scraping one of his tusks with a talon. His HUD read Impact in T minus thirty seconds. "Done! I am Kill-Leader, and I will beat you in this also! But listen you: guard your great flapping tongue, urr-ha?"

    Blood-Drinker tapped talon to horn in mock salute. "I hear and obey, Kill-Leader!"

    "Good." Demon-Core clapped his friend on the shoulder and bellowed, "Brace yourselves, vatscum!" The ship would spear into the Retribution and break open at the bow so that the feroxi could pour into the Starwolf vessel. It would be a fearful impact, and not all the feroxi survived, though Demon-Core felt confident they would suffer few losses. This was a veteran grigatim. All of them had been through at least one capital ship boarding.

    In the dim light of the carrier bay, the feroxi tensed. Demon-Core stole a glance at the Inquisitor's nest, where the holy one crouched amid sophisticated padding that would cushion it against the crash. To his surprise, he saw the glow of the Inquisitor's gaze directed at him. For a moment, he felt great unease, wondering whether the Inquisition suspected his plasm of any flaw.

    Then he realized the Inquisitor's attention was directed at Blood-Drinker. Suddenly Demon-Core felt fear for his friend, a dark feeling that marred his excitement at the upcoming battle.

    T minus five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One.



    My name is Brianna Meranda Kenzie of the Narhaven Kenzies. I come from a fringe planet on the outer rim of the wilderzone, a cold but beautiful place. Last year my family was wiped out by a Griever attack, leaving me alive with nothing but painful memories and a whole lot of survivor's guilt. I didn't want to hang around moping and lapping up little scraps of pity from my holdfast neighbors, so I joined Ur-Warlord DiVaragas's call to fight the Blood Eagle. See new worlds, fight the bad guys, that sort of thing. That's how I ended up on the world of Ymir, a newblood with nothing to call her own but her armor, a blaster, and an old spinfusor that had belonged to my brother.

    Ymir was a totally new experience for me. There were so many other people, more than I'd ever seen in one place before, that I had a hard time fitting in. Still, I tried, and I thought I'd been doing OK.

    Until I met the Blood Eagle, anyway.

    If I hadn't smiled at the wrong time in front of the wrong person, life would have been a whole lot easier. Or maybe not. Lachris would probably still have found an excuse to go after me. Some people just need enemies, I guess.

    I was in a cadre of newbloods headed out to a perimeter base for training exercises. Two Turbograv Personnel Carriers carried the eight of us. Our trainer was a grim-faced Sergeant we'd met only that morning. He hadn't said much, just ordered us into the T-gravs before climbing into the tailgunner slot on one carrier and nursing a sipcup. Our pilots hugged the ice as we left town so as not to burden air traffic control further. Shuttles were going around the clock, ferrying goods and troops between planet and orbit. Rumors said this was the largest muster in the tribe's history. We were going to take out the Eagle once and for all, but we had to go through Fury first. She was supposed to be a real ogre, so the Ur-Warlord wasn't taking any chances.

    I took a deep breath and tried to enjoy the ride. Ymir was the kind of world only a Starwolf could appreciate. Glaciers everywhere except for huge lichen-blanketed reefs sticking out here and there. Some of the reefs were supposedly giant mountains of frozen salt. Underneath everything was a deep salt water ocean. Things swam around down there, the locals said, monster predators like razor hags and jotunfish. The snowy heights reminded me of Narhaven, even though the sky was different, there were no forests, and a salt tang filled my nose no matter where I went. It made me homesick somehow, but I didn't have anything to go back home to, not since the Grievers killed my family and blasted my holdfast to rubble.

    The sky was dark with clouds. I leaned into the harness that held me in the carrier and focused on the day ahead. I'd fought the Griever raiders back home, but we were shipping out to face the Blood Eagle soon, so we had to be ready. The Blood Eagle were another level of threat entirely.

    "Hey, check out the butchers!" a loud voice cut in across my private channel. It was Lachris Tremane, the big blond fem from Priam III who'd grabbed the leadership role in our cadre. She stood next to me in the other starboard carrier slot, pointing at a group of laborers up ahead. "See the Assault-class standing sentry? Those are Blood Eagle prisoners, Kenzie," she continued. "Hope the bastards freeze their tattoos off out here. It's a waste of effort to keep them alive."

    The prisoners were working hard cutting and loading blocks of ice, so they were probably keeping warm enough. A Assault-class with a chaingun stood nearby on a block of ice. I could see the restraint collars on the prisoners. Lachris and the others made catcalls and obscene gestures as we passed. I just hung on and took a good look. I was curious; I'd never seen any Blood Eagle before.

    They were a lot like us, only with darker skin and hair. Not the blood-covered berserkers I'd heard tales about. One guy in particular caught my eye. He actually stood and bowed as we passed, a devil-may-care grin on his face. Not what I'd expected from what I'd heard of the butchers. I hit my visor's zoom for a closer look as we sped off. He definitely wasn't bad-looking, and I was surprised to see he wasn't much older than me. Light brown skin, beautiful green eyes, a crew cut so short his hair was a shadow on his scalp, pierced ears with empty holes where earrings had been. He watched us go with that lopsided grin lingering on his face. Actually, he looked right at me. Me! My heart sped up. Despite myself, I grinned back. It'd be easy to get lost in those eyes.

    "Like what you see, Kenzie?" My reaction hadn't escaped Lachris, and she sounded like she'd just turned over a rock and found a nest of chig-slithies. I turned off my zoom.

    "Just curious," I stammered, trying to look nonchalant. I could feel the blush creeping up my face, though. I wasn't fooling her.

    She banged an armored hand on the carrier plating in mock alarm. "Ohhhh, dear! Brianna Kenzie's found a butcher boyfriend!" The other newbloods laughed. I looked up at the sergeant, but he wasn't paying attention. I wasn't going to run to him for help, anyway.

    "I hear they bite your tongue off when they kiss, Kenzie!" chimed in Tevyan Biragan, a stocky boy who made no secret about being smitten with Lachris. He practically yapped when she talked to him. "Be sure and report back to us, aiya?" he added.

    "Wonder what Ur-Warlord DiVaragas would say if she knew about your crush on a butcher?" someone else yelled.

    Led by Lachris, others jumped in with additional jabs. I tried to laugh with them, but the teasing really hurt, especially the stuff Lachris said. Her family was rich and famous, people talked all the time about how good a warrior she was, and she looked like a hero from the vids. Tall and muscular, she was also gifted with a large chest and holostar features. All the males in Skyrholm turned their heads when she passed by. I, on the other hand, looked like a gangly kitten next to her. I didn't have enough chest to notice when I wore armor. Not that it should matter, but I was seventeen and I wanted Lachris to like me. Right now she kept ragging me about the Eagle, so it didn't take long for me to start wishing I'd shot the scrof instead of returning his damn smile.

    Fortunately, when our pilot took us upstairs, everybody laid off. We were a kilometer out of town, and the view was spectacular. Skyrholm Holdfast and its crowded fraytown faded quickly behind us.

    It didn't take long to get to the training area, a rock-studded, hilly place in the glacier where floating grav platforms and thick ice columns encircled a moderately-sized base. A small pyramid floated directly over the base, and a narrow beam of light ran from the bottom of the pyramid to the flat base summit. I wondered what it was. Some kind of beacon? We landed and lined up next to the foot of the base. The Sergeant came down the line for a cursory inspection. Then he jetted up onto a platform about three meters over the ground.

    "Alright, newbloods!" he called. "Pay attention! Today you get to demonstrate situational awareness and agility, not teamwork. This exercise is called Hunter. High scores get first crack at command in your cadre, low scores get clean-up duty in the mess tonight. Understood? I hear only one of you has seen live combat." He turned toward me. "You go easy on these punks, Kenzie." Then he gave me a thumbs-up sign!

    I swallowed in disbelief. He just made me the number one target! I'd practiced a lot back home on Narhaven, but mostly cooperative fire team simulations, not solo. I glanced at Lachris. She was watching me with a tight little frown. Some of the others darted their eyes my way as well. I made a show of examining my weapon, hoping to look nonchalant, but my heart was pounding.

    Why did he single me out like that? It wasn't fair!

    Lachris leaned over. "May the best warrior win… Eagle-lover." She flashed a friendly smile like it was all a joke, but her eyes were colder than Ymir's glaciers, and I knew this wasn't just an exercise any longer.

    Brianna - Part 2

    I heard the buzz of the spinfusor too late, right before it exploded into my back. My armor locked up, my jets cut out, and I tumbled hard into the ice and skidded almost twenty meters. The impact rattled my teeth despite the protection of my armor's shield aura. If it wasn't for the enhanced grip my armor gave me, I'd have lost the mockshooter when I hit. I was a goner.

    The spill didn't hurt nearly as much as being caught napping. The fact that Lachris fired the killing shot didn't do Dark for my pride.

    "Thanks for the flags, Eagle-lover!" Lachris landed next to me, her jets spraying blue fire on the icepack. The two guys nearby, Biragas and a nimrod called Ragwon, zoomed off and let her scoop up my flags without a fight.

    At that moment, I decided I hated guys. They all thought with their glands when it came to a girl like Lachris. Blood seeped onto my tongue from where I bit my cheek when I hit the ice, and it tasted bitter. I spat to clear my mouth and fought back tears.

    It wasn't starkissin' fair!

    Lachris was after me 'cause I'd smiled at a Blood Eagle guy we'd passed on the way out here. He smiled at me; I smiled back. That was it - no big deal.

    I should have wiped that smug grin off his face with a blaster shot. It'd have saved me this misery. Probably.

    "C'mon, Kenzie!" cracked the Sergeant's voice over the command circuit. "What in stars is wrong with you? Thought you'd seen real combat!"

    "Yes, sir!"

    What else could I say? That this was a training exercise and the other people in my cadre ganged up on me when we were supposed to be fighting solo? That'd sound like I couldn't handle it like a warrior, so I swallowed the lump in my throat. No way I'd give Lachris the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Time to suck it up and go for some payback.

    My armor unlocked. I struggled up and hit my jets.

    My mockshooter had returned to its default setting as a blaster. I dialed it to spinfusor and felt the weight and balance reconfigure. The holodisplay blinked, and I now saw a spinfusor in my hands. Our command circuit was set for holo-training, so we could shoot at each other and see the simulated effects. Explosions like the one I'd just eaten were generated on our visors and wired into our armor systems. When one of us took enough "damage" to "die," the armor froze up and cut the jets. Depending on where you were, you could still get hurt. Safety overrides were supposed to unlock everything if your life was really at risk, but they weren't a hundred percent effective.

    My HUD told me Lachris was on the way to score. With my flags!

    All of a sudden I'd had it. Maybe it was all about being an orphan and trying to find a place for myself after the Grievers killed my family. I hadn't come so far just to be kicked around like an old shoe.

    I needed to show Lachris - and everybody else - that I wasn't a loser. I had ten times the combat experience of anyone here. I had to remember that and let my training show.

    I blasted after her and told my CC to stick a waypoint on her. The rules of Hunter were everyone for herself, but since we'd started, Lachris and the two guys she'd captured with her heavy breathing had been gunning for me really hard.

    The eight of us dueled around a bowl-shaped valley in the glacier. The base squatted right in the center, and the Nexus floated on top of that. I was just over the ridge on the far side from the Nexus, so it took me a couple of good bounces to get up to where I could put eyes on Lachris. Ragwon tried to stop me, but he was clumsy. I spun in the middle of the second bounce and popped his butt with a couple of disks when he landed. He coughed up a flag, but I ignored it. I wanted Lachris.

    Biragas swooped up a little too late, confident he'd zap me again. I switched to the chaingun and cut my jets to drop under his line of fire. By the time he recovered, I was right underneath his sweet spot. He locked up nicely and took a header into a snow pack. Two flags popped up near my landing point, and I decided to snag them. The flags were just digital fluff we "took" by running through them. I hesitated over him just long enough for the training network to register a transfer of ammo from him to me. My numbers climbed to over twenty rounds for the spinfusor, and my chaingun ammo registered better than full, too.

    I'd need it. My only chance was to grab as many flags as I could and not go in for a score until I had a ton.

    My HUD told me Lachris still hadn't scored yet. I figured she was showing off, since she already had a decent lead on everybody.

    I jetted down past the Nexus, skipped across the base's sloped roof, and laid into another guy with the chaingun as he chased a girl named Renzi. By the time he realized where my hits were coming from, it was too late. I body-checked him through a portal into a corridor and finished him with a few blaster rounds just for the insult. It wasn't very nice, but I was really mad.

    Then I jumped Renzi, figuring the last guy had softened her up. He had. She dropped fast, and I was on my way to a decent number of flags. By this time, though, Lachris's boys were chasing me again. I started working hard to avoid being double- and triple-teamed. The effort made me sweat like a snowporker and breathe like a leaky heat pump. Lachris just dinked around like a queen, not even bothering to score. She did pick off a couple of the girls who tried to even the odds against me, and grabbed their flags. I figured she had at least eight by now. I had four.

    "What's the matter, Lachris?" I finally gasped over the CC's broadband. "Afraid to fight me?"

    "Never against an Eagle lover like you, Kenzie!" she shot back with a derisive laugh.

    "Fine!" I jinked around a corner to shake Biragas's chaingun bead. My armor was down to twenty five percent. One good disk hit would pop me. "Set a waypoint! Bring your flags!"

    A second later, a waypoint appeared on my HUD compass. Eight hundred meters away from the base. Great. We had less than three minutes before the exercise was over. The four flags I had now weren't enough to catch Lachris. I had six points; she had twenty. The way scoring worked, one more flag would put me ahead… if I scored with all five. Getting back would be a chore even if I beat her.

    I dropped my last two grenades behind me to throw off any pursuit, and lit out for the waypoint on the bounce. Looked like the boys had backed off. I wasn't sure what the Sergeant was thinking, but it didn't matter. I had one crack at this girl. I had to make it count.

    She met me at the top of a hill overlooking the valley. From here I could see a frozen river and a bridge in the distance. Below us the base was a small gray pyramid. The wind blew hard and cold, and I realized how tired I was, how absolutely wiped out from all the dodging. That wasn't all. I'd used my jets a lot more than I should have on the way up there, trying to rest up, and my suit's energy levels were low. Some of my hair had come loose and a few dark strands blew across my eyes. Lachris looked as pretty and fresh as a summer day, every inch the hero, while I looked ready to flop over and drown in my own sweat.

    Not starkissin' fair, but I didn't care anymore.

    She had her chaingun out, and as I approached, its barrels started to spin. I threw myself to the side and let loose with my spinfusor. The blue disk streaked well over her head. She didn't even flinch.

    I did the only thing I could think of with such low energy reserves: I flipped onto my back and slid downhill so I'd be a smaller target for the chaingun. Virtual flechettes flashed on the snow around me, a few registering hits as finger-sized sparks on my armor. My health readout sunk into the red, and I held my breath, but my armor didn't lock. I had to aim the spinfusor between my legs, but that seemed to help, 'cause I caught Lachris right in the chest, blowing her out of sight.

    Quick as I could, I flipped myself onto my belly, hitting my now-recovered jets to scoot upslope in a hurry, almost like a flying crawl. By the time Lachris jetted back up overhead, I had my chaingun out and spinning. I figured she'd come back fast, so I started shooting before I saw her. That bought me an extra second, so while I hosed her with flechettes, her weapon was still spinning up. I wasn't two meters from her when her armor locked up. The curdled expression on her face was priceless. I whooped as she thumped down in a sudden scatter of flags.

    "Laugh all you want, Kenzie!" she yelled. "I win anyway!"

    My timer showed thirty seconds. I didn't hesitate. I hit the icepack, grabbed my one flag, and lit out.

    One thing about Narhaven was that it had a lot of mountains with lots of long, steep slopes. Consequently, I grew up with skiing in my blood even before I learned how to armor ski. Once I grew big enough to wear my first training armor, Dak and my father had me zipping downhill like a sable-horned banshee. Armor skiing was this trick where you pulsed the calf jets really fast. The gravitic stabilizer was fooled into keeping you upright, and the jet stutter reduced friction so that you zipped along a lot faster than if you were just jetting. It's not easy; you have to have an eye for terrain, good reflexes, and great balance.

    I rocketed down the slope, keeping my knees together like I'd been taught. My boots sprayed up ice chips and bits of rock as they sliced over the hardpack; the wind sang in my ears. I pivoted my hips back and forth and tried like Dark to avoid hitting any spoogy softpack drifts. Skiing was no good if you sank into six meters of powder. Fortunately, Ymir was more ice than snow, but it was scary. I'd never gone so fast, and the world blurred white around me. Just as I reached the lip of the last drop, I opened my jets up all the way and leaped for all I was worth. By the Wolf, it was exhilarating! I flew at the Nexus like a bullet. I had to thread the needle just right. At the speed I was going, a miss would splatter me all over the stahlplast wall like a ripe tomato.

    Four seconds… three… too high! I twisted out flat and fired my jets hard. The next thing I knew, there was a jolt and a horrible scraping down my back, and I shot through the green light of the Nexus. My armor locked up as I came out the other side going way too fast, way too high, zeroing right in at a big old rock wedged into the far side of the bowl.

    For about one second, I congratulated myself for not pancaking, but the next instant I realized I was one dead newblood.

    Suddenly, my armor unlocked, and I heard the sergeant yelling across the commlink. "Kenziiiiie! Pull out, you idiot! Pull out!"

    He didn't need to tell me twice! I straightened up and blasted my jets hard, barely missing the boulder. That was the hard part. After that, landing was easy.

    My HUD showed the final score. I couldn't believe it. Lachris had twenty, but I had twenty-one!

    I just knelt on the ice and shivered, adrenaline spent. I couldn't even stand, I was so shaky. The sergeant checked in over the CC, and gave me a few minutes to pull it together before he called me back in.

    "Kenzie, that was one of the craziest, stupidest stunts I've ever seen," he announced after we'd assembled in two neat ranks by the turbogravs. A big grin stretched across his face. "If you'd pulled that at the Firetruce, you'd be immortal!"

    My jaw dropped as he continued, "All I can say is, Fury better watch her hunchin' tail! Give me a claw of hotshots like you, and I'll make this one short war!"

    I couldn't hold my own smile in. Lachris flushed and looked away. I hoped Dakota was watching, wherever he was, and I hoped he was proud.

    It was getting dark, so we packed it in. The sky had turned a deep purple as we flew back toward our billets at Skyrholm. I was tired to the bone, but the glow of victory stuck with me. The other cadets were friendlier, and even Lachris said something nice. She sounded like she had a beetle in her mouth, but it was a start.

    We were almost home when Biragas said, "Hey, check this on the CC!"

    "It's a couple of butchers fighting it out!" Renzi sounded disgusted. "Scroffin' beasts!"

    I patched my optiks into the command circuit and pegged the camera channel Biragas had marked. Some of the Eagle prisoners were fighting outside their barracks. It wasn't fair, two against one. Two more lay on the ice, one with his head at a bad angle.

    Bad as in fatal.

    Sickened, I got ready to flip away, but then the camera zoomed in and I got a closer look at their faces.

    "Isn't that your boyfriend, Kenzie?" Lachris asked with a snide tone.

    "What are you talking about?"

    "Take a closer look, hmm?"

    By the Wolf, it was him! The same guy! He looked real banged up, one eye swollen shut and cuts all over his face. One sleeve was torn, and I could see bare flesh. One of his two opponents looked kind of skinny, but the other was huge, and the two were really working a team job. The guy didn't have a chance, and judging from the way he stayed near the body, the downed prisoner meant something to him.

    "Looks like your boyfriend's in trouble," Lachris purred. "Too bad."

    "He's not my boyfriend!" I shot back, but I wondered: Why weren't the guards stopping this?

    One guy grabbed the Eagle's arm and the next second, the Eagle dropped him with a weird curving elbow strike. Unfortunately, the move left the Eagle open to a brutal kick from the giant. He caught it with the shoulder instead of his head, but it knocked him sprawling, and the giant moved in for the kill.

    "He's not my boyfriend. He's not my boyfriend," I mumbled. Why should I care what happened? We were at war with these people! The Eagle tried to roll to his feet, but the giant slammed into him and grappled hard. One of the guys on the ground got up and wiped his mouth. Then he started throwing punches while the big guy held the Eagle's arms.

    The guards still weren't doing anything. This wasn't starkissing fair. It wasn't even remotely honorable. Dak wouldn't have tolerated it, and neither would I.

    The CC showed our t-gravs flying right over the prisoner's camp. I flipped back to regular vision, unsnapped my harness, and leaped out. Below me the camp blazed like a white beacon fenced with stars.

    Lachris immediately shrieked, "Kenzie's going to save her boyfriend!"

    "Kenzie!" roared the Sergeant. "What in Dark are you doing?"

    By the tail of the Great Wolf, I wished I knew. I switched off my CC and fell through the night like a stone.

    Brianna - Part 3

    When I left the gym after training, I took my time wandering back to the barracks. Around me, Skyrholm was the usual bustle of activity. I threaded my way through warriors on leave, couriers, holdfast secretaries, food vendors, shivering offworld merchants, and assorted civilians. My feet scrunched in the icy slush that seemed to defeat all the city's efforts to melt off the streets. The sky was a pearly gray that deepened to luminous indigo at the horizon. Biting cold air nipped at my face, all so clear that I could make out every notch and crag on the mountain looming behind the city.

    Beautiful. Ordinarily I'd just drink it all in and enjoy it. A world like this made me feel free, and I would imagine how people had to cooperate to survive, how this kind of world brought people together. That kind of thought normally carried a lot of cozy memories of Narhaven with it, especially of the great fire in the central hall of my holdfast.

    But I felt confused and guilty after meeting Bando. What in Dark had I been thinking? That Blood Eagle prisoner wasn't the nice guy my fantasies made him - he was a butcher! Just like the rest of 'em! Seeing those horrible scars on Bando's scalp brought that fact home with a vengeance.

    Lachris was right. They were all right. I was the one who'd lost touch with what we were doing here: going to war against the butchers.

    Then there were the tender feelings I had suddenly developed for Bando. Something about him just hit me as trustworthy, like nobody I'd ever met before. Maybe it was pity for what had been done to him, but I didn't think that was it. I hoped it wasn't just that he was good looking. I'd be ashamed to be so shallow. Still… there was something about him.

    At the same time, I didn't trust my feelings. How could I? I'd humiliated myself and disobeyed orders over a butcher who happened to have a nice smile. I hadn't thought of myself as that kind of girl. I knew I tended to be impulsive, but up to now I hadn't dropped into outright stupidity.

    But while Bando talked to me, I'd melted like a schoolgirl in a half-shek romance vid. It was all really confusing.

    I pushed all these thoughts away when I hit the barracks, steeling myself for the usual round of tart comments and cold shoulders my fellow cadres had taken to greeting me with.

    Instead, I found the place all abuzz. Lachris was suited up in her Scout Armor armor. "Come on, Kenzie! Don't make us late!"

    "What?" I managed.

    She sneered. "We got the call to pick up your boyfriend and go up."

    "We?" I said stupidly. "What do you mean?"

    "I'm going with you, Eagle-lover. Since I'm running the cadre now, the Sergeant thought it'd be a good idea for me to come along and keep an eye on you."

    "I thought-"

    She cut me off with a slicing gesture. "No. You didn't. But I ought to thank you." A superior grin flashed at me. "Without your idiotic romance, I wouldn't have gotten the chance to meet the Ur-Warlord face to face."

    I didn't say anything after that, but rushed to my locker to break out my armor. I already had my skinsuit on, so that saved me the trouble of putting it on. I pulled my hair back and bound it with an elastic band, then pulled on my boot-greaves and unfolded the thigh plates along my quadriceps and hamstrings. As I did so, the armor's microseals knitted themselves closed with a series of rippling clicks. Next came the pelvic plate and the breastplate, followed by the vambraces and gauntlets. The armor activated immediately, each part drawing power from its cells until the microfusion pak in the breastplate came online. I felt the metal warming my skinsuit as I put on my helmet and made sure the neural induction links rested comfortably on my temples. The duracrys visor slid down to cover the upper half of my face, and the Heads Up Display flickered through a quick startup sequence.

    A faint chime sounded in my ear. I was ready.

    Lachris stood with folded arms at the door to my room, tapping her foot. "Come on, Kenzie. No time to spruce yourself up for your boyfriend."

    "He's not my starkissin' boyfriend!" I shouted.

    She just laughed at me. "Riiight. Well, he'll be a dead boyfriend soon, that's for sure." She spun and strode away, her long blonde hair streaming behind her. The hair reminded me of Bando all of a sudden, and a cold knife of anxiety stabbed me right in the gut.

    Lachris was coming. She was beautiful. Bando would take one look at her and forget all about me. I wasn't sure why that idea should bother me at all, but it did. I trotted after her with my stomach churning.

    We picked up blasters from the weapons locker on the way out. Then we jetted up to the roof to meet Bando and Sergeant Sartis. The Sergeant was piloting a Havoc turbograv, one of the combat transports we'd flown to the Hunters exercise the other day. According to the instructions on my Command Circuit, we'd pick up the Blood Eagle - the butchers, that is - out at the POW camp outside of town. Then we'd fly over to the starport and catch a dropship into orbit.

    The Havoc had four passenger slots in addition to the pilot and tailgunner positions up on the central chassis. Lachris and I took two of the passenger positions, and Bando stood in the tailgunner slot in a Assault-class armor. I spotted a spinfusor and a chaingun on his armor's warharness.

    "Hi, Brianna," he said over the CC. He sounded as cheery as ever.

    "Hi, Bando," I replied cautiously. I was glad to note that the sound of his voice didn't thrill me like it had when we'd talked an hour or so earlier.

    "Who your friend?"

    "I'm Lachris," Lachris shot out before I could say anything. "The leader of Ke-Brianna's cadre."

    "Nice to meet you, Lak-kris." He stumbled over her name slightly, and I could just see her roll her eyes. My HUD flashed up the text message <Moron.> I bit my lip and sent back. <No, he's not.>

    We got moving pretty quickly, and it was a short flight out to the POW camp, but it was dark by the time we got there. The butchers were escorted out in skinsuits while a couple of guards packed their armors into the Havoc's storage compartment. I didn't see any other prisoners. The big ugly butcher with the face tattoo didn't say a word, just hauled himself into his slot and strapped in. The other one - THE guy - stopped in front of me, the camp lights shining full on his face. I caught my breath. By the Wolf! He was going to make things even worse, wasn't he? He was going to talk to me!

    "Hi, Wolfgirl," he said quietly. "Thanks for, you know… everything." His voice was strong and clear, though he spoke Neolac with a little bit of a drawl. Up close, I saw he was definitely good-looking, even with a cluster of bruises still blotching his face. His eyes were deep green and slightly slanted, like I imagined a cat would have. His hair was nothing but a dark shadow on his scalp, totally opposite from the way we Starwolf wore it. He looked sincere and vulnerable, and I felt a fluttering in my chest.

    <Butcher-lover!> popped up on my HUD, and I twisted to catch Lachris smirking out of the corner of my eye. Bando was watching too. I spun back toward the butcher and jerked my blaster toward the last open slot.

    "Get in the transport, scrof!" I sounded harsh, and I meant to. For a second, something sad passed behind those cat eyes, and then he nodded.

    "Yeh-check." He climbed up and strapped in. As he did, he tossed off an airy "Heya, blondie," to Lachris, which seemed to catch her off-guard, because she didn't make any retort before he turned his back on her and settled in. I stifled a smile at the expression on her face. It was the first time I'd ever seen her at a loss.

    All the way to the dropship, I watched the back of the butcher's head. It was really hitting me that he was going to his death, if everything I heard about the Ur-Warlord was true, about her being a champion duelist and all. In spite of what Bando and the rest said, I couldn't help but wonder. This Blood Eagle didn't seem like the kind of guy who would torture someone. But then I'd remember how Bando's scars lay like white worms along his skull, and I'd get angry all over again.

    Like I said, I was really confused. Bri, you are a mess, I told myself. Get it together!

    After we got into the dropship, though, my doubts just trickled away. We escorted the two butchers into the transport bay and buckled them into their seats before we took ours. We didn't make any conversation, and aside from a couple of looks, the butcher guy didn't try to say anything else. The big ugly one sized Lachris up and licked his lips. She opened her mouth like she was going to say something, but the Sergeant cut her off.

    As we sat there, I started remembering how noble Bando was, how he could have let hatred for the Blood Eagle tear him apart, but he hadn't. I found myself stealing looks at him. Strangely enough, Lachris seemed like she was doing the same thing. When she noticed that I saw her doing it, she blushed and quit for awhile. But a little later, she was at it again, just like me.

    Part of me worried this was a little weird, but the rest of me just brushed it off, relieved to have something in common with Lachris at last while also hoping Bando didn't pay her too much attention.

    Before we knew it, we'd docked with the Retribution. With a start, I realized Lachris's ponytail was floating over her head. When had we gone over to microgravity?

    The Sergeant unbuckled himself and kicked over to the hatch. "Alright, people. Time to take these two little lambs to the slaughter."

    "What do you want, an invitation?" I snarled at the butcher. "Get moving!"

    "Kenzie!" warned the Sergeant. "Save 'em for the Ur-Warlord! And save that temper for Fury, heya?"

    Abruptly I realized my hand had raised to slap the butcher. Wearing armor like I was, I could easily crush his skull if I hauled off. Chagrined, I muttered an apology. The butcher's eyes narrowed. He grabbed his armor bundle and headed for the hatch without a word.

    I stood there a moment before following, looking at my hand.

    What was happening to me?


    The confrontation promised to be interesting. The woman known as Fury wondered whether Alexandre had hand-picked his emissary to provoke her. DeBures was certainly arrogant enough. Arrogant and blind. His assassins had been clumsy; she hadn't even been marked. Surely there were better tools at the Great Eagle's hand.

    Keeping her face carefully neutral, Fury stepped into her briefing room on the Blood Eagle battleship Gladius Dei. The Circle of Fire-her name for her staff of oath-sworn advisors-rose as a man and saluted. One figure remained seated, an action clearly meant to be an insult, a message that she was not worthy of the rank she held. The Great Eagle's emissary, Pennant-Commander Ram DeBures, was a gray-haired war dog with a neck as stiff as the pikes he'd stuck his enemies' heads on. His arms folded across his massive chest, and his face held a barely-veiled expression of anger and surprise.

    At first glance, she knew she looked unimposing next to a warrior like DeBures. A slender woman of indeterminate age, she wore her brown hair in a simple crew cut. No one would call her beautiful, but neither was she unattractive. Her skin was dark enough to suggest her ancestors had lived in sunny climes, but light enough to prevent an accurate assessment of her ethnic heritage. Her one memorable physical attribute was her single piercing blue eye. The other one had been lost in a duel with a Phoenix Lord during her youth. Eschewing any form of replacement, she covered the socket with a garnet-studded patch of leather made from the Phoenix Lord's manhood. Her uniform was a simple black one with a crimson sash. The only signs of her rank were the delicate gold eagles pinned to her collar and the ebon swagger stick she carried tucked under one arm. Unimposing, yes, but only on the surface.

    She met the hostile stare of the Great Eagle's dog with a thin smile. She had already decided to how she would deal with him. The Bloodline DeBures prided themselves on adhering to the deepest tradition of honor with a capital "H." He was a dinosaur so far as she was concerned, worthless except for one thing: obeying his master. Still, he had potential. She planned to teach this old dog a new trick.

    She seated herself and turned to her right, away from DeBures. "Narr-Captain Chalad. Report."

    A powerfully-built woman who carried numerous scarred tattoos on her face, Chalad had a reputation for self-discipline almost as great as Fury's. She tapped a button on her bodycomp, and a hologram of a dusty brown planet appeared above the table. "Sirdar-Prime. We have debriefed all survivors from Shek Two. The yappers hit the Chapters with overwhelming force, at least forty thousand warriors." Red and green triangles winked onto the planetary surface. The red triangles were legion, the green ones mere speckles in comparison. Chalad's voice remained emotionless. "Nine Swords remained to cover the evacuation from the main Chapterhouse, but it was hopeless. No one made it to the pickup, though we understand the yappers took some prisoners. Other casualties were minimal."

    Fury nodded. "Thank you. Sikkyn-Captain Sevaya. Rep-"

    DeBures interrupted, his voice deep and gravelly. "Sirdar, I-"

    "Sirdar-Prime, Sier," Fury corrected him icily.

    DeBures shrugged impatiently. "Sirdar-Prime, then. Why did you garrison Shekerik Two with so few? With the forces you have here, you could easily have mounted a more effective defense. Is this the way you shepherd the worlds under the Great Eagle's wings?"

    She turned again to Sevaya. "Sikkyn-Captain, explain matters to the Commander."

    Sevaya jabbed at his bodycomp. The hologram changed to show a green and verdant world, the one that spun five hundred kilometers below them: Charybdis.

    "Sier DeBures," he began, "we have deployed the entire assets of the Order of Wrath together with the assets of the allied independents who sent aid. Despite over thirty thousand hard-shell troops and twenty thousand soft-shells, we lack the strength to hold the world. DiVaragas has nursed a bloodfeud against us for many years, and she has now succeeded in mustering nearly the entire Starwolf tribe for a long-term offensive. We believe she has assembled over ten Thousand-Knives at Ymir, and troops continue to arrive from the Fringe and from the Starwolf's tribal allies. Their troop numbers surpass one hundred sixty thousand hard-shells according to our best estimates. We don't have an accurate figure on soft-shells, but I believe they can field at least fifty thousand."

    "Raw God," DeBures grated. Just for a moment he looked shaken, then he slipped back behind the hardened demeanor he had worn since his arrival. "Surely the Diamond Sword and the Children of Phoenix would never allow such a threat to the balance of power… unless they have changed their spots."

    Good, Fury thought. The dog begins to learn.

    "Thank you, Sikkyn-Captain." She looked at DeBures. "We obtained this information from intelligence assets on Shekerik Two. We left units in position to support our agents and to draw out DiVaragas so we could analyze the composition of her force and strategy." She steepled her fingers on the table. "Now, my Lord, as to your embassy. I requested assistance from the Great Eagle and the Exiled Bloodlines some time ago. I presume you bring me an answer."

    DeBures frowned. "I was commanded to speak to you alone, Lady."

    "Speak freely in front of my staff, or not at all." Her tone remained soft, but brooked no argument.

    "If I must." He cleared his throat. "Greetings with honor to Sirdar Fury of the Order of Wrath. The Great Eagle commands you to return at once to Court at Outermost and explain your disobedience. Your troops will stand down while the Orders of the Black Star and Burning Steel assume command responsibilities on Charybdis."

    The air in the room seemed to thicken. Someone coughed, and Fury heard Chalad whisper a profanity.

    "And if I refuse, Sier DeBures?" she asked quietly.

    "In that case, Sirdar, the Great Eagle declares you Traitor and Infidel. The other Orders will hunt you, Cardinal Spear will seek the lives of you and your blood relations, and any of your officer cadre who do not repudiate you will share your fate."

    "I see. Regrettably, I refuse."

    That caught him off-guard. The DeBures could never imagine disobedience, she thought wryly. Their rigid code of honor smothered independent thought.

    "You're insane!" he said.

    "No, my Lord, that would be the Great Eagle."

    "You condemn us to another civil war, by Christ and Holy Hunter!"

    "So be it." She looked around the table. "There is no time for political games, Siers. The wolf is at our door and it will not wait for us to settle our differences. Any of you who wish to accept the Great Eagle's terms are free to do so."

    No one moved. She studied each face and nodded in approval. She hadn't expected anything else. "Excellent. Pass the word down the chain of command. The offer holds for everyone, so long as any takers depart within twenty four hours standard." Sevaya saluted and left the room with a grim expression on his face.

    DeBures jumped to his feet, red with anger. "I shall take your answer back to Court, madam. Perhaps we'll meet again when I return to take your head." Her staff members also jumped up at this, hands flying to weapons.

    She rose slowly and caught DeBures's gaze with her own, her temper flowing into her words like a river of ice. "Sier DeBures, I had hoped you would take word of our situation back to the Exiled Houses and bend your efforts to assisting us, but I see you persist in habits of blind obedience. Your assassins are dead. I am alive." She waited for that to sink in before continuing, "Whether Providence is with us or not, I will do whatever is necessary to protect the tribe. I will sacrifice every last soldier here-including me-to keep the Starwolf from overrunning our entire nation. If that means defying the Great Eagle, so be it."

    "But... but this defiance dishonors you!"

    She laughed coldly. "And your point? Christ and Hunter, this is war, DeBures, not some pissant raid where everyone dances to the Tenets! We are not the Children of Phoenix, and this is not the bloody Firetruce! DiVaragas hates our guts, Sier, and she prepares to attack us with better than four to one odds! You're an idiot if you believe she tempers her decisions with honor."

    "Take him," she ordered. Chalad and two others were ready and seized DeBures instantly.

    "This is an outrage, by God! I came under flag of truce!" DeBures bellowed, struggling as his captors bound his hands.

    "They were your assassins, Sier DeBures," Fury observed.

    He drew himself up. "I will endure your knives bravely, traitor. I won't give you the satisfaction of hearing me beg for my life."

    Fury laughed. "Raw God, man, killing you would be a waste! You're going planetside to command a Sword in service of the tribe. We'll put the word out that I've convinced you to go rogue with me. Who knows? We might have more assistance that way. If nothing else, the Great Eagle's trust in the House of DeBures will be diminished."

    "What makes you think I'll fight for you?" he demanded.

    "Why, Sier, you're a man of honor. You won't fight for me, but you'll damn well fight against the Starwolf when they come. I know you that well, at least."

    Speechless, he simply glared at her, hatred blazing in his eyes. She waved her stick. "Get him out of my sight, Chalad. The rest of you are dismissed with my thanks." The dog will learn the rest of his lesson on Charybdis. Honor won't shield us when DiVaragas comes.

    After everyone had left, she returned to her seat and examined the hologram of Charybdis. There was no way out. Only when she was completely alone could she let herself feel the enormity of that simple fact. Without the other Orders supporting her, the yappers would crush her forces like a dry nut in an industrial vice. After a time, she carefully turned off the display and the lights, put her head in her hands, and wept.

    The brave speech she had given DeBures was only partly true; though she spurned the tribal notion of honor, she did believe in duty and responsibility. Fifty thousand troops and untold numbers of civilians were going to die on her watch, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.

    What could possibly make the Great Eagle so complacent?

    Fury - Part 2

    The merchanter Star of Fortune loomed in the viewscreen, its running lights blinking steadily as the shuttle approached on a docking vector. Commander Stalan Perovich shook his head. "I don't like it ma'am. At least let one of the Ravens accompany you."

    Fury adjusted the left ventral seal on her spacesuit. "We've been over this, Exec. We can't get any help from outside the tribe. The Phoenix are completely focused on the Firetruce. We need to convince the Bloodlines to defy the Great Eagle, and this meeting may be our foot in the door."

    "Then take a weapon."

    "I gave my word."

    She checked the palm control the techs had rigged onto her glove. "The Halakar envoy wants to meet privately. I'm suspicious too, but I don't blame him. Can you imagine the Great Eagle's response if he learned the Halakar were negotiating with us?"

    Perovich nodded glumly. "Civil war."

    "Yes, and a lot of suddenly disappeared Halakar children." Fury lifted the helmet from Perovich's grasp and put it on. Microseals clicked and hissed. She raised the visor and made herself smile. "We're not entirely helpless, Exec. I've ordered Wolf Skinner into a cloaked position off the Fortune's port side. If worst comes to worst, this ship will never reach the jumpgate."

    Her readouts confirmed all suit systems were functioning properly, including the modified pack on her back. Normally reserved for SCARAB use, the pack's weight would become uncomfortable if she had to wear it long under gravity, but she didn't plan on having it on for more than a couple of hours at most.

    Wearing an armor pack made her feel oddly nostalgic. She'd worn all classes of armors in her youth, and fought in countless battles. Sometimes she missed the simplicity of those days, when kill or be killed formed the extent of her philosophy. Not that the situation with the Starwolf was much different, when you came right down to it.

    Her Executive Officer looked uncomfortable, plainly concerned about the possibility of Halakar treachery. There'd already been three assassination attempts in the last six months, two from unknown parties. Fury knew she represented a huge prize for anyone who brought her dead or alive before Great Eagle Alexandre Konovalev. Going into this meeting unescorted carried enormous risk, but she and her people needed all the help they could get. The Halakar would be a logical alliance. The Starwolf threatened a lot of Blood Eagle assets if they broke through at Charybdis, including the jewel of the Halakar holdings: Bira Marduk, often described as the richest world in the wilderzone.

    Their pilot, a rangy stringer of the elite Falling Fifty squadron, announced their docking sequence. A metallic thump followed moments later, followed by a series of subdued clanks as the ships' airlocks meshed. Fury stepped into the maintenance airlock, well away from where her hand-picked "inspection team" assembled to board the Star of Fortune as a cover for any spies that happened to be monitoring this particular shuttle.

    "Good luck, ma'am," Perovich said.

    "Thank you, Exec." The hatch closed between them, and Fury was alone. When the instrument panel confirmed the atmosphere evacuation was complete, she popped the external hatch and swung out into space.

    She paused and savored the moment, surrounded by the beauty and immensity of the void. It had been a long time since she'd gone EVA, and she missed the experience. Regretfully, she cut her reverie short and scanned the merchantman's hull for the airlock she'd been told to use. A few seconds later, she spotted it, a small maintenance access a hundred meters away, just under one of the port m-thrust arrays. She kicked off toward it.

    "Check-check-check," she said, testing her commlink.

    "We read you, Sirdar-Prime," answered a woman's cool voice. "We'll be listening for your signal."

    "Thank you, Captain Jordan." She cut the link.

    She reached the airlock easily and found it unlocked. It took only a few moments to cycle in and enter the mammoth freighter. She stood in a service corridor that ran parallel to the spine of the ship. Only one dim light glowed here, not enough to dispel the shadows. She estimated the faux gravity at about eighty percent of standard.

    "Greetings, Sirdar-Prime." A handsome, dark-complexioned man stepped through a hatch at the end of the corridor on her right. He wore a heavy robe what appeared to be a shipboard suit. His hair was cropped short, and his temples were gray. The voice he addressed her with was deep and his tones cultured. "I am Esrehim Halakar. Please join me. I regret the elaborate precaution, but my elders insisted."

    Fury lifted her visor and looked up at him. The air smelled of metal and slotlube and something sweet and perfumed that she took to be the envoy's cologne. "Thank you for meeting with me, Sier Halakar. I hope my visit will lay their doubts to rest."

    He smiled a politician's smile. "As do I, milady, as do I." He bowed her into the next room. The smile stayed on his face as he took a seat behind a small worktable bolted to the deck. Fury sat in the second chair, somewhat uncomfortably due to the awkward bulk of the pack.

    The envoy's expression shifted to one of concern. "Milady, you should have worn a lighter suit."

    "It is nothing. My staff wanted me to wear battle armor, but I compromised."

    He chuckled. "One can never be too cautious, ayia? Again, I do apologize for the crude circumstances here, but the elders wish my impressions from a personal meeting with the celebrated - some would say infamous - Fury." He held his hands out helplessly. "At the same time, they wanted to be as discreet as possible. You understand."

    "I appreciate their concern, sier. As I hope they appreciate mine." Fury dropped her smile. "We here at Charybdis are all that stands in the way of a huge Starwolf invasion. Ursula DiVaragas has assembled what amounts to the entire fighting capacity of the Starwolf. If Charybdis falls, I think we face a difficult and prolonged war, perhaps a losing one."

    Halakar shook his head. "I know. Utter chaos. This ship carries a full cargo of weapons and armor. It is the ho-"

    Fury had no patience for fencing. "I need warriors," she cut in flatly. "We have SCARABs. We have guns. I need Knights to use them." She leaned forward. "More than anything, I need a commitment from your House. This is no time for playing politics; the stakes are too high."

    He coughed. "Milady, believe me when I say the Halakar are sympathetic. The Great Eagle grows more… unstable each year. However, the consensus among the Bloodlines is that they require a significant victory before they are willing to break fealty with House Konovalev."

    She snorted. "A significant victory against DiVaragas is impossible without aid! Ymir is well-defended, and - forgive the expression - packed with Starwolf."

    "The Great Eagle has promised to send two full Orders to Charybdis if you surrender yourself to Outermost."

    "Two Orders are not enough. If they were - and if the reinforcements came in time - then I would surrender." She stood. "This discussion is over, sier."

    "Milady?" His hand came up from under the desk holding a heavy pistol. "I really cannot let you go, much as I would like to." A pair of beefy warriors stepped through the hatch. "Please keep your visor up. If you don't, I'll have to wound you rather severely."

    "So the Halakar declare for the Great Eagle."

    "On the contrary, they wish to support you. This is a private venture, I'm afraid. The other Houses are indeed looking for something to inspire them to pick a side, though. Your capture will serve that purpose well enough, while making me extremely wealthy."

    She stepped back into the corner, keeping her voice level despite her racing heart. "I suppose you will hold me hostage in return for safe passage outsystem?"

    He smiled warmly. "It seems an obvious tactic, milady."

    "Is it your final offer, sier?"

    He looked momentarily puzzled. "It's not an offer, Sirdar. It's an fact." He gestured, and one of the warriors produced a hypo. "Don't worry. You'll be quite agreeable in a moment."

    "I don't think so." She thumbed the glove control that activated her pack. "Omega," she added, pulling her visor down firmly.

    His weapon spat fire at her arm, but without effect. Comprehension dawned in his eyes. "Shield pack!" he shouted. "She has a hunchin' shie-"

    A portion of the bulkhead exploded into the room in a hailstorm of shrapnel and white hot metal that vaporized Halakar's head and upper torso, but left Fury unharmed. She saw one of the two warriors go down with a jagged shard of metal through his chest, but missed the fate of the second man. An instant later, atmosphere rushed out through the hole into open space, taking what was left of Sier Esrehim Halakar with it.

    "You can never be too cautious," Fury murmured, holding onto the twisted remains of the desk. She fought her way to the hatch, where she found the second warrior's broken body wedged in the hatchway.

    The Captain of the Wolf Skinner hailed her. "Sirdar-Prime? Are you CC?"

    "Yes, thank you. Fine shooting, Candlessa."

    "Thank you, ma'am!" Pride filled the captain's voice at the compliment. "We aim to please."

    Fury cut the link and concentrated on getting out, heaving the second warrior's body up and letting the wind pull it away. The heavy energy pack supplied just enough extra weight to help her keep her feet. It took her an awkward few moments to struggle through the hatch and seal it behind her. Leaning against the bulkhead in the sudden silence, she took a few deep breaths and laughed with the elation an escape from death brings.

    Raw God, that was close!

    The shield pack was completely drained. It only held a few seconds of charge when carried independent of a SCARAB, but those few seconds had been enough, thank God. She shuddered at the thought of what the hypo might have held. A powerful hypnotic, obviously. Most were harmless, but some of the more potent ones caused serious brain damage as a side effect. She had no difficulty picturing Halakar administering the latter variety.

    Still, the incident had proven useful in an unexpected way.

    Zen masters were said to strike a sudden blow to their students to shock them into new ways of thinking. An utter clarity had descended on Fury, as though she'd received just such a blow. Heretofore, her assumptions about the situation had proceeded from the hope that the Blood Eagle nation would come to its collective senses. That clearly wasn't going to happen. Not without extra prodding, and she now had an idea on how to provide that.

    She opened a new com channel. "Exec? Halakar's dead. Send the shuttle to pick me up. Then get a supply officer over here with a couple of hardsuit Quads for backup. Clean this ship out. Inform the crew Halakar and his guards were… victims of a Cardinal Spear assassination attempt against me. Send them home with our condolences after repairs have been made. There's more, but we'll discuss it when I get back."

    "Yes, ma'am!"

    "And Exec?"


    "Assemble the command staff in my quarters in one hour." She allowed herself a smile. "We have a change in strategy."

    Fury - Part 3

    Sirdar Ashrod Starkweather of the Order of the Coiled Dragon shook his white-maned head and surveyed the multitude of officers packed into the theater-like briefing chamber of the Gladius Dei. Nearly every Pennant and Talon Commander of the Order of Wrath and the Order of the Coiled Dragon was in attendance for this briefing. Starkweather shook his head and returned his attention to Fury.

    "Sirdar-Prime," he said slowly. "With all due respect, the brethren hold grave misgivings about the course you're setting us on. Our knights will follow your lead, of course." He produced a tired, wintry smile. "But the fact remains that we are all committing treason."

    The last word fell into a crystalline silence, a fragile space between heartbeats. Fury felt the tension curdling the air. The last civil war in the Blood Eagle had been ages ago, but it stood as the most bloodily fratricidal war in tribal history. No one wanted to relive that horror.

    She nodded gravely and fixed her gaze on Starkweather. "Sier Starkweather, believe me, I appreciate your candor. For the last week, you've all worked like the devil's own to mobilize our forces for an offensive aimed at Outermost. The pressure has been tremendous. I thank you -- all of you." Then she allowed herself a smile of genuine pleasure, sharing that feeling with the entire assembly. "Your labors have borne fruit."

    Starkweather's granite features remained impassive, but Fury glimpsed the spark of puzzlement in his eyes. Puzzlement… and interest.

    "Ma'am?" he asked. "This old soldier may be missing something. Would the Sirdar-Prime care to elaborate?"

    "Of course. Hakim, begin the briefing."

    Sikkyn-Captain Hakim Sevaya stood, holding a control pad in one slender hand. He was Fury's intelligence officer and together with Narr-Captain Felice Chalad, one of the two constant fixtures on Fury's staff. The crew of the Gladius Dei had christened the pair "Fury's Ravens." Eventually, the Pennant officers and knights picked up the nickname, so these days everyone knew who "the Ravens" were.

    He cleared his throat before beginning. "Siers, one week ago you received instructions to begin mobilizing for a massive offensive into the Erasmus Axis. The goal of such an assault would drive through the systems held by Chapters of the Order of the Talon and thence to Outermost." He paused for a moment as a large holo-display unfolded darkly in the space above them, displaying the chain of star systems between Charybdis and the Blood Eagle heartworld of Outermost. "The seat of the Great Eagle and the heart of House Konovalev's holdings. The reason for such an assault was to galvanize the Exiled Bloodlines into mobilizing against an invasion. By mobilizing to defend against us, they would be more prepared when DiVaragas chose to move."

    "'Was to galvanize,' Sikkyn-Captain?" interjected Starkweather.

    Sevaya returned a curt nod. "'Was,' Honored Sier. Our goals have been accomplished."

    Starkweather's face hardened. Even in the dim light of the chamber, Fury saw similar expressions on other faces as the realization dawned on her officer corps that they'd been used in a game of deception.

    Unfazed by the rustle of murmurs, Sevaya continued. "The Konovalev have moved to a priority alert status, and Court has called for all Houses to call up the reserves. Tribal allies have been contacted as well. House Nagashima is gathering its levies, as are the DeBures and - reluctantly - the Eun Alba. The Sabot-Styx have moved to secure gateway worlds. The Halakar have shifted the bulk of their peripheral forces to Bira Marduk. The Order of the Talon are already combat-ready. It appears Sirdar Do'Brennin has kept his Pennants on priority alert for some time."

    "Old Marius was always a canny one," observed Starkweather. "And of course we Starkweather have already mobilized. The Order of the Coiled Dragon has been here for over three months." He addressed Fury directly. "Cut to the chase, milady. You've just told us our opponents are preparing themselves so that any venture we make toward Outermost will be a bloody, costly fight. I thought the point of our rapid mobilization was to catch them off guard. It now appears that hope is impossible." Several dozen heads nodded agreement.

    Fury held up a hand and stood, forestalling Sevaya's answer and motioning him to sit. It was time.

    "Sirdar Starkweather and all of you: let me apologize for misleading you. However, doing so was necessary to accomplish our intent." As she spoke, she felt her control war with a surge of passion. "For too long, we have waited for the Great Eagle and the Exiled Bloodlines to reinforce us against an imminent Starwolf invasion. We have fought along the Starwolf border in the hope of distracting DiVaragas. We have tried to consolidate our frontier to guard our tribe's holdings. We have even tried to negotiate, using the Children of Phoenix as an intermediary." She smiled humorlessly. "Once."

    "Now we wait in the shadow of the Wolf. With the numbers facing us under the leadership of Ursula DiVaragas, our only choice is to be crushed. Or so we have come to believe." She leaned forward, both hands on the mirrored table before her. "The Bloodlines look for a sign before they will commit to helping us. By the time DiVaragas finishes with us, they will have that sign. But Siers, I tell you that I do not care to wait for death." Her voice took a sudden edge. "We are mobilized for an invasion. Let us not waste that effort.

    "I am bound for Ymir, to strike the Wolf in the teeth." Fury swept the room with her gaze, watched a shockwave of stunned expressions pass through her audience. "We will come to grips with DiVaragas on our terms, Siers. We choose the time of battle! We choose the place! We will hit the yappers in the core of their strength and show them they are not invincible!" Heart pounding, she took a breath and moderated her voice to a calm tone, as if she were asking someone to tea. "Will you join me?"

    For a moment, no one moved. This time the silence was electric. Then Starkweather jolted to his feet.

    "Raw God," he said in a near-whisper. "This is insane. But it's not treason…!" His face lit up as he roared, "I'm with you, by Blessed Christ and Holy Hunter! I'm with you, Sirdar-Prime! And all the Starkweather Bloodline as well! Lead us to Ymir!"

    The room thundered as her other officers surged to their feet en masse, echoing Starkweather's sentiment with cries of "Ymir! Ymir! Ymir!"

    Fury's good eye burned wetly. She lowered her head and blinked for a few moments until self-control returned.

    Raw God. It had worked.

    The Bloodlines were mobilizing, and she finally had the freedom to act. Her officers would follow her into the jaws of death. It was more than she dared hope for. It was exhilarating and intoxicating all at once. She pushed the feeling down as much as she could. Now more than ever, she needed her trademark coolheadedness.

    After the tumult died down and the officers again occupied their seats, she smiled at the assembly. "Siers, I thank you for your loyalty. I need not tell you that you should keep this as secret as possible. We are now sealing all potential security leaks… since they've now served their purpose. Now," she turned to Sevaya. "The Sikkyn-Captain will resume the briefing. It should come as no surprise that you will have different assignments and different targets." A smattering of laughter greeted this comment.

    She sat as Sevaya stood. The holodisplay now showed an icy world frosted with a legion of clouds.


    The display shifted, the viewpoint pulling away from the planet and retreating into space. Red triangles appeared around Ymir itself and spead in clusters at the planet's Lagrange points. More red triangles appeared in the vicinity of the jumpgate. The sheer number of red triangles settled the mood in the room instantly.

    "Raw God--!" someone breathed. Fury saw many officers shift uncomfortably.

    Ymir. The Starwolf Muster, the largest army ever assembled in the wilderzone. Ursula DiVaragas, who had sworn an Oath of Vengeance against the Blood Eagle for the death of her son.

    Fury was reminded of an ancient poem, one that celebrated the glory of a doomed charge against impossible odds. What was the line that summed up their situation? she wondered. Ah, yes: 'Into the teeth of hell rode the gallant six hundred….'

    Maybe someday a minstrel would sing of the Blood Eagle's charge into Ymir. After the Zone Vox witnesses had spread it as news, of course. But first….

    First there was work to be done.

    "Siers," began Sevaya in his usual detached manner, "there is a POW camp here, next to the planetary capital of Skyrholm…."

    Fury - Part 4

    The communicator's chime brought Fury out of a troubled sleep. She woke to a pitch-dark cabin, and as was her practice, took three deep breaths to clear her mind before answering. Dreamstuff clung to her brain for a few moments, distorted memories of the meteor's devastation on H-O Two, of gliding through the aftermath, the shattered ecosystem wailing like a thousand hurt puppies. Starwolf bodies strewn over a broken landscape.

    Enough! She reached out and hit the accept button. "What is it?"

    "Sirdar-Prime, there's a message for you," said Stalan Perovich, her Executive Officer on the Gladius Dei. He sounded uncertain, which pricked her interest. "It's, ah, somewhat unorthodox. I wasn't sure I should disturb you."

    "What's so unusual about it, Exec?" As she spoke, she swung out of her bunk and reached for her robe. Her quarters were small and functional, and she could navigate them with her eyes closed.

    "Well, ma'am, it's an HCAR voice-only transmission that came in on an old command frequency, using an outdated Outermost protocol."

    "We do occasionally get those, Exec. Fringe groups or former allied tribes who don't stay current with our protocols." She belted the robe on and padded to her desk, stopping before she barked her shins on the chair. Reaching out with one sure hand, she pulled the chair open before seating herself. "How outdated?"

    "Sixteen years, ma'am."

    A chill traced its way down her spine. "I'll take it. Privately."

    "Acknowledged. I'm sending it now, ma'am."

    "Thank you, Stalan."

    She folded her arms in the dark and waited. A moment later a deep, resonant voice filled the room, a voice she remembered very well.

    A voice she'd given up for dead years ago.

    "Hello, Alyx, this is Mace. If you're listening to this, I'll assume you're wondering where the Seven Hells I've been over the last umpteen years." A laugh followed, then: "All over would be the easiest answer, but I don't think it'd be a terribly satisfying one for you. I haven't much time to explain, since I'm trying to slip into the Nirel-Malak Lattice without stirring up Cardinal Spear. And in any case, I have something to show you that absolutely needs to be shown in person. With luck, I won't be far behind this message. Christ, I may even beat it if the relays at Hindershot are still as bad as they were in '24.

    "You'll need something to prove it's really me and not a fake. When I arrive, I'll transmit on this frequency again. Ask me anything you like. I'll see you soon, heya? Take care."

    The message bleeped to signal it was over. Fury realized she sat bolt upright, her fists clenched in her lap. She made herself relax, but she remembered a sandy-haired man of powerful build, hard but kind. A warrior and a minstrel. A man she'd hated with frightening passion once upon a time.

    But that was a long time ago. Times had changed, and they doubtless would change again. She had become a different person, and she faced a near-impossible task in this reckoning with the Starwolf. Still, the message had aroused her curiosity. She tabbed Perovich's commlink.


    "Exec, if we should receive another message on that frequency, patch it to me at once. First priority."

    "Aye-aye, ma'am."

    She closed the circuit and stood. Why had Mace decided to come out of retirement after so many years? What did he have that was so important? She dressed in the dark, then turned up the lights to make the final adjustments on her uniform. Once she was satisfied with her appearance, she picked up her swagger stick and went to the bridge.

    Preparations had gone well. The strike fleet was nearly ready to depart. Up until now, only the senior officers knew they were going to hit Ymir instead of driving toward Outermost. Fury planned to make a fleetwide announcement one hour prior to departure. To allow her troops to prepare for an arctic combat zone, she'd selected the false target of Grimschloss, a nearby star system with an icebound world held by the Order of the Talon. She'd even sent a few recon units to reinforce the ruse. They'd had orders not to engage under any circumstances, and they'd returned without incident, though they'd confirmed Starkweather's information that Sirdar Do'Brennin had mobilized. Grimschloss fairly crawled with O-T Talons.

    No, the real target was Ymir's capital of Skyrholm. In addition to the morale value of a strike on the capital of the system hosting the Starwolf Muster, there was a POW camp nearby that held Blood Eagle prisoners taken on Shekerik Two. Fury's plan was to hit Skyrholm and free her people. Surely that would be more than enough to wake the Bloodlines.

    The bridge of the Gladius Dei was a busy, efficient place. It was taller than it was wide. A holodisplay column dominated the center of the room. Command stations formed a half circle on the upper level, and the lower half of the room - called the Gunpit - held the primary gunnery stations in another semicircle. Fury's command seat had its own level just above and to the right of the command stations. Once on the bridge, she mounted the stairs and took her seat. The crew members on station nodded to her but didn't interrupt their work. This was the critical period before going into battle, when the crew made one last shakedown of the myriad of electronic and mechanical systems throughout the ship. Fury didn't care to break her crew's concentration with petty displays of military protocol. The Gladius Dei was one of the most powerful warships in the wilderzone, and Fury meant it to function at peak efficiency.

    She began to review her plan for the assault on Ymir. It relied heavily on the Blood Eagle's technological advantages in speed and targeting, which could become a significant factor in starship combat, given a clever commander. Fury knew she couldn't defeat DiVaragas. She might, however manage to achieve her objective and get out without losing too much of her force. If the plan worked, that is. She had no illusions. Military strategy was as subject to the laws of chance and entropy as anything else. However, she had the advantage of a far smaller force to coordinate. If they sliced in quickly, made the hit and run by the numbers, they might get out.

    With forty percent casualties.

    But if the Starwolf had been alerted and were waiting for them, it could be much, much worse. No question. This venture was a huge gamble. She pored over their intelligence again, ran several more simulations, and made some adjustments. She was supposed to be the brilliant strategist, the miracle worker, but she couldn't find any miracle here. At best, she'd achieve a Pyrrhic victory. She wiped perspiration from her forehead and sipped some tea a thoughtful steward had left for her.

    There was another element to her strategy. The Starwolf had a huge number of warriors, but there were a lot of newbloods in that muster, and they'd make all the mistakes newbloods tended to make under fire. Fury's force, on the other hand, was virtually all veteran. Add to that the truculent independence of the various Starwolf warlords, and she dared hope there'd be enough of a difference in discipline to tip the scales.

    Her commlink beeped, startling her. How long had she been working over her screens? The chronometer said she'd been here nearly nine hours. She stifled a groan as she stood.

    "Fury here. What is it?"

    Chalad's voice answered her. "Commander Perovich said you'd left orders regarding a certain transmission, sir. We've received such a signal. Do you want to take it there?"

    "Yes." Her command station had more than enough privacy, and was also equipped with anti-eavesdropping features if she needed to trigger them. "Put it through, Felice. Voice only." She didn't feel ready to see him yet.

    "Hello, Sirdar-Prime." Mace. Fury felt herself tense again, but she clasped her hands behind her back and waited.

    "It's been a long time, Starkar. If that's who you are."

    His voice held amusement. "Like I said, ask me anything, Alyx. Let's get this over with."

    "All right. How many moles does Freya Cloudchaser have on her left hip?"

    Silence. Then "That's not fair, and you know it."

    "That's my question, Sier Mace."

    "OK, have it your way." A sigh. "None on the left hip, three on the right. One on the small of her back, just above the tailbone. Satisfied?"

    "What was the first song you sang to the Great Eagle's children?

    "A Pirate Lullaby. I was a little drunk."

    Fury ran a fingertip across her eyepatch. "I loved that song," she said quietly, her voice full of emotion. "What in Hunter's name are you doing here?"

    "Why don't I come aboard? I could use a drink, and I'd like to see you." He paused. "It's been a long time."

    "I'll send a cutter. Give me your coordinates."

    He did, and forty minutes later, Fury waited in the shuttle bay with her Ravens flanking her. The cutter docked, and a minute later, the hatch hissed open. Mace walked in, still a strongly built man. He had close-cropped hair over a seamed face that bespoke exposure to the suns of a host of alien worlds. His eyes were a steely gray, but they crinkled when he saw her. He wore loose civilian garb and carried a laser harp under one arm and a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He was nearly sixty, but he still moved with a spring in his step.

    The sight of him was a shock, but not nearly as much as the man that stepped into the bay after Mace.

    She sensed Sevaya stiffening next to her. Chalad exhaled sharply.

    The man's hair was a long blonde mane that spilled out over his shoulders, and his face bore several days' stubble. He was only a little taller than Mace, but though he wore similarly loose garb, it looked tight on his physique. He carried himself with a confidence and grace that reminded her somehow of a pacing lion. His eyes blazed blue from a deeply tanned face. He looked at her and nodded in recognition.

    Her throat tightened. Ulysses Alexandre Konovalev. Her brother. She cursed Mace silently for keeping quiet, and she blessed him for finding her little brother after so many years.

    Despite the storm of emotion the sight of these men caused in her, she kept an iron grip over her voice and facial expression. "Gentlemen. Welcome aboard the Gladius Dei. I fear you've caught me in the middle of planning an invasion. May I offer you some coffee?"


    The assassin prided himself on being invisible, though not in the literal sense. He moved through the Firetruce crowds easily, a nondescript man who drew little attention and left few memories in his wake. He bought a spicy kebab from a vendor and enjoyed a Kailoh street play where the mummers used scented holograms for a backdrop. He loved Kailoh and its highly stylized performances. This play featured an assassin character who was killed in the end, but that part did not spoil his pleasure. The most skilled assassins were never caught, after all. If they did their job perfectly, no one would even know they existed. His organization did not exist, so far as the wilderzone was concerned. Or the Empire, for that matter.

    Warriors from a hundred tribes mingled in the dusty streets, drinking and sampling the wares of the great bazaar that had sprung up outside the marbled arenas, gardens, and council chambers. There were few laws here. Although the Diamond Sword did provide peacekeepers, they were unarmored and most were really spies and counterintelligence agents, anyway. The armor-equipped niwa'aban Sworder security kept mainly to the Firetruce grounds, so many bazaar merchants pooled their funds to hire mercenaries for protection. Blood Eagle and Starwolf kept their distance for the most part, but already several bloody brawls had erupted between them, resulting in a handful of deaths. None of this concerned the assassin. The drama between Ursula DiVaragas and the Sirdar Fury was playing out hundreds of light years away. Here the various factions were only threats if he allowed them to notice him. He smiled at a peacekeeper and ducked into an alley to look at some firesilks.

    He had almost a half hour until his meeting, so there was time to kill. He was very good at killing both time and people. Time was easier, of course. He continued to move, drifting by taverns and in and out of various booths and small shops, some of which were simply tents staked out next to cargo shuttles. The speed with which the bazaar had come into being amazed him. Most of the buildings were prefab metaplas huts or thermally-shielded tents, but there were hundreds of them spreading to the west and south of the Firetruce complex, forming a shifting labyrinth of commerce. Anything could be found here, it was said, from dreamleaf to exotic beasts to the darker pleasures. All the things of life… and death.

    Death was his trade. Unlike the majority of people here, his services were not for sale, though in the unlikely event the conversation arose, he would have admitted he could be found here. With so many tribal leaders and dignitaries present in combination with the intrigue that shaped so much of the history of the Firetruces, it would have been unthinkable for an assassin of his caliber not to be at hand for his superiors to use if they chose.

    The timing of the summons struck him as a strong indication that he would be used soon. The Firetruce had not yet started, and he knew the Phoenix Prime's arrival had been delayed. His associates whispered that Renn Gistos yl-Harabec would likely be targeted for termination, but no one had yet received orders to bring that death about. The assassin felt a tremor of excitement. Such a prominent sanction would be a great honor for him, and would place his name high on the shadow shrines that his people secretly venerated. There was no thought of failure. He never failed.

    It was nearly time. He had taken a lengthy and circuitous route toward his meeting place, checking constantly to make certain no one followed. Confident he was still invisible, he slipped at last into a seedy-looking shop that sold used electronics and surplus machinery. A cheap-looking metaplas tarp covered the entrance. Pushing it aside, he stepped into a low-ceilinged room filled to shoulder height with a legion of winking, buzzing devices that filled the air with a discordant clamor. The result was a persistent white noise that would deflect most efforts to overhear a conversation, whether with technological spy gear or simple lurking. A rank chemical tang assaulted his nose, doubtless intended to defeat any sniffers brought into the place.

    He followed a trace of tape on the floor until he found a stool tucked in a small cul-de-sac amid the junk. There he seated himself and waited. No one came, but that was not unusual under these circumstances. Whoever summoned him would also check to see if he was followed. His surroundings appeared unremarkable save in their sloppiness. Loose circuits and optical wiring spilled out of cracked housings. A hunk of metal resembling a turbograv stabilizer leaned against the wall before him like the dorsal fin of a giant fish. A weathered hypercast casing to his right bore the snarling face of a tiger embossed in the faux bronze surface.

    Waiting was part of the game. Doubtless he was the subject of covert scans at the moment. He would wait as long as it took for his patron to decide to trust him. Focusing on the seven sacred mantras, he breathed deeply and evenly, letting his awareness simultaneously expand and contract so that time flowed gently around him.

    Finally a voice emanated from a hidden speaker, the sound baffled and modulated so the assassin could not identify neither gender nor distinguishing accent. "Put on the earlink you find behind the tiger."

    The assassin did so, recognizing the device from previous assignments. It was a small, microcircuit-impregnated bead one placed in the ear. Once activated, it permitted both encrypted reception and subvocal transmission for the wearer.

    "You are the Ghost assigned to this planet." A statement, not a question.


    "You are sworn to obey they whose names must not be spoken."


    "How many kills?"

    The assassin sighed inwardly. Either he was good enough or he was not. The fact that he was here should speak of his competence. Still, he was sworn to obey. "Sixteen immaculate kills, chieftain-level or higher. Forty one lessers. Targets included officers from each of the Four, two Unitech directors, the CEO of Novalines, and six Imperial deep-cover spies."

    "None were traced?"

    He smiled at that. "I do not exist. Neither, therefore, do my deeds."

    There was a pause, then: "You are arrogant."

    "I am the Ghost of the Seventh Firetruce."

    "You wish to know the identity of the target? Look behind the stabilizer."

    He shrugged. "I have guessed already. The Phoenix Prime."

    Laughter in his ear. Unexpected and harsh. "Arrogant, as I have said. And fallible. Perhaps there has been a mistake."

    "Do not mock me." He went and knelt by the metal fin, reached behind it and withdrew a small plastic object that fit neatly in the hollow of his hand. Then he returned to his seat.

    The voice resumed, still tinged with amusement. "You are half right. Other arrangements have been set in motion to terminate the Phoenix Prime. You will be present when the sanction occurs, and you are to ensure he dies, but only if you can do so without risking discovery. The old man is a secondary target for you. Open the recorder to see your primary assignment."

    The assassin flipped the plastic device open. Inside was a holopic of a pretty young woman with honey colored hair and a bright smile. She wore a dress uniform he did not recognize, but the emblem was a purple lightning bolt. He shivered, struck by the symbol and its significance to his own purpose.

    "A pretty little flower. Who is she?"

    "She is Shana Dawn Terayl, Speaker of the Seventh Firetruce. She must die on the First of Tears."

    Ghost - Part 2

    The Griever who called herself "Hollow Jane" grinned at the assassin, showing blue-stained teeth to match the indigo capillaries that webbed her eyes. "I think we got what you're looking for here." She pushed a small box of transparent metaplas across the crate toward the assassin. A component gleamed inside on hyperclean padding. "Imperial. Spec ops grade."

    "Even the Phoenix Prime couldn't get anything better," she added with a wink.

    The assassin grinned back and spat a makarind seed shell onto the floor. He had assumed the identity of a tech for this meeting: faded dungarees stained from oil and acid, a long-billed cap bearing a Forge of Hephaestus emblem, a tool belt hung with innocuous items that could double as weapons. He had altered his appearance to match his garb, lightening his skin and adding facial hair, including a thinly drooping mustache. Bulky goggles covered his eyes, and his right arm carried the tattoo of an obscure fringe tribe that hadn't appeared in wilderzone commerce for at least twenty years. He moved with a loose, bird-like gait. Such camouflage was as natural as breathing to him. Personalities and accents were garments to be worn or discarded as necessary.

    He wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. Unfortunately, the perspiration wasn't an act; the humidity was suffocating. He wished the Grievers had working air conditioning, though more for the sake of suppressing their odor than for his own physical comfort.

    Two other Grievers were present in the truck's cargo bay, sipping chilled biru and eyeing him narrowly. One, who had been introduced as "Grabber," cycled a crude cybernetic hand through slow, grating spins, its thick metal fingers painted dirty yellow. The second was a hulking fellow whose face was a mass of jagged burn scars. No name had been given for him. They both carried knives, and Grabber's prosthetic arm had the look of concealing something more lethal.

    The assassin ignored them. They were nothing but honorless scrof whose scavenging networks and underworld connections happened to make them perfect dealers in exotic equipment and contraband technology.

    Inside the box gleamed a slender bundle of silver rods capped with the blood-hue of ruby focusing lenses. High grade indeed, thought the assassin. He examined the maker's marks and detected the unmistakable signs of Imperial manufacture. He held the component under the light carefully. The smooth, almost organic texture of the metal under his fingertips bespoke advanced entek engineering. The weapon he would craft to kill the girl would be the brush for his masterpiece, and this component would provide its heart. The greatest painters mixed their own colors; so too would the assassin in his own way. He would use the final product once and once only. The kill would be a work of art.

    He had decided on a laser rifle design similar to the famous Artemis longrifle used in SCARAB warfare. Lasers were virtually untraceable (if pulse times were properly adjusted), accurate, and elegant. He had initially considered something more challenging, like a timed poison or an entek nanophage packet, but developing a dosage so the target would drop dead at the desired moment required gene samples and various precautions that overcomplicated matters. Poison was a clumsy weapon in his judgment, and though it presented a greater technical challenge, it was impractical in this case. The client had outlined a very specific time frame for the kill: Terayl was to die at the same time as the Phoenix Prime, martyred in full view of the Firetruce attendees. Thus, the laser won out over more exotic methods.

    "Scans like a primary-stage laser focus, alright," he ventured at last. "You're dead on about it being Imperial."

    Hollow Jane nodded. "At least forty-one to fifteen pulse cohere, mister. You ain't gonna find much that can handle that level of juice."

    "How much you askin'?"

    A raised eyebrow asked, How much are you willing to spend?

    He coughed and spat another seed. "Custom smithing contract, ayiuh? Sheks up front."

    She leaned back and considered. "What you think, Grabber?"

    Grabber snorted. "He ain't the only one, chupash. Got some Gorks looking at our prime laze 'ware already, and they won't like it if they don't get first pick."

    "The Gorks don't pay well. And they got an attitude. This guy seems like a better bet."

    The assassin recognized this bargaining style. One Griever would pretend to resist selling him the component; the other would act sympathetic and friendly. It was an old, old approach, quite basic and unnecessary.

    Especially since they planned to kill him.

    He had perceived their intent as soon as they brought him into the back of their truck. A killer of his pedigree recognized the signals and body language of murder instantly. They weren't yet sure whether he carried enough money to make it worth their effort. When they were certain, they'd make their move, and he would see it coming. These vermin were anything but subtle in their affairs.

    Very well, then. He'd make it easy.

    "Looks sweet!" he breathed, placing the box carefully on the surface of a nearby crate so that he could see the shadows of Grabber and the other in the reflection. "I'll give you twelve thousand for it!"

    Hollow Jane looked pained, her wide eyes like old leesha eggs with blue cracks running through them. "I thought you said you had real sheks, stranger. That's bleeding edge quality there, spec op grade, worth thirty at least!"

    "You're snorting hish if you think I'm carrying that many sheks! Fifteen."



    Grabber cut in with a harsh laugh and a whine of his mechanical hand. "What, for Imperial manufacture? Listen, gizz! Anything less than twenty-five would be an insult!"

    "Aw, Grabber," said Hollow Jane with a blue-toothed smirk the assassin guessed was supposed to be a placating smile. "Give him a break, heya?"

    The assassin drummed his fingers on his knee and pretended to think. "I can manage twenty," he said finally, putting a dejected look on his face. From a practical standpoint, he had unlimited funds, but he refused to allow this fray to best him in the negotiations. It was a matter of face, which always mattered to his kind despite their assumption of many faces.

    "Twenty one," Hollow Jane countered.

    "Done," he replied. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrip key. "You got a reader? I can dial off the authorization right now." The way their eyes lit up, he knew these scavengers had to have a good deal more than a simple reader. They very likely had access to a full decryption slicer. With it, they could crack his key and transfer his goods from the factor bank that held his collateral.

    The Grievers' postures filled with electric, homicidal tension. Grabber's hand abruptly stopped spinning.

    The assassin sighed, dropped the scrip key on the crate, and flowed into motion. Think of Buddha, but kill mosquitoes, as the saying went.

    They were only Grievers.

    Two heartbeats later, two bodies crumpled to the floor. Hollow Jane sat gape-mouthed, as if the assassin were a hulking berhka lion that had just materialized in front of her. She died before she could react further to what she'd witnessed. The only sound in the back of the truck was the electric grind of Grabber's cybernetic hand clenching and unclenching.

    The assassin departed with the laser array safely in his bag. He waved at the Grievers waiting outside and sauntered into the Bazaar crowd whistling tunelessly. Once he had placed several people between himself and the Griever encampment, he began a rapid transformation. He shed his hat and rolled his sleeve over the tattoo. An ointment from a hidden belt pocket darkened his skin with a few swipes, accomplished as though he were wiping away perspiration. Within a block, other casually applied chemicals had removed the moustache and darkened the color of his hair. Streaks of darker makeup on either side of his nose made his features appear narrower, and he shifted to a purposeful military bearing. A cry rose somewhere behind him as a coif of orange firesilk replaced his grimy neckerchief. The goggles and tool belt slipped quietly into the duffel bag. Sticky patches applied to his shoulder and duffel bag proclaimed him a member of a five-year defunct mercenary unit. Within minutes, a hard looking soldier of fortune supplanted the grizzled tech, leaving only fading memories in his wake. He had accomplished the change without breaking stride.


    On the world of Falcon's Crossing the wind blew ceaselessly, it was said, carrying the voices of the ancestors of the Diamond Sword. The monastery perched on a cliff a kilometer below a snow-capped peak. It was a simple structure protected by secrecy and a variety of sensor-baffling devices that made orbital detection a painstaking process at best. Only the leaders of the Diamond Sword and a few servants and token guards occupied the building.

    The day was clear and the sky a brilliant blue. The mountains here were of a sufficiently high altitude that the atmosphere was thin and cold but still breathable. The Reflective sat meditating in a lotus position on a cushion in a large, airy room dominated by a huge window of hand-poured teraglass. He wore a thick green robe embroidered with white falcons. Thick silk wrappings covered his feet and legs. He wore archaic spectacles that contained no microelectronics or entek components whatsoever. Their sole purpose was to correct his failing vision. The thought occurred to him that what he truly needed was a way to sharpen his perception of cause-and-effect. He was not certain that the dragon of current events had not already escaped the grasp of the Triad.

    Stones rise up into the sky; fire burns down in the water. So went the ancient Zen saying. Perhaps the Dragon had steered the Triad's hand instead. The Reflective mused on that riddle and found it disturbing but at the same time satisfying.

    A bell sounded, a brazen chime that faded slowly into the walls. The Reflective waited for the others to arrive. It did not take long. The heavy doors on the far side of the room swung open in oiled silence. The Unyielding arrived first, a proud old man striding with a habitual martial posture that exaggerated his limp, wearing a red robe that bore a batik of leaping tigers, the wooden sword of his office held firmly in his right hand. He knelt on the pillow to the right of the Reflective, placing his sword across his lap.

    He was closely followed by the Pure, who glided silently in her plain white robe across the polished hardwood floor. The diamond cluster of her office hung heavily around her neck on a cord of black silk. She sank into a lotus position on the pillow to the left of the Reflective. A panel of sunlight fell across her such that the diamonds caught the light and shone with their own white radiance. Her dark face resembled old wood with its deep creases and lines.

    A fourth pillow remained empty. Together, the pillows formed the corners of a square in the middle of the room.

    For a moment, no one moved. Then, as one, they bowed once and deeply. When they straightened, the Reflective reached into his robe and produced a simple mirror, the symbol of his office. He placed it gently on the floor before him and cleared his throat.

    "We are in the Center," he intoned.

    "We watch," said the Unyielding.

    The Pure smiled. "Thought and action are one."

    "I did not provide tea," the Reflective said. "Please accept my apologies."

    They nodded graciously, and he thanked them for their forgiveness. He breathed deeply four times before stating his concern. "The Center will be difficult to hold. We risk much with our actions."

    "All truth is risk," the Pure said with a frown.

    The Unyielding clenched his sword tightly. "We cannot retreat from our decisions."

    The Reflective tapped his mirror with a fingernail. "The beast enters the house while the brothers wrestle on the floor. Are we to do nothing?"

    "We ride our horse along the edge of a sword already," the Unyielding grated. "If the Tribes of Man knew how we have steered them over the years-"

    "They do not know," cut in the Pure with a ringing voice. She cast her gaze downward for a moment, then brought it up again. Her eyes were as hard as the jewels she carried. "We must have martyrs! The tribes will not unify otherwise. That is the truth."

    The Reflective let the doubt seep into his words. "I have a daughter just her age. As I meditate, I find uncertainty."

    "We have all had children. I have eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren," the Pure answered. She shook her head. "No, we were bound to summon the Ghosts."

    The Unyielding grunted assent. "The Phoenix Prime must not survive, and for reasons we have already discussed, our tribe cannot appear blameless. And more importantly, this young Speaker must die so that others might live. We all make sacrifices, my friend."

    The Reflective said nothing. He thought of the prophecy that had been circulating the wilderzone of late, passed by minstrels and vagabonds and various independent tribals. Among other things it predicted the sword shall be drawn too late, and a thousand worlds shall be rent with fire…. He wondered again if the Triad had misplaced its grip on the dragon's tail.

    "And what of our own tribe?" he asked flatly. "The Diamond Sword will not be spared when the Hordes come."

    The Pure offered him a sweet smile. "They have the Court of Blades to guide them while we watch."

    The Unyielding snorted. "I do not trust the Court. Much water, little rain."

    "They know how to fight. When the tribes are unified, then the Sword will doubtless be drawn," the Pure added. "The Blood Eagle and the Starwolf are both mobilized to counter the invasion of the BioDerms. They will need leadership."

    The Reflective nodded reluctantly. They had spent much time manipulating events in the wilderzone, and though not all had gone to their liking, much had occurred according to their will. The Starwolf and the Blood Eagle were ready to bear the brunt of an invasion. The Children of Phoenix would soon gain a strong and warlike leader. The independents prepared to form their own union at the Firetruce.

    Still, dragons were unpredictable beasts. One could not anticipate everything. He resolved at that moment to take certain actions on his own, but such a break required extreme subtlety... and carried extreme risk. The empty pillow across from him assumed an aura of menace, as if the Ghost Facet perceived the direction of his thoughts.

    "Very well. I shall wait and watch with you," he lied, adjusting his spectacles very carefully indeed.

    Triad - Part 2

    Outside, the wind howled and threw snow against the duracrys window in one of the fierce spring storms common to Falcon's Crossing. Inside, the woman known to the Diamond Sword as the Pure drew a bamboo hand rake through white sand in one of the Eight Sublime Patterns: "Crane Under Moon." She worked without haste, letting the motion come with the economy of long practice. Her robes rustled in soft counterpoint to the sound of the rake's teeth.

    A gust battered at the window, and the wind shrieked as if in frustration. The Pure kept her focus on the stroke of her hand. The ancestors were angry. They were right to be, for treachery nested in the monastery. Treachery, yes, in the Triad itself. After all the effort and sacrifice, this betrayal was intolerable. But before action was taken, there must be stillness of spirit. The Pure had come here to meditate and consider the options.

    Finished at last, she placed the rake by her side and examined the result. To her discerning eye, the pattern was far from perfect. Yet the flaws themselves represented part of a greater pattern incorporating the laws of Entropy, and therefore - paradoxically - made the final pattern just as it should be. Imperfection created perfection.

    Water that is too pure holds no fish, she reminded herself.

    Yet her spirit remained troubled. There were imperfections in the Plan. Riding the dragon carried certain risks, but the Plan had been crafted over decades, and its flaws had been minimal.

    Until now.

    Fury still lived, though it was to be hoped the Starwolf would soon remedy that failing. The wilderzone needed a leader more open to Triad influence. In addition, the Court of Blades had proven intractable of late, doubtless because of the machinations of that rogue kenshin Dur-Miquel. Something would have to be done about that one. And then there was this latest treachery, of course.

    Ayia, it was time. Her legs were stiff from kneeling, so getting her old bones up proved difficult, but the Pure managed gracefully. She ascended a raised wooden platform overlooking the sand garden and assumed the lotus position on the quilted floor. A tray next to her held a small white pot and a pair of matching teacups painted with a delicate likeness of cherry blossoms. The fragrance of fresh tea suffused the air, and the Pure breathed it in with pleasure. She made no move to pour, but merely looked at the pattern she had made, letting its harmony fill her soul.

    "May I serve?" A man's voice. Silky smooth like a rumble of velvet, yet precise as a razor in its measure of each word. It came from the other side of the tea tray, less than an arm's length away. She had heard no one approach, but this did not surprise her.

    She finished one last deep prana breath before inclining her head. The faint trickle of pouring liquid reached her ears, and a moment later, a scarred brown hand offered her a cup. She accepted it, cherishing the heat it brought to her hand. Steam puffed from the rim like dragon's breath. She sipped carefully. The tea was very good.

    "You are late, Ghost," she said at last.

    "I did not wish to disturb your meditation, O Pure One."

    "Ah. But my meditations are already disturbed. This tea is excellent, is it not?"

    The Ghost's chuckle reminded her of dead leaves rustling across a stone floor. The Pure suppressed a shiver.

    "Most delicious," he said. "Thank you also for this magnificent view, though I wish I could see it more clearly. What is the color of the wind?"

    She returned her cup to the tray. "It pains me to say. To my poor eyes, the light strays as through a dark mirror."

    "In accusing a reflection, you might in truth come to accuse yourself." The note of warning in his voice was palpable.

    She fixed the Ghost with her sternest gaze. He was a small man, masked with the obsidian visage of a sharp-faced tengu. He wore a plain robe of black linen printed with a batik of preying mantises, and his teacup rested untouched before him. His eyes were beads of shadow. She bored into them with all the force of her will and faith.

    "Evil cannot shatter truth, Ghost," she said. "I know what I see."

    He put his cup down also. "A broken mirror will not reflect again," he warned.

    She snorted. "What of that? Fallen flowers never return to the new branches."

    "The Mandates guide my actions." His eyes glittered. "How stands the Unyielding?"

    She made a dismissive gesture. "I cannot wait upon the enlightenment of others. The elephant does not take the rabbit's path!"

    He gave her a short bow. "Lady, the Mandates constrain my actions. Yet if the elephant comes down the mountain, the mantis will not block the road."

    "Very well. Then I tell you this: He moves to counter your Ghost at the Firetruce."

    The Ghost nodded and flowed to his feet. "I will send a cautionary instruction and watch how the stones are placed. If I discover you are correct, O Purest of the Pure, then will I perform my duty." He bowed again, this time in farewell, and retreated, gliding noiselessly onto the floor and into the shadows.

    The Pure let the tiniest smile spill onto her face as she picked up the teacup and sipped the cooling liquid. The encounter had gone as she had planned. A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip, it was said. Very well. She would ensure the Ghost found something enlightening when he looked into the mirror. The Reflective would pay for his defiance, and another imperfection would be obliterated from the Pattern.

    Outside, the wind howled approval.

    Triad - Part 3

    In contrast to the stories about it, the world of Falcon's Crossroads had its moments of meteorological calm. The wind had stilled from the previous evening, and now the chill draped over the mountain like a vast blanket of stillness. Far below where the Unyielding stood knee deep in snow, the monastery gleamed with the first golden rays of sunsrise from the primary star Gilseku. Within the hour, Arseku's light would also rise, painting the skies with emerald brilliance.

    The ancestors remain quiet today, thought the Unyielding glumly. Just as well. By the Master's Sacred Toe, my bones hurt enough already.

    He motioned to his long-time retainer, the Hiraishin Asira Timar, a younger man than the Unyielding, though still gray with years. "Come. We must continue." His breathing mask gave his words a spectral tone. He hated the device. It smelled of synthflex and sweat. Secretly, he hated all masks, though he recognized their necessity.

    Timar's masked face nodded, the oxygen-chargers protruding from the cheeks like grotesque whiskers fashioned from chaingun casings. The two men proceeded to climb toward the summit. An outsider flying in from above would see them as two specks making their way up a dazzling slope. This mountain was called Jusent'antaka, the White Spear of the Falcon, and it was the holiest place of all the worlds of the Diamond Sword.

    The Unyielding thrust his ice axe into the snow as he labored upward, relying on it to compensate for his weakened leg. Despite his limp, however, Timar had to struggle to keep up. They were not roped together. Each man or woman of the tribe had to approach Jusent'antaka in a solitary spirit. The ascent was as much about inpidual enlightenment as physical exertion. Even starting from the monastery, it was a difficult trek. The way was steep and at points precarious, so though the monastery lay only a kilometer below the summit, the route up was far longer. They had started long before dawn, and had at least two hours more before they reached the modest shrine where, it was said, the Enlightened Master had attained his moment of vajra.

    There the Unyielding hoped he would find his own enlightenment to the doubts that plagued him. But that would wait.

    They spoke seldom, saving their breath for the perpetual assault on the steep path before them. The Unyielding fell into a rhythm of breathe-step-step-breathe, trying with little success to clear his mind as he moved. The wooden sword of his office - called a bokken in the ancient Nipponese of Old Earth -- hung in a soft tubular case on his back. Though it weighed little in itself, it carried a crushing burden of duty, and he wished he were free of it.

    Duty. It measured the length and breadth of his existence. Without duty, there was nothing.

    But duty was also pain. Today he sought the solitude of the shrine to breathe the high holy air and pray for guidance.

    The Pure had met with him the day before and informed him that the Reflective worked to undo the Great Plan.

    "Have you proof?" he had asked bluntly.

    "Very soon," she had replied. "Then the Ghost will have him."

    The Reflective thought too much, perhaps finding illusory faults through overanalysis, turning inward like a cenobyte in his cell, confusing duty with compassion. Still, the Unyielding had found the man a sound thinker - else he would not be the Reflective - and had enjoyed long conversations on esoteric points of philosophy and art.

    It would be a shame to kill him.

    Perhaps it was also a shame to kill this independent girl, this Speaker, but the wheel had been turned toward this end long ago. The Unyielding had his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren; if duty required it of him, he would sacrifice them all instantly.

    Too much was at stake for the Diamond Sword to falter. If the Pure was correct, the Reflective must die.

    For generations, the Diamond Sword had prepared against the coming of the Hordes. For generations, they had probed and prodded the Tribes of Man and built their own strength, always hiding their secret purpose. They must not allow sentiment to sway them from doing what must be done. The sword half-drawn served neither peace nor war.

    Be humble, he chanted silently, for you are made of dung. Be noble, for you are made of stars. Perform your duty with honor.

    They crossed an ice-bridge and paused to rest and take refreshment from their jacket pouches, unclipping their masks to do so. The air was bitingly sharp, so much so that they ate as quickly as possible so they could cover their faces again. Frost began to collect on their cheeks within moments. Timar managed a smile before hurriedly reclipping his mask.

    "It's too damned cold, Honored Lord," he said.

    The Unyielding grunted agreement as he took the last bite of his ration bar and closed his mask. His fingers were clumsy as he tabbed the simple seals back into place. "We're far enough now. Give me the latest news from Ymir," he said. "We'll take a moment longer to rest."

    "Yes, Honored Lord." Timar produced a small bamboo rod and handed it to the Unyielding. The rod opened to reveal a tightly rolled scrip of paper. The Unyielding opened it and read the carefully ciphered kanji.

    The inner layer of meaning read: 'Fury prepares to strike at Outermost. She hopes to goad the Blood Eagle into mobilizing against the Starwolf. In this she appears to have been successful. All Blood Eagle Orders are on full alert, and Konovalev has ordered forces into place to secure the threads leading to Outermost.'

    "They would have mobilized anyway, soon enough," the Unyielding muttered, but again Fury had deviated from the Triad's main projections. "Damn the woman. Cardinal Spear did well when they created her." Timar remained a respectful silence as his master grumbled. The Unyielding admired the Blood Eagle's rogue Sirdar more than any of the other tribes' leaders, but found the mysteries behind her rise… infuriating.

    The note continued: 'DiVaragas fights to keep her coalition united. In this she appears to have been successful, but the effort has delayed her.'

    The Unyielding grunted again. "Starwolf discipline. Like rooks cawing and flapping in a cage."

    "Yet who can say what they will learn when the Hordes come, Honored Lord?" Timar gave a little bow. "When the heron stands in snow, he is no longer white."

    "True enough! We'll teach them new ways soon."

    "Will the Blood Eagle and the Starwolf destroy each other?"

    "No." The Unyielding stamped his feet, feeling the cold despite the heating elements in his cold weather gear. They would have to move on shortly. "We've arranged matters so neither side will gain any decisive advantages, but both will suffer the loss of their strongest leaders. Both will be weakened. We have positioned ourselves in the neutral role. The Tribes of Man will have little option but to turn to us to fill the gap."

    "What about Malderi? That one bothers me."

    "He sails before the storm or drowns in it. Malderi is an aggressive scrof, but not as strong as he believes. The Phoenix Prime is a much more formidable threat." The Unyielding paused and finished the letter. Nothing out of the ordinary. As a general, the situation at Ymir fascinated him. It would produce the largest battle yet seen in the wilderzone, and he felt a stir of excitement as he tried to foresee all the permutations. Fury was outnumbered, of course, but the Starwolf were unused to wielding such a large force. Fury would do more damage than anticipated, and the Hordes would force both sides to put aside their differences.

    The Tribes of Man would be a sword against the Scourge. And the Triad would be the hand.

    Crumpling the letter, he stooped and made an iceball with the paper at the heart. Then he went to the edge of the ice bridge and tossed the ball into the crevasse. It fell into blue depths as a green hue tinted the sky.

    Let the others' spies find that!

    Turning, he began to limp upward once more, and Timar followed. The Unyielding felt suddenly empty, tired of all the deception, all the moves and countermoves.

    Projections! Secrets! By the Master's Radiant Brow, there were secrets enough! The Triad itself sat on a secret here on Falcon's Crossroad that would cause tremors throughout the human space were it known. The other tribes would unite to destroy the Diamond Sword if but a hint of the secret came out. Such was the original need for the Ghost Facet: protection of the Great Secret. Bitterness flooded him. The price of the tribe's foresight was eternal secrecy. For generations, Falcon's Crossing had been the soul of the Diamond Sword's efforts, as well as the source of the Plan.

    Damn the Plan. Damn duty.

    No, that was the one thing he could not do. He was the Unyielding. He would do his duty. If the Reflective stood against the Plan now, then he would die, even if the Unyielding had to strike him down personally.

    Do not concern yourself over good or evil, Shige, he rebuked himself as he struggled through a snowdrift. Only your duty.

    And keep your hand on your sword.


    It was a fine morning the day I saw the Starwolf girl for the first time. On Ymir, that meant the sky wasn't pissing sleet all over us for a change, and the temperature was warm enough for me to unclip my hunchin' ice mask without risking frostbite.

    I hated the ice. Raw God, I hated it! Yet here I was, hacking blocks of the stuff out of a starkissin' glacier so Starwolf grunts could swig fresh water while they invaded my tribe's holdings. Being a prisoner-of-war stuck in my craw worse than the ice chips clinging to my face, but there I was, no mistake. So I made a game out of how fast I could whack out a block. Sure, I hated the ice, but I hated it more tolerably with my ice ax. After working up a good sweat I'd feel almost cheerful.

    The huge downside to any war with the Starwolf was the miserable planets you had to fight 'em on, most often some polar outhouse where your ass froze solid every time you popped your armor and you couldn't blow your nose without snot freezing all over your face. But bad as it was to fight Starwolf on their turf, it was worse to be their prisoner. The yappers didn't know warm from a blaster shot to the head. I missed the warm things in life: summer beaches, a crackling fire, the kisses of a pretty girl. All the things I couldn't have here on Ymir. Ymir was a yapper paradise, I guess. Everything was just cold.

    The Starwolf definitely made POWs earn their keep. We had to fill a quota before they'd pack us in for the evening. Most days we cut ice for about fourteen hours. My orange-striped coldsuit was only warm enough if I worked like a dog, so that's what I did. I wasn't alone. There were a couple dozen brother and sister knights with me, survivors of Shek Two and other places the Queen Bitch DiVaragas had pounded to crap. It was either bust tail or freeze.

    They had to feed us plenty to keep us going. At least they didn't starve us. Concentrated Ration Packs-we called 'em CRAP-kept our energy up, but the rubbery glop didn't keep the belly happy. Most nights I barely had enough energy to choke my CRAP down and stumble off to the foam slab that was my bed. Between the work and the exhaustion, I could almost forget how much I missed my freedom. Almost.

    So that morning we'd been at it an hour or so when a couple of T-gravs cruised by carrying Starwolf warriors, mostly young fems wearing that sexy bare-belly armor I wish the Blood Eagle would adopt. They tossed us the usual round of curses and taunts as they passed, so I jumped up on top of the nearest ice block, bowed, and flashed 'em my best grin. That bought me more insults from them, nothing too creative. Just a buncha newbloods yappin' off. My grin got bigger as they shot by less than thirty meters off. Yap-yap-yap!

    But there was one wolfgirl who didn't yell anything. She even smiled back at me-an honest smile! It was the warmest thing I'd seen on Ymir so far. She was cute, too, from what I saw as they sped by. And there was something else in her face, something sad that stuck with me so I remembered it later. She was different somehow. The grin stayed on my face as I watched her go.

    "Hey! Back to work, scrof!" One of the guards landed next to me with a faint hum of armor jets and a metallic thump. He jabbed his chaingun at me. "Keep your eyes off our fems, hear?"

    I hopped down and held my hands out in mock puzzlement. "Ayia! Can I help it if you Starwolf are so damn attractive?"

    He just stared for a second, clenched a fist like he was thinking about using it, but then he just waved me away. I went back to work, and the memory of the Starwolf girl kept me going strong through the rest of the morning. I wondered if I'd ever see her again. I hoped so. That was a damn nice smile she had, and I wouldn't mind seconds.

    Time flew, and before long the guards called the midday break. I grabbed my rations and found a place to sit. I hadn't been there long when the Shank Pig lumbered up and unclipped his ice mask. A Sergeant who'd served in the Skullgrinder Chapter back on Shek Two, the Pig was a mountain of ugly muscle: heavy-set features, beady eyes, and a big black Blood Eagle tattoo right on his forehead. The tattoo's wingtips curved around his temples to just under each eye, kind of like a mask. He was a mean scrof, and he and his dirtbagger buddies had their own little deal going in our work crew. Nobody called him "Shank Pig" to his face, of course. His warnom was "Racksaw."

    Right now he looked down at me and sneered. "Gemme yer food bar, Naj. It's yer day to contribute."

    Normally we just gave the Shank Pig whatever he wanted and stepped aside. They generally followed a routine, so nobody went hungry longer than a day. It wasn't worth the hurt he and his boys would dish out. So I shrugged and tossed him the piece I hadn't eaten.

    "Thanks, pansy." He ripped it open and took a huge bite. "What you think o'them yapper biffs we saw this mornin', heya? Bet they wiggle nice in the dark." Little chunks of food dribbled out of his mouth as he laughed at his own joke. I thought about this pusgut pawing my wolfgirl and something colder than the glacier woke in me. I jumped up and slapped the rest of the rat bar from his paw.

    For a second, he froze. Nobody had stood up to the Pig before. Raw God, I could hardly believe I was doing it, but I swear it was like ice burning through me. I was shaking with rage. Maybe it was the ice, the shame, or just that the girl was the one bright spot I'd had since I came to this iceball. Whichever it was, I was done with bending knee to motherless filth like the Shank Pig.

    A grin split his face like a slit in a meatball. "Heya, pansy, looks like yer grew a spine somewhere."

    "I'm Naj-Zero, Knight of the Shining Fist Talon, no starkissin' pansy," I snarled. "You're a worthless, lard-gutted, scrof-eatin' no-namer who wouldn't know honor from a hole in his a-"

    The grin vanished and he swung at me. Now I wasn't reckoned short, but I looked like a kid next to this monster. So when I blocked his punch, it still knocked me tail over pinfeathers. I fetched up against an ice block feeling like my arm had been hit by a hammer.

    The Pig was still coming at me, his face red. "Gonna feed you those words along with your teeth, scrof!"

    Fight smart, my trainers always taught me. Use the terrain to your advantage. There wasn't a lot to use here unless I wanted to run, and I was in no mood for that. Our Starwolf guards weren't in a hurry to break this little show up, it looked like, so I was on my own. As I rolled up to a crouch, the ground crunched underneath me and I got an idea. I grabbed up a couple good handfuls of ice and squeezed up a nice, hard ball. The Pig reached for me, but I dodged out of the way and slammed my package right into his fat face, so hard I felt the jolt right up to my shoulder. The Pig stumbled, and I kicked him in the spleen. Then I followed up with a quick series of combinations to his face and solar plex. I couldn't hit too well with my hurt arm, but my other shots did count. All these days of hacking ice had put on a lot more extra muscle than I realized. The iceball had half-blinded him, too, so it wasn't too tough to slip his gorilla swipes. I finished it with a sweep that put him down on his fat ass. I felt great… until I saw his dirtbagger friends watching me. Their expressions told me this wasn't over.

    The Pig rolled to his side, retching. I waited on the balls of my feet, ready to keep it going. His friends didn't do anything, to my relief. One of the Starwolf guards yelled at us to get back to work. Break was over.

    "Yer gonna pay, Naj," was all the Pig said when he could talk again. "Pay hard." He limped off and left me to pick up my ice ax and go back to work. My arm still ached where I'd made the bad block.

    Raw God, I thought. What in Seven Hells have you done, Naj? A yapper fem smiles at you, and you go waking the Phoenix! But then I shook those doubts out of my brain. The wolfgirl was definitely worth it.

    I wondered if I'd ever see her again.

    Naj Zero - Part 2

    It was full dark before the yappers decided we'd filled quota, so we finished up under the white glare of paratorches.

    Three big cargo trucks arrived to haul us home, snow crunching under their armor-plated wheels like old bones. We climbed in too exhausted to talk. Even though we packed in there tighter than a sandraker's backside, nobody complained. The press of bodies kept everyone warm and held up anyone who dozed off. Just the end of another joy-filled day on Ymir.

    A light strip running along the ceiling produced just enough light for me to see. I put my back to the wall in case the Pig made a move. I figured I wouldn't have to wait long. He'd want to stuff my little rebellion before it caught on. Tradition and training drummed into us that only cowards or fools let themselves be taken alive. Being prisoners of war meant we were honor-wrecked, so we left our juice back on Shek Two and slogged through each day like half-frozen rats waiting for death. Honorless bottom-feeders like the Shank Pig flat-out preyed on this attitude, and nobody gave enough of a damn to fight back.

    Until me.

    I'd always gone my own way, which made me a minor discipline problem off and on ever since my first day at the barracks. Chalk it up to my parents raising me with a more inpidual idea of honor, not the "Tribe and Chapter" line fed to the average Blood Eagle. Whatever it was that made me different, the dishonor of being a prisoner didn't hit me as hard as the sheer butt-freezing monotony. Ymir was like an endless hiss of radio static. The Starwolf girl, on the other hand, hit me like a dose of sunshine.

    I tried to picture her smile as I jounced along in the truck, but the memory was already blurred, thanks to a few hundred swipes of my ice axe into Ymir's cold white carcass.

    Raw God, that scared me. Getting killed or crippled by the Pig didn't seem that bad all of a sudden. It wasn't the prospect of splitting up ice and sucking down CRAP for the rest of my life, it was the fear I'd forget there was anything else. Right then, I'd have sold my soul for a week on a Charybdis beach drinking Narheli Jinn-Kickers, ping for dragonpearls, and scoping fems.

    To make matters worse, my knuckles hurt. One thing they don't show in the thrill vids is how much a punch out tears up your hands, and I wished I hadn't whopped the Pig so carelessly. I should have known better, given my martial arts training, but it'd been a long time since I thought to use it.

    A hollow twist in my stomach reminded me I was hungry. After busting hump in the cold all day, we scarfed up whatever the yappers shoved at us. Bland as it was, CRAP was heaven at the end of a shift. The same hunger rode in the faces around me, and I hated it. But there I was, slobbering at the thought of a plateful of hot, shapeless glop and a cup of oily fish-flavored tea I wouldn't have fed to my dog a couple of months back.

    Like I said, Ymir froze a man's soul.

    Someone pushed up next to me and adrenaline exploded into my limbs. I spun around with fists up, ready to block an attack and respond in kind.

    "Hey, hey, ease it! I'm a friend!"

    A wiry little guy grinned up at me from under a scalp frosted with red peachfuzz. He rolled up his sleeve and displayed his forearm tats. "Jerolt Kath, Fifth Support Talon, Air Tac," he said. "Warnom 'Swoop.'"

    The tats looked OK, and he looked too small and smart to be the kind of hardcase the Pig hunkered with. We both relaxed, and he withdrew his arm.

    "Danior Najrasami," I said. "Shining Fist Talon, warnom 'Naj-Zero.' Just Naj to most. What gives?"

    Swoop's grin stretched out like a monkey's mouth. I saw admiration in his eyes. "Well, um… Naj. Standing up to those dirtbags earlier. Star-hot. Thought maybe you want someone to watch your six."

    "You sure you want that action?"

    "Had enough feeding my honor to those scrof!"

    "Yeh-yeh. I scan that, brah." If he was any help, I'd be surprised. Techs didn't have the infighting skills of warriors, but I wasn't going to turn away any offers, truth be told.

    I smiled and clapped him on the arm. "Thanks, Swoop. Honored." Damn if that monkey grin didn't get bigger.

    He turned out to be a bright knob on turbogravs, so we spent the rest of the trip jawing about repellors and electron gradients and stuff that went way past my training. I just flew the starkissin' things. If I had any special talent that kept me in the Order, that was it. Flying. I mean, I was pretty all-around good in armor, infighting, and shooting stuff, but put me in something that ran fast and high, and I was in my sweet spot.

    Ever since the war with the Starwolf heated up, the Sirdar-Prime worked us hard. Stab here, feint here. We tore the yappers up good. Unfortunately, it didn't take a hyperphysics specialist to see we were wolf chow unless the other Orders stepped up. The yappers were tough enough that when they had the numbers, they gave as good as they got.

    And they had a lot more than they needed. Every day I watched shuttles moving, hardshell and softshell troops moving around. The yappers were going to hit us with everything they had.

    The trucks stopped, and our guards herded us out. Home sweet home was a cluster of prefab barracks tossed on the ice a klick or so from a yapper town. Around us, autoturrets and laser fences reminded us of the limits of Starwolf hospitality. We headed for the boxy mess hall to get our evening ration of delicious CRAP. Swoop stuck with me.

    "Yo, Naj," he hissed. "Something's up."


    "The Pig. See him?"

    I looked where he pointed. The Pig approached us, walking next to the line of prisoners shuffling into the mess hall. An expression of pure nasty lit up his mug. Next to him strolled a couple of other scurvs: "Deadboot," a sweetheart famous for his habit of kicking corpses, and "Wrecker," a dirtbag legbreaker who carried a bad rep from Shek Two. These guys had less honor than a sewer leech, which was why they shared slop with the Shank Pig. I felt a stab of apprehension. I'd figured the Pig would wait, but it looked like he was going to jump me right away.

    Hunch it, I wasn't backing down. I stepped out of the line and took a fighting stance. The ice was less slick here, better than out on the cutting line. My main advantage over the Pig was speed, so I had to be extra careful. I dug a heel in for better traction and ran through a couple of flick-strike katas to loosen up. Heads turned in the line. The shuffle slowed.

    The yapper guards weren't moving. No quota to worry about here. I glanced around. The nearest guard, a big scrof in Scout Armor armor, squatted on one of the towers with his chaingun on his lap, smiling like a tusk-tiger in the aurochs pen. The other guards looked pretty relaxed; some of 'em had lit smoketabs. Oh yeah, they'd be a big help, the yappers. However he'd done it, the Pig had set me up for a public pounding.

    "Jet, brah," I told Swoop out of the corner of my mouth. "This ain't your battle."

    "Neg that, Naj. I - I got your six." I saw the fear like a shadow on his face, but he stuck.

    Pride grabbed me by the heart and squeezed. I straightened and gripped Swoop's shoulder.

    "Thou art truly my Brother, Jerolt Kath," I said in the formal cant. "We are One Blood and One Blade, One Kith and One Heart. I swear it unto thee before all our ancestors. I swear it unto thee before all our fallen ghosts."

    He looked lance-shocked. Truth to tell, I was too. I'd just declared him my Battle-Brother, one of the most sacred bonds you forged in the B-E. It was the kind of thing you did for someone you owed big, or someone you'd gone through hell with. No long ceremony or hocus-pocus. You just said the ritual phrase and committed your honor and your life. Every Blood Eagle lived by his Word. It was the one cornerstone of honor even I stood by.

    "Thanks, Naj," he stammered. "I won't let you down." He stood straighter and recited the lines back to me, and I knew he'd stick. Part of me felt guilty about using the oath, but I knew I meant it. I couldn't let Swoop down now. The cynical voice in my head whispered that the Oath was just a big crutch for pretenders. I throttled it into silence.

    The Pig stopped a few meters away and cracked his knuckles. His hands made me think of gloved hams. "Heya, Naj. You and your little friend wanna break?" The scrof laughed like he'd made a fantastic joke, and his breath huffed out in big gouts. Behind him, Deadboot snickered. Wrecker just wiped his nose and stared.

    "Don't overwork that snail seed brain of yours, Pig." I shot back.

    He scowled at the open use of his less-loved nickname, and it was my turn to laugh. "Raw God, you lost face today, huncher. Even if you beat me, your days as a yapper toad are numbered!"

    Deadboot glided a little to the side so one of the camp's arc lamps stretched his shadow right to my feet. "You gonna lose your face, Naj. All over the ice."

    "Only if you breathe on me, scrof-eater," I snarled back.

    He clammed up. I could take Deadboot, and we both knew it. The Pig was the real problem. He had me in experience, and since I'd caught him off guard earlier, he'd be more careful now. Swoop had heart, but I didn't think he'd hold Deadboot off for more than a minute or two. I was in for a ripping.

    Our odds sucked ice, in other words.

    Hell with it, this was living. I'd rather go out in a blaze of glory than wait for Ymir to freeze my juice away. I chuckled, suddenly feeling free. My breath flamed silver in the light.

    "Luck, Swoop," I said.

    "And you, Brother," he replied, sounding steady as stahlplast.

    We started circling. Everything was quiet. The guards lounged around with grins on their faces. Our brethren watched with faces of stone. I noticed that big yapper tracking us with tiny movements of his head, and figured he'd patched his armor camera to the local command circuit.

    Wonderful. The entire Starwolf army was gonna watch me and Swoop get slaughtered. I wondered if the Wolfgirl was watching. Even if she was, I wondered if she cared. I decided she did, so I could show off for her. Nothing like a fem watching to inspire good old-fashioned bravery.

    Time to get focused. My arm was still stiff from our earlier fight, but the katas were loosening it up. I let the familiar motion pull my attention into the right place like a moving meditation. I settled into my ready pose, and smiled to myself as the Pig's eyes narrowed.

    He'd taken a hard stance typical of the Blood Eagle. I hadn't. My father practiced an obscure fighting art that was different than the Tai-Kerat taught by the Orders. Mankhat Sra was a fluid, circular school fuzed from a couple Old Earth martial art styles. While I wasn't nearly as good as Dad, I was pretty decent. Winning matches against my Talon comrades kept me in biru money, and I developed a taste for taking down the bigger overconfident guys. Besides, the fluidity of the style's dance-like movements impressed the fems.

    I wasn't messing around like amateurs this time, though. I could tell the Pig was in a killing mood, and he had a whole lot of service years on me. Old and crafty took down young and strong all the time. I sure saw it proved enough times. Still, my unorthodox stuff might buy me a little surprise at the right time. If I played my cards right, I might deal out enough hurt to make it through this.

    Otherwise, I had no illusions about being on the receiving end of Blood Eagle pain mojo. Whether the Pig succeeded in killing or crippling me, he'd do it as slowly as he could.

    Odds were this was gonna hurt.


    Naj Zero - Part 3

    I'd failed my oath-brother. Swoop was dead.

    The memory of his body on the ice burned my brain for the three days the yappers had me in the fishbox, a clear, coffin-sized tank filled with buoyant fluid and lots of little medprobes the docs used to pump me with entek and drugs. I'd handed out some payback, but not enough. Deadboot still lived, and the Pig as well.

    I'd have been dead, too, if the Wolfgirl hadn't showed up. It took me awhile to decide I was grateful, to be honest. With Swoop dead on my account, it didn't seem right for me to have survived. But the expression on her face when she dropped in made me think twice. Whether or not she thought much about me, she cared enough to prevent me from being beaten to a pulp for yapper laughs. In the end, I decided only to be mad at the yappers who'd set things up with the Pig in the first place.

    Not to mention, a body had to live in order to get revenge. I didn't know exactly what I'd do, but I was determined to do something to avenge Swoop's sacrifice.

    In the meantime, I had to heal up. Before the Wolfgirl interrupted our little dance, I'd suffered a concussion, seven broken ribs, a broken wrist, and a cracked pelvis. Not to mention all the nice bruises. I'd been lucky enough to keep my teeth. Guess the Pig had wanted to wait until the coup de grace to ruin my smile. Not that I felt like smiling.

    So there I lay, pumped full of painkillers and second-rate entek I hoped wasn't going to grow me a lizard's tail while it patched me up. On the third day, the camp Commandante paid me a visit. He was a cold fish even for a yapper, but he'd played fair enough by us.

    "Have a seat," I offered when he came in. There wasn't anyplace to sit other than my fishbox, of course. The docs had been kind enough to fit my air mask out with a microphone, and there was something on my right ear that let me hear without all the underwater echoes. Captain Yapper stood there like he was on the parade ground. Of course, I was naked as a baby in my box, but circumstances being what they were, I didn't think he'd mind that I was out of uniform.

    "I'm sorry about the incident the other night," he told me.

    "'Salright," I said. "Just a night out with the guys. You know: a few birus, some music, watch the snot get beat out of some poor scrof- oops, wait. That was me, wasn't it?"

    "That wasn't my doing," he said stiffly. "The men responsible have been punished?"

    "What about the girl?"

    He didn't miss a beat. "Don't worry about her. I'm sure she'll be taking out her share of your tribesmen before too long."

    I almost grinned under my mask. This yapper officer had juice.

    "I didn't come here for small talk," he continued, "but to make you an offer."

    "I'm not ready to get married, sorry."

    "The offer is simply this: if you agree to fight a duel against a certain inpidual, you will be freed if you win."

    A duel? Did they want me to finish things against the Pig? "What if I lose?"

    He shook his head, his expression telling me all I needed to know. If I lost, I'd go wherever the yappers threw their garbage, most like.

    I chewed on that thought for a few seconds before asking, "OK…. Who's the opponent?"

    "Ur-Warlord DiVaragas." He said it simply, but the words hung in the air like electricity. They were going to give me a shot against their biggest kahuna? Suddenly it all seemed too unreal. There had to be a trick somewhere. Nobody was this nuts.

    "Are you interested?" he asked.

    "Why me?" I shot back, stalling while I tried to figure the angle.

    "You and your erstwhile opponent, warnom 'Ripsaw.'"

    "What? The Pig? Both of us against your general? You crazy?"

    "Ur-Warlord DiVaragas is a trained duelist, perhaps the finest we have. If our tribes weren't going to war, she'd probably be competing at the Firetruce."

    "So call things off and send her along, ayia?"

    My needling must have been wearing thin, but he stayed polite. "Your choice is simple, Najrasami. If you two defeat the Ur-Warlord, you'll be released and provided with transport back to Blood Eagle territory. Here are the conditions of the match: armor without headgear, blades only."

    "Sounds like the kind of deal I can't refuse."

    He hesitated. "Before you give your final answer, I should tell you that the Ur-Warlord has already fought three such matches in the last six weeks."

    That shut me up for a moment. "All two-on-one deals?"

    He nodded.

    "All dead?"

    He nodded again.

    Raw God.

    I had to give the yapper credit; he gave me every opportunity to refuse. I wanted to after hearing about the other matches, but I couldn't push Swoop out of the decision. He'd given his life to help me, a stranger. He did it for his honor, for the principle of doing what was right. Now I had a real chance to avenge him by cutting off the head of the yapper army. OK, so it might not work out to be a happy ending. DiVaragas was a practiced killer, it sounded like, and everyone knew how bad she hated B-E. But the alternative would be another ice-whacking vacation and death by boredom. And shame. Whether or not I always bought into it, I did have an appreciation of honor. Mine was on the line now. If I walked away, I'd never be able to pass a mirror without Swoop's dead face staring out of it. This way, I'd have a shot at accomplishing something, even if I had to work with the Pig.

    "I'm in," I told the Commandante. "Where do I sign?"

    He touched a stud on his belt. "It's all recorded, Najrasami. Very well. The doctors tell me you'll be fit by this evening. We'll take you up tonight."

    "I'd better catch my sleep, then, huh?" I managed a little salute at him, and closed my eyes to try to rest up.

    The docs decanted me from the fishbox a few hours later. They'd done some electrostim therapy to make sure I didn't lose muscle tone, and they spent more time with me than I expected, considering I might be snuffing their supreme commander in a few hours. I got a skinsuit, a meal that actually wasn't CRAP for a change, and time to do some stretching. They didn't let me see the Pig, though. I didn't complain, since I wanted to enjoy digesting what the yappers clearly figured was my last meal.

    I concluded they'd patched me up pretty well. Aside from some stiffness in one side, I felt fit. I still had that extra muscle from ice duty, too. While I didn't think it'd give me any edge in a contest involving powered armor, the idea that I was physically stronger than before I became a prisoner comforted me.

    Awhile later, a hardshell guard hustled me outside. The Pig was there too, and after exchanging a couple of obscene gestures, we crunched on over to a turbograv transport, where some other guards were loading armor bundles into the t-grav's hopperspace. I got pretty close when I realized with a shock that one of the yapper guards in the t-grav was the Wolfgirl, blaster in hand.

    While the Pig went on, I stopped and checked out the Wolfgirl. Up close she was real pretty, kind of thoughtful but with a mouth shaped like it was made for smiling. It wasn't smiling now. I figured I owed her some word of thanks for the other night, so I said, "Hi, Wolfgirl. Thanks for, you know… everything."

    For a second, she didn't do anything. Then she jerked her head around toward this blonde girl behind her and turned back to me, definitely angry. Uh-oh, I thought. You made another mess here, Naj. I hadn't missed the other girl's snaky little grin, but it was too late to take back my words.

    Wolfgirl pointed her blaster at me and then waved at the empty slot in the t-grav. "Get in the transport, scrof!"

    I nodded. "Yeh-check." As I climbed up and strapped myself into place, I couldn't resist catching the blonde girl's eye.

    "Heya, blondie," I said with as obnoxious a tone as I could manage before turning my back on her like she wasn't anything I hadn't seen a hundred times before. Truth to tell, Blondie was stone gorgeous. I liked my Wolfgirl better, but Blondie would cause males neck strain anywhere in the wilderzone.

    "Smooth mouth, Naj," grunted the Pig.

    "Go suck a chaingun," I snarled.

    "Shut up, you two!" called the pilot. "No one says you have to have tongues in your heads in order to fight a duel, hear?"

    I shrugged and let things ride.

    They got us to a dropship pretty quick. Dark as it was, I didn't see much more of Ymir, which suited me fine. Even with the skinsuit, I was stiff and cold by the time we touched down. The Pig and I got to haul our armors up the ramp into one of the dropship's cramped passenger bays. With us came the sergeant-pilot, Wolfgirl, Blondie, and a huge blond scrof in Assault-class gear. The way this monster watched us, I thought he was playing goodboy for the sergeant's sake, but Blondie whispered, "See the big man? He has a special reason to hate butchers, so don't give him an excuse."

    "Thanks for caring, dear," I said, which shut her up. She glared at me and I blew her a sloppy, exaggerated kiss. Wolfgirl had been taking care not to look at me when she thought I was paying attention, but I got a smile out of her with that comment, and she didn't seem quite so mad anymore.

    Take off meant a few minutes of having a Juggernauts stamping on my chest since they weren't going to use grav comp for a little jaunt like this. After we got past the initial burn and the acceleration pressure lightened up, I took stock. The Pig was pretending to doze, and the sergeant was tinkering on a computer pad. The Wolfgirl sat a few seats away from me. To my surprise, she was gazing at Monsterboy with her lips parted and her eyes shining in an expression that clearly said she was sweet all over him.

    Feeling suddenly defeated, I sighed to myself. No particular reason I should be disappointed. I had no claim on her, and would probably be space trash in a few hours, but I was disappointed anyway. Monsterboy didn't seem too bright, and he sounded worse than dense when he opened his mouth. I wouldn't have figured him for Wolfgirl's type.

    Then I noticed Blondie giving Monsterboy the same moon-eyed look. What the Seven Hells…? I checked Wolfgirl again, then Blondie. They both practically drooled over the big guy like one of the cover scenes for a bad romance vid. I'd totally missed any clue on the t-grav, and when I thought back, I couldn't remember anything that stood out.

    Something tickled at the back of my head, something from a briefing a few months ago, before the yappers came to Shek Two. Fury liked to keep her knights plugged into a fair chunk of intelligence, so we had a lot of starkissin' briefings. I'd be lying if I said I paid attention to all of them. But now, of course, I wish I had. There was something here that wanted to jump out and slap me… but I couldn't remember for the soon-to-be-shortened life of me.

    I watched Wolfgirl like… well, I kept a close watch on her, not to use too many old clichés. Monsterboy caught me at it, and just for a second, I thought I spotted something ugly in his expression. Something vicious, but smart like a Charybdis tree-viper. Then he frowned, and his face went all stupid again.

    The sergeant unhooked and said something cheerful I knew better than to pay attention to, when all of a sudden the Wolfgirl exploded. She saw me watching her, and as soon as Monsterboy frowned, her face twisted up and she swam over, swinging her free hand up to swat me in the face. Funny the way your brain grabs something irrelevant when you're about to die. Wolfgirl was ready to pop me with an armored fist and all I thought was, 'Nice move. She's been zee-gee more than a few times.'

    "What do you want, an invitation?" she yelled. "Get moving!"

    The sergeant wheeled and called her off. Good thing, too, 'cause with the armor on, one hard pop would be plenty good enough to take my head off.

    The next second she appeared as surprised as the sergeant. She lowered her hand and looked at it like a gigantic spider had just appeared on the end of her wrist. "Sorry," she said in a husky whisper.

    Interesting. That tickle in the back of my head hung in there with lots of little alarms going off, but nothing got any clearer. I didn't say anything, just grabbed my gear and followed the rest of the group out of the dropship.

    As soon as we got into the main vessel, faux grav took over, and the armor got a lot heavier. Our guards moved us through the ship, past a lot of yapper stringers into officer country. Raw God, this was a big ship, bigger than any I'd been on directly, even though I'd done a stint of shuttle piloting here and there. They took me and the Pig to an elevator that dropped into what I guessed was the cargo section. We stepped out among a ton of crates and cryo-cylinders, then marched down a few catwalks until we came to an empty cargo bay of medium size, no more than twenty five kay cubic meters, I'd guess. Ten meter ceiling. Plenty big enough for a dueling arena. My stomach tightened.

    This was it.

    "What, no media?" I asked. "Thought you'd want to record this for posterity."

    "Just get into your armor," the sergeant said, pointing to the nearest corner.

    Fine. The Pig and I trudged over there and opened our gear. I was happy to see the yappers had tagged my suit right when they captured me. This was my Sweet Jenny, a Assault-class I'd packed around since I'd first entered Fury's service three years back. Jenny and I knew each other real well.

    "Heya, baby," I said as I stood her up. "Ready for a last ride?" I reached in under the neck and hit the switch that would clamshell her open.

    A deep voice cut into my reunion, pitched so I'd hear it, but not so loud that it'd carry to the yappers. "Naj."

    "What is it, Pig? You want a last kiss or something?"

    "Clear the wax outta yer flaps. We gotta take this biffer."

    I stepped into Jenny and she closed up around me nice and snug. "Master of the Obvious Facet, Pig. You got a plan?"

    "Yeh, Naj, I do." Raw God, he was serious! I glanced over to where he stood in his Assault-class. His face had the kind of sincere expression I'd seen on guys ready to throw themselves on a mortar shell to save their buddies. It threw me off, and for once I didn't have a smart comeback.

    "I done some dueling, Naj. This yapper, she's gonna expect you to cover while I move in for the kill. I'm the vet, so I'm the big threat. This makin' a dent in that idiot brain?"

    I shook my head. "I don't figure you for the sacrificing type, brah."

    "No? Well, you right about me being honorless, boy. I got no reason to follow stupid codes, but you know what? This is my chance to do it right once, heya?" He clenched a fist. "I heard of this woman, Naj. She death on jets. Our best shot is to work together. You with?"

    Feeling stupid, I just said, "Yeah."

    "Good. We gonna cross her. I cover, you move in. She gonna expect the usual style, but I want you to use that twirly fem style of fighting you used down on Ymir. Got it? Mix her up." He held out an armored paw, but I didn't make a move to take it.

    "I'll work this, Pig, but I ain't forgettin' you killed my friend down there. We get out of here alive, you and I still have business."

    He gave me a greasy grin. "Sure. Whatever you say, scrof. But first things first."

    "First things first," I agreed.

    Naj Zero - Part 4

    Raw God, she was good, this DiVaragas. Wicked good. The Pig and I worked it hard, but she stayed out of our reach and never, never let up. I'd tried the old smart mouth on her, since my experience told me attitude goes a long way to winning fights, but it didn't work. She just got madder and faster. I wasn't a pit fighter; most of my duels had been larks, and even the serious ones weren't to the death.

    The Pig wasn't holding up real well. His mouth was moving like a fish, and he was starting to slow down, which was a bad sign. If she nailed him, I wouldn't last more than a couple of minutes. As it was, there'd been a bunch of close calls. We'd only survived this far because we stayed close and kept flanking her so she couldn't concentrate on either one of us long enough to make a kill. But now she was armed and we weren't. She'd broken the Pig's blade early on, and tagged me with hers about ten to fifteen seconds earlier. When I swapped my knife to my off-hand, she just kicked it away.

    Sometimes it just goes that way.

    DiVaragas didn't let up. After I lost my blade, she turned everything up a notch, herding me and the Pig away from each other, breaking up our flanking efforts. As if this wasn't discouraging enough, I was leaving a nice red trail of spots on the floor. My bleeding would become a factor here real quick unless I stopped it. Even though I'd customized Sweet Jenny some, I kept the usual first aid kit in the standard handy vambrace compartment. Problem was, I didn't have the time to pop the suture spray out, much less apply it. I had my hands full trying to keep the pressure up on our end. If she cornered either of us without the other close at hand, we were goners.

    Nothing in my fighting experience had prepared me for this kind of duel. I mean, nobody real fought like this! DiVaragas was like something out of the holovids, which is real naff when you're watching with a biru alongside some buddies, but starkissin' terrifying when you're one of the poor mooks being pounded on. When the Pig and I finally got on opposite sides of her again, she danced toward him until he brought his guard up, and then flipped back at me all of a sudden in some kind of weird spinning body twist. I could see a kick coming and set to block it, but when she added that twist, I knew I'd been caught flat-footed. I had time enough to feel stupid as I watched her metal boot swoop around to kick my brains across the deck.

    But something happened. The ship shook, and it threw her off. She aborted, came down too soon, recovered, and snapped off another kick just like that. This one I blocked purely by luck. My particular style made it a good move, 'cause a hard-style block would have missed. I tried a counterattack, but she was already gone, jumping out and away before me and the Pig could scissor her.

    The ship kind of lurched again, but DiVaragas didn't pay any attention. She just came right back at me from another angle, stabbing that knife at my face. I swear she was growling, and the expression on her face made some stuff a lot more clear: she was plain crazy. Nobody sane looked like that, and the realization scared me a little more. She was fighting like she had nothing to lose, while the Pig and I were trying to get there, but we weren't in her league. Whatever was driving her, it had seven whips and a whole lot of arms. I'd have felt a little better if I still had my knife, but it was on the deck a good fifteen meters away, and the psych boost it represented was a drop in the bucket compared to the motivation DiVaragas carried inside her.

    I might be able to surprise her, though. Jenny had a few surprises, including a spring-mounted katar hidden in my right forearm that would pop out over the back of my hand and lock in place. An action vid-inspired conceit, really, but a number of us put in cool extras like that when we could afford them. The katar might come in handy- if I lived long enough to to use it.

    Nausea curled up from my gut, which meant shock was sneaking up on me through the adrenaline. We had to try something soon, the Pig and I, or it was over. I tried not to let the feeling of defeat sink me, but it didn't look good for old Naj. At least I wouldn't die on Ymir. Thank the Almighty for small favors, I suppose.

    Still, I didn't plan to go down easy. I gave the Pig a hand-signal to be ready, and faked a stagger to draw DiVaragas's attention.

    That is, I tried to fake a stagger, but my knees loosened, and the act became a reality. DiVaragas didn't miss it, but came screaming in with her knife ready to chop me into bite-size Najettes. I caught myself and jumped back. Again, reflex saved me. The small subconscious part of me that could actually think creatively in a fight took over, and I thrust my fist out at the yapper's face - and popped Jenny's katar. The thirty-centimeter blade snapped out so fast that if DiVaragas had been a shade slower, it would have gone right into her brain. As it was, she flung herself to the side, all off-balance, and her blade scratched the armor underneath my arm instead of slicing my throat open.

    Despite the adrenaline, I was slow, slow, slow. Shock had definitely settled in, probably some blood loss as well. I hadn't been counting the drops, but I'd been generous in sprinkling the red stuff around the bay. I watched her recover like I was tuning in from a remote camera. She wheeled toward me again, and I knew my life was measured in seconds. I wondered how the Wolfgirl was reacting, and what it was that bothered me about Monsterboy.

    That's when the Pig made his move. He came in low and hard, at full jet, arms wide. DiVaragas must have heard him, because her timing was perfect. She turned like a snake just as he reached her and fired a stiff-fingered strike that nailed him like a spike driven through an orange. He didn't even bother to block. He crashed into her at full tilt, his arms hooking around her thighs. She clanged into the deck, tackled by a dead man.

    Slow and shock-teased as I was, I knew an opening when I saw it. I slammed down onto her like a hammer, putting my knee on one outstretched arm and clapping my bleeding hand onto her shoulder. The katar jabbed down at her unprotected neck. She jerked hard to the side, and my blade's point jolted into stahlplast instead of flesh. Still, the Pig and I had her pinned. Good as she was, my heavier armor and superior leverage gave me enough of an advantage to finish this, hopefully before one of the yappers decided honor be damned and put a blaster bolt into my head. My peripheral vision was tracking movement somewhere to the side. Feeling crosshairs tickling my scalp already, I raised the katar-

    "Don't shoot!" DiVaragas yelled, so unexpectedly that I hesitated for a split-second, despite her continued wriggling.

    "We're under attack, Su!" a man's voice shouted back. "But it's not the butchers!"

    That stopped her cold. Seven Hells, I thought. Who could it be if it wasn't Fury? Well, it wasn't my problem. I had brethren to avenge.

    The katar pricked her neck and I wondered why I was stalling. All I had to do was lean forward, and I'd decapitate the Starwolf - almost literally. I'd do something Fury would be proud to hear about.

    "Listen," the man continued as he approached. I realized he was talking to me. He was a yapper officer, some kind of sub-kahuna, but pretty high up there. Getting the rank insignia of yapper brass hadn't been one of my priorities, either, so right now I was beginning to regret dozing through so many intel briefings. "Whoever you are," he said, "you've won. Let her go. We need her. Dark help us, if the reports are right - we've been hit by the Scourge."

    "What?" I managed. "You're kidding, right?"

    "No, he's not." Another voice cut in. The Wolfgirl. When she stepped into my line of sight, she looked pale but totally serious. "I patched into the CC and got visual confirmation. It's - it's these animal things."

    "Bio-Derms," the man snapped.

    I rolled off DiVaragas. Tremors started in my arms and legs, and I retracted the katar back into Jenny's armored sleeve. The adrenaline rush ebbed, and the nausea jumped back with a vengeance. I was getting the post-nearly-got deaded shakes. DiVaragas struggled out of the Pig's grip and hauled herself to her feet. After one final glare at me, she wheeled and stalked away, the officer in tow. The Pig's blood stained her legs and back and a red handprint on her shoulder marked where I'd grabbed her. Raw God, the witch had really cut me.

    "So, you busy tonight?" I asked the Wolfgirl. Then I passed out.

    The Vatsatz

    The real question wasn't whether I would kill the woman, but how I would do it. I wanted to do it slowly and take my time, but duty required I not risk blowing my cover.

    Danean shivered and clutched at my arm. "Why're we out here? It's cold!"

    "Another drink?" I asked slowly, careful to keep a vacant tone in my voice. I pulled out a flask and passed it to her. "It keep you warm."

    "Sure," she slurred. "Why not?"

    "Drinks taste good." I placed one hand on the back of her neck as she swallowed the liquor. I'd endured enough with the humans, eating their overcooked, maggot-soft food, listening to their monkey chatter, and enduring their pointless pity. I hated them.

    My cover was excellent, and I'd taken full advantage of its camouflage: a Starwolf veteran brain-damaged from a war wound. It bought me respect and pity from other warriors, and nobody questioned the glaring gaps in my "memory." Neither did anyone suspect my hulking physique and slack features hid the well-trained, shrewd mind of a BioDerm spy.

    Humans were gullible. Play to their sympathies and they believed anything.

    The datashard Danean had given me that evening was everything I'd asked for: Starwolf ship manifests and status reports for the armada currently in orbit around Ymir. She thought she was helping her simpleton boyfriend track down an old war buddy. Of course, when my pheromones wore off, her better judgment would lead her to question her actions. That couldn't be permitted.

    She was attractive… for a human. Slender build, short-cropped blonde hair, high cheekbones. A slight overbite betrayed genetic defects, though, and she had not conditioned herself adequately. She would not have survived among the Hordes.

    She eyed me with a mischievous expression. "What've you got in mind?"

    I waited a couple of heartbeats to "process" her question, and only then laughed dully and swung her into an embrace. When her face pressed against the skin of my cheek, I triggered my pheromones and let her get a good whiff. Her eyelids fluttered behind her goggles.

    "Leave soon," I told her, and put her down. "Come see fish first." She nodded dazedly, a lopsided smile on her face.

    Not long now.

    Skyrholm was icebound for three-quarters of the year with a good ten to fifteen meters of ice. In the spring, the ice was only three meters thick, so every spring holdfast citizens cut a broad hole in the middle of the harbor for fishing. I'd done plenty of fishing here myself, so I knew that at this time of the morning, nobody came out here. The only light came the distant fraytown, faint flickers of color across the snow-dusted ice. It was so cold the air seemed to crackle.

    It was a perfect place to get rid of somebody. I'd claim we were drunk and that she fell into the hole by accident. I wasn't in the least intoxicated, of course. My liver and pancreas were designed to prevent such impairment. We'd been seen in enough of the clubs and taverns tonight, putting back drink after drink. My alibi would hold. I was just a simple-minded mountain of muscle, after all, good for nothing but killing the hated Blood Eagle.

    Danean sniffed and wiped her nose. "I'm cold. Show me this fish and we'll go, OK?" She leaned up and gave me a kiss. She smelled of alcohol and soft flesh. Human. Weak.

    But I grinned and hugged her. As I did so, I lifted her so her feet weren't touching the ice and carried her the rest of the way to the water. I was capable of far greater displays of strength, of course, even though vatsatz like me were weaklings compared to real Derms. I put her down near the water's edge. She teetered for an instant and clung to my arm.

    "So strong!" She giggled. "I feel so safe with you." The statement was so absurd that I almost laughed in her face. The hole yawned behind her, an abyss of black water slopping lazily against the ice. I couldn't delay. Every moment carried the risk of discovery, what with shuttles coming every few minutes, and all the training going on. Troops were moving around at all hours, day and night.

    I clamped down on her neck hard enough to paralyze her despite the padded hood of her coldsuit. "Sorry, Dani, but I got what I needed. Now you're a loose end." I dangled her over the water by the scruff of her neck. Something pale roiled past under her feet, kicking up a wake of foam. Her eyes widened.

    "I hung a packet of meat in the water earlier this evening," I explained. "I was reasonably sure it would attract a razor hag. I've done a lot of fishing out here, you know." Below us, the creature snaked back and forth from beneath the ice, showing off over five meters of muscled bulk. Magnificent!

    A distant light in the sky heralded another shuttle full of troops and supplies. I'd toyed with her past the point of caution. Time to finish this.

    "Goodbye, human." I opened my hand and let her fall. The water instantly erupted into a frenzied boil, then fell still. A razor hag commonly pulled prey deep underwater before wrapping it in long, sharp-finned coils and devouring it. The fins could slash through hardened metaplas with little effort, and its six whiplike heads fed with lightning speed. I wished I could watch it work.

    "Bon appetite," I told the black waters before turning back for the long walk back to the fraytown.

    The Vatsatz - Part 2

    The woman's body was never found. Instead, the evidence of data-tampering was noticed, and the Skaduvarg - the so-called "shadow wolves" that provided so-called security for the Starwolf - concluded Danean was a spy for the Blood Eagle and had gone underground. Fortunately, the Skads weren't able to trace what she'd pulled for me, so they didn't realize their ship deployments and manifests had been deeply compromised.

    Goodbye Danean.

    I was appropriately grief-stricken, of course, and then enraged. After the humans who thought themselves my friends managed to convince poor, brain-injured Bandolas Bax that his girlfriend was a traitor, that is.

    "By the Wolf!" I thundered. "I feed her to razor hag when I catch her!" I smashed a few things and enjoyed the rare opportunity to be openly destructive and dangle something of the truth in front of the poor, unwitting humans. Oh, yes, it was quite a joke. I laughed inside at their white faces, their fear and uncertainty in my presence.

    "Come on, Bax, calm down!" said Branedin Kar, one of the fellow warriors in my "Knife." Quaint unit terms these Tribes of Man used. A Knife was no more than a large squad.

    Kar seized my arm in what he fancied was a firm grip. "None of us would have suspected her, heya? Let the Skads catch her. Our job is to go in and blow the butchers to hell."

    I let myself be mollified by that, since I'd supposedly been damaged by Blood Eagle medical experiments and carried a great hatred for the "butchers," as the Starwolf were fond of calling them. Truthfully, I wondered whether the Blood Eagle represented the true strength of the wilderzone. If half the tales of their violence were true, they'd easily be the most challenging of the humans we'd encountered thus far. I was quite curious about them, so much so that I'd volunteered for guard duty at a POW camp not far from Skyrholm. Unfortunately, the prisoners there were a broken lot, dispirited wretches who'd resigned themselves to Starwolf slavery.

    I hated them. Their complaisance sickened me.

    Unfortunately, I was stuck with them until my Knife received its orders for the invasion. There'd been several delays while the Starwolf leaders haggled with each other in their orbital headquarters. Unlike a truly strong state, the Starwolf lacked centralized leadership, consisting instead of a network of alliances and a common culture. Their highest war-leader, Ursula DiVaragas, had to persuade her generals to agree on nearly every significant decision. For her, leadership was a daily political struggle. To be fair, no one else in living memory had managed to assemble such an army from the Starwolf. This DiVaragas had to be a powerfully charismatic leader. In truth, what I'd seen of her in holovids confirmed this theory. Even I found myself impressed by some of what she said, human or not. I'd made it a priority to send as much intelligence on her as possible. Her plasm would enrich the Hordes, and her loss would cripple the ability of the Starwolf to act in any coordinated matter.

    By the Bloodsoul, I hoped the reavers took her alive when they came. That would earn me recognition if her genes proved worthy. I might be able to convince the Inquisitors to grant me resculpting to a Runner's body.

    Ah, that would be glorious!

    For now, however, I would have to be patient. A Horde saying went that patience was a predator's virtue. I had done much to appraise my people of their enemy, and I'd provided them with a wealth of targets when they emerged from the jumpgate. Now my job was to keep a low profile and look for opportunities to sabotage Starwolf defenses when the reavers arrived.

    Still, it would be difficult. I'd been bred to be intensely curious as well as deceptive, both traits of the ideal spy. The POW camp duty was for me almost like sensory deprivation, since I'd learned all there was to learn my first day there.

    But back it was to watching those pathetic Blood Eagle for another tenday. I suited up in a Scout Armor armor in the afternoon and traveled out to the camp in the company of Kar, who thought he was doing me a favor. The jetting was a welcome opportunity to get some fresh air away from the stink of humanity. Ymir was a primitive world, but I liked it. Ymirian lifeforms were tenacious. Durable. Strong. I respected them even as I felt only contempt for the fool who struggled to keep up with me while trying to engage me in pointless conversation. My supposed emotional state gave me an excuse to be rude and ignore his weak-gutted sympathy. Kar fell silent the last minute or so of our approach, and I savored his discomfort.

    The camp wasn't far away, only a couple of kilometers. It was little more than a collection of prefabricated plas shelters surrounded by laser fences and autoturrets. A main tower stuck into the ice like a spear, and it was here I was bound. Lieutenant Galdis had requested that I see him as soon as I arrived. With a brusque farewell to Kar, I clanked into the tower's base and jetted up the access chute to a small anteroom. Once the computer had confirmed my identity, the hatch opened and admitted me to Galdis's office.

    Lieutenant Galdis was an unassuming man. He was losing his hair, a nauseating example of tolerating a genetic flaw. His face was hard, though, and I respected his basic administrative competence, even though he refused to treat the prisoners like the worthless specimens they were. Why bother to feed them more than the bare minimum to keep them alive? Who cared if they were warm enough at night? What reason justified not torturing these enemies and breaking their dignity utterly? For that matter, why not simply kill them and make use of the organics their bodies held? These tribals suffered from a basic human flaw: compassion. Galdis was no different.

    He nodded at me as I entered and removed my helmet. "Warrior Bax. Have a seat."

    "Yessir." I hesitated for a fraction of a second before settling in one of the two metaplas chairs designed for the bulk of a SCARAB. Behind Galdis, a holopic displayed a watercolor of herons taking flight from a river in a lush green valley. On the wall to my left hung a scarred Blood Eagle breastplate, which was more to my liking. The wall to my right was a window overlooking the camp. His desk was just a block of black metaplas.

    Galdis fixed me with a level gaze. "I heard about the disappearance of your girlfriend, Bax. Nobody blames you, you know."

    I dilated the capillaries in my cheeks, letting them flush. "I kill her if I find her! Butcher-lover, she is!"

    He nodded. "I understand. That's why I've called you here."

    "You find her for me?" I sounded puzzled, the usual Bax condition.

    "No, Bax. I called you here because I know this incident will fuel your hatred of the butchers."

    "I don't understand. 'Fool' my hatred…?"

    With a sigh, he tried again. "I mean it will make you even more angry at the Blood Eagle."

    "I already angry at them! Hate them!"

    "I know. But your job is to guard them here, not to kill them." He leaned forward and folded his hands together. "Do you understand that, warrior?"

    For a moment I hoped he was offering me a chance to reassign me. &You let me go somewhere else?"

    "No." He grimaced. "I'd like to, believe me, but we're short-staffed here, and there's enough confusion with all the troop movements already. Orders are to avoid throwing more scat into the hopper. You're staying. However, I need to know you're going to keep yourself under control."

    "I do my job, Lieutenant." I resigned myself to it. My orders were to keep a low profile, after all. I'd babysit these cowardly filth until the Hordes arrived.

    "Very well, Warrior. I hold you to your word." And just like that, he dismissed me. No threat, no display of his strength to remind me not to challenge his authority.

    I went to the guards' mess hall and warmed myself up with a hot cup of jah. The camp was empty at the moment, since the prisoners were all out on work detail. Kar let me know where he was, but otherwise left me alone. He must have spread the word, because the other camp staff steered clear of me. I napped and dreamed of razor hags tearing them all into pieces.

    The alert chime woke me, signaling the return of the prisoners. I stood up feeling refreshed, despite sleeping in my armor. After limbering my chaingun off my warharness, I loped outside and jetted up to one of the raised platforms that overlooked the camp's parade ground. It was night, but arclights flamed over the camp, covering it with a glare brighter than daylight.

    "Good to see you, Bax," said Kar over the commlink. "You ready to ride herd on these Blood Sheep?"

    I grunted my answer, not ready yet to let my antisocial veneer crack.

    His voice became conspiratorial. "Yeah. Well, keep your eyes open. I think we've arranged something that'll make you feel a little better."

    My curiosity was piqued, but I couldn't drop my act so quickly. Call it Vatsatz paranoia, but I remained acutely aware of the emotional arc I was portraying. I'd have to let it evolve naturally. I gave another disinterested grunt and waited.

    Three heavy trucks rumbled in through the gate and stopped with their rear axles toward the barracks. The hatches popped and the prisoners stumbled out in a tangle of shadow. A few stretched, but most shuffled listlessly toward their mess hall. Another needless extravagance. I would have simply shoved them into their quarters and then dumped food in with them. Let them fight to feed themselves, but don't waste time serving them! I pushed my irritation down and tried to appear vigilant.

    That's when things got interesting. A trio of Blood Eagles I recognized as parasites who extorted food from their fellows stepped out of line and waited. Surprisingly, no one ordered them back in line.

    "Just keep watching," Kal warned.

    I did, and I had to admit it was well-staged. I couple of other Blood Eagle stepped out of line, one of them not terribly formidable-looking. I took a closer look with my zoom. They were both younger than the parasites. The taller one had a defiant look to his features that surprised me.

    The parasites began to advance on the young ones. It was clear from all the body language that a fight was imminent.

    A waypoint appeared on my HUD, marking the largest member of the three parasites. "Forty sheks on that guy doing the warm-up katas," Kar said gleefully. "They call him Naj-Zero, I hear. Cocky scrof. Zindal says he's already had a piece of the big guy."

    I waited a heartbeat before answering. "What about Lieutenant Galdis?"

    "No problem there. He went back to Skyrholm for the evening to visit his family. Just relax and enjoy the show."

    Convenient, I thought. "OK," I said after pretending to think it over. "I take the big man. He want revenge. Like me."

    "Good choice. He's a mean one. Been doing our job for us, keeping the butchers in line."

    Habit took over. I triggered my armor's onboard camera and patched it into my Command Circuit to record the fight. "We watch it again," I sent to Kal. I'd be able to analyze it at my leisure later, meaning I could enjoy it to the fullest right then.

    "Brilliant, Bax! I'll route the feed into some of the other CCs. I bet a lot of us would enjoy watching these guys tear each other up."

    The fight started a couple of minutes later. The defiant one fought well, and his smaller friend was surprisingly fierce. But they were outnumbered and outfought. They went two to one on the smaller one and beat him while the Pig fended off the defiant one. This seemed to drive the defiant one mad. He attacked the Pig like a demon and managed to get around him and strike at the other two. He fought with an unorthodox style, one I hadn't seen used by any of the Starwolf. Neither of the other Blood Eagle used it. Whatever it was, it was effective. He laid the two men out on the ice with dispatch and bent to help his friend, who I knew was probably beyond saving thanks to a broken neck.

    It was a fatal mistake for this "Naj-Zero." The Pig kicked him down and seized him. They struggled, but the big one was clearly the stronger. One of the other two parasites staggered to his feet and moved in for the kill. The third parasite didn't move.

    I approved. The Command Circuit was active with yells and bets traded back and forth. I almost felt genuine cameraderie for Kar and my fellow guards in that instant. They had given me the opportunity to witness Blood Eagle infighting technique firsthand, which satisfied my genetically programmed curiosity, though I still wanted to see more of that circular technique the defiant one had used.

    But then the girl ruined the moment. A female warrior in Scout Armor armor dropped right into the middle of the camp, jets flaring. Before any of us could react, she swatted away the second parasite and ordered the Pig to let the defiant one go.

    The Command Circuit exploded in chatter and shouting as guards moved in to clean up the mess. Disgusted, I muted everyone and cut the recording. I felt cheated.

    A pair of turbograv transports came out of the sky to hover at a respectful height. The girl stiffened and snapped to attention as everyone else herded the Blood Eagle prisoners inside. Kar jetted over and landed next to me a few minutes later, his expression tense.

    "Are we in trouble?" I asked, not really caring.

    He hissed angrily, a gout of vapor frosting the air between us. "Dark, yeah, but not as much as that idiot newblood over there. By the Great Wolf, her friends say she has a soft spot for butchers! Can you believe it?"

    I let a growl rise from my gut. "Stupid girl!"

    "Yeah. Ah Dark, here comes the hunchin' CO. Now the disk is gonna blow."

    The Lieutenant entered the camp riding a grav cycle and wearing immaculate Assault-class armor that shone a dazzling ice blue as he swung off the cycle and strode over to where Sergeant Zindal doubtless wished fervently he were far away on the other side of Ymir. Explanations were made, the Sergeant pointing here and there as he related what had happened. Kar and a few others wanted to eavesdrop via the CC, but nobody wanted to risk Gandis's wrath.

    Finally, Gandis nodded curtly.

    "Warrior Bax, front and center," his dry voice ordered in my ear.

    I jumped down and over to him on the bounce. He turned to face me. His face looked sour. "I understand you were not involved in arranging this… hunch-up, Warrior. Correct?"

    "Yessir. But I made a bet." I let my face hint at a hangdog expression.

    "So did half the muster from here to near orbit," he said. "I'm not concerned about that right now. It seems all the excitement has gotten us noticed. We have received an unusual request from on high."


    "Yes, it seems we're to pull out the two principals in this brawl and equip them with Blood Eagle SCARABS. Then we send them up the gravity well."

    "What? We let 'em go?"

    Gandis sounded bitter enough to spit acid. "Hardly. It seems they have a personal invitation to 'spar' with the Ur-Warlord."

    Spar? By the Bloodsoul, if the stories were true about DiVaragas and her private duels, those two Blood Eagle were dead meat! I was flabbergasted, but the opportunist in my makeup leaped at the opportunity. If I could get close to DiVaragas herself-!

    "I escort them, sir!" For once, my enthusiasm was completely honest.

    He smiled tiredly. "That's what I had in mind. It's a chance for you to get out of here for a couple of days but stay busy. There'll be a couple of softshells along, though you shouldn't need them. The B-E suits will have inhibitor bolts placed until the 'sparring' begins."

    His face darkened. "I'll send that fool newblood girl along, too. She might learn something from you."

    A smile crept out. I couldn't help it.

    First Ursula DiVaragas, then the Starwolf girl. For dessert.

    The Vatsatz - Part 3

    "Tomorrow" turned into three days. The younger of the two Blood Eagle, the defiant one, needed time to heal while the quartermaster's people found suitable armor for the "butchers." Meanwhile, I chafed at the delay. The invasion was coming any day, though I didn't know exactly when. I wanted to get close to Ursula DiVaragas. Without a doubt she'd be a target of the Horde Maul grigatim, and if I could mark her or capture her myself, I'd prove beyond any doubt my worth to the Bloodsoul and the Inquisitors.

    The Lieutenant came down hard on us for breaking camp discipline and attracting the attention of the local ZoneVox witnesses. We immediately received orders not to talk to any media about the incident. Fortunately, he rode me less harshly in the belief that I'd simply followed the example of the other guards. Unlike my fellows, I retained a fair degree of freedom of movement. To pass the time, I played at drinking with my "fellow Starwolf" and dreamed of what I might accomplish if the tribals allowed me to meet their greatest general.

    I was well-equipped for espionage or sabotage. Beyond the pheromone implants, my body contained several Horde biotech devices such as deployable microbeacons, scent glands for marking prey or leaving subtle trails, and skinpouches for carrying datashards or even small explosive charges. Under my tongue were chambered three bone slivers I could spit up to three meters with excellent accuracy. Each dart carried a paralytic venom especially designed to work on the human neural system. I could regulate the amount of venom on each dart to produce a range of impairment on my victim, from slowed reflexes to near-instant death. Once I used a dart, I simply grew a new one, but that was a slow process, so I only used the darts in dire circumstances.

    Three months ago on Gamma Diehl, a Skaduvarg agent came uncomfortably close to exposing me. When I terminated this annoyance, I put enough venom into him to kill three healthy humans. Completely unnecessary overkill, but it'd been the first time I used the darts in the field, and I wanted to see what they could do. The curdled expression on his face when he died still amused me.

    I sorted through the alternatives and made a decision. I'd simply mark DiVaragas to make the hunt easier for the reavers. If the invasion occurred while I was in the Ur-Warlord's presence, I might risk using a dart to slow or freeze her, though such a ploy was extremely hazardous for me. She'd be well guarded, and from all accounts, she was far more capable than the average monkey. I knew the Hordes wanted to capture prime human specimens such as DiVaragas and the Blood Eagle leader Fury. The Children of Phoenix leader Renn Gistos would be considered a weak strain after surrendering the Firetruce to the Diamond Sword. I wondered what his tribe saw in him, to keep him in office.

    I still had time to kill, if not humans. It occurred to me that I knew very little about the newblood girl who'd intervened at the camp the other night, so I determined to look her up. Naturally, I would expose her to my pheromones. Without prolonged contact, I'd accomplish little in the way of actual control, but reactions varied from human to human; she might be nicely suggestible. If it came to a firefight around DiVaragas, hesitation on her part regarding whether to pull the trigger on me could prove crucial. In any case, the pheromones would make her somewhat malleable, a condition I'd certainly exploit.

    The Lieutenant approved of my "brotherly" interest in the girl. "Brianna Kenzie," he said. "An orphan from the fringe. Newblood, but well-trained. Word is she killed four armored Grievers in a running battle back on her homeworld. Plus she put on quite the display in the Hunter exercises recently." He shook his head. "Soft-hearted, though. Apparently knows nothing about Blood Eagle atrocities."

    "I teach her, sir," I offered with feeling. Oh, yes indeed.

    He produced a thin smile. "I know you will, Bax. If anyone's suffered at the hands of the butchers, it's you."

    I nodded, as was expected, adding, "Prison butchers die up there, Lootenant?"

    "Yes, very likely. The Ur-Warlord is lethal. She's played this game with several other pairs of Blood Eagle and come out with hardly a scratch to show for it. I think she'll make short work of these two."

    I left his office in fine spirits. I'd get a shot at Ursula DiVaragas, watch a couple of humans die, and maybe get to destroy a monkey girl as a bonus. Though I hated this weak human body I was forced to use, I enjoyed my work. Deception, murder, sabotage, and betrayal. I was bred for all of it.

    It didn't take long for me to find Kenzie. Her commanding officer had assigned her to physical training as punishment for her unplanned excursion the other night. She was in the gym cracking out sit-ups and running through brutal calisthenics while the rest of her cadre was outside on field exercises.

    I watched her for a few minutes while she stood at attention and lifted a spinfusor over her head repeatedly. Average height, slender but with the hard muscle definition that typified tribal physiques. Straight brown hair so dark it was almost black. Pretty, but not exceptionally so. She did her exercises dutifully. Her skinsuit permitted no sign of perspiration, but her face was flushed and her skin shone with sweat.

    An orphan, the Lieutenant had said. That kind of history suggested all manner of emotional turmoil. Once I tapped into those feelings, she'd be putty.

    I strolled out onto the floor, hands in my jacket pockets. "You Kenzie?" I asked in my best idiot voice.

    She paused, mumbled something into her commlink, and came to attention with the butt of her spinfusor on the floor. I knew her CO would have a camera placed nearby so he could check on her progress. I'd treat this conversation as public despite the apparent emptiness of the gym.

    "Can I help you, sir?" she replied. I noted she was breathing hard. Good. She'd take in my pheromones that much faster.

    I trotted out with my best idiot grin plastered across my face. "Not sir! My name Bando Bax. I help you take butchers up to Ur-Warlord."

    She looked momentarily confused but recovered nicely. "Umm… I'm not in charge of that, mister Bax. I'm just along to help." Her posture loosened up, and she smiled tentatively. "My CO says I should take a break."

    "Bax never in charge," I said cheerily. "That's 'cause my head broke." I followed her to where she'd left her towel folded on a bench, staying close enough to keep her in range of my pheromones, which I was now pumping out with a vengeance.

    "Oh." She mopped her face with the towel and sat down. "What happened?"

    Time for a mood switch. "Butchers tortured Bax. Broke head with brainzap." I looked her in the eye and added gently, "I not blame you."

    She reddened again, this time from embarrassment. Good. The guilt was a doorway for me to manipulate. I kept putting out the pheromones, letting them reinforce the sympathetic reaction. "I'm… I'm not a 'butcher lover,' mister Bax."

    "Bando," I said, taking a seat next to her. "My name Bando."

    Her expression turned grim, a startling change in such a young face. I could still see the sympathy in her eyes. The pity. By the Bloodsoul, I hated that reaction, even though creating it was central to maintaining my cover.

    "Why you help butchers?" I inquired.

    "What?" Her pupils had dilated, indicating my little biochemical charisma enhancers were doing their work.

    "Why help butchers?"

    "I… I guess… What was happening the other night just… just wasn't right. We're supposed to be better than the B-E."

    "We definitely better." I raised a finger. "But sometimes, we get angry, heya?"

    "I know." She actually hung her head. I reached out and tipped her head back up to face me.

    "They say you like one of butchers. A boy."

    She shook her head. "No… Well, kind of, but just in passing. He seemed nice, not what I expected."

    Time to test out how susceptible she'd become. By now her instincts should be screaming for her to trust me.

    "He work for Fury," I said. Fury had a bogeyman reputation among the Starwolf. Using her name would help me tie off any sympathy this girl might have for the B-E.

    She nodded, more reluctantly than I'd expected. A deep-seated sense of loyalty might be the culprit behind her resistance. In her mind, she'd decided this one Blood Eagle was "decent" and deserving of trust. I'd have to move to a less-abstract means of transferring that loyalty to me.

    "This boy not a nice person. Bando know. Butchers torture Bando." I turned my head and flipped my hair up to show her the scar ridges that lined my scalp, scars that had been carefully crafted to suggest an ugly, painful genesis.

    Her gaze flinched away for an instant, then crept back. "By the Wolf," she breathed. "The butchers did that to you?"

    I adopted a sad expression, let my voice become husky with feigned emotion. "Butchers do this." I waited a heartbeat before delivering the clincher line. "Boys just like the one you help torture Bando." My hand dropped as if my scalp had seared it. Masterpiece. The way I'd put it in my idiot patois clearly passed along the subliminal message "you help torture Bando" while directing the blame at the object of her trust.

    Confusion warred with outrage in her face, and I watched as the latter won. "Those butchers," she fairly hissed, her eyes sparkling with tears. "I'm sorry, Bando! I forgot what the Blood Eagle were." The tears ran freely now, prodded by the welter of emotion my pheromones had released. Her shoulders shook. I'd tapped into a deep vein of emotion, evidently. So much the better.

    I smiled and put my hand over hers. "It all right," I told her. "Bando take care of you."

    I took a mental bow. In a few short minutes, I'd turned her into a stew of guilt and rage easily manipulated by a clever handler.

    The Vatsatz - Part 4

    I was taking a dangerous chance, a fool's chance. The amount of pheromones I was producing was having a notable effect on the newblood women with us. Unfortunately, some of my effort was subconscious, driven by excitement at the prospect of marking or even killing the Starwolf leader. The invasion was coming any day now, and I desperately wanted to prove my worth. The Bloodsoul had granted me an opening to get close to DiVaragas. I would take it.

    We picked up the Blood Eagle prisoners at their camp and took them to the dropship. The one called Najrasami seemed to be in good spirits. He actually greeted Kenzie and insulted the second girl, a Lachris Tremane. Interesting. I observed the signs of romantic attraction between Najrasami and Kenzie. The larger Blood Eagle said little, but seemed more thoughtful than other times when I'd observed him in camp.

    On the way up to the Retribution, I kept the pheromone levels high. If anything unexpected happened, it would be good to know I had at least a couple of companions devoted to my safety. The pheromones weren't foolproof, and they were far from true mind control, not like some of the more advanced sub-cortical implants. On the other hand, they worked on a deeply primal level, tapping into parental instincts, a child's desire for approval, and various romantic urges. The Hordes had worked hard to leash human biology to their will. I knew the unprecedented amount of pheromones I was exposing these girls to would imprint them deeply, perhaps modifying their loyalties past the point of caution, but I felt reckless, exuberant. So many of these humans would perish soon, that I couldn't help but feel uplifted.

    The Sergeant leading our escort didn't pay much attention. I'd cultivated a reputation for being popular with the local fems, so these two wouldn't stir much surprise on his part. The older Blood Eagle remained withdrawn, no doubt contemplating his imminent death. The younger one was a different case. He definitely noticed the girls and their attachment to me, and I could see the circuits clicking in his brain. As we docked with the Retribution, the realization struck me that I didn't know much about the butchers other than basic military data and Starwolf propaganda. For tribals, the Blood Eagle were fairly adept at concealing their secrets. They were rumored to be close to the Empire. Did they share briefing information? What did they know about the Hordes?

    I frowned at him and caught Kenzie's eye. Then I put a hurt expression on my face, probably number sixty-four, if I were categorizing my arsenal of duplicity: Reminder of a Painful Memory. It worked nicely enough, touching off a storm of protective fury in the girl. She exploded into a homicidal frenzy, keyed up as she was. The sergeant yelled, but too late to stop her from striking down Najrasami… I hoped.

    Unfortunately and to my great surprise, she regained self-control and restrained herself from killing the troublesome Blood Eagle. I felt disappointed. I'd never blasted my pheromones out at this rate for such a long time. Kenzie should have been putty. On the other hand, reactions varied from person to person. Maybe she was just more resistant. It would be interesting to see how continued exposure affected her. And I'd see the Blood Eagle's blood spill soon enough. It wasn't as if he had any credibility here, among his tribe's mortal enemies.

    The trek through the Retribution was interesting but not particularly noteworthy. The Hordes already possessed all the information on the ship's schematics and other tactical data. Nothing new to observe, in other words, though my inbred curiosity still nagged at me, pushing the urge to learn more about this vessel. I squelched it down, though. This was not an intelligence gathering mission. We reached the cargo bay DiVaragas used as an arena without incident.

    The Blood Eagle went off to the side to prepare their equipment, and I found myself standing with Kenzie, Tremane, and the Sergeant. DiVaragas was just finishing her warm-up exercises out on the floor. She wore a light, Scout-class armor with a skinsuit underneath, and she carried a long, thin blade that seemed well-designed for slashing or stabbing. It reminded me of a boning knife, I thought, like the kind they used in Skyrholm to gut clean fish. DiVaragas herself was dark-haired and struck me as hard in a way I'd not seen since the Hordes. I could almost taste her rage. Interesting. I wondered whether the pheromones would touch her.

    Carefully, I removed my gauntlet and slipped a bio-construct tracker out of my palm. It was the size of a bead, but was designed to transmit a pulse visible to Horde sensors. It was also adhesive on contact. I put my gauntlet back on and palmed the tracker. Next to me, Tremane breathed deeply and gave me an infatuated grin.

    "I'm Lachris," she said.

    "Bando," I smirked. "Brianna tell me about you."

    She looked uncertain. "Kenzie? I'm… uh, sure she didn't get… I mean-"

    "Look sharp," the Sergeant ordered. "Here comes the Ur-Warlord."

    Excitement speared me. I wouldn't even have to go to her to plant my little surprise! We all stood at attention. DiVaragas had words for Kenzie, it appeared, and only token comments for the rest of us. When she came to me, I fairly leaped at the chance to play pathetic idiot. Pheromones roiling out of me like an invisible cloud, I flung myself at her feet and begged for her to kill the evil butchers. While my mouth worked, my hands stuck the tracker on her boot. I'd have kissed her feet if that's what it took to convince her of my sincerity and cover my true purpose. Sometimes it helps to have deception wired into one's genes. Nonetheless, part of me sneered in contempt at how much I had to mimic weakness. I was of the Strong, the Chainless. It rankled me to have to play such a game of humiliation, to shame myself before these monkeys.

    DiVaragas was also embarrassed. She stared at me, getting a good brush of my pheromones, but I could see they were barely hitting her. With time, maybe, but her rage ran too deep. She was too alienated to respond to any instincts but those of destruction. I respected that. It was as I imagined the greatest feroxi to function.

    She wrenched her foot from my hands. "Get up, warrior," she said coldly. "Act like a man."

    "Yessir." I stood and wiped away my false tears. Beside me, I sensed the girls were fairly boiling over with sympathy and a desire to protect me, and I laughed to myself. You are marked like a game bird, Ur-Warlord. You're the Hordes' meat now. We'll see how long that steely front endures when you're in the talons of the feroxi.

    "Alright. No one interferes. Understand?" We all nodded. "Good," she said. "Get the restraining bolts off the butcher armors and bring them to the starting point." She jetted back to her starting position, and we settled back to watch.

    "You OK, Bando?" cooed Tremane, her blue eyes wide with concern. Next to her, Kenzie watched me with the same expression mingled with envy.

    "Bando OK," I said. "Sorry, Brianna. Not mean to upset you."

    She looked confused, but she produced a hesitant smile. "I'm not upset, Bando. Don't worry."

    My comment clearly puzzled Tremane, who wasn't used to being taken so lightly by males. She opened her mouth to say something, but the Sergeant interrupted.

    "Eyes front, warriors. Just because we're ordered not to interfere doesn't mean we go to sleep. Remember, those butchers are wearing armor, and we need to keep them contained."

    After the opening declaration of vengeance by DiVaragas - and a surprisingly flippant answer from Najrasami - the match started. Right away I could see the B-E were fighting hard to stay alive. They managed surprisingly well. They stayed close enough to support each other, and they didn't take stupid chances. Their impromptu tactics showed a lot of discipline. At the same time, DiVaragas was magnificent, absolutely in control of the battle even as she rode her rage like a fine stallion. Mere seconds into the first heavy exchange, she destroyed the larger Blood Eagle's knife and almost terminated Najrasami.

    Kenzie winced at that, and Tremane said, "Looks like your boyfriend's in trouble, huh?" Kenzie didn't answer.

    "Cut it out, Cadet Tremane," said the Sergeant. "Eyes front."

    I glanced at Kenzie. She'd gone pale. I reached out and squeezed her arm, playing the reassuring comrade. She shot me a grateful look and returned her attention to the battle.

    It went on for longer than I'd thought. DiVaragas disarmed Najrasami, but wasn't able to score any decisive hit on either of the two Eagles.

    "He's bleeding," said Kenzie.

    "Who?" Tremane asked.

    "Naj - the younger one."

    "I see it," said the Sergeant. "Looks like Slasher got a cut in at the wrist, but it's not arterial. Lucky scrof. He ought to be dead three times over by now."

    "This is wrong," I heard Kenzie whisper. She doubtless didn't mean to be overheard, but vatsatz have excellent ears. The better to ferret out secrets with, naturally. I thought about calling her on it, but the battle was getting interesting now that blood had been shed. If I concentrated, I could just smell it, a salty tang every BioDerm was familiar with. It smelled like victory.

    Things went back and forth for awhile after that, and it was clear that the butchers were fading, one from fatigue, the other from accumulated blood loss. Goodbye, Najrasami, I thought happily.

    Then the unthinkable happened. Just as DiVaragas swooped in at Najrasami for what had to be the coup-de-grace, Kenzie bolted. She leaped forward, shouting, "Noooo!" and only my superior reflexes let me trip her before she could hit her jets. She slammed into the deck and I jumped over and hauled her up by the arm. Amazingly, she tried to get free, even when I pushed out the pheromones again. A shocked Tremane moved up and grabbed the other arm.

    "Hold her, by the Wolf!" the Sergeant ordered, his face mottled with anger. "Damn it, Kenzie, what in Dark do you think you're doing?"

    "I…" The pheromones hit her then, and she turned to me. "I… I'm sorry, Bando…!"

    "Sorry, Bando? By the Wolf, Kenzie, what's gotten into you?" He lowered his voice. "Listen, I know you think this is barbaric, and between you and me and the wall, you're right. But the reality is-" The ship jolted as if a massive hammer had pounded the hull. It was hard enough to cause the deck to shudder under our feet. "What the Dark…!"

    I looked out at the bay floor, and my heart sank. While we were busy with Kenzie, the Eagles had somehow turned the tables. Najrasami had DiVaragas down somehow. The other Eagle was dead. I cursed to myself. This pathetic Blood Eagle had more lives than a cat! Every time he was defeated, something kept him alive. At that moment, I promised myself I would see him dead. The Weak should perish. That was the Law.

    The next moment I went from disappointed anger to exhilaration. The Sergeant rapped out, "We're under attack! The ship's under attack! Check the CC, channel Delta!"

    I dropped in and flicked through the tac channels. A shaky camera view from some unfortunate warrior showed the unmistakable forms of Horde reavers. There was pitched fighting, but the feroxi moved like lightning and what they didn't blow apart, they ripped asunder as they battled their way into the Retribution.

    It was a lovely sight. I cherished it. How powerful the feroxi were, how Strong. I fought down the urge to gun down the humans around me and join the rampage. I was a vatsatz, bred not for combat, but for spying and sabotage. I would maintain my cover as long as possible.

    When I switched back to my HUD view, Najrasami was down. For a fleeting moment, I thought he might be dead, but no such luck. Kenzie fussed with him for a few minutes, and soon she was helping him off the floor. He looked gray, and I knew he'd be easy meat if I had the opportunity.

    "OK, listen," said the Sergeant. "Our orders are to reinforce 'H' deck. They need every gun. There's a bottleneck there where we can hold the boarders out of the command section. Let's get down there on the bounce."

    "What about me?" rasped Najrasami. "Deal was, I go free if I win."

    The Sergeant hesitated.

    "C'mon, it ain't a Sworder riddle here." Najrasami leaned on the bulkhead. "Either I'm a prisoner or I'm free."

    The Sergeant was pathetically easy to read, and I jumped all over his indecision.

    "Butcher. Can't trust."

    Tremane nodded immediately. Kenzie struggled, but finally relented.

    "We should keep an eye on him," she said.

    Good girls, I thought.

    "At least give me my helmet," Najrasami said. "I promise I'll be on good behavior."

    The Sergeant shrugged. "Fine. I can live with that. We'll stash you in a brig along the way. If we win, you're free. If we lose…."

    "Same old, same old," Najrasami muttered. "Let's get on with it, then."

    Excellent. We'd stash him along the way, and I'd come back for him later. Suddenly I was glad he'd survived. So much more satisfying to kill him personally. Or maybe to get one of the girls to do it. Kenzie.



    A haze of smoke filled the cantina as Shen Sebun made his way through the crowd toward the fighting pit. He walked in a spreading wave of quiet, his niwa'aban body armor gleaming an ominous blue in the dim light. Ahead of him, the crowd screamed encouragement at the fighters beneath them. Around him, people drew away and began to trickle toward the exits. He didn't care about them. He kept a confident hand on the hilt of his katana and let his presence part the way.

    He was masked according to custom, though he didn't wear one of the powered suits. Thus his public face presented the incorruptible face of authority, expressionless and remote. Normally, he might have sought to stop the fight, to arrest those placing illegal bets on human life. Arena dueling was a sport for the crude and bloodthirsty. As for those who fought, well, he supposed they had their reasons, though he could not imagine what could compel someone to risk themselves so. Pride? Profit? Revenge? Tonight, however, he hunted other game. He would achieve enough of a disruption simply by allowing himself to be seen.

    The crowd's noise lessened abruptly as he neared the pit. Even the fighters looked up from their circling, curious as to the reason for the drop in volume. Shen spied his quarry, a richly dressed man in a custom booth overlooking the arena. The niwa'aban waited until the man caught sight of him, and then stopped and pointed, signaling for the other to wait. Then he resumed his stride. He received scowls and a few muttered curses, but no one impeded him.

    Wise of them, he thought. Very wise.

    The niwa'aban had earned the respect of the Firetruce's underworld, enough to be useful in situations such as these. For all they knew, he had a trio of assault armors waiting outside with multi-stunners and a capture wagon. The initial Diamond Sword security approach had been to break up a few of the worst pits early in the Firetruce, confiscate all assets, and deport the defendants to a labor camp on a volcanic planet. Though the effort and expense of such an undertaking had been enormous, it had established the precedent early: the niwa'aban meant business.

    Shen entered the booth and faced the man he'd come to see. Kalgo Stolvagg, aka "Pipes," was a stick-thin man with goggle eyes and a slight lisp. He was also one of the most notorious gambling lords at the Firetruce, but so far he had steered clear of illegal drugs or deathmatches - or had managed not to be caught dealing in those commodities. Right now he sat in a comfortable chair with a drink in one hand and a silk-clad girl hanging on his other arm. A pair of hard-looking bodyguards flanked him, their wide-shouldered hrak-leather jackets undoubtedly concealing illegal sidearms. A small table held an assortment of exotic-looking bottles.

    "I am Shen Sebun," he said. "We have spoken previously, Stolvagg-reh."

    "Greetings, Honored Teacher," Stolvagg said, his voice calm despite its reedy composition. "Can I assist you?"

    "I come as Ku-Mori today," Shen replied. "Send your men away. I wish to speak privately."

    Stolvagg nodded after a moment's hesitation. "You may go," he told the guards. They left ungraciously, but without comment, shooting glares at Shen that were meant to be intimidating.

    The monkey chatters at the hawk but can never take wing, Shen thought, dismissing them. As if these scrof could intimidate a surodoi!

    "The girl, too," he said. Stolvagg shooed her out, irritation flashing momentarily across his gaunt features.

    After the door closed, Shen took a small device from his belt and placed it on the table, activating it with a touch of his thumb. A red light winked on and shifted to green, indicating proper security had been achieved.

    "Forgive the precaution, but my words are only for you," he said.

    Stolvagg assumed a polite expression. "Of course. May I offer you refreshment?"

    Shen shook his head and also ignored the other's glance toward the room's only other chair. He would stand. "I shall not inconvenience you long, Stolvagg-reh."

    Stolvagg accepted the polite honorific. "You never inconvenience, Sebun-kemeh. Your presence can only please me. How may I assist you?"

    "I understand from our previous discussions - and our own dossiers - that you have many contacts here in the Bazaar. Is that not true?"

    The other nodded warily. "Of course, I do hear some things in the course of my business. Some of my clientele are prone to gossip."

    "Ah, yes." Shen remained stock still, but inclined his head slightly. "I'm sure you hear much in the way of rumors and innuendo."

    "Yes, Sebun-kemeh. Much of it false, of course."

    "Of course. Yet some of it may hold a kernel of truth, is that not so?"

    "Perhaps." Stolvagg shrugged. "I do not sift through everything I hear."

    "You have heard of the disappearing ghost? The one that killed the Grievers?"

    This question struck home. Though he tried to conceal it, Stolvagg's eyes widened fractionally. "I have heard the stories. Ridiculous, neh?"

    Shen let his voice harden. "Perhaps. A man killed the Grievers. At least, so the autopsies indicate." He moved forward a step, entering Stolvagg's personal space. It was a calculated breach in manners, but he needed the crime lord off balance. It was the only way he could penetrate the man's mask and find out what truth he concealed.

    Castles are best breached by a man inside the wall, the saying went.

    Leaning forward, Shen made his own throw of the dice. "I hear there is a killer at the Firetruce, Stolvagg-reh, a very special killer. I want to know more. Such men do not come to events such as these without a target, ayia?"

    Stolvagg had gone pale. "I… do not know what you speak of, Sebun-kemeh."

    "Give me a name, Stolvagg."

    "I do not have a name to give you!"

    Shen straightened. "A shame. I will have to call in the armors and confiscate your facility here."

    Stolvagg's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "Sebun-kemeh! I have done nothing!"

    "You run an illegal gambling pit-"

    "No!" Stolvagg was sweating freely now. "I permit no fatalities! No weapons!"

    "You sell dreamleaf-"

    "No! I swear!"

    "I smelled it when I entered this room. There is more. That bottle, the blue one, contains extract of-"

    At that moment, the two guards burst into the room, pistols in hand. Shen turned and drew his katana with the ease and speed of many years of practice. His blade described a graceful arc from the scabbard to bury its point in the second guard's heart. On the way, it neatly lopped off the hand of the first guard.

    "Idiots!" raged Stolvagg. "Did I call you? Did I?"

    The guard slumped to his knees in shock. "But… you yelled... something about no weapons…!"

    "You're fired! Get out!"

    "But my hand-!"

    After wiping his blade clean and sheathing it, Shen knelt and tore off a strip from the dead man's shirt. In a few moments, he knotted a tourniquet to stop the other's bleeding.

    "Go see Mai-Li-Kaar on the Street of the Raindrop," he said when he was done. "She runs a hospice for the unfortunate. If you pledge to work honorably for her, she will help you. And I will overlook this incident."

    The guard stumbled out without even a word of thanks. Shen closed the door and returned to Stolvagg.

    "A thousand thousand pardons, Honored One," said Stolvagg, now gray with fear. "I would never order such an attack. It was… obscene. You were most gracious in sparing that fool."

    "They were listening," Shen said quietly, "in contravention of our previous arrangements."

    Stolvagg opened his mouth, closed it.

    Shen snorted. "You cannot expect me to think otherwise, Stolvagg," he said, dropping the honorific. "The inference is plain, but it tells me this: there are many secrets in the wilderzone, and you hold a key to one of them."

    "I don't know anything," Stolvagg whispered. "Sebun-kemeh, I swear."

    "You don't know anything for certain, but you have heard something. I know how the Firetruce gossip goes through here. I know about your information brokering. Tell me what you know." Shen wiped a fleck of blood from his forearm. "I am prepared to disregard the insult from your guards - if your information proves helpful."

    Fear warred with hope in Stolvagg's eyes. The hope won out, but Shen could still see the fear lurking, ready to return.

    Fear is the bones of emptiness, he thought. It supports nothing but itself.

    "Tell me," he repeated, more sternly this time.

    Stolvagg tried to sip his drink, his hand trembling. "Sebun-kemeh, I have heard many… ridiculous things: the Empire has dispatched robot armies into the wilderzone, inhuman spies walk among us, a great weapon has been lost and found and lost again-"

    Shen cut him off. "I have heard these rumors as well. They are fodder for the paranoid and those who love thrill vids overmuch."

    "Very well." Stolvagg produced a silken cloth and wiped the sweat from his face. "I have heard there is a Ghost haunting the Firetruce, Honored One."

    "A ghost? Ridiculous! A dreamleaf story from the Griever murders."

    Stolvagg shook his head. "No, Sebun-kemeh, it's not. In my line of work, I hear things, many of which must not be spoken of. One of those things is… the Ghosts."

    The man was serious. Moreover, this topic inflamed his fear until it almost glowed on his skin. Whatever frightened him, it was something that cracked his mask deeply. It piqued Shen's interest, even as it stirred a chill deep in his soul. His secret vice was a great love of ghost stories, and he had also heard rumors.

    Ghosts might be real, after all.

    Fearing he was bound on yet another wild goose chase, Shen pulled the other chair over to face Stolvagg's and seated himself in it. He was Reflective Facet; he would keep an open mind until he had weighed the evidence. Only then would he match the evidence against his own suspicions.

    He removed his mask and placed it on the table, a gesture of trust meant to reassure. "Now, tell me, Stolvagg-reh. Tell me everything."