Lewis Deathstalker and his rebel companions had been traveling together in their hijacked yacht the Hereward for almost two days now. They hadn’t even reached the edge of the core planets yet, and already they were all mulling over detailed plans on how best to kill each other. Occasionally they’d take time out to consider less important problems, such as where the hell they were going, or how best to overthrow Finn Durandal, find the lost Owen Deathstalker and Hazel d’Ark, stop the Terror before it destroyed the whole of existence, and return the Empire to its Golden Age; but first things first.

The trouble was, the Hereward was essentially a pleasure craft, designed to carry only its captain and a few very close friends in style and comfort, so the four outlaws and their eight-foot-tall reptiloid companion were finding things a bit cramped, not to mention distinctly claustrophobic. Lewis sat slumped in the captain’s chair on the bridge, swiveling slowly back and forth, just for something to do. The ship’s AI, Ozymandias, was running all the things that mattered, and the Hereward’s top of the line security systems meant nothing less than a starcruiser could detect them, except by accident. Since of late most conversations had tended to escalate very quickly into shouting matches, a strained silence currently occupied the bridge. So Lewis swiveled slowly back and forth, studying his reluctant partners in turn.

Jesamine Flowers sat beside him on the only other chair, scowling at the protein cube and cup of distilled water that made up the main meal of the day. She was tall, blond, heart-stoppingly beautiful, and voluptuously glamourous, because her role as the Empire’s premiere star and diva demanded it, but after all this time away from her beauticians and stylists, the strain was beginning to show. She still looked marvelous, she just didn’t look like a goddess anymore. Lewis didn’t care, but Jesamine did. It had been a long time since she’d had to settle for being merely marvelous. But still, she had given up being a superstar, the worshiped and adored Queen-to-be, in order to cleave to her true love, Lewis. She’d given up everything for him, and he had vowed never to make her regret it.

Although he loved her with all his heart, Lewis still had to wonder what she saw in him. Lewis wasn’t a god. He wasn’t even handsome. His face was broad and harsh-featured. Full of character, perhaps, but still almost defiantly ugly. He could have had it fixed, but he honestly never saw the point. He was what he was, inside and out. He was also short and blocky, well-muscled because his old jobs as Paragon and Champion had demanded it, and so broad-chested that from a distance he often seemed as wide as he was tall. He kept his black hair short so he wouldn’t have to bother about it, and shaved regularly only because Jesamine insisted on it. He had surprisingly mild blue eyes and a rare but good-natured smile. He was a Deathstalker—a warrior by choice, and an outlaw through grim necessity.

He and Jesamine shared the captain’s cabin. It had all the comforts that could be expected, and more besides, but Jesamine still found plenty to complain about. She tried to be humorous about it, but of late the jokes had become less funny and more and more pointed.

Lewis let his chair carry him slowly around until his gaze fell upon Rose Constantine—a bloodred flower with more thorns than most, the Wild Rose of the Arena. She was sitting cross-legged on the steel floor, her back flat against the wall, entirely comfortable and relaxed as she polished the blade of her sword with long, sensual strokes. She was still wearing her trademark tightly cut crimson leathers—the color of freshly spilled blood, from her gleaming thigh boots to her tight high collar. Rose believed in being self-contained. She was exactly seven feet tall, dark of hair and pale of face, lithely muscled, full-breasted, and entirely terrifying. In a Golden Age of reason and civilized behavior, Rose Constantine was a psychopathic killer—a butcher of men and women and aliens, for whom slaughter was sex, and the killing stroke her orgasm.

Sitting awkwardly on the other side of the cabin, and as far away from Rose as he could get, was that most notable thief, con man, and devout coward, Brett Random. Mousey-haired and blandly handsome, he was a likeable enough rogue, but nothing and no one was safe when his restless hands were around. He had no scruples and fewer morals, and honesty was not in him. He’d never met a problem he couldn’t best solve by running away from it. His friends were fond of saying that you always knew where you were with Brett—he’d always let you down. And yet somehow he’d found the strength of will, if not of character, to break from the arch traitor Finn Durandal and join the side of the angels. Certainly no one was more surprised than he. It might have had something to do with the fact that Brett claimed to be descended from two of the greatest heroes of the old Rebellion: Jack Random and Ruby Journey. Though it should perhaps be pointed out that the only person who believed that was Brett Random.

Brett was also a minor-league esper, as a result of having an extremely dangerous esper drug force-fed him by the Durandal. He had once made brief but striking mental contact with Rose Constantine, and now they were linked on some level neither of them fully comprehended. Brett was almost entirely sure that it wasn’t love, on the grounds that Rose scared the shit out of him. Brett and Rose slept in the only other cabin. Rose slept in the bed, and Brett slept on the floor—when he could sleep. He was currently studying on a handheld viewscreen the contents of a data crystal he’d acquired from the cargo bay, and sniggering quietly to himself.

That left just Saturday, the reptiloid from the planet Shard. Lewis didn’t have to turn his chair to look at the alien behind him. He could sense Saturday’s lurking presence at the back of the cabin like the loud ticking of an unexploded bomb. Saturday (the reptiloid had had some trouble with the human concept of naming: “On Shard we all know who we are.”) was eight feet tall, his huge, massively muscled frame covered in dull bottle-green scales, and he had heavy back legs and a long spiked tail. High up on his chest he had two small gripping arms with very nasty claws, and the main features of his wide wedge-shaped head were two deepset eyes and a mouth full of more teeth than seemed possible. One look at him, and everyone else felt an immediate atavistic need to run for the trees. His people were new to the Empire. They delighted in the hunt, fought and killed each other for fun, or possibly art, and were currently fascinated by the human concept of war. Everyone else in the Empire was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Since his species apparently didn’t need to sleep, Saturday spent the nights alone on the bridge, happily humming some ancient song about the joys of dismembering one’s enemy before killing and eating him, while watching the instruments for any signs of pursuit—or imminent collision, since they couldn’t afford to announce a flight plan. On the whole, the reptiloid was easy enough to get along with, but Lewis had decided that if Saturday asked one more time “Are we there yet?” he was going to shoot the reptiloid in the head, on general principle. He didn’t think anyone else would object. And if anyone did, he might well shoot them too.

Two men, two women, and a reptiloid pretty much filled the available bridge space. The two cabins were too claustrophobic and thin-walled to do anything other than sleep in, and the rest of the yacht was taken up with the oversized engine room and the packed cargo bay. So the outlaws stuck together on the bridge and tried not to get on each other’s nerves, mostly by not speaking at all unless absolutely necessary. It always ended in arguments. It didn’t help that they didn’t really have anything in common other than the fact of being outlaws, and that Finn Durandal wanted them dead.

Of them all, Brett seemed happiest, for the moment, because the data crystal he was studying so intently was just one of many filled with alien porn. In fact, the cargo bay was stuffed full of them. Brett had studied the contents list on the bridge computers, and then several of the crystals themselves, and had declared the alien porn to be of the highest quality, with quite superior production values. Everyone else was happy to take his word for it.

Lewis scowled at the half-eaten protein cube and the empty cup before him. Jesamine had a point. This stuff might be nourishing, but it was no substitute for food. It didn’t actually taste bad; the problem was both cube and water tasted of nothing at all, and as a result mouth and tongue wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. Forcing the stuff down was a triumph of will over instinct. Unfortunately, the original captain of the Hereward had only recently landed on Logres and hadn’t got around to replenishing his stores, which meant what supplies remained were very basic and severely limited in number. Even with the most efficient recycling and the most drastically reduced rations, Lewis and his companions were going to run out of food and water all too soon, if they didn’t find some planet where they could land safely. And there weren’t many worlds left in the Empire where outlaws were welcome—not in these civilized and law-abiding days.

“I swear, this stuff probably tastes better coming up than it does going down,” said Jesamine, staring disgustedly at the barely nibbled protein cube in her hand. “Lepers who eat their own extremities would turn up what was left of their noses at this. And the last time I smelled anything like this it was floating in a bucket marked ‘Hospital Medical Waste.’ ”

“Thank you for sharing that with us,” said Brett, not looking up from his display screen. “Why don’t you have some nice distilled water to take your mind off it? That stuff’s so pure it tastes of something you drank three weeks ago.”

“I know the provisions are vile, and I hate to think how many times it’s already been recycled through someone else’s system, but it’s all there is,” Lewis said tiredly. “It’ll do to keep us alive till we get where we’re going. Try not to think about it.”

“I am a star!” snapped Jesamine. “My palate has been trained and sensitized to experience only the very best of the culinary arts! I am a diva! I have whole armies of fans who would crawl naked across broken glass just to chill my wine for me! I am not accustomed to slumming it! God, I’d kill for a champagne mouthwash . . .”

“Sorry again, one and all,” the ship’s AI, Ozymandias, said cheerfully. “But it seems the yacht’s previous captain put all his money into upgrading his defenses, and didn’t have anything left over for luxuries like food transformation tech. On the bright side, we’re faster than most starcruisers, and we’ve got sensors and stealth capabilities you wouldn’t believe.”

Lewis looked thoughtfully at the control panels. “Yes, I’ve been wondering about that. Perhaps you can explain why a simple pleasure yacht has an H-class stardrive. They’re usually reserved for military and peacekeeper ships.”

Brett looked up from his viewscreen and smiled at Lewis. “I can answer that one. This ship is as fast as it is because it has to be. Smuggling alien porn is a death sentence on a whole lot of alien planets, for all kinds of political and religious reasons. And the Imperial courts aren’t too keen on it either, because . . . well, mostly because they’re a bunch of prudes. Same reason for the ship’s force shields and heavy-duty security systems. This guy couldn’t afford to get caught.”

“He’s probably right, Sir Deathstalker,” said Oz, in his relentlessly cheerful voice that Lewis just knew was going to start seriously grating on his nerves soon. “Choosing the Hereward to hijack could be seen as a classic case of good news-bad news. The good news is that at the speed we’re traveling, the Empire’s going to have a hard time finding anything that can catch up with us. The bad news is that if we run into anyone who knows what the Hereward usually traffics in, they’ll probably try to blow us apart on general principle.”

Perfect, thought Lewis. Just bloody perfect. I’ll bet Owen didn’t have these problems when he was starting out.

“You know,” the AI said chattily, “for a Golden Age, Humanity has become really quite boring and inhibited in some areas. In Owen’s day, you could get your hands on practically anything, for a price. In fact, go back a couple of centuries, and I could have got you into some live shows where the action would have steamed up your eyeballs and made them clang together. Clean living and decency is vastly overrated, if you ask me.”

Lewis tried to stop scowling. It was making his head ache. “Oz ...”

“Yes, sir! Right here and ready to serve your every wish, Sir Deathstalker!”

“God, I hate a cheerful AI,” said Jesamine. “It’s like those recorded announcements you get at starports, when they apologize for your ship running late and screwing up all your connections. You know they don’t really mean it, the bastards. Every time I hear a computer getting cheerful, I just know bad news is coming.”

“Let me get this straight, Oz,” said Lewis, determined not to get sidetracked. “You claim to be the same AI that served my ancestor, the blessed Owen, two centuries ago during the Great Rebellion. Yes?”

“Well, yes and no,” said Ozymandias. “I’m not entirely him. He was destroyed twice. First by Owen and his companions when it was discovered that the original Ozymandias had been secretly programmed by the Empire to spy on them. The AIs of Shub managed to preserve a few fragments of the original AI personality and built a new AI around it. Then, later, Owen and Hazel destroyed that Oz after they found it was spying on them for Shub. Not a very lucky personality, when you get right down to it. I’d be worried if I was superstitious, which I’m programmed not to be. Anyway, the AIs of Shub built me around what fragments remained of the second Oz. So I’m not, strictly speaking, Ozymandias. I am a copy of a copy. But I’m as close as you’re going to get, so make the most of me, because I’m bloody good at what I do.”

“Hold everything,” said Lewis. “Are you saying you’re a part of Shub? Just another of their voices, like the robots I met? And why do I just know you’re going to say ‘Yes and no’?”

“I don’t know,” said Oz. “Maybe you’re psychic. I am a subpersonality—a fairly separate subroutine with a certain amount of autonomy. So I’m me, but I’m Shub as well, at a distance. I’m all yours, ready and eager to obey your every command, but Shub looks over my shoulder from time to time. And if you’re confused, think how I feel. Shub has raised multitasking to an art form.”

“Great,” said Rose, not looking up from polishing her sword. “We’ve stolen the only ship in the Empire whose AI suffers from Multiple Personality disorder.”

“And I hate these clothes too,” said Jesamine, following a logic only she understood.

Though she did have a point. She and Brett had both had to change their clothing, on the grounds that what they’d been wearing had become more than a little battered and bloodstained during their escape from Logres. (Lewis had just scrubbed his armor clean, Rose had ignored the state of her leathers, and Saturday had licked the gore off his scales with a limber virtuosity that impressed and disturbed the others.) The only spare clothes on board the Hereward came from the captain’s closet. Fortunately, it held a fairly wide collection. Either the previous captain entertained a lot of friends, or he liked to play dress-up on long voyages.

Jesamine was now wearing a series of overlapping silk creations in dazzling and fiercely clashing hues, all heavily perfumed. On first seeing herself in the mirror, Jesamine had angrily announced she looked like a Mistworld doxy. Brett had asked her how she knew, and the conversation had deteriorated rapidly. Brett himself was now wearing a thermal suit with built-in chameleon tech, so that he could fade into any background. He was very pleased with it, on the grounds that it opened up whole new fields of avoiding trouble and not being found when there were dangerous things that needed doing. Brett firmly believed that fighting was something other people did, and feats of heroism and derring-do were for people who needed their heads tested. Being around Rose had done nothing to change his opinion.

Lewis just knew this conversation wasn’t going to go anywhere good, and was racking his brains for some way to derail it when Brett suddenly got a fit of the giggles. Almost despite himself, Lewis leaned out of his chair to get a look at what Brett had on his viewscreen now. Lewis had checked out some of the earlier examples of alien porn, just out of curiosity, and had to say it did nothing much for him. Some of the human-alien interactions were . . . interesting, but he found most of the alien-alien material frankly incomprehensible.

On finding out what the Hereward’s cargo was, his first reaction had been to declare it should all be seized and held as evidence. Brett had quickly reminded Lewis that he wasn’t a Paragon anymore, and Lewis had scowled and muttered and finally said, Oh, hell; drop the lot into space. We can use the extra room. Brett nearly had a coronary. Dump it? Are you crazy? Do you know how much we can sell this shit for on Mistworld? Look, if we’re going to be rebels on the run, we’re going to need working capital. Lots of it. Lewis had finally agreed, in principle at least, but he still wasn’t happy about it. He took a look at what was amusing Brett, and felt his scowl headache coming back again.

“Brett . . . what is that? I mean, those two whatever-they-are aren’t even touching each other! And even if they were, they don’t appear to have anything that would make it worthwhile anyway.”

Brett considered the scene. “Maybe it’s a mood piece. You know, all in the way they’re looking at each other.”

“They haven’t got any eyes either!”

Brett shrugged. “Maybe you had to be there . . . It just reminded me of a girl I knew once, that’s all.”

“Don’t go there, Lewis,” said Jesamine. “Trust me on this.”

Brett changed the scene on his screen and then sat up sharply, a wide grin spreading across his shifty features. “Well, hello! Oh, I do not believe this . . . I just tapped in a search on celebrities, and I appear to have found a rather sporty scenario featuring a certain celebrity not a million miles from where I’m sitting . . .”

Jesamine was quickly on her feet in a flurry of silks, and she stormed across the bridge to glare over Brett’s shoulder. Lewis quickly joined her, peering over Brett’s other shoulder. The display screen showed what certainly seemed to be Jesamine Flowers and a half-alien woman getting very friendly with each other in a setting where clothing was clearly optional, if not downright discouraged. Lewis could feel his face heating up.

“That is not me!” Jesamine said firmly. “That is a look-alike, probably fresh out of the body shop. I did do a few . . . artistic studies, very early on in my career, but they were strictly solo poses, for the serious collector and appreciator of the nude form. I never did anything like that, even when I was touring in rep. I do have my standards, darling. And I haven’t been able to get my ankles that far behind my ears since I was nineteen. Who or what is that person she’s doing that with?”

“That is Nikki Sixteen,” Brett said happily. “An old acquaintance of mine. She’s half N’Jarr, all woman, and one hell of a performer. Go, girl, go!”

“Wait a minute,” said Lewis. “I thought the N’Jarr were those squishy little mushroom people?”

“That’s the larval stage,” Brett said patiently. “The final adult form is largely insectile. Exactly what Nikki’s human and N’Jarr parents ever saw in each other has always been a mystery to me. Presumably love really is blind after all. She’s called Nikki Sixteen because she’s one of sixteen broodmates. She’s the black sheep of the family, if you can apply the term to someone with antennae, compound eyes, and six breasts. God, look at her flex . . . What a healthy, enthusiastic, and limber soul she is . . . Are you sure that isn’t you, Jesamine?”

“That’s Miss Flowers to you, you degenerate. That is definitely not me, and I can prove it. I have a small purple birth-mark on my . . . person. It’s always covered with makeup when the role calls for stage nudity. And besides, that doesn’t even look like me, not really. My breasts aren’t that big, the nose is all wrong, and I wouldn’t do that if you paid me. Lewis . . . Lewis!”

“Sorry,” said Lewis. “I got distracted.”

“Go and sit down in your chair again, dear. And push your eyeballs back into their sockets. As for you, Random, I strongly suggest you find something else to look at, before I take that data crystal out of the viewer and ram it so far up your left nostril it will shoot out of your right ear.”

“All right, all right, I’m changing the scene!” said Brett. “Touchy, touchy . . . some people have no sense of humor.”

Jesamine gave Brett a long, thoughtful look. “Brett Random,” she said finally. “You know, I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before . . .”

Brett froze, his face automatically falling into innocent mode while all his internal systems panicked. His well-honed sense of paranoia was never far from overdrive at the best of times. He smiled winningly at Jesamine while his mind worked frantically, trying to remember if he’d ever run a scam on her or any of her people. He was pretty sure he hadn’t, but there was no denying he’d got around in his time. And given the sheer number of confidence tricks and stings he’d pulled down the years on any number of celebrities who had more ego than common sense and who thought their position made them invulnerable . . .

“Oh, I’m sure I’d remember meeting such a great star as yourself, Miss Flowers,” he said smoothly. “I just have that sort of face. People always think they know me from somewhere.”

Jesamine sniffed, unconvinced, but let it go rather than get sucked into yet another argument. “I do meet a lot of people. Or at least, I did. I can’t believe my whole life went down the toilet so quickly. And I certainly don’t believe my fan base will accept any of the terrible things that bastard Finn has been saying about me on the news broadcasts. I mean, they’re my fans. What’s the point of having fans if they won’t stick with you? Some did. You saw them, Lewis, demonstrating against my imprisonment, outside Traitor’s Hall.”

“You said it yourself, Jes. The public can be very fickle. I couldn’t believe they’d turn on me so easily either.” Lewis tapped his fingertips together thoughtfully and frowned down at them. “You can bet Finn will have all his best propaganda people working day and night on discrediting both of us. They’ll dig into our respective pasts, and dig up every bit of dirt they can find.”

“There’s dirt in your past, Sir Deathstalker?” said Brett. “I’m shocked. Shocked!”

“Shut up, Brett.”

“Shutting up right now, sir.”

“What they can’t find, they’ll probably make up,” said Lewis. “You can’t be an honest Paragon without making some enemies—people only too willing to tell tales about you, in the name of revenge. What about you, Jes? Is there much in your past they could find that they could use against you?”

“Well, rather a lot, actually,” said Jesamine. “I’ve never pretended to be a saint, darling. And a certain amount of bad behavior is expected of you when you’re a star. It’s affairs of the heart, and sort-of-secret assignations that keep your face in the gossip shows. If no one’s talking about you, how can you be a star? I admit it, I was a slut sometimes. It was good for business. And you have to throw the odd temper tantrum in public, or no one will take you seriously. You have to give the media stories, or they start making up their own.”

Lewis glowered in Brett’s direction. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in asking you, is there?”

“None at all,” Brett said briskly. “I’m a scoundrel, and proud of it. The good Lord put me on Logres to shear the sheep, and I have been a busy, busy boy. Wherever rogues and villains gather, my name is on everyone’s lips. I am a Random’s Bastard, and I glory in it.”

“Then what are you doing here, with half the Empire after you?” Rose said calmly.

Brett pouted sulkily. “One moment of conscience in an otherwise spotless life, and my whole career is over. I could spit. I don’t even want to think what my old comrades will be saying when they discover I’ve hooked up with you.”

“I’ve done nothing I’m ashamed of,” said Rose.

“Yes, but that covers a hell of a lot of ground,” said Brett. “Some of the things you did for the Durandal . . .”

“Yes, by all means,” said Jesamine. “Let’s talk about that. You’ve been only too willing to talk about yourself and your many triumphs during the past few days, but you’ve hardly said a word about your involvement with Finn bloody Durandal.”

Oh, shit, thought Brett, his heart sinking.

“Talk to us, Random,” said Lewis. “I want to know everything you know about that man. What he did, and what he had you do. And all the things he planned to do. Help me to understand why one of my oldest and most trusted friends and colleagues has become the greatest villain of the Golden Age.”

“I suppose I should start with the Neuman riot outside Parliament,” Brett said reluctantly. “Up till then it had all just been talk—making plans and gathering support and assistance. Finn was responsible for everything that happened in that riot. He planned it, orchestrated it from beginning to end. He planted agent provocateurs in the Neuman march and in the crowds, to stir things up and push them out of control. One of them shot the Paragon Veronica Mae Savage, on his orders, and started all the blood and slaughter that came after. It was all designed to intimidate Parliament and discredit the Paragons. You were supposed to die that day too. I lured you away from the main action, just so that Rose could have a crack at you.”

“You shot me,” said Lewis. “I helped you, and you shot me.”

“It was orders,” Brett said weakly. “Finn’s orders. You don’t say no to Finn. Anyway, Saturday turned up and saved you . . .”

“Yes,” said Rose. “I’m still rather annoyed about that.”

She looked at Saturday, and smiled. There was no humor in her dark rosebud mouth—only a promise of revenge presently delayed. The huge reptiloid looked back at her interestedly, absently flexing the terrible claws on his hands.

Brett hurriedly continued with his tale, describing how Finn had methodically set himself up as the mastermind behind a far-reaching scheme to bring down the whole Golden Age, by whatever means necessary. How he bribed and colluded and intimidated people on all sides of the law to build the secret army he needed, which was led by specialized criminals he recruited from the notorious Rookery. Brett tried to talk about his encounter with the awful uber-espers the Spider Harps, in their charnel-house kingdom deep under the Parade of the Endless, but it still upset him too much.

“Making deals with the Esper Liberation Force?” said Lewis, shaking his head slowly. “He must be out of his mind.”

“I don’t think so,” said Brett. “I think he was always like this, inside. He just never had a reason to let it out before.”

“But . . . what does he want?” said Jesamine. “What’s this all for? Does he want to make himself King?”

“Perhaps,” said Rose. “Or perhaps he just wants to burn it all down, so he can dance in the ashes. The Durandal is an extraordinary man. He has a sense of purpose and destiny that is . . . pure and uninhibited. A force of will entirely uncorrupted by mercy or compassion. I like that in a man.”

Jesamine sniffed. “If you’re so hot for the little shit, sweetie, what are you doing here with us?”

“I came to be with Brett,” said Rose. “Or perhaps I’m here because fighting for the Durandal would have been too easy. I do so love a challenge. There’s no joy to be had in the slaughter of easy prey.”

“Oh, I do so agree,” said Saturday. “Just as I am here because siding with you offers me the best chance for killing and mass carnage.”

“I may puke,” said Brett. “Really. I’m not kidding.”

I’ll bet Owen never had these problems, thought Lewis. Aloud, he said, “Let us all try to keep to the subject. You spent the most time with Finn, Brett. He must have talked to you. How could he have gone so bad so quickly? He was the greatest living Paragon, dammit. They’d almost run out of awards to give him for courage and heroism above and beyond the call of duty. He was admired and adored, all across the Empire. And now he’s a traitor and a murderer, betraying all his old friends? Just because I was made Champion instead of him? It seems such a . . . petty reason, to fall so far so fast.”

“I think for him, it was a wake-up call,” Brett said slowly. “Because he never was a hero, not really. He just played at being one, until something more interesting came along. You worked beside him, Sir Deathstalker. Did you never notice some of his more . . . extreme tendencies?”

Lewis shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I don’t know. It worries me that perhaps I did, and turned a blind eye, because he was so good at catching villains. But we spent time together off duty, Finn and Douglas and me. We talked, and drank together, had good times. I trusted him to guard my back, and he never let me down. Till now.”

“I never trusted him,” said Jesamine. “He was always too pretty, too perfect. When people like that break, they break all the way.” She glared at Brett. “At least Finn has the excuse of being crazy. Why did you go along with him, knowing what he was?”

Brett cringed under the weight of her contemptuous gaze. “Hey, it wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter! He said he’d kill me if I didn’t go along, and I had every reason to believe him. Some of the things I heard him say . . . I’m no saint, lady, Sir Deathstalker, I’m a career criminal and proud of it, but . . . he’s so far over the edge now he can’t even see it from where he is. Like Rose said, there’s nothing he won’t do, no atrocity he’d flinch from, to get what he wants. And much to my surprise, it turned out there’s a line even I won’t cross, after all. After what I found in his secret files, I had to help you escape. And . . . I am a Random, after all. My ancestors and yours were friends, comrades. Perhaps . . . we’re meant to be together.”

“Oh, please,” said Jesamine. “Spare me. Lewis was a Paragon, and I was a star, but even we are not the stuff of legends. You are and never will be anything more than a common thief who got in over his head and panicked.”

“I was never a common thief!” Brett said hotly. “I was a top-rank thief! I could con you out of everything you owned, including the clothes you were wearing, and so skillfully you wouldn’t even notice until the wind changed direction.”

“We left the Durandal of our own free will,” said Rose Constantine. “Brett for his reasons, and I . . . because Finn wasn’t worthy of me. He had ambition, but no taste. For him, killing was just killing. I expect a much higher quality of murder with you, Sir Deathstalker. With you, I confidently expect death-defying schemes, overwhelming odds and suicide missions, and all the other things that make life worth living. The killing’s always good around a Deathstalker. You draw it to you. It is your destiny. Just lead me to the slaughter and turn me loose upon your enemies. It is all I ask of you.”

I want to go home, Lewis thought miserably. I want to go back to when my life made sense, and I wasn’t surrounded by crazy people.

“Thank you, Rose,” he said finally, because he had to say something. “Rest assured that if we ever come to the point where one of us has to make a last desperate stand so the others can escape, I promise I’ll think of you first.”

Rose considered him thoughtfully. “How is it, Sir Deathstalker, that a warrior of your renowned abilities never fought in the Arena? I would have been delighted and honored to cross swords with you.”

“I kill for duty,” Lewis said stiffly. “When there’s no other way to get the job done. Never for pleasure.”

Rose sniffed, and looked away. “Boring,” she said, seeming to lose all interest in Lewis. He didn’t know whether to feel insulted or relieved.

“Don’t you dare turn your back on us like that,” said Jesamine, flaring up immediately at the insult to her Lewis. “Since we’re talking about your career on the bloody sands, perhaps you’d care to explain to us just how a complete bloody psychopath got into the Arena in the first place? There are supposed to be a whole series of psychological tests that have to be passed by all would-be gladiators, expressly designed to keep out people like you! So how the hell did you get in?”

Rose turned back to smile at Jesamine with her humorless crimson mouth. “It was easy. The Arena owners rig the tests. They always have. They realized a long time ago that people like me, the natural born murderers, make the best fighters—the stars who’ll give the crowds what they want, and keep them coming back for more. Sane people don’t last long on the bloody sands. They get careless, or they burn out too quickly. Come on, what sensible, well-adjusted person would want to fight in the Arena anyway, to face the threat of suffering and dismemberment and even death, over and over again? The Arena is where we go to sate our ancient appetite for blood. I’ve often thought they should test the crowds . . . but that would give the game away, wouldn’t it?”

“The Arena is a place to display valor and skill and fortitude,” said Lewis. “A testing ground, to bring forth heroes.”

Rose laughed breathily, a dark disturbing sound. “Blood, Deathstalker. It’s always been about blood. When your civilized men and women go to the Arena, they go to see people like me. To glory in what we do. And afterwards, they dream about being me. Underneath all the culture and refinement of your precious Golden Age, all the old appetites are still there, repressed but not forgotten. Why do you think Pure Humanity and the Church Militant became so popular so quickly?”

“No,” said Lewis. “I don’t believe that. I won’t believe it. People are better than that. They proved it, by overthrowing Lionstone, and building the Golden Age. We have our dark side, our baser instincts, but it has always been the triumph of Humanity that most of us rise above them.”

“Of course you believe that,” said Rose. “You’re a Deathstalker. You are the best of us. But you still need someone like me, just as the blessed Owen needed his Ruby Journey.”

“Excuse me,” said Saturday. “Fascinating though this conversation undoubtably is to those who care about this sort of thing, I have a question. How is it that you and I never fought in the Arena, Rose Constantine?”

“Because we were stars,” Rose explained patiently. “And the Arena owners didn’t want to risk either of us while they could still make money out of us. You wouldn’t believe what they make off of merchandising alone. They would have given you to me eventually. When they’d made all they could off of you.” The pale tip of Rose’s tongue moved briefly over her dark lips. “I was looking forward to it.”

“I’m sure it would have been quite delightful,” the reptiloid said politely.

Brett looked disgustedly at Rose. “Hardly a word out of you for days, and now you can’t stop talking. A whole new philosophical side to you, and all of it utterly depressing. Why can’t you say something nice, just for once?”

“Sorry,” said Rose. “I don’t do nice.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” said Jesamine. “Such corruption, and . . . vileness, going on right at the heart of Logres. It’s like something out of Lionstone’s time!”

“People want what they want,” said Brett, immersed in his private viewscreen again. “And as long as they do, other people will be right there, ready and willing to supply it to them. For a price.”

Lewis glared at Brett. “God, you depress me. I used to bust scumbags like you. Psycho killers in the Arena, alien porn . . . why do people want shit like that anyway?”

Brett sighed and looked up from his screen. “Because, Sir Deathstalker, Sir Paragon, people always want what other people think they shouldn’t want; things they can’t have because other people say they shouldn’t be allowed. Maybe especially in a Golden Age. Being civilized is hard work. The higher we rise, the more fun there is to be had in allowing yourself to fall. Honor and virtue are all very well, but they don’t satisfy like a good old roll in the mud. You and Miss Flowers should understand that. She was engaged to be married to your best friend. You were the Champion, and she was going to be Queen. But you both threw it all away to be together. So here you are, Sir Deathstalker, on the other side of the law, with scumbags like me. How does it feel? Had any good insights yet?”

“What we did,” Jesamine said steadily, “we did for love.”

“Oh, love,” said Brett. “Well then, that makes everything all right, doesn’t it?”

“Finn Durandal has to be fought,” said Lewis. “He has to be stopped. Nothing else matters. And if I have to work with poor materials like you, Brett, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll make a hero out of you or kill you trying.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Brett growled, and turned ostentatiously back to his viewscreen.

Lewis leaned back in his captain’s chair and pretended to study the comm panels before him. For all his professed confidence, he felt lost, abandoned, and very alone. So much of what he’d believed in had turned out to be built on sand. Or blood. The people he’d sworn to protect had disowned him and betrayed his faith in them by embracing madness and evil. He’d fought so hard to be perfect, for them. Surely he had the right to expect as much from them? And now here he was, a reluctant rebel against the very authorities he had once proudly represented.

Deep down, he had often wondered what it must have been like, to be an outlaw like his blessed ancestor, the Owen. To fight, alone and heroically, against an evil Empire. He’d had his quiet, secret fantasies of putting himself to the ultimate test. To be a real Deathstalker. Well, now he was living out his dreams, and they had turned out to be nightmares. He’d become the rebel hero at last, but he’d never dreamed he’d have to give up so much. His oath of fealty, to King and Empire. The honor of being a Paragon, and then Imperial Champion. He had finally discovered the great love of his life, but couldn’t believe how much it had cost him. He had betrayed and lost his best, closest friend, King Douglas. Lewis looked over at Jesamine.

I have given up so much for you, my love. Don’t ever let me regret it.

Jesamine threw what was left of her protein cube away. It hit the cabin wall and bounced. Jesamine tossed her cup aside and folded her arms tightly. “That was disgusting! God knows how many times it’s already been through recycling! I’d rather starve. There are convicted mass murderers on prison planets who eat better than this!”

“What’s the matter, diva?” said Rose. “Not used to slumming it with the real people?”

“The food is disappointing,” Saturday said mildly. “Where’s the fun in food if it isn’t kicking and squealing?”

Everyone looked at him. “Can I just say ‘Oh, puke’?” said Jesamine. “Also yech, and urrgh! Someone change the subject now.

“And can we please not talk about prisons?” Brett said plaintively. “This overcrowded tin can reminds me far too vividly of my one unfortunate stay in durance vile. It’s making me distinctly twitchy.”

“We all know why you’re twitchy,” Jesamine said severely. “It’s because you raided the medicine cabinet yesterday and took every pill and potion you could get your hands on. It’s a wonder your brain cells haven’t melted down and dribbled out your ears.”

Brett snorted dismissively. “Given the quality and dosages of stuff I’ve tried in the past, my system hardly noticed it. Besides, I needed it. I get very nervous. Really. You have no idea. And don’t bully me! I’m having a hard time. I may cry.”

“Leave the Random alone,” Rose said calmly. “He may be small and useless, but he’s mine.”

“Oh, God,” said Brett. “It just gets worse and worse . . .”

Jesamine spun round in her chair to glare at Lewis. “You heard that overdressed cow, Lewis! She threatened me! Do something!

Lewis wondered wistfully whether the Hereward had a sleepgas option, so he could shut them all up and get some serious thinking done.

“Everybody calm down, right now,” he said, putting all his Paragon’s authority into his voice. “We still haven’t decided where we’re going yet. More and more it seems to me that we should put our search for Owen and Hazel on hold, until we’ve dealt with all the loose ends we left behind on Logres.”

“There is no way I’m going back to Logres,” Brett said immediately. “Too many people want me dead there, most definitely including Finn Durandal. Hell, he wants all of us dead. Preferably in slow, inventive and very messy ways. Why the hell would we want to go back to Logres?”

“Some of us had friends we left behind,” said Lewis. “I’m worried about Emma Steel. She doesn’t know about Finn. And she is perhaps the only true protector Logres has left.”

“You said yourself she’s a first class Paragon,” said Jesamine, reaching out to put a comforting hand on Lewis’s arm. “She can look after herself. And she’s got backup in Stuart Lennox, your official replacement from Virimonde. You said he was a good sort.”

“I left him broken and bleeding on the starport landing pads,” said Lewis. “Another blood debt I owe Finn. Even if Stuart does make a full recovery, he’s just starting out as a Paragon. Too young, too trusting. I may have thrown him to the wolves.”

“They aren’t who you’re really worried about,” said Jesamine. “You’re worried about Douglas.”

“Yes,” said Lewis. “He is the King, and we left him alone and unprotected, surrounded by political and religious fanatics just dying for a chance to bring him down. And he doesn’t know about Finn either.”

“He has Anne,” said Jesamine. “We’ve all been friends for ...”

“I don’t trust her anymore,” said Lewis.

“Oh, Lewis,” Jesamine said tenderly. “You can’t worry about everyone, sweetie. It’s an endearing trait, but an impractical one. Worry about us instead.”

“Oh, I do,” said Lewis. “Trust me, I do. What can we hope to achieve? A dishonored Paragon, a disgraced diva, a homicidal maniac, an alien who likes eating kicking, squealing things, and Brett. It doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence, does it?”

“Hey, wait a minute,” said Brett. “I think I resent that. I have all kinds of useful talents. Not particularly nice ones, perhaps, but still . . .”

“Tell him about the data crystal you stole from Finn’s secret files,” said Rose.

Brett tried to glare at her, but it came out more like a pout. “Thank you, Rose. I was saving that, in case I needed something to barter with later on. Remind me to have a little talk with you about this marvelous new concept called forward planning. But since you’ve raised the subject . . .” He looked unhappily at Lewis. “You’re really not going to like this, Sir Deathstalker, but please don’t blame the messenger for the message. I . . . happened upon certain files in Finn’s computer that he thought he’d hidden behind some really quite superior protection. The files contained some of his future plans, in some detail. I’ll let you study the data crystal later, but the Durandal’s most unpleasant scheme . . . was his intention to have all the Paragons ambushed, as they set out on their great quest to find Owen Deathstalker. Apparently the idea is that they will be overwhelmed by superior forces while they’re separated and far away from any hope of backup. Finn wants the Paragons taken out of the picture. Probably because he sees them as the only real threat left to his long-term ambitions. Or perhaps because he’s always hated them. For being what he only pretended to be.”

“That’s it,” said Lewis. “No more arguments. I’m turning this ship around right now. We are going back to Logres. The Paragons have to be warned.”

“No!” Jesamine said immediately, grabbing at Lewis’s arm as he reached for the control panels. “Stop and think for a minute, Lewis. Please. Even if we did go back, who’d listen to us? Who’d believe us? That’s if they didn’t just shoot us all on sight. You can bet good money that Finn has absolutely no intention of allowing any of us our day in court. We know too much about him. We can’t put our heads back in the lion’s mouth, Lewis. Our mission is more important. It has to come first.”

“Some mission,” said Lewis, but his heart wasn’t in it. He knew she was right. “Even supposing we can track down whatever survivors remain from the age of heroes, who’s to say they’ll be in any shape to help us, after all this time?”

“They might hold the key to finding Owen,” said Jesamine. “Or maybe even the missing Hazel d’Ark. They have to help us. We need them now more than ever, to stop the coming Terror as well as Finn bloody Durandal!”

Lewis said nothing, remembering the dry gray words he’d heard on the Dust Plains of Memory. Owen was dead. He died long ago, in a dirty back alley on Mistworld. Except . . . he had been seen alive, in the future. Lewis still wasn’t sure whether he believed that or not.

“So,” he said, to avoid having to say anything else, “where are we going first? What planet do we choose as our destination? We’re going to have to drop into hyper soon; the longer we stay in normal space, the better the odds are some pursuit ship will bump into us by accident.”

“There’s not many places we can go,” said Brett, “in this depressingly honest Empire.”

“There’s always your homeworld, Virimonde,” Jesamine said tentatively to Lewis. “I mean, surely they wouldn’t believe the lies Finn’s been spreading about you?”

“My family won’t,” said Lewis. “But Virimonde is a poor world, and poorly defended. Even if my Clan could persuade the planetary council to harbor us, they couldn’t hope to hold out against an Imperial punitive strike force. And you can bet there are elements there who would betray our presence to the Empire—for money or patronage, or just because they believed it was the right thing to do.”

“He’s right,” said Brett. “There are scumbags everywhere these days.”

“I say we go straight to Haden,” said Saturday. “To the Madness Maze. You are a Deathstalker, Lewis. Your fate is inevitably linked to the Maze. Even on Shard we know the story of the Owen, and his journey through the Madness Maze. How it made him so much more than human. If we were to all go through the Maze, what mighty beings might we become? We could take on the whole Empire, and bring it to its knees in a sea of blood and offal!”

“I like him,” said Rose.

“I wonder if I overlooked anything in the medicine cabinet . . .” said Brett.

“Excuse me!” Jesamine said loudly. “Hello! Sanity calling! This is really not a good idea, people. There’s a reason why it’s called the Madness Maze, and an even better reason why no one’s been allowed into it for so long. Do I really have to remind everyone here that the last ten thousand people to enter the Maze lost their minds and their lives? Every single one of them died screaming. I wouldn’t go into the Maze if I was completely desperate. Hell, I am completely desperate, and I’m still not going anywhere near it! No, people, the Maze is what we do when we’ve tried everything else, including prayer and closing our eyes and hoping it’s all been a nasty dream. Next.”

“Can I put in a bid for Mistworld?” said Brett. “Always a good bet when you’re on the lam. Still fairly independant from the rest of the Empire, and proud of it. A whole planet of rogues, individual thinkers, and complete head cases. Even Finn would think twice about trying to take Mistworld by force. And the stack of alien porn we’re carrying will sell for major credits in Mistport. More than enough to buy us a proper ship, with room to move around in and a decent weapons system. Probably with enough left over to hire a reasonably sized corps of mercenaries. Mistworld has the best connections in the Empire—assuming Emma Steel didn’t shut them all down before she left.”

“Not a bad plan,” said Jesamine. “And tempting. But I have played on Mistworld, and I am here to tell you it is the arse end of the Empire. No civilized comforts, colder than a witch’s tit, and more bounty hunters per square mile than any other planet in the Empire. You saw the broadcast; we’re wanted dead or alive, with a hell of a price on our heads. They’d be queuing up to take a crack at us on Mistworld.”

“Exactly,” said Lewis. “I’d rank it just ahead of Haden, but only just.”

Brett sulked. He’d already worked out a really clever plan for selling the alien porn in Mistport and then disappearing with all the money the moment the others turned their backs. He had his own ideas about the future, and they very definitely didn’t include being a hero. Or Rose Constantine. A thought struck him. He might have been voted down, but he still had a secret ace up his sleeve. When Finn made Brett drink the esper drug, he acquired rudimentary telepathy, and a limited but useful ability to compel other minds to do his will. He didn’t use it much because it gave him killer headaches, but needs must when the devil vomits on your shoes. Very cautiously, he reached out to the minds around him, threading his compulsion delicately into their thoughts.

“Mistworld . . .” Jesamine said dreamily.

Lewis frowned. “The place does have strong connections to Owen and Hazel . . .”

“Did anyone just hear something?” said Rose.

Saturday turned his great head and looked straight at Brett. The con man quickly shut down his probe, and pulled his strongest mental shields into position. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised Rose picked up something, their minds had touched once, but Saturday . . . Did the reptiloid have some kind of esp too? Brett shuddered internally. As if the bloody lizard wasn’t dangerous enough already . . . Brett hunkered down behind his shields and put on his most innocent expression. Rose was looking at him thoughtfully. Brett could feel cold beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead.

“No, forget Mistworld,” said Lewis. “Bad idea.”

“It seems obvious to me that we should go to Lachrymae Christi first,” said Jesamine. “It’s the one world where we can be sure of finding a living hero from the Great Rebellion. Tobias Moon is still there, even if no one has seen him in the flesh for ages. The last surviving Hadenman . . . Oh, I’ve always wanted to meet a Hadenman. They made such great villains in those old drama serials, fighting Julian Skye and all those other vid heroes. If anyone knows what happened to Owen, and Hazel, it’s got to be Tobias Moon.”

“Good try,” said Lewis. “But according to all the legends, even the apocrypha, Moon was the only one of the great heroes who never went to face the Recreated. He wasn’t there when Owen and Hazel disappeared. There’s no doubt he knows many things now lost to history, things that might well prove useful to us, but like you said, no one’s set eyes on him in over a century. And the people on Lachrymae Christi are said to guard his privacy very jealously. We’d have a hard time getting to him, and no guarantee he’d be in any condition to give us helpful answers even if we did. No, I think there’s someone else who’s even better qualified to tell us what we need to know.”

“God, you’re long-winded sometimes,” said Jesamine. “Just say where you think we ought to go next!”

“I don’t care where we go,” said Rose. “Just as long as I get to kill someone soon.”

“We go to Unseeli,” said Lewis. “Because that’s where we’ll find the man called Carrion.”

Everyone looked at him. Jesamine nodded slowly. Brett put up his hand, like a child in class.

“Excuse me? Do you think that perhaps you could let the rest of us in on this? Who the hell is Carrion? I have to say, the name alone doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. And as for Unseeli—we are talking about the Ashrai here, aren’t we? The alien species noted for killing anyone who tries to land on their planet uninvited, and there are no invitations? The only alien species in the Empire to tell the Empire to go to Hell and make it stick? That Unseeli? Am I the only sane person here?

“Carrion was a friend of Captain John Silence,” Lewis said calmly. “He was there with the captain when the heroes faced the Recreated, out on the Rim. He went through the Madness Maze with the captain. He is the only great hero never to make it into the official legends. And it seems to me that someone like that might well know all kinds of things that also never made it into the official legends.”

“Carrion. Carrion . . .” Brett said thoughtfully. “You know, I think I have heard that name before. In the apocrypha . . . No, it was from a really old data crystal some alien was trying to sell in the Rookery. I never saw the contents myself, but Nikki did. Yes . . . Carrion. The human Ashrai. The only man ever to fly with the Ashrai. Hero, villian . . . monster. That Carrion?”

“Sounds about right,” said Lewis.

“The Ashrai,” Jesamine said dreamily. “Owen’s dragons. I’ve always wanted to meet Owen’s dragons. Oh, Lewis, darling, we have to go to Unseeli!”

“Give me one good reason why they’d listen to us, when they blow up everyone else?” said Brett.

“Because I’m a Deathstalker,” said Lewis.

And so it was decided. Lewis couldn’t help feeling that he ought to be taking charge more, like his ancestor Owen always had, but this didn’t seem to be that sort of group. He had no real authority over any of them. And yet still he felt responsible for the ragtag bunch of companions he’d somehow acquired. And his own motives for this quest were confused enough, without getting into theirs. On the one hand he wanted to find Owen, so that his glorious ancestor could lead Humanity against the Terror, but on the other hand he desperately wanted to clear his name and Jesamine’s. Lewis . . . wanted his life back. The way it used to be.

In the end, he had to do this thing. This impossible quest to find Owen Deathstalker, who might or might not be dead. Because it was the right thing to do; because he had no choice. Because he was a Deathstalker, and the Empire had to be saved—as much from itself as from the coming Terror. And yet . . . he wished he felt more like a leader. Like a hero. He wished he was more certain over what to do for the best, instead of just stumbling from one crisis to another, with only the vaguest of intentions and plans. He wished above all that he was more like the blessed Owen, who had always known what to do. Because he was a real hero.

* * * *

The Hereward dropped into hyperspace without being challenged by any other vessel, and headed for the Ashrai world, Unseeli. The trip took some time, even with an H-class stardrive, and the stores of food and water depleted steadily despite strict recycling and rationing. If they couldn’t make up the difference on Unseeli, they’d be eating their shoes by the time they reached their next destination. Brett had already begun making pointed comments about Saturday, when the reptiloid wasn’t around, mostly about the size of his drumsticks and how much luggage could be made out of the reptiloid’s hide. Lewis would have been concerned about the situation if he hadn’t been more concerned about what they were going to find on Unseeli.

Information about the Ashrai world was very limited. No human or alien ship had been allowed to land on the planet in two hundred years. There was no official quarantine, because none was needed. You entered Unseeli space entirely at your own risk, and if you got too close to the planet, the Ashrai destroyed your ship. No one seemed too sure about how they did this, because no one ever came back to tell. Long range scanners didn’t operate in Unseeli space, and no one knew why. Most people had enough sense to leave the Ashrai alone. Lewis had a good reason for going there, but no doubt others had thought the same, and it hadn’t saved them.

Lewis knew the stories of Owen Deathstalker and his dragons. He’d seen the big operatic production that Jesamine starred in. According to certain entirely unofficial legends, Owen had led an army of wise and powerful dragons against the Recreated. These huge and wonderful creatures had flown unprotected through the cold inimical depths of space, tearing the Recreated apart with vicious fang and claw. They were magnificent, and they sang a song so beautiful it touched the soul of all who heard it. According to those legends, Owen lay sleeping in a great tomb, surrounded by his sleeping dragons, waiting to be called back in the hour of the Empire’s greatest need.

Could Owen be sleeping somewhere on Unseeli? Was that why the Ashrai guarded it so jealously?

Except according to the Dust Plains of Memory, it was Carrion and not Owen who’d flown with the dragons, who were really the Ashrai. Lewis had to wonder what else the story might have got wrong, and whether his Deathstalker name really did have the currency with the Ashrai that he hoped.

The Hereward dropped out of hyperspace at a very respectable distance, and approached Unseeli slowly and cautiously, sending very respectful messages ahead of them. There was no reply, but they achieved high orbit unmolested, and Lewis started breathing again. It had been so long since anything had gone right in his life that he’d almost forgotten what it felt like. Rose hauled Brett out from under his chair, while Jesamine checked the ship’s sensors, just on the off chance, but they weren’t operating. Diagnostics said there was nothing wrong with the systems; they just weren’t picking up anything. Lewis called up what little was known about Unseeli and put it on the main viewscreen so they could all study it. He interpreted the data aloud, as much to hear himself think as anything.

“Conditions are tolerable for human life,” he said. “Which is just as well, as we don’t have any hard suits or full body force shields. Air is breathable, though there’s some unusual trace elements, and the temperature is . . . well, hot and sweaty, basically. Gravity’s a bit heavier than we’re used to, but not by much . . . which is odd, given the sheer size of the planet. It ought to be a lot heavier . . . still, that’s Unseeli for you. Never what you expect. As you can see, there’s only the one continent, and no oceans. No freestanding water at all, that I can see. And the metallic forest stretches from pole to pole . . . damn, some of those metal trees are so tall they actually pierce the upper layers of the atmosphere! I’ve never seen anything like this . . .”

“No one has,” Jesamine said softly. “Unseeli is unique, in all the Empire. Trees of gold and silver and brass, and every other metal you can think of, with cores of heavy metals that used to be mined for starship drives. There’s never been a human colony here, not even back in the most gung ho days of Lionstone’s reign. People couldn’t live here. It was just too alien.”

“And this is where you expect to find the man called Carrion?” said Brett. “In a place where no human could stand to live? Who’s to say he’s still alive anyway, after two hundred years?”

“He went through the Madness Maze, and came out transformed,” said Jesamine.

“Supposedly,” said Rose. She was studying the viewscreen intently, as though searching out a new opponent’s weaknesses.

“I’m surprised we haven’t detected any power sources, at least,” said Lewis. “This close, nothing should be able to block our sensors. There was supposed to be an old mining base here, but I’m not even getting a homing beacon. God alone knows how I’m going to land this ship.”

“You’re not,” said the ship’s AI. “That’s my job. You just find me an open space, and I’ll put this ship down as gently as a leaf falling from a tree—only without the ups and downs and spiraling around that usually accompanies a falling leaf. Not really a good metaphor, after all. Just forget I ever said anything. Gosh, is that the time? I’ve got important synapses to file.”

“You know, given time and sufficient motivation, I’m pretty sure I could rip out his entire personality,” said Brett.

“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Lewis.

“Try the comm again,” said Jesamine. “If Carrion is down there, he must know we’re here by now—if he is what he’s supposed to be. Use the name again, sweetie. It’s the only calling card we have.”

Lewis fired up the comm panels again, though if the old mining base was actually offline, he wasn’t sure what or who might be receiving him. “This is Lewis Deathstalker, aboard the Hereward. We do not represent the Empire. I need to speak most urgently with the man called Carrion. Please respond.”

They waited, listening intently to the empty hissing of dead air. Brett stirred uneasily.

“If there really was a base here, its systems should have come back online automatically, once it heard us. Even after two hundred years.”

“Something could have happened to it,” said Jesamine. “There are some strange stories about Base Thirteen . . .”

“Base Thirteen?” said Brett. “I knew coming here was a bad idea. That’s it. Let me out of here. I’ll walk home.”

“Don’t tempt me,” said Lewis.

“This is Carrion,” a voice said suddenly, breaking through the static. It was a harsh, rasping voice, almost too deep to be human, with strange, unsettling undertones. “Been a long time since I answered to that name. You’ve come a long way, Deathstalker, and only your name buys you this much welcome. Humans are not needed or wanted here. You are the enemy, and always will be. Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t just rip your ship apart around you.”

“Give him a good reason!” yelped Brett.

“Calm down, Random, or I’ll have Saturday sit on you.” Lewis thought for a moment, considering his options. “Hello, Sir Carrion. I am Lewis Deathstalker, a descendant of the blessed Owen, and I ask your help in his name. Like him, I have been unjustly outlawed, and am pursued by evil men. My four companions and I request permission to land and discuss the situation with you. Much has changed in the Empire. All of Humanity, and your world too, are under threat. The Terror has finally found us.”

“You’re just full of good news, aren’t you, Deathstalker,” said the voice. “Just like your ancestor. Very well. I grant you permission to land. I will meet with you. There’s no starport or landing pads, but there is a clearing where you can put your ship down, not far from Base Thirteen. I’ll join you there. Don’t go wandering off, or I can’t guarantee your safety. The Ashrai have no love for Humanity. Still . . . it will be interesting to speak with a Deathstalker again.”

The communication shut off abruptly, and that was it. Lewis shut down the comm panels, leaned back in his chair, and looked at the others.

“That was one seriously spooky voice,” said Brett. “Sent chills up and down my spine.”

“A mouse in a bad temper could put the wind up you,” said Jesamine. “But still . . . Lewis, are you sure this Carrion is human?”

Lewis shrugged. “He was. But he went through the Madness Maze, and he’s lived alone with the Ashrai for two centuries. He’s hardly going to sound like the guy next door, is he? I’m more concerned about landing safely. Oz?”

“Still here. Still underappreciated,” said the AI. “It might interest you to know that the sensors have suddenly started working again, and no, I don’t know how or why. I’ve pin-pointed Base Thirteen, and the clearing’s location. The Hereward has quite excellent navigation systems. I could put this ship down on a single credit piece, and give you change.”

“How far is the clearing from the base?” said Rose.

“Oh, walking distance, easy. Do you all good to get some healthy exercise, after being cooped up in here. No obvious dangers. I mean, apart from the Ashrai. The sensors can’t seem to make head nor tail of what they are, apart from uncomfortably large. And there’s lots of them, everywhere. No obvious natural hazards . . . nothing much except trees, actually. So, what do you think, Lewis? Do we go for it?”

“Take us down, Oz,” said Lewis.

“Yes, sir!” said the AI enthusiastically. “Down to Unseeli! On, to death or glory! A Deathstalker has come to parlay!”

“We’re all going to die,” said Brett.

* * * *

The Hereward dived into the planet’s atmosphere, plunging down through the heavy cloud layers, and threaded an expert path between the tops of the tallest trees. It was a short and surprisingly smooth trip, and Oz set them down expertly in the designated clearing. He was almost unbearably cocky about it until Lewis threatened to rip out his voice circuits, and then he sulked. Lewis tried running the sensors again, and the limited data scrolling across the viewscreen seemed straightforward enough. He still made the others wait till he’d finished before he allowed them to disembark. There had to be some reason why even Lionstone’s Empire had never colonized Unseeli.

In the end, there was nothing left but to shrug uneasily several times and insist on being first out of the airlock. He stepped out into the Ashrai world, his hands conspicuously away from his weapons, half braced for some unknown blow or attack, but it never came. The air was still and hot, and had a sharp smoky scent to it. Silence lay across the clearing like some heavy enveloping blanket, as though someone was listening. But Lewis hardly noticed any of it, because all he could look at was the trees. They filled his eyes and his mind; the huge glowing metal trees of Unseeli. They stretched away in all directions, farther than the eye could follow, and soared up into the clouds high above. Magnificent trees of unburnished metal, that had never known leaf or bud. Gold and silver and brass, verdant and azure, shining bright and clean, with needle-sharp branches thrusting out from smooth and perfectly circular trunks. So many towering metal trees, like nails hammered into the planet by God himself. In Lionstone’s day they had been mined and processed almost to extinction, but the forest was restored in its entirety by the blessed Owen. Or so it was said.

One by one, the rest of the crew of the Hereward disembarked. Rose had to drag Brett out. For a while they all stood close together, awed and numbed by what they saw and felt. There was a strange, fresh energy to this world, a vitality that stirred the blood and called to ancient instincts. A primal strength and vigor that was very different from the tamer, more civilized worlds of the Empire. This was not a safe place. Anything could happen here. It felt like being present at the dawn of Creation, when all the worlds were new. It felt . . . like coming home.

They all had some kind of smile on their faces, even Rose, though she would have been hard pressed to say why. They might have stood there forever, but as always Jesamine was the first to break away. She stepped slowly forward, her head cocked slightly to one side.

“Listen . . . I can hear . . . can you hear that? What is that?”

Lewis frowned, moving forward to join her. “I hear . . . something, but don’t ask me what. It’s like trying to see something out of the corner of your eye . . . What is it?”

“It’s a song,” said Jesamine. “A song that is more than a song. It’s coming from . . . everywhere. Everything. Lewis, I think the trees are singing . . .”

“I think you’ve been at the medicine cabinet as well,” said Brett. “I can’t hear any song. I can’t hear anything. Just as well, really; the only songs I know all have mucky words. This whole place is quiet as a tomb, and I do wish I hadn’t said that. Come on, people, snap out of it. This is a seriously weird place we’ve come to. No wildlife, no birds, not even any insects. Nothing but us and these oversized coffin nails. This isn’t natural; no wonder no one ever wanted to live here. I am feeling nervous, upset, not even a little bit happy, and more than a little threatened, and I say we get the hell out of here right now. Please.”

“Shut up, Brett,” Lewis said automatically.

Brett scowled about him. He could hear something. He wasn’t sure whether he was hearing it with his ears or his esp, but either way, it didn’t sound at all like a song to him.

“Trees,” said Rose. “Quiet. Hot. Boring. Bring on the Ashrai.”

“They’re not far away,” said Saturday, his long spiked tail lashing slowly behind him. “I can feel their presence. Their watching eyes.”

“Then why doesn’t someone drop in and say ‘Hello, and welcome’?” said Jesamine, just a little tartly. “We’re the first human visitors they’ve allowed in centuries. I didn’t expect a welcoming committee, but . . .”

“They know we’re here,” said Lewis. “They’re still deciding what to do about us.”

Brett looked at him sharply. “I didn’t know you had a touch of esp, Sir Deathstalker.”

“I don’t,” said Lewis. “It’s just warrior’s instinct. Watch your step, people. Be polite. Don’t break anything. We’re only here on sufferance. Base Thirteen should be about thirty minutes’ walk . . . that way. Let’s go.”

“Shouldn’t someone stay to guard the ship?” Brett said immediately. “I’ll volunteer.”

“You want to stay here all on your own?” said Lewis.

“You’re braver than I thought. Anything could happen here, while we’re all gone.”

“I think I’d better stick with you,” said Brett. “God knows what kind of trouble you could get into without my devious, suspicious instincts there to protect you.”

“You’re so good to us,” said Jesamine.

* * * *

They set off through the narrow, unerringly straight pathways that led between the endless rows of thick-boled trees. Lewis led the way, with Jesamine at his side. Rose strolled casually along behind them, with Brett tucked in close beside her. Saturday brought up the rear. The reptiloid seemed cheerful enough—not all that interested in the metallic forest, but looking around hopefully, on the off chance that something small and defenseless might turn up so he could hunt and kill and eat it. Above or perhaps behind the relentless quiet, the unheard song—if song it was—faded away, and the only sound now in the metallic forest was the quiet rasping of boots on the dull gray forest floor.

The heavier gravity pulled painfully at their muscles, and the sticky heat grew more oppressive the longer they walked. Lewis had a growing feeling that coming to Unseeli had been a serious misjudgement on his part. The metallic forest was a spectacular sight, but so far he hadn’t seen anything that would serve to refill their seriously depleted stores. Nothing to eat and nothing to drink. And yet you couldn’t call this a dead world, like some he’d visited. The whole planet pulsed with vital energies. If Owen really had recreated this world, he’d done a hell of a job. The sensation of being watched by unfriendly eyes continued to nag at him, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. And it bothered him that he couldn’t see the sun or the sky. The overhead cloud layer was too thick, allowing only an eerie general diffused illumination. It made judging distances and directions acutely difficult, and only his comm link with the yacht’s sensors kept him on course. All around him, the towering trees glowed brightly, like so many multicolored suns. It was like walking in a dream.

After a while, they all walked in silence. None of them had anything particularly vital to say or report, and the eerie nature of the place discouraged casual conversation. It felt as though they were walking through some immense work of nature, writ large and triumphant, and man was a very small thing indeed. The heavier gravity weighed down even their spirits, and they were all soaked in sweat from the effort and the heat. Not all that surprising, Jesamine was the first to complain.

“I shouldn’t have to put up with this. Why couldn’t we have landed right next to the base? I’m tired, my back aches and my feet aren’t talking to me. We should have brought a gravity sled! It’s been years since I had to walk this far, and I hated it then. Look, why don’t I take a rest break here, while you—”

“No,” Lewis said immediately. “I’m not splitting up the party. I want you all where I can see you, and that very definitely includes you, Brett. We’re stronger and safer together. So suck it up, Jes, and keep up the pace. You’re doing well. The sooner we get to Base Thirteen, the sooner we can all rest.”

Jesamine sniffed loudly, and kept going. The trees moved slowly past, only the size and the colors changing, and it was hard to tell how far they’d come or how much farther there was left to go. Jesamine started muttering under her breath, and when that didn’t get her anywhere, began to whine and complain out loud again. Lewis commiserated but was firm with her. In the end, she lurched to a halt and threw a full-fledged temper tantrum. She stamped her foot on the hard gray ground, waved her arms around, cried loud angry tears, and positively refused to go a step further. Lewis and Brett looked at each other, embarrassed. Jesamine had been a star too long, used to people being ready and willing to do all the unpleasant things in life for her. Lewis tried being reasonable. He pointed out that they were closer to the base now than the ship, so they might as well go on, and she’d really feel better if she just kept moving . . . all to no avail. Jesamine just wept bitterly, said he didn’t love her anymore, and refused to take another step. So Rose stepped forward, and looked Jesamine right in the eye. The star and diva shut up immediately.

“We’re going on,” said Rose Constantine. “You can stay here on your own, unprotected, or you can come with us. But if you start whining again, I’ll hurt you. Got it?”

Jesamine wanted to say How dare you talk to me like that? How dare you threaten me? Don’t you know who I am? but she knew none of that mattered a damn to the Wild Rose of the Arena. She looked uncertainly at Lewis. “You wouldn’t really leave me behind, would you, sweetie? You wouldn’t let her hit me? Would you, Lewis?”

“Jes,” Lewis said quietly, “I am only a moment away from making you walk in front so I can kick your arse if you slow us down. This kind of behavior isn’t worthy of you. So stop complaining and move. It’s no harder for you than the rest of us. You always said you were a good trouper. Time to prove it.”

Jesamine stuck out her lower lip. “You’re sleeping on the floor tonight, Deathstalker.”

As it turned out, it was only another ten minutes or so before the metal trees fell suddenly away on all sides, and they emerged into a clearing. In the center of the wide open space stood half a dozen tall metal statues. They were twice the height of a man, and the gleaming shapes made no sense at all, though they somehow felt as though they ought to. Light gleamed along their smooth curves that turned and twisted in uncertain directions. Lewis walked slowly up to the nearest statue and studied it carefully. It didn’t help.

“Ashrai sculpture,” said Brett, peering past Lewis’s shoulder. “I’ve heard of it, but usually you only see stuff like this in specialized and very expensive catalogs. I doubt there’s a dozen pieces of Ashrai art in human hands throughout the Empire. Supposedly the Ashrai sculpt these things out of the metal trees using nothing but their minds.”

“And you can only really appreciate them by touching them,” said Jesamine. “They were meant to be felt, not seen. The Ashrai don’t see the world the way the rest of us do. I’ve been trying to acquire even a small piece for years.”

“I really don’t feel like touching that,” said Lewis, and the others nodded.

“Forget the alien porn,” said Brett. “Dump it all out, and fill the cargo bay with these. We could manage two, maybe even three . . . Sweet Jesus, we could sell them on Mistworld for more credits than even I usually dream of. We’d be set up for life!”

“Don’t even think about it,” Lewis said sternly. “We are here as guests, remember? Not thieves, or looters. You really want the Ashrai mad at you?”

“Well, not as such, no,” said Brett. “But there has to be some way . . .”

No, Brett.”

“They’re just shapes,” said Saturday. “They have no soul. My people sculpt in living tissues, torn from the bodies of fallen enemies. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Sometimes I wonder about you,” said Lewis. “And sometimes I’m sure.”

They set off again, leaving the clearing behind. Soon it was lost behind the ranks of glowing trees. They all dreamed about the statues for weeks afterwards.

“How could the old Empire never have realized that this was an artificially created world?” Lewis said finally. “I mean, you only have to look at it. No ecostructure, no living systems; just the trees and the Ashrai.”

“This is an inhuman place,” said Brett. “Alien in every sense of the word. Nothing here to keep a man sane. How is it that Carrion survived here, alone, for more than two centuries?”

“He wanted to be an Ashrai,” said Lewis. “Who knows how the Madness Maze changed him, or what he did with those changes?”

“Do we have any idea what an Ashrai looks like?” said Rose.

“All the official records were wiped long ago, on Robert and Constance’s orders,” said Lewis. “Only hints remain. Massive, deadly creatures, with fangs and claws and gargoyle faces.”

“No,” Jesamine said immediately. “If these are the dragons that Owen called to fight alongside him, they were wise and wonderful and very beautiful. I used to dream about them, when I was a child. Flying through open space with them, like Owen.”

“According to the Dust Plains . . .”

“I know what they said, Lewis. They said it was Carrion. We’ll see.”

And still they trudged on, the heavier gravity pulling at their bodies like weights. The heat never wavered, and there was never even a breath of a cool breeze. The trees seemed bigger, and wider and taller, the longer they walked through them, and they shone brightly in the diffused light. It was like walking through the vaults of some endless catacombs, and a growing sense of awe and stifling oppression fell over the group so that they spoke only in hushed whispers. The forest was just too big, too vast, for merely human feelings. Even the reptiloid Saturday seemed somewhat subdued.

Brett, on the other hand, was silent because he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of how much the metal of the trees was worth. Metal from Unseeli was very rare, and therefore very valuable. And if he couldn’t take away even one of the statues, surely even that misery-guts Deathstalker wouldn’t begrudge him a small branch. Or three. Should be easy enough. A sudden stumble, a carefully aimed fall, and it should be child’s play to break off some of the smaller branches with his weight. And then, well, they might as well take the branches with them as leave them just lying around . . . right?

Brett let himself drift just a little away and behind the others, taking his time so no one would notice. He’d actually got within a few feet of the nearest branch when he lurched to a sudden halt, all his instincts shrieking at him. His esp kicked in big-time, as the sheer living presence of the tree hit him right between the eyes like a hammer. It knew he was there. It knew what he was planning. It growled at him. Brett whimpered loudly, did his best to mentally project sorry sorry sorry and hurried back to join the others. To his disgust, none of them had even noticed he’d been gone.

The projected thirty minute walk had already become more than an hour, and Lewis didn’t believe it was just down to the heavier gravity. Unseeli was a different place, with different rules. There was still no sign of the Ashrai, and Lewis had to wonder if perhaps they were determined to have nothing to do with humans. And if this man Carrion considered himself an Ashrai now, maybe even the legendary Deathstalker name wouldn’t be enough to win his cooperation. Even though he hadn’t admitted it out loud, even to himself, Lewis had been secretly hoping he’d be able to convince Carrion to leave Unseeli and come with them on their quest to find Owen. With a Maze survivor on their side, even Finn would think twice about getting in their way. Lewis scowled as he trudged along, mentally rehearsing various possible arguments.

Jesamine strode along beside Lewis in silence, looking straight ahead and ostentatiously not talking to him, though she wasn’t sure if he’d noticed. He could be very obtuse about some things. She had no one else to talk to. Brett was sulking again, and Rose was a mystery, as always. Of them all, the hard trek through the forest had affected Rose the least. The lanky cow looked like she could walk forever. Saturday, on the other hand, looked increasingly unsettled. He couldn’t connect to this silent, lifeless world, where there was nothing for him to eat or kill or have sex with. The great trees made him feel small, and weak, and he wasn’t used to that.

Almost an hour and a half after they’d left the Hereward, the forest finally took mercy upon them and fell away to reveal a great clearing with Base Thirteen at its center. It was a hulking steel structure surrounded by plenty of space, as though none of the trees wanted to get too close to it. The base had been built for function, not aesthetics, but even so, the years had not been kind to it. The steel exterior was weathered and distressed, and punctured here and there with ragged holes. Many appeared to have been punched out from within, either by energy weapons or brute force. The front doors stood open, but Lewis couldn’t honestly say they looked inviting.

He brought his group to a halt at the edge of the clearing and studied first the clearing and then Base Thirteen carefully. There was no sign of anyone waiting to meet them. He activated his comm implant. “Sir Carrion, this is Lewis Deathstalker. We have reached Base Thirteen. Are you here?”

He waited, looking about him, but there was no response. And then he felt as much as heard something approaching, and he looked up. The others looked up too, following his startled gaze. And there, all across the sky, the Ashrai came falling out of the clouds and into the diffused light. They flew unhurriedly through the still air—hundreds of them, their vast membranous wings barely flapping. They were huge, monstrous, grotesque creatures bulging with muscles under rainbow skins, their broad faces composed of harsh bony planes and angles, fiery golden eyes, and a wide mouth full of long needle teeth. Their movements were eerily graceful as they swept across the sky.

Jesamine stared up at them, enchanted. “Oh, Lewis, it is Owen’s dragons! Look at them! They’re not what I thought they’d be—they’re not beautiful—but oh, God, they’re magnificent!”

“They’re scary buggers, is what they are,” said Brett, from behind Rose. “Look at the size of them! Damn, one of those things could make a real mess of a man, if it put its mind to it. I’d back one of them against a Grendel. A dozen Grendels. And give odds.”

“I killed a Grendel in the Arena,” said Rose, one hand resting on the sword at her hip.

“I know,” said Brett. “It’s all you ever talk about, and I do wish you wouldn’t. Please don’t start anything. Or if you must, give me plenty of advance warning so I can get a good running start.”

“I wonder what they’d taste like,” said Saturday, and Brett glared at him.

“Don’t encourage her. You’re almost as bad as she is. Am I the only one here who’s noticed they outnumber us by a hundred to one? And they are big! Seriously big! They’ve probably crapped more dangerous things than us! I can feel one of my heads coming on.” He watched the Ashrai circling slowly overhead. “How does anything that big and that heavy stay in the air anyway? I don’t care what kind of wingspan they’ve got, nothing that massive belongs in midair, particularly when I’m standing underneath it.”

“Calm down, Brett,” said Lewis. “You’re babbling. The Ashrai fly because their esp holds them up. Maybe they can fly unprotected through space after all . . . These are clearly powerful creatures.”

“The song’s back,” said Jesamine, her neck arched almost painfully back as she gazed adoringly into the sky. “It’s so much stronger here. It’s not just the trees. It’s them. The Ashrai and the forest, singing together, bound together. Can’t you hear it?”

None of them said anything, because it seemed to all of them that they could hear something. Jesamine opened her mouth and sang a delicate lilting song, older than the Golden Age, older than the age of heroes, from the days of the First Empire, when Humanity originally went out into the stars. The words were lost, but the melody remained, an ancient haunting evocation of days long gone, when to be human was to be part of a great adventure. The words were lost, but not the meaning. In their bones, and in their souls, Humanity remembered.

Jesamine sang, and the Ashrai sang with her. Their great voices filled the air; alien harmonies that joined with Jesamine’s song, augmenting it without drowning it. The song filled the clearing—a celebration of life, and the glory of existence, and the driving need to find a meaning for it all. Jesamine sang, her face full of rapture, and the Ashrai sang with her. Lewis stared at his love, stunned by the power in her voice. He felt as though he was in the presence of something sacred. Jesamine finally broke off, and the Ashrai stopped singing too. Jesamine slowly lowered her head, sweat dripping off her face, and she put out a shaking hand to Lewis. He took her in his arms, making his strength her own, and she clung to him.

“Oh, Lewis,” she said finally, her face turned into his chest. “I think now I finally understand how other people feel when I sing. That was . . . amazing.”

“How did you know that was the right thing to do?” said Lewis.

“I’m not the first person to sing with the Ashrai,” said Jesamine. “Two hundred years ago, Diana Vertue sang with them. Before she became Jenny Psycho. This was the song she sang. It’s still here, in the air and in the trees and in the Ashrai. They have never forgotten. Look at them, Lewis. At least now we know some of the old legends were true. These are the dragons, and they are glorious . . .”

Lewis held her in his arms, and said nothing. The Ashrai were certainly impressive and powerful, but it would take more than a pretty tune to convince him that they were friends. Hundreds of people had died in the past, just for daring to visit Unseeli. And while the Ashrai were undeniably mighty, they still looked ugly as sin itself to him. And bloody dangerous too. He tensed as a single Ashrai broke away from the others circling overhead, and dropped out of the sky towards them. Lewis didn’t push Jesamine away, but he did turn her round so he could get to his gun more easily. The Ashrai seemed to grow larger and larger as it fell towards them. Lewis estimated it had to be at least forty feet from gargoyle head to spiny tail, with almost as wide a wingspan. The wings flapped heavily as it landed, cupping the air, and the great clawed feet touched down with hardly an impact. The golden wings folded neatly away upon the shimmering silver back, and the Ashrai folded its muscular arms across its massive chest as it regarded them all with unblinking golden eyes. Rose Constantine drew her sword.

“I have to do this,” she said cheerfully. “I have to know. Damn, you ugly brute, you make me feel so hot . . .”

She surged forward, sword held out before her, grinning broadly. The Ashrai reared up, raised one massive foot, and stamped on her. She was slammed to the unforgiving ground, almost disappearing under the huge foot. Her sword flew from her hand as the impact crushed the air from her lungs. Brett shrieked, turned, and sprinted for the cover of the trees. Lewis shook his head slowly.


“Yes, Lewis?”


The reptiloid nodded and set off after Brett, his long stride rapidly eating up the distance between them. Lewis gently put Jesamine away from him, and cautiously approached the Ashrai. The harsh face studied him thoughtfully with its glowing golden eyes. Up close, its heavy breathing sounded like thunder, though it smelt of nothing at all. Damn, the creature was big. Lewis cleared his throat carefully.

“Hi. I’m Lewis Deathstalker. Nice moves. Could we please have our psychopath back? She’s impulsive and annoying, and has several appalling personal habits that you really don’t want to know about, but she has a certain sentimental value. If you let her up, I’m pretty sure I can guarantee she won’t try that again. Or anything else, until she can get her eyeballs uncrossed.”

The Ashrai considered the matter, nodded its awful head, and stepped back, raising its huge foot. Lewis and Jesamine dragged Rose out from under, and set her down with her back propped against a tree. She was having trouble getting her eyes to track, but she seemed to know who and where she was.

“Caught me by surprise,” she said thickly. “Get me on my feet and find my sword and I’ll tear his wings off and beat him to death with the soggy ends.”

“No, you won’t,” said Lewis. “You behave yourself and stop embarrassing me, or I’ll shoot you myself.”

“You do realize,” said Rose, “That if anyone else spoke to me like that I’d fillet them? Good thing for you that I’m a little under the weather. And that you’re a Deathstalker.”

“Yeah,” growled Lewis. “Lucky me.”

Saturday came striding back with Brett tucked securely under one arm. Brett was calling him every name under the sun, and Lewis really hoped the reptiloid didn’t understand most of them. Saturday dropped Brett at Lewis’s feet, and glowered down at him.

“Next time, I’ll bite off something superfluous. Fleeing in the face of the enemy? The very idea. What kind of impression does that make?”

Brett clambered painfully back to his feet. “Sorry. Trained reflexes. Also, bone deep cowardice. I did warn you. How’s Rose doing?”

“When I can trust my feet again, I’m going to kill everything in this clearing,” said Rose.

“Back to normal,” said Brett. “You go talk to the monster, Sir Deathstalker. I’ll look after Rose. From a safe distance.”

And then they all stopped talking and looked round sharply as the Ashrai reared up again, presenting its wide curved chest to them. The shimmering silver scales split suddenly apart, unfolding like a rose, and out of the pink interior of the Ashrai walked a man, dressed all in black. He strode unhurriedly towards Lewis and his companions, and behind him the opening in the Ashrai’s chest slowly closed itself. And then the huge alien was gone, vanished in a moment, as though it had never been there. Only the man remained. He came to a halt before Lewis. Tall and whipcord lean, he wore black leathers topped with a billowing black cape. He was dark-haired and pale faced, his features subtly ageless. His mouth was a grim flat line, his eyes dark and accusing. He carried a long staff of polished bone, almost as tall as he was. His movements weren’t entirely human. Just looking at the man sent shivers up Lewis’s spine. He knew who this was, who this had to be. He could feel Jesamine pressing in close beside him, like a frightened child.

“You are the Deathstalker?” It was the same rasping, inhuman voice they’d heard on the ship.

“Yes. I’m Lewis Deathstalker, descendant of the blessed Owen.”

“I am Carrion,” said the man dressed in black, though he didn’t sound entirely sure of it. “I have been an Ashrai for many years. I haven’t been human since John Silence and I returned to this world. I’d forgotten how small and limited a thing it is, to be a man. Even your thoughts are smaller. I have descended from the skies to talk with you. It had better be worth it.”

“No one speaks like that,” said Brett. “Not in real life.”

“You’d better let me talk to him,” said Jesamine. “I speak fluent opera.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Brett. “That alien—that was actually you? You changed from a human into that . . . thing?”

Carrion looked at Lewis. “These people are with you?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Lewis. “I’d apologize for them, but it’s a waste of time. Feel free to ignore them. I do.”

Carrion turned the full force of his dark, disturbing gaze on Brett, who immediately darted behind Lewis and peered past his shoulder.

“It is a glorious thing, to be an Ashrai,” said Carrion. “It’s what I always wanted. I was happy to leave my humanity behind, as something I had outgrown. And now, here you are, to remind me of what I wished most to forget. What do you want with me, Deathstalker? You mentioned the Terror. How can they be here so soon?”

“It’s been two hundred years since the blessed Owen’s warning,” said Lewis.

“Has it?” said Carrion. “I hadn’t realized. The Ashrai experience time differently. For us, yesterday is the distant past, and the distant past is yesterday. You’re the first human I’ve talked to since I said good-bye to the captain and gave up human weaknesses to be an Ashrai. You’ll pardon me if I’ve lost the knack.”

“Why did you want to meet us here?” said Lewis, gesturing at the abandoned base. Not so much because he cared, but to buy himself some thinking time. This wasn’t going at all as he’d expected.

Carrion looked at Base Thirteen. “This is the only human structure left on the planet. We keep it as a reminder never to lower our guard. I thought it might help me remember how to be human again. It hasn’t been a working base for centuries. All the mines and mining equipment it oversaw are long gone now, absorbed and recycled by the trees. But still, this is a place of . . . strong memories, for me. Bad things happened here. Do they still tell the story of the terrible events at Base Thirteen? Of the unknown alien, and the awful gifts it brought?”

Lewis and the others looked at each other. Lewis shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m afraid not, Sir Carrion. Much of the history of your time is lost to us. Only legends remain. And you are only mentioned briefly, in the . . . unofficial legends.”

Carrion smiled for the first time. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Captain Silence made it into the official legends, I assume? Of course he did. He was a hero, after all. While I . . . was a traitor, and proud of it. I fought with the Ashrai, in their war against Humanity. I killed men and women from my own crew—until Captain Silence scorched this planet from orbit, and killed every living thing on Unseeli except for the trees and me.” He smiled again, at their shocked expressions. “Oh, yes, children, your great hero John Silence committed genocide here, in the name of his Empire. Some years later, Owen brought the Ashrai back. Made Unseeli a living world again. That’s why the Deathstalker name buys you this audience.” He looked again at Base Thirteen. “I was an Investigator, once. Trained by the Empire on how best to study and murder aliens. But even so, nothing in my experience prepared me for the horror Captain Silence and I found in this dark place.

“An alien from an unknown species came to Unseeli, from out of the endless night beyond the Rim, and its ship crashed near here. We’d never seen anything like that ship—grown as much as built, out of meat and bone as well as steel and crystal. We cut open one of its walls, and guts fell out. But the alien wasn’t there. It had already made its way to Base Thirteen and slaughtered every living thing it found there. Afterwards, it did terrible things with their bodies. We killed the alien, eventually. John Silence, I, the young esper Diana Vertue, and Investigator Frost. John. My friend, my enemy. We were always so close; bound together and torn apart by honor and responsibility.

“The alien ship isn’t here anymore. Empire scientists took it away, to study, and from its alien technology they devised the next generation of stardrives—the E class—and more, besides. The alien we killed was just the forerunner of a very advanced, very deadly species. John and I always expected more of them would come, to challenge and invade the Empire, but they never did. Perhaps the Terror got to them first. The universe is a very big place . . .” Carrion looked at Lewis again. “So. Two hundred years. Is John . . . ?”

“John Silence died long ago,” said Lewis. “I’m sorry. There are statues to him all over the Empire.”

“So,” said Carrion. “My only friend is dead. My last link with Humanity is gone.” He said it slowly, as though unsure how he felt about it. “And you’re the new Deathstalker. You look like a warrior, which is more than Owen did, except when he got mad at someone. I only met him a few times. A dark, sad, disturbing figure. A good man, undoubtably, but he scared the shit out of me.”

“Why aren’t you in the official legends?” said Rose. She was back on her feet again, but keeping a respectful distance. “If you were as closely tied to the other heroes as you claim?”

Brett winced. “Gives whole new meaning to the word blunt, doesn’t she?”

“They probably left me out because I embarrassed everyone,” said Carrion, entirely unmoved. “I never apologized for my treason. I embraced it. And I never gave a damn for the Empire or Humanity. I only fought alongside John because he asked me to.”

“You mean . . . you didn’t follow the blessed Owen?” said Jesamine.

“Hell, no,” said Carrion. “I knew enough to stay well clear of him. He had that hero stink all over him. And everyone knows that heroes die young, and bloody, and mostly take their friends and companions down with them.” He smiled coldly at Lewis. “Just like you will, Deathstalker.”

Lewis decided it was definitely time to change the subject. His hopes of persuading Carrion to join him were looking increasingly remote. “Tell us about the heroes you knew, Sir Carrion. We know only the legends. What were they really like?”

Carrion frowned, and for the first time seemed uncertain. “When heroes become legends, so much of the truth is always lost. I knew men and women, flesh and blood. Important figures, yes, but still . . . They were people first, flawed and vulnerable—which perhaps makes their heroism all the greater. Owen—perhaps the only real hero I ever met. Death on two legs. Honorable, brave, damned. Knew he wouldn’t live to see the end of his war, but never let that stop him from doing what he knew to be right. Hazel—a free spirit, no matter what it cost her. A scrapper, a rebel, never giving too much of herelf to anyone for fear it would be betrayed. She really should have known better than to love a Deathstalker.

“I never really knew or trusted Jack Random or Ruby Journey. I always knew they had their own agendas. And I never met the Hadenman, before he died, or afterward. No, I was only there because John needed someone to be his friend, to be his good right hand and guard his back. For all the death and suffering and broken promises between us, he was still a better man than he thought he was. He never really got over the death of his one true love, Investigator Frost.”

He stopped as he took in the blank, puzzled looks on their faces. “Am I to take it she didn’t make it into the official legends either?”

“Not even the apocrypha, as far as I know,” said Lewis. “Who was she, Sir Carrion?”

Carrion shook his head slowly. “She deserved to be remembered. She and John made a great team. Unstoppable. She went into the Madness Maze, and survived. Hell of a fighter. She was cold and vicious and I never liked her. Hell, I don’t think anyone did but John, but I respected her. He loved her, even though she was an Investigator. I don’t know whether she ever loved him. Whether she was capable of it. She died in his arms, in Lionstone’s Court. It doesn’t seem right that she should be forgotten . . .

“Let’s talk about the Terror. There was a voice that came out of nowhere after the Recreated had been defeated and then reborn as the new Rim worlds. I never knew whose voice it was. It said the Ashrai were originally created for a purpose, not just to tend the metallic trees. They are old, the Ashrai, and they have forgotten much. Perhaps it is their purpose and their fate to battle the Terror. Perhaps you serve their destiny in coming here. You said you were outlaws, like Owen and his people. What happened? And why are you here?”

“We’re hoping to track down the missing Owen Deathstalker and Hazel d’Ark,” said Jesamine. “Our dearest legend is that Owen will return to save us all, in the hour of the Empire’s greatest need. If anyone knows how to stop the Terror, it’s got to be him. No one else is going to. The Empire’s a mess. A complete psychopath’s running things, we were all outlawed for not going along with him, and the Golden Age is going down the toilet.”

“Nothing changes . . .” murmured Carrion.

“So we’re searching for any survivors of the age of heroes,” said Lewis. “Hoping to find clues on where to look for Owen and Hazel. It’s a sign of how desperate we are that we’ve started with you, Sir Carrion. No offense.”

“Legends,” said Carrion, almost kindly. “The patterns never change, though centuries pass. But I was only a part of history, not legend, so all I have to offer you is the painful truth. Owen Deathstalker is dead. He died long ago and far away, saving us all from the wrath of the Recreated.”

For a long moment, no one said anything. They were all hit hard, even Lewis and Jesamine, who’d been told this before. But it was one thing to hear it from Shub and the Dust Plains of Memory, machines who might or might not have their own agendas, and quite another to hear it from a contemporary of Owen—someone who’d been there when it happened. Brett saw something in Lewis and Jesamine’s faces.

“You knew, didn’t you? You already knew this, and you said nothing!”

“We have been given reason to believe that Owen will yet return to us,” Lewis said carefully. “And no, I don’t understand how. Sometimes . . . you just have to have a little faith.”

“What about Hazel d’Ark?” said Brett, almost glaring at Carrion. “Is she dead too?”

“I don’t know,” said Carrion. “She left Haden, after learning of Owen’s death. Perhaps John discovered what became of her. But he’s gone. Your only chance for answers is to go to Haden, and pass through the Madness Maze. There are many answers and many mysteries to be found in the Maze.”

“You’ve been through it,” said Jesamine. “What’s it like, really?”

“There is nothing else like it in all the Empire,” said Carrion. “It’s almost alive. It breathes and sweats and knows what moves you. It changes everyone differently. Or perhaps it helps us change ourselves. It is a thing of power and miracles, and it is very old. And there’s something else; some deeper secret, hidden in the very heart of the Maze. John and I were never allowed close enough to find out what. We weren’t considered worthy. Only Owen was ever allowed to penetrate the heart of the mystery.”

“Only Owen?” said Lewis, frowning. “What about Hazel d’Ark?”

“Only the Deathstalker,” said Carrion. “There is some unknown connection between the Deathstalkers and the Madness Maze.” He broke off abruptly, looking up at the opaque shimmering sky above them. “Well, this seems to be Unseeli’s day for unwanted visitors. Five Imperial starcruisers have just dropped out of hyperspace and are moving into orbit around this world. Just like old times . . .”

They were all looking at him. None of them doubted what he was saying. There was something about Carrion . . .

“How do you know this?” said Brett, almost whispering.

“The Maze,” said Carrion. “I know many things now, whether I want to or not. Someone’s trying to communicate with the Ashrai. I suppose I might as well talk to them, while I’m human. We’ll need to use the comm systems in Base Thirteen. When we’re in there, stay close. The base has been dead for centuries, but it is still a dangerous place for the unwary.”

“He’s talking to you, Brett,” said Lewis. “Don’t touch anything.

“I am hurt and wounded,” said Brett.

“You will be, if you don’t do as you’re told,” said Lewis. “Saturday, you’d better watch the door while we’re in there. Feel free to eat anyone who isn’t us or the Ashrai.”

“Dinnertime’s coming,” said the reptiloid cheerfully, staring up at the clouded sky. “Just as well. Some of you were beginning to look especially tasty.”

“Is he joking?” said Jesamine.

“Best not to ask,” said Lewis.

* * * *

Carrion led the way into Base Thirteen. The great metal entrance doors hung limply from their supports. They moved jerkily apart under Carrion’s hands, all power gone. Inside, what they could see of the lobby was a mess. The light from the open doorway didn’t penetrate far into the centuries-old gloom. The place looked to have been thoroughly trashed, with shattered furniture, dents and cracks in the metal floor, and even some holes in the outer wall, through which some light reluctantly entered. There didn’t seem to be any power, no working lights or tech. On the very edge of the light, they could just make out an old-fashioned reception console.

Lewis and his companions hesitated just inside the door, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. None of them liked the feel of the place. They could sense all those piled-up years from the bad old days of Empire, just waiting to ambush them. Base Thirteen smelled of death. Carrion walked forwards into the dark, his face entirely calm. He stopped by the reception console and passed one hand slowly over it. Deep within the base, old systems sluggishly awakened, and lights reluctantly flickered on, one by one, until the reception area was full of a kind of twilight glow that, if anything, made the place seem even spookier. Brett started to edge backwards, until Rose took him firmly by the arm. Comm panels on the reception desk hummed suddenly with static, and a single viewscreen glowed into life on the opposite wall, putting itself on standby. From all around came the sounds of machines waking up, as system after system came back on line.

“I don’t get it,” Jesamine said quietly. “If the base was shut down two hundred years ago, where’s all this power coming from?”

“From me,” said Carrion. He shouldn’t have been able to hear her from such a distance, but no one was really surprised that he could. His hands moved slowly over the comm controls, as though reluctantly remembering skills long since abandoned when he became Ashrai. The viewscreen on the wall cleared to show a fleet captain standing at strict attention on the bridge of his ship. His uniform had been pressed and cleaned to within an inch of its life, and helped to distract from his young face. Probably one of Finn’s creatures, thought Lewis. Newly promoted just for this mission. An experienced fleet officer would have had more sense than to come to Unseeli. The captain looked startled for a moment at the unexpected face before him, but then he thrust out his jaw and glared truculently from the viewscreen.

“This is Captain Kamal, of the Imperial starcruiser Hector, on official business. Identify yourself!”

“I am Carrion, of the Ashrai.” Carrion’s voice was harsh, flat, subtly inhuman. His eyes were very dark. “Why have you come to Unseeli, Captain? You must know we do not welcome visitors.”

“You have given sanctuary to those most notable traitors Lewis Deathstalker and Jesamine Flowers, and their associates. All are guilty of crimes against Humanity. I have orders to bring them back to Logres, dead or alive. I require you to assist me in this matter. And with regard to your veiled threat, five starcruisers now orbit your world. The Empire goes where it will, to do its will. You will cooperate, in the name of King and Parliament, or face the consequences.”

“He’s not my king,” said Carrion. “And your parliament has no authority here. This is Unseeli, home to the Ashrai. This is not a human place, and you should not have come here. Leave, while you still can.”

Captain Kamal looked like he was going to explode. “Who the hell do you think you are, to speak to me that way! I represent the Empire! I speak in Humanity’s name!”

“And I am Carrion. Investigator. Traitor. Ashrai. I bring bad luck. I am the destroyer of nations, and of worlds. With Owen Deathstalker and Captain John Silence, I walked the breathing corridors of the Madness Maze. I speak for Unseeli. Leave or die. You have no other choices.”

“Lies, defiance, and open threats,” said Captain Kamal, smiling tightly. “You will come to regret this insolence, before I have you executed. My pinnaces are already landing—carrying enough war machines, gravity barges, and armed troops to ensure that if the aliens do interfere, they will be made to regret it. I will have the traitors, one way or another. I don’t know who you really are, Sir Carrion, but no doubt my interrogators will drag it out of you later, at their leisure.”

He had more to say, but Carrion shut down the comm panels, and the viewscreen went blank. Carrion stared thoughtfully into space as Lewis and the others came slowly forwards to join him at the reception console. Lewis cleared his throat uncertainly. Carrion’s eyes seemed very far away.

“Sorry to have dragged you into our mess, Sir Carrion. I didn’t think they’d track us down this quickly. Lead us back to our ship, and we’ll get the hell out of here. They’ll never catch us once we’re off the ground. The Hereward’s got speed and stealth capabilities you wouldn’t believe, though I’d rather you didn’t ask why. I think the sooner we’re gone, the better; we don’t want to start a war between the Empire and the Ashrai.”

“Too late,” said Carrion, watching something only he could see. “Hundreds of pinnaces are falling towards Unseeli. The starcruisers are firing their disrupter cannon from orbit, to blast clearings big enough for the pinnaces to land in. I can hear the trees screaming, dying. The Ashrai are gathering. Let the Empire forces come. None of them shall leave here alive.” He turned suddenly to look at Lewis, who almost flinched at the dark, alien, impersonal power in that gaze. “But you must understand this, Deathstalker. Our audience is over. What we do now, we do for ourselves. We will not fight on your behalf. Your fate, your mission, are nothing to us. Return to your ship and leave, if you can. Find Owen, if you can. We want nothing to do with Humanity, or the Empire. We preserve ourselves, to face the Terror when it comes.” He smiled suddenly. “Good-bye, Deathstalker. Good luck. And if you do find Owen . . . remember me to him.”

“That’s it?” Jesamine said angrily. “We came all this way, just for that? What’s the matter with you? The whole of Humanity is under threat of extinction!”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” said Carrion. “Humanity is currently invading my world. Again. You always were a selfish, brutal race. Perhaps something better will arise to replace you.”

“You don’t really think you can stop the Terror on your own, do you?” said Rose in her deep, cold voice.

“We stopped the Recreated.”

“With Owen’s help,” said Lewis. “You owe us, Sir Carrion. You owe me, through my ancestor’s name. Give us safe escort and protection back to our ship, at least. It’s a long way back to the Hereward, and you can bet Kamal will have located it by now and sent troops to block our way. Dammit, at least show us what we’ll be facing!”

Carrion didn’t move, but the viewscreen on the wall flared into life again. Whole sections of the metallic forest were exploding, the huge trees shattered by the energy beams stabbing down from orbit. The scene changed, to show countless pinnaces punching through the cloud layer; transport ships carrying everything the Empire needed to make war on Unseeli. The scene changed again, showing war machines lumbering out of the cargo bays of landed pinnaces—great hulking monstrosities of gleaming steel, studded with guns. Gravity barges rose slowly into the air, shimmering with force shields as they plowed their way through the tightly packed metal trees. Troops disembarked in strict order, imperial marines who wore the scarlet cross of the Church Militant on their battle armor. They moved out, fanning through the forest, relentless as army ants.

“I should have known,” Lewis said grimly. “Finn’s packed the troops with his own people. One will get you ten they’re Neumen as well. Pure Humanity, Sir Carrion; a new creed since your day. Lionstone’s illegitimate children, who believe the only good alien is a dead alien. And the scarlet cross means they’re religious fanatics. I think we can safely assume they’re more interested in bringing us back dead rather than alive.”

“Talk about overkill,” Brett said bitterly. “A whole army, just for us? It’s not fair. My stomach hurts.”

“About time I got some healthy exercise,” said Rose. She was smiling, and her eyes were shining. “The odds just make it more of a challenge.”

“Yes,” said Saturday, his great head poking through the doorway. “It will be good to be killing again. I’m really quite peckish.”

Lewis looked at Carrion defensively. “Hey, I didn’t get to choose my companions.”

“Neither did Owen,” said Carrion. “And he didn’t do too badly. And after meeting Ruby Journey, there’s not much that shocks me.” He looked at the screen again. “Two hundred years since the overthrow of the Iron Bitch, and nothing’s really changed. Poor John. He would have been so disappointed.”

“Can you reopen communications with the Hector?” said Lewis. “Maybe I can negotiate a truce . . . or something.”

The viewscreen flickered, and Captain Kamal was back again. Lewis stepped forwards to stand before the screen, automatically adopting his old stance of Paragon authority. “This is Lewis Deathstalker. You came here for me, not the Ashrai. My companions aren’t important either. You want me. Call off your war, and let my companions go, and I will surrender myself to you.”

“No!” Jesamine said immediately. “Lewis, you can’t! They’ll kill you!”

“No,” Lewis said quietly. “If I surrender, Finn wouldn’t be able to resist the thought of a show trial. I’m the one he really wants. He needs to see me broken, brought down—to prove in front of everyone that I should never have been made Champion instead of him. The rest of you don’t matter to him. And you have to be free. You have a mission, remember?” Lewis looked back at Kamal. “What do you say, Captain? Just this once, can’t we do this the sane and responsible way, so no one has to get hurt?”

“You’ve gone soft, Deathstalker.” Captain Kamal almost spat out the words. “The Church Militant has no mercy for traitors. You—and the jezebel, and the scum you’ve attracted—are all going back to Logres, dead or alive. Your word is worthless. You have disgraced your name and your position. You are a vileness in the face of God. No deals, Deathstalker. Only blood can atone for your sins.”

Lewis nodded slowly. “Nice of you to confirm that you’re religious lunatics first, and soldiers second. Looney tunes are always so much easier to outthink than trained professionals. While I’ve got you here, Kamal, just what are your orders concerning the Ashrai?”

“Death to unbelievers.”

Captain Kamal cut the connection, and the screen went blank again.

Lewis looked at Carrion. “Well, that was interesting. Short, insulting, and decidedly ominous, but interesting.”

“Yes,” said Carrion. “It was.”

He slammed the butt of his bone staff on the floor, and the lobby suddenly blazed with light as new power thundered through Base Thirteen. Old mechanisms stirred into life again, computer systems chattered to each other as they came on line, driven from their centuries-long sleep by the will of one implacable man. Viewscreens blazed into life all across the lobby, displaying long streams of scrolling data. Brett looked around uneasily.

“The generators here are dead, Lewis, powered down hundreds of years ago. You saw the sensor readings. And with this much damage the base shouldn’t be able to function anyway. How the hell is he doing this?”

“I don’t know,” said Lewis. “And I really don’t feel like asking him.”

“The Maze,” said Jesamine. “All the stories, all the legends, and I never really understood . . . He’s no more human now than when he was Ashrai. He’s what the Maze made him.”

“There are those who would say I wasn’t really human even before I went into the Madness Maze,” said Carrion, not looking round. “I was an Investigator, after all. I’m using my old security codes to break into the Hector’s security files. Back in the day, Investigators had all kinds of backdoor access codes, to get us information we weren’t supposed to have, and it seems a surprising number of them still work.”

“There haven’t been any Investigators since Lionstone’s time,” said Lewis.

“Probably a good thing,” said Carrion. “Ah, what have we here? Personal orders for the captain of the Hector, for his eyes only.”

The main viewscreen lit up again to show Finn Durandal’s classically handsome features. He smiled out of the screen, calm and composed.

“That’s him,” said Jesamine. “The Durandal. The real traitor.”

“Here are your real orders, my dear captain,” Finn said easily. “They are not to be discussed with anyone else, even if they are of higher rank in the fleet than you. These orders come from Pure Humanity. First, you will use all measures necessary to locate and then execute the Deathstalker and all his companions. You will not accept any form of surrender. Bring back their heads, if possible. Second, you will land your troops on Unseeli, and make an example of the Ashrai. They must be punished for their past arrogance. Kill as many as is practical, in the time available, and be sure it’s all transmitted live. Do good work, Captain; the whole of the Empire will be watching. We need to make a strong impression here—make it clear to everyone that the old liberal ways are over, and from now on aliens will do as they’re told, or pay the price. When you’re done, fill your holds with metal from the trees. I don’t see why the Empire should have to cover the expense of this mission. Oh, and Captain, don’t let the Deathstalker or any of his companions escape. Or don’t bother coming back.”

The picture disappeared. Carrion studied the blank screen thoughtfully, while the others studied him.

“Well?” Lewis said finally. “You can see for yourself—our enemy is your enemy. We have a common cause.”

“They will all die here,” said Carrion. “It’s been so long, they’ve forgotten what the Ashrai can do. Even in the bad old days of Lionstone, it took more than armies and war machines to stop the Ashrai. That’s why Captain Silence scorched the planet, after all. So, the wheel turns, and war comes to us again. We will make an example here. And if they dare to try to scorch us again, I will show their petty starcruisers the same face I showed the Recreated. I will set their ships on fire against the night . . .”

“Oh, great,” muttered Brett. “Another psycho.”

“Shut up, Brett,” said Lewis. “Sir Carrion, we don’t stand a hope in hell of getting back to our ship unless you protect us. Our enemy is your enemy. You have to help us, in Owen’s name.”

“If you’re really a Deathstalker, you won’t need help,” said Carrion. “My last ties to Humanity died with John Silence. I owe you nothing. Go your own way. I have a war to fight.”

Rose surged forwards, her sword in her hand, the point aimed at Carrion’s throat. Her movements were a blur, inhumanly fast, and still she never stood a chance. She’d barely crossed half the space between them when Carrion’s staff suddenly blazed with energy and Rose was plucked out of midair and thrown backwards, hurtling across the lobby to slam into the far wall. Her eyes closed, and she slid slowly down the wall, still somehow clinging to her sword. Brett ran over to her. Lewis faced off against Carrion, his ugly face set in harsh, dangerous lines, his hand hovering over his disrupter. Jesamine moved in close beside him. Saturday looked on from the open doorway, his tail sweeping thoughtfully back and forth.

“Keep your attack dog on a leash, Deathstalker,” said Carrion. “Or I’ll muzzle her. I think you should leave now. Your name buys you only so much protection. Be about your own business, and let the Ashrai tend to theirs.”

Lewis backed slowly away, not taking his eyes off the man dressed in black. Jesamine retreated with him, her hands clenched into impotent fists. Amazingly, Rose was back on her feet, though her eyes were dazed and she was leaning heavily on Brett. Lewis led the way out of Base Thirteen and back into the metallic forest. And Carrion stood all alone in the reception lobby, surrounded by ghosts, while viewscreen after viewscreen showed Imperial attack troops moving on the surface of Unseeli for the first time in over two hundred years.

I am Carrion, the destroyer of worlds. I bring bad luck. Oh, John, was it all for nothing, in the end?

* * * *

The Imperial marines moved slowly through the metallic forest, keeping strict formation, guns at the ready. They spread out across the narrow paths, driven by religious fervor and flying on battle drugs that hadn’t been used or needed in centuries, ready to shoot at anything that moved and wasn’t them. Most had never been on a nonhuman world before, and were already seriously spooked. It wasn’t just the heavier gravity and the huge glowing trees; the whole feel of this world was subtly disturbing, as though they had wandered unknowingly into a psychic minefield. Some thought they could hear voices whispering among the trees, or even singing. Backs crawled with the sensation of being watched by unseen eyes. More than one soldier opened fire suddenly and couldn’t explain why. The sheer size of the trees made them feel like children, creeping along the floor of a nightmare adult world. They were all breathing hard now, sweat slick on their faces, eyes wide with adrenaline and battle drugs and fears they couldn’t name. They didn’t feel like aggressors anymore. They felt . . . hunted. What had started out as a rapid, confident advance soon slowed to a crawl, and only the rigid discipline of the officers kept them moving—because only the really hardcore fanatics made officer class these days. And yet even they studied the surrounding trees with darting, suspicious eyes. This wasn’t at all what they’d been led to expect.

And then the Ashrai came, plunging down out of the cloud layer to fly over the packed troops. They were huge and magnificent, with their gargoyle faces and savage fangs and claws, and there were thousands of them. They filled the skies with their gleaming scales and widespread membranous wings, bright as rainbows with bared teeth and blazing eyes. Down below, the troops lurched to a halt in stunned disarray despite the furious commands of their officers. Many just stood and pointed up at the sky, their faces slack with awe, their guns forgotten.

“It’s the dragons,” said more than one voice. “The dragons that flew with the blessed Owen, against the Recreated! No one told us . . . we can’t fight them. Not Owen’s dragons . . .”

Some even threw their guns on the ground. The troops began to babble loudly, arguing among themselves. Some were on their knees, praying. Old words, heavy with significance, moved through the ranks: dragons, aliens, angels . . . And it might all have ended there, but the Church Militant had chosen its officers wisely. Men of steadfast faith, cold discipline, and ruthless nature, they moved calmly among the chattering ranks, and shot down any man who wouldn’t pick up his gun. They lashed their men with harsh, hateful words, reminding them of the vows they had made, to their Empire and their God. A few troopers tried to run, but they didn’t get far. The officers strode through the ranks, blood on their armor and on their boots, and no one could meet their fiery gaze. In a few moments, the army had changed to a rabble and back again, and now the marines hefted their guns, shamed and angry and ready to fight. The officers ordered them to open fire on the Ashrai overhead, but none of the energy beams came close to hitting a target.

The officers called in the gravity barges, but they were having trouble forcing a way through the tops of the tightly packed trees. The metallic forest was no match for force shields and disrupter cannon, but still it was slow going. And down on the ground, the war machines weren’t doing much better. The paths were far too narrow for them, and they had to smash their way through. It didn’t help that most of them had been mothballed since Lionstone’s day, and the troops operating them were unskilled and unpracticed. They forced their way through the forest, leaving wide trails of devastation behind them, their guns moving uselessly back and forth in search of an enemy.

Back in Base Thirteen, Carrion watched them advancing on the viewscreen, and felt almost nostalgic. He recognized the war machines from the days of the last Ashrai rebellion. Things had been so much simpler back then. He’d never doubted which side he was on, even though his oldest friend had become his most hated enemy. But now the Terror was coming, and he had sent the Deathstalker away, probably to die at the Empire’s hands. Carrion watched his viewscreens, and wondered if perhaps he had forgotten too many important things while he played at being an Ashrai.

* * * *

Lewis knew there was no point in meeting any of the advancing troops head on. The odds were insanely against him, and only he and Rose possessed energy weapons. So he led his people silently through the metallic forest, sticking to the shadows, and practiced hit-and-run attacks only when he had to. There were a lot of troops blocking the way to the Hereward now, but the narrow pathways split them up into manageable sizes, and there were always some who dragged along behind the others. Lewis reminded himself they were merciless fanatics who served a traitor, and hardened his heart.

Some were undoubted good men who honestly thought they were in the right, but the fate of the Empire was at stake, and they’d chosen the wrong side.

So Lewis came running unexpectedly out of the trees and hit the startled troops from one side, while Rose Constantine hit them hard from the other. Jesamine guarded Lewis’s back, while Saturday roared happily as he fell upon the stragglers at the rear. And Brett did his best to keep out of everyone’s way. Swords flashed brightly in the diffused light, and blood flew through the air, splashing thickly across the dull gray ground. The troops cried out in shock and panic. The last thing they’d expected was an attack. Lewis cut down the armored marines with professional ease, his ugly face grim with concentration. He was fast and furious, his every move textbook perfect, and no one could stand against him. Jesamine swung her lighter sword with determined skill, defending Lewis’s back, killing when she had to. She kept her face calm and her hands steady, but only her iron will kept fear and panic at bay. It was one thing to play a warrior upon a stage, and quite another to be one.

Rose hacked her way through the troops, a song on her lips and a warm, happy feeling in her heart. She towered over most of them, an angel of death in her bloodred leathers, crying out with joy at every death stroke. No one could come close to touching her, and she danced through her opponents with almost contemptuous grace. Her sword swept back and forth, too fast to be seen, leaving a bloodstained trail behind it. Saturday stamped ungracefully through the milling mob, tearing out throats and hearts with his deceptively fast forearms and crunching off heads with his great teeth. The spikes on his furiously lashing tail ripped through men and crushed them inside their battle armor. The reptiloid tore a savage path through the demoralized troops, as implacable and remorseless as a force of nature. Blood spilled thickly from his grinning mouth. Saturday was having a good time.

The carnage lasted only a matter of minutes, just long enough to make a bloody mess out of the straggling troops, and then Lewis led his people back into the trees before the main mass of the army could catch up to them. It was simple enough to scatter and lose their pursuers in the maze of narrow pathways, and then reform later at a prearranged point. The troops had the advantage of superior firepower, but energy weapons weren’t much use with so many metal trees in the way to soak up disrupter fire.

The army grew increasingly ragged in formation as various groups stumbled among the trees, searching desperately for the traitors who didn’t seem to realize that they were supposed to be the prey. Lewis kept up the hit-and-run tactics, splitting the troops into smaller and smaller groups and demoralizing the survivors. And all the time leading his people closer and closer to where they’d left the Hereward.

He was too preoccupied to notice the way Jesamine looked at him. She’d never realized how at home her Lewis was in the heart of battle. How unconcernedly he threw himself into butchery and slaughter, smiling his cold smile, like a man coming home at last—because he was a Deathstalker, and this was where he belonged. The last time she’d seen him fight with such pitiless savagery had been during the Neuman riot outside Parliament, when he hadn’t seemed to care how many he killed. This wasn’t the Lewis she knew—or thought she’d known.

Rose Constantine, on the other hand, gloried in the bad odds. It had been a long time since she’d had any real challenge to her abilities. And while killing aliens in the Arena was fun, nothing satisfied her like the murder of men. Her heart sang as she danced among the screaming troops, and if she wished for anything it was for a higher standard of fighter among the troops. Some actually turned and ran rather than try to face her. She killed them too, of course, but it wasn’t the same. She had her standards, after all.

Saturday romped among the soldiers, claws and jaws soaked in blood. He was huge and fast and strong, and the humans died so prettily. And best of all, there was no one here to tell him not to eat his kills afterwards. Human meat tasted just as good as he’d always known it would.

Brett watched it all from among the trees, shaking and shuddering. He would have liked to run, but there was nowhere to run to. So he used Rose’s disrupter to snipe from concealment when he thought he had a clear shot, and otherwise did his best not to be noticed. He was muttering to himself almost continuously now, a high-pitched querulous yammer that made no sense even to him. He didn’t belong here. He wasn’t a fighter. His stomach hurt.

Hit and run, kill the enemy and vanish into the trees, all the time edging towards the Hereward. They were all getting tired now, except possibly Saturday. Even Rose was slowing, the punishment she’d taken from Carrion finally catching up with her. But still they fought on—even Brett now. With so many armed troops running wildly in the forest, nowhere seemed safe to hide anymore, so he drew his sword and did his best to look dangerous. Inevitably, his luck ran out sooner rather than later. Three burly troopers cut him off from the others and advanced on him smiling, with drawn swords and force shields buzzing on their arms. Brett screamed for help and looked frantically around for an escape route, but they had him surrounded.

So he threw himself at them with all the rage and terror of a cornered rat, all vicious speed and precious little skill. He caught one marine by surprise and stabbed him in the groin, and then had to retreat quickly as the other two closed in on him. He swept his sword widely back and forth in front of him, and almost dropped it. One of the troopers laughed. Brett swore, and cried angry, frustrated tears. He threw his sword on the ground and put both his hands as high into the air as he could. He wasn’t a fighter, and he was a fool ever to think he could be. But the marines just kept coming, grinning nastily now, and Brett remembered Finn’s words on the base viewscreen: You will not accept any form of surrender. They were going to kill him anyway.

Brett lost his temper. He lashed out with his esp, and his power of compulsion slammed into the mind of the trooper nearest him. And then it was the easiest thing in the world for Brett to make that trooper shoot his companion. Hit at point-blank range, the marine was dead before his body hit the ground. The controlled man just stood there, his face blank, while Brett snatched up the sword he’d thrown away and ran the man through.

Brett stood there awhile, breathing hard, looking at the three marines he’d killed. His head ached, his nose was bleeding, but he was alive and they weren’t. Brett laughed briefly—a soft, disturbing sound—and then he walked openly through the trees, sending his psionic compulsion out before him, and no one could see him. His headache grew steadily worse, and he could feel blood trickling from his nose and welling up from under his eyelids, but he was just too angry to care. Every now and again, he’d reach out with his mind, and one marine would kill another for no reason, and Brett would laugh again. If he’d had time to think, he might have realized this wasn’t like him at all, but that wouldn’t occur to him until much later.

* * * *

Back at Base Thirteen, the man called Carrion was still studying his viewscreens and considering his options, when another man appeared out of nowhere. Carrion felt his presence immediately and spun round, and then he saw who it was and smiled.

“I should have known. With so much of the past repeating itself, it was inevitable that you’d turn up eventually. Hello, John. You’re looking good, for a dead man. Why is it you only ever come to see me when you want something?”

“Hello, Sean,” said John Silence. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it? You know, you’re all that’s left of my past now. Everyone else I knew from the old days is either dead or missing. But still you and I go on, too stubborn to quit and call it a day.”

“You’re the only part of my human past that I still care to remember,” said Carrion. “We’re still bound together, by all the things we did and shouldn’t have done. What do you want this time, John?”

Silence indicated the viewscreen showing Lewis and his companions cutting their way through a stubborn group of marines. More troops were coming up on them from behind, but Lewis hadn’t seen them yet.

“You have to help them, Sean. This new Deathstalker and his rag-bag friends are perhaps the last hope the Empire’s got. The Terror is come at last, and all Humanity is threatened with extinction.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” said Carrion, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Silence considered the viewscreens. “Imperial troops on Unseeli again. Marines and war machines and gravity barges. Blasted open clearings and broken trees, and good people threatened with death for no good reason. We can’t let this happen again, Sean. You heard the Durandal’s secret orders. The Empire didn’t commit this kind of firepower here just to take care of a few traitors. The new regime is using Unseeli as a testing ground. Somewhere to try out their new shock troops and their new battle plans. They must be stopped. They won’t be happy until all the Ashrai are dead and gone and Unseeli is an Empire world again. A symbol of the new order. You have to help the Deathstalker, while you still can. The Ashrai can defend their world, but the Deathstalker is the key to defeating the Durandal, and all the bad things that are coming. A Deathstalker always is. You can’t let him die here.”

Carrion considered the viewscreen before him. When he looked round again, he was alone in the lobby.

* * * *

Lewis leaned heavily against the thick bole of a golden tree, panting for breath. His sword hung down from his hand, too heavy to lift for the moment. Blood dripped from his dented and scored armor, some of it his own. He looked around him, but all the troops he could see were dead. He could hear more of them crashing back and forth in the trees and shouting incoherently to each other, but most seemed to be moving away. Jesamine was sitting on the ground beside him, her shoulders slumped with exhaustion. Lewis was worried about her. She wasn’t built for this.

Brett and Rose were sitting together, not far away. Rose had a cloth in her hand, and was using it to wipe the blood off Brett’s face with slow, careful movements, as though she’d never done anything like that before. Brett sat very still, and let her.

A little farther away, Saturday was eating something with great enjoyment. None of the others looked at him.

Lewis looked up at the sky, where the Ashrai were still circling. “Damn them,” he said quickly. “We’re here for them too. Why won’t they help? Don’t they know the Terror will come for them too, if we can’t stop it? We can’t die here, not so early in our quest . . .”

“They know,” said Jesamine. “They just don’t care. All they care about is killing humans, continuing their war, which should have ended centuries ago.”

“If only I could have made Carrion listen . . .” said Lewis.

“Oh, hell,” said Jesamine, clambering unsteadily to her feet. “I may not be much of a fighter, but if there’s one thing I’ve always been able to do, it’s make people listen.”

She glared up into the sky at the soaring Ashrai, took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and sang. On some level, she could still hear the song of the trees and the Ashrai, the song of Unseeli, and now she answered it with a song of her own, a harmony and a counterpoint; the song of Humanity. Her voice rang out clear as any bell, cutting effortlessly across the clamor of the surrounding troops. She sang, her voice proud and true, with words and melodies from a dozen songs—from all the operas she’d ever sung in her long career—and it seemed like the whole world stopped to listen to her.

And the Ashrai sang back to her, their voices joining and combining, forming a glorious whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Jesamine Flowers sang, and the Ashrai answered, and the two songs joined to become one. Jesamine stopped singing, and so did the Ashrai. And in that echoing silence, the Ashrai dropped out of the glowing sky and fell upon the Imperial troopers surrounding Lewis and his people. The marines cried out in shock and horror as the Ashrai came sweeping between the towering trees with almost supernatural grace, and were upon them before they could even aim their weapons. Everywhere in the metallic forest, marines screamed and died, and Jesamine watched, with tears in her eyes, the ugly results of such a beautiful song.

* * * *

Carrion watched it all on his viewscreens, and felt a great weight lift from his heart as the decision was made for him. He should have remembered that Deathstalkers always got their own way, eventually. Ah, well, he murmured, and walked out of Base Thirteen. He lifted his feet from the ground and flew up through the diffused light, punching through the heavy cloud layer and on out into space. He didn’t feel the cold and he didn’t need to breathe, and energy crackled up and down the length of his power lance, that ancient banned weapon. He concentrated and his speed increased, until the first starcruiser loomed swiftly up before him. Carrion smashed through the ship’s force shields like they weren’t even there, and then hammered his way through the many layers of steel in under a second before bursting out the hull on the other side. He swung around and hit the ship again, targeting the engines this time, punching holes through the steel decks with joyous ease. Explosions rocked the starcruiser as he hung a way off in space, and he smiled in the cold and the dark as the Heracles slowly tore itself apart, the long steel ship blossoming into bright actinic flames, and the screams of the dying went unheard in the vacuum of space. Carrion turned his back on the stricken ship as it began its slow descent from orbit, falling slowly but inevitably to its death.

The other starcruisers were slowly turning and maneuvering to face Carrion as he flew effortlessly towards them. They opened up with every gun they had, the disrupter cannon operated by the very best tracking systems, releasing enough destructive energies to take out a dozen ships, let alone one man, unarmed and unprotected. But he was Carrion, and he had been through the Madness Maze, and he had faced the Recreated. He was human and Ashrai and so much more. And in the end, nothing was left of the five starcruisers but a few radioactive shells, tumbling slowly end over end into the fiery grasp of Unseeli’s welcoming atmosphere.

Carrion hung alone in space, looking down on his adopted world, and thought of many things.

* * * *

John Silence walked unhurriedly through the shimmering metal forest, and where he looked, war machines exploded. He looked up, and where his gaze fell upon them, gravity barges malfunctioned and fell out of the sky, impaling themselves on the tops and branches of the metal trees, or falling in flames to the gray ground below. Violent explosions sounded all through the forest as the Imperial advance slowed and stopped. Troops ran screaming rather than face him, only to meet the Ashrai, deadly and unstoppable, taking back their world from those who would despoil it. They generated localized psistorms wherever they went, altering probabilities so that weapons malfunctioned and accidents happened and men fell dead from strokes and embolisms and heart attacks. Finn’s people had no espers to protect them, only a handful of easily overwhelmed esp-blockers.

And of course, there was Lewis Deathstalker and Jesamine Flowers, Rose Constantine and Brett Random, and the reptiloid Saturday, and no man could stand against them either.

Finn Durandal sent an army to Unseeli. Religious fanatics, Pure Humanity to a man, trained soldiers. And in the end, they never stood a chance, because the Ashrai weren’t interested in accepting surrender either. Men had come to Unseeli with death on their minds, and that was what they found.

* * * *

Lewis Deathstalker and his companions finally returned to the clearing in which they’d left the Hereward. It seemed very still and quiet. You’d never know a terrible war had been fought only a short distance away. Lewis and Jesamine nodded to Rose and Brett, and then they all looked in disgust at Saturday as he gnawed on what was very obviously the remains of a human leg. The reptiloid realized they were all glaring at him, and generously offered to share his meal with the others. He was honestly puzzled when they all loudly declined. He shrugged, and casually cracked open the long bone to get at the marrow. Lewis looked away, desperate for something else to concentrate on. All around, there were loud creakings and groanings as the damaged metal trees slowly regenerated, repairing the harm done to them. Soon there would be no traces left to show that Humanity had ever come to Unseeli. Lewis thought he could live with that.

Jesamine made her way slowly over to the Hereward’s airlock, and then leaned against the hatch, pressing her hot, flushed face against the cold metal. She was shaking with shock and reaction to all she’d been through. Not just from the strain of singing with the Ashrai, though her head still swam and her throat was raw with pain, but also from the sheer horror of the fighting she’d witnessed and been a reluctant part of. She’d thought she’d seen the rough side of life before, when she was starting out; seen men kill each other in the cheap clubs and bars she’d played at the start of her career. But this was war, and war was different. All the blood and suffering, the desperate screams of the dying, the knowledge that you could die at any moment if you were slow or stupid or just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Amid the noise and the bedlam and the sudden stench of freshly spilled guts, she had killed because she had to, and she had no doubts about what she’d done. She had nothing but contempt for the fanatics who made up the Church Militant and Pure Humanity. But still she shook and shuddered and bit her lip to keep from crying out. She didn’t know if she could do it again . . . not even for Lewis and his cause.

Lewis finally noticed her and came quickly over to put a comforting arm around her. She turned and buried her face in his chest, and took what comfort she could from him.

Not too far away, Brett was standing hunched over, his arms wrapped tightly around his aching stomach. He’d already vomited till he dry heaved, and it hadn’t helped. He was a con man, not a fighter. A thief, not a killer. He didn’t want anyone to die, least of all himself. And yet he remembered walking through the trees, making men kill each other and themselves, as though he’d been a whole other person then. Rose stood patiently beside him, not understanding, but keeping him company.

“It’s over,” she said. “We won. You fought well enough. You should be proud.”

“I never wanted this,” he said thickly. “This isn’t me. This isn’t what I do. I want to go home.”

“Things change,” said Rose. “After a while, it won’t bother you at all.”

“That’s what scares me,” said Brett.

Saturday watched them all, and said nothing.

Carrion came walking out of the forest with another man at his side, and both sides were surprised to find the other knew the newcomer.

“You told me John Silence was dead,” Carrion said reproachfully.

“That’s because we knew him as Samuel Chevron,” Lewis said finally, when he could get his breath back. “I knew you had to be someone important from the age of heroes, but I had no idea . . . are you really him? Captain John Silence of the Dauntless ?”

“I was once. It was a long time ago.”

“That’s how you were able to do all those amazing things in Traitor’s Hall!” said Jesamine, her eyes almost painfully wide. “Why . . . why didn’t you tell us? Why did you let everyone think you were dead? And why didn’t anyone recognize Samuel Chevron was really one of the great legends of our time?”

“People see what I want them to see, when they look at me,” said Silence.

“I’ve taken care of all five starcruisers,” said Carrion, smiling at the open awe in the faces of Lewis and Jesamine and Brett. Rose just watched silently. “A few lifeboats got away, to tell what happened here. I don’t think the Empire will be coming back. I trust the excitement is now over, and I can get back to my life?”

“We were hoping you might come with us, Sir Carrion,” Lewis said diffidently. “To search for the blessed Owen. We have so much to do . . .”

“No,” said Carrion. “Not even for a Deathstalker. Not even for you, John.”

Lewis turned to Silence, but he shook his head too. “I go where I’m needed. You don’t need me, Deathstalker.”

“Why haven’t you revealed yourself before this?” said Jesamine, almost angrily. “Why did you allow Finn and his people to come to power? Why didn’t you stop all the terrible things that have happened?”

“One man alone can’t save the Empire,” said Silence. “Even a Deathstalker needs companions.”

“Why didn’t you interfere in the fighting here earlier?” said Brett.

“Because you needed the experience.”

“We could all have been killed!”

“That’s part of what you were learning.”

“What about the Terror?” said Lewis. “With your power . . .”

“No,” said Silence. “That’s your destiny, Deathstalker. Go to Haden. All the answers you seek are there, in the Madness Maze.” He turned to look at Carrion. “I have to go, Sean. Tell me: are you happy, now you’re an Ashrai?”

“Yes,” said Carrion. “It’s all I ever wanted.”

“Good,” said Silence. “I’m glad one of us at least got to have a happy ending.”

“They told me you were dead, John.”

“I am,” said Silence, and he disappeared.

Carrion nodded slowly. “Well,” he said. “This is a planet of ghosts, after all.”

He turned back into an Ashrai, huge and powerful, spread his membranous wings, and flew back up into the glowing sky to rejoin his people.