Haunted by the Past

It was spring in Haven, and no one gave a damn. Everywhere else in the world, it was a time for life and love and a joyful new start to all living things; but this was Haven, the infamous rotten apple of the Low Kingdoms. An independent city-state at the arse end of the Southern lands, where swords and sorcery, religion and politics, life and death, were just familiar coins in the everyday trade of a dark and twisted city. Set at the intersection of a dozen thriving trade routes, Haven had blossomed over the years, like the great gaudy bloom of a poisonous flower, and people and creatures of all kinds came in search of the city’s many secrets and mysteries. You could find anything at all in Haven, if you were willing to pay the price, which was sometimes gold and sometimes lives, but nearly always, eventually, your soul. Haven; the city of your dreams, including all the bad ones. A place of wonders and horrors and everything in between. Hungry eyes watched from shadowed side streets, not all of them human, not all of them even alive.

In Haven there were glories and mysteries, messiahs and abominations, pleasures and depravities in all their forms. Heroes and villains and a whole lot of people just trying to get through the day. And—just sometimes—a few good men and women, honorable and true, doing their best to hold it all together, punish the guilty and protect the innocent; or at least try to keep the lid on.

Two such were Hawk and Fisher, husband and wife and Captains in the city Guard, possibly the only honest cops left in Haven. They’d never taken a bribe, never looked the other way, and never once given a villain an even break. Unless it was to his arm or leg. They lost as many battles as they won, but they’d won a few big ones in their time, and even saved the whole damned city more than once. It didn’t win them promotions, or even much in the way of raises or commendations, because of the many influential enemies they’d made along the way, through their uncomfortable regard for truth and justice. But still they fought the good fight. Because that was who and what they were.

And if sometimes their methods were excessive, and overly violent, and if occasionally it seemed you could always tell where they’d been because they left a trail of bloody corpses behind them … well, this was Haven, after all.

Their beat was the North Side, the poorest, most desperate, and most dangerous part of the city; and the most dangerous things in that infamous quarter were quite definitely Hawk and Fisher. People tended not to bother them. In fact, people tended to cross to the other side of the street when they saw them coming. Hawk and Fisher had built quite a reputation during their years in Haven, all of it earned the hard way.

Hawk was tall, dark, and no longer handsome. He wore a black silk patch over the empty socket where his right eye had once been, and a series of old scars ran raggedly down the right side of his face, giving him a cold, sinister look. He wore a simple white tunic and trousers under a thick black cloak, his only touch of color a blue silk cravat at his throat.

But still, at first glance he didn’t look like much; lean and wiry rather than muscular, and building a stomach. He wore his dark hair at shoulder length, swept back from his forehead and tied at the back with a silver clasp. Thirty-five years old, he already had thick streaks of gray in his hair. It would have been easy to dismiss him as just another bravo, a sword for hire perhaps a little past his prime, but there was a dangerous alertness in the way he carried himself, and the cold gaze of his single dark eye was disturbingly direct and unwavering. On his right hip Hawk carried a short-handled axe instead of a sword. He was very good with that axe. He’d had a lot of practice.

Fisher walked at his side as though she belonged there, and always had. Thirty-two years old, easily six feet in height, her long blond hair fell to her waist in a single thick plait, weighted at the tip with a polished steel ball. She was handsome rather than beautiful, with a raw-boned harshness to her face that contrasted strongly with her deep blue eyes and generous mouth. She dressed in pure white and black, just like Hawk, without even the softening touch of a cravat. She left her shirt half unbuttoned to show a generous amount of bosom, mostly to distract her opponents. She wore her shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbow, revealing arms corded with muscle and lined with old scars. She wore a sword on her hip, as simple and unadorned as a butcher’s tool, and her hand rarely strayed far from it.

Some time ago something had scoured all the human weaknesses out of her, and it showed.

Hawk and Fisher; partners, warriors, reluctant heroes. Because somebody had to be. They tended not to get the ordinary, run-of-the-mill assignments. They got the hardest, weirdest, most dangerous cases, because Hawk and Fisher were who you turned to when you’d tried everything else, including closing your eyes and hoping it would just go away. Even so, the early hours of this particular morning promised an unusual case, even for them.

“I can’t believe they’re sending us to sort out a haunted house,” said Fisher, kicking moodily at some garbage in the street that didn’t get out of her way fast enough. “Do I look like an exorcist?”

“It would seem more a job for a priest,” said Hawk, just to keep the peace. “But if it means spending the coldest hours of the morning inside a nice warm mansion, with perhaps a nice cup of mulled wine and some civilized finger food close at hand, well, a man must go where duty calls. I can knock on walls and wave crucifixes around with the best of them. Ghosts always pick the biggest and most expensive houses to manifest in—have you noticed that?”

Fisher sniffed, staring straight ahead. “You’re the one who reads those stories. I’m not sure I even believe in ghosts. We’ve run up against more than our fair share of weird shit in our time, from vampires and werewolves to Beings of Power from the Street of Gods, but we’ve never come across a single haunting. Hell, considering the number of people we’ve had cause to kill over the years, if there were such things as ghosts, we’d be hip deep in them by now.”

“Well, whatever it is that’s upsetting the Hartley family, they’re apparently sufficiently well connected to put pressure on our superiors, so we get the job of sorting it out. Probably turn out to be nothing more than a few squeaky floorboards and a case of bad conscience, and we’ll just get to sit around in comfort waiting for something spooky to show up. Preferably while picking through a nice selection of cold cuts, and perhaps a little garlic sausage. In chunks. On sticks. I could really go for some garlic sausage right now.”

Fisher looked at him for the first time, and sighed heavily. “I don’t know why I bother putting you on diets. You never stick to them. You’ve no self-control at all, have you? I’ve seen hibernating bears with less of a paunch on them.”

Hawk glared at her. “It’s all right for you. You can eat anything you like, and never put on a pound. I only have to look at a chocolate cookie and my waistline goes out another inch. It was turning thirty that did it. I should have never agreed to it. It’s all been downhill ever since. I’ll be wearing slippers next.”

“And you wouldn’t even touch those nice nut cutlets I made specially for you.”

“Let us talk about the haunting,” said Hawk determinedly. “Suddenly it seems a far more profitable subject for conversation. The Hartley house is right on the edge of the North Side, where things become almost civilized. Proper street lighting and everything. Family made its money in ornamental boot-scrapers, and other similar useful items. If you’ve ever scraped shit off your boot in this city, you’ve put money in a Hartley’s pocket. The trouble started when the head of the family, one Appleton Hartley, finally and very reluctantly died of old age, and his heirs took over the family house and business. The ghost started acting up the moment they moved in. Spectral apparitions, unearthly noises—(though how those differ from earthly noises has never been clear to me)—and foul and appalling odors. If it was me, I’d just check the drains, but … Anyway, the disturbances have been going on nonstop ever since, and none of the Hartley family have been able to get any sleep for four nights running. This has apparently made them somewhat cranky, and very determined to find an answer for the haunting, which is where we come in. So, as well as everything else, we are now officially ghostbusters, licensed to kick ectoplasmic arse. Acting unpaid, of course.”

“Oh, of course.” Fisher sniffed again. She could put a lot of emotion into a good sniff when she had a mind to. “All right, lead me to the ghost. I’ll tie its sheet in knots, and then maybe we can get back to some real work.”

The Hartley house turned out to be a quiet, unremarkable, three-story house in good repair, not obviously different from any of its neighbors, and set halfway down Hedgesparrow Lane. The house was still in the North Side, and miles from anything even remotely like the countryside, but that was creeping gentrification for you. The street as a whole seemed calm and civilized, even modestly salubrious. Hawk and Fisher strolled down the well-lit street as though they owned it, and the few private guards in their special and highly colorful uniforms found pressing reasons to look the other way. They weren’t being paid enough to mess with Hawk and Fisher. In fact, there wasn’t that much money in Haven.

The current owners and reluctant occupiers of the Hartley house were standing outside the closed front door, waiting for them. Hawk and Fisher had been briefed on the current crop of Hartleys. Leonard and Mavis Hartley were both in their early forties, plumply prosperous and dressed to within an inch of what was currently fashionable. It didn’t suit them. Leonard was the taller, with a shiny bald head and a rather unfortunate attempt at a mustache. His hands jumped nervously up and down the buttons on his vest, unable to settle. His wife, Mavis, was shorter and stouter, with a fixed glare and a jutting chin that gave new meaning to the word determined. Hawk had an uneasy suspicion that she might just dart forward and bite him somewhere painful if he was insufficiently courteous.

Their son, Francis, stood behind his parents as though embarrassed to be there. Tall and thin and more than fashionably pale, he wore his long stringy hair in curled ringlets, and was tightly buttoned inside an old-fashioned black outfit, trimmed here and there with black lace. There was just a hint of mascara around his eyes. Hawk knew his sort immediately. One of those decadent Romantics who wrote bad poetry about death and decay, and held private absinthe parties for his equally gloomy friends. Considered vampires the epitome of Romance (because he’d never met one), held secret seances, and thought himself frightfully daring and rebellious for dipping a toe into such dark waters.

An idiot, basically.

Hawk and Fisher strode up the path to the house, kicking gravel out of their way, and crashed to a halt in front of the Hartleys, who immediately fell back a pace and started looking around for their private guards. Hawk introduced himself and his partner, and the Hartleys’ faces became an interesting study in contradictions, as relief and alarm fought it out in plain view. Relief that the Guard had finally sent someone to help them with their problem, and alarm because … well, because it was Hawk and Fisher.

“You won’t break anything valuable, will you?” asked Leonard Hartley. “Only there’s a lot of really expensive items in this house. Irreplaceable items. Apart from the sentimental value, of course.”

“Expensive items!” snapped Mavis Hartley. “Tell him about the porcelain figures, Leonard!”

“Yes, the porcelain figures—”

“Are very fragile!” said Mavis. “And don’t even go near the glass cabinets. Those collections took years to put together. Any breakages will come out of your salaries.”

“Any breakages—” began Leonard.

“Tell them about the ghost!”

“I was just going to tell them about the ghost, Mavis!”

“Don’t raise your voice to me, Leonard Hartley! I remember you when you were just a milliner’s assistant! Mother always said I married beneath me.”

“I was a very high-class milliner’s assistant …”

This argument seemed quite capable of maintaining itself without any intervention from Hawk and Fisher, so they turned to the son, Francis. He goggled at them with his slightly protuberant eyes, folded his long slender fingers together across his sunken chest, and smiled dolefully.

“What can you tell us about the haunting?” asked Hawk, raising his voice to be heard above the ongoing fight between Leonard and Mavis.

“Oh, I think it’s all frightfully fascinating. Gosh! An actual intrusion from the worlds beyond. I’m one of the children of the night, you know. A lost soul, dedicated to act on all the darker muses. A seeker on the shores of Oblivion. I’ve published verses in some almost very well-known journals. You won’t hurt the ghost, will you? I’ve tried talking to it, but I don’t seem to be getting through. I’ve tried reading it my poetry, but it just vanishes. I think it’s shy. I wouldn’t mind being haunted myself, I mean, it’s just so empowering to be able to just casually drop into the conversation with the other children of the night that I have personally encountered a lost spirit of the night. … All my friends are so jealous. If only the ghost would just let me get some sleep. … I mean, I may be a night person, but there are limits.”

“Never mind him, Captain!” said Leonard Hartley, trying hard to sound authoritative, and not even coming close.

“Oh, Daddy, really!”

“That’s right, Leonard,” said Mavis. “You talk to them. Take control of the situation.”

“I am telling them, Mavis—”

“Well, get on with it! Be a man! You pay taxes …”

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other, and then strode past the Hartleys. Anything useful they got from these people would in all probability turn out to be not worth the trouble and time it took to extract it, so they might just as well get on with the job. The front door looked perfectly ordinary. Hawk turned the heavy silver door handle, and pushed the door open. It receded smoothly before him, without even a hint of a creaking hinge. So much for tradition. Hawk and Fisher strode forward into the main hall. Gas lights flickered high up on the walls. All seemed calm and still. There were wood-paneled walls, thick carpeting on the floor, delicate antique furniture waxed and polished to within an inch of its life, and a few noncontroversial scenes of country life hanging on the walls directly below the lights. Hawk shut the door behind him. The continuing raised voices of the Hartleys were cut off immediately, and it was suddenly, blessedly, quiet.

“At least it’s warm in here,” said Fisher. “Where do we start?”

“Good question. Apparently there’s no obvious focus for the hauntings. The ghost comes and goes as it pleases.” Hawk looked about him. “I suppose … we check the rooms one by one until either we find something, or something finds us. Then we … do something about it.”

“Such as?”

“I’m considering the matter.”

“Oh, good. I feel so much more secure now.”

And then they both spun around, weapons drawn in an instant, as the sound of approaching footsteps suddenly broke the quiet. It only took them a moment to realize that something was descending the main stairs at the end of the hall. Hawk and Fisher started slowly forward, their faces grim and focused on the situation at hand. They stopped at the bottom of the stairs, took one look at the garish vision bearing implacably down on them, and decided they’d gone quite far enough. A tall, heavy set woman wrapped in gaudy if somewhat threadbare robes crashed to a halt in front of them. She had a wild friz of dark curly hair above a face covered in so much makeup, it was almost impossible to discern her true features. Her mouth was a wide scarlet gash, and her eyes were bright and piercing. She had shoulders as wide as a docker’s, and hands to match. She looked large and solid and all too horribly real. She fixed Hawk with a terrible stare, held out a shaking scarlet-nailed hand, and spoke in deep sepulchral tones.

“Be still, my friends. You have entered an unholy place, and we are not alone here. The spirits are restless tonight.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” said Hawk. “It’s Madame Zara.”

“You know this … person?” asked Fisher, not lowering her sword.

“You know me, Captain?” asked Madame Zara, taken aback for a moment. She withdrew her hand and struck a dramatic pose. “I cannot say I recall the occasion. Though, of course, my fame has spread …”

“It was a while back, during the Fenris case,” said Hawk grimly. “I chased that spy right through her parlor. Madame Zara is a spiritualist. A medium. Or whatever makes the most money this week. A second-rate con woman and a first-rate fake.”

“Sir!” said Madame Zara, drawing herself up. This took a moment, as there was quite a lot of her to draw up. “I resent the implication!”

“I notice you’re not denying it,” said Hawk. “Last time we met, you were using ventriloquism and funny voices to fake messages from the dear departed. Including, if memory serves, entirely unconvincing yowls from a departed pet cat.”

Madame Zara thought about taking offense, considered that this was Captain Hawk, after all, and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. She shrugged, crossed her large arms over her even larger bosom, and fixed Hawk and Fisher with her best intimidating scowl.

“I have every right to be here, Captain. The Hartleys came to me, as one of Haven’s most prestigious mediums, wishing to establish contact with their dear departed uncle, Appleton Hartley. There were things they desperately needed to say to him, questions they needed to ask. Most definitely including, What happened to all the money he made? The will left Leonard and Mavis everything, but it seems that a few months before Appleton died, he liquidated his entire business, cleared out all his bank accounts, and took the lot in hard cash. According to the firm’s books, there should have been a great deal of money for the descendants to inherit, but there’s no trace of any of it anywhere. The family have been tearing this house apart, but the ghost won’t leave them alone long enough for them to get anywhere.”

By now Hawk and Fisher were nodding in unison. The case was suddenly starting to make a great deal more sense.

“So, the Hartleys came to me, the great Madame Zara. I was unable to contact the actual spirit of their dear departed uncle, due to … conturbations in the spirit world. They asked me to investigate and cleanse this house, and lay its uneasy spirit to rest.” Madame Zara gave Hawk and Fisher her best other-worldly look. It looked a lot more like indigestion. “I have made some headway. I am almost sure the revenant here is in fact that of a little girl. A child, lost and alone, reaching out to make contact.” She paused sharply, and jerked her head oddly. “Aah! She is here, now, with us! Don’t pull at my hair, dear …”

Hawk looked at Fisher. “I don’t know whether to kick her arse or applaud. Any minute now she’ll be asking if there’s anyone here called John.”

“I am a mistress of the mysteries! A conversant with powers and with dominations!” Madame Zara’s eyes bulged furiously as she leaned forward, reminding Fisher irresistibly of a bulldog with a wasp up its backside. “I am not to be trifled with!”

“I didn’t bring a trifle,” Hawk said to Fisher. “Did you think to bring a trifle?”

“Knew I forgot something,” said Fisher.

Madame Zara was about to say something really cutting when she caught a glimpse of something in the handsomely mounted mirror on the wall beside her. She looked at it sharply, and then relaxed a little on seeing only her own familiar reflection. Hawk admired her courage. If he’d seen anything like that looking back at him out of a mirror, he’d have fled the house and called in a really hard-core exorcist. And then, as they all watched in stupefied silence, the face in the mirror grew suddenly even uglier. Warts and boils and lesions broke out all over the face, pushing aside the heavy makeup, and blood and fouler liquids ran down the face to drip sluggishly off the chin. The eyes became bloodshot and bulged unnaturally from the widening sockets. The mouth stretched impossibly, blackening lips revealing sharp and pointed teeth. Curled horns burst up out of the bulging temples.

By now the real and unchanged Madame Zara was whimpering loudly, her entire bulk shaking and shuddering. All the natural color had dropped out of her face, leaving it as pale as a sheet behind the gaudy dabs of makeup. And then the demonic face burst out of the mirror, the fanged mouth reaching hungrily for the medium’s throat. Madame Zara let out a pitiful howl, gathered up her billowing robes, and crashed down the stairs like a runaway avalanche. Hawk and Fisher moved hurriedly out of her way, and Madame Zara hurtled down the hallway, running for her life. Hawk and Fisher watched her go, and then moved cautiously up the stairs toward the mirror, weapons at the ready. By the time they got there, it was just a mirror again, showing nothing but their own familiar faces. Fisher prodded the surface of the glass with a cautious finger, but it was stubbornly solid and normal. Hawk smashed the mirror with the butt of his axe anyway, on general principles.

“Seven more years bad luck,” said Fisher, kicking shards of glass off the stairs.

“Mirrors should know their place,” said Hawk firmly. “At least now we can be sure there really is something unnatural going on here.”

And then they both fell silent as the quiet house suddenly erupted with a cacophony of spectral sound. The wall beside the stairs boomed loudly, like a great drum, as though struck repeatedly by some huge immaterial force. The knocking traveled up the wall and along the next landing, where all the doors suddenly began slamming, over and over again. The noise was deafening, but Hawk and Fisher didn’t flinch. They held their ground and waited for something threatening to come their way. The pounding stopped abruptly, and all the doors fell silent. A low moaning began, distinct but eerily faint, as though its terrible pain and despair had traveled unknowable distances to reach them. The moan rose to become a howl, and then a scream, and finally maniacal laughter, full of dread and horror. Hawk and Fisher held their ground. The laughter broke off abruptly, and silence returned. Hawk cradled his axe in his arms, and applauded politely.

“Very impressive. Derivative, but nicely varied. What time is the next performance?”

Animal roars and screeches filled the air now, wild and ferocious, along with the thunderous growls of something very large and extremely hungry. Hawk and Fisher watched patiently until that, too, finally died away into silence again. Hawk looked at Fisher.

“I am not impressed. Are you impressed?”

“Even less than you,” said Fisher. “After surviving the Demon War, this is strictly amateur hour.”

The roaring started up again. Hawk roared right back at it, and the original sound broke off abruptly, as though shocked into silence.

“Nice one, Hawk,” said Fisher.

And then they both looked around sharply as heavy footsteps sounded from the other end of the hall. Starting at the closed front door, they advanced slowly toward the stairs, and there was something of eternity in the pause between each increasingly loud impact. The floor and the walls and the stairs shook with each step, and the sound seemed to shudder in Hawk’s and Fisher’s bones. It was like listening to God walking across the sky with Judgment Day on his mind. Hawk and Fisher looked at each other, and then started back down the stairs to face the advancing footsteps, axe and sword at the ready. The thunderous footsteps moved slowly, inexorably, toward them.

Hawk and Fisher reached the foot of the stairs, and kept right on going. The sound of approaching footsteps hesitated, and then stopped. Hawk and Fisher stopped. It was now very quiet, as if the whole house were listening. There was a single heavy footstep in the hall. Hawk stepped forward to meet it. After a pause he took another step forward, and another. And the heavy footsteps retreated before him. Hawk kept going, Fisher now at his side, and the footsteps retreated rapidly toward an open door on the left. They no longer sounded loud or threatening, or in the least Godlike. Hawk and Fisher followed the footsteps through the door and into the main parlor, where they suddenly ceased.

Hawk and Fisher looked about them. The parlor was large, comfortable, and almost cozy in the dim amber light from the turned-down gas jets in the ornamental lamps. The heavy furniture had been pushed out of position into the middle of the room, and the edges of the carpet were no longer nailed down. Someone had been searching for something; apparently with no success. The room was silent. The disembodied footsteps were gone, at an end, with no trace anywhere as to what might have made them.

“Well,” said Hawk. “That was interesting.”

“Right,” said Fisher. “Whatever it was, I think we frightened it. I know we’ve always had a dangerous reputation, but spooking a spirit has to be a new high, even for us.”

“This may be just the overture,” said Hawk. “Feeling us out. Seeing what our weaknesses are. Everyone’s afraid of something. You wait till the headless body appears, with a great headsman’s axe in its hands.”

Fisher sniffed. “I’ve faced liches before. Zombies are easy to take out, as long as you keep a clear head. And make sure you’ve got some salt and fire handy.”

“Still,” said Hawk. “Dead men walking can be pretty upsetting. Salt and fire don’t always work. And then … how do you kill something that’s already dead?”

“We’d find a way,” said Fisher.

Hawk had to smile. “We probably would at that.”

“You know,” said Fisher, “you don’t have to hold my hand quite so hard, Hawk. I hadn’t realized you were so nervous.”

Hawk looked at her. “Isobel, I’m not holding your hand.”

Fisher’s face went blank for a moment as she took in just how far away from her Hawk was. And then they both looked down, to see the large disembodied hand firmly holding on to Fisher’s left hand. It looked very real and very solid, but the end of the wrist faded away to nothing at all. Fisher’s lips drew back in a disgusted snarl, and she clamped her fingers around the disembodied hand, crushing it with all her considerable strength. There was a sudden sound of bones crunching and breaking. The hand fought desperately to get loose, but Fisher just piled on the pressure, and more bones splintered and snapped inside her implacable grip. The hand suddenly melted away into unraveling mists, accompanied by a pained howling from somewhere far away. Fisher flapped her hand a few times, to disperse the last traces of mist, and then brought her fingers up to her face to sniff them.

“Sulphur. Brimstone. How very unoriginal.”

The howling died away. Hawk looked reproachfully at Fisher. “I think you’ve upset it.”

“Good. Teach it to sneak up on me like that. … Hawk?”


“The eyes from that portrait on the wall behind you are following us around the room.”

“Just a trick of the light. All portraits are like that.”

“No, I mean really following us.”

Hawk turned slowly, following Fisher’s gaze, and there behind him, floating unsupported on the still air, were two disembodied eyeballs. They were bloodred, with huge dark pupils, and threads of something drippy hanging off the back, as though they’d just been wrenched out of the eye sockets. The eyeballs glared at Hawk, full of mute menace.

“You have got to be kidding,” said Hawk, and slapped both the eyeballs away with the flat of his hand. There was another agonized howl somewhere far off as the eyeballs banged together, compressing somewhat under the impact, and then caromed across the room to bounce off the far wall like two miscued Ping-Pong balls. Hawk started after them, struck by a sudden desire to see if he could get them going in different directions, but they both quickly vanished as he bore down on them.

“That must’ve hurt,” said Fisher.

“Well, at least now we can be sure someone here is keeping an eye on us,” said Hawk.

The door behind them swung open, slamming back against the wall with a deafening crash. Hawk and Fisher spun around, weapons at the ready. Facing them in the doorway was a tall, imposing figure, wrapped in an autopsy sheet that covered it from head to toe. Blood had thickly stained the gray cloth in a long line, where the body had been cut open from throat to crotch, and smaller stains marked the eyes and mouth, giving the figure a rudimentary face. A hand as gray as the sheet emerged slowly from under the wrappings, holding out a length of steel chain, from which blood dripped steadily onto the expensive carpet. Hawk and Fisher looked at each other.

“Traditional, but effective,” said Hawk. “Nice use of bloodstains, too.”

“And using the actual autopsy sheet was a good touch,” said Fisher. “Can’t say I see the point of the chain, though.”

“All ghosts rattle chains,” said Hawk. “It’s expected. It’s—”

“Traditional, yes, I know.”

They advanced unhurriedly on the sheeted figure. It made a low moaning noise that would have raised the hackles on anyone else’s neck, and rattled the length of chain noisily.

“Nice try,” said Hawk. “Are you frightened yet, Fisher?”

“Not in the least. You?”

“Not even close.”

“Good,” said Fisher. “Let’s see if it’s got anything else under that sheet that I can crush in my hand.”

The sheeted figure started to back away. Hawk and Fisher increased their pace. The sheeted figure turned to run, dropping its steel chain, which vanished before it hit the carpet. Hawk grabbed one edge of the bloodstained sheet and whipped it away, revealing a skeleton, which spun round unsteadily before coming to a halt. The skull chattered its teeth menacingly at Hawk and Fisher, then reached out with its bony hands. Hawk and Fisher hit the skeleton simultaneously with axe and sword, and after a few hurried and very violent moments, nothing remained of the skeleton but a pile of broken and splintered bones on the carpet. Hawk kicked at a few with his boot. Far away, something was swearing loudly. Hawk sniggered. Fisher looked around hopefully for something else to hit. The bones disappeared, along with the autopsy sheet Hawk had pulled off.

“You know, this is getting to be fun,” said Hawk. “I wonder what he’ll come up with next?”

“Something quaint and archaic, no doubt,” said Fisher. “This Appleton Hartley must have read the same Gothic romances as you. Maybe he’ll come in as a nun next. Nuns are big in haunted palaces and the like.”

“A cross-dressing ghost? I think he’s got enough problems as it is.”

One by one the lights began to go out. The blue flames of the gas jets died away to nothing, and the few lit candles sputtered out. A heavy gloom filled the parlor like a dark tide. The only illumination now came from the streetlights outside the sole window, and even that was slowly fading, as though something were blocking it out. Hawk and Fisher moved close together.

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” said Fisher. “And you and I have good reason to be scared of the dark.”

“That was the Darkwood,” said Hawk. “This is nothing compared to the long night.” But his voice didn’t sound as sure as his words. Some things could never be entirely forgotten.

“It’s getting really dark, Hawk. No light anywhere.”

“Put the lights back on, or I’m going to set fire to something,” said Hawk loudly. “I mean it.”

“He really does,” warned Fisher. “And some of that furniture looks quite expensive, and very easy to set fire to.”

“I’ll burn your whole damned house down, if I have to,” said Hawk, his voice calm and certain again.

There was a pause, and then the gas lights flared up again, and the light in the parlor returned to normal. Hawk and Fisher breathed a little more easily.

“I thought so,” said Hawk. “This house was Appleton Hartley’s pride and joy; you only have to look at it to see that. He filled it with every expensive piece of bric-a-brac that took his fancy. He’s been defending his home against the dreaded Leonard and Mavis, and their attempts to tear it apart in search of the missing money. He couldn’t risk us damaging it.”

“Fine,” said Fisher. “Nicely reasoned, as always. What do we do now?”

“I think it’s time we all sat down and had a little chat,” said Hawk. “Appleton Hartley! Come out, come out, wherever you are! Or we’ll think of some really destructive things to do to your furnishings and fittings.”

The ghost of Appleton Hartley walked in through the open door, his head tucked under his arm. It would have looked quite impressive, if the head hadn’t had to squint its eyes to see where it was going. Apparently the viewpoint from hip level was disconcerting him. The late Appleton Hartley was wearing the best Sunday suit he’d been buried in, and it didn’t fit him any better now that he was dead than it had while he was alive. The headless body lurched to a halt before the somewhat bemused Hawk and Fisher, and the head’s face looked briefly seasick.

“This is my house,” said the head in a high and somewhat reedy voice. “And you are both trespassing! Leave my property immediately or face my terrible wrath. My righteous anger shall be unconstrained, so flee now while you still can. Or face my fury from beyond the grave!”

“How the hell is he talking like that?” said Hawk. “I mean, his voice box is still in his throat, isn’t it? And even if it isn’t, how are the lungs getting any air to it?”

“Maybe there’s some kind of ectoplasmic connection that we can’t see,” said Fisher. “That would account for the hand and the eyeballs. Then again, his chest isn’t moving, which would suggest he isn’t using his lungs—”

“What’s that?” said the head sharply. “Speak up! Don’t mumble, dammit!”

“We are not mumbling,” said Hawk. “It’s just that you have an arm covering one ear and the other is pressed against your chest. I’m surprised you can hear anything.”

“Oh. Yes. Right.” The head frowned as Appleton considered the matter. “I’m rather new at all this, actually.”

“Get away,” said Fisher.

Hartley’s body juggled his head out from under his armpit, and held it forward with both hands, like an offering. Unfortunately, the splayed fingers of the supporting hands now covered the eyes. The mouth swore indistinctly, the fingers fumbled for a better hold, and the head slipped through both hands and crashed to the floor. There was a solid-sounding thud as the head bounced, and all three of them winced. The body stumbled forward, reaching down blindly with its hands, and one foot caught the head and kicked it across the floor.

“Oh, go and help him, Hawk,” said Fisher. “We’ll be here all bloody night otherwise.”

Hawk sighed, pushed past the headless body, and strode over to the detached head. It looked up at him imploringly, and tried an ingratiating smile. Hawk sighed and picked up the head by one ear. He gave the grimacing head back to its body, which grabbed it firmly with both hands, and immediately poked itself in one eye. Hawk and Fisher looked at each other and got the giggles. Hartley’s head glared at them and stuck out its lower lip sulkily. Hawk had to bite his own lip to keep from laughing. Fisher turned away, her shoulders heaving.

“Put your head back on your neck, Hartley,” said Hawk. “Please.”

The ghost did so, head and neck rejoining with no trace of a seam. Hawk indicated to Fisher that it was safe for her to turn back, and they studied the reassembled Appleton Hartley standing somewhat uncertainly before them. He appeared to be solid enough, if you overlooked that somehow he’d managed to get his left ear on back to front. Hawk decided he wouldn’t point it out.

“Go ahead,” said the ghost. “Laugh it up. You think it’s easy being a ghost? The condition doesn’t exactly come with an instructional pamphlet, you know. I haven’t even figured out how to walk through walls yet. And you have to concentrate on your shape every minute, or you start losing track of the details. So embarrassing. It’s not easy being dead, you know. Who are you anyway, and what are you doing in my house?”

“First, we are Captains Hawk and Fisher of the city Guard,” said Hawk. “And second, this house now belongs to Leonard and Mavis Hartley. You left it to them, remember?”

“They don’t deserve my house,” said Appleton Hartley. “My lovely house. They don’t appreciate it. Have you seen what they’ve been doing? Vandals! And what do you plan to do, Captains? Arrest me? The law only applies to the living. And you can’t exorcise me, because I’m not at all religious.”

Fisher frowned. “Hold everything. You mean you don’t believe in life after death?”

The ghost hesitated. “All right, I’ll admit I’m still a little shaky on that bit—”

“What are you doing here?” asked Hawk, pulling the conversation back onto safer ground. “This was your house, but you willed it to Leonard and Mavis.”

“Only because there was no one else. Bunch of freeloaders. Never wanted to know me when I was alive. Didn’t even wait till I was cold in my coffin before they were in here tearing up the floorboards and turning the place upside down. This is my house, my home, and I’m not leaving. Don’t I have any rights?”

“Well, no, not really,” said Hawk. “You’re dead. You’re supposed to … move on, leave material things behind.”

“And leave my lovely house in the hands of these philistines? Never! If I can’t take it with me, I’m not going. Here I am and here I stay. We’ll see who weakens first.”

“Get his family in here,” said Hawk to Fisher. “Maybe we can bash out some kind of compromise.”

“I wouldn’t put money on it,” said Fisher, heading for the door. She walked right through the ghost, just to remind him who was in charge, and Appleton shuddered violently.

“You have no idea how repulsive that is,” said Appleton Hartley.

It took a lot of persuading to get Leonard and Mavis and Francis Hartley to reenter the house, but Fisher could be very persuasive with a sword in her hand, and surprisingly soon, the whole Hartley family, living and deceased, were standing in the main parlor, glaring at each other. Hawk was hard put to decide which side of the family looked more disgusted with the other.

“Some people have no sense of propriety,” said Mavis loudly. “Hanging around when it’s clear they’re no longer welcome, haunting … I don’t know what the neighbors must be thinking. We’ve never had a … revenant in the family before. And after we paid all that money for the funeral, too! Professional mourners, tears on demand, and a real oak coffin. With a velvet lining and real brass handles. Tell him, Leonard!”

“Real brass handles—”

“And the flowers! Do you realize how much wreaths cost these days? I don’t know how they can stand to ask for the money.”

“The professional mourners were good,” said Francis. “Did some lovely keening.”

“You call that racket mourning?” said Appleton heatedly. “You knew very well I wanted to be cremated, with a purely secular ceremony! You didn’t even have them sing my favorite song at the funeral.”

“Certainly not,” said Mavis primly. “It was quite unsuitable for a public ceremony. Nothing more than a drinking song, full of vulgar references to women and … body parts.”

“What’s it like being dead?” Francis asked the ghost wistfully. “I think a lot about being dead.”

“If I had your parents, so would I,” said Appleton. “And if you keep annoying me, boy, I’ll arrange a firsthand experience for you.”

“You see! You see!” Mavis went purple in the face. It suited her. “He’s threatening us now! Do something, Leonard!”

“What the hell am I supposed to do against a ghost?” said Leonard, feeling very definitely put upon.

“Don’t you dare take that tone of voice with me, Leonard Hartley!”

Leonard gave Hawk a long-suffering look, full of pleading, as one married man to another. Hawk sighed and stepped forward.

“Can we at least decide exactly what this argument is about? Why are you so determined to remain in your old house, Appleton, instead of … moving on?”

“Because I spent years getting this place just right, and they’re destroying it!”

“In search of the money you’ve selfishly hidden here!” countered Mavis. “Money that is ours by right!”

“Ah,” said Fisher, finally on familiar ground. “Every time there’s a family argument, you can bet money’s at the bottom of it.”

“When Appleton liquidated his business and took all his money out of the bank, it took two coaches to transfer all the cash here!” said Mavis. “That money is ours, and I want it!”

“You can want all you like,” said Appleton, grinning nastily. “But you won’t get it. Oh, I took hundreds of thousands of ducats out of the bank. A lifetime’s savings. But it’s all gone now. When I found out I was dying, and there was nothing magic or doctors could do to save me, I cashed in everything and spent the lot on wine, women, and song.” The ghost paused to consider. “Well, wine and women, mostly. Had a hell of good time, while it lasted….”

Mavis was finally struck silent. Leonard looked like he might faint. Francis smiled for the first time.

“You crafty bastard,” he said appreciatively. “If only I’d known, I’d have joined you.”

“Francis!” said his mother.

“Should have done it years earlier,” said Appleton. “But I was always too busy running my business. Never married. Never had any fun. But when I knew I was dying, everything was suddenly very clear to me. Why spend your life making money just for some ungrateful relatives to inherit? So I spent all my money on a pre-wake and had the best time I could stand. Toward the end it was a rush as to what would kill me first, the disease or the wine and women.” Appleton sighed happily. “I had more fun dying than I ever did living my old life.”

“There’s no money?” asked Mavis in a broken whisper. “None at all?”

“Well, you might find the odd coin lost down the back of the sofa, but that’s about it. And you needn’t think about selling my house, either. Rather than see you make a penny profit out of dismantling my home, I’ll haunt it till you’re all dead and gone. Think of me as a sitting tenant with a really long lease.”

“You people don’t need an exorcist,” said Fisher. “You need family counseling. And possibly a good slap on the side of all your heads.”

“Right,” said Hawk. “This could drag on for years, except I haven’t got the patience. So this is what we’re going to do. You, Leonard and Mavis, will agree to sell this house to someone who will appreciate and look after it. And you, Appleton, will agree to this, or Fisher and I will burn the whole place down.”

“You wouldn’t!” said Leonard, Mavis, and Appleton together.

“Oh, yes, we would,” said Fisher, and everyone there believed her.

“We are now leaving,” said Hawk. “Sort out the details among yourselves. Only keep the noise down, or we’ll be back.”

“Right,” said Fisher. “And next time we’ll bring a social worker with us.”

“No need to be nasty,” said Hawk.

Sometime later, though not soon enough for either of them, Hawk and Fisher were back on their beat in the North Side. It was still the early hours of the morning, but the streets weren’t really any less crowded now than during the day. In many ways, the North Side really came alive only after all the honest, hardworking souls had turned in and gone to bed, leaving the streets to those who made the real money. You could buy anything in the North Side, if you weren’t too fussy about its provenance. Or the kind of people you had to deal with. Hawk and Fisher strolled casually along, and everyone took pains to avoid their eyes. Businessmen hustled customers into shadowy back alleys, and everyone else suddenly remembered somewhere else they had to get to in a hurry. For their own peace of mind, Hawk and Fisher tended to work on the principle that if they couldn’t see it, it wasn’t happening. Otherwise, they’d never get anything done.

The sun was just starting to rise above the horizon, splashing thick swathes of blood across the reluctantly lightening sky. The first birds were coughing on the sooty air, sewer rats were ganging up on the cats, and the latest plague was bubbling wetly in the open sewers. Just another day in Haven. Hawk and Fisher had seen entirely too many sunrises just recently. They’d been working a double shift for three weeks now, replacing a pair of Guard Captains they’d been forced to arrest. Captains Karl and Jacie Gavriel, another husband and wife team with a hard reputation, had been running their own private protection racket on their beat. Nothing new or particularly unusual about that, but these Guards became greedy, raising their price so high that even the hardened denizens of the North Side were moved to make an official complaint.

Hawk and Fisher were sent to investigate, and they wasted no time in establishing the truth and then lowering the boom on the Gavriels. However, the Gavriels refused point-blank to come quietly, and there then followed a certain amount of unpleasantness, not to mention blood loss and property damage, before Hawk and Fisher were able to subdue them. Karl and Jacie Gavriel were currently chained to their hospital beds, awaiting trial, while the same people who’d made the original complaint were now threatening to sue Hawk and Fisher over the property damage. As a reward for bringing in their crooked compatriots, Hawk and Fisher were required to cover the Gavriels’ shift in the North Side as well as their own, until replacements could be arranged.

No good deed goes unpunished in Haven.

“The Gavriels,” said Hawk, brooding. “They’re part of what I’m talking about. About what living in Haven does to you. They were clean once. Good thief-takers. Are they our future? Are they what we could become?”

“We’re nothing like the Gavriels,” said Fisher firmly. “You worry too much, Hawk.”

“One of us has to. You know, more and more it seems to me like we haven’t really accomplished anything, for all our time in Haven. Name one thing we’ve really changed for the better. Oh, we’ve caught a lot of bad guys, and killed even more. But Haven’s still Haven. The North Side’s still a cesspit of poverty and despair. The same old evils are still going on, the same poor bastards are still suffering every day. We’ve changed nothing.”

Fisher adjusted the knuckle-duster under her glove, and tried to see where Hawk was going with all this. “We’re doing well just to keep the lid on things. You can’t hope to put right centuries of ingrained evil and corruption in just a few years. We’ve made an impression. Stopped a lot of bad things, and bad people. Even saved the whole damned city more than once. We’ve done our best.”

“But who have we become in the process? Sometimes I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize the man looking back at me. This isn’t who I wanted to be. Who I meant to make of myself.”

Fisher stopped walking, and Hawk stopped with her. She looked at him directly, face to face, deep blue eyes meeting his unflinchingly. “So what do you want to do, Hawk? Just turn our backs and walk away, leaving the good people undefended? There are good people here. If we don’t protect them from scumbags like the Gavriels or villains like St. Christophe, who will? You can’t walk the straight line in Haven and expect to get anything done. We are what we have to be, to get results.”

“I used to know who I was,” said Hawk quietly. “I was an honorable man, and I led and inspired other men, through my own good example. But that was a long time ago.”

“No,” said Fisher. “That was yesterday.”

They looked at each other for a while, remembering. Finally Fisher sighed and looked away. “We were younger then. Idealistic. Maybe … we just grew up.”

At that point someone was dumb enough to try and steal Fisher’s purse. Had to be someone new to the city. He’d barely gotten his hand around her purse before Fisher punched him out without even looking around. This would-be cutpurse hit the ground hard, his eyes unfocused. Somehow he got his feet under him, and staggered away. Fisher was so surprised, she let him go.

“Damn. I must be getting old. They never used to get up after I hit them.” She shook her head then turned back to Hawk. “Look, Hawk, we do what we can. You can’t clean up the North Side with just brute force. Even I know that. The sorcerer Gaunt tried that approach with the Devil’s Hook, using his magic and the threat of his reputation, but it didn’t last. Things slipped right back to their bad old ways the moment Gaunt left the city. The nature of the North Side is mostly determined by its absentee owners, be they landlords or drug lords, and all of them are out of our reach. The law is nothing in the face of political connections. We could fight them, but we’d be on our own. No other Guard would join us. Hell, they’d probably be ordered to stop us. It would be just you and me, against impossible odds.”

Hawk smiled slightly. “That never stopped us before. When we knew we were right.”

“Perhaps not,” Fisher conceded. “But if we were going to take on established villains like St. Christophe and his army of bodyguards, I’d need a hell of a good motivation. I don’t think I believe in miracles anymore. This is Haven. It doesn’t want to change.”

Hawk shrugged and looked away. “Maybe I’m just feeling my age. Turning thirty-five shook me. That’s maybe half my life gone. I don’t feel old, but I don’t feel young anymore. Some days its feels like I’m on the downhill slope now, and I’m running out of time to do all the things I meant to …”

“And you’ve got a bald patch.”

“I know! Trust me, I know! I’m beginning to wonder if I should get a hat to cover it.”

“You hate hats.”

“I know!”

They continued on their way again, walking side by side in thoughtful silence. People came and went around them, saw their frowning faces, and gave them even more room than usual. Quite a few decided to call it an early night, and went home to hide until Hawk and Fisher had calmed down again.

“I find it harder to care about things these days,” Fisher said finally. “When you see the petty evils of Haven repeated over and over in front of you every day … it wears you down. Even the sharpest blade will dull if you slam it against an unyielding surface often enough.”

“There was a time when what we did mattered,” Hawk said stubbornly. “And so, we mattered. We had purpose, and ideals. And what we did changed the world for the better.”

“That was long ago,” said Fisher. “In another land. We were different people then.”

“No,” said Hawk. “That was yesterday.”

And then they both stopped in their tracks, as a call from the Guard communication sorcerer filled their ears. First a burst of pleasant flute music, to get their attention. It used to be a gong, but that rattled Hawk’s back teeth so much that he went and had a private but very forceful word with the communications sorcerer, and after that it was flute music. Hawk was very popular with the other Guards for a while.

“All Guards, hold for an important message,” said a calm voice in the back of their heads. It used to sound just behind their eyes, but too many people found that unnerving. “All Guards, hold for an urgent message.”

“Damn,” said Fisher as a simplistic syrupy guitar melody filled their heads. “Why do they always have to play such crappy music?”

“I think it’s a franchise,” said Hawk. “Lowest bidder and all that. Don’t worry until you start enjoying the music.”

“All Guards report to the main docks, in the North Side,” said the sorcerer’s voice, cutting abruptly across the guitar music. “Striking dock workers are gathering in large numbers. Probability of riots. All Guards to the docks, and prepare for action. No exceptions.”

The communication broke off and Hawk and Fisher looked at each other. “I thought things would get out of hand in the docks eventually,” said Fisher. “Lot of angry people there.”

“I hate riots,” said Hawk. “You never can tell what a mob will do when it gets the bit between its teeth. People in a mob will do things they’d never dream of on their own. They might even forget to be afraid of us.”

“No one’s that stupid,” said Fisher.

They changed their direction and strolled unhurriedly toward the Devil’s Hook and the adjoining docks.

“Strange they didn’t call us in before,” said Hawk. “I mean, we are the closest Guards to the scene.”

“But the docks aren’t our beat,” said Fisher. “Presumably the Guards on the spot thought they could manage, and then had their minds changed in a hurry when the crowd started turning into a mob.”

“Always good food to be had down by the docks,” Hawk said thoughtfully. “Maybe we could pick up something tasty for dinner while we’re there. But no more crab meat; that last batch gave me a really nasty rash.”

“I remember,” said Fisher. “Two degrees of temperature, and you thought you were dying.”

“And no lobsters, either. They always want you to choose a live one, and then I feel too guilty to enjoy it. Besides, all those long wavy legs and antennae make me queasy. Far too much like some of the demons we fought in the long night.”

“There’s always the sea slugs,” said Fisher, just a little maliciously. “You know, those long white things. Always lots of meat on them.”

“I am not eating something that looks like it’s just dropped out of a whale’s bottom,” said Hawk firmly.

“You never want to try anything new. Though admittedly, it must have been a brave or bloody hungry man who ate the first sea slug.”

They crossed over into the Devil’s Hook, the dark and seedy heart of the North Side, where crime and general wickedness were condensed through grinding poverty and desperate need into conscienceless violence and pure evil. The dilapidated buildings in that square mile of slums were crammed close together on either side of dark narrow streets, each filthy room packed with as many people as the floor could bear. There were few street lamps, mostly just flaring torches, and the streets were thick with refuse. Beggars huddled under threadbare cloaks, one hand held mutely out for whatever fortune might provide. People hidden behind hoods strode purposefully down the dark streets, looking neither to the left nor the right, ignoring each other as they went about their private business. They still managed to give Hawk and Fisher a wide berth, though.

The two Guards strolled through the deadly street, apparently entirely unconcerned, and calmly discussed the current situation in Haven’s main docks. The dockworkers’ guild was mad as hell, not for the first time, because the dock owners, Marcus and David De Witt, had brought in zombie scab labor to break the ongoing strike by all dock-workers. They were striking because three men had been killed, and five crippled, by a collapsing dock structure. Everyone knew the docks were in a terrible state, but repairing and making them safe would cost a lot of money, which the De Witt brothers didn’t feel like spending until they absolutely had to. They also professed no interest at all in paying compensation to the aggrieved families of the dead and injured workers. The guild threatened a strike on the families’ behalf. The DeWitts told them all to go to hell, the dockworkers went on strike, and the DeWitts brought in zombies. Lots of them.

The DeWitts had also been using their private guards to crack down on the workers smuggling goods out of the docks, thus cutting into the dockworkers’ long-established money-raising ventures. Half the drugs in Haven came in through the docks, and the dockers always made sure they got their cut. It was one of the few good reasons for being a docker. Nothing was ever simple in Haven.

Hawk and Fisher knew all this. The Devil’s Hook and the docks might not be their beat, but it was their nearest neighbor. So they made it their business to keep an eye on things. Because you never knew when neighbors might come visiting. If the dockworkers’ troubles spilled over into the North Side, Hawk and Fisher wanted to be prepared.

There had been a bill before the city council to force the dock owners to provide safe working conditions, but the bill’s proposer, Councilor William Blackstone, had been murdered, and his bill died with him. So far, no one else had proved brave or ambitious enough to challenge the very wealthy and very well-connected DeWitt brothers. Hawk and Fisher had been Councilor Blackstone’s bodyguards. They’d failed to keep him alive.

They passed deeper into the Devil’s Hook. People were crowding the gloomy streets now, despite the early hour. The kind of businesses that operated in the worst slums of Haven never closed. You could find or buy anything, including the pleasures that might not have a polite name, but certainly had a price. On the slightly more respectable front, there were sweatshops everywhere; whole families crowded into a single room, working twelve-or fourteen-hour days, every day, creating goods for a few pence that would sell for a few ducats in the finer parts of the city. Everyone in the family worked, from the grandparents down to the smallest children. Some were born, lived their short lives, and died in those grimy single rooms, never leaving the only world they knew. Company representatives took care of their few needs, at fixed prices, and discouraged anything that might interrupt the family’s work. Everyday business in the Devil’s Hook.

There were hotels that rented rooms by the half hour, and simple doss houses, ranging from flea-infested mattresses laid side by side on a communal floor, to the darkened rooms where a penny brought you the right to sleep standing up in a queue, with ropes under your arms to support you. They really crammed them in such establishments, and no one objected, because at least the warmth of crammed-together bodies was better than the cold of the streets. And everywhere, the beggars; lining the streets like so much discarded furniture, or so many broken and thrown-aside toys. They held out bowls if they had them, or hands if they didn’t, showing off their various deformities to their best advantage. Some were birth defects, or the result of disease or war, but others had deliberately disfigured themselves, or their children, through cunning artifices or cheap back-street surgery, to tug more efficiently at the heartstrings of those who passed, on their way to the docks. Like everything else in the Devil’s Hook, begging was a harshly competitive business.

Every beggar had to have a license. As always, the city took its cut.

There were no animals in the Devil’s Hook. If it moved, and was smaller than them, the occupants ate it. Sometimes they even cooked it first. When times got really bad, in the depths of the harshest winters, when the bitter cold kept paying customers off the narrow streets, the occupants had been known to eat each other. People with any sense avoided the Hook in winter, and sometimes barricades were erected across the entranceways to keep the occupants in.

It was rumored that the Devil’s Hook was where plague rats went to die, because they felt at home there.

The general smell was appalling, but Hawk and Fisher didn’t flinch. They were used to it. But when they’d finished their shift, they knew they’d have to fumigate their clothes and beat them with a stick to get rid of the smell, and whatever tiny wildlife they’d picked up along the way. They stuck to the middle of the street, and were careful where they put their feet. Hawk looked around him with more than usual attention.

“In a city full of disgusting spectacles, this has to be the most appalling. Every time I come in here, I think it can’t get any worse, and every time it is. When people die here and go to hell, they must feel right at home. Is this what we’re fighting to protect, Fisher? Is that what we put our lives on the lines to support?”

“We support the law,” said Fisher.

“What about justice?”

The Hook fell away suddenly, like a vampire presented with raw garlic, as the slums gave way to the docks, and the foul stench of too many people packed into one place was pushed back by the sharp, clean smells of the docks, and the open sea. Gulls keened overhead, getting an early start on the day. The dock buildings formed a wide semicircle surrounding the bay, which was currently crammed full of ships from a dozen countries and city-states further up the coast. Flags of all colors and designs flapped proudly in the gusting breeze, and the tall soaring masts made a kind of forest against the slowly lightening sky. Hawk was briefly struck by a kind of homesickness, though it had been many years since he had last walked in the Forest Kingdom. He brushed his feeling firmly aside and studied the situation with a soldier’s eye.

A vast crowd of protesting dockers had formed at one end of the dock, facing off against a thin line of gaudily clad private guards bolstered by the handful of city Guards who normally patrolled the area. The crowd of striking dockers numbered in the hundreds, backed up by their wives and families, and the prevailing mood was not good. Tempers had been pushed to breaking point by the introduction of mass zombie scab labor, and the strikers were spoiling for a confrontation. A few placards were being waved here and there, for the few who could read their simple messages, but mostly the dockers and their families put their feelings across by mass chanting. Simple slogans, crude insults against the DeWitts, declarations of defiance, all of them in voices ugly with rage and resentment and growing desperation. Savings were fast running out, bellies were empty, and the strikers were determined that if they had to back down and return to work, someone was going to pay first. There was also the unspoken fear that the zombies might replace them entirely. The thunderous roar of the massed chanting drowned out all the other sounds in the docks. Hawk couldn’t help noticing that every man and woman in the crowd was armed with something, from the steel hooks and claws and hammers of their trade, to clubs and lengths of chain and broken glass, and every man and woman looked more than ready to use them.

Hawk counted twenty private guards, each with a drawn sword, but there was no telling if they’d have the guts to hold their ground and use those swords if the crowd tipped over into a mob and surged forward. They were more used to bullying individual workers, or ganging up on the occasional smuggling ring. Hawk had already decided that if there was going to be a fight, he was going to make damn sure the private guards were between him and the dockers. That way they wouldn’t be able to turn and run.

All along the harborside, zombies were hard at work, moving slowly and silently back and forth from the ships, unloading their cargo and transferring it to the waiting transports. They carried heavy weights seemingly with ease, and they never stopped to rest. There were hundreds of them, going about their business with no sense of confusion, and Hawk had to admit he was impressed. He’d never seen so many corpses in one place before. Creating a zombie from a dead body was a simple if unpleasant business, but very expensive. Not many sorcerers specialized in necromancy, given the kind of deals they had to make for power and knowledge in that field, and they charged accordingly. Certainly, controlling so many dead bodies simultaneously had to involve a lot of power. In fact, if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, Hawk would have said it was impossible. The DeWitts must have imported a new necromancer, and a real heavy hitter at that. Hawk frowned. If someone that powerful had come to town, he should have known about it before now.

Zombie scab labor wasn’t a new idea. Various businesses in Haven had tried replacing recalcitrant living workers with more compliant dead men in the past, but the expense and difficulty in controlling the corpses had always made the idea impractical. Besides no one liked having zombies around. They were just too upsetting.

The DeWitts had used smaller zombie forces in the past, to force striking dockers back to work, but the strikers usually took them out fairly quickly, by guerrilla tactics involving stealth and salt and a lot of running. This was the first time an entire work force had been replaced by zombies, so the strikers and their families were out in force. They knew they were fighting for their livelihoods, with nothing but the workhouses and the cold streets in their future if they failed. Desperate times breed desperate people, and Hawk knew no one fights more fiercely than a man who believes he has nothing left to lose.

Hawk and Fisher hung back in the shadows for a while, studying the situation. The mood was ugly, and just their appearance might be enough to spark something. Everyone knew that Hawk and Fisher were only called in after all thoughts of diplomacy had been abandoned. The dockers’ chanting was now degenerating into name-calling as the strikers goaded the outnumbered private guards. The crowd wasn’t quite ready to commit itself to action yet, but the threat of sudden violence hung heavily on the air like a brewing storm, dark and ugly and unpredictable.

“I really don’t like these odds,” Fisher said quietly. “Even if every Guard in the city turns up, right down to the lowliest probationary Constable, we’re still going to be outnumbered.”

“The strikers haven’t actually broken any laws yet,” said Hawk. “A lot of this is just letting off steam. Gives them the feeling they’re doing something. They must know that the Guard is on its way, and that if they start something, a lot of them are going to get hurt, maybe even killed. They’re not trained fighters, like us. It could be that a large enough Guard presence will take some of the wind out of their sails, calm them down.”

Fisher snorted. “You don’t believe that any more than I do. These people are spoiling for a fight. It’s all they’ve got left.”

Hawk made a disgusted noise. “If we were really interested in justice, we’d be down there fighting beside them.”

“Don’t get soft on me, Hawk. If that crowd becomes a mob, they won’t care who they hurt. They certainly won’t think twice about trying to kill you or me.”

“I know,” said Hawk. “Let’s report in to the DeWitts. See what they want us to do. Maybe we can persuade them to be reasonable.”

Fisher raised an eyebrow. “Bets?”

One by one the city Guard assembled in the great cobblestoned yard outside the DeWitt brothers’ business headquarters; an impressive three-story building in dark stone that overlooked the docks like a feudal lord’s castle. Inside, the hundreds of clerks and customs officers and other paper-shufflers were keeping their heads well down, and trying to persuade themselves that nothing of what was going on outside was any of their business. They didn’t even have the gumption to look out the windows at the gathering army of Guards.

Looking around, it seemed to Hawk that more than half of the entire city Guard was there, from Captains to Constables, but even so, they didn’t come close to filling the yard. Lamps in elegant frames added to the dim morning light, but still there were shadows everywhere, and a cold wind was blowing in from the sea. They would all have been a lot more comfortable inside the DeWitts’ building, but of course there was no way such very important people as Marcus and David DeWitt would ever allow mere Guards inside their premises. They might need the Guard, but they sure weren’t going to socialize with them.

Hawk sighed, and pulled his cloak tightly about him. Orders had come down from above that the DeWitts were to have full cooperation from every Guard, no excuses and no exceptions, and the Guards should follow the DeWitts’ instructions in all things. The DeWitts were connected. So crime was allowed to run rampant in the rest of Haven while the dock owners used the Guard as their own private bully boys. Hawk growled something under his breath, and Fisher looked at him uneasily. She just knew he was going to say something impolite and entirely regrettable to the DeWitts, when they finally deigned to put in an appearance, and she and Hawk were in enough trouble already with the powers that be. She seriously considered knocking Hawk down and sitting on him, while there was still time, but he’d only sulk later. Fisher settled for locating the nearest exit, just in case they had to leave in a hurry.

There was a self-important banging noise from above, as the doors on the balcony overlooking the yard finally flew open, and Marcus and David DeWitt strode imperiously out to stare down their noses at the assembled Guard. They were both in their early fifties, well-fleshed, with the easy elegance and arrogance that comes from being born into lots and lots of money. Their carefully backbrushed and pommaded black hair made their fat, pale faces appear washed-out, cold, and impassive as masks. There was a quiet, understated sense of menace in their unwavering self-possession, as though no one and nothing in the world could ever disturb their privileged world.

David was the elder by a year, but otherwise there wasn’t much difference between them. They dressed well but soberly, their only jewelry a collection of thick golden rings on their fleshy fingers. David had a cigar, Marcus a glass of champagne. The DeWitt brothers looked down on the Guards in their yard, assembled at their command, and they couldn’t even be bothered to look disdainful. They looked more bored than anything, as though forced by duty to carry out some petty but necessary protocol.

“You are here to protect the docks against any threat,” said David flatly. “Most definitely including the strikers. You are hereby authorized to use any means necessary to ensure the safety of the ships, their cargoes, and the harborside buildings. You first task is to disperse the mob at our doors, and send them packing.”

“You shouldn’t have too much trouble,” said Marcus in a voice eerily like his brother’s. “Just be firm, and they’ll back down.”

“And if they don’t?” said an anonymous voice from among the Guards.

“Then you do what you have to,” said David. “They’re troublemakers. Scum. We want them off our property. Hurt them. Kill them, if necessary. But get that rabble out of our docks.”

“If we kill them all,” said Hawk in a remarkably restrained voice, “you won’t have a workforce anymore.”

“We have the zombies,” said Marcus. “Now that we have the means to control such a number, they will be our workforce. The living are now redundant. The dead should prove much more reliable. They don’t need paying, or cosseting, and you don’t get any back talk from them.”

“Right,” said David. “Should have done this years ago.”

“And what about the people who worked for you all these years?” asked Hawk, still dangerously calm. “What right do you have to take away their livelihoods, destroy their lives, throw their families out onto the streets? Aren’t there enough beggars in the Hook already?”

“Life, and its riches, belong to the strong,” said Marcus DeWitt, entirely unmoved. “To those who have the strength to take what they want, and hold it.”

“And you’re the strongest ones here?” asked Hawk.

“Of course,” said David.

Hawk smiled nastily. “Want to come down here and arm wrestle?”

Several Guards laughed, and then quickly turned their laughter into coughs as it became clear the DeWitts had no sense of humor. Those Guards nearest Hawk and Fisher began to edge carefully away from them, not wishing to be associated with such dangerous people. The DeWitts moved forward to the edge of their balcony, to get a better look at Hawk.

“You are hired help,” David said flatly. “You’ll do as you’re told. Is that clear?”

Hawk’s hand dropped to the axe at his side. He was smiling, and a wild light burned in his eye. Fisher grabbed his arm and held it firmly in place. “Hawk, no! Not here. Not in front of witnesses.”

Hawk’s arm muscles bulged dangerously under her hand, and then slowly relaxed again. Fisher let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. The DeWitts glared down at Hawk until it was clear he had nothing more to say, and then they turned their backs on him and left the balcony. Members of their private guard moved slowly among the city Guard, assigning them positions on the harborside and giving them more specific orders where necessary. Hawk was surprised to see a familiar face approaching him. Mistique was a charming sorceress of no uncommon ability, and had impressed him greatly the last time they’d worked together. A tall, slender, constantly fluttering figure in her mid-thirties, Mistique was dressed in traditional sorceress’ black, but the outfit was carefully cut in the very latest fashion to show plenty of bare flesh. She had a long, horsey face, and a friendly, toothy grin that made her look easily ten years younger. It also made her look like she was about to take a bite out of you, but then, you couldn’t have everything. She had a thick mane of jet black curly hair that fell well past her shoulders, which she was constantly having to sweep back out of her eyes. She had a husky upper-class accent, a disturbingly direct gaze, and wore dozens of bangles and bracelets that clattered loudly with her every movement.

“Darlings!” she said loudly, advancing on Hawk and Fisher with determined cheeriness. “How absolutely super to see you both again!”

“Hello, Mistique,” said Fisher, glad of anything that might distract Hawk. “What the hell are you doing here? You’re not in charge of all those bloody zombies, are you?”

“Certainly not,” said Mistique, pulling a face. “Nasty things. Not my kind of territory at all. No, the city Council appointed me as official bodyguard to the DeWitts, for the duration of their troubles. Just in case the dockers have clubbed together to buy some magical threat. If it was anyone but the DeWitts, I’d have told the Council to go take a long walk off a short pier, but one doesn’t turn down the DeWitts. So here I am, darlings, a sorceress of my magnitude reduced to a mere bodyguard. The shame of it. Far too much like real work for my taste. But, needs must when the devil vomits in your shoes. And the job does pay very well. Both Mummy and Daddy are getting on a bit now, and need a lot of looking after, which means I’ve been raiding the family coffers just a little more than I feel comfortable with, so …”

“So we do what the DeWitts tell us, and tug our forelocks respectfully, if we know what’s good for us,” said Hawk.

“Well, yes, darling. That’s life. In Haven, anyway. Though it has to be said that Marcus and David don’t have a single social grace between them. I mean, honestly, they’ve been ordering me about like a bloody servant. I’d widdle in their wine, but with the vintages they prefer, they’d probably never notice.”

“Maybe you can tell us why the DeWitts have such a hold over the Council just now,” said Fisher. “They don’t normally have this much influence.”

“Ah, yes. It seems there’s a great deal of perishable goods currently waiting to be unloaded from the boats in the harbor. Tons and tons of it. And an awful lot of it could go off, really soon, if it isn’t unloaded in a hurry. The DeWitts are currently paying for widespread preservation spells, but if they have to keep that up much longer, the cost will eat up all their profits. So dear David and Marcus are caught between a rock and a descending boot. If they let up on the spells, they’ll be left with nothing but tons of rotting food. And if they don’t supply that food, in good condition, they stand to lose not only oodles and oodles of money, but also a whole bunch of very important contracts throughout the city. So they really can’t afford to allow anything to interfere with unloading the ships.”

“And of course the dockers know all about this,” said Hawk.

“Oh, of course, darling. Anyway, since the Council doesn’t want to face a whole city full of hungry people, with the prospect of civil unrest and even riots, for now what the DeWitts want, the DeWitts get. Bend over and smile, darlings. It’ll all be over before you know it.”

“How are the DeWitts controlling so many zombies at once?” asked Fisher, on the grounds that changing the subject had to be a good idea.

“They’ve come into possession of some remarkable magical artifact,” said Mistique, tossing her long hair thoughtfully. “Paid a hell of a lot for it, too. Apparently it makes controlling any number of zombies a piece of cake. I don’t know what it is. They won’t let me see it. They’re also being very cagey about who they got it from. Don’t blame them. Nothing good ever came from dealing with necromancers.”

“Could they really get away with replacing the workforce with zombies?” asked Hawk.

“I don’t see why not,” said Fisher. “Zombies wear out the longer and harder you work them, but there’s never any shortage of corpses in Haven to replace them. In fact, the Council would probably approve. All the main cemeteries have been full for years, and the incinerators are working twenty-four-hour shifts.”

“But what about the dockworkers and their families?” asked Hawk. “Does no one care what happens to them?”

“This is Haven, darling,” said Mistique, not unkindly.

“And the DeWitts are running a business, not a charity,” said a cold voice bearing down on them. The three of them looked around to see the commander of the DeWitts’ private guards. He crashed to a halt before them, and took it in turns to favor each of them with his glare. Big, broad, and muscular, he would have looked really impressive and menacing if he hadn’t been wearing the DeWitt official private guard uniform. Banana yellow with bloodred piping, topped with a rich purple cloak. He looked very much like a bruise on legs. Hawk and Fisher had to bite their lips.

“Hello, Commander Foy,” said Mistique. “Love the outfit.”

“Trust me,” said Fisher. “You are entirely alone in that.”

“I think my retinas are burning out,” said Hawk.

“Hush,” said Fisher. “What do you want with us, Foy?”

“Commander Foy! I run things here, and don’t you forget it!” He glared at Hawk and Fisher, who still couldn’t meet his eyes. The commander sniffed loudly. “The DeWitts understand that this is not the kind of work the city Guard are used to undertaking. So, to … sweeten the medicine, the DeWitts have most kindly authorized me to assure all of you that there will be a substantial bonus, to be paid at the end of the day. A very substantial bonus.”

“Bribe money,” said Fisher. “Why am I not surprised?”

“We’re not taking it,” said Hawk.

“Hold everything,” said Fisher immediately. “We haven’t heard how much it is yet.”

“We don’t need their blood money,” said Hawk.

“Hey, we’re going to be doing the work anyway, and you can bet no one else will turn it down.”

“We’re not taking it!” Hawk yelled.

Fisher looked at Foy. “We’re not taking it. But I’ll bet we’re the only ones.”

“No bet,” said yet another voice, close at hand. This turned out to be Constable Murdoch. He and his younger brother patrolled the docks. Hawk and Fisher knew them vaguely, from cooperating on a few cases together. The older brother was currently standing face-to-face with Commander Foy, glaring right into the man’s eyes, while his younger brother stood impassively at his side, as always. “I’m not taking any part in this, and neither is my brother,” said Murdoch. “We’re local. Grew up in the Devil’s Hook. Our dad worked the docks till the strain of it killed him. Some of those strikers are our friends and neighbors and family. We’ll not raise a hand against them.” He glared at Commander Foy. “We’re not the only ones, either. Your bosses don’t have enough money to make us fight our own kind. Not over something like this.”

“It may not come to fighting,” said Hawk. “If we’re a strong enough presence …”

“They’ll fight,” said Murdoch. “You know they’ll fight. They’ve nothing else left.”

“We’re the law,” Hawk said slowly. “We’re not supposed to choose which laws we’ll uphold, and which we won’t.”

Murdoch snorted. “That’s rich, coming from you, Captain. Everyone knows your reputation. You bend and break the law every day.”

“In pursuit of justice.”

“Where’s the justice here?” said Murdoch. He turned to his brother. “Come on. We’re leaving.”

“And if they fire you?” said Fisher.

Murdoch shrugged calmly. “Then we’ll join the striking dockers. And the next time there’s trouble here, and you can bet there’ll be a next time, the faces you see over raised weapons might just be ours. What will you do then, Captains?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. The Murdoch brothers made their way out of the courtyard, and no one tried to stop them. But no one else followed them. Commander Foy started to say something cutting, and then the words died in his mouth as Hawk gave him a hard look. Foy decided he had urgent business elsewhere, and went off to look for it, trying not to hurry too obviously. Fisher sniffed, and took her hand away from her sword. She looked at Hawk.

“Murdoch had a point. Where is the justice in what we’re doing here?”

“I don’t know,” said Hawk, and suddenly he sounded very tired. “Part of me wants to walk right out of here with the Murdochs, but … the law here’s very clear. Mob violence has no place in business disputes. If we stay … maybe we can help keep the violence from getting out of hand. Sometimes you have to settle for the lesser of two evils. But there’s nothing says we have to like it.”

The general growl of conversation among the Guards died away as the DeWitts came back out onto their balcony, and looked down like generals surveying their troops. As Foy had intimated, the DeWitts began by committing themselves to a massive bonus, to be paid once the Guards’ work was done. Most of the Guards nodded acceptance happily enough. A few even cheered.

“The strikers have refused our lawful orders to leave the docks,” said Marcus DeWitt. “You will make them leave, by whatever means necessary.”

“Be careful once you get onto the harborside,” said David. “Some of the structures aren’t very safe.”

There was a brief murmur of dark amusement among the Guards. The DeWitts seemed entirely unaware of the irony in what had just been said.

“Do your duty, Guardsmen,” said Marcus flatly. “Your city has need of you.”

There were a few more cheers, but the majority of the Guards just turned and left the cobbled yard, heading to the docks to do their job.

The first light of true morning spread slowly across the docks as the Guards marched down the harborside to face the striking dockers. Most of the red was gone from the skies, and a thin mist had sprung up, a pearl gray cloud that swallowed up the ships in the harbor, and wrapped itself around the two factions as though cutting them off from the rest of the world. As though nothing mattered but what the dockers and the Guard would do next. They were in their own little world now, with no escape from the violent clash that was growing more real and more inevitable with every moment.

The harborside shook under the massed thunder of booted feet as the Guards bore down on the gathered strikers. The dockers fell silent, but made no move to fall back or disperse. They stood close together, bodies tense with anticipation, their faces full of silent hate and determination. The Guards crashed to a halt facing the strikers, and for a long, long moment both sides just stood and looked at each other. Both sides had weapons in their hands.

In the midst of his fellow Guards, Hawk hefted his axe uneasily. Even now a few calm words from either side might have stopped this. A little give and take from both sides, a few gestures of goodwill, and they could all have turned aside from the terrible thing waiting to happen. But no one was interested in compromise. Hawk looked away, his gaze moving almost desperately across the ships’ masts rising above the mists like naked trees, and a sudden surge of wanderlust hit him, almost like pain. He felt an almost physical need to board one of those ships and just sail away. Not just from this particularly unpleasant duty, but from Haven, and all its corrupting evils. To start a new life somewhere else, to be someone else, someone cleaner. … Or perhaps just keep traveling. Hawk shook his head angrily. He’d never run away from a hard decision before, and he wasn’t about to start now.

He looked at the striking dockers, and they looked back, grim and cold, knowing they were damned, whatever happened. The tension on the docks was so real and focused now, it almost had a cutting edge of its own. The violence was very close, a scent of sweat and adrenaline, a taste of blood in the mouth. Of men preparing to fight, to bleed and maybe die, because they had turned away from every other option. Because it was time.

Hawk looked away again, as though by his refusal to take part, he could prevent the gathering anticipation. Like a child who thinks that if he can’t see it, it isn’t happening. He studied the zombies, still moving slowly but purposefully back and forth, lifting and carrying and even operating the simple cranes with silent, unwavering precision. Once set in motion, they would work day and night, with no need to stop for rest or food or sleep. They felt no pain or weariness, and nothing short of major damage or actual falling apart would stop or even slow them down. Whoever they might have been in life no longer mattered. They were just machines now, unfeeling limbs and muscles moving to another’s will.

They still had their drawbacks. They would perform a task unceasingly, but if conditions changed, the dead were incapable of adapting to that change. They couldn’t cope with even the simplest forms of the unexpected. They had physical problems, too. They were dead, after all, and while zombification slowed the processes of corruption, it couldn’t stop them completely. As a result, all the zombies were in varying stages of decay. Some had no eyes and could not see, and were limited to only the simplest tasks. Sometimes an unexpected weight or strain would tear a rotted arm or hand completely away. The zombie would mindlessly continue in its work, incapable of realizing it no longer had enough limbs to carry the job out. Some bodies were so far gone, they were literally strapped together with cords and leather thongs to keep them from falling apart.

A few still bore recent autopsy scars, or even the wounds that had killed them. And a few had obviously been stitched together from ill-assorted spare parts. The zombie spell could get a lot of work out of a dead body. Hawk looked hard, but didn’t recognize any of the dead faces. He wasn’t sure what he would or could have done if he had.

Later, no one was sure how it had started. Maybe somebody said or did something, or someone else thought they did. It didn’t matter. Suddenly both sides surged forward and slammed together in the middle of the harborside, and everyone was screaming and fighting in one great milling mass, desperate to hurt and punish the enemy that made this fight necessary. Steel hooks and crowbars faced off against swords and axes, blood splashed on the ground among the stamping feet, and no one had any interest in quarter or mercy. Because if one side or the other did back down, everyone knew that side would never be taken seriously again. So they fought with savage fury, spitting their hatred into one another’s faces, and within moments, the first dead went crashing to the bloody ground.

Hawk and Fisher fought with axe and sword and practiced skill. They had to. The dockers would have killed them if they’d hesitated. Hawk parried desperate blows and struck back with vicious precision, and howling men and women fell before him. There was no time to tell whether he’d killed them. The Guards and strikers surged back and forth, the two sides being forced apart into small clashes of fighting men and women as the situation grew increasingly confused. There was no room or time for tactics or planning, just the vicious thrust and parry from every side, and the howling voices of the victorious and the wounded. The strikers outnumbered the Guard, but the Guards were better trained and armed. Blood flew in the air, spattering those around. The wounded on the ground tried to drag themselves away between the stamping feet. And still both sides pressed forward, struggling in the milling chaos to reach their hated enemy.

All too soon, slowly but inevitably the strikers began to give ground, the rage and desperation in their hearts no match for an army of well-trained, well-armed fighters. The Guards’ swords and axes rose and fell with methodical brutality as they moved slowly forward, foot by foot, hacking and thrusting, shoulder to shoulder now as they imposed shape and meaning on the battle. They beat and drove the strikers back, and Hawk and Fisher were right there with them. Individual strikers fell wounded, or were separated from their fellows, and some Guards took the opportunity to take out their anger on those defenseless unfortunates. Hawk saw a constable cut down a man armed only with the splintered remains of a wooden club, and then all the Guards nearby moved in to kick the man to death.

The strikers broke, and turned and ran, and the Guards ran after them, bloodlust thrumming in their heads. They cut down men and women from behind, and laughed as they did it. The battle was over, but the violence had its own impetus now, and would not be denied. Hawk saw one Guard corner a lone woman striker against a wall. She was visibly pregnant, driven to fight by desperation and need, her swelling belly in contrast to her undernourished frame. She had two knitting needles in her hands, the wood roughly sharpened into points. She quickly realized there was nowhere for her to run, and she dropped the needles and showed the Guard her empty hands, but he didn’t care. He was breathing hard, and grinning, and his eyes were very bright. He put away his sword and drew his nightstick from his belt, and struck her across the swollen belly. She cried out, thrown back against the wall behind her, and he hit her across the belly again. His soft laughter was drowned out by her screams as he drew back his arm to hit her again.

Hawk threw himself on the Guard. He grabbed the man, swung him around, and hit him in the face with all his strength. The Guard’s mouth and nose exploded in a cloud of blood. He would have fallen, but Hawk grabbed him by the tunic front and held him up. He put away his axe, and coldly and methodically he set about beating the Guard to death with his bare hands. The Guard struggled at first, and then he screamed, but Hawk didn’t care. In the end, Fisher had to drag Hawk off the man by brute force. He was breathing hard, and didn’t seem to recognize her for a moment. The Guard lay unmoving on the ground, a bloody mess but still alive. The pregnant woman had disappeared. Fisher looked quickly around to see if anyone had noticed, but the other Guards were still pursuing the retreating strikers. Which was just as well. Fisher was sure none of the other Guards would have understood. Hawk looked at the blood on his hands, as though unsure as to how it got there.

“It’s over, Hawk,” said Fisher. “The others can deal with the mopping up. Let’s get out of here.”

“This is Haven,” said Hawk, too tired even to be bitter. “Everywhere is just like this.”

And that was when everything really went to hell.

The zombies suddenly went insane, abandoning their tasks to attack every living thing in sight. They swarmed off the ships and along the harborside, unliving arms wielding steel hooks and crowbars, and threw themselves on Guards and strikers alike. Those without weapons tore at the living with savage teeth and clawed hands. There were hundreds of them, more than a match for the Guards and the strikers put together, and the living were already exhausted from the earlier fighting. The zombies tore a bloody path through them, hitting the living from all sides, and the remaining Guards and strikers quickly forgot their differences in the name of survival. People who’d been trying to kill each other only moments before now stood shoulder to shoulder and back to back in the face of a far more terrible enemy.

The zombies fell on the living with silent fury, tearing warm flesh with cold hands, wielding their improvised weapons with unnatural strength. Men and women fell howling as the dead bludgeoned them to the bloody ground, and tore them to pieces. The Guards and the strikers fought back as best they could, but what would normally have been deadly blows had no effect on zombies. Cutting off or destroying the head effectively blinded them, but the bodies still fought on, clawed hands reaching out for the warmth of living flesh. Complete dismemberment was the only way to really stop a zombie, and in the press of stamping, shrieking bodies, that was hard and dangerous work. Everywhere men and women screamed in horror as the dead dragged them down, cold hands tearing horrid furrows in yielding flesh. But neither the Guards nor the strikers made any attempt to turn and run. They stood their ground and fought back with grim determination. They all knew that only they stood between the suddenly murderous zombies and the defenseless family homes beyond the docks. If the zombies broke through, and on into the Devil’s Hook and beyond, the dead would turn the crowded tenements into one great slaughterhouse.

Hawk and Fisher fought side by side, cutting down any zombie that came near them. Hawk’s axe was proof against some magics, and he quickly discovered that a blow from his axe could at least briefly interrupt the magic animating the dead. He sent the zombies crashing to the ground again and again, and Fisher would then move in and dismember the zombie with her sword before it could rise again. It was hard, butcher’s work, and there seemed no end to it. Hawk and Fisher fought on, fatigue building in their aching arms and backs as they swung their weapons over and over. Undead faces glared at them from every side, teeth snapping like traps in rotting faces. The recently killed rose up again, all along the harborside, and the line between the raging dead and the helpless families of the Hook grew steadily thinner.

And then the mists along the harborside suddenly came alive, twisting and snapping, and became thick purposeful strands that enveloped the zombies and tore them apart. The sorceress Mistique had finally arrived. She stood at the edge of the fighting, and beckoned desperately to Hawk and Fisher. The zombies struggled against the attacking mists, ignoring Hawk and Fisher as they fought their way through the undead ranks to join Mistique. The sorceress’s face was pale and strained as she struggled to control so large an area of mists.

“A rogue sorcerer’s taken over control of the zombies!” she said breathlessly as Hawk and Fisher joined her. “He’s overridden the DeWitts’ control. Which means he’s got to be somewhere nearby. And bloody powerful. No one I know in the city at present could do anything like this.”

“Can you locate him?”

“I’m trying! It’s taking practically everything I’ve got to take on so many zombies with my mist. I can’t maintain this for long.” She was breathing hard now, sweat beading on her face. Around them, the Guards and the strikers were attacking the beleaguered zombies with renewed strength and purpose, but already some of the dead were breaking free of the mists, as Mistique’s concentration wavered. Her hands became white-knuckled fists as she fought for control. “He has to be somewhere near. … Someone so powerful should be easy to detect, but … I can’t see him! He must be hiding behind some kind of shield. … Wait a minute. If he’s shielded, look for no magic where there should be some. Got him! Shit! He’s hidden himself in the DeWitts’ business offices! You two go and get him; I’ll stay here and hold the zombies with my mists for as long as I can.”

“You’re the sorceress,” said Hawk. “Shouldn’t you—”

“I’m needed here! Move, damn you! I can’t control so much mist for long!”

Hawk and Fisher ran back down the harborside, heading for the DeWitts’ business offices. They were already deadly tired, but they forced themselves on, pushing the pace as much as they could. The sounds of fighting continued behind them.

“Just the two of us, against a powerful sorcerer,” said Fisher. “Not good odds.”

“They never are,” said Hawk. “I wish we still had those magic suppressor stones we were issued a while back.”

“You mean the ones with a tendency to blow the hand off your wrist if you held on to them too long?” said Fisher.

Hawk sniffed, and looked back to see how Mistique was doing. Mists boiled around the sorceress, ripping limbs from any zombie that got too close to her, but just as Hawk looked, one of the living dead came up on her blind side, its clawed hand reaching for the back of her head. Hawk started to cry out a warning, and then the zombie’s hand closed on Mistique’s thick black hair, and ripped it away. The whole great black mane of hair came away in his hand, revealing a shiny bald head underneath it. The dead man looked at it, puzzled, as Mistique howled with outrage. Her mists streamed into the zombie’s mouth, shot down into his body, and then blew him apart from the inside. Hawk and Fisher looked at each other as they ran.

“I didn’t know she wore a wig,” said Hawk. “Did you know she wore a wig?”

“Shut up and keep running,” said Fisher.

“Been a real day of surprises today,” said Hawk, and then he shut up and saved what was left of his breath for running.

They were soon pounding into the cobbled yard before the DeWitts’ place of business. There were lights in all the windows, but no trace of anyone anywhere. Hawk yelled for the DeWitts to show themselves, but there was no response. Even the private guards in their stupid uniforms were conspicuous by their absence. Hawk and Fisher hefted their weapons and moved cautiously forward. The front door stood slightly ajar. Hawk pushed it slowly open with one hand, tense for any response, but all was still and quiet. Hawk pushed the door all the way open, and he and Fisher charged forward into the hall beyond.

What remained of the the DeWitts’ personal guard lay scattered the length of the hall. They lay still where they had fallen, eyes staring unseeingly, their weapons mostly still undrawn. Whatever had killed them had hit them hard and suddenly, and now they just cluttered the hall. Fisher knelt and examined a few, and then shook her head.

“No obvious wounds. No discoloration to the face, so probably not poison. Something just … sucked all the life right out of them. Our sorcerer’s been busy.”

“Maybe he’s using their life force to maintain his control over the zombies,” said Hawk, looking quickly about him. “If so, then the odds are that everyone else here is dead, too. I suppose it’s too much to hope that he got the DeWitts.”

“Concentrate on the business at hand,” Fisher said sharply. “If this sorcerer is as powerful as Mistique thinks, there could be all kinds of defensive spells between us and him.”

“Right,” said Hawk. “And one’ll get you ten he already knows we’re here.”

They moved cautiously forward down the hall, stepping carefully over the dead bodies, weapons at the ready, but nothing and no one emerged from the shadows to meet them. The silence was absolute, apart from Hawk’s and Fisher’s strained breathing. They checked each room leading off the hall, but they found no defensive magics, no creatures appearing out of midair, no elementals descending suddenly upon them from the spirit realms. Only more dead, struck down wherever they happened to be when the sorcerer cast his deadly spell.

Hawk and Fisher ascended the great stairway at the end of the hall, the backs of their necks tingling in anticipation of the attack they’d probably never know till it hit them. They stopped at the top of the stairs and looked about them. Closed doors and unmoving shadows looked calmly back at them. Fisher hefted her sword unhappily.

“This is wrong,” she said softly. “There should be all kinds of nasty surprises protecting a sorcerer this powerful.”

“Unless he isn’t really all that powerful,” said Hawk, just as quietly. “And it’s taking everything he’s got just to keep his zombie spell going.”

“In which case,” said Fisher, “I vote for charging right in and killing the bastard before he realizes what’s happening.”

Hawk looked at her fondly. “That’s what you always suggest.”

“Yeah—and most of the time it works.”

“Can’t argue with that. All right, we listen at each door until we hear something magical, then we burst in and I’ll race you to see who gets to him first.”

“Go for it,” said Fisher.

They padded cautiously down the landing, listening carefully at each closed door. Their soft footsteps sounded dangerously loud in the quiet, but no one came out to investigate. And finally, at the third door, they heard a voice droning quietly. Hawk and Fisher shared a quick look and a nod. Hawk lifted his axe, but Fisher stayed him with a raised hand. She tried the door handle, and it turned easily. Fisher turned the handle as far as it would go, and then eased the door inward an inch. The hinges were mercifully silent. The air was sharp with tension, like the sea just before a storm breaks. Hawk counted down from three with his fingers, and then hit the door with his shoulder. The door flew open, and Hawk and Fisher charged into the room, weapons raised. Only to crash to a sudden halt as they saw who was waiting for them.

The sorcerer was sitting cross-legged in midair, floating unsupported above a wide chalk-drawn pentacle on the bare wooden floor. Dressed in sorcerer’s black, he wore robes hung loosely about a lean, almost emaciated frame. His shoulders were still broad, but his large hands were just bone and skin, and they wavered unsteadily as they moved in slow mystical passes. The dark robes were stained and shabby, nowhere near as impressive as they had once been. The same could also be said of the sorcerer. His pale aquiline features were drawn and strained, and the dark, deep-set eyes were almost feverishly bright. He no longer shaved his head, and his hair had grown back in a dirty gray.

He turned his head slowly to look at Hawk and Fisher, his thin mouth moving in something that might have been meant as a smile. Hawk’s first thought was that the sorcerer looked like a drug addict too long from his last fix. Squatting on the sorcerer’s left shoulder was a small bloodred demon, barely a foot high, with a pinched vicious face and flaring membranous wings. It hissed at Hawk and Fisher, then giggled nastily. A long, slender umbilical cord ran from the demon’s swollen belly to the sorcerer’s neck, where it plugged seamlessly into the prominent artery.

“Hello, Hawk, Fisher,” said the sorcerer in an almost normal voice. “I knew it would be you who found me, if anyone.”

“Hello, Gaunt,” said Hawk, not lowering his axe. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

The sorcerer Gaunt had once single-handedly cleaned up the Devil’s Hook, killing all the villains, and made the place almost civilized for a while. But it all fell apart again after he was forced to leave Haven. A good man in a bad city, he’d drawn his considerable power from a succubus, a female demon he’d called up out of the Pit, and bound to him, at the cost of his soul. He’d used evil to enable him to do good, and had no right to be surprised when it all went horribly wrong. The succubus was destroyed, and Gaunt lost his power source. Hawk and Fisher saw it happen. Gaunt had been their friend, then.

“Jesus, Gaunt,” said Fisher. “What the hell happened to you? And what the hell do you think you’re doing now?”

“What I have to,” said Gaunt.

“You look half dead,” said Hawk. “And what is that ugly thing squatting on your shoulder?”

“My new source of power,” said the sorcerer. His voice was calm, almost emotionless. “After I lost my lovely angel, my succubus, most of my magic went with her. I couldn’t protect the Hook anymore, and all the scum I’d kept out came rushing back, wolves with endless appetites returned to prey on the innocent. So I left Haven, in search of new magic. But after what happened to the succubus, the only demons that would answer my call were nasty little shits like this one. It’s really no more than a parasite, feeding me magic in return for the life force it drains from me. Not the best of bargains to enter into, but I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“From what I remember of your succubus,” said Hawk, “you’ve just traded one addiction for another.”

The demon glared at Hawk, stretching its mouth impossibly wide to show sharp steel teeth. Up close it looked like a living cancer, bulging red and traced with purple veins, and it stank of sulphur and the Pit.

Gaunt smiled sadly at Hawk. “In the end, power is all that matters. It’s all I have left. You want to know how I could do something like this to myself, don’t you? Ah, Hawk, I was already damned long before you met me. That’s the price you pay for bargaining with the Pit, no matter how noble your intentions. Trafficking with demons like this was no trouble at all to what’s left of my conscience. I needed powerful magic again, to do what had to be done, to save the Hook. I failed them, you see. I promised them they’d be safe, promised I’d protect them from the bastards who used and preyed on them, but in the end I couldn’t back it up. Now I can. I have returned, and this time I will clean up the docks and the Devil’s Hook for good. The dead shall be my soldiers, and no one will be able to stand against them. I will spread such horror through the city that no one will ever dare oppose my will again.”

“Your zombies are killing innocent people right now!” said Fisher. “Guards and striking dockers, men and women putting their lives on the line to protect their families. Or are you saying you can prevent the zombies from slaughtering defenseless people in the Hook?”

“No,” said Gaunt. “Some of the innocent always have to die, for the greater good.”

“They’re killing everything that moves!” said Hawk. “You don’t have any real control over them!”

“You’re wrong, Hawk! Wrong! I planned this all very carefully. I created the zombie control device, with a little help from my friend, and I sold it to the DeWitts. Suitably disguised, of course—they didn’t know it was me. But I knew they’d never be able to resist such an opportunity. And all along, the control device had my spell hidden at its heart, so I could override the DeWitts’ control at any time. I knew Marcus and David would be too greedy to look beyond the profits to be made, by replacing living workers with zombies. And that greed has brought their doom upon them.”

“Are they dead?” said Fisher.

Gaunt frowned. “Unfortunately, no. They ran like rabbits at the first sign of trouble. It doesn’t matter. My zombies will track them down later.”

“There isn’t going to be a later,” said Hawk. “Your zombies are killing innocent people. That has to stop. Now.”

“I thought you, if anyone, would understand,” said the sorcerer. “The DeWitts weren’t the only ones considering the introduction of zombie labor. This … carnage I’ve organized will make people too afraid to ever think of using zombies again. I’m saving thousands of jobs here, Hawk; saving lives and livelihoods all over the city. It’s regrettable that some will have to die to bring that about, but you should know; there are no real innocents anymore. Not in a world where the good must damn themselves to hell to gain the power to do good. So don’t talk to me of death and suffering; I face more pain and horror than you can imagine.”

“Stop this now,” said Fisher. “And we’ll find a way to save your soul. We’ve done harder things in our time.”

“Right,” said Hawk. “No one is ever really lost, who truly repents.”

“But I don’t repent,” said Gaunt. “I wanted power, and I willingly paid the price. I’ve … failed so many times, you see. I never did become what I wanted to be, what everyone said I had the potential to be. I never achieved the things I meant to. I couldn’t even protect my friend William Blackstone, never mind the people of the Hook. I have to win this time, Hawk. I have to win, just once. Whatever the cost.”

“And we have to stop you,” said Fisher. “Whatever the cost.”

“You can try,” said Gaunt. He gestured almost lazily with one hand, and a bolt of lightning shot toward Hawk and Fisher, crackling and spitting on the air. Hawk brought up his axe, and the lightning glanced away from the great steel blade, smashing through the closed glass window and dispersing in the outside air.

“It’s not that easy, is it?” asked Hawk, just a little breathlessly. “Most of your power and your concentration is tied up in maintaining control over the zombies, isn’t it? That’s why there weren’t any defensive spells downstairs. You’re not nearly as powerful as you used to be, Gaunt.”

“I don’t need to be,” said Gaunt. “I have all the help I need.”

Hawk and Fisher looked around sharply at the sound of slow footsteps dragging along the landing toward them. Fisher ran over to the door and looked out. All of the DeWitts’ private guards, dead once but raised again by Gaunt’s augmented will, came stumbling down the landing toward her, still wearing their stupid canary yellow uniforms. Fisher slammed the door shut, and looked for a lock or a bolt, but there wasn’t one. She put her back against the door, and braced herself to hold it shut. Heavy fists slammed against the other side of the door, followed by the thud of dead shoulders, but Fisher held the door shut. She dug in her heels and glared at Hawk.

“Do something, Hawk! We’ve got company!”

Hawk looked at her, and then back at Gaunt, lost in concentration over his spell. Through the broken window came the sound of fighting still going on further down the docks, interspersed with the screams of the hurt and the dying. Hawk knew his duty, but he didn’t want to do it. The sorcerer had been a good man once. He was still trying to be, in his own mad, twisted way. And once he had been Hawk’s friend. The zombies were battering against the closed door now, pounding at it with heavy weapons in dead hands, and the thick wood trembled as Fisher fought to keep the door closed. If they got in, Hawk and Fisher wouldn’t stand a chance in such a cramped space. Hawk looked back at Gaunt, torn with indecision, searching desperately for a way to avoid having to kill a man who had once been his friend. The sorcerer ignored him. And Hawk sighed once, and started forward. He knew his duty. He’d always known his duty.

He knew better than to try to cross the chalk pentacle surrounding the sorcerer. He’d seen such things before. The power harnessed in those innocuous-looking lines would fry the flesh right off his bones. Hawk hefted his great axe, aimed, and threw it, all in one strong fluid action. The axe crossed the chalk pentacle, the runes etched on the steel blade flaring fiercely for a moment, and then it sailed on to neatly sever the scarlet umbilical cord linking the demon to Gaunt’s neck. The cancerous thing toppled backward, screaming shrill obscenities, and the sorcerer gasped in shock and pain as the source of his magic was abruptly cut off. Hawk was already charging forward, crossing the now harmless chalk lines without hesitation, his attention locked not on the moaning sorcerer but on the tiny red demon. It leapt to meet him, moving inhumanly quickly, just a bloodred blur as it shot through the air to slam against Hawk’s chest. He staggered to a halt as its clawed hands and feet sank into his chest, the membranous wings flapping madly as it fought for balance. Hawk cursed at the sudden pain and grabbed the demon with both hands, but its claws had sunk deep into his flesh. Blood soaked the front of his tunic as he lurched back and forth, tearing at the demon. And then its severed umbilical cord whipped through the air like a striking snake, and tried to attach itself to Hawk’s throat. The parasite needed a new host.

Fisher abandoned her post at the door and ran forward. She heard the door crash open behind her, but didn’t dare look back. She crossed the chalk pentacle, grabbed a handful of Gaunt’s hair, and pulled his head back so she could set the edge of her sword against his throat. Tears ran down the sorcerer’s face, but his eyes were still closed in concentration, and outside the sound of fighting still went on. And through the open door came the slow, steady footsteps of the newly raised dead.

“Stop this, Gaunt!” said Fisher. “Or I swear I’ll kill you!”

“No, you won’t,” said Gaunt, not opening his eyes. “Deep down, you know what I’m doing is right. There has to be change in Haven. The guilty must be punished. Or everything we’ve done here has been for nothing.

“Hawk’s going to destroy your demon.”

“It has already given me enough magic to see this through. And you won’t kill me, Isobel. I was your friend.”

Fisher looked across at Hawk, who was still struggling with the demon. It was trying to plunge the end of its severed umbilical cord into Hawk’s neck, but he’d given up his hold on the demon’s body to grab the unbilical’s snapping end with both hands. There was an unnatural power in its jerking movements, and it took all his strength to keep the sucking end away from his throat. He could see his axe, but it was well out of reach, and if he took one hand away to grab for the knife in his boot, the demon would win. It was sniggering now, and its breath was unbelievably foul. Hawk braced himself, and used the last of his strength to turn the umbilical away from him, and plunge the sucking end into the demon’s own distended belly. The cancerous face looked briefly startled, and then it shrieked with pain and thwarted rage. It released its hold on Hawk’s chest, and he threw it away from him. It tumbled in midair, then sucked its whole body inside itself and vanished in a puff of paradox. Hawk, breathing heavily, looked at where it had been and blinked a few times.

“Well,” he said finally. “There’s something you don’t see every day.”

There was the sound of dead bodies falling suddenly to the floor, and Hawk spun around to see the DeWitts’ private guards lying slumped and lifeless on the bare wood floor. The nearest was an arm’s reach away. From outside, the sound of fighting had also come to a halt. Hawk looked at Fisher. She was standing over Gaunt’s dead body, and blood was dripping from the edge of her sword. She met Hawk’s gaze unflinchingly.

“I had to do it while he was vulnerable. He would never have given up control of his zombies. They were his last chance for power. His last chance to be somebody.”

“Isobel …”

“He would have let us both die!”

“Yes,” said Hawk. “I think he would have.” He sighed once, and went over to pick up his axe. He hefted it once, and then put it away. He looked expressionlessly at the sorcerer’s dead body. “He was … misguided. He meant well. He was my friend.”

“That’s why I killed him,” said Fisher. “So you wouldn’t have to.”

Afterward it was mostly about clearing up. The striking dockers went home, taking their dead and wounded with them. The Guards called in surgeons to tend their wounded and began the slow process of clearing the various debris off the harborside. The zombies, calm again without Gaunt’s influence, went back to work. The dockers’ demonstration was over for the moment, but both sides knew it would have to be fought again, and again, until someone surrendered or there was no one left to fight. A few hardcore zealots on both sides wanted to resume the fighting right there and then, but calmer heads dragged them away in different directions. There had been enough death for one day.

Hawk and Fisher walked slowly along the harborside, stepping around the pooled blood, already dark and drying. All of the dead had been removed; both sides had a dark suspicion that DeWitt might see the bodies as raw material for their zombie workforce. Guards stood in small clumps, drinking and smoking, smiling and laughing and celebrating their survival. Hawk remembered some of them showing unforgivable brutality to the fleeing dockers, and his hand moved to the axe at his side. Fisher took him firmly by the arm and guided him away.

“Gaunt was a good man once,” said Hawk. “He really did clean up the Hook for a while. But this … is what Haven does to good men.”

“You always were too sentimental,” said Fisher. “Gaunt was a power junkie who sold his soul for magic long before we ever met him. The road to hell has always been paved with the souls of those with good intentions.”

They walked on a while in silence, leaving the docks behind them as they made their way back into the Devil’s Hook. The grim gray tenements were strangely quiet, subdued for the moment by the news of what had happened in the docks. The few people on the streets gave Hawk’s and Fisher’s Guard uniforms hard looks.

“So,” Fisher said finally. “We saved the city again. Hark how the grateful populace applauds us.”

“We saved Haven for the DeWitts and their kind,” said Hawk. “The dockers didn’t deserve what happened here today.”

Fisher shrugged. “It’s politics. I’ve never understood politics.”

“All you need to understand is that the situation in the docks is still unresolved. This will happen again. More dead Guards. More dead dockers. Only next time … I’m not sure which side I’ll be fighting on.” He looked straight ahead of him, not even glancing at Fisher. “This isn’t what I came to Haven for. It’s certainly not why I stayed.”

“We stayed because we thought we were needed,” said Fisher. “Because we thought we could make a difference.”

“How do you feel about working and living in Haven now? How would you feel if I suggested we leave?”

“I go wherever you go, my love,” Fisher said carefully. “You know that. But can we really leave, with so much still undecided? Turn our backs on all the evil running loose in the city? Last time I looked, we were still the only honest cops in Haven.”

“I’m worried,” said Hawk. “About the lack of purpose and direction in my life. I’m thirty-five now. Not old. Definitely not old. But I’m not young anymore, either. When I was younger, I always thought I’d have my life sorted out by now. That I’d have made all the big decisions in my life. I can’t help feeling that I’m just … drifting. That I’ve lost my way.”

“I’ve never been ambitious,” Fisher told him. “We survived the long night of the Blue Moon, and the Demon War. Anything else was bound to feel anticlimactic after that. Hell, I fully expected to die back then; every day since has been a bonus. We’re doing a good job here, mostly—saving people, helping people. Settle for that.”

“We used to be heroes,” said Hawk. “Everything we did mattered.”

“Do you really want to leave Haven?”

Hawk sighed tiredly. “Where could we go that would be any different?”

And that was when the messenger from a far and distant land burst suddenly into their path, swept off his hat, and bowed deeply to them both. Hawk and Fisher came to a halt and looked, startled, at the messenger as he sank to one knee before them and addressed them in tones of ringing sincerity.

“Prince Rupert, Princess Julia—at last I have found you! You must return at once to the Forest Kingdom. King Harald has been assassinated. Only you can uncover the truth, bring the killer to justice, and bring peace and hope to the Forest Land again!”

Hawk looked at Fisher. “Well, that’s torn it.”