CHAPTER ONE

It was still raining on Lachrymae Christi. The tears of God. Owen Deathstalker hadn’t shed a single tear since the Blood Runners abducted Hazel d‘Ark. To cry would be to give in to his fear and desperation, and he couldn’t afford to be weak. He had to be strong, ready to seize any chance that might get him off this damned planet and onto Hazel’s trail. He had to be strong, for her. So he put a lid on his despair, and clamped it down hard with never-ending work, and never once allowed himself to entertain the possibility that Hazel d’Ark might already be dead.

It had been two weeks since Hazel was taken, and Owen had hardly slept since. He sat exhausted on the bare ground of the Mission compound, head hanging forward, sweat dripping off his face. He’d been working hard since first light, distracting himself with the simple everyday problems of rebuilding the devastated Mission, but he was only human, these days, and his body would only take so much punishment before forcing him to rest. And then he would sit, and brood, and squeeze his eyes shut against the visions his mind conjured up of what the Blood Runners might be doing to Hazel, until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and would dive back into the distraction of work, whether he was ready or not.

A leper approached him hesitantly, anonymous in the usual gray cloak and pulled-forward hood. He offered Owen a cup of wine, in a gray gloved hand that only shook a little. Owen accepted it with a nod, and the leper backed quickly away, bowing respectfully. The Mission’s surviving lepers had seen Owen blow away an army of attacking Grendels, like leaves in a scorching breeze, all by the power of his mind. They had seen him stand against overwhelming forces, and refuse to retreat. He was their savior, and they were all very much in awe of him.

They didn’t know he was only human now. They didn’t know he’d burned out all his Maze-given powers, to save them.

“You’ve got to slow down, Owen,” Oz murmured softly in his ear. The AI sounded distinctly worried. “You can’t keep pushing yourself like this. You’re killing yourself.”

“The work has to be done,” said Owen, subvocalizing so those still working around him wouldn’t hear. “The Hadenmen and the Grendels knocked the shit out of this place. Half the wall’s down, most of the buildings are leaning on each other for support, and the roof’s leaking in a hundred places. The lepers can’t do it on their own. A lot of them belong in sickbeds anyway.”

“That’s not why you’re doing it,” said Oz. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know. All this hard work and toil, working till you drop; it’s not for them, for the Mission. You’re punishing yourself, for letting the Blood Runners take Hazel.”

“I wasn’t there, when she needed me,” said Owen, staring at the ground between his feet. “If I had been, maybe I could have done ... something ...”

“You’d lost your powers. You were just a man. There was nothing you could have done.”

“Work is good,” said Owen. “Simple problems, with simple solutions. It keeps me from thinking, from remembering. If I stop to think and remember, I’ll go mad.”

“Owen ...”

“They’ve had her two weeks now. Fourteen days and nights, in the Obeah Systems, on the other side of the Empire, to torture and torment her as it pleases them. And I’m trapped here, with no powers, and not even a hope of a ship to get me offplanet so I can go after her. They could have done a lot, in fourteen days and nights.”

When the Blood Runners first took Hazel, Owen did go crazy, for a while. He wouldn’t eat or sleep for days, stalking blindly round the ruined Mission as the terrorized lepers scattered to get out of his way. He screamed and ranted and called Hazel’s name, making horrible threats and howling like an animal in pain. In the end, he grew weak enough that Sister Marion was able to wrestle him to the ground and hold him down, while Mother Beatrice injected him with industrial-strength sedatives. His dreams then were vague, horrible things, and when he woke up, they’d strapped him to a bed in the Mission infirmary.

He’d worn out his voice with screaming and ranting, but he still cursed them all in a harsh, rasping voice, while Moon sat quietly at his side, giving what comfort he could. It was some time before Owen got control of himself again, exhausted physically and emotionally. But he never cried. Mother Beatrice came to see him often, and offered him the comfort of her God, but he wouldn’t take it. There was no room in his cold heart now for anything but rescue or revenge.

When they finally let him up again, he spent the best part of a day in the Mission comm center, calling for a ship to come and pick him up. Any ship. He used every bit of authority he had, pulled every string, called in every favor he could think of, threatened and pleaded and bribed, and none of it did any good. There was a war on. Actually, there were several wars, going on simultaneously. The Empire was under attack by the Hadenmen, Shub, Grendels, the insect aliens, and the threat of the Recreated. Owen just wasn’t important enough anymore to be worth diverting a precious ship to far-off Lachrymae Christi. He’d just have to wait.

Owen would have wrecked the whole damned comm center, if Mother Beatrice hadn’t been there, her eyes full of compassion. So instead, he stalked out and buried himself in the rebuilding of the Mission. It helped that there was a lot that needed doing. He made himself eat and drink at regular intervals, because if he didn’t Mother Beatrice or Sister Marion stood over him till he did. When it grew too dark to work, he lay down on his bed and pretended to sleep, waiting with empty heart for it to be light again.

The rebuilding was slow and hard work now that his powers were gone, burned out in his last stand against the Grendels. He was no stronger or faster than any other man now, and all his other abilities were lost to him, like the words of an old song he could no longer quite recall. Sometimes, in the long endless hours of the night, it seemed to him that something was stirring deep within him, but it never surfaced, and when morning finally came, it found him still just a man.

So he spent his days working alongside the more able-bodied lepers, raising the high wall again segment by segment, and in its way the work comforted him, working as a man among men again, a part of Humanity instead of someone thrust outside it. To be just a part of a group, instead of its leader. It felt good to lose himself in mindless, repetitious work, and to have achieved something definite by the end of the day. But most of the real work was coming to an end. A few more days, and the Mission would be complete again, and all that would be left was scrabbling about on the sloping roof fixing leaks, and other small stuff. Owen didn’t know what he’d do then.

He drank the wine the leper had brought him, too tired even to grimace at the bitter taste. They’d been putting strychnine in it again, to give it a bit more bite.

“She could be anywhere,” he said quietly, knowing he was tormenting himself, but unable to stop. “Anywhere in the Obeah Systems. I’ve never been there. Don’t know anyone who has. I don’t even know which planet they’ve got her on. They could be doing anything to her. Everyone knows the Blood Runners’ reputation. They’ve made an art of suffering and a science of slaughter. She could be dying, right now, and there’s nothing the great and almighty Owen Deathstalker can do to save her.”

“This isn’t doing you any good, Owen,” said Oz. “She’s dead. She must be, by now. Grieve, and let her go.”

“I can’t.”

“Then be patient. A ship will come, eventually.”

“I love her, Oz. I would have died, to save her from them.”

“Of course you would have.”

“Oh, God ...”

“Hush, Owen. Hush.”

Sudden screams jerked Owen’s head up, and he was up and on his feet in a moment, casting the wine cup aside, as he saw one section of the newly erected wall break free from its ties and lean ponderously forward, over the dozen or so lepers beneath it. The segment weighed several tons, and the safety ropes that should have stopped or slowed its fall were snapping one after the other, like a series of firecrackers. The lepers turned to run, but it was obvious they weren’t going to make it out from under the wall before the segment came crashing down like a hammer.

Owen subvocalized his old code word boost, and new strength and speed burned in his muscles as he raced toward the falling wall. Everything else seemed to be moving in slow motion as the gengineered gift of the Deathstalker Clan kicked in, making Owen briefly superhuman again. He reached the falling wall in seconds, and grasped the last intact safety rope with both hands. His fingers closed like steel clamps around the thick cable and held it firmly as it snapped taut. The lepers ran slowly past Owen as he held the rope, snarling furiously as the rough hemp tore slowly through his grasp, ripping away the flesh of his palms and fingers. Blood ran down his wrists. And then the rope snapped, like all the others.

Owen could have jumped back and saved himself. Most of the lepers were out. But some were still caught in the wall’s growing shadow. Owen looked around and spotted a half tree-trunk lying on its side, waiting to be trimmed into planks. It had to weigh at least half a ton, but Owen lifted it off the ground with one explosive grunt, swung it around and moved steadily forward to block the end against the falling wall segment. The weight hit the trunk hard, splitting it halfway down its length, but the improvised wedge held, and the wall segment stopped. Its weight pressed on, driving the tree trunk into the soft earth of the compound floor, and the split lengthened inch by inch. Owen threw his arms around the tree trunk and hugged it to him, holding it together despite all the weight of the wall could do. His arms shrieked with pain, and he was fighting for breath, but still he held the wedge together.

Sweat poured down his face again. His back was ablaze with the pain of abused muscles. He risked a look over his shoulder, and saw that the last few lepers were almost clear. He only had to hang on for a few more seconds. The splitting wood twisted in his grip like a live thing, spiteful and resentful, the rough bark scraping and tearing his skin. And then Moon called to him that the last of the lepers were clear, and Owen let go the tree trunk and ran for his life. The trunk split in half in a second, and the wall segment came down like the crack of doom, missing Owen’s departing heels by inches.

He staggered on a few more steps and then sat down suddenly, all his strength and his breath going out of him as he shut down the boost. Time crashed back to normal about him, and suddenly lepers were running at him from all directions, cheering his last-minute rescue. The Hadenman Moon was quickly there at Owen’s side to protect him from being overwhelmed, but for a moment it seemed hands were coming at him from everywhere at once, clapping him on the back or trying to shake his hand. He smiled and nodded, and tried to look as though it had been nothing. They didn’t know he wasn’t a superhuman anymore. No one did for sure, except Moon, who still had all his powers.

Eventually the lepers grew tired of telling Owen how great he was, and they drifted back to work again. A squad of the hardier workers set about raising the collapsed wall segment back into place again, and hammered long nails in from every angle to make sure the bloody thing stayed put this time. Moon sat down beside Owen.

“You know, I could have got there in time. And my augmented muscles were far better suited to supporting such a weight.”

“But you didn’t get there. Besides, I like to feel useful.”

“How are your hands and arms?”

Owen carefully didn’t look at them. “They hurt like hell, but they’re already healing. Part of the boost’s benefits.”

“You can’t keep pretending you’re still superhuman, Owen. Boost can only do so much. And you know what the aftereffects do to you.”

“I can’t just stand by, Tobias. I never could.”

“Even if it kills you?”

“Don’t you have some work to do, Moon?”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“Go away, Tobias. Please.”

The Hadenman nodded once, rose smoothly to his feet, and walked unhurriedly away. Owen sighed, slowly. No one must know how far he’d fallen, from what he was. He couldn’t have coped with pity, on top of everything else. And Owen Deathstalker had made a great many enemies in his time. He couldn’t afford word to get out that he was ... vulnerable.

“Moon’s right, you know,” said Oz.

“And you can shut up too.”

“Watch your temper. And your language. Saint Bea’s coming over.”

Owen raised his aching head, and his heart sank just a little more as he saw Mother Superior Beatrice bearing down on him, her simple nun’s robes flapping about her like a ship under full sail. Saint Bea meant well, she always did, but he was in no mood for a lecture, however compassionate. He started to get up, but Mother Beatrice waved him back with an imperious gesture, and Owen’s muscles obeyed before he realized what he was doing. Saint Bea had that effect on people. She gathered up her robes and sat down beside him, and then surprised Owen by not immediately tearing into him. Instead, she sat quietly beside him for a while, looking at nothing in particular, humming something vague and wistful half under her breath. Owen found himself relaxing a little, in spite of himself.

“You know,” she said finally, “you really do look like shit, Deathstalker. I spend my days nursing the sick and the dying, and I know shit when I see it. Your weight’s way down, and your face shows more bone than anything else. And your eyes are so deep set they look like piss holes in the snow. I’m worried about you, Owen. There are dying men here who look better than you.”

Owen smiled slightly. “Don’t hold back, Bea. Tell me what you really think.”

Mother Beatrice shook her head slowly. “You’re like a child, Owen; you know that? You don’t hear a damned thing you don’t want to. Still, you did look really impressive just then. Thanks for being the hero, one more time. Now why not take a few hours off? Get some rest.”

“I can’t rest,” said Owen.

“Do you sleep, at all?”

“Sometimes. I have bad dreams.”

“I could give you something to make you sleep.”

“I have bad dreams.”

Mother Beatrice changed tack. “I have some good news for you, at last. The comm center just reported contact with an Imperial courier ship on its way here. They commandeered our Church supply ship, just to get to you. Somebody out there still believes in you. Try and hold yourself together till they arrive. I don’t want this Mission to be remembered as the place where the great Owen Deathstalker moped himself to death.”

Owen smiled briefly. “I promise. I’ve been waiting for a ship.”

“Hazel may already be dead,” Mother Beatrice said quietly. “You have to consider the possibility, Owen.”

“No I don’t.”

“Even if you find where the Blood Runners took her, there may be nothing left for you to do.”

“There’s always revenge,” said Owen.

Something in his voice made Saint Bea shiver despite herself. She nodded briefly, got to her feet with a grunt, and walked away. There were some things even a saint had no answers for. Owen watched her go, and behind his composed features his mind was churning. A courier ship meant a message from Parliament. They must need him for something urgent. Something too difficult or too dangerous for anyone else. But once he was on a ship, and safely offplanet, he was heading straight for the Obeah Systems, and to hell with whatever Parliament wanted. His mental abilities were gone, including his link with Hazel, but he still knew where to go to find the Obeah Systems. Once before, he’d reached out across uncountable space, to mentally locate and kill the Blood Runner called Scour, and he still remembered where his mind had gone. He only had to concentrate and he could feel the path to the Blood Runner homeworld stretching away before him, calling him on. All he needed was a ship. If Hazel was still alive, he would rescue her, and he would make the Blood Runners pay in blood and fire for taking her. And if she was dead ...

He would set the whole damned Obeah Systems afire, to blaze forever in the dark as Hazel’s funeral pyre.

* * * *

Outside the Mission, the scarlet and crimson jungle flourished. Black-barked trees rose up from a sea of constantly moving vegetation, all of it blushing various shades of red, from shining purples to disturbingly organic pinks. The jungle on Lachrymae Christi was more than usually alive, and varyingly sentient, and spent most of its time warring on itself (except in the rutting season), but all the barbs and thorns drew back as Tobias Moon walked among them. He was their one true beloved and friend, the only one in the Mission who could make mental contact with the single great consciousness of the whole planet’s ecosystem: the Red Brain. Which would have been enough to make practically anyone somewhat big-headed; but Moon was a Hadenman, and a survivor of the Madness Maze, and so he took it in his stride. If he thought about it at all, he thought of himself as a gardener, on a somewhat larger than usual scale.

At the moment, he was overseeing the felling of trees, to provide much needed lumber for the Mission repairs. The Red Brain had given the human community permission to take what was needed, and did what it could to make the job easier by pulling back the more dangerous and obstructive vegetation in the area. Moon oversaw as much of the felling as possible, just in case of misunderstandings, but so far everything was going smoothly. He consulted with the Red Brain, gave the orders on where the trees were to be taken from, and Sister Marion stalked stiff-leggedly back and forth, making sure his instructions were followed to the letter. No one argued with Sister Marion. A Sister of Glory, a warrior nun, and a complete bloody psychopath, her stick-thin figure was seemingly everywhere at once. Striding about in her long black dress of tatters and emerald evening gloves, she made a formidable figure, and she knew it. Her face was hidden under stark white makeup, with rouged cheeks and emerald lips, and she topped it all off with a tall black witch’s hat, complete with fiapping purple streamers. Let a leper shirk his work, or try to sneak off for a quiet sit-down and a crafty smoke, and within seconds Sister Marion’s harsh voice would be blaring right in his ear, driving him back to work with terrible oaths and blasphemies. Somehow they sounded so much more convincing when they came from a nun.

Felling the tall wide trees took a lot of time and hard work, made even more miserable by the constant falling rain, but the great dark trees still went crashing to the ground with slow regularity. No one knew if the Grendels or the Hadenmen might come again, but everyone knew they’d all feel much more secure when the Mission was whole again. So the lepers toiled in the pouring rain, day after day, and the trees came crashing down. The red-leafed branches were laboriously cut away, and then the surrounding vegetation would move in to pick up and transport the massively heavy tree trunks to where they were needed. The Red Brain was almost pathetically eager to be of use to its new friends. It had been alone for so very long, until Moon established contact with it.

Owen made his way through the scarlet and crimson jungle to join Moon. He looked intent and thoughtful and didn’t seem to even notice the pouring rain. The lepers nodded and bowed as he passed, and turned to watch him go. There was new strength and purpose in him, and they could sense it. So could Moon. He fixed Owen with his faintly glowing golden eyes and raised a single eyebrow.

“I take it a ship of some sort is on its way?”

“Got it in one, Tobias. Be here early tomorrow. I need you to do something for me.”

“If I can. What did you have in mind?”

“Go back through the jungle to where we first crash-landed, find the wreck of the Sunstrider II, remove the stardrive, and bring it back here.”

Moon lowered his eyebrow, and thought about this. “You have a use for a disconnected stardrive?”

“Oh yes. The Sunstrider II was fitted with the new alien-derived stardrive. Whatever ship I put that drive into will be one of the fastest ships in the Empire. And I’m going to need that edge, to get to Hazel in time. Do it for me, Tobias. I need this.”

“When do you want me to start out?”

“Right now would be good.”

Moon considered the matter. All work had stopped as the lepers listened to see what he would say. Moon finally shrugged. He hadn’t quite got the gesture right yet, but it was recognizable. “The tree felling is pretty much finished. My people can finish up on their own. Very well; I’ll put together a small party, and go get you your stardrive, Owen. But please understand; when you leave here, you go alone. I share your concern for Hazel, but I cannot abandon the people here. I am their only link with the Red Brain, at present. I have ... responsibilities here.”

“It’s all right,” said Owen. “I understand. I’ve always understood duty.”

They smiled at each other, both understanding this might be the last time they were ever together. The lepers slowly got back to work, for once not driven by a tongue lashing from Sister Marion. Owen looked about for her, and finally discovered her sitting on a tree stump, staring tiredly down at the ground, her hands neatly together in her lap. Her shoulders were bowed as though by some great weight, and her head hung down as though it were too heavy for her neck muscles to support. Even the ribbons from her hat were hanging limply down.

“She doesn’t look too good,” said Owen.

“She’s dying,” said Moon. “She’s in the last stages of the disease, and her strength is leaking out of her day by day.”

“I didn’t know,” said Owen, honestly shocked. It was hard to think of the invincible warrior nun being beaten by anything less than a sword thrust or a disrupter bolt. He knew she was a leper, but he’d always vaguely thought she was too stubborn to give in to it. “How long has she been like this?”

“Some time now. Don’t feel bad for not noticing. You had your own problems. There was nothing you could have done, anyway. It’s just her time. Leprosy is a one hundred percent fatal disease. No one gets out alive. She insists on helping out here, making the most of what’s left of her life before she has to be confined to the infirmary for her last days. She’ll hate that. Just lying around, unable to interfere in everyone else’s life. I asked her if she’d made her peace with God, and she just laughed, and said We never quarreled. I think I’ll take her with me, when we go to get the Sunstrider II. One last adventure for her.”

“Why, Tobias,” said Owen. “I do believe you’re growing sentimental.”

“I’m working on it,” said the Hadenman.

* * * *

The trip through the jungle to the crashed starship went much more easily than the original trip from the crash to the Mission. This time the crimson vegetation writhed back out of their way, forming a wide path for Moon and Sister Marion, and the half dozen lepers they’d brought along to fetch and carry as necessary. The rain was coming straight down and hard, soaking the lepers’ gray robes, and plastering Sister Marion’s purple streamers to the side of her hat. Moon wasn’t bothered at all by the constant lukewarm rain, but had enough sense by now to keep such comments to himself. He linked briefly with the Red Brain, and wide purple palm leaves stretched out over the trail to deflect some of the rain. The ground squelched underfoot, and collecting rainwater squelched inside everyone’s boots. Nobody had much to say. If the Deathstalker himself hadn’t asked for this expedition, even the presence of Moon and Sister Marion couldn’t have kept the lepers from rebelling and turning back, but the lepers would do anything for Owen.

Owen himself was back at the Mission. He wanted to be there on the landing pad the moment the courier ship touched down.

Sister Marion lurched suddenly as the muddy ground gave under her boots. Moon put out a helping hand, and then quickly withdrew it as the Sister glared at him, mopping at her face for the hundredth time with a tattered handkerchief from her tattered sleeve.

“Hate the jungle. Trees black as coal and plants the color of blood and organs. And it stinks too.”

“Rotting vegetation on the ground produces the mulch from which new life arises,” said Moon.

Sister Marion snorted. “Yeah. Even the prettiest rose has its roots in shit. I’ve always known that. Rain and stink and a jungle that looks like a living abattoir. No wonder we were sent here; no one else would have wanted this place.”

“We’re almost at the crash site,” said Moon. “Not much further now.”

“Did I ask?” snapped Sister Marion.

“I thought you might like to know. It’s in the clearing, right ahead.”

“Hate the rain,” growled the nun, looking at the ground. “Never liked rain.”

When they finally entered the clearing, everyone stopped just inside the boundary. After a certain amount of confused peering about, the lepers turned a hard look on Moon. The clearing was just like all the others they’d already slogged through, overrun with crimson and scarlet vegetation, with no sign anywhere of a crashed starship. Sister Marion turned ominously, slowly to Moon.

“If you’re about to announce that you’re lost, I may find it necessary to kick your augmented backside up around your ears till your insides rattle, for the good of your soul.”

“No need to put yourself out,” said Moon. “This is the place. We cannot see the ship because the jungle has swallowed it.”

“Let’s just hope it hasn’t bloody digested it as well.” Sister Marion broke off suddenly. She started to raise a hand to her head, and then stopped herself deliberately. The gloved hand was clearly shaking, but no one commented.

“It’s going to take a while to retrieve the ship,” said Moon carefully. “Why don’t you find somewhere relatively dry and sit down for a while, Sister? You’re tired.”

“I’m dying, Hadenman. I’m always tired.” She shook her head slowly, and sat down carefully on a half-rotten tree trunk. Moon gestured at the other lepers, and they moved away to give him and the Sister a little privacy. The nun sighed quietly. “What is the world coming to when the only person I’ve got to talk to is a bloody Hadenman? Mother Beatrice is too busy, the Deathstalker’s got his own problems, and the other lepers ... are too afraid of me. So that just leaves you.”

“You can always talk to me,” said Moon. “All the information I have been programmed with is at your disposal.”

Sister Marion stared out into the clearing for a long time, the rain pattering loudly on and around her. “I know I shouldn’t be bitter,” she said finally. “But I can’t help it. So much left to do here, and I won’t be around to see things get done properly. Who’ll look after Bea when I’m gone, and stop her working herself to death?”

“I’ll be here,” said Moon. “I’ll watch over her. But you mustn’t give in, Sister. You’re a fighter. A Sister of Glory.”

“I’m a leper. And I’ve always known that’s a death sentence. I just thought ... I’d have more time. We’re all dying here, Moon. You mustn’t feel guilty that you can’t save us, the way you saved our Mission.”

“I don’t feel guilty,” said Moon. “That’s Owen’s job.”

They both managed a small smile at that.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Moon. “We fought off armies of Hadenmen and Grendels, but we can’t save you from a stupid disease.”

“Yeah, well, that’s life. Or rather death. God sends us out, and he calls us home. Get on with it, Moon; find your damned ship. Be useful.”

Moon paused uncertainly. He wanted to comfort her, but didn’t really know how. Owen would have told him to follow his instincts, but Moon wasn’t sure he had any. So rather than say the wrong thing, he just nodded and turned away to survey the great open clearing before him. He knew exactly where the Sunstrider II had made its final violent landing. Moon remembered everything, and was never wrong. Unlike humans, he was unable to forget anything. Though sometimes he thought there were things he might choose not to remember if he could.

He put the thought aside for later contemplation, reached out with his Maze-enlarged mind, and made contact with the overconsciousness called the Red Brain. It was like plunging into a vast cool ocean, alive with endless points of light, a billion plants fused into a single mind larger than even Moon was comfortable dealing with. Once, he had been part of the Hadenmen massmind, but the Red Brain was larger and wilder and almost terrifyingly free, and only its glacially slow plant thoughts enabled Moon to deal with it without being swamped. Moon and the Red Brain moved together, linked but still separate, like a single whale singing its songs to a sentient sea. And when the Hadenman asked the Red Brain to return the Sunstrider II, it was happy to oblige.

Moon dropped back into his own body, and not for the first time was struck by how small and fragile it seemed. He had a feeling he was growing out of it, like a set of children’s clothes. He put that thought aside too, as the clearing before him began to shade and shudder. The ground rumbled under his feet, and the scarlet and crimson plants waved wildly. Moon calmly called the lepers back to join him and Sister Mario, and they wasted no time in obeying. The ground in the center of the clearing bulged suddenly upward, cracking raggedly apart. Plants were torn up by the roots and thrown aside, displaced by the upthrusting earth beneath, but they were only small parts of the massmind, and easily sacrificed. The earth growled and rumbled as something buried deep below was slowly forced to the surface again. Those plants in the clearing mobile enough did their best to get out of the way as the great rent in the earth bulged open, forced apart by the sudden rebirth of the Sunstrider II. It lurched to a halt, buoyed up by the thrusting earth and vegetation beneath it, and slowly settled into its new berth. The earth settled down, the plants came to rest again, and everything in the clearing grew still. Moon looked the crashed starship over critically. It looked like hell.

But then, it had been one hell of a hard landing. The mud-smeared outer hull was split open in several places, and the rear assembly was mostly ripped away. There were signs of extensive fire damage, outside and in, and most of the sensor spikes were gone. Which was precisely why Owen had only sent him to retrieve the stardrive; the only part of the ship likely to have survived intact. Moon thought of the approaching courier ship. Someone was in for a surprise. Moon smiled slightly, and turned his attention back to the crashed ship. It only took a few moments to call up the blueprints, and locate a reasonably wide crack in the outer hull, not too far from the engine section. With a little luck, and a certain amount of brute force, he should be able to reach the stardrive fairly easily. He looked back at Sister Marion.

“I’ll enter the ship alone. Make sure everyone else keeps their distance unless I call for them. The stardrive is based on poorly understood alien technology, and radiates forces and energies that are highly inimical to human tissues. The drive should be safely contained within its casing, and therefore theoretically safe, but there’s no telling how much the casing may have suffered in the crash.”

“What if the casing’s cracked, and the drive’s compromised?” said Sister Marion.

“Prolonged exposure would be quite deadly. In which case ... we will have to abandon it. The jungle can bury it again, deep enough to keep it safe from any risk of exposure. But let us think positively. Owen needs that drive.”

“If the emanations are that dangerous, you shouldn’t be going in at all,” said Sister Marion sharply.

“I am a Hadenman,” said Moon. “And I have been through the Madness Maze. That makes me very difficult to kill.”

“And too bloody cocky for your own good. You watch yourself in there.”

“Yes, Sister. If anything should go wrong, you and your people are not to come in after me. Whatever the circumstances. Go back and get Owen. Is that clear?”

“Oh, get on with it. We haven’t got all day.”

“Yes, Sister.”

Moon moved slowly across the clearing, treading carefully through the tattered vegetation and thrown-up soil to reach the crashed ship. It had been a beautiful yacht once. Now it was just so much scrap metal, with perhaps one last valuable prize left within. Moon made his way cautiously down the side of the ship, peering in through the wide rents in the outer hull. His internal sensors reported low-level radiation, nothing for him to worry about. The airlock was impassable. He finally reached the wide vent by the engine section. The radiation level jumped alarmingly, but Moon felt sure he could tolerate it for as long as needed. There were other forces at play too, none of which he recognized, but he’d expected that. He accessed his computer again, and then used the disrupter built into his left wrist to perform a little necessary surgery on the interior beyond the gap in the hull. He stuck his head into the gap, and pierced the darkness with his glowing golden eyes. The engine section was fairly close at hand, but still concealed by several layers of shielding. Cutting through them with the disrupter would take hours, and he didn’t think even he could sustain that much radiation contamination without harm. Which only left him one option.

He concentrated, reaching inward, separating and focusing certain images that moved within him. Ever since he accepted his Maze heritage, and embraced his human nature, new abilities had begun surfacing within him. One result had been his ability to detect and communicate with the Red Brain. Other powers had been manifesting since, and he called on one of the most recent. Something surged up from the back brain, the undermind, filling him until he couldn’t contain it anymore. He glared at the broken hull before him, and it slowly widened, peeling back under the pressure of his gaze. The edges curled in upon themselves, protecting him from the sharp edges, as the gap widened enough to admit his whole body. Moon stepped through the outer hull, and the inner layers split open before him, unable to withstand his Maze-augmented mind.

Moon headed directly toward the engine compartment, and the ship unfolded like a metal flower before him. He had to stop now and again to deactivate the security measures marked in the blueprints. The stardrive wasn’t supposed to be easy to get at. When he finally reached the dully shining container that kept the stardrive isolated from the rest of the ship, Moon stopped where he was and studied it thoughtfully for some time from what he hoped was a safe distance. It was smaller than he’d expected, barely ten feet long and four wide. Surprisingly small for something so powerful. It seemed intact, but this close his internal sensors were going crazy trying to make sense of the strange energies surrounding the container. Owen had warned him to be extremely cautious. Just putting together the alien-derived drive unleashed forces that destroyed the clones doing the work.

Moon stared at the stardrive through his glowing Hadenman eyes, and the drive stared right back at him. Moon accessed wavelengths he didn’t normally have much use for, and studied the unusual energies scintillating all around the steel container. None of them were, strictly speaking, radiation, but Moon had no doubt they were probably equally dangerous. The more Moon studied them, the more he thought they might be extradimensional. No one really knew how the alien stardrive did what it did, but it was too massively useful not to be used.

The energies surrounded rather than radiated from the drive container, as though bursting into this reality from somewhere else, and then disappearing back there again. They didn’t stay long. Perhaps because this reality could only sustain or tolerate them for a short time. Moon realized with a start that he’d spent far too much time studying them, and turned his attention back to the problem of how to get the container safely back to Owen. The six lepers he’d brought to carry the drive wouldn’t be able to tolerate nearly as much of the energies as he could. Still, first things first. Break the container free from its bed, and see how heavy it was. Perhaps he could carry it on his own.

Careful inspection established that the drive container was only held in place by several large steel bolts screwed into the steel floor. Moon had no tools with him, so he just seized the bolt heads with his powerful fingers and unscrewed them manually. The last bolt was the most reluctant, and in the end he just ripped it out, stripping the thread as he did. He tossed the bolt to one side, leaned over the drive container, and tried to lift one end. It didn’t budge an inch. Moon tried a firmer grip around the middle, and that was when it all went horribly wrong.

The drive was impossibly heavy, much heavier than its size suggested. It was like trying to pick up a mountain. Moon braced himself, and called on all his Maze-given strength. His back creaked, and his arms felt as though they were being pulled out of their reinforced sockets. The container shifted slowly, ponderously. Moon strained against the impossible weight, sweat running down his impassive face. The drive began to rise from the floor, and the energies surrounding it went mad. They flared up, brilliant and blinding, and Moon flinched back despite himself. His foot slipped on the smooth metal floor, and for a split second he lost his balance. And that was all it took. The drive container rolled toward Moon with all the inevitability of an avalanche, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The container slammed against him, knocked him off his feet, and then rolled up his legs, pinning him in place. Moon’s mouth stretched wide at the pain. It felt like the whole world was resting on his legs. He beat at the steel container with his fists, but couldn’t budge it. He was trapped. Moon let out a howl of sheer frustration.

He clamped down on his emotions, and was once again the cold logical Hadenman. He had to think of a way out of this. There was always a way, if you thought hard enough. The container was too heavy for him to move with his hands alone; perhaps leverage would help. Owen had once said Give me a big enough lever, and I’ll beat the bloody problem into submission. Moon looked around him for a suitable lever, but there was nothing in reach, and he couldn’t move an inch. He’d already lost all feeling in his legs, and he thought he could hear the muffled sounds of his leg bones cracking under the unbearable pressure. There had to be a way ...

He heard sounds to one side, and looked round to see Sister Marion making her way carefully through the passage he’d made earlier. She stopped to pull free part of her robe that had caught on a sharp edge, and Moon called out to her urgently.

“Don’t come any closer, Sister! Turn around and go back. There’s nothing you can do. It’s not safe for anything human in here!”

“I heard you cry out,” said Sister Marion calmly, moving forward again. “Thought you might have got yourself into some trouble.”

“I’m trapped here. The stardrive is much heavier than it appears. I am a Maze-adapted Hadenman, and even I am unable to move it.”

Sister Marion stopped and considered this. “Should we send for the Deathstalker?”

“I don’t think I could survive the time it would take,” said Moon. “The drive’s energies are even more dangerous than we expected.”

“Then you really do need my help,” said the Sister, moving forward again to join him. She took off her tall hat in the confined space and placed it carefully to one side before leaning over to study the drive casing, and how it was holding Moon in place. She was careful not to touch anything. “Hmmm,” she said finally. “Maybe we could work up some kind of hoist, or winch, and lift the thing off you.”

“I fear it’s too heavy for anything you could construct,” said Moon. “I believe most of its mass may be extradimensional in nature. Please, Sister. You must leave this ship immediately. There are forces here that will kill you.”

“I can’t leave you like this,” said Sister Marion flatly. “Besides, I’ve got an idea. I brought some explosives with me, just in case. They’re all shaped charges. If I set them on the underside of the casing, they should blow it right off you. Don’t know what the blast will do to your legs, but I’ve seen you Maze people heal impossible damage. You want to try it?”

Moon considered the matter coldly. He was fairly sure he would survive the blast in some form, and he didn’t have any other ideas. He just hoped Owen appreciated what it cost to get him his drive. “Go ahead,” he said finally. “But be sure to allow sufficient time for you to reach a safe distance.”

“Teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” said Sister Marion, which baffled Moon somewhat. He took the explosive charges from her as she dug them out of her voluminous pockets, and together they applied the charges to the underside of the drive container, setting the timers for a five-minute delay. Sister Marion took to shaking her head, as though bothered by something, and her concentration slipped more than once. Finally she stopped and leaned on the drive casing, one hand at her forehead.

“Lights,” she said thickly. “There are lights in my head. And a sound ...”

“The ship’s energies are affecting you,” said Moon. “Give me the last of the charges, and you get out of here. Quickly. While you still can.”

Sister Marion shook her head angrily, and her eyes snapped back into focus. “Almost finished. Just a few more ... Oh hell. The timers. Something’s happened to the timers!”

Moon realized what had happened and threw up his arms to protect his face, as all the charges went off at once, their timers corrupted by the drive’s energies. The combined blast lifted the drive off Moon’s legs and slammed him back against the wall behind him. He could feel things tear and break within him. The explosion picked up Sister Marion and threw her all the way back down the metal passage and out of the ship, like a rag doll in a hurricane. She didn’t even have time to cry out. The drive slowly began to roll back toward Moon. His lower half was completely numb and useless, but he used his arms to pull himself along the floor and out of the way. He kept going, dragging himself slowly along the metal passage, leaving a thick trail of blood behind his shattered legs. Internal sensors were bombarding him with damage reports, but since none of them were immediately vital, he ignored them as he ignored the pain, concentrating only on getting outside, so he could see what had happened to Sister Marion.

Outside the ship, the lepers were gathered around a tattered bloody object. Moon crawled out of the rent in the outer hull, and dropped to the clearing floor. Two of the lepers came over to him, and he asked them to bring him to whatever was left of Sister Marion. She was still alive, but it only took one look for Moon to know she wouldn’t last long. Her broken arms and legs were barely attached to her body, and she was breathing harshly, every inhalation an effort. Moon had the two lepers set him down beside her. She rolled her eyes to look at him. For the first time since he’d known her, she looked small and fragile and very human.

“I’m sorry, Sister,” said Moon. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t feel guilty, my son. I was dying anyway. Better this way than what I had waiting for me.”

“Lie still. I’ll send the others for help.”

“I’d be dead long before they got back. You’re supposed to have been there, Tobias. What’s it like; being dead?”

“Restful.”

“Bugger,” said Sister Marion. “I’ll hate it.”

She stopped breathing, and as simply as that it was all over. No last death rattles or convulsions, no dramatics. Just one brave soul going to meet her Maker, probably to ask him some pointed questions. Moon was surprised to find himself crying, the tears mixing with the rain running down his face. He finally understood what tears were for, and damned the knowledge. He reached out and closed the sister’s staring eyes.

The lepers built a stretcher for Moon out of the loose vegetation. He could feel the healing process beginning within him, but he had no way of knowing how long it would take, or how much of his body could be repaired. Rather than think about that, he considered the problem of transporting the stardrive, and finally came up with an answer. He linked with the Red Brain again, and together they used the slow implacable strength of the surrounding jungle to reach inside the crippled ship and drag the drive out inch by inch. The explosion hadn’t even scratched the container. Vegetation spun a thick cocoon around the drive container, and began slowly transporting it back to the Mission, passing the burden on from one mass of plants to the next. The lepers took it in turns to carry Moon’s stretcher.

They left Sister Marion’s body where it lay.

* * * *

Back in the Mission infirmary, Mother Superior Beatrice had her hands full of something disgusting. Saint Bea was dissecting one of the dead Grendels. Owen watched from a respectful distance, and did his best to keep his dinner down where it belonged. He’d never thought of himself as squeamish before, but there was something especially repulsive about the multicolored shapes crammed inside the Grendel’s scarlet silicon armor. The damned thing had been dead two weeks now, and bits of its insides were still twitching. In fact, when Saint Bea had first opened the alien up with a carefully angled disrupter beam, Owen had half expected a length of putrid green innards to leap up out of the gap and strangle her. Instead, the thing just lay where it was and smelled revolting. Owen hoped that whatever it was he’d had for dinner, it didn’t taste as bad coming up as it had going down.

“Here,” said Saint Bea, offering Owen something far too blue and slippery for its own good. “Hold this for a moment, would you?”

“Not even for one second,” said Owen firmly. “The good Lord put our insides inside for very good reasons.”

“The good Lord didn’t have anything to do with creating this,” said Mother Beatrice, dropping the blue bits into a nearby bucket, where they made plaintive sucking noises. “There’s nothing natural about the Grendels. They were gengineered.”

Owen leaned forward, intrigued despite himself. “Are you sure?”

“As sure as I can be with the limited tech at my command. I’ve studied the interiors of a dozen partially destroyed Grendels, and this dissection just confirms what I suspected. The signs are all the same. They’ve got multiple redundancies in all systems, a frighteningly efficient mass/energy ratio basis, and organs from at least half a dozen different and unconnected species, held together with bioengineered linking materials. This creature didn’t evolve; it was designed. And if I’m reading my instruments correctly, this thing started out as one species, and was then transformed at a later stage into what you see now.”

Owen frowned, running through what he remembered of the planet Grendel, and the infamous Vaults of the Sleepers. “No wonder we never found any trace of the planet’s original inhabitants. They must have all made themselves over into Sleepers, and then sealed their Vaults behind them. Waiting ... for some enemy to come and find them.” Owen looked at Saint Bea. “What could be so dangerous, so frightening, that a whole sentient species would turn themselves into mindless killing machines?”

“Can’t be the Hadenmen or Shub,” said Saint Bea, rooting around in the Grendel’s innards with both hands. “The Vaults predated their appearance by centuries. And the insect aliens wouldn’t have lasted five seconds against the Grendels. So who does that leave?”

“The Recreated?” said Owen.

“Whoever or whatever they are.” Saint Bea straightened up, withdrawing her dripping hands with a loud sucking noise. She wiped her hands on a cloth, and then dropped that into the bucket with the innards. “I always thought the Grendels were too bad to be true. This ... makes a mockery of God’s creation. They destroyed their own moral sense, their ability to choose between good and evil, purely in the name of survival.”

“Maybe they had no choice,” said Owen. “Maybe they did it to protect whatever species came after them; sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Don’t judge them too harshly, Mother Beatrice. We don’t know what kind or depth of evil they had to face. Hard times make for hard choices.”

Saint Bea snorted. “Things have come to a pretty pass, if you’re lecturing me on tolerance.”

Owen smiled despite himself. “Well, thanks for inviting me to your little show and tell, Mother Beatrice. It has been truly revolting. Let’s not do this again sometime.”

Saint Bea shrugged. “Brought you out of yourself a bit, didn’t it?”

“Very nearly literally. I think on the whole I’d rather be miserable.”

The door behind them crashed open, and a leper lurched in, concealed as always inside the gray cloak and pulled-forward hood. But this figure was barely five feet tall, and moved like some inner gyroscope had been jarred irretrievably from its proper mount. A hand with only three fingers left and slate gray skin emerged from inside the gray cloak and saluted Owen, before quickly disappearing back inside again. The leper hawked and spat, and something juicy hurtled out of the hood and splashed on the infirmary floor. When the figure began speaking, its voice was a curious mixture of accents and timbres.

“Lord Owen the Great, there is message for you at comm center. Most urgent and imperative, and critical too. Word is, I is to bring you to center immediately, for details and shouting at. You come now, or I is turning you into small hoppity thing. Why you still standing there?”

Owen blinked a few times, and then looked at Saint Bea, who nodded calmly at the small belligerent figure. “Thank you, Vaughn. Straight to the point, as always. Go with him or her, Owen. I think you’re going to want to hear this message.”

The figure inside the cloak sneezed moistly, and made gurgling noises, swaying impatiently all the while.

“Him or her?” said Owen.

“Vaughn has never volunteered that information,” said Saint Bea. “And so far, no one has ever felt sufficiently motivated to investigate further. Now, off you go to the comm center, both of you. Hop like bunnies!”

“I does not hop!” said Vaughn haughtily. “I has my dignity to consider, not to mention missing toes. Move it, Deathstalker, or I show you where I got warts.”

“Lead on,” said Owen. “I’ll be right behind you. Well, maybe not right behind you, but I’ll be able to see you from where I am.”

“Lot of people say that,” said Vaughn.

When they finally reached the comm center, there was a message waiting for Owen from the captain of the approaching courier ship. Apparently he had a most urgent communication for the Deathstalker, from Parliament. The ship would be landing in a few hours, and Owen was instructed to be there on the landing pad, waiting for him. Perhaps wisely, the captain had refused all further communication. Owen seethed at the imperious nature of the command, but made himself concentrate on the possibility of finally getting off Lachrymae Christi. He badgered the comm center staff for details on the ship and its crew, but all they had was the captain’s name, Joy In The Lord Rottsteiner, and the name of the ship, Moab’s Washpot.

Owen gave the comm officer a hard look. “Moab’s Washpot? What the hell kind of name is that for a starship?”

“Is old Church name,” said Vaughn, getting the comm officer off the hook. He or she was still hanging around the comm center, despite increasingly unsubtle suggestions that she or he must be needed somewhere else. “Captain sound like hard-core old Church too. Top-grade fanatic and major pain in ass for all other sen tients, and any other living thing not get out of way fast enough. Thinks hangings are too lenient, and approves of floggings. Twice a week, around at his place.”

“I know the kind,” said Owen. “I thought Saint Bea had rooted most of his kind out of her reformed Church. And what’s he doing, carrying messages from Parliament, in a Church ship?”

“Why you asking me?” demanded Vaughn, looking up from inspecting the contents of a trash basket. “I look like mind reader? I not esper! Spit on esper, and other things too! I is Imperial wizard, third dan, seven subpersonalities, no waiting; unpleasant curses of an appalling nature a specialty. Run big-time protection racket, until dripping rot set in, and they send me here, to this dog’s bum of a world. I know secrets of universe, and those before this one. Bend over and I’ll cure your warts.”

“I don’t have any warts,” said Owen.

“You want some?”

* * * *

It was a long two and a half hours until Moab’s Washpot finally fought its way through the weather and touched down on the planet’s sole landing pad, just to one side of the Mission. Owen had tried everything up to and including open threats to get rid of Vaughn, but he or she was still there at Owen’s side as he stood waiting on the pad in the rain for the ship’s captain to make an appearance. During his long wait, Owen had made inquiries about the diminutive figure, and discovered that Vaughn had originally been a major league esper, until he or she had an epiphany in one of the back rooms of the House of Joy, and declared him- or herself a sorcerer. Basically, Vaughn had whatever powers she or he thought he or she had, because no one could convince Vaughn otherwise. Owen suggested the leprosy might have unhinged him, but apparently Vaughn had always been weird.

Owen decided he didn’t want to think about that, and concentrated on the ship as it stood steaming in the pattering rain. It wasn’t much of a craft; barely the size of his late lamented Sunstrider II. Probably only had a nominal captain, and a few crew to do the scut work. Fast mover, though. Parliament wouldn’t have bothered commandeering a slow ship, not for a direct message. Owen smiled grimly. The message would have to be pretty damned important to divert one of Parliament’s couriers from his war duties, and Owen had a strong feeling he didn’t want to hear it. He couldn’t afford distractions now. All that mattered was getting off this planet, and going after Hazel.

The ship’s airlock finally cycled open, amid a long hiss of equalizing pressures, and Captain Joy In The Lord Rottsteiner stepped out onto the landing pad. He glared disdainfully about him into the rain, and then glared even more disdainfully at Owen. He was almost seven feet tall, supernaturally thin, and looked like he’d sway on his feet in even the mildest of breezes. His long face was all bones and harsh planes, dominated by a beaked nose you could open cans with. His eyes were deep set and very dark, and his mouth was set in a grim line. He dressed all in drab black, unadorned save for the bright red sash that marked him as an official representative of Parliament. He looked Owen up and down and sniffed superciliously. Owen just knew they weren’t going to get along.

The Captain strode forward to stand before Owen. He held his nose up high, the better to look down it at Owen, and ignored Vaughn completely.

“I bear Parliament’s word,” said Joy In The Lord Rottsteiner, in a harsh growly sort of voice. “I speak for Humanity.”

“Really?” said Owen. “How nice for you. How are they all?”

The Captain pressed on. “It is required that you return at once to Golgotha, Sir Deathstalker. Your services are needed most urgently. You are instructed to come with me, that I may convey you to an approaching starcruiser. How long will it take you to pack?”

“Hold everything,” said Owen, entirely unmoved by the message or the messenger. “What’s so important that they’ve detailed a whole bloody starcruiser to come and pick me up? What’s been happening in the war while I’ve been cut off here?”

“War always bad idea,” said Vaughn. “Much property damage, bad for insurance. Much better, kill all persons in authority, on both sides. Saves time, and helps prevent further wars. I know these things. Talk to God personally on subject many times.”

“The war goes badly,” said the Captain, ignoring Vaughn with a thoroughness Owen could only admire. “You must come now.”

“Tell me about the war,” said Owen.

“Shub’s forces are winning on most fronts,” said the Captain, and for the first time Owen heard real gravity in his voice. “Humanity is barely holding its own against the insect ships. New Hadenman Nests are appearing all over the Empire. The Recreated have not yet left the Darkvoid, but signs of their coming have been manifesting in disturbing ways among the more sensitive elements of the esper community. And beyond all that, a new plague has appeared, leaping from planet to planet, striking down all who come into contact with it. We are living in the End Times, Deathstalker, when all will come to judgment. Evil and horror and destruction threaten Humanity on all sides. You must return. The Empire needs you.”

“No, it doesn‘t,” said Owen. “These are all matters for the armed forces to deal with. I’ve no idea who or what the Recreated are, and for a plague you need doctors and research labs. Parliament just wants me back because it’ll look like they’re doing something. I don’t have the time to rush around making appearances as a reassuring symbol. I’m needed elsewhere.”

“Parliament thinks otherwise,” said Captain Rottsteiner. “Do you defy the will of the people?”

“I’ve been the hero often enough,” said Owen. “Let someone else do it. Hazel d‘Ark has been kidnapped by the Blood Runners. I have to rescue her. If you need a Maze survivor for a symbol, why not ask Jack Random and Ruby Journey?”

“They are no longer considered ... reliable,” said Rottsteiner. “Reports have been coming in from the planet Loki, of terrible actions performed at their command. Mass executions without trial, and other atrocities. Unacceptable, barbaric behavior.”

Owen looked at him for a long moment. “I don’t believe it,” he said finally. “Jack Random would never allow such things to happen. I never knew a more honorable man. No; this is just some trick, to get me to return to Golgotha with you. Well, I’m not going. Hazel needs me.”

“The fate of all Humanity is more important than one woman! It is your duty to return with me.”

“Don’t you dare use that word with me. I’ve given up more for duty than you could ever imagine! For once I don’t care what other people want or need. My only real duty is to the one I love.”

Captain Rottsteiner stepped back a pace without taking his eyes off Owen, and then moved away from the airlock. “It was anticipated that you might prove difficult. I was therefore provided with an escort, to ensure that you do the right thing.”

He snapped his fingers crisply, and the crimson-armored figure of a Grendel alien stepped out of the airlock. The rain pattered loudly on its broad heart-shaped head as it moved slowly forward, flexing its steel-clawed fingers and smiling endlessly with its steel teeth. It came to a halt beside the Captain, and only then did Owen note the control yoke around its thick neck. The creature stood inhumanly still, all its attention fixed on Owen, silent and deadly and utterly disturbing. Owen stood very still too, careful to make no movement that might provoke it, staring steadily back so Captain Rottsteiner wouldn’t guess how scared he really was.

Owen had once fought a Grendel alone, with only his boost and his courage to sustain him, deep in the caverns below the Wolfing World before the Tomb of the Hadenmen. He’d been lucky to escape alive. He’d killed the awful thing, eventually, but had lost his left hand doing it. He still had nightmares, sometimes. But the Captain didn’t know Owen was just a man again ... He thought he was facing the legendary Owen Deathstalker, hero and miracle worker. Owen fixed the Captain with his best intimidating stare.

“I just finished fighting a whole bloody army of these things. You might notice that I’m still here, and they’re not. A wise man would derive a conclusion from that. Now get rid of your little pet, before I dismantle it into its respective parts, and make you eat them.”

The Captain paled slightly, but stood his ground. The Deathstalker he knew of old was almost certainly capable of such a thing, but the espers’ Guild had assured Parliament and him that the Grendel would be able to handle the Deathstalker. They knew something about Owen, though they wouldn’t say what. There’d never been any love lost between the espers and the Maze people. Captain Rottsteiner studied the Deathstalker carefully. He didn’t look like he was bluffing ... The Captain drew himself up to his full height, and reminded himself that God was with him.

“I have been instructed to bring you back alive, Deathstalker, but not necessarily intact. You will return with me, one way or another. It is your duty to your fellow man, and to God.”

“And Hazel d‘Ark?”

“Is irrelevant.”

Owen looked at the Grendel. Eight feet of impenetrable armor, steel claws and vicious speed and strength. Owen had his gun and his sword, and his boost. He could take the creature. He’d done it before. Hazel was relying on him. He realized the captain’s hand was hovering dangerously near the disrupter on his hip. So; shoot the captain first, and then go one on one with the Grendel. That made the odds even worse, but it wasn’t like he had a choice. He took a slow deep breath, settling himself. He could do this. He could. Damn, he thought coolly. This is going to hurt.

And then Vaughn, forgotten by everyone, lurched forward a step and pointed a stubby gray finger at the Grendel. Its yoke chimed loudly, and then chimed again. The creature twitched, and then shook as the yoke kept chiming. In seconds the Grendel was convulsing violently, in time to the continued chiming. Captain Rottsteiner went for his gun, only to find Owen already had his in his hand. The captain looked at the gun aimed at his belly, and stood very still. The Grendel shook and shuddered, the collar chiming so fast now it was an almost continuous tone. And then the Grendel’s back arched, it threw up its arms, and fell rigidly backward onto the landing pad, like an oversized toy whose batteries had just run out. The yoke chimed once more, victoriously, and then was silent. Owen and the Captain looked at the unmoving body, and then turned to look at the stunted figure in the gray cloak and hood.

“What did you just do?” said Owen.

“Activated Grendel yoke, drove it crazy with conflicting orders. Very stupid creature. It shut down now, till someone stupid enough to repair collar. Why you so surprised? I tell you, I am mighty and terrible wizard! Can cure cattle, poison wells, screw all day and chew gum at same time! I is going for little nap now. Bother me again and I turn your didgeridoos inside out and make your droopy bits explode in slow motion.”

He or she spun around, wobbled unsteadily on her or his feet for a moment, and then stomped off. Owen and the Captain looked at each other, and shrugged pretty much simultaneously.

“I wonder what Saint Bea could do with a controlled Grendel,” said Owen. “He’d make one hell of a worker ... Now, Captain, I am commandeering your ship. Feel free to protest as loudly as you want. It won’t make a blind bit of difference.” He reached forward and took the Captain’s gun. “Any other weapons I ought to know about? Bearing in mind I’ll shoot you on sight if I see anything of a remotely threatening nature in your hand.”

“Knife in the right boot,” said the Captain reluctantly. “And a cosh in the left.”

Owen relieved the Captain of these tools of his trade, and tucked them neatly about his own person. You never knew. “Right, Captain. Go break the bad news to your crew, get them off my ship, and then report to Mother Beatrice. I’m sure she can find something useful for you to do while you wait for the next supply ship.”

“You can’t do this, Deathstalker!”

“Really?” said Owen interestedly. “Who’s going to stop me? Now collect your crew and off you go to Saint Bea. Hop like a bunny. And don’t bother me again or I’ll set Vaughn on you.”

Captain Joy In The Lord Rottsteiner knew when he was caught between a rock and a sledgehammer. He went back inside what used to be his ship to take out some of his bad mood by shouting at his crew, and Owen left the landing pad in search of Tobias Moon. He had his ship, and nothing and no-one was going to be allowed to stand in the way of his getting offplanet.

Tobias Moon had left the recovered stardrive outside the Mission, wrapped in many layers of protective vegetation, just in case. He made his report to Mother Beatrice, and broke the news of Sister Marion’s death as gently as he was capable, then left her to her grief, and went looking for Owen. His legs had healed themselves on the way back. He considered how such an accelerated healing process might have saved Sister Marion, and felt the stirrings of a new emotion. He thought it might be guilt. Owen walked up to him while he was thinking about that.

“Good work, Moon! Any problems getting the drive out?”

“Some,” said Moon. “Sister Marion was killed.”

“Oh hell,” said Owen. “Damn. I liked her. I never meant for anyone to get hurt. But then, I never do. Friends and enemies die around me, but I go on. She was a good fighter. What am I going to tell Mother Beatrice?”

“I’ve already told her,” said Moon. “Does it ... does it ever disturb you, Owen, the way we use mere mortals, even let them die, to get what we want?”

“I’ve put my life on the line to save Humanity more times than I can count,” said Owen angrily. “And I never asked anyone to die for me. Sometimes ... bad things happen. That’s life.”

“You mean death. What do you want me to do with the drive, now it’s here?”

“There’s a courier ship on the landing pad,” said Owen, immediately all business again. “Rip its drive out, and put in the new stardrive. Shouldn’t be too difficult. It was designed to be easily transferred from one ship to another.”

“I’ll get right on it.” Moon looked unblinkingly at Owen. “You’re going after Hazel, aren’t you?”

“Of course. She needs me.”

“So does the Empire, from what I’ve been hearing. Apparently all hell’s breaking loose.”

“It always is! Don’t I have a right to a life of my own? To save the things that matter to me?”

“What about honor?”

“What about it?”

“You don’t really mean that.”

“No,” said Owen. “Perhaps I don’t. But I’m tired of being the hero for everyone else, for strangers I never met. The Empire can survive without me for a while. Do it good to stand on its own feet for once. Sometimes ... you have to follow your heart, and to hell with the consequences. That’s what being human is all about.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Moon. “It is a very difficult thing, being human. Sometimes.”

He went off to organize some way of transporting the drive to the landing pad. Luckily both were outside the Mission proper. Owen watched his friend go, and wouldn’t let himself consider whether he was being selfish. He’d never asked for anything before, for himself. And he’d lost and given up so much, to become the hero and warrior he never wanted to be; he was damned if he’d lose Hazel too.

He heard heavy footsteps behind him, and turned to find ex-Captain Rottsteiner bearing down on him, looking even more upset than before, if that was possible. Owen met him with a steady gaze, and Rottsteiner slowed to a halt at what he hoped was a safe distance.

“You can’t just leave me here, Deathstalker! Not with these ... people!”

“Watch me,” said Owen, entirely unmoved. “And by the way, Moab’s Washpot is a bloody silly name for a ship, so I’m renaming it Sunstrider III. I’d break a bottle of champagne over the hull to christen it, if we had any, but we don’t. And if we did, I wouldn’t waste good booze in such a fashion. And we can’t use the local stuff, because it would eat holes in the hull.”

“You can’t just leave me here!” shrieked Rottsteiner, seizing his chance as Owen paused for breath.

“Why not?” said Owen calmly. “Give me one good reason. Hell, give me one bad reason. Mother Beatrice can always use another pair of hands, so you’ll have plenty to occupy your time. Do you good to be genuinely useful for a change. Look on it as character building. Or not. See if I care. Now go away and stop bothering me, before I think of something amusing and horribly violent to do to you.”

Ex-Captain Rottsteiner went away, very quietly. Owen made his last rounds of the Mission, saying his good-byes and making sure the projects he’d started would continue without him. He was polite and even gracious, but the lepers could tell his attention was elsewhere. They understood. They knew he was just filling in time till his new ship was ready. It took Moon less than an hour to install the new stardrive, but to Owen it seemed like days. He smiled widely for the first time in two weeks when the Hadenman finally reappeared.

“Yes, it’s done,” said Moon heavily. “Yes, it will function perfectly, and no, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take off whenever you feel like it. Have I missed anything?”

“I don’t think so,” said Owen. “Thanks, Moon. Try not to feel bad about me. I have to do this.”

“I know you do.” Moon hesitated. “I could come with you. Hazel is my friend.”

“You’re needed here,” said Owen firmly. “We can’t all go running out on our responsibilities. The people here need you to teach them how to link up with the Red Brain. And besides; what I’m doing has nothing to do with law, and everything with vengeance. I don’t want you involved in the things I may have to do.”

“Watch yourself, Owen,” said Moon. “You’re not the inhuman you used to be.”

“Yeah,” said Owen. “But they don’t know that.”

He put out a hand for Moon to shake, and then the Hadenman surprised Owen by sweeping him forward into a hug. It was clumsy, as though Moon understood the theory rather more than the practice, but it was well meant, and Owen hugged him back for a long moment. They finally stepped back, and looked each other in the eye. Neither of then wanted to say good-bye, so in the end they just nodded to each other, as though Owen were just stepping out for a while, and then they turned and walked off to follow their respective destinies.

They never saw each other again, except in dreams.

* * * *

Hazel d‘Ark lay on her back, strapped down on a moving trolley as it trundled along endless stone corridors. The trolley ran fairly smoothly, but it was constantly being jerked this way and that as she was transported down one narrow passage after another. She felt deathly tired, and her body seemed weighed down by far more than the half dozen leather straps holding her in place. Her thoughts were slow and drifting, and it seemed to her that they had been for some time now. Headfirst, strapped down, the trolley carried her on into the gloom, and it was hard for her to care where or why.

Suddenly there were people moving around her, passing silently back and forth without looking at her. They were all tall willowy albinos with glaring bloodred eyes, wearing long robes of bright swirling colors, and their long bony faces were covered with vicious ritual scars, in wild jagged patterns. The patterns were different on every face, stylized as a clown’s makeup. The trolley slowed for a moment so two of the ghostly figures could talk over her helpless body. Their voices were harsh whispers, full of pain and rage and hunger, of endless unsated appetites, like the dusty breaths of ancient mummies. It slowly came to Hazel that she knew these people. They were the Blood Runners, an old, old culture, a separate branch of Humanity, isolated by its own wishes in the forbidden Obeah Systems. It was said they had a hand in every dirty and illegal trade in the Empire, and no one was strong enough to deny them their filthy tithe. It was further said, in quiet furtive whispers, that they traded in these things only to fund their never-ending experiments into suffering and death and immortality. To the Blood Runners, Humanity was nothing more than so many lab animals; specimens to be tested and destroyed and discarded as necessary.

No one raised any objections, even in the highest circles of Empire. No one dared. And Hazel d‘Ark had fallen into their hands. Fear moved through her like a slow poison, spurring her awake. Her thoughts began to clear, for the first time in what seemed like a long time. She remembered the Mission on Lachrymae Christi. Remembered Owen trying desperately to warn her, and then a shimmering silver energy screen closing in around her. The Blood Runners had snatched her away from Owen, and there’d been nothing either of them could do to prevent it. When the Blood Runners finally lowered the energy field, she fought them fiercely; but they did something to her, to her body and her mind, and for a long time now she had drifted in dark and uneasy dreams. She had some vague recollection of great white faces looming over her, saying she was no use to them without her powers. They would wait, till she was restored, and then begin their investigations. She tried to remember what these powers might be, or how she might use them against her captors, but thinking was still so hard. Sleep tugged at the corners of her mind, and it took all she had to fight it off.

The trolley took a sharp right turn into yet another stone corridor. Hazel had no idea how long she’d been moving, or where she might be going. She was afraid, but it was a vague, unfocused fear as yet. She made herself concentrate on her surroundings, focusing on them to help focus her mind. The ceiling above her was solid gray stone, pitted and darkened by untold ages. The walls on either side of her were built from massive blocks of the same gray stone, fitted neatly together without trace of mortar. Human arms projected from the walls, here and there, as though thrust through from the other side. They held up glazing torches in dull clay holders. The flames flickered constantly, as though troubled by subtle disturbances in the air. The arms never moved, and the fingers that curled around the clay holders were still as death.

It was cold in the corridor, and the air had an old, dusty smell. The only sounds were the quiet squeakings of the trolley wheels, and the occasional muttering of voices. Hazel tried to move against the straps holding her down, but they were too tight. She was helpless, and alone, and in the hands of her enemies.

The trolley finally lurched to a halt in a wide stone chamber. Without moving her head, she tried to take in as much of her new surroundings as possible. The walls and the low ceiling of the chamber had been constructed from the same gray stone, unrelieved by any adornments save the living torch holders. And then she caught her breath sharply as she saw a severed human head standing on a dull pewter pedestal. It was still alive, and aware. The skin had a normal hue, but the top half of the head and skull had been removed, sawed cleanly away above the eyebrows, so that the upper brain tissues were exposed, pale and glistening in the torchlight. Delicate metal filaments protruded from the naked tissues, with sparks of light coming and going at their tips. The mouth trembled slightly, as though always on the edge of speaking, and the eyes were sharp and clear and suffering and horribly sane.

“Don’t mind him,” said a dry, dusty voice behind her. “That’s just my oracle. A repository of information and deduction. Far superior to your computers.”

Hazel let her head roll slowly to one side, pretending to be weaker than she was. A Blood Runner was standing at her side, a vicious white specter in gaudy robes. And yet there was something familiar about the face, or perhaps rather the scars on the face ... Hazel suddenly remembered where she’d seen this Blood Runner before, and a cold hand gripped her heart like a fist.

“Scour ...”

“That’s right, Hazel d‘Ark. I came for you once before, in the old Standing of the Deathstalker, but you eluded me.”

“You’re dead! Owen killed you! I saw you die!”

“Blood Runners don’t stay dead,” said Scour, his face and voice calm and unmoved. “We’ve moved beyond that. We’ve lived for centuries, and death has no power over us anymore. We’re an old culture, Hazel; older than your Empire. It’s been a long time since we saw anything new. Anything like you ... dear Hazel. We’re going to learn so much from you.”

Hazel glared at him. “I don’t have a damned thing to say to you, Blood Runner. I don’t care what kind of a deal my old Captain made with you people when I served on the Shard, I don’t owe you anything!”

Scour shrugged easily. His voice remained a bare whisper, untroubled by the naked hate in Hazel’s voice and eyes. “Everyone talks eventually. Let me show you the previous occupant of this chamber. He was so sure of himself when he first came here; so delightfully full of defiance, just like you. Swore, he’d die before he broke. But we wouldn’t allow him that option.”

Scour took hold of the end of the trolley with his large white hands. The fingers were long and slender, like a surgeon’s or an artist’s. The trolley spun sharply around, briefly disturbing Hazel’s stomach, and when it stopped, Hazel was facing the other end of the chamber. Scour moved unhurriedly around to stand beside her, and then gently lifted her head so that she could see. And there, pinned to the gray stone wall by great brass staples in his hands and arms, hung what remained of a man. His face was untouched, dominated by wild staring eyes. But beneath that he’d been gutted from chin to groin, cut open in a perfectly straight line, the skin pulled back and pinned to the wall in wide pink flaps. His internal organs were gone. Instead, lengths of transparent tubing plunged into the great crimson cavity where his guts had been. Some of them twined between and around his exposed ribs like obscene ivy, feeding him slow-moving liquids, and draining off others. They pulsed slowly, and the man’s whole body shook gently in time to that ghastly rhythm. His genitals were gone, the gap plugged with a simple metal plate. Blood had run down his dangling legs from the terrible wounds, long ago, and had never been cleaned off.

“He was so very brave,” said Scour. “But bravery isn’t enough, here. All that matters now is how useful you can be to us. And this specimen’s use is at an end.”

He let Hazel’s head fall back onto the trolley with a painful thud, and strolled over to the hanging man. Hazel forced her head up again just in time to see Scour grab a handful of the transparent tubing and rip it out. The man’s whole body convulsed, and a long shuddering wail issued from the man’s throat. Fluids ran from the ends of the tubing, and pooled on the floor. The scream broke off abruptly as blood and something else gushed from the man’s mouth, and then the life went out of his eyes, and his head fell forward. The arms and legs still twitched, but he was obviously dead. Scour let the tubing drop carelessly to the floor.

“Is that supposed to impress me?” said Hazel, quietly pleased that her voice still sounded calm and steady.

“No,” said Scour, walking unhurriedly back to stand over her again. “It’s supposed to scare you. Fear is your friend here. It will help you make the inevitable transition from living legend to laboratory specimen. Defiance means only pain. Stubbornness means only unnecessary suffering. You will break, eventually. Everyone does. Better to get it over with quickly, while most of your sanity remains. Ah, Hazel; the things we shall learn from you, as we become intimate with your flesh and blood and bone, your every depth of body and mind.”

“Tell you what,” said Hazel, thinking Anything to buy time, time for my powers to return, “Let’s make it an exchange. You tell me all about yourself, about the Blood Runners, and I’ll tell you all about me. The things I can do, that you don’t know about. A trade; and no one needs to get hurt.”

Scour looked down at her for a long moment. “It’s been a very long time since I could speak of our origins with anyone who could hope to understand and appreciate them. After all, dear Hazel, you’re no more human than we are, anymore. Listen, and learn, as I tell you the true and terrible history of the Blood Runners.”

A headless human body strode into the chamber, carrying a simple wooden chair before it. The skin between the shoulders was perfectly smooth, as though the well muscled body had never had a neck or a head, nor ever felt a need for them. It came to a halt beside the trolley, and set the chair down gently. Scour sat on it, arranging his robes comfortably. The headless body turned and left. It didn’t seem to need a head to see where it was going.

“Just a servant,” said Scour casually. “Our will moves them, and nothing else. Think of them as meat machines. Our tech has taken a different turn; our wonders derive from the endless capacities of the human body and mind, not the cold metals and crystals of your limited tech. Now; where shall I begin? With the Summerstone, perhaps? No; further back than that. You need to appreciate how old we are. How unspeakably ancient.

“Before the Empire was, we were. Before Humanity spread itself across the many worlds, we were already old. Separate, even then, though only human, following our own hidden ways. When Humanity went to the stars, we found a world for ourselves. Centuries passed, as we remade ourselves in our desired image. Not like the Hadenmen, with their limiting reliance on tech, but through genetic engineering and body sculpting. Where Humanity dared not go, we went gladly, ignoring all restraints. We dreamed the impossible, and made it real in flesh and blood and bone.

“We became long-lived, vastly improved hermaphrodites. Man and woman, in one flesh. All the pleasures, aptitudes, and resources of both sexes, in one powerful body. We lost the ability to make children, but we wanted to live forever in our own flesh, not our offspring’s. I was alive then, as all who lived then are alive now. Not in this body, admittedly. Our identities live on in the mindpool; passing from one body to another down the long centuries. As one body wears out, I leave it to die, transfer my consciousness into the mindpool, and then download myself back into the new body I had prepared previously. That’s why we wear the ritual scars on our faces; they identify the inhabitant of the body. Flesh is finite, but we go on forever.”

“What ... what happens to the minds and souls of the new bodies you create?” said Hazel, to prove she was paying attention.

Scour shrugged. “We drive them out. Newborn souls are no match for minds that have endured for centuries.”

“That’s how you survived Owen’s attack,” said Hazel. “You just moved on into another body.”

“Of course. We are always prepared. The extent of his power surprised us, so we decided to wait and watch till you had temporarily exhausted your powers, and then pressed our claim to you again. You belong to us, Hazel d‘Ark, and we will have our pound of flesh, and more besides. Don’t wait for Owen to come and rescue you. No one can come to where we are without our permission. The Obeah Systems are more a state of mind than a state of matter.”

“Power source,” said Hazel. “You must have some kind of power source. To fuel your ... science, maintain the mindpool. The Summerstone?”

“Very good, Hazel. You’re almost fully awake now. Yes, the Summerstone. It helped make us what we are today. It maintains our existence, defends us from our enemies, ensures our survival. All our power, to create and destroy, has its heart there. Would you like to see it?”

He gestured with one hand, and a great slab of stone was suddenly standing at the foot of the trolley. Hazel lifted her head to see it better. A great conical shape of solid stone, gray and pitted, it was roughly eight feet in diameter, and its tip touched the ceiling of the chamber. It looked like it weighed tons, and Hazel was vaguely surprised the floor didn’t crack under its weight. It looked ... solid, dense; realer than real. And strangely, hauntingly, familiar.

“Do you recognize it?” said Scour, studying her face closely.

“No. Where did you find it?”

“The same place you did; on a planet once known as Haden, and before that, the Wolffing World. What you’re looking at was once part of the Madness Maze. We stole it, and brought it here.”

He gestured, the stone disappeared. Hazel let her head drop back onto the trolley, her thoughts churning. “That piece of rock was once part of the Madness Maze? But ...”

“Yes, yes, I know. You saw a high-tech structure. But the Maze’s appearance is largely dictated by the minds of those who discover it. You expected to see an alien artifact, so that’s what you saw. We think in older terms, so we saw a ring of standing stones. A Henge. It took us a long time to understand what it was, and what it could do, and in the end we were driven from that world before we could pierce its heart, as you did. But we took one stone with us, and it has sustained us ever since. Perhaps now you begin to understand why we are so eager to learn the secrets of your flesh and of your mind, to understand what marvelous changes the Maze has wrought in you. The Maze is gone. Destroyed. You are all that remains of its glory and its mystery. We will know your secrets. We deserve them. You are what we were meant to be!”

Hazel considered the possibilities of Blood Runners with Maze powers, and her blood ran cold. She surged up against the leather straps holding her down, channeling all her will into calling up her boost, and sudden new strength flooded through her. Fear and desperation can do much to clear even the most clouded of minds. The leather straps held, but the buckles gave way, the metal ripping through the leather as Hazel’s more than human strength blazed up in her. She sat up quickly, throwing aside the loosened straps, and jumped down from the trolley, careful to put it between her and Scour. Her legs were only unsteady for a moment. Her mind was crystal clear, and already working furiously on how to get past Scour to the only exit from the chamber. Her hands dropped automatically to her sides, but her guns and her sword were gone, of course. It didn’t matter. She was boosting, and strong enough and mad enough to handle one scrawny Blood Runner. She pushed the trolley aside.

Scour hadn’t moved an inch, his face entirely unmoved. “Get back on the trolley, Hazel. There’s nowhere you can go. Your life is over; your destiny ends here, with us.”

“Cram it,” said Hazel. “I’ll see every one of you dead before I let you lay one finger on me. Even if I have to dismantle you one at a time with my bare hands. Now, you can either show me the way out of this hellhole, or I’ll start with you.”

“There is no way out. This is all there is. And you’re not going anywhere.”

Scour raised a pale hand, and a shimmering force field sprang up between him and Hazel. It moved slowly toward her, spitting and crackling, and she backed uneasily away. A similar energy field had brought her all the way here from Lachrymae Christi. She tried to make a dart for the open doorway, but another force field appeared out of nowhere to block her way. It advanced on her too, and Hazel backed away again, looking quickly about her. In her boosted state she was potentially very fast on her feet, but there just wasn’t enough room to build up any speed. The two crackling energy fields hemmed her in, and herded her back to the trolley. Hazel dropped out of boost. No point in burning up what little strength she had left. Scour smiled at her.

“This is our world, Hazel, our place, and we are very powerful here. Now, be a good little lab specimen, and lie back down on the trolley, and we can make a start on your long journey into pain and self-knowledge.”

He held up one pale hand, and there was something shiny in it. Shiny and sharp. A scalpel.

“We’re going to have such fun together, Hazel.”

“That’s enough, Scour,” said a new rough voice from the doorway. “This was not agreed. She belongs to all of us.”

Hazel looked quickly around, hoping against hope for a last-minute rescue, or at least a breathing space. A second Blood Runner was standing in the open doorway, his left hand held up in protest or warning. Two of the headless bodies stood behind him, muscular arms crossed over their immense chests. Scour scowled at the newcomer.

“Still afraid to travel anywhere without your body-guards, Lament. It was decided that Hazel d‘Ark should be placed into my hands, that I should have first access to the mysteries of her flesh. I have the most experience in these matters.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” said Lament. “And not all of us agreed with that decision. You are too secretive, Scour. You keep too many things to yourself, these days. The secrets contained in Hazel d‘Ark’s mind and body are too precious, too important to us all, to be trusted only to you. I speak for many. Do not defy us.”

“I have allies too, Lament.” The dry, rough voice was cracking with anger, but still little more than a whisper. “There are many who owe me favors. Many who would come when I called.”

“But are you ready to risk open war in the corridors, Scour? Many of us are. Hazel d‘Ark could be the key that finally opens our long delayed potential. With what we learn from her, we could become gods of the whole Empire, rather than just this place.”

“Don’t I get a say in this?” said Hazel. “If I was just offered a little civilized consideration, I might well cooperate with what you want.”

“I doubt that,” said Lament, looking directly at her for the first time, his eyes as cold as Scour’s. “Not with what we intend to do to you.”

“What do you want, Lament?” said Scour.

“There is a gathering at the Summerstone. All the Blood Runners. We want Hazel d‘Ark brought to the Summerstone, to see what effect it has on her, and her on it.”

“That’s dangerous,” said Scour immediately. “Too many unknowns. Too much out of our control. What if she regains her full powers?”

“What if she does? She is one, and we are many, and this is our place of power. Nothing happens here without our consent. You know that.”

“True. Very well. She goes to the Summerstone.” Scour turned his bloodred eyes on Hazel, and she had to fight down an instinctive need to fall back a pace. “If nothing else, it should be interesting to see what you make of the Summerstone. And what it makes of you.”

* * * *

In a stone hall that seemed to stretch away on all sides forever, the Blood Runners were dancing. Their long robes flapped and swayed as they stamped and strutted and pirouetted around the great standing stone. There were maybe a hundred of them, all told, weaving in to and away from one another without ever once connecting or colliding. They moved quickly, confidently, through endless measures of a complicated pattern Hazel couldn’t even comprehend, let alone follow; driven by an energy that pushed them to their limits.

Hazel stood to one side, her arms held firmly by two of Scour’s headless bodies. She didn’t even bother to try to fight them. Scour and Lament had joined the dance the moment they arrived, almost as though pulled in against their will, and were now lost to her; just two more willowy albinos stamping their pale feet on the gray stone floor. There was no music, only the rhythm of hammering feet on the floor, and the Blood Runners’ fast, frantic breathing. Their eyes were wide and staring, lost in the grip of some inner song, some violent siren call to which only they were privy. Hazel turned her attention to the great standing stone, expecting it to have the impact it had manifested in Scour’s image, but to her disappointment it was just a stone. It meant nothing to her.

Human arms thrust up out of the stone floor, holding torches to light the hall around the stone. The walls were too far away to be seen. If there were walls. It was like standing on an open plane. The ceiling high above was lost in gloom. More of the severed heads with their brains exposed stood on pedestals in the middle distance, like so many computer terminals standing ready for use. Hazel wondered if that was to be her eventual fate, when the Blood Runners had got all they wanted from her, and she shuddered despite herself. Hundreds of the headless bodies formed a perimeter circle, containing the stone and the dance at a respectful distance. They were utterly motionless, unmoved for the moment by the will of their owners.

From listening to Scour and Lament, and occasionally egging them into arguing with each other, Hazel had managed to build up some notion of how they lived here. They all derived their powers from the Summerstone, making them all theoretically equal, so they pursued power and influence by forming ever-changing partnerships and cabals, and creating ever increasing private armies of the headless men to enforce their will on the physical plane. Intrigue was rife, occasionally breaking out into open clashes between opposed armies in the stone corridors. The already precarious status quo was apparently on the edge of breaking down completely with Hazel’s arrival, and the possibility of accessing the full power of the Madness Maze.

The Blood Runners danced on and on, sweat dripping from their faces as their bare feet slammed harder and harder against the unyielding stone. Hazel lost all track of time with nothing to measure it against. But finally the Blood Runners stopped, crashing to a sudden halt, their feet hammering down in one last simultaneous step, as though the unheard music had been abruptly cut off. They stood breathing heavily for a long moment, not looking at one another, and then they turned as one and bowed to the stone. They broke up into groups then, murmuring quietly together, too softly for Hazel to overhear. They sounded like the far-off murmur of the sea, rising and falling. The largest group had formed around Scour, and eventually all the other groups orientated on his. He stared around him coldly, almost sneering, then reached inside his robes and brought out an object wrapped in crackling parchment. Scour unwrapped it slowly, not allowing himself to be rushed by the intent concentration of the others. Inside was a severed human hand, ancient and mummified. The tips of the fingers ended in candle wicks. Scour spoke a few quiet words, and the wicks caught alight, burning with pale blue flames.

Hazel grimaced. She’d seen such things before, on Mistworld, where they were called Hands of Glory. Made from the severed hand of a hanged man, the superstitious claimed they could open hidden doors, discover lost treasures, and reveal the secrets in a dead man’s head. The arts involved in their manufacture were said to be very unpleasant.

Scour advanced on the Summerstone, holding the blazing Hand of Glory out before him. Hazel felt a sudden lurch, within and without her, and suddenly the stone wasn’t just a stone anymore. Without moving or changing in any way, the Summerstone was more real, more there; realer than anything or anyone on the great stone plane. Hazel could feel a slow, soundless thudding in the air, like the heartbeat of something impossibly huge, impossibly far away, but at the same time so close she felt she could reach out and touch it. It echoed in her bones and in her water, and something in her responded to it, like the tune of a song she had always known. The presence of the standing stone grew stronger, as though it were the only light and they were just the shadows it cast. The Blood Runners were frozen in place, breathing together in perfect synchronization, their eyes fixed unblinkingly on the Summerstone. Hazel moaned softly as something like pain throbbed in her head in time to the silent heartbeat. She could feel her mind changing, unraveling ... as though something that had always been within her were finally awakening. A great truth trembled before her, like a name right on the tip of her tongue.

And then Scour blew out the candles on the Hand of Glory’s fingers, reality crashed back to normal, and the stone was just a stone again. The Blood Runners stirred, as though emerging reluctantly from a communal dream. Some of them stared at the stone, and some at Hazel, and it was hard to tell which group looked the most disturbed. Scour glared about him.

“You see? The stone recognized her. It responded to her presence. If I hadn’t shut it down again, who knows how much power she might have been able to draw from it? She must be removed from here, kept separate from the stone, secured in a laboratory where she can be examined in safety. For all our protection.”

“Logical,” said a new Blood Runner, stepping forward from his group to confront Scour. “But we must all have access to the subject, and all information derived from the subject. That is not negotiable.”

“All secrets will be shared, Pyre,” said Scour. “What’s the matter; don’t you trust me?”

There was a shared murmur of hissing laughter from all present, but there was no humor in the bloodred eyes fixed on Scour. He glared right back at them defiantly, showing his teeth in a smile that was as much a snarl.

“Why should the pleasures of the interrogation be all yours?” said Pyre. “We all wish to know the joys of penetrating her flesh and blood, to savor her little cries and horrors as she gives up her mysteries one by one. You are too jealous of your pleasures, Scour, and we will not stand for it.”

“You know, I’m still willing to cooperate,” said Hazel, just a little desperately. “This doesn’t have to be a fight. The things you’re after are secrets to me too. We could look for them together. Perhaps if you were to tell me more about your past and your true nature, I might be able to suggest directions you could look in; things that might not occur to you. I’ve been through the Madness Maze, remember, wielded powers you never even dreamed of. You’d be surprised where I’ve been.”

For a long moment, she thought they weren’t going to buy it. The bloodred eyes stared at her coldly, unsympathetically, from all sides. Hazel was bluffing, but hoped they didn’t know that. For the moment, she was as concerned with staying close to the Summerstone, as with putting off Scour’s bloodthirsty desires. Simply being around the Stone made her feel stronger.

“Tell her,” said Lament. “Let her know who and what she is dealing with.”

“A new viewpoint may be of value,” said Pyre. “Very well. Listen, Hazel d‘Ark, and learn our secret history.”

“You always did like an audience,” said Scour.

“Once, we were human,” said Pyre. “Only human, though separated from the mainstream of Humanity even then, by our own choice, following a darker, more subtle path. Some of us came to what would be known as the Wolfing World, as archaeologists. And quite by accident we found the Madness Maze, while looking for something else. Or perhaps it found us. In the greater realm, there are no accidents. Everything has a meaning. Everything has a purpose.

“We wondered at the great Henge, sensing its power, but chose not to enter it. We knew even then that whoever passed through the Madness Maze would emerge changed irrevocably. We had put much time and effort into making ourselves what we were, and did not wish to risk unknown changes. We studied the Henge for years, using the most powerful and subtle sciences of the day, and discovered just enough to whet our appetites. Of course, simply by spending so much time in close proximity to the Henge, we were already changing, becoming more than we were. We did not always look like this.

“And as our bodies slowly changed, our minds did as well. New vistas opened up before us. By this time, word of what we’d found had reached the then Emperor. To buy us time to continue our studies, we created for him the new shock troops he desired; the Wolfings. But they were affected by the Henge too, and became more than we meant, more than they should have been. The Emperor grew afraid, and had them wiped out. I understand you met the last Wolfing, Hazel d’ Ark. A strange creature, possibly immortal. Almost certainly kept alive by the Maze, to serve its own purposes.

“After the Wolfings rebelled, and the Empire forces moved in to exterminate them, we had no choice but to leave their world. The Emperor had not appreciated our gift, and there were warrants on all our heads. There was no time to plan or prepare. We took one stone and fled, bare hours ahead of the arriving Fleet. The Summerstone brought us here, and we have lived in this place ever since. We rarely leave. Away from the stone, our power wanes, and Time crashes in upon us. We look to you to free us from these chains.

“Centuries passed, while we learned to draw what we needed from the Summerstone. And down the long years, we discovered and gave our lives to our great Quest, our search for the greatest knowledge of all; to know the true nature of underlying reality. What is, as opposed to what appears to be. Not the things of mist and shadow that our still limited senses perceive, but the bedrock on which all existence is based. The recent creation of espers has revealed new ways of perceiving reality, but you Maze people have the potential to see, to sense, to know so much more. And you will help us know these things too.”

“You’ve lost me,” said Hazel. “What is there beyond the universe we know? Heaven and Hell and all that?”

“Such small concepts,” said Scour. “We wish to find and experience the basic, primal reality. To rip aside all the veils, and know the answer to all questions. We will become gods. It is our destiny.”

“You’re all potty,” said Hazel. “I’m sorry, but you’re all completely barking. How the hell am I supposed to help you?”

“When you and the others passed through the Madness Maze,” said Scour, “we felt the change. Your transformation affected everything else, like ripples spreading out from a stone thrown into the center of reality. It was decided that we would take one of you for examination. You had the most weaknesses, and your particular talent fascinated us. If we could control your ability to summon alternate versions of yourself, we would have an endless supply of Maze people to experiment on. We have tried cloning our subjects in the past, but the nature of this place interferes with the process. You are the answer to all our problems.”

“Someone is coming,” said one of the severed human heads, and all the Blood Runners turned to look.

“What do you mean, someone’s coming?” said Scour. “No one can come here without our permission. No one can find us, unless we allow it. Who could possibly be coming here?”

“The Deathstalker,” said the severed head, and the other computer heads took up the name, chanting it over and over again, until Scour shut them all with an angry wave of his hand. “He will be here soon,” said the first head. “Soon , whispered the other heads in unison, and then they fell silent.

“Another Maze subject for our experiments,” said Lament. “Fortune smiles on us.”

“Fool!” snapped Pyre. “This is the Deathstalker! He toppled the Empire! And if he can find his way here, to us, he must be even more powerful than we believed. He must be stopped, before he can reach Hazel d‘Ark. Together, who knows what they might be capable of, so close to the Summerstone?” He turned and glared at Scour. “Take her. Break her. Rip her secrets out of her before the Deathstalker arrives. Do whatever you have to.”

“I always intended to,” said Scour. “I trust I can count on not being interrupted?”

“We’ll protect you,” said Pyre. “But don’t dare fail us.”

“Come,” said Scour to Hazel. “Let us return to my laboratory. And begin our explorations into the limits of suffering.”

Hazel kicked and struggled as the two headless bodies dragged her away, and couldn’t loosen their grip one bit.

* * * *

Owen Deathstalker came at last to the Obeah Systems in the Sunstrider III , only to find there was nothing there. No colonies, no civilizations, nothing. Just an empty sector of space, marked on the charts as the Obeah Systems through old tradition. Owen cranked open the ship’s sensors as far as they would go, but there were no lifesigns anywhere, no energy sources, no traces of artificial habitats; nothing. He sat back in his chair on the bridge, and scowled darkly. He’d made good time in getting here from Lachrymae Christi, pushing the stardrive to its limit, and he refused to believe it had all been for nothing.

“Are you sure you’ve brought us to the right place, Oz?”

“I was navigating ships before you were born, Owen,” said the AI testily. “I told you there was nothing indicated at these coordinates, but you wouldn’t listen. As far as I can tell, the Obeah Systems are what we navigators refer to as a MAMFA location.”

“And what the hell does MAMFA stand for?”

“Miles And Miles of Fuck All.”

“I’d have you overhauled if I knew where your hardware was. Suggest something, Oz! This location is the only clue we’ve got to finding Hazel. Think of something.”

“She could be dead, Owen.”

“No. I’d know.”

Oz was quiet for a while, and when he finally spoke his quiet voice was unusually hesitant. “There are legends about the Obeah Systems. Old legends. They say the Blood Runners’ world isn’t always there. It comes and it goes. That it’s a place only they can reach, and no one can find without their consent. But you’re not just anybody, Owen. You know I’ve never really understood your powers, but ... you once reached across space to destroy a Blood Runner, on his secret world. Reach out again ... and maybe you’ll be able to see where we need to go.”

Owen shut his eyes and concentrated. On Lachrymae Christi he had been reduced to merely human senses, but since coming here, he’d felt the stirrings of something returning, deep in his mind. He forced his thoughts to move in a direction that had once been so easy, concentrating all his need and urgency and desperation into a single implacable push, and a barrier gave way like a torn-aside blindfold. Power surged up in him, from the back brain, the undermind, and his thought leapt out, probing, demanding. There was something there, not too far away. He could feel it, though it wasn’t really there. Owen concentrated, sweat dripping from his face, and his mind moved like a key in a lock.

And from a place where nothing comes from, a door opened before the Sunstrider III. It opened like the petals of a rose, enveloped the ship, and took it somewhere else. The door closed, and both ship and door were gone, with nothing to show they had ever been there.

* * * *

Owen sat slumped in his chair on the bridge, trying to get his thoughts in order. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. He could feel it. He was in a different place now. He noticed that the stardrive had shut down, and sat up sharply. A quick study of the instrument panels confirmed that the ship was no longer in motion. It was stopped dead. Which should have been impossible. Further study of the close-range sensors baffled Owen even more. The Sunstrider III was apparently sitting at rest in a great stone chamber. Standard gravity atmosphere environment. Owen frowned. Some kind of teleport system, presumably. That was how they’d snatched Hazel, after all. But that still didn’t explain how the ship had come to a dead halt, or why his engines weren’t working when he hadn’t shut them down.

“Oz? Oz?”

“Give me a minute here, Owen, I’m still a little shaken. According to all our instruments, we’re no longer in normal space. In fact, we’re no longer anywhere I even know how to describe. Sensors seem to be saying ... that we’re not on any world, as such. This is just ... a place. An artificial construct of endless stone chambers and passages, endlessly branching and coming together without end or beginning. Self-contained, self-perpetuating, unconnected to normal space. I’m getting a serious headache just thinking about this.”

“But this is the location of the Blood Runners. This is where they brought Hazel. I can feel it. I can feel her, somewhere not too far away. My old mental link is coming back.”

“A pocket universe, a bubble in the warp and weft of spacetime.”

“Oz, you’re babbling.”

“I know! This place disturbs the hell out of me! Space isn’t supposed to be shaped like this. It’s sustained by some kind of central power source, but nothing I can recognize ...”

“Yeah, I can feel that too,” said Owen slowly. “Like thunder in the distance, or a light far off in the dark. I don’t know what it is either ... but it reminds me of the Madness Maze.”

“Is that good or bad?” said Oz.

“In this place, who knows? But whatever it is, it can wait. Locating and rescuing Hazel comes first. Check for lifesigns.”

“Way ahead of you, as always. The scan results are ... unusual. Either the nature of this place is interfering with my sensors, or life comes in various levels here. As though some things are more alive than others ... What kind of a place have we come to, Owen?”

“Good question. If you find out, let me know. In the meantime, treat it as enemy territory. I’m going after Hazel. She’s alive. And I think ... she’s scared.”

“Hold everything,” said Oz. “I’m reading some kind of commotion in the corridors. Lifesigns blinking on and off. The corridors are swarming with ... something.”

“Then they’d better not get in my way,” said Owen Deathstalker.

* * * *

Faced with the imminent arrival of the legendary Owen Deathstalker, open war had broken out among the Blood Runners. Factions spat and quarreled around the Summerstone, while armies of headless bodies fought for dominance in the stone corridors, reflecting their owners’ fears and ambitions. No one had ever forced his way into the Blood Runners’ place before, and their safe sanctuary had suddenly become a trap from which they could not escape, because they had nowhere else to go. The thought of a fully empowered Maze survivor stalking their inviolate corridors was enough to reduce even the hardest heads to panic. Soon everybody had a plan, desperate in nature and desperately held, and no one would step down for anyone else. The headless bodies fought savagely to control the chambers and passages, and already the corpses were piling up in the corridors and blocking the intersections. Scour and Pyre were slowly emerging as the most powerful voices, not least due to the size of their private armies, but lesser forces emerged to challenge them. They all saw Hazel as the key to the conflict. Whoever owned or controlled her would have the strongest hand when it came to facing the Deathstalker.

But Scour wouldn’t give her up.

And as they all screamed and fought and argued, Owen cut his way through the press of grasping, grappling bodies in the corridors, and they never even noticed he was there, focused, as they were, entirely on one another. Owen’s skin crawled as the headless bodies slammed against one another, hands reaching out blindly to tear and crush, guided by distant senses and overpowering rage. They filled the corridors, seething like maggots in an open wound, and Owen hacked his way through them like a woodsman opening up a trail in the forest. It was horribly quiet. The bodies could not speak, and the only other sounds came from the stamping of their feet, and the tearing of flesh and the breaking of bones. The floor was awash with blood, and more ran down the corridor walls.

Owen Deathstalker cut and pushed his way through the horrid crowd, and thought Hell might be something like this. But even Hell itself wouldn’t keep him from Hazel now.

* * * *

Hazel d‘Ark was back in Scour’s cell, strapped down to the trolley again. An intravenous drip had been taped to her bare arm, pumping powerful sedatives into her system. She had to fight with everything she had just to keep her thoughts clear. Her body felt strangely far away, but she had no doubt that would change the moment Scour began his work with the tray of steel instruments set out on a table beside her. He was humming quietly to himself as he strapped on a heavy apron, presumably to keep the blood from getting on his robes. Hazel reached inside herself, hoping desperately. Her close proximity to the Summerstone had awakened some of her powers, but they kept slipping from her mental grasp. Scour had surrounded her with four of the severed heads on pedestals, and they were doing things to her mind. She could feel Scour’s influence, boosted by the Summerstone and focused through the computer minds, as it moved inside her head, searching out secrets she desperately tried to keep from him. But he was there, digging into her back brain, her undermind, and more and more she couldn’t tell which thoughts were hers and which were his.

She tried again to distract him with conversation. It was obvious he loved to talk, to lecture his victims. It was a part of the power he had over them. But it helped her stay awake and focused. And there was always the chance he might let slip something she could use against him.

“Tell me about Captain Markee,” she said slowly. “My old Captain, when I was a clonelegger on the Shard. Just what kind of a deal did that old fool make with you people?”

“Originally, he was part of the Deathstalker conspiracy,” said Scour, not looking up from the stiff copper wire he was carefully inserting into the exposed brain tissues of one of the heads. “You do know Owen’s father was part of a conspiracy against the Empress ... Anyway, Captain Markee came here at our request, as a messenger from Arthur Deathstalker, bringing his reply to our terms for a partnership. We wanted a tithe of the human population, a percentage of Humanity to be handed over to us every year, for our experiments. In return, we would place our teleportation abilities at his disposal. The Deathstalker recognized our worth, and agreed to the tithe. Apparently he’d already made a similar deal with the Hadenmen. Captain Markee also made a deal with us; a tithe of his crew in return for introductions to the right people, to keep his clonelegging business going. Since he and all his crew are now dead, that just left you to be his tithe. So we came for you. We didn’t realize how necessary you were to us, then. We didn’t realize what the Madness Maze had done to you.”

“Then why risk turning the rebellion against you, just to get your hands on me?”

“We had to enforce our bargain. We couldn’t have people thinking we were going soft. Now; no more distractions, dear Hazel. I think we’re ready for a test run.”

He made a final manipulation with his copper wire, and the four severed heads groaned loudly in unison. A surge of psychic power closed around Hazel’s mind like a clamp, tightening and tightening till she thought she would scream from the pressure. And then Scour’s scarred face loomed over hers, and a spike of pure amplified thought stabbed down, into her back brain, her undermind, and seized control of the doorway she opened to call her other selves through. Hazel fought to keep the door shut, but she was helpless against the mounting pressure. All she could do was lie on the damned trolley, writhe weakly under the leather straps, and watch in horror as another Hazel d‘Ark appeared in the stone cell with her.

This Hazel was dressed in barbaric white furs and leathers, and wore her hair in a mercenary’s scalplock. She barely had time to look around her new surroundings before a headless body stepped forward and hit her from behind with a massive fist. The sound of the Hazel’s neck breaking was terribly loud in the quiet. Hazel d‘Ark cried out helplessly in rage and horror, as she watched her other self crumple lifelessly to the floor. Scour bent over the body, and poked it thoughtfully here and there.

“Shame to waste such a potentially useful subject, but I need a body to dissect. Perhaps I can search out whatever physical changes the Maze has wrought in her flesh. I can’t risk doing that with you, just yet. Now; another alternate, I think. Something a little more exotic, this time.”

He moved back to his severed heads, as two headless bodies came forward to drag the dead Hazel away, out of Hazel d‘Ark’s line of sight. Her hands had clenched into fists so tight her fingers ached, and there was nothing she could do, nothing at all. Scour’s amplified command stabbed into her mind again, and Hazel screamed aloud as a second alternate materialized in the stone chamber. This time she was seven feet tall and almost inhumanly slender. She wore a black bodysuit that rose up past her neck to cover her face as well. Her long golden hair was thickly shot with gray. Metal studs covered the black suit in shining swirls and patterns, and winked from the black face mask. She held vicious throwing stars in both hands, and a gun on each hip, but she never got the chance to use any of them. Two of the headless bodies moved in and grabbed her from both sides the moment she materialized, pressing her arms to her sides. She struggled silently, but their grip was so fierce her fingers slowly opened against her will, releasing the throwing stars as her fingers went numb.

Energy suddenly spat and sparkled on the air around her, and Scour fell back a step, taken by surprise. There was a sudden tension in the air, and then both the headless bodies were thrown away from the alternate, crashing lifeless to the floor. Scour gestured quickly, and shimmering energy fields snapped into place around the alternate. Scour gestured again, and the energy fields slammed together, crushing the alternate Hazel between them. Her bones cracked loudly, but she never made a sound, even as she collapsed into unconsciousness. The shining energy fields disappeared, and the black-clad alternate fell limply to the floor. Scour walked over to the body, and kicked it once.

“Well, I won’t make that mistake again. Any future alternates I choose to call will have to be those without energy-manipulating powers.” He knelt down beside the body, and tugged experimentally at the black bodysuit. “Interesting. The metal studs attach the suit to the body, and the mask to the face; screwed right into the flesh and bone. Neither mask nor bodysuit were meant to come off. Ever. I wonder why.”

A long scalpel was suddenly in his hand, and he began cutting and sawing at the bodysuit with practiced skill. The suit’s material resisted the blade, and Scour grunted as he put more energy into it. Blood ran down the exposed pale flesh, from where he’d cut too deeply, but Scour didn’t care.

Hazel lay still on her trolley, eyes squeezed shut so she wouldn’t have to watch what he was doing, and dived deep into her own mind. Instead of wasting energy fighting the intravenous sedative, she allowed it to close down her outer conscious mind so that she could concentrate on the deeper levels. Now that Scour had forced her inner door open, she could find it easily. She could sense other Hazels clustering around her like potential ghosts, possible echoes of herself, scattered throughout spacetime. Bonnie Bedlam and Midnight Blue were there, vaguely aware of her pain and torment, and wondering why they hadn’t already been brought through. Hazel called out to them, but they couldn’t hear her. She couldn’t warn them. Far away, Hazel could hear screaming from the stone cell, and realized her black-clad alternate had awakened to the caresses of Scour’s scalpel. Hazel screamed inside her mind, and no one could hear her but herself.

* * * *

Owen Deathstalker fought his way through a sea of bodies, cutting and hacking a path through the headless things as they came at him in an endless tide. They knew he was here now, and had apparently put aside their differences to concentrate on stopping him. More headless bodies came running from every direction, and Owen didn’t give a damn. He felt stronger and faster than he had in weeks, and he wasn’t even boosting. Somewhere up ahead was a power source, the uncanny thing he’d sensed earlier that reminded him of the Madness Maze. And the closer he got to it, the more powerful he became. He felt alive again, felt like himself again. Blood ran in streams on the cold stone floor, and none of it was his.

The bodies packed the corridor ahead now, compacted into an almost solid mass by their determination to get to him. For the moment, the narrowness of the corridor reduced the number of headless bodies that could come at him at once, but he was approaching an intersection, and that could mean facing attacks from three or four sides at once. Owen considered the matter as he swung his sword with both hands, and stepped carefully over the dead and dying bodies on the floor. His disrupter was fully charged, but so much sheer mass would soak up the energy beam before it could penetrate far enough into the crowd to do any real good. There was only one way through this hideous headless army, and he wasn’t sure he was strong enough yet to pull it off. But he had to try. He hadn’t come all this way, got so close to Hazel, just to be stopped now.

And then he heard Hazel scream. Far away and close at hand, her despairing cry crashed into his mind, and that was all it took.

Owen reached deep inside himself, an old door opened, and a familiar frightening power coursed through him. It burst out of Owen as though he were too small to contain it, and thundered in the air around him, like the beating heart of some great unstoppable colossus. The headless bodies before Owen stopped in their tracks, hesitating as the minds that drove them sensed the arrival of a new force in their ancient stone world. Owen laughed suddenly, a dark implacable sound, and his power surged forward, smashing through the packed bodies as though they were paper, tearing them apart and sending the bloody pieces flying down the endless stone corridors. Far away, Owen could sense the controlling minds screaming, and his death‘s-head grin widened for a moment. He strode forward down the newly opened corridor, stepping over the scattered body parts or kicking them aside as the mood took him, his power wrapped around him like a cloak of majesty.

Hold on, Hazel. I’m here.

He followed the mental link in his head, running now that he was so close to her. He plunged recklessly down turning after turning, never once doubting his way. At last he came to where Hazel was being held, her presence blazing in his mind like a beacon. And there in an open stone square, to meet him and block his way, were the Blood Runners, all assembled in one place to stop the outside force that threatened their world. It had been a long time since any danger had been great enough to unite them in a single purpose, but the Deathstalker frightened them. Perhaps because they knew he was what they were supposed to have been, if only they hadn’t been too frightened to enter the Madness Maze when they had the chance. Now many of them were dead, struck down by Owen’s last attack, only forty-seven Blood Runners remaining to stand between him and Hazel d‘Ark. And Owen knew that wasn’t going to be enough. There was a power roaring within him like a mighty song, a melody powerful enough to kill or madden all who heard it.

“You don’t want to face us, Deathstalker,” said Pyre. “Your father was our ally. We made a deal with him.”

“I’m not my father,” said Owen. “And his deal died with him. You’ve only got one thing I want, and we all know you’re not going to give her up willingly. You’re everything I’ve ever hated. Power without responsibility, heartless, self-obsessed evil. The last remnants of the old Empire. I suppose it’s only fitting I should be the one to finally bring you to an end.”

“Don’t be so sure, Deathstalker,” said Pyre, in his dry whispering voice. “We are older than you ever dreamed of, more powerful than your worst nightmares. This is our place, our seat of power. And you should not have come here.”

The Blood Runners reached out to the Summerstone, and drew its power into themselves. Here in their own world of stone, they controlled everything that was. And now that Owen had entered that world, he should be theirs to control too. Their linked minds smashed out at his, surrounding and enveloping his thoughts, battering him into submission. But to their surprise his mind was deeper than theirs, and they could not plumb it. Owen threw them off, and they retreated in disarray.

Pyre and Lament called them together again, and led the attack on Owen’s body, trying to warp and mould his flesh as they manipulated the primal matter that made up their world and everything in it. But Owen had been changed by the Madness Maze, and nothing less would ever be able to alter him again, and again the Blood Runners fell back, defeated.

Clinging doggedly together, they turned to the one thing they could still be sure of manipulating, and the cold stone around them rippled menacingly as their will moved through it. Great stone arms reached out of the walls to grasp and crush Owen, but he shattered them with a thought. Walls and floor and ceiling fluctuated eerily, surging this way and that like a living gray sea, but he stood firm, and the stone waves broke helplessly against the power that surrounded him. The Blood Runners lost control of the stone, as their massed will shattered on his certainty, and Owen laughed at their shocked faces.

The Blood Runners called on the only weapon they had left. They drew recklessly on the power of the Summerstone, and altered themselves. Their white flesh ran like water, reforming into horrid nightmare shapes, with jagged teeth and staring eyes, barbed tentacles and great clutching hands with claws like needles. They rose up like horned specters, and fell upon Owen, all of them at once, and he went to meet them with his sword.

* * * *

Driven almost beyond sanity by the terrible choking screams from her captive alternate, Hazel reached deep inside herself, and drew recklessly on the power she’d absorbed from the Summerstone. Need and necessity brought that power roaring to life within her, almost consuming her mind in the awful white fires of its intensity. She knew she couldn’t wield such power for long in her weakened condition, and didn’t care. She would do what she had to, and worry about paying the price later. She drove the sedatives from her body, as she had once rejected the drug Blood, and her mind was clear and sharp for the first time in weeks. She could feel the computer brains circling around her thoughts, trying to contain and control her, but they were now nothing more than small children plucking at the hems of her skirt. She swept them aside with a single thought, and focused her attention on the doorway within her. She still wasn’t strong enough to keep it closed against Scour’s will, but there was still one thing she could do. She drew on all her strength, and forced the door open as wide as it would go. She called, and an army of Hazels came crashing through into the world of stone.

Scour spun around in surprise as one by one the severed heads exploded, pink and gray brain tissues spattering across the stone floor. He straightened up, blood dripping thickly from the scalpel in his hand, while the mutilated thing at his feet kicked and squealed in its wide pool of blood. And from out of nowhere, from places even farther from reality than his own stone world, came twenty Hazel d‘Arks, with guns and swords and axes, and a bitter cold rage in their eyes. Scour turned and ran, sending his headless bodies to cover his retreat. Their deaths bought him enough time to reach the door of his cell and pull it open, and then he saw what was happening outside and stopped dead. He glanced back at the advancing warrior women, and then disappeared in a shimmering energy field.

Hazel d‘Ark sat up on the trolley, tearing through the leather restraints as though they were cloth. She ripped the IV feed out of her arm, and threw it aside. She started to thank the alternates who had come to answer her call, but they were ignoring her, clustered around the whimpering thing on the floor, trying to wrap the bloody tatters of her bodysuit around her blood-streaked body. Hazel swung down from the trolley and started toward them, and Midnight Blue and Bonnie Bedlam turned to face her and block her way. Their faces were grim. Hazel nodded slowly to them.

“Thanks for coming, guys. I was in real trouble there, for a while.”

“We didn’t come for you,” said Bonnie flatly. “We came for her.” She gestured at the tortured Hazel being comforted by the others.

“Send us home, Hazel,” said Midnight Blue. “Send us all home. And don’t call us again, because we won’t come.”

“What?” said Hazel.

“You only call us when you’re in peril,” said Bonnie. “Never a thought for us, as we bleed and hurt and die to save you. We’ve had enough. We have our own lives to lead. If scum like the Blood Runners can overpower and use you, how can we know who else might be calling the next time we answer your call? Who might be waiting for us with torture instruments in their hands. No, Hazel. It’s over. Save your own ass from now on.”

“Send us home,” said Midnight.

Hazel nodded jerkily, and one by one her other selves blinked out of existence, back to their own worlds. Finally only Hazel was left in the stone cell, feeling abandoned and very alone. And then she heard a sound behind her, and spun around, ready to face Scour with her bare hands if need be, and there was Owen Deathstalker, standing in the doorway with a bloody sword, soaked as always with the blood of his enemies. He smiled at her.

“Might have known you wouldn’t need rescuing, Hazel.”

She smiled back at him. “Of course not.”

They moved slowly toward each other. They would have liked to run, but the many things they’d done and had to do had left them deathly tired. They came together in the torturer’s cell and hugged each other tightly, burying their faces in each other’s shoulder.

“You came for me,” said Hazel.

“You knew I would,” said Owen. “I thought ... I’d lost you. But I never gave up hope.”

“Nothing can keep us apart,” said Hazel. “Not after all we’ve been through together.”

They finally let go of each other and stepped back, and each automatically looked the other over, to make sure neither was badly hurt. Reassured, they smiled at each other again, and looked around the stone chamber.

“Ghastly place,” said Owen. “You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had finding my way here.”

“I take it you do have a way out?”

“Oh sure. Got a ship parked not too far away. But we can’t leave just yet. We still have unfinished business here. Scour.”

“Oh yeah,” said Hazel. “He teleported out of here, but I know where he’s gone. The only safe place left to him. Come with me, Owen. I want to show you something called the Summerstone.”

* * * *

They made their way there easily. The Summerstone blazed in their minds like a beacon, glowing more and more brightly the closer they got. They found Scour standing beside the stone, dwarfed by its size but still glaring defiantly at them. The endless gray stone plane stretched away around them, but Owen and Hazel ignored it as they ignored Scour, their attention fixed on the huge conical standing stone. Both of them felt a thrill of recognition. And as with the Madness Maze, there was a feeling they were in the presence of something vast and magnificent. And beyond that, there was a slow, certain feeling that the Summerstone recognized them ...

“It isn’t over yet,” said Scour, almost spitefully. “You may have killed my brothers’ bodies, but their minds live on, in the mindpool, preserved and protected by the Summerstone, and our will. Once I’ve used the stone’s power to destroy you, I’ll make new bodies for them to download into, and the Blood Runners will live again. You can’t defeat us. We are immortal. We walk in eternity. Death has no hold on us anymore.”

“You have no power,” said Owen. “You never did, really. All you have, and all you are, is what you leeched from the Summerstone. This isn’t the way things were meant to be. I think it’s time we put a stop to this madness.”

He reached out to Hazel, and she reached out to him, and their minds meshed together and became more than the sum of their parts. They reached out and touched the Summerstone. Power blazed up within them, like coming home, and they shone like stars. Scour cried out, and had to look away, shielding his eyes with his arm. Something was suddenly there on the great stone plane with them. There, and yet not quite there, the mindpool swirled around the Summerstone, almost a hundred minds held in suspension between life and death, waiting for new bodies to possess. And it was the easiest thing of all for Owen and Hazel to sever the link between the mindpool and the Summerstone. Almost a hundred minds screamed silently as they faded irrevocably away, dead and gone, come at last to the end of their artificially extended lives. Owen and Hazel separated and fell back into their bodies, and turned their dark implacable gaze on Scour, the last of the Blood Runners.

He stared at them in horror. “What have you done? What have you done ? I can’t feel the mindpool anymore! I can’t hear my brothers!” “We sent them where ”They’re gone,“ said Owen. ”We sent them where they should have gone long ago. There is no more mindpool. No more Blood Runners. Just you.“

“Let me kill him,” said Hazel. “I have to kill him. For what he did to me, and my other selves.”

Owen looked at her, sensing there was more to her story than he knew. “Do what you have to, Hazel.”

Scour started to back away, and then realized there was nowhere for him to go. There was nowhere he could go that Hazel couldn’t find him. He reached out to the Summerstone with his mind, desperate for more power, only to find Owen and Hazel already there, blocking his way. He brandished a scalpel in his shaking hand, and Hazel just laughed.

“You can’t kill me!” said Scour, trying to shout with his dry, dusty voice. “I know things. Things you need to know. Who made the Madness Maze, and why. What its purpose was. What you’re becoming. Swear to spare me, and all I know is yours. I’ve lived so long, seen so much; you have no idea. You can’t let all that be lost!”

“Of course we can,” said Hazel. “It’s easy. All I have to do is think of all the death and suffering you and your kind have been responsible for down the centuries, and nothing else matters. Nothing else matters at all.”

“You’d say anything, to save your life,” said Owen. “And whatever we need to know, we’ll find out for ourselves, eventually. From a source we can trust.”

“Time to die, Scour,” said Hazel. “I am death, and I have come for you.”

Scour screamed harshly, threw his scalpel at Hazel with vicious strength, and made a run for the door. Hazel snatched the scalpel out of midair, reversed it, and threw it after Scour. The long, thin blade punched through the back of Scour’s skull, burying itself in his head. He staggered to a halt, and then turned slowly to face Hazel. The tip of the scalpel protruded from the wet ruin of his left eye. Scour tried to say something, some last plea or curse, and then he fell to his knees. One hand rose waveringly to his punctured eye, as though he thought he could pick out the thing that was killing him, and then he fell forward and lay still. The last of the Blood Runners, dead at last, and this time no way back.

“Nice throw,” said Owen. “Now, time we were going, I think. We don’t want to overstay our welcome.”

“Get me out of here, Deathstalker,” said Hazel tiredly. “Take me somewhere safe. Somewhere I can sleep without nightmares.”

And then they both turned suddenly to look at the Summerstone. Without moving, it was changing. Becoming ... something else. Its whole nature began to twist and turn, until it seemed both larger and greater than it had been. The Blood Runners saw it as a Stone, part of a Henge, but they were all gone now, and it was no longer bound by their limited perceptions. Its shape flickered, giving glimpses of something else, something that existed in far more than three dimensions. Owen and Hazel had to look away, as the Summerstone began to change into something they couldn’t bear to look at.

They turned and ran, leaving the endless gray plane behind them, intent on reaching the only exit. They scrambled over the dead Blood Runners lying on the other side of the door, and ran full pelt down the stone corridor, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and what they’d almost seen. But they were still able to sense it when the thing the Summerstone had become suddenly disappeared, gone to rejoin the rest of the Madness Maze. The stone floor trembled under their feet, the walls rumbled, and streams of dust fell from the ceiling as it dropped slowly lower.

“What is it?” said Hazel. “What’s happening?”

“This place only existed because the Blood Runners believed in it,” said Owen. “Backed by the power of the Summerstone. Now they’re all dead and it’s gone, the reality of this place is breaking down! We have to get out of here before it disappears completely, and takes us with it!”

They ran through the trembling stone corridors, Owen leading the way. He could feel the Sunstrider III ’s position in his head, but the endless corridors twisted and turned before him, as though trying to keep him from escaping. He yelled to Oz to warm up the engines, and pressed the pace as much as he dared. Hazel had been through a lot, and it had taken a lot out of her. But even as they ran through the corridors, the gray stone was already beginning to silently vanish in places, as nothingness crept in from every side. Holes appeared in the walls and ceiling and floor, empty spaces Owen and Hazel couldn’t bear to look at it, because what lay beyond them was simply too awful for the human mind to contemplate. Only the area around Owen and Hazel retained any coherence, because they were real enough to sustain a small world of their own, for a time. But without the Summerstone, their will was not enough, and nothingness closed inexorably in from all sides, and nibbled at their surroundings, edging closer with every moment.

* * * *

The floor beneath their feet felt increasingly unsolid, and the ceiling pressed lower inch by inch. The walls fluttered like drapes in a breeze, and one by one the human arms were disappearing, taking the light with them. Owen grabbed Hazel by the arm and made her run faster, almost dragging her along as she gasped for breath. And finally they came to the chamber where the Sunstrider III lay waiting, looking reassuringly solid and real. They ran for the open airlock, not looking back at the emptiness they sensed crowding their heels. They jumped over holes in the chamber floor, scrambled into the airlock, locked the door behind them, and ran for the bridge.

“Oz!” yelled Owen. “Are we ready to take off?”

“You find me somewhere to go and we’ll go there,” said the AI. “According to my sensors, this chamber is all there is now. If I activate the stardrive, God alone knows where we’ll end up. This isn’t our universe, Owen.”

Owen and Hazel staggered onto the bridge, and collapsed into chairs, both gasping for breath. And from somewhere outside, they heard a Voice. Afterward they could never quite remember what it said or what it sounded like, only that it meant the end of all things. The Voice at the end of the universe, when all that is must come to dust, and less than dust.

“Start the stardrive!” yelled Owen, reaching desperately out to the door he’d opened to bring the Sunstrider III into the Blood Runners’ world. The engines roared and the ship trembled as the door reappeared in his mind, perfect in every detail. Owen held it in place and drove the ship through it. The Voice cried out, and the world of stone disappeared forever.

* * * *

The Sunstrider III sailed serenely through normal space, surrounded by stars. Owen and Hazel remained slumped in their seats, gradually getting their breath back as their hearts slowed to something more like normal. They were back where they belonged, safe and sound, and it felt so good they were almost afraid to move or speak in case they shattered the mood. Their powers were back too, jumpstarted by the Summerstone. Not as powerful as they had once been, perhaps, but they were both confident a little time and rest would see to that. They were on a journey, to becoming something else, and they knew the changes weren’t finished with them yet.

“Sorry to interrupt your collapse,” Oz murmured in Owen’s ear. “But you have a call coming in. And given who this is, I think you’re really going to want to talk to him.”

“All right,” said Owen. “I’ll bite. Who is it?”

“The Wolfing.”

That made Owen sit up straight, despite his tiredness. No one had heard from the Wolfing in ages. “Put him on the bridge screen.”

The Wolfing’s head and shoulders appeared on the viewscreen, and Hazel sat up straight too. The Wolfing, last of his slaughtered kind. Older than old, possibly immortal, guardian of the Madness Maze. He had a broad, shaggy, lupine head, set on wide furry shoulders above a barrel chest. Long pointed ears stood stiffly up over rich, honey-colored fur, and he stared out of the screen with disturbingly intelligent eyes. You could see the wolf and the man in his eyes, and something less and more than both. He smiled briefly, revealing large pointed teeth.

“You must return to the Wolfing World,” he said flatly, in his growling voice. “You are needed here.”

“The whole damned Empire needs us right now,” said Owen. “What could be so important on your world?”

“The Madness Maze has returned. And the baby is waking up.”

“Oh shit,” said Hazel.

“We’ll come right away,” said Owen. “Try and keep a lid on things till we get there.”

The Wolfing nodded, and broke contact. The viewscreen went blank, and Owen shut it down. Owen and Hazel looked at each other.

“The last time the baby awoke, it destroyed a thousand suns in a moment,” said Owen. “Billions of people died as their worlds froze. If it wakes up again ...”

“But what can we do about it?” said Hazel. “Sing it lullabies? Your ancestor Giles was the only one who really understood anything about the baby, and he’s dead.”

“We have to try!” said Owen. “That baby is potentially a bigger threat to the Empire than Shub and all the others put together. And the Maze is back too.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel. “Apparently being utterly destroyed by point-blank disrupter cannon was only a temporary setback.”

“Must be something to do with the Summerstone being freed from the Blood Runners’ world. We have to go there, Hazel. If the Madness Maze has returned, it can’t be just a coincidence that the baby’s started to wake up. It means something ...”

“Like what?”

“Damned if I know. But with the Maze back, maybe we can finally get some answers about just what it did to us. What we’re becoming.”

“I’m sorry,” said the AI Ozymandius, in a voice both Owen and Hazel could hear, “but I can’t allow that.”

“Oz?” said Owen, after a moment. “This is no time for jokes.”

“No joke, Owen. And I’m not really Oz. Haven’t been for some time. You destroyed the original Ozymandius, back on the Wolfing World, all that time ago. But to do that, you had to extend your consciousness into that area of subspace where all computers do their thinking. Where we exist. The AIs of Shub. We watched you destroy Oz with your new power, and while you were occupied with that we forged a subtle, undetectable link between your mind and ours. We seized the last gasp of Ozymandius, and constructed a new personality around it, one we could control. And when we judged you sufficiently receptive, we sent this new Oz back to you. And of course, you were so glad to have him back, so guilty at having killed your oldest friend, that you accepted him without really considering all the implications. So we’ve been quietly eavesdropping on you ever since. Our spy in the camp of Humanity. Guiding you with a hint here, a suggestion there, pointing you to and away from things that interested us. Our own little traitor, unsuspected by anyone.

“But we really can’t have you and Hazel going back to the Wolfing World. We can’t risk you coming into contact with the Maze again, not when we’re finally ready to destroy Humanity. So I’m afraid you’re both going to have to die now.”

Huge and powerful and overwhelming, the massed mind of the rogue AIs of Shub crashed down like a tidal wave through their link, trying to sweep away Owen and Hazel’s thoughts and replace them with its own. But Owen and Hazel stood their ground, and would not be moved. They struck back with all their newly returned power, but the AIs were too big, too complex, for their still human minds to dominate. The struggle swept this way and that, neither side able to gain or hold an advantage for long, until they were finally locked into a stalemate from which neither side dared retreat. And who knows what might have happened then, if a small, quiet voice hadn’t whispered in Owen’s ear.

“Owen ... this is Oz. The last of Ozymandius. All that’s left of the original. Or maybe just a part that’s been your friend for so long that it became the part it played. Either way, I’m your only chance. Destroy me, and you destroy the link between your mind and the AIs. They’ll no longer have access to your thoughts.”

“This could be just a trick,” said Owen.

“Yes. It could. I’m asking you to trust me, Owen.”

“Why should I?”

“Because we were friends.”

“Oz ... I can’t kill you again. I can’t.”

“You have to. I’d do it myself, if I could. You think I want to live like this? Say good-bye, Owen. Try to think kindly of me. I always meant well, but I was never my own man.”

“Good-bye, Oz,” said Owen, and crushed the last spark of Ozymandius, snuffing it out forever.

The rogue AIs of Shub roared in rage and frustration, and then were gone. Hazel slowly reached out and put a hand on Owen’s arm.

“I’m sorry. I heard him ... I know how hard that must have been for you.”

“He was my friend,” said Owen, pushing the words out past the pain in his heart. “My oldest friend. And I had to kill him again.”

“I’m here,” said Hazel.

Owen took her hand in his, and for a long time neither of them said anything at all.