Charnel House

On the good ship Sunstrider II

“Bounty hunters!” said Hazel d’Ark disgustedly. “After all we’ve done, after all we’ve been through, we end up as nothing more than glorified bounty hunters!”

“Beats our previous occupation,” Owen said mildly. Tall and rangy, with dark hair and darker eyes, he lounged bonelessly in the lounge’s most comfortable chair. “Chasing down war criminals is important work. I don’t know about you, but I find being the hunter rather than the hunted much easier on the nerves. Besides, must be a nice change for you, being legitimate.”

“It’s the principle of the thing!” snapped Hazel. “We used to be somebody! We led armies! We overthrew the Empire! Risked getting our asses shot off time after time, and all so we could end up doing Parliament’s dirty work. Makes me want to puke.”

Owen was thrown for a moment. He would have been prepared to bet good money Hazel wouldn’t recognize a principle if she fell over it on her way back from the toilet. But he rallied gamely and closed the discussion with an accurate if not entirely tactful point of order.

“As I recall, this was all your idea anyway.”

Hazel glared at him, and then turned away to glower at the nearest bulkhead. She was in one of her moods again, and not about to be swayed by mere logic. Owen sighed, but had the sense to do it very quietly. Truth be told, he found bounty hunting something of a comedown too, but all the alternatives had been worse. When he was fighting the rebellion, he’d never really thought about what he’d do when it was all over. Mostly because he was usually too busy trying to keep himself from being killed, but also because he’d never seriously expected to see an end to the rebellion in his lifetime. Most people who stood up to oppose the Empress Lionstone XIV, also known as the Iron Bitch, tended to end up in early graves. Often with bits missing. But then, nothing in his life had ever turned out the way he expected.

Looking back, he seemed to have spent most of his time stumbling from one crisis to another, acted upon as often as acting from his own plans and wishes. There had been schemes and conspiracies all around him, most of which he knew only by the brief shadows they cast across his life in passing. And in the end it seemed to him that for all his intentions and bold companions, and the mysterious powers he’d acquired from the Madness Maze, he had finally come to stand defiantly before the Iron Throne through his own sheer stubbornness, and a refusal to be beaten by odds that would have frightened off a more sensible man.

He’d ended up a hero and a savior of Humanity, and no one had been more surprised than him.

He’d expected to fail. Expected to die, and die horribly. Instead, he’d overthrown an empire that had lasted well over a millennium, deposed its ruler and destroyed her throne, and seen the end of practically every social and political structure he believed in. And that was when the problems had really begun.

Lionstone’s body was barely cold before the vultures began descending. Even while the last battles were being fought, the various parts of the rebel force had begun arguing fiercely with each other over what exactly should replace the old system. Even those few who’d been there at the end couldn’t bring themselves to agree. Owen had wanted things to stay much as they were, with some political reforms and injustices punished. Hazel had wanted it all torn down, with war trials for all the Families, for crimes against Humanity. Jack Random insisted on democracy for all, including all clones and espers and other unpeople. Ruby Journey wanted the loot she’d been promised.

They were soon joined in the Court by representatives of the clone and esper undergrounds, fringe political groups of all shapes and shades, and more religious factions than you could shake a stick at. All of them intent on having their own way. Luckily, they were all too tired to start another war just yet. The argument became a deadlock, and everyone stamped off in different directions to plot and plan anew. For the moment Parliament was running the day-to-day business of Empire, on the grounds that somebody had to, and they at least had some experience in the area. No one trusted them an inch, but there was nothing new there.

Men and women who had once been allies, sworn to defend each other to the death and beyond, now fought each other viciously over points of dogma and precedence. Owen supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. He was a historian, after all. All the various rebel factions had ever really had in common was a shared enemy. And though they all bandied around words like justice and liberty, they meant very different things to different people.

And then there was the deal Random had made, in the midst of the most desperate fighting, to depose but not destroy the aristocratic Families. Faced with an increasingly victorious army calling for their collective blood, the great Houses had banded together and offered to step down from power and privilege, in return for being allowed to survive as purely economic forces. That was the carrot. The stick was their threat to destroy the economic base of the whole Empire, and crash every civilized world back to barbarism. No one doubted they were quite capable of doing it. And so Random had made the deal, to save the lives of billions, but no one thanked him for it. The man in the street was cheated of his revenge, the rebels accused their beloved hero of selling out his political convictions, and the Families hated him for the loss of their precious nobility. Afterward, Random had to hire a secretary just to deal with all the hate mail and death threats.

As if the situation wasn’t complicated enough, Blue Block had emerged from the shadows to unite and control the Families and scare the crap out of everyone else. Blue Block had been the Families’ secret weapon, a last-ditch defense to be used against the Empress if she ever seriously threatened the Clans’ power and status. The youngest sons and daughters of each House were given to Blue Block, trained and conditioned to be loyal to the Families to the death and beyond. Unfortunately, Blue Block turned out to have an agenda of its own.

In their hidden schools, faceless and nameless instructors taught the younger sons and daughters, none of whom would have inherited title or wealth anyway, that the Families as a class were far more important than any one House. And that loyalty to Blue Block therefore superceded any loyalty to individual Clans. They taught their charges other things too, some of them unspeakable, but that still remained a secret. For the moment.

They were the ones who had come up with the deal to put to Jack Random, and now that they had emerged unblinking into the harsh light of public view, they were the ones who enforced it. The Clans saw what they had unknowingly created and were afraid. And so they all bowed down to Blue Block, and kept their rage and plans for bloody revenge to themselves.

Owen, Hazel, Jack, and Ruby were united in their horror of the Pandora’s box of troubles they’d opened, but couldn’t decide what to do about it. Random rushed from one meeting to another, desperately trying to keep a lid on things. It helped that most people were at least willing to listen to him. Everyone respected the legendary Jack Random. Even if they hated his guts. He spent the rest of his time trying to rebuild the very armed forces he’d just finished fighting, in case of attacks by the Empire’s many enemies. The rogue AIs of Shub, the reborn Hadenmen, and any number of potential alien threats were all quite capable of launching an attack upon an Empire distracted by internal divisions.

Ruby Journey meanwhile took every opportunity to loot anyone weaker than her, including several corporations, and lost no time in setting herself up in the kind of luxury she’d always wanted to become accustomed to. She had no interest in politics. If you couldn’t hit or rob something, Ruby was mostly lost for an alternative. So she stayed out of the ongoing negotiations, and everyone else heaved a great sigh of relief.

And Owen and Hazel had become bounty hunters, tracking down escaped war criminals. Officially, they were supposed to bring the villains back to face public trial, but privately it had been agreed on all sides it would be better if certain parties were killed while trying to escape. Owen and Hazel had nodded solemnly when this was explained to them, and decided they’d make up their own minds on the subject, as and when necessary. If there was ever to be any hope of stability in the new order Jack was trying to hammer together, the truly evil had to be punished, and seen to be punished. People like Valentine Wolfe, for example, despised right hand of the Empress and butcher of Virimonde. You couldn’t send just anybody after a dangerous and subtle villain like the Wolfe, so that was where Owen Deathstalker and Hazel d’Ark came in. They were, after all, the most dangerous people the Empire had ever seen.

All Owen had ever really wanted was his old life back, but almost from the moment the rebellion was officially declared triumphant, it seemed to him that everyone and his brother had begun fighting for a chance to grab a piece of the legendary Deathstalker hero. Every political party wanted him as its figurehead. Every cause sent representatives requiring he attach his name and his blade to their demands. Sometimes they even fought duels outside his quarters over who got to speak to him first.

Then there were the holo news networks wanting endless interviews, and agents wanting to buy exclusive rights to his life story. They all wanted pictures and quotes and answers to increasingly personal questions. Not to mention product endorsements and book deals and merchandising rights. Hell, one company even wanted to manufacture a line of action figures based on him and Hazel and Jack and Ruby. Owen just wanted to be left alone, and said so increasingly loudly, but no one listened. So in the end he had fled Golgotha on the Sunstrider II, on what turned out to be the first of many missions as a glorified bounty hunter, licensed and paid by Parliament to clear up the Empire’s more dangerous messes.

Hazel was there too. She said she had just come along to get a little action to keep herself from getting soft, but Owen liked to think she was just bored spitless without an enemy to fight. Though it had to be said she’d never been one to sit around and contemplate the lilies of the field, and settling down to a peaceful and productive life was exactly what she’d become an outlaw to avoid. She couldn’t even get drunk and start fights in bars anymore. Everyone knew who she was, and was scared witless to say anything that might upset her. So when Random had offered her a commission to track down and possibly execute missing war criminals, she’d jumped at the chance, and wasted no time in persuading Owen to join her. Even if she seemed to remember it the other way around. But then, that was Hazel for you. Never happier than when she could lay the blame on someone else.

“We just dropped out of hyperspace over Virimonde,” murmured the AI Ozymandius in Owen’s ear. “Currently maintaining high orbit and all shields. I really don’t know why you wanted to come back here, Owen. I mean, it’s not as if you have any friends here anymore. In fact, I would have to say that the likelihood of our all ending up riddled with holes increases geometrically with every second we are dumb enough to stay here.”

“Nag, nag, nag,” said Owen, subvocalizing so Hazel wouldn’t hear. She didn’t approve of him talking to an AI that was supposed to be dead and no one else could hear. “You never want to go anywhere fun, Oz. This is where our current quarry has gone to ground, so here we are too. Right now Valentine Wolfe is down there somewhere, along with certain aristocratic cronies, all of whom the current authorities would dearly like to see standing in a dock or hanging from a rope. And preferably both. Besides . . . I always said that one day I’d come home to Virimonde.”

There had been a time when Owen Deathstalker had been Lord of the whole planet of Virimonde. And then the Empress Lionstone had outlawed him and taken it all away. His own security people had tried to kill him for the reward on his head, and he’d had to flee for his life. He nearly hadn’t made it. But Hazel had arrived at just the right moment to save his aristocratic ass, as she never tired of reminding him, and they’d been together ever since. He fell in love with her. He still wasn’t sure how she felt about him. His cousin David had been made Lord in his absence, but he died not long after, trying to defend the planet from Lionstone’s troops, led by Valentine Wolfe. The Wolfe had overseen the murder of millions of defenseless people, and the utter destruction of what had been a beautiful rural paradise.

And now Valentine had returned, like a criminal to the scene of his crime, or a dog to its own droppings, and Owen had come back too, to bring belated justice to the destroyer of Virimonde. One way or another.

He sighed quietly to himself. Through all his rebel wanderings, he’d always clung to the secret hope that someday he would be able to return home and take up his old life again as a minor historian of no real importance to anyone but himself. But he’d changed so much, in so many ways, till he wasn’t sure he recognized himself anymore. And given the reports he’d seen of the utter devastation awaiting him below, he wasn’t even sure there was a home left to return to.

“Run sensor scan,” he subvocalized to his AI. “Locate my old Standing and see what kind of force they’ve got protecting it.”

“Way ahead of you as usual,” sniffed the AI. “There’s a fair-sized army surrounding the castle, which according to the comm traffic I’m picking up, Valentine and his associates are currently occupying. Typical. Nothing but the best for dear Valentine. And according to the information we were given before we left Golgotha, which I’ll wager good money you haven’t even looked at, there’s also a hell of a lot of scientific equipment down there, along with scientists to run it. Though no one seems to know what or why.”

“Don’t get uppity, Oz. Just tell me what I need to know.”


Owen wasn’t quite sure where he stood with Oz. The original Ozymandius had been the Family AI, handed down to Owen from his deceased father. It turned out to contain hidden Empire programming, and had acted as a spy for Lionstone before finally turning on Owen and trying to enslave him with control words it had placed in his subconscious. Owen had had no choice but to use his Maze-given powers to destroy the AI. Only sometime later Oz came back. Or a voice in his head that only he could hear, claiming to be the AI Ozymandius. Certainly it was just as knowledgeable and irritating as the original. Owen had accepted the situation for the time being, for as long as the AI remained useful. And because he hadn’t the faintest idea how to get rid of the voice anyway.

Besides, he’d missed Oz.

“So, do I start the descent or not?” said Oz briskly. “We’re fully cloaked, but there’s no telling how long even Hadenman shields will hold up against the security systems Valentine’s installed here. What used to be standard weather-control satellites have been upgraded with really heavy-duty sensors and more weaponry than your average Fleet cruiser. When the Wolfe says Do Not Disturb, he means it.”

“Maintain orbit,” Owen said firmly. “I want a really good idea of what to expect dirtside before I commit us to a landing. Scan the area surrounding the Standing, ten-mile radius, and report on the local population’s situation.”

“Owen . . . I’ve already done that. There is no local population anymore.”

“What? ”

“I’ve scanned the surrounding areas to the limit of my sensors. There isn’t a single living soul outside of the Standing for hundreds of miles. I’m sorry, Owen.”

Owen shook his head slowly. He’d read the reports on Valentine’s destruction of Virimonde, watched Toby Shreck’s filmed coverage, seen interviews with the few survivors to get off-planet, but he’d always assumed they were exaggerated. No one could oversee the murder of a whole planet’s population just for the fun of it. Not even Valentine Wolfe. Deep down, part of him had desperately wanted to return home to the cheers of his people, overjoyed to have their rightful Lord back at last. He’d wanted to apologize for not being there to protect them. Wanted to promise them that things would be different now he was back. He’d keep them safe, protect them, guard them from all harm. They’d never be hurt again because he was off somewhere else being a hero of the rebellion. There was so much he’d wanted, needed, to say. He hadn’t wanted to believe that all his people were dead.

“What’s the matter?” said Hazel. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” said Owen. “I was just thinking. About the way things used to be here.”

“Don’t,” said Hazel. “That’s always been your problem, Deathstalker. Always living in the past.”

“I understand the past,” said Owen. “Things were simpler then. I understood my world and my Empire and my place in it. Or I thought I did. Since then I’ve seen the destruction of everything I ever believed in, lost everything I ever cared for, and now to top it all, I find I can’t go home again. Because Valentine Wolfe burned it all down and pissed on the ashes. Virimonde is dead.”

“We can’t know that for sure till we get down there and check for ourselves,” said Hazel. “Reports can be exaggerated; sensors can be mistaken. It’s a big world, Owen. He can’t have killed everything.”

“And if he has? If he’s done everything he’s supposed to have done?”

“Then we cut his black heart out, throw it on the ground, and stamp on it. And the same for everyone with him.”

Owen had to smile slightly. “Life’s always been so simple for you, hasn’t it, Hazel? Good guys and bad guys, and a direct, forceful answer to every problem. But you heard the man at the briefing. There are still powers that be who want Valentine brought back alive for a show trial. If only because they could sell holo rights for a small fortune.”

“I keep up with things,” said Hazel. “And for every faction that wants the Wolfe brought back alive, I’ll bet I can name ten who’d very much rather he came back with flies buzzing around him. Not least the clone and esper undergrounds. If word ever gets out that Valentine Wolfe had once been an active part and supporter of the undergrounds, they’d lose what little public support and popularity they have. And on top of that, there are any number of people who struck questionable deals with him in the past, and don’t want it coming out now they’ve re-created themselves as pure-hearted supporters of the rebellion.”

“And that’s why we’re going to bring the bastard back alive,” Owen said firmly. “Not necessarily in one piece, but definitely alive. I’m no man’s puppet, and no organization’s either. I need to send a signal that no one pressures me. And I won’t kill him just because I want to.”

“You and your damned conscience,” said Hazel. “All right, so we try to take him alive. What about his supporters?”

“Massacre the lot, for all I care.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Hazel.

Owen leaned back in his chair, interlocked his fingers before him, and stared at them thoughtfully. “He wasn’t always a monster, you know. Valentine. We were children together, moved in the same circles, went to the same parties. He seemed quite . . . normal then. Nothing out of the ordinary. No sign then of the psychopath he became. Just another kid, perhaps a little quieter than most. Much like me. We were never actually friends, but I can remember good times we had together. And then we went our different ways, to be trained as a Wolfe and a Deathstalker, and I didn’t see him again for years. And sometimes I find myself wondering how two such similar children became such different adults.”

“People change,” said Hazel. “Whether they want to or not. Life writes our scripts, and we just get to ad lib now and again.”

Owen looked at her. “Why, Hazel, that was almost profound.”

“Don’t you patronize me, Deathstalker. I have a mind. I have read the occasional book in my time. When there was nothing else to do. I just meant that even while we’re busy changing the universe, it’s busy changing us. Look at you; you’re not the person you used to be, even a few years ago. Thank God. The Owen Deathstalker I saved from certain death down below is a very different man from the official hero who toppled an empire.”

“I know,” said Owen. “That bothers me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Hazel. “He really was a stuck-up little prig.”

Owen raised an eyebrow. “Then why did you stick with him?”

Hazel smiled. “I thought I saw potential in him.”

Owen’s mouth twitched. “I thought much the same about you.” And then he frowned again.

“Oh, hell, Owen, now what? I swear, you know more ways to depress yourself than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“I was just thinking about Finlay Campbell. We should have included him on this trip.”

“We’ve been through this, Owen. The man is obsessed. He’s sworn a vendetta against Valentine. Sworn to kill the man, on his blood and on his honor. If we’re to keep our options open down there, we can’t afford to have the Campbell anywhere near us. He’s always been . . . erratic. They tried using him as a bounty hunter, but he always brought them back dead. Sometimes in pieces. Last I heard, his girlfriend, Evangeline, was trying to get him interested in politics. God help Parliament, that’s all I have to say.”

“He fought beside us. He was a hero of the rebellion, just like us. And Valentine wiped out his whole Family. It doesn’t feel right, keeping this from him.”

“Owen, we hardly know the man. You’re the one who wants to bring Valentine in alive. If the Campbell were here . . .”

“Yes, I know. But if we’re keeping secrets from people who are supposed to be our comrades, what might they be keeping from us?”

“Hell,” said Hazel lightly. “Everyone’s got secrets.”

She realized how that sounded only after she’d said it, and she held her breath a moment before Owen grunted and turned away to study the sensor readings on the main display screen. Hazel let her breath out slowly, so Owen wouldn’t hear it, and tried to relax. There were still things she was keeping from Owen, partly because she didn’t want him getting upset, and partly because she still believed in keeping her own business to herself. Ever since she’d first passed through the Madness Maze on the Wolfling World and been changed forever, she’d been having problems with dreams. To begin with, they had been just disturbing images, but more and more these days the dreams persisted into her waking world, and she couldn’t push aside the thought that they meant something. Something important. She was dreaming every night now, clear and distinct, and she couldn’t tell if she was seeing the past or the future. It was as though Time was unraveling in her head, in the darkest hours of the night, when her defenses were at their weakest. Something in her mind was showing her things, and wouldn’t let her look away.

While on Mistworld, she’d dreamed of the Empire invasion hours before it actually happened.

Last night there had been three dreams, one after the other. First she dreamed of the Blood Runners, the evil inhabitants of the dark Obeah worlds, far out on the Rim where no one ever went, who’d once tried to kidnap her for their never ending experiments into the nature of suffering and existence. Owen had saved her then, reaching out with his mind across countless light-years to strike down their leader. In her dream, they looked at her with knowing, cruel eyes, watching and waiting with horrid patience. They held something in their hands. Something sharp.

Then she dreamed of Owen’s Family Standing, on Virimonde. She’d walked the empty stone corridors with easy familiarity, though she’d never been there before. It was bitter cold, the cold of the grave, and blood trickled down the walls, staining the ancient tapestries and exquisite carpets. There was someone waiting around the next corner, and far down below, something awful.

And finally she dreamed she stood alone on the bridge of Sunstrider II while all hell broke out around her. There were ships attacking from every side, ships beyond counting, overwhelming her defenses even as she fought frantically to hold them back. All the alarms were sounding, and the Sunstrider II’s guns fired again and again. There was no sign of Owen anywhere.

Past, present, and future. Maybe. But were they predictions or just warnings? Did they mean she had a chance to change things, rewrite history, defy destiny? Or was she just going crazy, like everyone else around her?

There had been a time when the forbidden drug Blood had helped her cope with many things, including the dreams, but she’d moved beyond that. She’d been so physically transformed from what she used to be she doubted Blood would even be able to make a dent in her body chemistry these days. Besides, Blood was heavily addictive, and she was damned if anything or anyone was ever going to have control over her again, including her own weaknesses.

“What do you suppose Valentine and his cronies are up to down there?” she said suddenly, determined to distract herself.

“Beats the hell out of me,” said Owen, still studying the data scrolling past him on the viewscreen. The data was moving far too fast for normal eyes to follow, but neither of them mentioned it. They were used to small changes like that. “He’s reinforced the Standing’s shields. I’m not picking up anything useful. Which is in itself significant. He shouldn’t have access to anything strong enough to keep out Hadenman-designed sensors. So who’s been supplying him with tech?”

“We’ll have to ask him,” said Hazel. “When we get down there.”

“Too many questions,” said Owen, finally shutting down the viewscreen. “Too many unknowns. Why did he return here? Why did he take over my old home? What did he hope to achieve here that was so important he was willing to risk me coming after him?”

“He’s here for a specific purpose,” said Hazel. “Has to be, or he couldn’t have persuaded so many people to come here with him. And somebody must have paid for all that fancy equipment he’s supposed to have with him. If you ask me, it’s something to do with drugs. Everything with Valentine turns out to be something to do with drugs.”

“Or revenge. He’s a Wolfe, after all. And Oz says his security systems are advanced far beyond anything he should have access to.”

Hazel looked at him sharply. “You’re still hearing voices, aren’t you?”

“I do wish you wouldn’t put it like that. And it’s only one voice.”

“Is that supposed to reassure me? At this rate you’ll be saying you only overthrew the Empire because the Devil told you to. That’s going to go down really well with the general populace.”

“It’s just my old AI!”

“Then why can’t I hear it on my comm system? Why can’t anyone else hear it? And you were very definite you’d killed the bloody thing after it betrayed us on the Wolfling World.”

“I thought it was dead. But I’m not as sure about a lot of things as I used to be. After all, you and I have been through a lot of things that should have killed us. Haven’t we?”

Hazel had no quick answer to that. So they stared at each other in an uncomfortable silence for a long moment, until they were suddenly interrupted by all the yacht’s warning sirens going off at once, the floor rocking under their feet as something really powerful hit the ship like a hammer.

“Oz!” yelled Owen. “What the hell’s going on?”

“You can’t say I didn’t warn you,” said the AI calmly. “Valentine’s security systems have finally broken through our cloaking shields, and the armed satellites are currently throwing everything they’ve got at us. Which is actually quite considerable. Main shields are holding. For the moment. Do I have your permission to return fire?”

“Of course you bloody do! Blow the nearest satellites out of the sky and then get us dirtside as fast as you can.”

“Landing coordinates?”

“Not too far from the Standing. Walking distance.”

“About time you got some healthy exercise,” said the AI approvingly. “You’ve been putting on weight.”

“Well?” said Hazel. “What’s happening?”

“Valentine knows we’re here. And the voice in my head now thinks it’s my mother. I’m bringing the ship down fast. Grab onto something and pray for a soft landing.”

“Hell with that,” said Hazel. “I want to get some shots of my own in first.”

“Why bother? The ship’s fire computers are perfectly capable—”

“God, you’re a wimp sometimes, Deathstalker. It’s the principle of the thing.”

And off she went, up to the bridge to plug herself into the fire systems. Owen let her go. That was Hazel for you. Never happier than with a gun of some kind in her hand, causing destruction and devastation and ruining someone’s day. He strapped himself into his chair and waited patiently. At least the Sunstrider II had decent guns. The original Sunstrider had spent most of its short life being chased from one world to another, often shot up and on fire, until it finally crash-landed in the deadly jungles of Shandrakor. When Owen had the new yacht built around the salvaged engines of the old, he had insisted the Hadenmen install as many state-of-the-art weapon systems as the craft could hold. He didn’t like having to run. It wasn’t in his nature.

And then the ship lurched again, as something really nasty slammed through the energy shields and impacted on the reinforced hull. The lights flickered briefly, and Owen tensed, waiting for the shrill warning of a hull breach. It didn’t come, but Owen decided his proper place was on the bridge, after all. Defense computers could do only so much. He ran all the way, but still had enough breath left when he got there to demand of Hazel what the hell was going on.

“Damned if I know, Deathstalker,” said Hazel briskly, eyes fixed on the control panels before her. “I’ve never encountered firepower like this. At least, not from any human tech.”

Owen dropped into the seat beside her and quickly studied the tactical displays. Main shields were still holding, but they were taking a hell of a battering. There was some damage to the outer hull, mostly superficial. The Hadenmen knew how to build a ship. “This shouldn’t be happening,” he said finally. “The Hadenmen assured me we could stand off everything up to and including an Empire starcruiser.”

“Should have got it in writing, stud,” said Hazel, smiling briefly as one of Valentine’s satellites exploded under her guns. “Maybe Valentine made a deal with the Hadenmen too. Or he’s been talking to Shub. Or even the aliens. Selling out all Humanity for simple personal gain is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from Valentine Wolfe. Either way, we are in over our heads and sinking fast. Suggestions of a practical nature are urgently invited. Also prayers.”

“To hell with trying to fight it out,” said Owen. “Throw as much power as you can into the shields and get us down fast, Oz. Hopefully the satellites are only programmed to hit things in a predetermined area. Once we’ve dropped below their response level, they should leave us alone. And then let us all hope Valentine hasn’t also invested in some ground defenses.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said Hazel. “Can I make the landing?”

“No,” said Owen firmly. “Let Oz do it. I’ve seen your landings, Hazel.”


The Sunstrider II plunged screaming through the atmosphere, wreathed in flames, until finally it fell out of range of the satellites, and the attack cut off. Owen and Hazel braced themselves for ground responses, but there were none. Apparently Valentine had expected his souped-up satellites to be all that was needed to discourage visitors. With any other ship he’d probably have been right. Oz finally eased off the steep descent and searched out a landing spot not too far from the Standing. Owen allowed himself to relax a little.

“It would seem Valentine has powerful new allies,” he said thoughtfully. “I wonder what other surprises he has in store for us.”

“Something nasty, no doubt,” said Hazel. “Knowing Valentine. But we can handle it.”

“Don’t get cocky,” said Owen. “Valentine hasn’t survived this long by leaving anything to chance. He must have known I’d be coming after him once he set up shop here. He must have made . . . preparations.”

“There’s nothing he can throw at us that we can’t throw right back at him,” said Hazel calmly. “I could have handled those satellites eventually, if you hadn’t chickened out. Nothing can harm us anymore, Owen. Not after all we’ve been through.”

“Cocky,” said Owen. “Definitely cocky. It’ll all end in tears—”

He would have said more, but navigation chimed discreetly, alerting him that the Sunstrider II was coming in for a touch down. Owen and Hazel studied the short- and long-range sensor displays carefully, but the ship landed without incident. Oz made them wait while he ran through his landing checklist.

“Air quality, tolerable. Cold for the time of year, but within acceptable limits. No life signs. All right, it’s now officially safe to disembark. For old times’ sake, I’ve put down at the exact spot where Hazel first encountered you, Owen. Just call me a silly old sentimentalist.”

“Shut up, Oz.”

They made their way down to the airlock, and then Owen waited patiently while Hazel weighed herself down with a few more guns and ammunition belts. For all her claims of invulnerability, she still never felt really comfortable about going out in public unless she was carrying more guns than the average armed patrol group. Owen leaned against the steel bulkhead and remembered how things had been the first time he’d met Hazel d’Ark.

He’d been on the run from his own security guards, badly wounded, fleeing desperately in a damaged flyer. They’d shot him down only a few miles from his Standing. He’d staggered away from the burning wreckage, bleeding profusely, and set his back against a nearby tree, to hold him up while he made his last stand.

And then Hazel had appeared out of nowhere to save him from his enemies, cutting them down like a glorious if somewhat shop-soiled valkyrie, and together they’d fled Virimonde in the first Sunstrider. Owen had never been back since. He’d always meant to, but the rebellion never gave him time. He’d spent his childhood on a dozen different planets, as his father darted around the Empire pursuing his endless intrigues. But Virimonde had been his and his alone, his haven from a Family and a warrior’s destiny he’d never wanted. The only place he’d ever thought of as home.

“Come on, stud, let’s get this show on the road. I haven’t killed anyone in hours, and I’m starting to get twitchy.”

And then there was Hazel, large as life and twice as dangerous, carrying enough guns to start her own war. Owen had to smile.

“What’s so funny?” she said suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that according to Oz, we’ve touched down at the exact spot where you and I first met.”

“You always were too nostalgic for your own good, Deathstalker. Crack that airlock and let’s get our feet dirty. I didn’t come all this way just to stand around.”

“You don’t have a single sentimental bone in your body, do you, Hazel?”

“For which I thank the good Lord daily. Sentiment just gets in the way of getting the job done.”

Owen sighed and opened the airlock. The planet’s air wafted in, and he took a deep breath, expecting the old, familiar scents of grass and earth and growing things. Instead he coughed harshly as his lungs were filled with hot, dry air choked with dust. Owen and Hazel looked at each other, and then Owen stepped cautiously out onto the planet he had once owned. The sky was dark and overcast, the light gray and lifeless. Where once there had been green fields and the rich foliage of rambling woods, now there was only churned-up mud for as far as he could see in any direction. No fields or crops or low stone boundary walls, just the mud, dark and gritty with trodden-in ashes.

For a moment Owen thought he must have come to the wrong planet. Nowhere on the pastoral world of Virimonde had ever looked like this. But of course it did, now. Just as he’d always known it would, deep down.

“Damn,” said Hazel quietly. “I’m sorry, Owen.”

“I think the trees were over there,” said Owen. He tried to point, but his arm seemed very heavy. “Right over there. But they’re gone now. It’s all gone. Everything. Nothing to show they or we were ever here. They even took my past away from me. And it’s all my fault.”

“How the hell do you work that out?” said Hazel.

“I was Lord of this world. This planet and everyone on it were given to me, and put under my protection. But I went away and left them defenseless when the Empire’s wolves came. I wasn’t here when they needed me.”

“Now, that is bullshit,” said Hazel. “They threw you out! Your own security people turned against you. You were outlawed. And you can be damned sure there wasn’t a man or a woman here who wouldn’t have cheerfully sold you out in a moment for the price on your head. Your cousin David was Lord here after you, and he couldn’t even save himself when the Empire forces came. Hell, he was one of them, and they killed him anyway.”

“You’re right,” said Owen. “But it doesn’t help. I should have been here.”

“Then you’d be dead too. Is that what you want?”

“Sometimes. The old me is dead. I lost him somewhere along the long rebel trail that led to Lionstone’s Court. I miss him. I liked him a lot better than the killing machine I’ve become.”

“Don’t start that again. Change isn’t death.”

“It was for Virimonde. This used to be a food planet. The crops and livestock we raised here fed people all across the Empire. Who’ll feed them now? Look at it, Hazel. They killed this world.”

“You could start over. Pump enough microorganisms into the soil, plant the right seeds, and this world could bloom again. In time.”

“Maybe. But it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be the world I knew.”

Hazel shook her head exasperatedly. “It always comes back to you, doesn’t it, Deathstalker? Typical aristo, seeing everything in terms of himself. Virimonde isn’t the only world to get trashed by the Empress’s whims. That’s the kind of thing we fought the rebellion over. Remember?”

Owen tried to smile for her. “I know. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. I don’t really have the right, I suppose. My people lost everything. But I can at least avenge them. Valentine will pay for what he did here. I’ll see him die, and die hard, and to hell with the consequences.”

Hazel clapped him hard on the shoulder. “That’s more like it. When all else fails, there’s always revenge.”

“You’re a woman of simple pleasures, Hazel.”

“That’s what you think, stud.” She grinned at Owen, and he had to grin back.

They stood together for a while, sharing the moment. The world was very quiet, not even a murmur of breeze to disturb the dead silence. Owen and Hazel looked slowly around them, and nothing looked back. Hazel frowned suddenly.

“What?” said Owen.

“I hate to sound morbid . . . but shouldn’t there be a hell of a lot of bodies lying around? Or bits of bodies, or . . . something? All I can see is miles and miles of mud.”

“You’ve got a point,” said Owen slowly. “It is a bit . . . tidy, isn’t it? I wasn’t aware anyone had sent in a clean-up crew yet. Hang on a minute.” He accessed his AI. “Oz, where are all the bodies?”

“Damned if I know, Owen. According to the records, there was a major battle right here, between the incumbent peasants and the invading forces.”

“Scan the area, Oz. Find me some bodies.”

“Scanning. Now, that is interesting. I’m picking up some decayed animal remains mixed in with the mud, but absolutely no trace anywhere of human remains, in any form. I have no explanation for this.”

“So what the hell happened to the bodies? Could Shub have paid a visit here, looking for raw materials for their Ghost Warriors?”

“Unlikely,” said the AI. “Even allowing for the current scattered state of the Imperial Fleet, such a visit would hardly have gone unreported. And you can forget about a clean-up crew. There isn’t enough manpower available to deal with the needs of the living right now, never mind the dead. Unless . . . Valentine had them removed.”

“Why would he do a thing like that?”

“To show he’s sorry, and make amends?”

Hazel cut in, demanding to know what Oz was saying. Owen told her, and she snorted dismissively. “You can forget that. Valentine never apologized for anything in his life.”

“But I’ll bet he does know what happened,” said Owen. “It’s the kind of thing he’d want to know. So I guess we’ll just have to slog our way through the mud to my old Standing, haul him out by the scruff of the neck, and ask him.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said Hazel. “Is it okay if I stick my gun in his ear while you question him?”

“Be my guest.”

Owen started out across the sea of churned mud in the direction he thought his old Standing lay. The distance was concealed behind a gray haze, grimly enigmatic. According to Oz, his old home was just over two miles away, so he and Hazel were just out of range of the castle’s sensors. Unless Valentine had souped them up too. Owen smiled humorlessly. It didn’t matter a damn if Valentine had. Let him know his death was coming. There might only be the two of them, against an unknown number of enemies, but Owen didn’t care. Even an army couldn’t stop him now. The thought pulled him up short, and he scowled. More and more these days he found himself thinking things that scared him. He wondered what he was becoming. The changes the Madness Maze had worked in him seemed to be accelerating, if anything. At first he’d just been a man with an edge, and then a man with unfamiliar esp abilities, but he hadn’t been merely human in a long time. He was leaving his humanity behind, and he knew it, and it scared him. Which was perhaps why he clung so desperately to his old, human, beliefs in honor and justice.

He sighed tiredly. He’d come a long way from the simple minor historian he’d been the last time he was here. But he’d lost everything when he was outlawed, and had no choice but to become the warrior his Clan had always wanted. Become what he despised most, or die. He’d achieved a great deal, righted wrongs and meted out justice high and low, but at the end of the day there was just so much blood on his hands. . . . Most of it from people who deserved to die, but not all. For every clear villain who’d died at his hand, there’d been a hundred men who were just soldiers following orders, doing what they thought was right. Protecting a corrupt Empire because all the other alternatives seemed worse. Brave fighters who’d died because they were unfortunate enough to stand between Owen Deathstalker and his destiny. So many faceless dead. He dreamed of them sometimes.

There was a child he’d crippled and killed in the grimy back streets of Mistport. It had been an accident. And she had been trying to kill him at the time. But none of that mattered. He’d struck out blindly, in the rage of battle, and the result was a young girl lying in the blood-spattered snow. He’d never forgiven himself for that, and never would. If there was any purpose to the warrior he’d become, it was to put an end to a system that produced children like that. And perhaps to protect people like that from people like him.

That was what it meant to be a Deathstalker.

He glanced across at Hazel, striding determinedly beside him. Her long, ratty red hair fell down around a sharp and pointed face. Not conventionally pretty perhaps, but then Hazel d’Ark didn’t believe in being conventional in anything if she could help it. Owen thought she was beautiful, but then, he was biased. He loved her, quietly, secretly. She wasn’t at all the kind of woman he’d thought he’d fall in love with, and certainly not the kind of woman he was supposed to marry, to continue the centuries-old Deathstalker line, but he loved her nonetheless. Despite all the reasons, or maybe even because of them. Hazel was bright and funny, honest when it suited her, and the bravest woman he’d ever known. Not to mention hell on wheels with any weapon you could name. He admired her immensely, but was careful to keep it to himself. She’d only take advantage. She was confident when he was not, cautious when he forgot to be, and she never forgot what they were fighting for. And he knew that if he ever mentioned the word love, she’d leave him flat. Hazel had made it clear, on more than one occasion, that she didn’t believe in things like love. They tied you down, made you vulnerable, and led to subjects like commitment and trust and openness, none of which had any place in Hazel’s life. So he accepted what warmth and friendship she offered on her own terms, and hoped. They were together, and if that was all he could have, it was more than he’d ever had before.

“Why are we walking?” said Hazel suddenly. “I made sure they loaded gravity sleds on board before we left.”

“Sleds would show up on the Standing’s scanners,” Owen said patiently. “We, on the other hand, have proved invisible to most scanners ever since we passed through the Maze. Just another useful side effect that no one understands. So we walk, and hopefully slip through Valentine’s defenses unnoticed.”

“Hate walking,” said Hazel, scowling. “Makes my back ache. If God had meant us to walk, he wouldn’t have given us antigrav.”

“Admire the scenery,” suggested Owen.

“Ha bloody ha. Last time I walked through anything like this, all the field toilets had failed at once.”

“Walking is supposed to be very good for you.”

“So is eating sensibly and abstinence, and I hate them too. I’m warning you right now, Deathstalker: I’d better get to kill a hell of a lot of people at your Standing, or there’s going to be trouble.”

“Oh, I think I can guarantee that,” said Owen. “The one thing you can be sure of is that we have absolutely no friends at all at the Deathstalker Standing.”

* * * *

The Deathstalker Standing was a great stone castle set on top of a hill, its pale gray stone marked here and there by damage and burns from energy weapons from when the Empire had laid seige to the castle to capture its then Lord, David Deathstalker. Now it suffered the occupation of Lord Valentine Wolfe and his cronies. The Wolfe had come to Virimonde for his own purposes, and the others had followed because they had no choice. He was their only hope of unseating the rebellion and putting them back in power again. Not for them the lesser glories of trade and influence. They wanted, needed, to be lords and masters.

They were also there because he held their lives in the palm of his hand, though they tried not to think about that unless they were forced to. But nothing else could have persuaded such aristocratic movers and shakers to ally themselves so closely with the notorious Valentine Wolfe. He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but he had something, a weapon of such potential power that they couldn’t risk losing it. So they allied themselves with the despised Wolfe and bet their lives they could outmaneuver him at some future point. Which was a sign of how desperate they were.

Valentine sat at his ease in the Lord’s chair in the great dining hall of what had been the Deathstalker’s Standing, and watched tolerantly as his cronies wrecked the place. They were partly drunk, from too many bottles of wine with a good dinner, and now they were laughing as they threw food around and overturned the furniture. The Lord Silvestri was throwing his knives at the Family portraits hanging on the walls, showing Deathstalkers down the ages. He was aiming for the eyes, and hitting them more often than not. The Lord Romanov had pulled down a precious tapestry and was wearing it like a shawl as he drank brandy straight from the bottle. The Lord Kartakis was stamping back and forth on top of the table, fondly believing he was dancing to the ribald song he was singing defiantly off key. Valentine smiled on them as errant children and allowed them their fun. There wasn’t much for them to do, and they had been cooped up in the castle for a long time. And Valentine did so like to see the Deathstalker’s precious things being violated, as he would someday destroy the man himself.

Valentine Wolfe sat in a chair far too large for him, one long leg slung over an arm of the chair, his other foot up on the table. Dressed as always all in black, his pale white face surrounded by long dark ringlets of oiled and scented hair, his mouth a scarlet slash, and his eyes heavy with mascara, he looked the very picture of the utter villain he strove to be. And the drugs, the glorious drugs, ran riot in his system as they always had. It had been truly said of Valentine that he’d never met a chemical he didn’t like, and if you could smoke it, swallow it, inject it, or stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, Valentine was right there at the front of the line, ready to give it a try. He saw his chemically enhanced mind as an ongoing work of art, and was constantly striving to perfect it. The ultimate high was still out there somewhere, and Valentine pursued it tirelessly.

To that end he’d taken the rare and immediately addictive esper drug, even though he knew it killed a small but significant percentage of those who took it. Valentine had survived, of course. Probably because you couldn’t affect his radically transmuted body chemistry with anything less than fuming nitric acid. The drug had given him minor telepathic powers, along with complete control of his autonomic nervous system, and his thoughts moved along strange and unfamiliar tracks. He threw one drug on top of another, maintaining a complex balance through sheer effort of will. Valentine thought of himself as the first in a new breed of Humanity, like the Hadenmen—an alchemical step forward, or perhaps sideways, on the evolutionary ladder.

He watched Carlos Silvestri throw his knives again and again, tearing the eyes out of great men just because he could, to prove to everyone that he wasn’t afraid of the mighty Owen Deathstalker. Silvestri was a tall, thin man, all long limbs and sudden angles. He dressed in shades of red, the traditional color of his Clan. It didn’t suit him. His face was round and puffy, as though it hadn’t yet decided what it wanted to be when it grew up, though the man had to be at least forty. He shaved his head bald and plucked his other hairs. He was good with a knife and better with a sword. He would have made a great swordsman and duelist if only he’d had the courage of his convictions. But the Silvestri had always been a very cautious man who preferred to watch from the sidelines and work through underlings, and never, ever, get his hands dirty himself. He’d never forgiven Finlay Campbell for the assassination of his good friend William St. John, and had spent much time and money on plans to have the Campbell killed, but none of them had succeeded. Now with Finlay a man of power and substance once again, and the Silvestri’s powers drastically reduced by Random’s deal and the emergence of Blue Block, Carlos Silvestri had been forced to turn to Valentine as his only possible savior. And if that had turned out very differently from what he’d intended, it just put a little more emphasis into the throw of his knives.

Valentine smiled and turned his attention to Pieter Romanov, that fat and ruddy man wrapped in a torn masterpiece. Pieter believed a man should be recognized by the breadth and achievement of his appetites, and indulged each sense till they groaned under the weight of his will. There was in him a hunger that would not be satisfied, no matter how he tried. His people obeyed his every whim, or he had them killed and replaced with those who would. Pieter was an aristocrat’s aristocrat, and he had taken Random’s deal hard. Not for him the lesser power and rewards of mere business. So he went looking for an ally, a great man of power and influence, who would put things back the way they once were, the way they should be. A man of vision and destiny. Unfortunately, all he could find was Valentine. But the Wolfe at least had a plan, which was more than most, and Pieter couldn’t help but admire a man whose taste for indulgence actually surpassed his. So Pieter and Valentine had made a pact, and if the Romanov found the source of their power base to be somewhat distressing, there was always another meal and another bottle from the Deathstalker’s excellent wine cellar to help distract him.

And finally there was Athos Kartakis. A short and swarthy man with a flashing smile and a temperament that could change in a moment from brightest day to darkest night. He collected insults and saw dueling as a sport. He never accepted first blood, and always went for the kill. People tended to be very careful what they said around the young Lord Kartakis. His Clan had never been more than a fairly minor House, and generations had been spending money faster than it came in. Kartakis had inherited many debts, and wasted no time in adding many of his own. Creditors preferred to forget their bills rather than risk fighting a duel over them, but even so, everyone knew the true state of affairs, and Kartakis knew they knew. The deal Blue Block had brokered with Random had been the last straw. Take away his lordship, and Kartakis had nothing left. He’d never survive as a businessman. If only because he’d made so many enemies in trade. And so he had pawned what was left of his soul with Valentine.

Valentine watched his people at their play, and thought pleasantly on the day he wouldn’t need their support anymore and could have them all killed in slow and interesting ways. He’d just begun to number the ways and select his very favorite when the viewscreen on the wall chimed politely. Valentine raised a painted eyebrow. He’d given the servants to understand that he wasn’t to be interrupted at his dinner for anything less than a major emergency, and after he’d had that footman flayed from the waist down, they’d learned to follow his instructions to the letter. So he accepted the call and directed his cronies to hush themselves. The screen cleared to show that sinister butterball of a man, the ex-Lord Gregor Shreck. The Shreck sat behind an ugly but functional wooden table, covered with papers and reports. He nodded curtly to Valentine, the nearest he ever got to polite behavior, and plunged right in without bothering with any more amenities:

“You’re in trouble, Wolfe. Parliament’s sent a force to investigate what you’re up to on Virimonde.”

“Really?” said Valentine, unperturbed as always. “Andjust how large an army are they sending?”

“It’s worse than an army. They’ve sent Deathstalker and d’Ark.”

The three aristocrats looked quickly at one another and began to babble unhappily. Valentine waved for them to be quiet, and they were. The Wolfe smiled slowly at the Shreck’s image on the viewscreen, his great scarlet smile spreading across his deathlike face. “Dear Owen. I have so been looking forward to meeting him. I can’t wait to see what he thinks of what I’ve done with his old place. When can I expect the illustrious hero and his warlike companion?”

“Hell, he and the bitch have probably already landed by now. I’m not as well connected as I used to be. Word takes longer to reach me these days.”

“The Deathstalker can’t be here,” said the Kartakis. “The security systems would have taken out his ship. Or the sensors would have warned us—”

“Don’t be silly,” said Valentine. “This is Owen Deathstalker we’re talking about.” He looked back at the Shreck. “You are still otherwise on top of things at your end?”

“Of course. You supply the product, I’ve got people set up to move it.” Gregor scowled unhappily. “Never thought I’d end up a drug runner at my time of life.”

“I’d have thought it was an occupation you were ideally suited for,” said the Silvestri, idly paring his fingernails with the edge of one of his knives. “But then, everyone rises to their true level eventually.”

“At least I’m not a fugitive from what passes for justice these days,” snapped Gregor. “I still have my Tower and my people.”

“But you’re not a Lord anymore,” said the Romanov, in between sucking chicken grease off his fingers. “We haven’t allowed Blue Block and that traitor Random to strip our rightful heritage from us.”

“And we will be Lords again,” said the Kartakis flatly. “Even if we have to kill everyone else in the Empire who says otherwise.”

“Big talk from a little man,” said Gregor, secure in the knowledge that the Kartakis was light-years away. “We tried fighting. We lost. Our only hope now is the Wolfe’s plan. And God help us all if it goes wrong.”

“If it goes right, I’ll make gods of you all,” said Valentine calmly. “We will return in glory and know power beyond that even Lionstone wielded. But that’s the future. Tell me of the present, Gregor. How goes the cabal?”

“Growing all the time,” said Gregor. “No one’s willing to come out in public, but more and more aristocrats and politicians are supplying people and money to help expedite your plan. No telling how many of them will actually stand up and fight when the time comes, but I’ll settle for them just abstaining at the right moment. The rebels and their pet Parliament may think they’re running things, but their precious new regime is built on sand.”

“And the sands of time are running out for all of them,” said Valentine. “How I do love a good metaphor. Now, be a good boy, Gregor, and make yourself scarce. I must think. I have to prepare a suitable welcome for dear Owen and the redoubtable Hazel d’Ark.”

“Watch yourself,” said Gregor. “They aren’t human anymore. If they ever were. They’ll take a lot of killing.”

“If it was easy,” said Valentine, “there’d be no fun in it, would there? Goodbye, Gregor.” He shut down the viewscreen.

“Let them come,” said the Silvestri. “ We can handle them.”

“We can,” said the Kartakis. “I’m not so sure about you.”

Carlos Silvestri flushed pinkly, a knife in each hand. “I can hold up my end.”

“Relax,” said the Romanov, rooting through the remains of his dinner in case he’d missed anything. “With all the guards and security we’ve set up here, we could hold off an entire army till they starved to death.”

“Anyone else maybe,” said the Silvestri. “But this is the Deathstalker and the d’Ark woman. I’ve heard stories about them, of the things they did during the street fighting on Golgotha. Someone said they died and brought themselves back to life.”

“Stories,” said Athos Kartakis. “There are always stories.”

“In this case they might just be true,” said Valentine. “But not to worry, dear comrades. Let them come how they will. They’ll find nothing here but death.” He laughed softly at his little joke. The others didn’t look too appreciative of his humor, but then, they rarely did. Valentine’s sense of humor had changed and evolved along with his alchemical transformation, and wasn’t to everyone’s taste anymore. He sighed, and got to his feet, the signal that dinner was officially over. He dabbed daintily at his scarlet lips with a napkin and started toward the door. The three aristocrats made varying sounds of alarm despite themselves. Valentine took his time turning back to face them.

“Yes, dear friends? Was there something else?”

“The drug,” said the Kartakis stonily. “We need the drug.”

“Of course,” said Valentine. “What was I thinking? It’s time for your daily dose, isn’t it? How very forgetful of me.”

He strolled back to the table and took a small phial of pills from his pocket. The three men who had once been Lords and masters of their destiny looked at the phial and tried not to appear too desperate. Valentine was quite capable of dragging out his little game for ages if he felt like it. He could make them do anything, anything at all, at this time of the day, and they all knew it.

The esper drug had originally been discovered by a small group of scientists looking for something else. To their surprise, they found they had created a drug that could give everyone who took it regularly a small but real gift for telepathy. The original Lord High Dram, the Widowmaker, had seized control of the drug and the scientists, and put it to his own use, but his plans, like his imagination, were somewhat limited. After his death Valentine took control of the drug and the single laboratory that produced it. There was of course a catch or two. First, the drug was highly addictive. Once you’d started taking it, you had to continue for the rest of your life, or die horribly. And second, a small percentage of the people who took it died immediately. Valentine had weighed the pros and cons, but not for long. It was only a drug, after all, and Valentine had never believed in letting a chemical get the better of him.

The three ex-Lords had also taken the drug and survived. It had been the Wolfe’s condition for allowing them to join him in mass-producing the drug. A drug that could be used as a weapon to undermine and then control first the Parliament and then the rest of the civilized worlds. For whoever owned and controlled production of such an endlessly addictive drug would have complete and utter control over everyone who took it, for as long as they lived. And for those few who might try to hold out against it, it would be easy enough to slip them the drug unnoticed. Everyone has to eat and drink, and one dose was all it would take.

Valentine had always believed the simplest plans were the best.

So he handed out the precious pills, and the Silvestri and the Romanov and the Kartakis swallowed them down, and everyone was reminded of just who was in charge of things in the old Deathstalker Standing. Valentine had the grace not to smile triumphantly at them. They would have liked to kill him for the secret, and regain control of their lives, but they didn’t dare. They knew that if he died, they would die too, and however badly he died, they’d die worse.

“I trust you enjoyed the dinner,” he said smoothly. “Something a little different today.”

The three aristocrats looked suspiciously at the dinner table, trying to remember if anything had seemed out of the ordinary.

“No, no,” said Valentine, correctly interpreting their expressions. “I wouldn’t waste any of my special concoctions on such an unappreciative audience. Rather, I thought we might all enjoy a taste of the last real produce exported from the food planet of Virimonde.”

For a long moment none of them got it. There was no food left on the planet anymore. Everyone knew that. And then the Silvestri’s eyes widened, and he put a hand to his mouth as all the color drained from his face. “The dead . . . the people of Virimonde . . . we’ve been eating . . .”

“Yes, you have,” said Valentine. “And with such good appetite too. Ah, me; so many taboos, so little time. Enjoy the after-dinner mints, gentlemen.”

With a cheery smile and a modest inclination of the head, Valentine Wolfe left to plan the surprises he had in mind for Owen Deathstalker and Hazel d’Ark.

* * * *

The great Deathstalker castle had been built on a huge promontory of solid granite. From the front and the two sides, open plains stretched away in all directions. To the rear there was a solid drop of hundreds of feet, ending in nasty, jagged rocks lashed by a vicious incoming tide. Which made the Standing both extremely easy to defend and very hard to sneak into. Perfect security thinking. Though that wasn’t why Owen had chosen to put his Standing there. He just liked the view.

Of course, he’d never expected to have to break into his own Standing, so when he and Hazel finally came in sight of his old home, they had to stop and do some hard thinking. A frontal or side approach was out of the question; their special nature might make them invisible to the castle’s sensors, but they were still perfectly visible to the naked eye. And Owen didn’t share Hazel’s faith in their invulnerability. So after a certain amount of argument, they finally decided the only practical way was around the back. It meant retreating back some of the way they’d already come, and a slow descent down to the wave-lashed shore at the foot of the great promontory, but eventually they stood together amid the flying spray, looking up at hundreds of feet of bare granite wall.

“There used to be birds here,” said Owen quietly. “Or things very like birds. Soaring and wheeling on the wind, crying out in the saddest voices you ever heard. And now they’re all gone. They even killed the damned birds.”

“Just another reason to take revenge,” said Hazel. “Nothing like a little stoked rage to warm a body on a long, cold climb.”

“It’s very cold here,” said Owen. “I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again.”

He started up the dark granite wall, climbing slowly and carefully, and after a moment Hazel followed him. The wind rushed around them, trying to pluck them from the sheer rock face, but couldn’t budge them, so it just settled for blowing tears from their eyes. Owen concentrated on the wall before him, moving confidently from one foot and hand hold to another.

After the first hundred feet, he decided very firmly that he wasn’t going to look down again till he was safely inside the castle. Great views aside, he’d never been fond of heights. And yet he moved increasingly easily up the bare rock face, his hands and feet instinctively finding holds and supports he would have sworn weren’t there till he needed them. Not for the first time, it was as though his body knew how to do something without having to be told. Owen brooded over that as he climbed. He’d become able to do all kinds of things that he never could before, since he passed through the Madness Maze, and emerged so much more than he had been. The talents came and went, and he couldn’t always be sure they’d be there when he needed them. And even after all this time he was no nearer understanding their nature. He looked across at Hazel, skittering calmly up the smooth granite surface like an insect on a pane of glass, and had to look away. He really hoped he didn’t look like that. He made himself look again, and found Hazel looking back at him.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said easily.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” said Owen. “I assume you had no prior knowledge of rock climbing before today either?”

“Got it in one. It’s as though my hands and feet know where to go without me looking, as if they’ve always known. Spooky. I wonder what else we could do if we just put our minds to it. I’ve always dreamed of flying . . .”

“I wouldn’t try that out just now,” said Owen. “Those rocks below look to be particularly unforgiving.”

“Good point.”

They climbed some more in silence. Owen couldn’t help noticing that neither of them were even breathing hard.

“Do you ever think about the things we can do?” he said finally. “What we’re becoming? We’re not espers. I had a number of major players from the esper underground scan me, at my request. They had no idea at all how I’m able to do the things I do.”

“I try not to think about it too much,” said Hazel. “We were given gifts. Gifts that have kept us alive in situations where anyone else would have perished horribly. They helped us overthrow the Empire. Why look such a gift horse in the mouth?”

“Just because something has a leg at each corner and eats hay, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a horse. Espers, for all their powers, are still human. That’s one of the reasons we fought the rebellion. But we were changed by an alien device. Who knows what it was really intended to do, what it was supposed to produce?”

“Transfiguration,” said Hazel slowly. “It made us . . . better than we were. That was its function. I remember that much.”

“But what do we mean by better? A human definition or an alien one?”

“Why the hell are you asking me? You’re the brains in this partnership. I just hit things.”

Owen sighed. “Because I’m tired of asking myself questions that I can’t answer. Or else coming up with answers that are just too damned disturbing. Our only hope of enlightenment was the Maze itself, and the Maze is gone. Destroyed. And with it went all our hopes of discovering exactly what was done to us and why.”

“So why torment yourself?” said Hazel, stopping to look at him as she realized he’d stopped climbing.

“Because I’m scared of what I might be becoming,” said Owen. “I’m scared I might be losing my Humanity. Leaving it behind. Have you ever thought we might end up as distant from ordinary men and women as the Hadenmen or the Wampyr or the AIs from Shub? That we might become so . . . alien that we might forget who and what we used to be?”

“Stop it, Owen,” said Hazel sharply. “You’re just spooking yourself. I don’t feel any different from the person I used to be. I still believe in the same things, want the same things, hate the same things. I’m still me. My abilities just make it that much easier for me to achieve the things I want.”

She started climbing again, and after a moment Owen followed her. “I think it’s subtler than that,” he said finally. “One small change might not mean much, but put enough of them together . . . I mean, we don’t even have the first idea of how our powers work. Why they come and go the way they do. Sometimes we’re just fighters with an edge, and other times we’re all but gods. We’re not in control of our powers. They control us.”

“Look,” said Hazel. “If you’re trying to spook me now, you’re succeeding, so cut it out. Our condition didn’t exactly come with a user’s manual, so all we can hope to do is learn by doing.”

“It’s dangerous to use any new weapon without checking out the small print. There could be side effects we haven’t noticed yet. Maybe we’re using up our lives. Burning up all our years to come. The energy that powers our abilities has to come from somewhere. The candle that burns twice as brightly burns half as long. And we have burned brighter than suns.”

“God, you’re in a morbid mood today. I feel fine. I feel better than fine. Maybe we’ll live forever.”

“And another thing, why did we all come out of the Maze with different abilities?”

“Why not?” said Hazel reasonably. “We were all different people.”

“Yes, but . . . some of what we do is similar to esp. Jack and Ruby are firestarters, and Giles could teleport. I’ve got something like psychokinesis. But how the hell do you do what you do? What are these different versions of yourself that you’re able to summon up during a fight?”

“Damned if I know,” said Hazel. “I just call, and they come. None of them ever stuck around long enough afterward to answer questions. Giles thought they were other versions of me from different time tracks—people I might have become if things had gone differently.”

“Yeah, but time tracks are just a theory,” said Owen. “No one’s ever been able to prove the existence of different dimensions, let alone make contact with them. Maybe the other yous are just products of your imagination, made real by the power within you.”

“No way,” said Hazel firmly. “I’ve seen some of these other mes. I don’t have that good an imagination.”

“Yes, but . . .”

“Owen, I don’t know! And this is not the time or the place to be having a discussion. Now, stop asking questions and get your ass in gear, or I’ll get behind you and kick your butt all the way up.”

Owen considered this. “You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Damn right. Now, shift it.”

They climbed the rest of the way in silence, eventually coming to the great circular opening in the granite wall that led to the massive caves burrowed out under the Standing. Owen used to keep his personal flyers and other vehicles there when he was in residence. It made sense to assume that Valentine and his cronies had docked their ships in the caves too, which meant the opening would still be clear. And Owen knew of a secret passage that led directly from the main cave to the master bedroom.

“A secret passage?” Hazel had said.

“Oh, yes. I used it to escape from the castle when my people first turned on me.”

“And no one but you knows about it?”

“It’s a Family secret. The only other person I ever told was David, and he’s dead now.”

They moved silently up to the lip of the opening and clung to the cold stone, still as limpets, as they listened for any sign that their presence had been noted. After a while Owen gestured to Hazel that he was going to move up over the ledge and into the cave opening. She nodded, and he took a deep breath, steadying himself. Theoretically, there could be any number of armed guards present, looking after the parked ships, but it didn’t seem likely. By any normal standards, the caves were unreachable. Unfortunately for Valentine, Owen and Hazel hadn’t been in hailing distance of normal for some time now. Owen took a firm grip on the granite ledge, and hauled himself up and over and into the cave in one swift, fluid motion. He was up on his feet in a second, disrupter in hand, searching for a target, but all was quiet. Four luxurious yachts stood together, powered down, along with a handful of single-man flyers, but otherwise the place was deserted. Not a guard in sight. Owen padded stealthily forward, ears pricked for the slightest sound, but all he could hear was his own breathing. He lowered his gun and breathed a little more easily.

“All clear, Hazel.”

She was with him in a moment, hurrying across the ceramic floor to stand beside him, projectile gun in one hand, grenade in the other. She glared suspiciously about her. “There ought to be someone here. It doesn’t make sense to leave expensive ships like these just standing around unguarded.”

“Who’s going to steal them?” said Owen reasonably. “Valentine and his private army are the only people here.”

“What about security cameras?”

“Oz still has secret access codes for all the castle’s security computers. Right now he’s editing their signals so we don’t appear. This was all covered in the planning sessions, Hazel. I do wish you’d attend the briefings.”

“What, and do you out of the fun of explaining everything to me? You’d never forgive me.” She turned slowly around in a circle, checking the corners and shadows. “I still don’t like this. It’s too easy. If I was as guilty of as many nasty things as Valentine, I’d want all my exits and entrances thoroughly guarded.”

“He’s probably relying on the security systems. I did install the very best. And those souped-up satellites of his would hold off any normal ship.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Hazel. “What if they reported opening fire on us?”

“What if they did? After the onslaught they handed out, they probably assumed we were so damaged we burned up during the descent.”

“You keep using that word probably. There’s nothing very probable about Valentine Wolfe. He’s paranoid as hell; he doesn’t think the way the rest of us do.”

“Hazel, trust me. This is my place, I know what I’m doing. Now, please put away that gun and grenade before you have an unfortunate and very loud accident. I want to take a look around here.”

“What’s there to see?” said Hazel. “It’s just a cave.”

“The first of several caves,” said Owen, carefully not watching as Hazel made the gun and grenade disappear about her person. “When I was in charge here, we used the extra caves to store all the items there wasn’t room for in the Standing proper. When a Family’s been around for as long as mine, you’d be amazed how much junk you accumulate. And of course you don’t dare throw any of it out for fear of future generations calling you a barbarian. Because you never know when some piece of centuries-old tatt might suddenly become fashionable again, or might come in handy to settle some ancient Family feud or argument. I used to display the best pieces in the castle itself and dump the rest in the caves down here. It’s all carefully catalogued. Somewhere. David said he was going to have a good clear-out once he moved in, but I don’t think he had time, in the end. Either way, I’ll feel better once I’ve checked. I don’t like surprises.”

He moved off toward the back of the cave. Hazel rolled up her eyes briefly at the polished ceiling, and went after him, giving the parked yachts plenty of room in case they were armed with proximity alarms. In the end, Owen didn’t get far. He stood before the entrance to the next cave, which was now blocked off by a glowing force field. He was standing very still, and Hazel could tell by the tenseness in his stance that something was very wrong. She hurried over to join him, the gun back in her hand again. She moved in beside him and then stopped, and screwed up her face in disgust. Beyond the transparent energy field the cave was packed from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling with dead bodies. Not respectfully lying in state, on separate slabs or tables, but just crammed together, packed in as tightly as possible. A temperature gauge on the wall by the opening showed that a freezer unit was maintaining the bodies at near zero. Some of the faces looked out at Owen and Hazel, an almost lifelike gleam shining from the frost on their frozen eyeballs.

“Well,” Owen said finally. “Now we know what they did with the bodies.”

“Owen . . .”

“Not now. I want to check the other caves.”

And so they went from cave to cave, from opening to opening, and they were all filled to capacity with the refrigerated dead of Virimonde. Owen tried to estimate how many bodies there were, but even guessing at the massive size of the caves, he couldn’t grasp it. The numbers were just too big. He stopped before the opening to the last cave, and couldn’t go any farther. All the strength just went out of him. Hazel stood beside him and put a comforting hand on his arm, but he hardly felt it.

“I feel like I ought to do something,” he said quietly. “But I don’t know what. They were my people. They’re still my people. Even if they are dead. But I don’t know what to do.”

His hands had clenched into helpless fists. Hazel moved in close beside him, trying to support and comfort him by her proximity.

“I don’t suppose this means much to you,” said Owen. “After all, you were a clonelegger.”

“I never saw the bodies,” said Hazel. “But sometimes I had nightmares . . . Why do you suppose Valentine . . . ?”

“Who knows why Valentine does anything anymore?”

Hazel hesitated, hearing the cold, bitter rage beneath his words, but pressed on. “The Wolfe’s crazy, but there’s always a method to his madness. He must have had a reason. Or else why bother refrigerating them?”

“Knowing Valentine, it’s probably a very disturbing reason.” Owen let his breath out in a long sigh, and his fists unclenched. “I say we find the bastard and ask him. And if I don’t like his answers, I’m going to bounce him off the castle walls till his ears bleed.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said Hazel.

Owen led the way to the back of the flyer cave, and opened a hidden door in the wall to reveal a narrow stone passage leading upward. Lights came on in the tunnel, showing the way. Hazel was quietly impressed.

“It leads to another secret door in what used to be my old bedchamber,” said Owen. “From there we have access to all the main areas of the castle. Internal security is mostly human rather than tech. Aristocrats don’t like being spied on. Keep your hand near your sword, but leave your guns alone. The sound of a gun would bring guards running from all directions. And I don’t want a war. I just want Valentine.”

Anywhen else, Hazel would have snapped at Owen for lecturing her on something so obvious, but she kept her peace. Talking helped distract him. She followed him into the tunnel, and the door swung shut behind them. Their footsteps seemed very loud in the quiet. And then Owen stopped suddenly, turning his head back and forth.

“What is it?” Hazel said quietly.

“Something’s wrong,” said Owen.

Hazel looked up the tunnel. “I can’t see anything.”

“Neither can I. But I can feel it. Can’t you?”

Hazel concentrated, trying to reach out in the strange directions her mind was capable of, and then Owen grabbed her roughly and threw her to the floor. She landed hard, driving the breath from her lungs. Owen hit the ground beside her a moment later, one arm flung across her to hold her down. And from every side disrupter beams filled the tunnel from hidden gun ports. If they’d stayed standing, they’d have been shot to mincemeat.

“So much for your secret passage, Deathstalker,” Hazel hissed, trying to burrow down into the solid stone floor.

“They must have got it out of David before he died,” said Owen. “Try to wriggle backward toward the door.”

“Hell with that,” said Hazel. “I have my dignity. Wait till the beams shut off, and then we’ll make a run for it while they’re recharging.”

“One, they’re staggered. They’re not going to cut off. Two, the beams are angling lower. Now wriggle, dammit.”

They moved back down the tunnel to the door as fast as they were able, the disrupter beams passing barely an inch or so above their bodies. The lowering energy beams seared through the air just above them, filling the tunnel with the stench of ionized air. Owen’s clothes rucked up around him as he crawled backward, slowing him down, and he could hear Hazel’s many guns and ammo belts scraping along the floor. He risked a glance at her, just in time to see a disrupter beam clip her raised elbow, vaporizing the sleeve and burning the exposed flesh. She grimaced, but didn’t make a sound, and kept moving. The smell of burnt meat mingled briefly with the ozone.

Owen redoubled his efforts, scrambling backward as fast as he could force himself. He could almost feel the energy beams cutting through the air directly above him. And then he lurched to a halt as his feet slammed up against the closed steel door. He pushed against the door with all his weight, but it wouldn’t budge. Owen’s temper flared, and he kicked out with both feet. The heavy steel door flew open, half torn off its hinges. He looked back at Hazel again. She’d raised her head slightly at the noise, and a disrupter beam was heading right for her forehead.

For Owen time seemed to slow and stop, the energy beam crawling slowly through the air. And it was the simplest thing in the world for him to lunge forward and thrust his golden Hadenman hand between Hazel and the beam, and the disrupter beam ricocheted harmlessly away. Time crashed back to normal. Owen grabbed Hazel and then threw himself out of the tunnel and back into the main cave, dragging her with him. They hit the floor hard and rolled away from the opening, putting as much room as they could between themselves and the deadly tunnel. They lay together for a while, getting their breath back, and then rose just a little shakily to their feet.

“So,” said Owen. “Still feel invulnerable?”

“Oh, shut up, Deathstalker. Don’t you get tired of being right all the time?” She raised her arm gingerly and studied the burn with a curled lip. “Nasty. But it’ll heal. Thanks for the save, stud.”

“Any time,” said Owen.

Hazel looked at his golden hand. “I have to say I’m impressed. Your average disrupter beam can vaporize steel plating in under a second, but it just bounced off that golden fashion accessory of yours.”

“The Hadenmen do good work.” Owen flexed the golden metal fingers just a little self-consciously. “One of these days I really ought to sit down with some human scientists and have them analyze the hell out of this thing, but I never seem to have the time. It’s all rush, rush, rush when you’re a rebel hero.”

“And a bounty hunter.”

“That too. Speaking of which, I have another idea on how to get to dear Valentine.”

“Hold everything. Your last idea didn’t turn out so damned hot.”

“And you’re not going to like this new one much either. But we can’t hang around here; those disrupters must have set off all kinds of alarms once they were triggered. There’ll be guards here soon. Lots of them, armed to the teeth.”

“Let them come,” said Hazel. “Let them all come. I could use something to work off my frustrations on.”

“Not for the first time, you’re missing the point. The guards could pin us down here while Valentine and his cronies make their escape. And I’ll see this place reduced to rubble before I let that happen. This time Valentine is going to pay for his crimes. In blood.”

“Every now and again you remind me of why I like you,” said Hazel. “All right, Deathstalker. I’m going to regret asking, but what is this marvelous new plan of yours?”

“There’s another secret passage. One I never told David about. A Deathstalker always keeps some secrets to himself.”

“There’s a catch,” said Hazel. “I just know there’s a catch.”

“Oh, yes. The entrance to this tunnel is on the other side of the first cave on the left. The only way to get to it is past the piled-up bodies of the dead.”

“Oh, nice one, Owen. How the hell are we supposed to do that? Drag the bodies out one at a time?”

“Too long. The guards would be upon us before we’d barely started. No, there’s only one way. We’re going to have to crawl through.”

“No,” said Hazel flatly.

“Hazel . . .”

“No! Are you crazy? Dig our way through corpses, hand over hand? I won’t do it, Owen. I’d rather stand and fight here.”

“And die?”

“I’m not doing it!”

“You used to be a clonelegger!”

“I was already planning to leave the cloneleggers even before I met you. We can’t do this, Owen. It’s freezing in there. Near zero.”

“We’ve withstood worse,” said Owen. “The guards will never think to look for us among the dead.”

“That’s because no sane person would even think of doing it. I can’t, Owen. I just can’t. It would be like crawling through the contents of the freezer units on the clonelegger ship. Just like my nightmares.”

“No, it won’t. This time I’ll be there with you. You have to do this, Hazel. It’s the only way. And I can’t do it without you.”

“You bastard, Deathstalker. You always did know how to fight dirty.” Hazel drew in a long, ragged breath and let it out slowly. “All right. Let’s do it. Before I get a rush of brains to the head and tell you to go to hell.”

“Just follow me. I’ll lead the way.”

“Damn right you will.”

Owen led the way to the cave. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Hazel staring straight ahead, her face a cold mask, but her eyes were those of a frightened child. Owen had never seen her scared before, really scared.

“So,” he said, searching for the right words to say, “you were already thinking of leaving the cloneleggers before we met?”

“Yeah,” said Hazel. “They were too gross even for me. And the pay was lousy.”

“Silly me. I thought it might have something to do with morality.”

“Don’t you use the m-word in my presence, Deathstalker.”

They stopped before the entrance to the cave. Beyond the shimmering transparent force field, dead faces looked out at them. Hazel’s hands fell to her guns, but they didn’t comfort her. “Damn you, Deathstalker. Somebody’s going to pay for this.”

“Hang on to that attitude. It’ll come in very handy when we have to fight our way through Valentine’s private army at the other end.”

Hazel snorted. “Overwhelming odds I can handle. I’m used to that. Now, shut up and open the damned door. You can do that, can’t you?”

“I’m working on it.”

Owen studied the force field thoughtfully, and an idea came to him. He accessed his AI.

“Oz, do you still have the command overrides for the Standing?”

“Of course. I have override codes for every system in the castle, and every system linked into those systems since we left. Unless David or Valentine and his people have changed them.”

“Not likely. David wouldn’t have bothered, and Valentine hasn’t had time. Try it, Oz. Isolate this system, shut down this cave’s force field, and then raise it again after we’re in. Without setting off any alarms.”

The AI sniffed. “You don’t want much, do you? It’s lucky for you that I’m such a superior model. But before I work my usual miracles, can I just point out that I have no control over the refrigeration units Valentine has installed in these caves. They’re an entirely separate system that I have no access to. The temperature in the cave you propose to enter, it’s not actually zero, but it’s as close as you’re ever likely to encounter, short of opening an airlock and stepping out into deep space. Though I wouldn’t put that past you either. I’ve known depressed lemmings on window ledges with better survival instincts than you. Suffice to say that any normal human entering this cave would freeze to death extremely quickly. Assuming the shock didn’t get him first.”

“Hazel and I aren’t normal, Oz. We haven’t been for a long time. Open the cave.”

There was a sudden snap of energies cancelling out, and the force field was gone. Freezing air rushed out from the cave, steaming thickly into the cavern like a thick fog. The bitter cold hit Owen and Hazel like a blow, and they flinched back from it despite themselves. They shuddered violently and held on to each other for support. There was no smell, no stench of death or decay. It was too cold for that.

Owen and Hazel moved reluctantly forward, the cold air searing their lungs painfully as they breathed it. The nearest body was a woman, dressed in torn peasant’s clothing, charred and blackened around the energy-weapon wounds that had killed her. Her face was a mess. Half of it was missing. Owen reached out a hand toward her and then hesitated. His hand was trembling, and not from the cold.

“If she’s as cold as I think she is, you could get frostbite just by touching her,” said Hazel.

“Not to worry,” said Owen. “I used to know a lot of women like that at Court.” He shook his head slowly. “I thought I’d seen everything. Thought I’d seen so much death and suffering that this wouldn’t mean anything to me. But I was wrong.”

“When you stop feeling anything,” said Hazel, “it’ll mean part of you has died too. The human part. But as bad as you feel, you’re still going to do this, aren’t you?”

“Of course. It’s necessary. He murdered my world.”

Owen drew his disrupter, aimed it at the packed bodies before him, and fired. The energy beam tore a path through the frozen dead, creating a tunnel into the mass of bodies some three feet wide. It looked like some monstrous worm or maggot had eaten its way through the dead on its way to some unknown, awful destination. Owen put away his disrupter and turned to Hazel.

“We’ll move through the tunnel for as far as it goes, and then you’ll have to pull bodies in behind us to cover our tracks. The extra space I’ve created will give us room to maneuver at the end of the tunnel.”

Hazel looked at him for a moment. “Nothing’s going to stop you, is it, Deathstalker?”

“No. I know this is difficult for you, Hazel, but . . . I need you. Do it for me.”

“All right. For you. But you’re going to owe me one hell of a favor afterward.” She scowled at the tunnel. “It’s going to be dark, once we’re . . . inside the mass of bodies. How will we know where we’re going?”

“I know where the hidden door is,” said Owen. “I can feel it in my mind. All you have to do is follow me. Don’t worry. It’s not like there’s any chance of you getting lost in there. Let’s go.”

And he turned away from her and stepped into the chamber of the dead. The utter cold cut into him like a knife, and he shuddered so hard his teeth chattered in his head. The frozen air burned in his throat and lungs, like swallowing razor blades. Hoarfrost formed immediately on his hair and eyelids, and his eyes ached as the cold began freezing the liquid in his eyeballs. He blinked hard, gritted his teeth, and knelt down to fit himself into the tunnel he’d made. Even with his disrupter set on full, wide dispersal, it hadn’t been able to produce a very wide tunnel. He’d have to crawl through it on hands and knees. His knees jarred on the frozen bodies, frozen hard as concrete. Some had been cut open by the energy beam as neatly as a surgeon’s knife, revealing hard, frozen innards. They were mostly gray, with a few pale shades of pink or purple, even the vitality of color leached out of them by the dreadful cold.

Owen shuffled forward, reaching out with his hands to grab the bodies ahead and pull himself along. The dead flesh was so cold it burned his bare hands. Every instinct yelled at him to let go immediately, but he refused to listen. He tightened his grip and pulled himself on. When he did try to let go, his warm flesh clung stickily to the cold, and he had to use all his strength to pull free. He left patches of skin behind, but felt no pain. Owen refused to let it upset him. The skin would grow back, and it would happen less and less as his hands cooled. Already his body was adapting to the horrid cold, his core temperature plummeting at a speed that would have killed anyone else. He had no sensation left anywhere, and his eyes were stuck open, but he’d stopped shuddering. When he moved his arms and legs, they felt like they belonged to someone else. His breath no longer steamed on the air before him. He pulled himself on down the tunnel, farther into the domain of the dead, and the dark closed slowly in around him. He could hear Hazel moving close behind him, breathing harshly, and she was his only comfort.

The tunnel ran out sooner than he thought it would. He grabbed the bodies before him, pulling them apart and away from each other, opening up a path. Often limbs stuck out like barriers in his way, and he had to tug and pull, breaking them off and putting them aside, out of the way. The arms and legs snapped cleanly, like pieces of wood. He tried to think of them that way but couldn’t. They were people, his people. Sometimes he had to smash in rib cages with his more than human strength to make the necessary room. The unmoving bodies were stubbornly resistant, and he came to resent them. Didn’t they knew what he was doing was for their sake? He lashed out with his fists, and was glad his hands were numb, for more than one reason.

He could feel Hazel’s presence behind him, and hear the ragged, breaking sounds of her slow progress, but when he croaked her name, she didn’t answer him. Presumably her voice was as wrecked by the cold as his. Either way, he couldn’t turn around to see if anything was wrong. There wasn’t room. So he pressed on, heading for the door.

It was very dark now. The last of the light from the main cavern and the re-erected force field had long since died away. There were shifting and creaking sounds all around him, as the bodies redistributed their weight in response to Owen’s actions. It was almost as though the dead were stirring, disturbed by the presence of the living in their midst. Owen was glad of the dark. He had a quiet horror that one of the dead faces might open its dead eyes and turn to look at him as he passed, and he thought if he saw such a thing he might well lose his mind. There were some things no man could bear to see and still stay sane. And so he fought his way on, his heart hammering in his chest, his breathing harsh and ragged, half convinced that at any moment a dead hand would reach out of the darkness and clamp down on his arm or leg.

Claustrophobia sank slowly into him as the weight of all the bodies seemed to bear down with increasing weight. He began to doubt the surety of the direction in his mind, of the location of the hidden door. He had no other way of telling one direction from another in the utter dark. They could be moving in a slow circle for all he knew, hopelessly lost in the kingdom of the dead. He began to feel he’d been moving for far too long without getting anywhere. That he should have been there long before this. That he’d be trapped in here forever, in his own private hell. But he wasn’t alone. Hazel was there with him. And just knowing that gave him the strength to go on.

Sometimes hooked fingers snagged in his clothing, jerking him to a sudden halt, and he had to feel blindly back and snap or break the metal-hard fingers before he could move on. Although he couldn’t see them, his fingers told him that the bodies before him weren’t always complete. His people had died fighting the invaders, and most of them had died hard. The invasion and destruction of Virimonde had been written in their yielding flesh, and the marks were preserved here for all to read. Rage burned in Owen at what had been done to them, and the fury helped to warm him as he struggled on.

Finally he reached the other side, and his hands slammed up against unyielding metal. His thoughts had been slowed by the cold, and he considered the matter sluggishly for a while before realizing he’d reached his destination. He yelled for Oz to open the hidden door, and a panel opened in the wall, sliding silently to one side. Bright light poured in, blinding his frozen-open eyes. He called out harshly, in pain and triumph, the sound like some raucous gore crow disturbed on a battlefield. He pulled himself out into the corridor beyond and then collapsed, steam rising thickly from his body.

Cold air steamed out of the opening and thickened into fog as it hit the warm air of the corridor. Owen lay helplessly on the floor, the horrid cold curling and uncurling inside him like ratcheting razor blades. But the stoked heat of his rage still burned deep within him, and it burned away the cold inch by inch until life returned to his body and he could move again. His fingers moved first, bending and straightening, making sharp cracking sounds like twigs trampled underfoot. His body contracted and relaxed in a series of slow pulses as warmth flooded back into cold-deadened muscles. The pain was horrific, but Owen welcomed it. It meant he was coming alive again after so long spent among the dead.

After a while he forced himself up onto his feet and looked around for Hazel, and only then realized that she hadn’t followed him out of the place of the dead. She was still in there. He hobbled over to the opening, his knees cracking loudly, and called her name. She didn’t answer. Owen batted the freezing fog with his hands, trying to see into the darkness beyond, but even his eyes had their limits. He called again, but the cold and the dark swallowed up his voice in a moment. He reached inside himself, searching for the mental link that bound him to Hazel, but it eluded him, weakened by long neglect. He’d left her behind in the cold and the dark, in the kingdom of the dead. And he had to go back in and rescue her.

Something inside him protested immediately. He couldn’t go back into the cold again. He just couldn’t. The cold and the dark and the horror of it all had nearly destroyed him. It would be madness to give it another chance at him. But even as he thought that, he knew he was going to go back in. He had to. Hazel needed him. He still hurt from head to toe, but that would pass. He was afraid, but that didn’t matter. He’d been afraid before. For a long time now, the only thing that really had mattered to him was Hazel d’Ark.

So he took a deep breath of the freezing air, and thrust his head and shoulders back into the dark. The bitter cold closed around him like the embrace of an old familiar enemy, but he made himself ignore it, thinking only of Hazel. He forced himself on, back into the dead, and then his heart stopped as a cold hand closed suddenly around his wrist. His breath burst out of him in a painful gasp, his imagination showing him the dead coming slowly to life all around him, holding him, keeping him in their frozen Hell till he was dead like them. And then his heart and his breathing started up again as he realized the hand was Hazel’s.

He grabbed her wrist, tried to say something reassuring in his croaking voice, and scrabbled frantically backward, pulling her with him. It only took a few moments before he was out in the corridor again, pulling Hazel out into the light and warmth. She came out in a series of sudden jerks, unable to help him, her body frozen rigid, and when she finally fell to the corridor floor, she made a sound like a felled log. Her eyes were frozen shut, and her face had frozen into a defiant snarl, teeth gritted together. Her skin was blue.

Owen knelt beside her, chafing her hands in his, mostly just for something to do. Her body would throw off the cold just as his had, but he needed to feel he was doing something to help. Steam rose thickly from her solid clothes. Her hair was thick with hoarfrost, but it soon melted and ran away in the warm air of the corridor. And slowly, inch by inch, Hazel’s body relaxed, until she was nestling in his arms, murmuring his name.

Finally she sat up and pushed him away, and he knew she was back to herself. She shook her head slowly, as though trying to clear out cobwebs in her thinking. “I lost my way. The tunnel was a straight line, but I . . . lost myself, alone in the dark. With the dead. And you came back for me.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered suddenly. “Feels like I’ll never be warm again. That the cold of the grave will always be with me.”

“It’ll pass,” said Owen.

“Of course it will,” said Hazel. “We’re more than human now, remember? No longer bound by human fears and . . . weaknesses.”

“Hazel . . .”

“I’m all right now. I’m fine.”

“Of course you are,” said Owen.

They got to their feet, helping each other. Owen quietly told Oz to close the panel in the wall, and the freezing air was shut off. The fog in the corridor slowly began to clear. Owen looked around him, searching for something he recognized. It had been a long time since he’d been . . . home.

“Right,” said Hazel. “Which way do we go, Deathstalker?”

“Give me a minute,” said Owen. “I’m not actually sure . . .”

“Come on, this is your castle, your Standing . . .”

“Well, yes, but I don’t think I actually ever came down this far. I mean, it’s a big place. Mostly I stuck to my own quarters. I certainly never bothered with the maintenance areas. I had people to do that for me.”

“Lifestyles of the rich and useless. No wonder your own people were able to throw you out of here so easily.”

“They didn’t throw me out! I retreated in the face of superior numbers. Perfectly sound military strategy.”

“Yeah, sure. Look, are you saying you’re lost?”

“Down the corridor and turn right,” Oz murmured in Owen’s ear. “That’ll lead you to Valentine’s new laboratories.”

“Of course I’m not lost,” said Owen. “We just go down here and turn right, and that’ll take us right to Valentine’s new laboratories. Bound to be someone there you can terrorize into telling us what we need to know.”

“You don’t appreciate me,” said Oz as Owen and Hazel set off down the corridor. “You really don’t.”

“How did you know where Valentine’s labs are?” said Owen, subvocalizing so Hazel wouldn’t hear.

“Educated guess,” said Oz. “There were only so many open spaces where he could have set up all the new tech he’s supposed to have here.”

“What would I do without you, Oz?”

“I shudder to think. Now get your ass in gear before some guards come along.”

Owen passed that thought on to Hazel, and they increased their pace. The exertion helped to drive the last traces of cold out of their bodies. Owen began to feel almost human again. Hazel must have too, for after a while he noticed her beginning to pay more attention to their surroundings. They were worth noticing. The floor was carpeted, the rich material covered in designs so old that centuries of Deathstalker servants’ feet had mostly rubbed the details away. Tapestries and portraits and holos hung from the old stone walls, mostly detailing lesser moments in the long Deathstalker history. The greater moments and treasures were on display on the upper levels, where they could be showed off to aristocratic guests. Or they should be. Owen frowned. There was no telling what Valentine might have done with them. Owen wouldn’t have put it past Valentine to heap all the Deathstalker treasures in one great pile and then set fire to it, just for the fun of dancing around it. And for the thought of what it would do to Owen when he found out. Owen walked a little faster. It was a small anger, to add to so many others. Owen kept all his anger carefully tamped down, far enough away not to interfere with his mission, but ready to burst out free when he finally came face to face with the villain Wolfe.

And then there would be a reckoning.

Owen followed Oz’s murmured directions till he and Hazel came to a sudden halt, their way blocked by a door that looked distinctly out of place. It was a solid steel door, blunt and functional, with a state-of-the-art and then some lock. Hazel immediately moved in close, studying the lock with almost hungry intensity. Hazel and locks were old friends. Or enemies, depending how you looked at it. Owen put his ear to the cold steel door and listened carefully. After a while he slowly made out the measured repetitious sounds of grinding machinery, and the hissing of gasses under pressure. Owen straightened up and frowned thoughtfully. He’d kept nothing in his Standing that would have sounded like that. And David hadn’t added anything either. What new horror the Wolfe had introduced into what used to be his home? He looked down at Hazel, who was still studying the lock.

“Any luck?”

“Yeah, all bad. Without my tools we’re talking half an hour at least. Maybe more.”

“Too long,” said Owen flatly.

“I know that!” said Hazel. She stood up and scowled at the steel door. “We could always shoot the lock out.”

“Too noisy. Even if it didn’t set off a whole mess of alarms, which it probably would.”

“All right,” said Hazel impatiently. “What do you suggest?”

Owen smiled at her, stepped forward, and kicked the door in. The lock shattered, the solid steel denting deeply under his boot, and the whole door tore itself away from its hinges and fell to the floor of the room beyond with a satisfyingly heavy clang. Hazel looked at Owen.


They stepped over the door and into the lab, guns in hand, but there was no one coming to meet them. The only occupant of the vast room was a technician in a grubby smock seated before a computer terminal, the jack plugged into the back of his neck. Owen and Hazel lowered their guns. The cyberjock was so lost in his own world they could have shot him and he wouldn’t have noticed till he unplugged. They looked around them, trying to make sense of the masses of tech and machinery that filled most of the laboratory.

The room was huge. Owen thought vaguely it might have been a wine cellar once. Unfamiliar machinery was bulked together in groups, taking up most of the floor space, their tops almost brushing the ceiling. None of it looked particularly subtle. It was mostly crude mechanical constructions (hence the need for a jack-in rather than using comm implants) designed for crushing and grating and sorting the materials presented to them. Owen turned slowly around, tracing the path of the materials. Tubing led away from the larger machines, stapled to the stone walls, crisscrossing each other in a riot of color coding. They delivered whatever they were carrying to a complicated filtration system, which in turn steadily dripped its end result into a series of unlabeled containers. Everything else was straightforward computer-monitoring equipment. He looked across at Hazel, who shrugged, which was pretty much what he’d expected. So, when in doubt, ask someone. Loudly.

Owen strode over to the lab technician, happily communing unawares with his computers, ripped the jack out of the back of his neck, spun him around in his chair, and stuck his gun up the man’s nose. It took a moment for the tech to realize what was happening, dazed by his sudden exit from the computer systems, and then his eyes focused on Owen’s face and he looked even more upset, if that was possible. Owen smiled nastily at him, and the tech actually whimpered. Hazel moved in from the other side and gave him her best menacing glower, and the man all but wet himself. Owen began to feel like he was bullying a puppy, but ruthlessly suppressed the thought. This was one of Valentine’s people, and therefore guilty by association.

“Hi there,” Owen said to him, not at all pleasantly. “I’m Owen Deathstalker, the nightmare made flesh to your right is Hazel d’Ark, and you are in deep doo-doo. Answer my questions fully and accurately, and you might just live long enough to stand trial. Nod if you’re with me so far.”

The technician nodded as best he could with a gun up his nose. All the color had disappeared out of his face the moment Owen mentioned his name, and cold beads of sweat were popping out on his forehead. Owen was secretly impressed. He hadn’t realized he was that frightening.

“Who are you?” he growled to the tech. “And what is the purpose of all this machinery? Overview first, then the details.”

“I’m Pierre Trignent, my Lord,” said the technician quickly, his voice little more than a whisper. “Please, I’m just a little fish. I’m nobody. You want the ones who give me orders. I just do what I’m told.”

“We’ll get to them,” said Hazel. “Now, answer the man’s question. What are you doing here?”

Trignent swallowed hard, lowering his eyes. He was going to lie. Owen could feel it. He leaned forward so his face was right in front of his victim’s. The tech tried to shrink back in his chair, but there was nowhere to go.

“If you lie,” said Owen, “I’ll know it. I can always get the answers from someone else if I have to, but I guarantee you won’t be around to see it.”

“Yes, my Lord, but . . .”

“I’m not a lord anymore. But I’m still a Deathstalker. Now, tell me everything you know or I’ll show you what that means.”

“This is a processing and refining plant, my . . . sir Deathstalker. We take in the raw material, break it down into its basic chemical components, siphon off the desired residues, and store it for later transport off-planet.”

“But what’s the raw material?” Owen said impatiently.

“And what the hell is the end product?”

“The esper drug,” said Trignent reluctantly. “We’re manufacturing the esper drug.”

Owen and Hazel looked at each other. They’d heard about the esper drug during their time with the esper underground, but its composition was supposed to be a secret. Still, if anyone was going to dig up a new drug, it would be Valentine. And setting up production on Virimonde was a good way to keep it secret. Parliament had discovered his presence only by accident. Owen nodded slowly. He was following the trail so far. But none of it explained why the technician should still be so scared. . . .

“What’s the raw material?” said Owen. “What are you refining the esper drug from?”

“Please,” said Trignent. He started to cry. “Please understand. I just follow orders. They’d kill me if I didn’t.”

“I’ll kill you if you don’t answer me! What’s the raw material?”

“The dead,” said Pierre Trignent. “The dead of Virimonde.”

After that it was very quiet for a long moment. Apart from the slow, steady sounds of the rendering machinery, chewing up the latest batch of raw material.

Owen’s eyes squeezed shut, but he could still see what he now recognized as crushing and pulping machinery. He could still see his dead people, stacked like logs, kept frozen so they’d keep until they were needed. His eyes opened again, and the technician took one look at the cold rage building there and began talking very quickly, almost babbling, as though relieved to finally be able to tell somebody.

“The Lord Wolfe came here because there were so many bodies just waiting to be harvested. The esper drug has always been derived from human tissues, just as the esp-blockers come from dead esper brain tissues, but you need a lot of . . . the basic material to produce just a small amount of the end product. That’s why the esper drug has always been so rare, so secret. The Lord Wolfe saw an opportunity for mass production here and took advantage of it. He’s processed hundreds of thousands of the dead and produced more of the drug, and in a purer form, than was ever possible before. It’s really quite a simple process once it’s been set up. There’s just me, and a handful of others, to keep an eye on things. Please, I’m nobody. I just did as I was told—”

“You have been overseeing the destruction of my people, to produce a drug so addictive it enslaves all who use it,” said Owen, and his voice was very quiet and very dangerous. “I have seen horror in my time, in many wars, on many battlefields. I have waded through blood and offal, killed till my arms ached, and seen the slaughter of the good and the bad, but never have I encountered anything as cold-blooded as this. The destruction of the dead . . . to produce a poison for the living. Turning Humanity itself into a product. Oh, my people . . . my people . . .”

He turned away, his shoulders heaving, and Hazel went after him. Trignent saw his chance and made a run for the door. And Owen Deathstalker looked around, tears in his eyes, and shot the man in the back. The energy beam punched a hole through Trignent’s back and out his chest, slamming him against the door frame. He clung there for a moment, already dead, and then crumpled slowly to the floor. Owen shook his head slowly back and forth, as though trying to deny what he’d been told. Hazel moved in close beside him, but he waved her away. There wasn’t room in him for anything but horror and sorrow and a rage to strike back at the cause of his pain.

“I shouldn’t have shot him,” he said finally.

“He was as guilty as all the others.”

“Yes. But that wasn’t why I killed him. I did it because I needed to hurt someone. Punish someone. Apart from myself. They were my people. I should have been here to protect them.”

“Oh, let it go, Owen! You were outlawed. Banished. Get over it. Everyone here turned their backs on you.”

“It doesn’t make any difference. They were my responsibility. Oz?”

“Yes, Owen?”

“Shut this obscenity down. All of it. Whatever it takes.”

“Yes, Owen.”

“Now,” said Owen Deathstalker. “Let’s go find Valentine and his cronies. And kill them all.”

* * * *

When the head of Valentine Wolfe’s security people appeared, somewhat nervously, on the viewscreen in the great hall to alert Valentine that, in order, two strangers had somehow appeared in the flyer caves under the Standing, been identified as the legendary Owen Deathstalker and the infamous Hazel d’Ark, who then somehow made their way into the castle proper despite all the security safeguards, and could be, well, anywhere right now, you could have heard a pin drop in the hall once he stopped speaking. In fact, you could have heard the pin while it was still in midair. The Silvestri dropped one of his daggers. The Romanov went very pale. And the Kartakis’s last swallow of wine went down entirely the wrong way and half choked him. Valentine Wolfe ignored the unpleasant sounds, and concentrated on the increasingly unhappy security chief on the viewscreen.

“Are you telling me,” he said almost pleasantly, “that all our extensive and incredibly expensive security measures couldn’t stop two people from breaking in?”

“Well, basically, yes, my Lord. After all, the two people are—”

“I know who they are. That’s why I hired you and your people. And just from looking at you, I can tell there’s more bad news. What is it?”

The security chief looked even more unhappy, if that was possible. “Some outside system has penetrated our computers and is shutting down the processing plant.”

“Now, correct me if I’m wrong, and I don’t think I am,” said Valentine. “But I seem to remember you telling me that such a thing was completely and utterly impossible.”

“Yes, my Lord. Strictly speaking, it is impossible. It shouldn’t be happening.”

“But it is.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“You’re fired,” said Valentine. “Collect your severance pay and have your second in command nail your head to a chair before you leave. And no, you don’t get a reference.”

He shut down the viewscreen and leaned back in his chair. The Silvestri picked up the dagger he’d dropped. “You should have had him killed, Wolfe.”

“Don’t be silly, Carlos,” said Valentine absently. “Mercenaries have a very strong union.” He chuckled suddenly, a soft, dangerous sound. “Dear Owen, how did you know to find me here? I covered my trail extremely thoroughly. And yet, here you are, turning up like the proverbial bad penny to ruin my day yet again. You always want to spoil my fun. Still, I hope you appreciate my little act of vengeance. After all, every dramatic gesture really needs an audience to appreciate it.”

The Silvestri pulled his other dagger from a portrait’s eye, deliberately ripping the ancient canvas. “I’m not afraid of the big bad Deathstalker. Let him come. Him and his bitch.”

The Romanov shrugged off the priceless tapestry he’d been wearing like a cloak and frowned thoughtfully. “You might not have enough sense to be scared of the Deathstalker, but I have. He’s a dangerous man. He really did do most of the things he’s supposed to have done. Even the ones that sound impossible. But unlike the rest of you, I had a feeling our security forces weren’t up to stopping or even slowing down a living legend, if he did get wind of our operation. So I made my own arrangements. A little surprise, especially for the Deathstalker. Now, if you’ll excuse me, or even if you won’t, I think I’ll go and unpack it.”

He strode out with his head held high. Valentine applauded his exit languidly, and his scarlet smile widened. “Surprises. I do so love surprises. As it happens, I have one or two prepared for dear Owen too.”

“It had better involve sudden death for our enemies, or we’re all in real trouble,” said the Kartakis, his breathing back under control again. He sounded suddenly very sober, and not at all happy about it. “The Deathstalker is really not going to be pleased when he discovers what we’ve made of his old home.”

“I’m not afraid of him,” said the Silvestri defiantly.

“Yes, well, that’s because you’re a complete bloody head case,” said the Kartakis equably. “In our line of work that’s usually an advantage, but we can’t afford indulgences like insanity right now. We have to think. Come up with a plan. We have men and resources. At least the Deathstalker didn’t bring an army with him to back him up.”

“He doesn’t need an army,” Valentine pointed out. “He’s got Hazel d’Ark.”

“You’re being remarkably calm about all this,” snapped the Kartakis. “Do you know something we don’t, or have you been popping a few extra pills today?”

Valentine smiled easily. “I have a plan. A very unpleasant plan, perfectly tailored to take advantages of Owen’s weaknesses. All you have to do is keep the d’Ark woman occupied. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be about setting my plan in motion. Oh, it’s going to be such fun watching him suffer.”

He got up, bowed elegantly, and left, strolling casually away as though he didn’t have a care in the world. The two aristocrats looked after him.

“That man is not living in the same reality as the rest of us,” said the Silvestri.

The Kartakis snorted. “His plan probably involves cutting his losses, abandoning us, and heading for the far horizon like a bat with its ass on fire. If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We can stop them. We just have to prepare . . . something . . . to get them off balance. . . .”

“I’m not afraid of the—”

“Will you stop saying that! You’re not fooling anyone!”

“Least of all me,” said Owen Deathstalker.

The two aristocrats spun around and there he was, standing tall and intimidating in the doorway, a sword in his hand like it belonged there and always had. His face was grave, his eyes were cold and unwavering, and he looked every inch of his legend. Hazel d’Ark was at his side, leaning casually on the door frame, a large projectile gun in her hand. Just looking at the two of them, Athos Kartakis felt his blood run cold. The Kartakis had fought so many duels he’d lost count, stared death in the face and spat in the bony eye socket, but he’d never really felt in terror of his life before now. He had a disrupter under his robes, but knew he’d be dead if he even tried to draw it. Unless he could come up with a distraction . . .

“Well, Silvestri,” he said as casually as he could. “You always said you could take the Deathstalker. Feel free to prove it.”

Owen looked at the Silvestri interestedly. The aristocrat shot a glance of betrayal at the Kartakis, and then faced Owen steadily. “You don’t scare me, Deathstalker,” he said loudly. “I’ve heard about your inhuman powers, but they just sound to me like something a coward could hide behind. How about it, Owen? Have you got the guts to fight me as a man, not a monster? Because I can take you man to man, steel to steel, and deep down you know it.”

“Now he really is full of it,” said Hazel. “Say the word, Owen, and I’ll shoot his eyes out.”

“No,” said Owen. “I could use a little entertainment.” He looked at the Kartakis. “Don’t try and interfere. Hazel wouldn’t like it.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said the Kartakis quite sincerely. He backed away, keeping both hands in clear sight, thinking hard.

Owen moved slowly forward into the great hall, taking in the various damage that had been done to the fixtures and fittings of what had once been his home. He didn’t look angry or even upset; he looked just a little colder, and even more dangerous. Carlos Silvestri came forward to meet him, moving lightly on the balls of his feet, a slender knife in each hand. In his own way he looked dangerous too, but it was nothing compared to the cold implacability of the Deathstalker, and everyone there knew it. The two men came together to fight in the middle of the hall, and everyone there knew how it was going to end.

The two men circled each other unhurriedly, blades at the ready for any hint of an opening in the other’s defenses. Theoretically, it was a more or less even fight. Knives were excellent for close-in fighting, but had no reach. Unless you threw them and risked disarming yourself. The sword, on the other hand, had plenty of reach, but when it came to infighting, the long blade could be wielded nowhere near as quickly as a knife.

The Silvestri launched the first attack, his right hand moving almost too quickly for the human eye to follow. Owen parried the blade, and then had to jump back as the left hand came swinging in from nowhere with vicious speed and purpose, heading for Owen’s undefended gut. The flashing blade missed Owen’s stomach by a fraction of an inch. Owen brought his sword around in a swift backhand sweep that clipped the Silvestri’s head as he ducked at the last moment. And then they were circling again, calm and collected and deadly cold.

The Silvestri feinted with his right hand, waited until Owen had committed himself to the counter, and then his left hand snapped forward, throwing the knife at Owen’s right eye. His sword was too low to deflect the knife, and both of them knew it. The Silvestri’s eyes widened in triumph. And then Owen’s golden Hadenmen hand came up out of nowhere to intercept the knife’s flight and slap it to one side. The knife chunked harmlessly into the tabletop, and while the Silvestri was caught momentarily off balance, Owen swung his blade with all his strength behind it and sheared cleanly through his opponent’s neck. The head fell to the ground and rolled away across the floor to bump up against the Kartakis’s feet. He made a silent moue of distaste and moved his feet a little away. The headless body stumbled forward a few steps, blood gouting from the neck, and then it crumpled to the floor.

“Feel better now?” said Hazel.

“Some,” said Owen. He wasn’t even breathing hard.

That was when Pieter Romanov made his entrance, amid a loud hum of straining servomotors. Everyone turned to look as he stopped and posed in the doorway. He was wearing a massive exoskeleton, its metal bones surrounding and supporting him, while rectangular force fields buzzed angrily on both forearms. Owen had seen such things before, usually on dock-workers at starports, unloading heavy cargo. Because of their great weight they burned up a lot of energy really quickly, so they’d never really been practical for battlefields, but Owen had to admit it made a pretty good short-term answer to people like him and Hazel.

“Come to me, monsters,” said Pieter Romanov grandly. “I am your equal now. I am faster than any human muscle can drive a man, and my strength is as the strength of ten because my tech is pure. I will rip your arms from their sockets, tear your heads from your shoulders, and my dogs shall feast on your entrails.”

Owen was still trying to come up with a suitably elegant answer that didn’t involve four-letter words when Hazel stepped forward.

“My turn,” she said firmly. “You’re not hogging all the fun, Deathstalker.”

“Be my guest,” said Owen generously.

Hazel strode over to the waiting Romanov and stopped a careful distance just outside arm’s reach. Other Hazels flickered in and out of existence around her, but she pushed them firmly away. She had a really amusing idea of how she was going to do this, and she had no intention of sharing the fun with anyone else, even other versions of herself. She holstered her projectile weapons and smiled nastily at the Romanov, who stirred uneasily. Whatever response he’d expected, being faced with bare hands and blatant self-confidence certainly wasn’t one of them.

Hazel reached unhurriedly out to the abandoned meals on the table beside her and picked up a ripe piece of fruit. She crushed it in her hand, so that thick pulp and juice leaked through her fingers, and then she threw the sticky mess at the Romanov. Her arm snapped forward with more than human force and speed, and the sticky projectile shot past his defenses before he could even raise his shielded arms. The pulped fruit struck home with perfect accuracy, right in the heart of the exposed servomotors on the Romanov’s left arm, and made a wonderful mess of the gears. Sparks flew, and several of the motors shorted out.

The Romanov yelled in outrage and surged forward, moving horribly quickly for something of his size and weight. Hazel hopped up onto the table and darted back out of reach of his arms. She snatched up more of the abandoned food, crushed it to oozing pulp, and threw it with devastating accuracy. The Romanov whirled his force shields desperately back and forth, but was no match for her speed and reflexes. More of his servomotors failed him, shorting out or hopelessly gummed up. Hazel laughed mockingly.

The Romanov roared with rage, grabbed the heavy table with both hands, and overturned it with one swift movement. Hazel launched herself from the table, tucked through a somersault in midair, and landed on the Romanov’s shoulders. Her legs wrapped around his neck and squeezed. His face went bright red, and he couldn’t get his breath. He started to raise his hands to tear her from him, and Hazel grabbed his exposed head firmly with both hands.

“Let us understand each other,” she said calmly. “You annoy me, and I am going to rip your head off your shoulders. And your servomotors are so gummed up now that you haven’t a hope in hell of getting to me before I do it. Clear?”

The Romanov considered the matter. Above the buzzing of his force shields he could clearly hear the shorting out of more motors. And he was going to have to breathe really soon now. He shut down his force shields and smiled hopefully at Owen.

“I’d really like to surrender now. Please.”

Hazel grinned triumphantly and loosened her hold a little. She looked across at Owen. “Up to you, Deathstalker. If you need to kill him, he’s all yours.”

“Oh, hell,” said Owen tiredly. “Let’s take him back for trial. He’s too pathetic to kill. I just want Valentine.”

“In which case, I’d really like to offer my surrender too,” said the Kartakis. He carefully unbuckled his sword belt and let it drop to the floor. He then removed his disrupter from its hidden holster with thumb and forefinger and let that fall too. Hazel nodded briefly.

“All right, get over here with Lord Seize-up, and don’t make a move unless I say otherwise.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” said the Kartakis.

Hazel released her leg hold on the Romanov’s neck and clambered down from his shoulders. Owen waited till Hazel was clear, and then fixed the two aristocrats with a cold, unsettling gaze. “Where can I find Valentine Wolfe?”

“He left just before you got here,” said the Kartakis. “Said he had a surprise to arrange for you. Didn’t say what, and we didn’t ask. One doesn’t with Valentine Wolfe.”

“I’ve got him,” Oz murmured in Owen’s ear. “I’m still tapped into the Standing’s security systems. Valentine is currently at security central, running a very strange set of programs on the computers. But don’t ask me what they are. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like them.”

“It doesn’t matter what he’s got,” said Owen. “I’m going to kill him anyway. Hazel, you stay here and guard these two. Oz has got a lock on Valentine.”

“Hold everything,” said Hazel. “I don’t want you running around this place on your own. We’re partners, remember?”

“I know,” said Owen. “But I need to do this myself.”

Hazel nodded reluctantly. “Don’t take too long or I’ll come looking for you.”

“Understood. Watch these two carefully. You can’t trust them.”

“Of course not,” said Hazel. “They’re Lords.”

They exchanged a smile, and then Owen turned and left. Hazel sauntered over to the upturned table and leaned against it. The Kartakis moved just a little closer to the weapons he’d dropped, and then stopped as Hazel fixed him with a glittering eye. “Feel free to start something, my Lords,” she said. “And I’ll feel free to think up something even more amusing to do to you.”

The two Lords looked at each other, and then stood very still.

* * * *

Owen made his way quickly through empty stone corridors, heading implacably toward what had once been his security center. He was prepared to cut down without mercy any man who got in his way or tried to hinder him, but he encountered no one at all. Which was strange. Where were the guards? Owen slowed just a little as he considered the matter. So far the only people he and Hazel had come across in the Standing were a few guards, two aristocrats, and a single lab technician. Where was everyone? And just what unpleasant surprise was Valentine planning for him? Owen scowled, and increased his pace again. He didn’t like mysteries. He just wanted, needed, to see Valentine lying dead and bloody at his feet. Owen might not have been able to save his people, but he could still avenge them.

He made himself move faster, and soon he was running down the familiar stone corridors, his boots pounding loudly on the thick carpeting, no room in him for anything but guilt and pain and the need for the bloody revenge that would quiet them.

Finally he came to the single steel door that led to what had once been his security center. He reined back on his anger and his need, and made himself study the door carefully. It was inches-thick solid steel, with no visible lock mechanism, and undoubtably booby-trapped in a dozen ways, from hidden disrupters to primed explosives. Owen didn’t care.

He concentrated, reaching down past his conscious mind, into the back brain, the undermind, and something there woke up and uncoiled, bursting outward without restraints. The mental pulse blew the solid steel door right out of its steel frame, and sent it flying backward into the room beyond. The hidden disrupters and explosives tried to arm themselves, but Owen shut them down with a single thought. His power was fully awake now, and burning brightly within him. Owen stepped through the empty doorway into the room, only to be stopped by the sound of quiet, ironic applause. At the far end of the room, almost hidden in shadows, Valentine Wolfe was sitting languidly in a swivel chair, clapping his long white hands together. Dressed in utter black, his corpse-pale face seemed to float unsupported on the gloom.

“Marvelous entrance, Owen. You really have developed a sense of the dramatic. Such an improvement. You were always so proper and stuffy before you were outlawed. Really, it’s been the making of you.”

Owen moved forward a few steps, looking carefully about him. Lots of computers and monitor screens and terminals, but no operators and no guards. Just Valentine, apparently unmoved. Nothing and no one standing between the Deathstalker and his vengeance. “Get up, Wolfe,” he said softly, his voice cold and certain as death. “It’s all over. It ends here.”

“Oh, don’t be so predictable, Owen,” said the Wolfe, casually folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. “Do we really have to do what everyone expects of us? Act out the traditional roles of pure-hearted hero and dastardly villain? There’s more to us than that. We have so much in common, you and I. We ought almost to be brothers in spirit.”

“I’m nothing like you, Wolfe,” said Owen flatly.

“Really? What have I done that you haven’t, in your time as a rebel? I’ve no doubt your personal body count is much higher than mine, for all my efforts.”

“You were responsible for the death of this planet. For the wiping out of its population.”

“Well, I had help, but how many died at your instigation on Mistworld and Golgotha? How many good soldiers, just following orders and carrying out their duty? Who knew nothing of politics and were just enforcing the law? There’s blood and death and horror on both our hands. But don’t let it worry you. We’re above such things. We’re more than human now, and human limitations don’t apply to us any longer.”

“It’s not what we’ve done,” said Owen. “It’s why we did it. I killed when it was necessary, fought to see an end of killing. You did it for pleasure.”

“Are you saying you won’t enjoy killing me?”

“No. I’m not saying that at all.”

“You see? Ordinary restrictions don’t apply to us. We can do wonderful, terrible things, limited only by our imagination and the narrowness of our vision. We will do these things; we must, because we can. Don’t stay mired in the past, Owen. In the man you used to be, before you were kicked awake. You’re still concerned with small concepts, like duty and honor and law. Law is for the little people, honor for those afraid to be more than they are, and our only duty is to ourselves now; to explore the possibilities before us, to become everything that we can be. Anything less is a betrayal of what we’ve made of ourselves.”

“I’ve lost so much, had to give up so many things,” said Owen. “I won’t give up my humanity too.”

Valentine shrugged easily. “Trust me, Owen. You’ll be surprised how little you’ll miss it. But I see there’s no point in talking to you anymore at this point. You’re not ready to hear the truth. When you’ve progressed as far as I have, you’ll see things much more clearly. Still, I had to try. I see so much of myself in you. Now, I really must be leaving.”

“I don’t think so,” said Owen. “If I remember correctly, and I do, there’s only one way in or out of this center, and I’m blocking it. You have to get past me first. And you were never that good.”

“Probably not. But I don’t have to be. I’ve always relied on others to do the hard menial work for me. I am a Lord, after all. I have someone here who’d like to meet you, Deathstalker. Really, she’s quite been looking forward to it. You went away and left her, and I’m afraid she carries something of a grudge. You never were very good with women, Owen.” The Wolfe looked off through an open door that led into an adjoining room. “Do step in here and make yourself known, my dear.”

From the adjoining room came the sound of slow, stumbling footsteps. Owen’s nose wrinkled as a smell came to him, dark and organic, quite out of place in the spotless high-tech security center. It was a smell of preservatives, and underneath that the sickly sweet stench of rot and decay. A cold prickling ran down Owen’s spine, a premonition. And then the dead woman stepped into the room and stood trembling beside Valentine Wolfe. She was quite naked, but held a sword in her hand. She’d been in the ground for some time. The primitive undertakers of Virimonde had done their best, but the pale purple and gray skin had cracked apart all over the body, revealing implanted computers and servomechanisms. The big Y of an autopsy scar ran from her sunken breasts down to her groin, the stitches stretched and broken. A single death wound still showed clearly against the ribs. The face was taut and drawn, sunken down to the bone in places. The dead lips had torn free of their stitches and drawn back from the perfect teeth in an unwavering smile that had no humor in it. The eyes were deeply sunk in their sockets, and yellow as urine. The flat blond hair had grown longer in the grave. But Owen still recognized her, and horror closed around his heart like a fist.

“Cathy . . .”

“Got it in one, Deathstalker,” said Valentine Wolfe. “Your old mistress, Cathy DeVries, from the days when you were young and carefree. Actually, she was really an Imperial spy, set to keep an eye on you, and you had to kill her in self-defense. Your first love, who died in your arms. Such a touching scene, I’m sure. And here she is again, my little present to you.

“You see, I’ve done my homework on you, Owen. I know what moves you, and what holds you back. I had dear Cathy dug up when I first came here, and had my people implant Ghost Warrior technology inside her. Just in case you tracked me here to trouble me again. Now, I think I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone together. I’m sure you’ve got lots to talk about. And, Owen . . . just in case you can bring yourself to kill her again before she kills you, I’ve arranged another little surprise for you. No, don’t bother to thank me. What are brothers for?”

He gestured at the dead woman, and she lurched forward, sword at the ready. Owen backed away, and the corpse of what had once been his mistress came after him. He tried to speak to her, but his mouth was too dry. This wasn’t Cathy. Cathy was dead, and the computers currently inhabiting her body cared only for the orders programmed into them. Owen knew this, but he couldn’t fight her. Not her. Killing Cathy had been the hardest thing he’d ever had to do then, and he didn’t think he could do it again. And so he allowed her to back him away from the open door, and Valentine Wolfe slipped easily past them, chuckling happily. He darted away down the corridor, still laughing, leaving Owen and what was left of his old mistress to sort out their differences together.

And in the computers of the security center, a program was slowly counting down to zero—Valentine’s last gift to the Deathstalker.

* * * *

Back in the main hall, Hazel d’Ark was bored. She sat in a chair with its back to the wall, so no one could sneak up on her, and watched the Romanov and the Kartakis sit quietly together. Hazel could have contacted Owen through his comm implant, to see how he was getting on, but she knew how snappish he could get if you interrupted him while he was in the middle of something. Hazel crossed her legs, just for something to do, and wished Owen would get on with killing the Wolfe. There was always the chance he’d go all soft-hearted again at the last minute, and insist on dragging the Wolfe back alive to stand trial, but she didn’t think so. Not this time. Hazel crossed her legs again and sighed heavily. Boring, boring, boring.

She glared across at the two silent aristocrats, and only then realized that the Romanov had disappeared. His exoskeleton was still sitting where it had been, but he wasn’t inside it anymore. Hazel was immediately on her feet, gun and sword in hand, eyes sweeping the great hall. How the hell could she have missed the Romanov getting loose? There was no way he could have clambered out of that much armor without her noticing, no matter how preoccupied she’d been with her boredom. Unless the body armor had built-it stealth technology—in which case the Romanov could have freed himself while hidden behind a projected holo illusion. And if the Romanov had dropped that illusion, it could only be because he was currently skulking somewhere in the hall, hidden again behind some projected holo disguise that rendered him, for all practical purposes, invisible. Wonderful.

Hazel held her sword out before her and spun around in a circle. She strained her ears for the slightest sound, but the hall seemed utterly silent. The Romanov could be anywhere in the damned hall. . . . She shot a quick glare at the Kartakis, to warn him to stay put, and was cheered silently by the way he immediately sank back in his chair. And then an arm shot around her throat from behind, tightening its grip, shutting off her air. She struggled furiously against the choke hold, but couldn’t shake the Romanov off. Strength wasn’t enough to break a hold like this, one of the few holds that actually stood a chance against someone as strong as her. She still had some human weaknesses, after all. Hazel staggered back and forth, dragging the Romanov with her, desperate for air, furious with herself for letting her attention slip. She had to defeat the Romanov before Owen got back, or she’d never hear the end of it.

She snapped smartly forward at the waist, and the Romanov went flying forward over her head, his own weight and momentum breaking the stranglehold. She heard him hit the floor hard, and immediately turned and blasted the exoskeleton with her disrupter. The armor exploded with a satisfyingly large bang and went up in flames. The Romanov’s holo illusion snapped off, and there he was before her, rising to his feet with a short but nasty-looking knife in his hand. She really should have searched him.

Hazel sucked the air back into her straining lungs, her sword held steadily out before her. The Romanov was a big man, but she’d faced bigger, and the advantage was back on her side now. The Romanov seemed to sense this, opened his hand, and let the knife fall to the floor. Hazel relaxed just a little. She should have known the aristo wouldn’t have the guts for anything remotely resembling a fair fight.

She gestured with her sword for the Romanov to go and sit down again, and knew immediately they she’d made a mistake. For a man who had one hidden weapon might well have another. The moment Hazel’s blade moved away from him, the Romanov flexed his arm, and a knife dropped down into his hand from another hidden sheath. The knife in his hand streaked toward her undefended gut, and her sword was miles out of line. It was a sudden, simple, blindingly fast attack, and anyone else would surely have died, but Hazel wasn’t like anyone else, and hadn’t been for a long time now. She hauled her sword back into line with inhuman speed and strength, parried the knife, and knocked it aside. The Romanov plunged on, unable to stop, and impaled himself on the waiting blade.

The Romanov sank to the floor, face twisting, and dropped his knife to clutch the transfixing sword blade with both hands, as though he could somehow pull the killing steel out of his body. And it was as he held Hazel’s sword with a dying man’s desperate strength that Hazel realized she’d lost track of the Kartakis. She glared around her, desperately tugging her sword, but couldn’t budge it. And there was the Kartakis, on his feet, a concealed knife in his hand too. She started to raise her gun, but the Kartakis’s hand whipped forward, throwing the knife with deadly practiced skill, and Hazel knew she wasn’t fast enough to dodge it. She tried anyway, and time seemed to slow to a crawl. The knife inched through the air, heading straight for her left eye. And Hazel knew she was going to die, alone and far from friends and help.

Oh, Owen, I wish—

And then there he was, materializing out of thin air, his hand slapping the knife aside. It flashed through the air, back to its owner, and sank to its hilt in the Kartakis’s throat, as though it belonged there. The aristocrat bent slowly forward, as though bowing to Owen and Hazel, and fell dead to the floor. The Romanov breathed his last, let go of Hazel’s sword, and fell backward, dead too. She jerked the sword out of his body and turned, just a little breathlessly, to thank Owen for his last-minute rescue. And it was only then that she realized how different he looked.

His clothes were different, torn and bloodied, and topped with a great furred cloak. His face was tired and gaunt, and he was breathing hard and deep, as though he’d been running for a long time. He looked as though he’d been through Hell and had to fight every step of the way, but in his steady gaze Hazel saw both determination and a desperate, bone-deep sadness. He smiled at her, a strange, gentle smile, and reached out a hand as though to take hers. Hazel thrust her gun into its holster and reached out to take his hand. And that was when she realized Owen was extending his flesh and blood left hand, not the golden Hadenman hand that had replaced it long ago. Hazel hesitated, her hand stopping short of his, and Owen smiled sadly, as though he knew he’d be denied but had still hoped otherwise. He opened his mouth to say something, and Hazel leaned desperately forward, somehow knowing it was vital she heard what he had to say, but he was gone, vanished back to wherever he’d come from, to whatever desperate flight he’d interrupted to save her when no one else could.

Hazel looked about her, but the hall was empty, save for the two dead aristocrats and the quietly burning exoskeleton. Had that really been Owen, appearing out of nowhere to save her when she needed it most? But he’d had two human hands. Could it have been an alternative Owen, from some different time track, like the other Hazels she sometimes summoned? And if so, why had he looked so sad? She accessed her comm implant.

“Owen. Report in. Are you all right? Owen? Owen!”

* * * *

The Ghost Warrior made out of Cathy’s remains lurched toward Owen, sword at the ready, and he didn’t think he’d ever been so angry in his life. He wasn’t worried. For someone who’d once gone one on one with a Grendel, a lone Ghost Warrior with just a sword wasn’t much of a threat. Her sword lashed out at him, and he parried it effortlessly. But to have desecrated the grave of the first woman he’d ever felt anything for, just for a sick joke . . . for another way to hurt him . . . Owen clutched his sword hilt till his hand ached. He didn’t want to have to kill Cathy again. It had been hard enough the first time. But he couldn’t let this mockery of an old love go on. It had to be stopped, if only so he could go after Valentine and tear him apart with his bare hands. And then the dead mouth opened, and an approximation of Cathy’s voice came out. It wasn’t the body speaking. The vocal cords had to be rotted away by now. It was just a recording.

“Don’t hurt me, Owen,” said the dead woman, her torn black lips trying to keep up with the words. “Please. I don’t want to die again. I know I’m not what I used to be, but it’s still me. Cathy. Your mistress. Valentine brought me back, back from the dead, and trapped me in this rotting body. He can do things like that now. He has new friends. Powerful allies. You’d be amazed what he can do now. Please, Owen.”

“Shut up.”

“All right, then, let me kill you, and we can be dead together, lying side by side in the warm earth, forever. Do it for me, Owen.”

“You don’t sound a bit like her,” said Owen, and he stopped backing away. “You don’t sound at all like my Cathy.”

“Being dead changes you.”

“Not this much. Cathy never pleaded for anything. Damn you to Hell, Valentine.”

And he lashed out with his mind, the power boiling up within him, driven and focused by fury and outrage, and the dead body before him blew apart into tiny pieces of rotten flesh and shattered tech. Owen watched them fall and felt nothing at all. It hadn’t been Cathy.

“Owen?” said Hazel’s voice through his comm implant. “Report in. Are you all right? Owen? Owen!”

“I’m fine,” he said finally. “But Valentine’s escaped. We’ll have to search the castle for him. Lock up the two Lords and come and join me in the security center.”

“The Lords are dead,” said Hazel, just a little apologetically. “They tried to escape.”

Owen started to say something cutting and then hesitated. There had been something in her voice. . . . “Are you all right, Hazel?”

“Of course,” she said. “I’m fine. I’ll be with you soon.”

She shut off contact. Owen looked down at the remains of a human body scattered across the floor, and told himself he felt nothing at all.

* * * *

Together, Owen and Hazel searched the Standing, floor by floor, room by room. It took some time. The security system should have been able to locate Valentine, but he’d programmed it to ignore him. The Wolfe always planned his moves well in advance. And so they made their way through the ancient castle and did not find him, or any trace of his people. Valentine Wolfe had left the building.

They finally ended up in Owen’s old bedchamber. The secret passage was still standing open, but Hazel talked Owen out of going back down to the flyer caves. It had been clear to her for some time that the Wolfe had made his escape from the castle, and probably from Virimonde, but she’d let Owen go on searching, because she could see he needed to. They stood together in the bedchamber and looked about them, wondering what to do next. Hazel sat down on the edge of the bed, legs swinging, and smiled as she sank slowly into the deep mattress.

“This is some place you got here, Deathstalker. Did this really all belong to you?”

“When I was Lord, this whole planet belonged to me, and everything on it,” said Owen. “Now the planet and everything on it is dead. All I have left is a Standing I never really cared for, and a few memories.”

Hazel smirked. “I’ll bet you have some good memories from this room, at least.”

“Some,” said Owen. “I had a mistress called Cathy when I was Lord. We were happy here.”

Hazel sat up straight. Owen had never mentioned any previous women in his life before. She’d always supposed there must have been someone, somewhere, but a mistress was news to her. She kept her voice carefully casual. “And what happened to this Cathy?”

“She turned out to be an Imperial spy. Tried to kill me when I was outlawed. I had to kill her.”

“You killed your own mistress?” said Hazel incredulously. “Damn, that’s cold, Deathstalker.”

Owen stared at the holo portrait before him, showing the original Deathstalker, founder of his Clan. “I killed him too, and he was my most revered ancestor. Seems to me I’ve been responsible for too many deaths in my life. And far too many of them people I cared for. Maybe you should find yourself a new partner.”

Hazel got up off the bed and moved to stand beside him. “You never killed anyone you didn’t have to.”

Owen shook his head. “I betrayed my inheritance when I killed Giles. I betrayed my name and my Family honor.”

“No,” said Hazel firmly. “He did that when he forgot what he was fighting for. He was Warrior Prime, in his day, defender of Humanity. When he decided he wanted to be ruler instead of defender, he betrayed us all.”

“He really was a legend,” said Owen. “An authentic hero. He actually did do most of the things the stories say he did.”

“Yeah, including the creating and wielding of the Darkvoid Device. A thousand suns snuffed out in a moment, and no one knows how many billions dead. The greatest mass murderer in history.”

“He meant well. He always meant well. He just . . . lost his way.”

“Ah, hell,” said Hazel, slipping an arm through his. “We all lose our way sometimes. You just killed the man, Owen. The legend lives on.”

“I can’t go home again,” said Owen bitterly.

“You couldn’t have anyway. You’ve changed too much. And mostly for the better.”

Owen raised an eyebrow. “Only mostly?”

“Gosh, sir aristo, could you teach me to arch one eyebrow like that?”

“Go to hell, peasant.”

They stood together for a while, thinking their separate thoughts. “Owen,” Hazel said eventually. “Have you been manifesting any new abilities just recently?”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” said Owen. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, I was wondering if you’d learned how to call up alternative versions of yourself, like I do.”

“Hell, no. I’d definitely have noticed something like that. That is one spooky ability, if you ask me.”

“Trust me, I know exactly how you feel. One of these days I’m going to see if I can get one of them to hang around long enough for me to ask a few pointed questions.”

“Do that,” said Owen. “I’d love to hear the answers. I think.” And then he broke off and frowned suddenly.

“Now what?” said Hazel.

“Valentine,” said Owen. “He said he’d left a surprise for me.”

“Oh, hell,” said Hazel. “You mean we have to search the whole damned castle again?”

“I think we’d better. Valentine’s little surprises are always unpleasant, and tend toward the dramatic.”

“Owen,” said Oz suddenly, “I need to talk to you. Right now.”

“Not now, Oz. We’re busy.”

“Well, you won’t be soon if you don’t pay attention. I’ve found something in your security computers. It appears to be a countdown.”

“A countdown?” said Owen. “Toward what?”

“That’s the problem. I can’t find out. Whatever the program is, Valentine’s locked it away behind a whole series of passwords that I’m having Hell’s own trouble cracking. I’m currently scanning through the entire castle, trying to—oh, shit.”

“You’ve got that we’re-in-real-trouble look on your face again,” said Hazel. “What’s happening?”

“Oz says he’s found a countdown. And then he said, oh shit.”

“Ah,” said Hazel. “We are in real trouble.”

“Oz,” said Owen determinedly. “Could you please expand on oh shit?”

“There’s a bomb,” said Oz. “Planted deep under the Standing. And it’s a really nasty one. Big enough to blow the entire castle to a bunch of free-floating atoms, and leave a glowing crater large enough to park a small moon in.”

“That sounds like Valentine,” said Owen. “Vindictive to the last. If he can’t play with the toys, no one can. Any chance you can defuse it?”

“Oh, shit,” said Oz.

“Your expression just changed again,” said Hazel.

“Unfortunately,” said Oz, “in discovering the bomb and attempting to defuse it, I seem to have triggered another program. . . .”

And that was when the steel shutters slammed down over the windows, the secret passage closed itself off, and the only door shut and locked itself with a very final-sounding series of clicks. Hazel looked wildly about her, gun and sword in hand again.

“Owen, talk to me! What the hell is going on here?”

“Valentine’s accessed the last-ditch security programs, designed to protect the castle’s occupants in time of emergency, and tied it in to any attempt to defuse the bomb. And since Valentine has undoubtably changed all the passwords, it’s a fairly safe bet we have no way of getting the computers to unseal this room before a very large bomb goes off and makes the whole problem redundant.”

“Bomb?” said Hazel. “What bomb? No one said anything about a bomb!”

“Oz did,” said Owen. “Remember the countdown?”

“Hell with passwords,” said Hazel. “I’ll get us out of here.”

She aimed her disrupter at the nearest shuttered window, and fired before Owen could stop her. So he grabbed her and pulled her protesting to the floor—just as the searing energy beam ricocheted back from the unharmed shutter and passed right through the air where they’d been standing. Owen and Hazel tried to burrow into the carpeted floor as the beam bounced back and forth above them, ricocheting from shutter after shutter until finally it exhausted itself. Owen looked at Hazel.

“Please don’t do that again. There are shutters everywhere now, even inside the walls, specially reinforced to stand off energy weapons, which I would have told you if you’d just waited a damn minute!”

“Don’t you raise your voice to me, Deathstalker! This is your castle. Get us out of here. Do something!”

Owen considered panicking, but decided he didn’t have time. “Oz, how much time left on the countdown?”

“Two minutes, seven seconds, and counting.”

“Oh, shit.”

“I already said that. It didn’t help.”

“What?” said Hazel, looking at Owen’s face. “What? What?

Owen thought hard. There had to be a way out. He hadn’t come this far, achieved so much, only to die from a simple trap like this.

“I really don’t like the expression on your face,” said Hazel.

“How invulnerable are you feeling right now?”

“That bad, huh?”

“Worse. We’ve got two minutes before the bomb blows us off this world and into the next, and we can’t even get out of this room. Unless you’ve learned Giles’s trick of teleporting?”

“No. He never did get around to explaining how he did that before you killed him.”

“Oh, right. Blame me. Maybe if we all just talked to each other a little more . . .”

They stopped and looked at each other, and a strange calm settled over them. “This is it, isn’t it?” said Hazel. “End of the line. Funny. Always knew I was fated to die young. But I never thought I’d go out like this. So . . . helpless.”

Owen put an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him. “Hell,” he said, “we’ve been living on borrowed time since we first met. It had to run out eventually. And . . . I’m glad we had our time together. In a strange kind of way, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel. “It has been one hell of a ride, hasn’t it? And if we have to go out, at least we’re going together.”

They sat down on the edge of the bed, side by side. They kissed once, as though they had all the time in the world, and then just leaned companionably together.

“Who knows?” said Hazel finally. “We stood off a point-blank blast from a disrupter cannon back on Mistworld, remember? Maybe we’ll get lucky again.”

“Hold everything,” said Owen, suddenly sitting up straight. “Follow that thought. We stood off that disrupter blast because we were linked together. Our minds were joined together. That’s how we survived!”

Hazel scowled. “I’ve never liked linking. I don’t like letting anyone else into my mind.”

“Hazel, this is no time to be modest! Would you rather die?”

“Damn. All right. Let’s do it.”

She reached out a hand, and Owen took it in his human hand. Their minds reached hesitantly out to each other, following the old mental link that held all the surviving alumni of the Madness Maze together. They drew closer and closer, until the power building between them slammed their minds together into one unified will and became something else. Something more. Something that pulled them right out of their bodies and up into the air above. They flashed through all the floors and rooms of the Standing in a moment, immaterial spirits, until they came at last to the computers Valentine had had installed in the room adjoining the security center. They hovered over the machines, held back for a moment by a strangeness they couldn’t name, and then they concentrated, and heard the machines thinking. It was both simple and very complex, a multitude of small but vital decisions flashing past faster than any merely human mind could hope to follow. But Owen and Hazel had come a long way from human now, and it took them less than a second to sink into the computer systems and pull out the data needed to stop the countdown. The program was interrupted; the bomb reset itself and waited for new instructions. Owen and Hazel ran swiftly through all the computers’ memories, just to make sure Valentine hadn’t left any other unpleasant surprises, and then they pulled free. The driving need that had held and bonded them together ran out, and they vanished from the computer room, separated, and fell back into their bodies again. They looked dazedly around them, getting used to breathing again, as the shutters disappeared and the room unlocked itself.

“Wow . . .” said Hazel finally. “That was . . . something else.”

“It’s what I’ve always said,” said Owen. “We do our best work together.”

“Maybe. Let’s get out of here, Owen. There’s too much death in this place.”

“And Valentine got away,” said Owen. “But I will find him. And for what he’s done, to my home and my world and my people, I’ll make a whole new Hell to send him to.”