Hell Wing

Rain had come to Haven with the spring, and a sharp, gusting wind blew it in off the sea. The rain hammered down with mindless ferocity, bouncing back from the cobbles and running down the gutters in raging torrents. Water dripped from every surface, gushed out of drainpipes, and flew in graceful arcs from carved gargoyle mouths on the smarter buildings. It had been raining on and off for weeks, despite everything the city weather wizards could do, and everyone was heartily sick of it. The rain forced itself past slates and tiles and gurgled down chimneys, making fires sputter and smoke. Anyone venturing out into the streets was quickly soaked, and even inside the air seemed saturated with moisture. People gritted their teeth and learned to ignore damp clothing and the constant drumming of rain on the roof. It was the rainy season, and the city endured it as the city endured so many other afflictions—with stubborn defiance and aimless, sullen anger.

And yet things were not as gloomy in the port city of Haven as they might have been. The rain-soaked streets were decked with flags and bunting and decorations, their bright and gaudy colors blazing determinedly through the grayness of the day. Two Kings had come to Haven, and the city was putting on an attractive face and enjoying itself as best it could. It would take more than a little rain to dampen Haven’s spirits when it had an excuse to celebrate. A public holiday had been declared from most jobs, on the grounds that the eager citizens would have taken one anyway if it hadn’t been granted, and people held street parties between the downpours and boosted the takings at all the inns and taverns. Tarpaulins were erected in the streets wherever possible, to ward off the rain, and beneath them could be found street fairs and conjurers and play-actors and all manner of entertainments.

Of course, not everyone got to take the day off. The city Guard still went about its business, enforcing the law and protecting the good citizens from pickpockets and villains and outrages, and, most important of all, from each other. Haven was a harsh, cruel city swarming with predators, even during a time of supposedly universal celebration. So Hawk and Fisher, husband and wife and Captains in the city Guard, made their way through the dismal gray streets of the Northside and wished they were somewhere else. Anywhere else. They huddled inside their thick black cloaks, and pulled the hoods well forward to keep the rain out of their faces.

Hawk was tall, dark, and no longer handsome. He wore a black silk patch over his right eye, and a series of old scars ran down the right side of his face, giving him a cold, sinister look. Huddled inside his soaking wet black cloak, he looked like a rather bedraggled raven that had known better days. It had to be said that even when seen at his best, he didn’t look like much. He was lean and wiry rather than muscular, and was beginning to build a stomach. He wore his dark hair at shoulder length, swept roughly back from his forehead and tied at the nape of his neck with a silver clasp. He’d only just entered his thirties, but already there were streaks of gray in his hair. It would have been easy to dismiss him as just another bravo, perhaps already past his prime, but there was a dangerous alertness in the way he carried himself, and the cold gaze of his single eye was disturbingly direct. He carried a short-handled axe on his right hip, instead of a sword. He was very good with an axe. He’d had lots of practice.

Isobel Fisher walked at his side, unconsciously echoing his pace and stance with the naturalness of long companionship. She was tall, easily six foot in height, and her long blond hair fell to her waist in a single thick plait, weighted at the tip with a polished steel ball. She was in her late twenties, and handsome rather than beautiful, with a rawboned harshness to her face that contrasted strongly with her deep blue eyes and generous mouth. Some time ago, something had scoured all the human weaknesses out of her, and it showed. Even wrapped in her thick cloak against the driving rain, she moved with a determined, aggressive grace, and her right hand never strayed far from the sword on her hip.

People gave them plenty of room as they approached, and were careful to look away rather than risk catching the Guards’ eyes. None of them wanted to be noticed. It wasn’t healthy. Hawk and Fisher were feared and respected as two of the toughest and most honest Guards in Haven, and everyone in the Northside had something to hide. It was that kind of area. Hawk glared balefully about him as he and Fisher strode along, and stamped his boots unnecessarily hard on the water-slick cobbles. Fisher chuckled quietly.

“Cheer up, Hawk. Only another month or so of utter misery, and the rainy season will be over. Then you can start looking forward to the utter misery of the boiling hot summer. Always something to look forward to in Haven.”

Hawk sniffed. “I hate it when you’re this cheerful. It’s not natural.”

“Me, or the rain?”

“Both.” Hawk stepped carefully over a tangled mass of bunting that had fallen from a nearby building. “I can’t believe people are still going ahead with celebrations in this downpour.”

Fisher shrugged. “Any excuse for a holiday. Besides, they can hardly postpone it, can they? The Kings will only be here two more days. Then it’ll all be over, and we can get back to what passes for normal here in the Northside.”

Hawk just grunted, not trusting himself to any more than that. His job was hard enough without extra complications. Haven was without doubt the most corrupt and crime-ridden city in the Low Kingdoms, and the Northside was its dark and rotten heart. No crime was too vile or too vicious to be overlooked, and if you could make any kind of profit out of it, you could be sure someone was doing it somewhere. And double-crossing his partner at the same time, like as not. Violence was commonplace, along with rape and murder and protection rackets. Conspiracies blossomed in the shadows, talking treason in lowered voices behind locked doors and shuttered windows. Throughout Haven, the city Guard was stretched thin to breaking point and beyond, but somehow they managed to keep a lid on things, most of the time. Usually by being even harsher and more violent than the people they fought. When they weren’t taking sweeteners to look the other way, of course. All of which made it increasingly difficult for anyone to figure out why the Parliaments of both the Low Kingdoms and Outremer had insisted on their respective Kings coming to Haven to sign the new Peace Treaty between the two countries.

It was true that the Peace Talks at which the Treaty had been hammered out had taken place in Haven, but only after the Guard had protected the negotiators from treacherous assault by mercenaries and terrorists. There were a great many people in both countries who had vested interests in seeing the Peace Talks fail, and they’d shown no hesitation in turning Haven into their own private battleground. Hawk and Fisher had managed to smash the worst conspiracy and preserve the Talks, but it had been a very close thing, and everyone knew it. Everyone except the two Parliaments apparently. They’d set their minds on Haven, and weren’t going to be talked out of it. Probably because they simply couldn’t believe what their Advisors were telling them about the city.

Upon hearing of the singular honour being bestowed on their fair city, Haven’s city Councillors practically had a collective coronary, and then began issuing orders in a white-hot panic. No one had ever seen them do so much so quickly. One of the first things they did was to give the Guard strict instructions to get all the villains off the streets as quickly as possible, and throw the lot of them in gaol, for any or no reason. They’d worry about trials and sentences later, if at all. For the moment, all that mattered was rounding up as many villains as possible and keeping them safely out of the way until the Kings had left Haven. The prison Governor came closer to apoplexy than a coronary, though it was a near thing, and demanded hysterically where he was supposed to put all these extra bodies in his already overcrowded prison. That, he was curtly informed, was his problem. So the Guards had gone out into the streets all over the city, backed up by as many men-at-arms and militia as the Council could put together, and started picking up villains and hauling them away. In some cases where their lawyers objected strongly, the Guards took them in as well. Word soon got around, and those misereants who managed to avoid the sweeps decided it would be wisest to keep their heads down for a while, and quietly disappeared. The crime rate plummeted, overnight.

Which is not to say the city streets suddenly became peaceful and law-abiding. This was Haven, after all. But the usual petty crimes and everyday violence could be more or less controlled by the Guard and kept well away from the Kings and their retinues, which was all that mattered as far as the Council was concerned. No one wanted to think what the city would be like after the Kings had left and most of the villains had to be released from prison due to lack of evidence. To be honest, few people in Haven were thinking that far ahead. In the meantime, Hawk and Fisher patrolled their usual beat in the Northside, and were pleasantly surprised at the change. There were stretches when no one tried to kill anyone else for hours on end.

“What do you think about this Peace Treaty?” said Hawk idly. “Do you think it’s going to work?”

Fisher shrugged. “Maybe. As I understand it, the two sides have hammered out a deal that both of them hate but both of them can live with, and that’s the best anyone can hope for. Now that they’ve agreed on a definitive boundary line for the first time in centuries, it should put an end to the recent border clashes at least. Too many good men were dying out there in the borderlands, defending a shaky line on a faded old map to satisfy some politician’s pride.”

Hawk nodded. “I just wish they’d chosen somewhere else for their signing ceremony. Just by being here, the Kings are a magnet for trouble. Every fanatic, assassin, and terrorist for miles around will see this as their big chance, and head straight for Haven with blood in their eyes and steel in their hands.”

“Come on,” said Fisher. “You’ve got to admit, the Kings’ security is pretty impressive. They’ve got four heavy-duty sorcerers with them, a private army of men-at-arms, and a massive deputation of honour guards from the Brotherhood of Steel. I could conquer a minor country with a security force that size.”

Hawk sniffed, unimpressed. “No security is ever perfect; you know that. All it needs is one fanatic with a knife and a martyr’s complex in the right place at the right time, and we could have two dead Kings on our hands. And you can bet Haven would end up taking all the blame, not the security people. They should never have come here, Isobel. I’ve got a real bad feeling about this.”

“You have bad feelings about everything.”

“And I’m usually right.”

Isobel looked at him knowingly. “You’re just miffed because they wouldn’t let any Haven Guards into their security force.”

“Damn right I’m annoyed. We know the situation here; they don’t. But I can’t really blame them, much as I’d like to. Everyone knows the Guard in this city is rife with corruption, and after our last case, no one trusts anyone anymore. After all, if even we can come under suspicion…”

“We proved our innocence, and exposed the real traitor.”

“Doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.” Hawk scowled and shook his head slowly. “I still can’t believe how ready everyone was to accept we were guilty. After all we’ve done for this city…. Anyway, from now on, there’ll always be someone ready to point the finger and mutter about no smoke without fire.”

“Anyone points a finger at me,” said Fisher calmly, “I’ll cut it off, and make him eat it. Now, stop worrying about the Kings; they’re not our responsibility.”

They walked a while in silence, kicking occasionally at loose debris in the street. The rain seemed to be letting up a bit. Every now and again someone up on a roof would throw something down at them, but Hawk and Fisher just ignored it. Thanks to the overhanging upper floors of the buildings, it was rare for anything to come close enough to do any harm, and there was no point in trying to chase after whoever was responsible. By the time the Guards could get up to the roof, the culprits would be gone, and both sides knew it. They were in more danger from a suddenly emptied chamber pot from an upper window. You had to expect that kind of thing in the Northside. Even if you were the infamous Hawk and Fisher.

Hawk scowled as he strode along, brooding over recent events. It wasn’t that long ago that most of Haven had been convinced he’d gone berserk, killing anyone who got in the way of his own personal vendetta outside the law. It hadn’t been true, and eventually he’d proved it, but that wasn’t the point. He knew he had a reputation for violence; he’d gone to great pains to establish it. It kept the villains and the hardcases off his back, and made the small fry too nervous to give him any trouble. But even so, the speed with which people believed he’d gone bad had disturbed him greatly. For the first time, he’d seen himself as others saw him, and he didn’t like what he saw.

“We never used to be this hard,” he said quietly. “These days, every time I look at someone I’m thinking about the best way to take them out before they can get to me. Whether they’re behaving aggressively or not. Whenever I talk to someone, part of me is listening for a lie or an evasion. And more and more, I tend to assume a suspect is bound to be guilty, unless hard evidence proves them innocent.”

“In the Northside, they usually are guilty,” said Fisher.

“That’s not the point! I always said I’d never laid a finger on an honest man, or killed anyone who didn’t need killing. I’m not so sure of that anymore. I’m not infallible. I make mistakes. Only thing is, my mistakes could cost someone their life. When we first took on this job, I really thought we could do some good, make a difference, help protect the people who needed protection. But now, everyone I meet gets weighed as a potential enemy, and I care more about nailing villains than I do about protecting their victims. We’ve changed, Isobel. The job has changed us. Maybe… we should think about leaving Haven. I don’t like what we’ve become.”

Fisher looked at him anxiously. “We’re only as hard as we need to be to get the job done. This city is full of human wolves, ready to tear us apart at the first sign of weakness. It’s only our reputation for sudden death and destruction that keeps them at bay. Remember what it was like when we first started? We had to prove ourselves every day, fighting and killing every hardcase with a sword and a grudge, just to earn the right to walk the streets in peace. Now they’ve learned to leave us alone, we can get things done. Look, we’re a reflection of the people we’re guarding. If they start acting civilized and playing by the rule book, so will I. Until then, we just do what we have to, to get the job done.”

“But that’s the point, Isobel. Why do the job? What difference does it make? For every villain we put away, there are a dozen more we can’t touch who are just waiting to take his place. We bust our arses every day, and nothing ever changes. Except us.”

“Now, don’t start that again. We have made a difference. Sure, things are bad now, but they were much worse before we came. And they’d be worse again if we left. You can’t expect to change centuries of accumulated evil and despair in a few short years. We do the best we can, and protect the good people every chance we get. Anything above and beyond that is a bonus. You’ve got to be realistic, Hawk.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” Hawk stared straight ahead of him, looking through the driving rain without seeing it. “I’ve lost my way, Isobel. I don’t like what I am, what I’m doing, what I’ve become. This isn’t what I meant to do with my life, but I don’t know what else to do. We are needed here; you’re right about that. But some days I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize my face at all. I hear people talking about things I’ve done and it doesn’t sound like me. Not the me I remember being, before we came here. I’ve lost my way. And I don’t know how to find it again.”

Fisher scowled unhappily, and decided she’d better change the subject. “I know what your problem is. You’re just brooding because I’ve put you on another diet.”

Hawk smiled in spite of himself. “Right. I must be getting old, lass; I never used to put on weight like this. I can’t believe I’ve had to let my belt out another notch. When I was younger I had so much energy I used to burn off food as fast as I could eat it. These days, I only have to look at a dessert and my waistline expands. I should never have admitted turning thirty. That was when the rot set in.”

“Never mind, dear,” said Fisher. “When we get back home tonight I’ll put out your pipe and slippers, and you can have a nice doze in your chair by the fire before dinner.”

Hawk looked at her. “Don’t push your luck, Isobel.”

She laughed. “Well, it serves you right. Anyone would think you were on your last legs and doddering towards the grave, to hear you talk. There’s nothing wrong with you that a good fight in a good cause couldn’t put right. In the meantime, no desserts, cut down on the meat, and lots of nice healthy salads. And no more snacks in between meals, either.”

“Why does everything that’s good for you have to taste so damned bland?” complained Hawk. “And I don’t care if lettuce is good for me; I’m not eating it. Flaming rabbit food…”

They continued on their way through the Northside, doing their rounds and showing their faces. Hawk seemed in a somewhat better mood but was still unusually quiet. Fisher decided to let him brood, and not push it. He’d had these moods before, and always snapped out of it eventually. Together, they checked out three burglaries, and lectured one shopkeeper on the need for bolts as well as locks on his doors and window shutters. None of the burglaries were anything special, just routine break-ins. Not much point in looking for clues. Sooner or later they’d catch someone in the act, and he’d confess to a whole bunch of others crimes and that would be that. After the burglaries, they got involved in a series of assaults, sorting out tavern brawls, muggings, and finally a domestic dispute. Hawk hated being dragged into domestic quarrels. You couldn’t win. Whatever you did was bound to be wrong.

They approached the location of the domestic dispute cautiously, but at least this time there was no flying crockery to dodge. Or flying knives. The address was a poky little apartment in the middle of a row of shabby tenements. Neighbors watched silently as the two Guards entered the building. Hawk took the lead and kept a careful eye on the house’s occupants as they made way before him. Guards were the common enemy of all Northsiders; they represented and enforced all the laws and authority that kept the poor in their place. As a result, Guards were targets for anyone with a grudge or a mad on, and one of the nastier surprise attacks these days was the Haven mud pie—a mixture of lye and grease. Thrown at close range, the effect could be devastating. The lye burned through clothing as though it wasn’t there, and if it hit bare skin it could eat its way right down to the bone. The grease made the lye stick like glue. Even a small mud pie could put a Guard in hospital for weeks, if his partner didn’t get him to a doctor fast enough. And doctors tended to be few and far between in the Northside. The last man to aim a mud pie at Hawk had got both his arms broken, but there were any number of borderline crazies in the Northside, just waiting to be pushed over the edge by one frustration too many. So Hawk and Fisher stayed close together and kept a wary eye on shadowed corners and doors left just a little too far ajar.

They made their way through the hall and up the narrow stairs without incident. Mothers and small children watched in stony silence, while from above came the sound of domestic unrest. A man and a woman were shouting and screeching at the tops of their voices, but Hawk and Fisher didn’t let themselves be hurried. As long as the couple were still shouting they weren’t searching for blunt instruments or something with a sharp edge. It was when things went suddenly quiet that you had to worry. Hawk and Fisher reached the landing and strode down the hall, stepping over small children playing unconcernedly on the floor. They found the door with the right number, the sounds from within made it pretty hard to miss. Hawk hammered on the door with his fist, and an angry male voice broke off from its tirade just long enough to tell him to go to hell. Hawk tried again, and got a torrent of abuse for his trouble. He shrugged, drew his axe, and kicked the door in.

A man and a woman looked round in surprise as Hawk and Fisher stood in the doorway taking in the scene. The woman was less than average height, and more than a little undernourished, with a badly bruised face and a bloody nose. She was trying to stop the flowing blood with a grubby handkerchief, and not being very successful. The man was easily twice her size, with muscles on his muscles, and he was brandishing a fist the size of a mallet. His face was dark with rage, and he glared sullenly at Hawk and Fisher as he took in their Guards’ cloaks.

“What are you doing here? You’ve no business in this house, so get out. And if you’ve damaged my door I’ll see you pay for the repairs!”

Hawk smiled coldly. “If you’ve damaged that woman, you’ll pay for. it. Now, stand back from her and put down that fist, and we’ll all have a nice little chat.”

“This is family business,” said the man quickly, before the woman could say anything. He lowered his fist, but stood his ground defiantly.

Fisher moved forward to speak to the woman, and the man fell back a step in spite of himself. She ignored him, and spoke softly to the woman. “Does this kind of thing happen often?”

“Often enough,” said the woman indistinctly, behind her handkerchief.

Fisher frowned. “Just say the word, and we’ll drag him off to gaol. You don’t have to put up with this. Are you married to him?”

The woman shrugged. “More or less. He’s not so bad, most of the time, but he can’t keep a job because of his temper. He just lost another one today.”

“So he comes home and takes it out on you.” Fisher nodded understandingly.

“That’s enough!” snapped the man suddenly, stung at being talked about as though he wasn’t there. “She’s got nothing more to say to you, Guard, if she knows what’s good for her. And you two can get out now, or I’ll throw you out.”

Hawk stirred, and looked at him with interest. “You and what army?”

“I really think you should swear out a complaint against him,” said Fisher. “Next time he might not just break your nose. A few mights in gaol might calm him down a bit, and if nothing else, it should make him think twice about hitting you again.”

The woman nodded slowly. “You’re right. I’ll swear out a complaint.”

“You lousy bitch!” The man lurched forward, raising his huge hands menacingly. Fisher turned and smacked him solidly between the eyes with her fist. The man fell back a step and then sat down abruptly, blinking dazedly. Fisher looked at Hawk.

“We’d better get him downstairs. You take one arm and I’ll take the other.”

“Right,” said Hawk. “There’s some railings outside we can chain him to until we can find a Constable to take him back to Headquarters for charging.”

They got him to his feet easily enough and were heading for the door when Hawk, hearing a muffled cry behind them, looked back just in time to see the woman heading straight for him with a knife in her hand. Hawk dropped the man and stepped quickly to one side, but the woman kept coming at him, her eyes wild and desperate. Fisher stuck out a leg and tripped her. The woman fell heavily and lost her grip on the knife. Hawk stepped forward and kicked it out of reach. The woman burst into tears. Hawk looked at Fisher.

“What the hell was that all about?”

“She loves him,” said Fisher, shaking her head sadly. “She might not like the treatment, but she loves him just the same. And when she saw us hauling him off to gaol, she forgot how angry she was and decided we were the villains of the piece, for threatening her man…. Now we have to take them both in. Can’t let anyone get away with attacking a Guard, or we’ll never have any peace.”

Hawk nodded reluctantly, and they set about manhandling the man and the woman down the stairs and out into the street.

They found a Constable, eventually, and let him take over, then set off on their beat again. The rain continued to show signs of letting up without ever actually doing anything about it. The day wore slowly on, fairly quiet by Northside standards. Hawk and Fisher broke up half a dozen fights, ran off a somewhat insecure flasher, and helped talk a leaper out of jumping from a second-story building. The city didn’t really care if a leaper killed himself or not, but there was always the chance he might land on someone important, so official policy in such cases was to clear the street below and then just let the would-be suicide get on with it. As in many other things, Hawk and Fisher ignored official policy and took the time to talk quietly and encouragingly to the man, until he agreed to go down the normal way, via the stairs. The odds were that by tomorrow he’d be back up on the roof again, but at least they’d bought him some time to think it over. Working in the Northside, you learned to be content with little victories.

“You know,” said Hawk as he and Fisher walked away, “sometimes, when I’m up on a roof with a leaper, I have an almost overwhelming urge to sneak up behind him and shout Boo! in his ear. Just to see what would happen.”

“You’re weird, Hawk,” said Fisher, and he nodded solemnly. At which point a rush of gentle flute music poured through their minds, followed by the dry, acid voice of the Guard communications sorcerer.

All Guards in the Northern sector, report immediately to Damnation Row, where there is a major riot in progress. This order supersedes all other instructions. Do not discuss the situation with anyone else until you have reported to the prison Governor. That is all.

Hawk scowled grimly as he and Fisher turned around and headed back down the street shoulders hunched against the renewed heavy rain. Damnation Row was Haven’s oldest and largest prison, as well as the most secure. A great squat monstrosity of basalt stone, surrounded on all sides by high walls and potent sorceries, it was infamous throughout the Low Kingdoms as the one prison no one ever escaped from. Riots were almost unknown, never mind a major riot. No wonder they’d been instructed not to talk about it. The prison’s reputation was part of its protection. Besides, if word did get out, the streets would be thronged with people heading for the prison to try and help the inmates break out. Most people in Haven knew someone in Damnation Row.

The prison itself stood jammed up against the city wall on the far boundary of the Northside, and Hawk and Fisher could see its outline through the driving rain long before they got to its gatehouse. The exterior walls were huge, dark, and largely featureless, and seemed especially grim and forbidding through the downpour. Hawk hauled on the steel bell pull at the main gate, and waited impatiently with Fisher for someone to answer. He’d never been inside Damnation Row before and was curious to see if it was as bad as everyone said. Conditions inside were supposed to be deliberately appalling. Haven had nothing but contempt for anyone dumb enough or unsuccessful enough to get caught, and the idea was that a stay in Damnation Row would scare the offender so much he’d do anything rather than be sent back—including going straight. The prison’s excellent security record also made it a useful dumping ground for dangerous lunatics, untrustworthy magic-users, and political and religious embarrassments. The city firmly believed in taking revenge on its enemies. All of them.

Hawk yanked on the bell pull again, hammered on the door with his fist, and kicked it a few times for good measure. All he got out of it was a stubbed toe and an unsympathetic glance from Fisher. Finally a sliding panel in the door jerked open and a grim-faced prison guard studied their Guards’ uniforms for a long moment before slamming the panel shut and opening the judas gate in the main door to let them in. Hawk and Fisher identified themselves, and weren’t even given time to dump their dripping wet cloaks before being hustled through the outer precincts of the prison to the Governor’s office. Everywhere they looked there was bedlam, with prison guards running this way and that, shouting orders no one listened to and getting in each other’s way. Off in the distance they could hear a dull roar of raised voices and the hammering of hard objects on iron bars.

The Governor’s office was comfortably furnished, but clearly a place of work rather than relaxation. The walls were bare save for a number of past and present Wanted posters, and two framed testimonials. The plain, almost austere desk was buried under paperwork, split more or less equally into two piles marked “Pending” and “Urgent.” The Governor, Phillipe Dexter, stood up from behind his desk to shake hands briefly with Hawk and Fisher, gestured for them to take a seat, and then returned to his own chair quickly, as though only sheer willpower had kept him on his feet that long. He was an average-looking man in his late forties, dressed fashionably but conservatively, and had a bland, politician’s face. At the moment he looked tired and drawn, and his hand had trembled slightly with fatigue when Hawk shook it. The two Guards took off their cloaks and draped them over the coat rack before sitting down. The Governor watched the cloaks dripping heavily on his carpet, and closed his eyes for a moment, as though that was definitely the last straw.

“How long has this riot been going on?” asked Hawk, to get the ball rolling.

“Almost four hours now.” The Governor scowled unhappily, but his voice was calm and measured. “We thought we could contain it at first, but we just didn’t have the manpower. This prison has always suffered from overcrowding, with two or even three inmates locked up in a cell originally meant for one. Mainly because Haven has almost doubled in size since this prison was built. But we coped, because we had to. There was nowhere else to put the prisoners; all the other gaols in Haven are just holding pens and debtors’ prisons, and they face the same problem as us. But, thanks to the Council’s ill-advised purge of the streets, we’ve had prisoners arriving here in the hundreds over the last week or so, and my staff just couldn’t cope with the resulting crush. We had four, sometimes five, to a cell in some places, and not even enough warning to allow for extra food and blankets. Something had to give.

“The prisoners decided this morning that they couldn’t be treated any worse than they already were, and attacked the prison staff during breakfast and slopping-out. The violence soon spread, and we didn’t have enough manpower to put it down. Essentially, we’ve lost half the prison. Barricades and booby traps have been set up by the inmates in all the approaches to two of the main Wings, and they’ve been throwing everything they can get their hands on at us to make us keep our distance. They’ve started several fires, but so far the prison’s security spells have been able to stamp them out before they could get out of control. So far, no one’s actually escaped. Our perimeter is still secure.

“We’ve tried to negotiate with the inmates, but none of them have shown any interest in talking. Pretty soon the Council is going to order me to take the occupied Wings back by force, before the Kings get to hear about the riot and start getting worried. But that, believe it or not, isn’t the main problem. Adjoining the two occupied Wings is Hell Wing, where we keep our supernatural prisoners. Creatures of power and magic, locked away here while awaiting trial. Hell Wing is in its own pocket dimension, surrounded by powerful wards, so it should still be secure. But there are reported to be several magic-users among the rioters, and if they find a way into Hell Wing and set those creatures loose, a whole army of Guards wouldn’t be enough to control them.”

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other, and then back at the Governor. “If it’s as serious as all that,” said Hawk, “why are you wasting time talking to us? You need somebody with real power, like the God Squad, or the SWAT team.”

The Governor nodded quickly. “The God Squad have been alerted, but at present they’re busy coping with an emergency on the Street of Gods. I’ve sent for the Special Wizardry and Tactics team; they’re on their way. When they get here, I want you two to work with them. You’ve both worked with the God Squad in the past, you have experience coping with supernatural creatures, and you have a reputation for salvaging impossible situations. And right now, I’m so desperate I’ll grab at any straw.”

There was a brief knocking at the door, and it swung open before the Governor could even ask who it was. A woman and three men filed into the office and slammed the door shut behind them. The woman fixed the Governor with a harsh gaze.

“You sent for the SWAT team. We’re here. Don’t worry, we’ve been briefed.” She looked at Hawk and Fisher. “What are they doing here?”

“They’ll be working with you on this,” said the Governor firmly, trying to regain control of the situation. “The God Squad’s been delayed. These two officers are…”

“I know who they are.” The woman nodded briskly to Hawk and Fisher. “I’m Jessica Winter, team leader and tactician. My associates are Stuart Barber, weaponmaster; John MacReady, negotiator; and Storm, sorcerer. That takes care of introductions; anything more can wait till later; we’re on a tight schedule and time’s running out. Let’s go. Sit tight, Governor; you’ll have your prison back in a few hours. Oh, and if any more Guards arrive, keep them out of our way.”

She smiled briefly, and hustled her people out of the office before the Governor could work up a reply. Hawk and Fisher nodded to him and hurried out after the SWAT team. Jessica Winter led the way down the corridor with casual confidence, and Hawk took the opportunity to surreptitiously study his new partners. He knew them all by reputation but had never worked with any of them before.

Winter was a short, stocky woman with a determined, friendly manner that reminded Hawk irresistibly of an amiable bulldog. She was in her early thirties and looked it, and clearly didn’t give a damn. She’d been through two husbands that Hawk knew of, and was currently pursuing her third. She moved and spoke with a brisk, no-nonsense efficiency, and by all accounts could be charming or overwhelming as the mood took her. She was dressed in a simple shirt and trousers, topped with a chain-mail vest that had been polished within an inch of its life, and wore a sword on her hip in a plain, regulation issue scabbard. She’d been with the SWAT team for seven years, two of them as leader and tactician. She had a good if somewhat spotty record, and preferred to dismiss her failures as learning experiences. Given that her team usually wasn’t called in until things had got totally out of hand, Winter had built up a good reputation for finding solutions to problems at the last possible moment. She also had a reputation for convoluted and devious strategies, which Hawk felt might come in very handy just at the moment. He had a strong feeling there was a lot more to this situation than met the eye.

He glanced across at Stuart Barber, the weaponmaster, and felt a little reassured. Even walking down an empty corridor in the midst of friends and allies, Barber exuded an air of danger and menace. He was a tall, powerfully-built man in his mid-twenties, with arms so tightly muscled the veins bulged fiercely even when his arms were apparently relaxed. He had a broad, brutal-looking sword on his hip, in a battered leather scabbard, and wore a long chain-mail vest that had been repaired many times, not always neatly. He had a long, angular head, with pale, pinched features accentuated by dark hair cropped short in a military cut. He had a constant slight scowl that made him look more thoughtful than bad-tempered.

John MacReady, the negotiator, looked like everyone’s favourite uncle. It was his job to talk people out of things before Winter let Barber loose on them. MacReady was average height and well-padded, in a friendly, non-threatening way. He smiled a lot, and had the charming gift of convincing people he was giving them his entire attention while they were talking. He was in his mid-forties, going bald, and trying to hide it with a somewhat desperate hairstyle. He had an easy, companiable way about him that made him hard to distrust, but Hawk decided to try anyway. He didn’t put much faith in people who smiled too much. It wasn’t natural.

The sorcerer called Storm was a large, awkward-looking man in his late twenties. He was easily six foot six inches, and his broad frame made him look even taller. His robe of sorcerer’s black looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in months, and the state of his long black hair and beard suggested they’d never even been threatened with a comb. He scowled fiercely at nothing and everything, and just grunted whenever Winter addressed him. His hands curled and uncurled into fists at his side, and he strode along with his beard jutting out before him, as though just waiting for some fool to pick a quarrel with him. All in all, he looked rather like some mystical hermit who’d spent years in a cave meditating on the nature of man and the universe, and came up with some very unsatisfactory answers. The sorcerer looked round suddenly, and caught Hawk’s eye.

“What are you staring at?”

“I was just wondering about your name,” said Hawk easily.

“My name? What about it?”

“Well, Storm’s not exactly a usual name for a sorcerer. A weather wizard, maybe, but…”

“It suits me,” said the sorcerer flatly. “Want to make something of it?”

Hawk thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head. “Not right now. I was just curious.”

Storm sniffed dismissively, and looked away. Jessica Winter fell back a few steps to walk alongside Hawk. She smiled at him briefly. “Don’t mind Storm,” she said briskly, not bothering to lower her voice. “He’s a gloomy bugger, but he knows his job.”

“Just what kind of a setup are we walking into?” asked Fisher, moving up on Hawk’s other side. “As I understand it, you’ve had a full briefing. We just got the edited highlights.”

Winter nodded quickly. “Not surprisingly, the situation isn’t as simple and straightforward as it appears. The riot broke out far too suddenly and too efficiently for it to have been entirely spontaneous. Somebody had to be behind it, pulling the strings and pointing people in the right direction. But the Governor’s attempts to negotiate got nowhere, because the rioters couldn’t agree on a leader to represent them. Which suggests that whoever is behind the riot is keeping his head down. Which in turn suggests that person had his own reasons for starting it.”

“Like breaking someone out, under cover of the chaos?” said Fisher.

“Got it in one,” said Winter. “But so far no one’s got out over the walls or through the gates; the prison guards have seen to that. The Governor’s insistence on regular panic drills seems to have paid off. The real problem lies with Hell Wing, which is where we come in. If someone’s managed to get in there and bust any of those creatures loose, we could be in real trouble. You could break out any number of people in the chaos that would cause. And if that someone’s let them all loose… we might as well evacuate the entire city.”

“That bad?” said Hawk.


Hawk thought about it. “Might this be a good time to suggest a strategic retreat, so we can wait for the God Squad to back us up?”

Storm sniffed loudly. “The word retreat isn’t in our vocabulary.”

“It’s in mine,” said Hawk.

“Just how well-confined are these supernatural prisoners?” asked Fisher hurriedly.

“Very,” said Winter. “Hell Wing is a separate pocket dimension linked to Damnation Row by a single doorway, protected by armed guards and a number of powerful magical wards. Each inmate is confined separately behind bars of cold iron, backed up by an individually tailored geas, a magical compulsion that prevents them from escaping. There’s never been an escape from Hell Wing. The system’s supposed to be foolproof.”

“Unless it’s been sabotaged from inside,” said Hawk.


Fisher frowned. “All of this suggests the riot was planned well in advance. But the prison didn’t become dangerously overcrowded until just recently.”

“It was a fairly predictable situation,” said Winter. “Once it was known the Kings were coming here. Especially if our mysterious planners knew of that in advance.”

From up ahead came the sound of ragged cheering, interspersed with occasional screams and catcalls.

“We’ll have to take it carefully from here on in,” said MacReady quietly. “We’re getting close to the occupied Wings. We have to pass right by them to get to Hell Wing. The Governor’s going to try and distract them with new attempts at negotiating, but there’s no telling how long that will last. It’s bedlam in there.”

A scream rose suddenly in the distance, drowned out quickly by stamping feet and baying voices. Fisher shivered despite herself.

“What the hell are they doing?”

“They’ll have got to the sex offenders by now,” said MacReady. “There’s a social status among criminals, even in Damnation Row, and sex offenders and child molesters are right at the bottom of the list. The other prisoners loathe and despise them. They call them beasts, and assault them every chance they get. Mostly they’re held in solitary confinement, for their own protection. But right now the prisoners are holding mock trials and killing the rapists and child abusers, one by one.

“Of course, when they’ve finished with that, there are various political and religious factions, all eager to settle old grudges. When the dust’s settled from that, and the prisoners have demolished as much of the prison building as they can, they’ll turn on the seventeen prison staff they were able to get their hands on, and try and use them as a lever for an escape. When that doesn’t work, they’ll kill them too.”

“We can’t let that happen,” said Fisher. “We have to put a stop to this.”

“We will,” said Winter. “Once we’ve made sure Hell Wing is secure. I know, Fisher, you want to rush in there and rescue them, but we can’t. Part of this job, perhaps the hardest part, is learning to turn your back on one evil so you can concentrate on a greater one.”

It was ominously quiet in the distance. Hawk scowled. “Should have put a geas on the lot of them. Then there wouldn’t have been all this trouble in the first place.”

“It’s been suggested many times,” said Winter, “but it would cost like hell, and the Council won’t go for it. Cells and bars come a lot cheaper than magic.”

“Hold it,” said Storm suddenly, his voice so sharp and commanding that everyone stopped dead where they were. The sorcerer stared silently at the empty corridor ahead of them, his scowl gradually deepening. “We’re almost there,” he said finally, his voice now low and thoughtful. “The next bend leads into Sorcerers’ Row, where the magic-users are confined. They’re held in separate cells, backed up by an individual geas. After that, there’s nothing between us and Hell Wing.”

“Why have we stopped?” said Winter quietly. “What’s wrong, Storm?”

“I don’t know. My inner Sight’s not much use here. Too many security spells. But I ought to be picking up some trace of the magic-users on Sorcerers’ Row, and I’m not getting anything. Just traces of stray magic, scattered all over the place, as though something very powerful happened here not long ago. I don’t like the feel of it, Jessica.”

“Draw your weapons,” said Winter, glancing back at the others, and there was a quick rasp of steel on leather as the team’s swords left their scabbards. Hawk hefted his axe thoughtfully, and then frowned as he realised MacReady was unarmed.

“Where’s your sword?” he said quietly.

“I don’t need one,” said the negotiator calmly. “I lead a charmed life.”

Hawk decided he wasn’t going to ask, if only because MacReady was obviously waiting for him to do so. He nodded calmly to the negotiator, and moved forward to join Winter and Storm.

“I don’t like standing around here, Winter. It makes us too good a target. If there’s a problem with Sorcerers’ Row, let’s check it out.”

Winter looked at him coolly. “I lead the team, Captain Hawk, and that means I make the decisions. We’re going to take this slow and easy, one step at a time. I don’t believe in rushing into things.”

Hawk shrugged. “You’re in charge, Winter. What’s the plan?”

Winter frowned. “It’s possible the rioters could have broken the magic-users out of their cells, but not very likely; the geas should still hold them. Captain Hawk, you and your partner check out the situation. Barber, back them up. Everyone else stays put. And Hawk, no heroics, please. Just take a quick look around, and then come back and tell me what you saw. Got it?”

“Got it,” said Hawk.

He moved slowly forward, axe held at the ready before him. Fisher moved silently at his side, and Barber brought up the rear. Hawk would rather not have had him there, on the grounds that he didn’t want to be worrying about what Barber was doing when he should be concentrating on getting the job done, but he couldn’t say no. He didn’t want to upset Winter this early in their professional relationship. Or Barber, for that matter. He looked like he knew how to use that sword. Hawk sighed inaudibly and concentrated on the darkening corridor ahead. Some of the lamps had gone out, and Hawk’s gaze darted from shadow to shadow as he approached the bend in the corridor. The continuing silence seemed to grow thicker and more menacing, and Hawk had a growing conviction that someone, or something, was waiting for him just out of sight round the corner.

He eased to a halt, his shoulder pressed against the wall just before the bend, then glanced back at Fisher and Barber. He gestured for them to stay put, took a firm grip on his axe, and then jumped forward to stare down the side corridor into Sorcerers’ Row. It stretched away before him, all gloom and shadow, lit only by half a dozen wall lamps at irregular intervals. The place was deserted, but all the cell doors had been torn out of their frames and lay scattered across the floor. The open cells were dark and silent, and reminded Hawk unpleasantly of the gap left after a tooth has been pulled. He stayed where he was, and gestured for Fisher and Barber to join him. They did so quickly, and Fisher whistled softly.

“We got here too late, Hawk. Whatever happened here is over.”

“We don’t know that yet,” said Hawk. “We’ve still got to check the cells. Fisher, watch my back. Barber, stay put and watch the corridor. Both ends. And let’s all be very careful. I don’t like the feel of this.”

“Blood has been spilled here,” said Barber quietly. “A lot of it. Some of it’s still pretty fresh.”

“I don’t see any blood,” said Fisher.

“I can smell it,” said Barber.

Hawk and Fisher looked at each other briefly, and then moved cautiously towards the first cell. Fisher took one of the lamps from its niche in the wall and held it up to give Hawk more light. He grunted acknowledgment, and glanced down at the solid steel door lying warped and twisted on the floor before him. At first he thought it must have been buckled by some form of intense heat, but there was no trace of any melting or scorching on the metal. The door was a good two inches thick. Hawk didn’t want to think about the kind of strength that could warp that thickness of steel.

There were a few small splashes of blood in the cell doorway, dry and almost black. Hawk eased forward a step at a time, ready for any attack, and then swore softly as the light from Fisher’s lamp filled the cell. The cell’s occupant had been nailed to the far wall with a dozen daggers and left to bleed to death. Given the amount of blood soaking the floor below him, he’d taken a long time to die.

Hawk moved quickly from cell to cell, with Fisher close behind him. Every cell held a dead man. They’d all been killed in different ways, and none of them had died easily. They all wore sorcerer’s black, but their magic hadn’t protected them. Hawk sent Barber back to fetch the rest of the team while he and Fisher dutifully searched the bodies for any sign of life. It didn’t take long. Winter walked slowly down Sorcerers’ Row, frowning, with MacReady at her side. Storm darted from cell to cell, muttering under his breath. Barber sheathed his sword and leaned against the corridor wall with his arms folded. He looked completely relaxed, but Hawk noted that he was still keeping a careful watch on both ends of the corridor. Storm finally finished his inspection and stalked back to report to Winter. Hawk and Fisher joined them.

“What happened here?” said Hawk. “I thought they were supposed to be magic-users. Why didn’t they defend themselves?”

“Their geas wouldn’t let them,” said Storm, bitterly. “They were helpless in their cells when the killers came.”

“Why kill them at all?” said Fisher. “Why should the rioters hate magic-users enough to do something like this to them?”

“There was no hate in this,” said Storm. “This was cold and calculated, every bloody bit of it. It’s a mass sacrifice, a ritual designed to increase magical power. If one sorcerer sacrifices another, he can add the dead man’s magic to his own. And if a sorcerer were to sacrifice all these magic-users, one after another… he’d have more than enough magic to smash through into Hell Wing, and make a new doorway.”

“Wait a minute,” said Hawk. “All the sorcerers in this prison were held here, on Sorcerers’ Row, and none of them are missing. There’s a dead body in every cell.”

“Someone must have smuggled a sorcerer in, disguised as a prisoner,” said Winter. “Probably bribed a guard to look the other way. This riot was carefully planned, people, right down to the last detail.”

Fisher frowned. “So someone could have already entered Hell Wing and let the creatures out?”

“I don’t know,” said Storm. “Maybe. I can tell there’s a new dimensional doorway close at hand, now I know what I’m looking for, but I can’t tell if anyone’s been through it recently.”

“Great,” said Fisher. “Just what this case needed, more complications.” She looked at Winter. “All right, leader, what are we going to do?”

“Go into Hell Wing, and see what’s happened,” said Winter evenly. “Our orders were to do whatever is necessary to prevent the inmates of Hell Wing from breaking out. Nothing has happened to change that.”

“Except we now face a rogue sorcerer and an unknown number of rioters as well as whatever’s locked up in there,” said Hawk. “I didn’t like the odds when we started, and I like them even less now. I can’t do suicide missions.”

“Right,” said Fisher.

Winter looked at them both steadily. “As long as you’re a part of the SWAT team, you’ll do whatever I require you to do. If that isn’t acceptable, you can leave any time.”

Hawk smiled coldly. “We’ll stay. For now.”

“That isn’t good enough, Captain.”

“It’s all you’re going to get.”

Fisher pushed in between Hawk and Winter, and glared at them both impartially. “If you two have quite finished flexing your muscles at each other, may I remind you we’ve still got a job to do? You can butt heads later, on your own time.”

Winter nodded stiffly. “Your partner is right, Captain Hawk; we can continue this later. I take it I can rely on your cooperation for the remainder of this mission?”

“Sure,” said Hawk. “I can be professional when I have to be.”

“Good.” Winter took a deep, steadying breath and let it out slowly. “The situation isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. I think we have to assume some of the rioters have entered Hell Wing, presumably to release the inmates in the hope that they’d add to the general chaos. But if the fools have managed to break any of the geases and some of the creatures are loose, I think we can also safely assume that those rioters are now dead. Which means we’re free to concentrate on recapturing those creatures that have broken loose.”

“Just how powerful are these… creatures?” asked Fisher.

“Very,” said Storm shortly. “Personally, I think we should just seal off the entire Wing, and forget how to find it.”

“Those are not our orders,” said Winter. “They have a right to a fair trial.”

Storm sniffed. “That’s not why our Lords and masters want these things kept alive. Creatures of Power like these could prove very useful as weapons, just in case the Peace Treaty doesn’t work out after all….”

“That’s none of our business, Storm!”

“Wait a minute,” said Hawk. “Are you saying we’re supposed to take these things alive?”

“If at all possible, yes,” said Winter. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“This case gets better by the minute,” growled Hawk. “Look, before we go any further, I want a full briefing on these Creatures of Power. What exactly are we going to be facing in Hell Wing?”

“To start with, there’s the Pale Men,” said Winter steadily. “They’re not real, but that just makes them more dangerous. They can take on the aspect of people you used to be but no longer are. The longer they hold the contact, the more real they become, while you fade into a ghost, a fancy, a might-have-been. Sorcerers create Pale Men from old love letters, blood spilled in anger, an engagement ring from a marriage that failed, or a baby’s shoes bought for a child that was never born. Any unfinished emotion that can still be tapped. Be wary of them. They’re very good at finding chinks in your emotional armour that you never knew you had.”

“How many of them are there?” said Fisher.

“We don’t know. It tends to vary. We don’t know why. Then there’s Johnny Nobody. We think he used to be human, perhaps a sorcerer who lost a duel. Now he’s just a human shape, consisting of guts and muscle and blood held together by surface tension. He has no skin and no bones, but he still stands upright. He screams a lot, but he never speaks. When we caught him, he was killing people for their skin and bones. Apparently he can use them to replace what he lost, for a time, but his body keeps rejecting them, so he has to keep searching for more.”

“I’m surprised he hasn’t killed himself,” said Fisher.

“He’s tried, several times,” said Winter. “His curse won’t let him die. Now, if I may continue… Messerschmann’s Portrait is a magical booby trap left behind by the sorcerer Void when he had to leave Haven in a hurry earlier this year, pursued by half the sorcerers in Magus Court. We still don’t know what he did to upset them, but it must have been pretty extreme. They’re a hard-boiled bunch in Magus Court. Anyway, the Portrait was brought here for safekeeping, and it’s been in Hell Wing ever since. The creature in the Portrait may have been human once, but it sure as hell isn’t now. According to the experts who examined the Portrait, the creature is actually alive, trapped in the Portrait by some powerful magic they don’t fully understand. And it wants out. Apparently, if it locks eyes with you long enough, it can walk out into the world, and you would be trapped in the Portrait, in its place. So don’t get careless around it.”

“You should be safe enough, Hawk,” said Fisher. “It’d have a hard job locking eyes with you.”

Hawk winked his single eye. Winter coughed loudly to get their attention.

“Crawling Jenny is something of an enigma. It’s a living mixture of moss, fungi, and cobwebs, with staring eyes and snapping mouths. It was only five or six feet in diameter when it was first removed from the Street of Gods because it was menacing the tourists. Now it fills most of its cell. If some fool’s let Crawling Jenny loose and it’s been feeding all this time, there’s no telling how big it might be by now.

“The Brimstone Boys are human constructs, neither living nor dead. They smell of dust and sulphur, and their eyes bleed. Their presence distorts reality, and they bring entropy wherever they go. There are only two of them, thank all the Gods, but watch yourselves; they’re dangerous. We lost five Constables and two sorcerers taking them. I don’t want to add to that number.

“And finally, we come to Who Knows. We don’t know what that is. It’s big, very nasty, and completely invisible. And judging by the state of its victims’ bodies, it’s got a hell of a lot of teeth. They caught it with nets, pushed it into its cell on the end of several long poles, and nobody’s gone near it since. It hasn’t been fed for over a month, but it’s still alive—as far as anyone can tell.”

“I’ve just had a great idea,” said Fisher, when Winter finally paused for breath. “Let’s turn around, go back, and swear blind we couldn’t find Hell Wing.”

“I’ll go along with that,” said Barber.

Winter’s mouth twitched. “It’s tempting, I’ll admit, but no. We’re SWAT, and we can handle anything. It says so in our contract. Listen up, people. This is how we’re going to do it. Storm, you open up the gateway and then stand back. Barber, Hawk, and Fisher—you’ll go through first. If you see something and it moves, hit it. Hard. Storm will be right behind you, to provide whatever magical support you need. I’ll bring up the rear. Mac, you stay back here and guard the entrance. I don’t want anyone sneaking up on us from behind.”

“You never let me in on the exciting stuff,” said MacReady.

“Yes,” said Winter. “And aren’t you grateful?”


Winter smiled, and turned back to the others. “Take your places, people. Storm, open the gateway.”

The sorcerer walked a few steps down the corridor and began muttering to himself under his breath. Barber stepped forward to take the point, and Hawk and Fisher moved in on either side of him. Barber glanced at them briefly, and frowned.

“Don’t you people believe in armour? This isn’t some bar brawl we’re walking into.”

“Armour just slows you down,” said Hawk. “The Guard experiments with it from time to time, but it’s never caught on. With the kind of work we do, it’s more important for us to be able to move freely and react quickly. You can’t chase a pickpocket down a crowded street while wearing chain mail. Our cloaks have steel mesh built into them, but that’s it.”

“And you don’t even wear that, most of the time, unless I nag you,” said Fisher.

Hawk shrugged. “Don’t like cloaks. They get in the way while I’m fighting.”

“I’ve always believed in armour,” said Barber, swinging his sword loosely before him. He seemed perfectly relaxed, but his gaze never left Storm. “It doesn’t matter how good you are with a blade, there’s always someone better, or luckier, and that’s when a good set of chain mail comes into its own.”

He broke off as the sorcerer’s voice rose suddenly, and then cut off sharply. The floor lurched and dropped away beneath their feet for a heart-stopping moment before becoming firm again. A huge metal door hung unsupported on the air right in front of them, floating two or three inches off the ground. An eight-foot-tall slab of roughly beaten steel, it gleamed dully in the lamplight, and then, as they watched, it swung slowly open to reveal a featureless, impenetrable darkness. A cold breeze blew steadily from the doorway, carrying vague, blurred sounds from off in the distance. Hawk thought he heard something that might have been screaming, or laughter, but it was gone too quickly for him to identify it.

“Move it,” said Storm tightly. “I don’t know how long I can keep the gateway open. There’s so much stray magic around, it’s distorting my spells.”

“You heard the man,” said Winter. “Go go go!”

Barber stepped through the doorway, and the darkness swallowed him up. Hawk and Fisher followed him in, blades at the ready. The darkness quickly gave way to a vague, sourceless silver glow. Barber, Hawk, and Fisher moved immediately to take up a defensive pattern, looking quickly about them for possible threats. They were standing in a narrow corridor that seemed to stretch away forever. The walls and the low ceiling were both covered with a thick mass of dirty grey cobwebs. The floor was a pale, pockmarked stone, splashed here and there with dark spots of dried blood. There was a brief disturbance in the air behind them as first Storm and then Winter appeared out of nowhere to join them.

“All clear here, Jessica,” said Barber quietly. “No sign of anyone, or anything.”

“If this is Hell Wing, I don’t think much of it,” said Fisher. “Don’t they ever clean up in here?”

“I’m not sure where or what this is,” said Storm. “It doesn’t feel like Hell Wing. The air is charged with magic, but there’s no trace of the standard security spells that ought to be here. Everything… feels wrong.”

“Are you saying you’ve brought us to the wrong place?” asked Hawk dangerously.

“Of course not!” snapped the sorcerer. “This is where Hell Wing used to be. This is what has… replaced Hell Wing. I think we have to assume the creatures have broken loose. All of them.”

Barber cursed softly, and hefted his sword. “I don’t like this, Jessica. They must have known somebody would be coming. Odds are this place is one big trap, set and primed just for us.”

“Could be,” said Winter. “But let’s not panic just yet, all right? Nothing’s actually threatened us so far. Storm, where does this corridor lead?”

Storm shook his head angrily. “I can’t tell. My Sight’s all but useless here. But there’s something up ahead; I can feel it. I think it’s watching us.”

“Then let’s go find it,” said Winter briskly. “Barber, you have the point. Let’s take this one step at a time, people. And remember, we’re not just looking for the creatures. The rioters who opened the gateway have got to be here somewhere. And, people, when we find them, I don’t want any heroics. If any of the rioters wants to surrender, that’s fine, but no one’s to take any chances with them. All right; move out. Let’s get the job done.”

They moved off down the corridor, and the darkness retreated before them so that they moved always in the same sourceless silver glow. The thick matted cobwebs that furred the walls and ceiling hung down here and there in grimy streamers that swayed gently on the air, stirred by an unfelt breeze. Noises came and went in the distance, lingering just long enough to chill the blood and disturb the mind. Hawk held his axe before him, his hands clutching the haft so tightly that his knuckles showed white. His instincts were screaming at him to get out while he still could, but he couldn’t just turn tail and run. Not in front of Winter. Besides, she was right; even if this place was a trap, they still had a job to do. He glared at the darkness ahead of them, and then glanced back over his shoulder. The darkness was there too, following the pool of light the team moved in. More and more it seemed to Hawk that they were moving through the body of some immense unnatural beast, as though they’d been swallowed alive and were soon to be digested.

Barber stopped suddenly, and they all piled up behind him, somehow just managing to avoid toppling each other. Barber silently indicated the right-hand wall, and they crowded round to examine it. There was a ragged break in the thick matting of dirty grey cobwebs, revealing a plain wooden door, standing slightly ajar. The wood was scarred and gouged as though by claws, and splashed with dried blood. The heavy iron lock had been smashed, and was half hanging away from the door. Winter gestured for them all to move back, and they did so.

“It seems my first guess was wrong,” said Storm quietly. “This is Hell Wing, after all, merely hidden and disguised by this… transformation. The lock quite clearly bears the prison’s official mark. Presumably the door leads to what was originally one of the cells.”

“Any idea what’s in there?” asked Winter softly.

“Something magical, but that’s all I can tell. Might be alive, might not. Again, there’s so much stray magic floating around, my Sight can’t see through it.”

“Then why not just open the door and take a look?” said Hawk bluntly. “I’ve had it up to here with sneaking around, and I’m just in the mood to hit something. All we have to do is kick the door in, and then fill the gap so that whatever’s in there can’t escape.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Fisher. “Who gets to kick the door in?”

“I do,” said Barber. “I’m still the point man.”

He looked at Winter, and she nodded. Barber moved silently back to the door and the others formed up behind him, weapons at the ready. Barber took a firm grip on his sword, lifted his left boot, and slammed it hard against the door. The heavy door swung inward on groaning hinges, revealing half of the small, gloomy cell. Barber hit the door again and it swung all the way open. Everybody tensed, ready for any sudden sound or movement, but nothing happened. The cell wasn’t much bigger than a privy, and it smelted much the same. The only illumination was the silver glow falling in from the corridor outside, but it was more than enough to show that the cell was completely empty. There was no bed or other furnishings—only some filthy straw on the floor.

Some of the tension went out of Hawk, and he lowered his axe. “Looks like you got it wrong this time, Storm; no one’s home. Whoever or whatever used to be locked up in here is long gone now.”

“With a trusting nature like yours, Captain, I’m astonished you’ve lasted as long as you have,” the sorcerer said acidly. “The cell’s occupant is quite likely still here, held by its geas, even though the lock has been broken. You just can’t see it, that’s all.”

Anyone else would have blushed. As it was, Hawk spent a moment looking down at his boots before nodding briefly to the sorcerer and then staring into the cell with renewed interest. “Right. I’d forgotten about Who Knows, the invisible creature. You’re sure the geas is still controlling it?”

“Of course!” snapped Storm. “If it wasn’t, the creature would have attacked us by now.”

“Not necessarily,” said Winter slowly. “It might just be waiting for us to lower our guard. Which presents us with something of a problem. If it isn’t still held by its geas, we can’t afford to just turn our backs and walk away. It might come after us. The reports I saw described it as immensely strong and entirely malevolent.”

“Which means,” said Barber, “someone’s going to have to go into that cell and check the thing’s actually there.”

“Good idea,” said Fisher. “Hawk, just pop in and check it out, would you?”

Hawk looked at her. “You pop in and check it out. Do I look crazy?”

“Good point.”

“I’ll do it,” said Barber.

“No you won’t,” said Winter quickly. “No one’s going into that cell. I can’t afford to lose any of you. Barber, hand me an incendiary.”

Barber smiled briefly, and reached into a leather pouch at his belt. He brought out a small smooth stone that glowed a dull, sullen red in the gloom, like a coal that had been left too long in the fire, and handed it carefully to Winter. She hefted it briefly, and then tossed it casually from hand to hand while staring into the apparently empty cell. Barber winced. Winter turned to Hawk and Fisher, and gestured with the glowing stone.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen one of these before. It’s something new the Guard sorcerers came up with. We’re field-testing them. Each incendiary is a moment taken out of time from an exploding volcano; an instant of appalling heat and violence fixed in time like an insect trapped in amber. All I have to do is say the right Word, throw the damn thing as far as I can, and a few seconds later the spell collapses, releasing all that heat and violence. Which is pretty unfortunate for anything that happens to be in the vicinity at the time. If Who Knows is in that cell, it’s about to get a very nasty surprise. Stand ready, people. As soon as I throw this thing, I want that door slammed shut fast and everyone out of the way of the blast.”

“What kind of range does it cover?” said Hawk.

“That’s one of the things we’re testing.”

“I had a suspicion you were going to say something like that.”

Winter lifted the stone to her mouth, whispered something, and then tossed the incendiary into the cell. She stepped quickly back and to one side. Hawk and Barber slammed the cell door shut and put their backs to the wall on either side of it. A moment later, the door was blown clean off its hinges by a blast of superheated air and hurled into the corridor. Hawk put up an arm to protect his face from the sudden, intense heat, and a glaring crimson light filled the corridor. The wooden door frame burst into flames, and the cobwebs on the corridor wall opposite scorched and blackened in an instant. In the heart of the leaping flames that filled the cell something dark and shapeless thrashed and screamed and was finally still. The temperature in the corridor grew intolerably hot, and Hawk backed away down the corridor, mopping at the sweat that ran down his face. The others moved with him, and he was about to suggest they all run like hell for the gateway, when the flames suddenly died away. The crimson glare disappeared, and the temperature dropped as quickly as it had risen. There was a vile smell on the smoky air, but the only sound was the quiet crackling of the flames as they consumed the door frame. Hawk moved slowly forward and peered cautiously into the cell. The walls were blackened with soot, and smoke hung heavily on the still air, but there was no sign of the cell’s occupant, dead or alive.

“Think we got it?” asked Fisher, just behind him.

Hawk shrugged. “Who knows? But we’d better hope so. If the incendiary didn’t kill it, I’d hate to think of the mood it must be in.”

“It’s dead,” said Storm shortly. “I felt it die.”

“Handy things, those incendiaries,” said Hawk casually as he and Fisher turned back to face the others. “How long do you think it’ll be before they’re released to the rest of the Guard?”

“Hopefully never, in your case,” said Storm. “Given your reputation for death and destruction.”

“You don’t want to believe everything you hear,” said Hawk.

“Just the bad bits,” said Fisher.

Hawk looked at her reproachfully. Winter coughed behind a raised hand. “Let’s move it, people. We’ve got a lot more ground to cover yet. Barber, take the point again. Everyone else as before. Let’s go.”

They moved on down the corridor, and the sourceless silver glow moved with them. Hawk glanced back over his shoulder, expecting to see the burning door frame glowing in the gloom, but there was only the darkness, deep and impenetrable. Hawk turned away, and didn’t look back again. The corridor seemed to go on forever, and without any way of judging how far they’d come, Hawk began to lose his sense of time. It seemed like they’d been walking for hours, but still the corridor stretched away before them, the only sound the quiet slapping of their boots on the stone floor. The dense growth of filthy matted cobwebs on the walls and ceiling grew steadily thicker, making the corridor seem increasingly narrow. Storm had to bend forward to avoid brushing the cobwebs with his head. All of them were careful to avoid touching the stuff. It looked diseased.

They finally came to another cell, with the door standing slightly open, as before. Storm stared at it for a long time, but was finally forced to admit he couldn’t See anything anymore. Magic was running loose in Hell Wing, and he had become as blind as the rest of them. In the end, Barber kicked the door in, and he and Hawk charged in with weapons at the ready. The cell looked much like the last one, save for a canvas on an easel standing in the middle of the room, facing the back wall. Averting their eyes from the painting, Hawk and Barber checked the cell thoroughly, but there was nothing else there. Winter directed the others to stay out in the corridor and told Hawk to inspect the canvas. If it was what they thought it was, his single eye should help protect him from the painting’s curse. Barber stood by, carefully watching Hawk rather than the painting, so that if anything went wrong he could pull Hawk away before the curse could affect him. That was the theory, anyway.

Hawk glanced out the cell door, and nodded reassuringly to Fisher. She wasn’t fooled, but gave him a smile anyway. Hawk stepped in front of the easel, and looked for the first time at Messerschmann’s Portrait. The scene was a bleak and open plain, arid and fractured, with no trace of life anywhere, save for the single figure of a man in the foreground. The man stared wildly out of the Portrait, so close it seemed Hawk could almost reach out and touch him. He was wearing a torn and ragged prison uniform, and his face was twisted with terror and madness.

“Damn,” said Hawk, hardly aware he’d spoken aloud. “It’s got out.”

The background scene had been painted with staggering realism. Hawk could almost feel the oppressive heat wafting out of the painting at him. The figure in the foreground was so alive he seemed almost to be moving, drawing closer…. Suddenly Hawk was falling, and he put out his hands instinctively to break his fall. His palms slapped hard against the cold stone floor of the cell, and he was suddenly shocked into awareness again. His gaze fell on the Portrait, and he scrabbled backwards across the floor away from it, his gaze averted, until his back was pressed against the far cell wall.

“Take it easy,” said Fisher, kneeling down beside him. “Barber spotted something was wrong, and pulled you away from the Portrait when you wouldn’t answer him. You feeling all right now?”

“Sure,” said Hawk quickly. “Fine. Help me up, would you?”

Fisher and Barber got him on his feet again, and he smiled his thanks and waved them away. He was careful not even to glance in the Portrait’s direction as he left the cell to make his report to Winter.

“Whatever was in the Portrait originally has got out and is running loose somewhere in Hell Wing. One of the rioters has taken its place. Is there any way we can get him out?”

“Only by replacing him with someone else,” said Storm. “That’s the way the curse works.”

“Then there’s nothing more we can do here,” said Winter. “If you’ve fully recovered, Captain, I think we should move on.”

Hawk nodded quickly, and the SWAT team set off down the corridor again.

“At least we’ve got one less rioter to worry about,” said Hawk after a while. The others looked at him. “Just trying to look on the bright side,” he explained.

“Nice try,” said Winter. “Hang on to that cheerfulness. You’re going to need it. From what I’ve heard, we’d be better off facing a dozen rioters with the plague than the Portrait’s original occupant. It might have been human once, but its time in the Portrait changed it. Now it’s a nightmare in flesh and blood, every evil thought you ever had given shape and form, and it’s running loose in Hell Wing with us. So, along with all our other problems, we’re going to have to track it down and kill it before we leave. Assuming it can be killed.”

“Are you always this optimistic?” asked Fisher.

Winter snorted. “If there was any room for optimism, they wouldn’t have called us in.”

“Something’s coming,” said Storm suddenly. “I can’t see it, but I can feel it. Something powerful…”

Winter barked orders, and the SWAT team fell quickly into a defensive formation, with Barber, Hawk, and Fisher at the point, weapons at the ready. Hawk glanced thoughtfully at Barber. Now that there was finally a chance at some action, the weaponmaster had come fully alive. His dark eyes were fixed eagerly on the gloom ahead, and his grin was disturbingly wolfish. A sudden conviction rooted itself in Hawk that Barber would look just the same if the order ever came down for the weaponmaster to go after him or Fisher. Barber didn’t give a damn for the law or for justice. He was just a man born to kill, a butcher waiting to be unleashed, and to him one target was as good as any other. There was no room in a man like Barber for conscience or ethics.

A sudden sound caught Hawk’s attention, and his thoughts snapped back to the situation at hand. Something was coming towards them out of the darkness. Hawk’s grip tightened on his axe. Footsteps sounded distinctly in the gloom, drawing steadily closer. There were two separate sets of footsteps, and Hawk smiled and relaxed a little. It was only a couple of rioters. But the more he listened, the more it seemed to him there was something wrong with the footsteps. They were too slow, too steady, and they seemed to echo unnaturally long on the quiet. The air was tense, and Hawk could feel his hackles rising. There was something bad hidden in the darkness, something he didn’t want to see. A slight breeze blew out of the gloom towards him. It smelt of dust and sulphur.

“They’re coming,” said Storm softly. “The chaos bringers, the lords of entropy. The dust and ruins of reality. The Brimstone Boys.”

Hawk glared at the sorcerer, and then back at the darkness. Storm had sounded shaken, almost unnerved. If just the approach of the Brimstone Boys was enough to rattle a hardened SWAT man, Hawk had a strong feeling he didn’t want to face them with nothing but his axe. He fell back a step and glanced across at Winter.

“Might I suggest this would be a good time to try out another of those incendiary things?”

Winter nodded sharply and gestured to Barber. He took another of the glowing stones from his pouch, whispered the activating Word, and threw the stone into the darkness. They all tensed, waiting for the explosion, but nothing happened. Storm laughed brusquely, a bleak, unpleasant sound.

“That won’t stop them. They control reality, run rings round the warp and weft of space itself. Cause and effect run backwards where they look. They’re the Brimstone Boys; they undo natural laws, turn certainties into whims and maybes.”

“Then do something!” snapped Winter. “Use your magic. You’re supposed to be a top-level sorcerer, dammit! You didn’t sound this worried when you first told us about them.”

“I didn’t know,” whispered Storm, staring unseeingly at the gloom. “I couldn’t know. They’re too big. Too powerful. There’s nothing we can do.”

Winter grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him back out of the way. “His nerve’s gone,” she said shortly to the others. “The Brimstone Boys must have got to him somehow. I’m not taking any chances with these bastards. The minute you see them, kill them.”

“We’re supposed to take these creatures alive, remember?” said Barber mildly.

“To hell with that,” Winter snapped. “Anything that can take out an experienced sorcerer like Storm so easily is too dangerous to mess about with.”

Hawk nodded, and he and Fisher moved forward to stand on either side of Barber. The weaponmaster was quivering slightly, like a hound straining at the leash, or a horse readying for a charge, but his sword hand was perfectly steady. Hawk glared into the darkness, and then looked down suddenly. The corridor floor seemed to be shifting subtly under his feet, stretching and contracting. His boots were sinking into the solid stone floor as though it had turned to mud. He looked across at Barber and Fisher to see if they’d noticed it too, and was shocked to discover that they were now yards away, as though the corridor had somehow expanded vastly while he wasn’t looking. He jerked his boots free from the sticky stone, and backed away. The ceiling was impossibly far above him, and the wall was running with boiling water that steamed and spat at him. Birds were singing, harsh and raucous, and somewhere children screamed in agony. The light changed to golden summer sunlight, suffusing the air like bitter honey. Hawk smelled dust and sulphur, so strong he could hardly breathe. And out of the darkness, stepping slow and somber, came the Brimstone Boys.

They might have been human once, but now they were impossibly, obscenely old. Their bodies were twisted and withered, turned in upon themselves by time, and there were gaping holes in their anatomy where skin and bone had rotted away to dust and nothingness. Their wrinkled skin was grey and colorless, and tore when movement stretched it. Their faces were the worst. Their lips were gone, and their impossibly wide smiles were crammed with huge blocky teeth like bony chisels. Blood ran constantly from their dirty yellow eyes and dropped from their awful smiles, spattering their ancient tattered skin.

Barber shouted something incoherent, and launched himself at the nearest figure. His sword flew in a deadly pattern, but the blade didn’t even come close to touching the creature. Barber strained and struggled, but it was as though he and the ancient figures, only a few feet apart, lived in separate worlds, where they could see each other but not touch. Fisher drew a knife from her boot and threw it at the other figure. The knife tumbled end over end, shrinking slowly as though crossing some impossible distance but still not reaching its target. The withered creature looked at Fisher with its bleeding eyes, and she cried out as she began to sink into the floor. Despite all her struggles to resist, the flagstones sucked her down into themselves like a treacherous marsh. She struck at the floor with her sword, and sparks flew as the steel blade hit solid stone.

Hawk ran towards her, but she seemed to recede into the distance as he ran. He pushed himself harder, but the faster he ran, the further away she seemed to be. Somewhere between the two of them, Barber sobbed with helpless rage as he struggled futilely to touch the Brimstone Boys with his sword. Hawk could vaguely hear Winter shouting something, but all he could think of was Fisher. The stone floor was lapping up around her shoulders. The light was growing dimmer. Sounds echoed strangely. And then something gold and shining flew slowly past him, gleaming richly in the fading light, and landed on the floor between the Brimstone Boys. They looked down at it, and despite himself, Hawk’s gaze was drawn to it too. It was a pocket watch.

He could hear it ticking in the endless quiet. Ticktocking away the seconds, turning past into present into future. The Brimstone Boys raised their awful heads, their grinning mouths stretched wide in soundless screams. Dust fell endlessly through golden light. The floor grew solid again, spitting out Fisher, and the walls rushed in on either side. The ceiling fell back to its previous height. And the Brimstone Boys crumbled into dust and blew away.

Hawk looked around him, and the corridor was just as it had always been. The silver light pushed back the darkness, and the floor was solid and reliable under his feet. Fisher picked up the throwing knife from the floor before her, looked at it for a moment, and then slipped it back into her boot. Barber put away his sword and shook his head slowly, breathing heavily. Hawk turned and looked back at Winter and the sorcerer Storm, who seemed to have completely recovered from his daze. In fact, he was actually smiling quite smugly.

“All right,” said Hawk. “What happened?”

Storm’s smile widened. “It’s all very simple and straightforward, really,” he said airily. “The Brimstone Boys distorted reality wherever they went, but they weren’t very stable. They could play all kinds of tricks with space and probabilities and the laws of reality, but they were still vulnerable to time. The ordered sequence of events was anathema to their existence. It was already eroding away at them; that’s why they looked so ancient. I just speeded the process up a bit, with an augmented timepiece whose reality was a little bit stronger than theirs.”

“What was all that nonsense you were spouting before?” demanded Fisher. “I thought you’d gone off your head.”

“That was the idea,” said Storm smugly. “They didn’t see me as a threat, so they ignored me. Which gave me time to work my magic on the watch. I could have been an actor, you know.”

He stretched out his hand, and the watch flew through the air to nestle snugly in his hand. Storm checked the time, and put the watch back into his pocket.

“Heads up,” said Barber suddenly. “We’ve got company again.”

“Now what?” demanded Hawk, spinning round to face the darkness, and then freezing on the spot as he saw what was watching them from the edge of the silver glow. A human shape, formed of bloody organs and viscera, but no skin, stood trembling on legs of muscle and tendons but no bones. Its naked eyes stared wetly from a flat crimson mess that might once have been its face. It breathed noisily, and they could see its lungs rising and falling in what had once been its chest.

“Johnny Nobody,” said Hawk. “Poor bastard. Are we going to have to kill him too?”

“Hopefully not,” said Winter. “We’re going to be in enough trouble over Who Knows and the Brimstone Boys. With a little luck, we might be able to herd this thing back into its cell. It’s supposed to be strong and quick, but not very bright.”

And then something pounced on Johnny Nobody from behind and smashed it to the floor. Blood spurted through the air as its attacker tore it apart and stuffed the gory chunks into its mouth. The newcomer looked up at the SWAT team, its mouth stretched in a bloody grin as it ate and swallowed chunks of Johnny Nobody’s unnatural flesh. What upset Hawk the most was how ordinary the creature looked. It was a man, dressed in tatters, with wide, staring eyes you only had to meet for a moment to know their owner was utterly insane. Just looking at him made Hawk’s skin crawl. What was left of Johnny Nobody kicked and struggled, unable to die despite its awful wounds, but incapable of breaking its attacker’s hold. The crazy man squatted over the body, ripping out strings of viscera and giggling to himself in between bloody mouthfuls.

“Who the hell is that?” asked Fisher softly. “One of the rioters?”

“I don’t think so,” said Winter. “I think we’re looking at the original occupant of Messerschmann’s Portrait.”

“I thought he was supposed to be some kind of monster,” said Hawk.

“Well, isn’t he?” said Winter, and Hawk had no answer. The SWAT leader looked at Barber. “Knock him out, Barber. Maybe our sorcerers can do something to bring his mind back.”

Barber shrugged. “I’ll do what I can, but bringing them in alive isn’t what I do best.”

He advanced slowly on the madman, who looked up sharply and growled at him like an animal. Barber stopped where he was and sheathed his sword. Moving slowly and carefully, he reached inside one of his pockets and brought out a small steel ball, no more than an inch or so in diameter. He hefted it once in his hand, glanced at the madman, and then snapped his arm forward. The steel ball sped through the air and struck the madman right between the eyes. He fell backwards and lay still, without making a sound. Barber walked over to him, checked his pulse, and then bent down beside him to retrieve his steel ball. Johnny Nobody twitched and shuddered, leaking blood and other fluids, and Barber’s lips thinned back from his teeth as he saw the raw wounds slowly knitting themselves together. He moved quickly back to the others, dragging the unconscious madman with him.

“About time we had a little luck,” said Winter. “Johnny Nobody’s in no shape to give us any trouble, and we’ve got ourselves a nice little bonus in the form of our unconscious friend here. At least now we’ll have something to show for our trouble.”

“Winter,” said Fisher slowly, “I think we’ve got another problem.”

There was something in the way she said it that made everyone’s head snap round to see what she was talking about. Thick tendrils of the dirty grey cobwebs had dropped from the ceiling and were wriggling towards Johnny Nobody. The bloody shape struggled feebly, but the grey strands whipped around it and dragged the body slowly away along the floor into the darkness, leaving a trail of blood and other things on the stone floor. Hawk looked at the thick mass of cobwebs covering the walls and ceiling, and made a connection he should have made some time back. He looked at Winter.

“It’s Crawling Jenny, isn’t it? All of it.”

“Took you long enough to work it out,” said Winter. “The rioters must have opened its cell and let it out. Which is probably why we haven’t seen any of them since. According to the reports I saw, Crawling Jenny is carnivorous, and always ravenously hungry.”

“Are you saying this stuff ate all the rioters?” said Fisher, glaring distrustfully at the nearest wall.

“It seems likely. Where else could it have got enough mass to grow like this? I hate to think how big the creature must be in total.”

“Why didn’t you tell us what this stuff was before?” said Hawk. “We’ve been walking through it all unknowing, totally at its mercy. It could have attacked us at any time.”

“No it couldn’t,” said Storm. “I’ve been shielding us. It doesn’t even know we’re here.”

“There wasn’t any point in attacking its outer reaches,” said Winter. “It’d just grow some more. No, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. Since Johnny Nobody is undoubtedly heading for the creature’s stomach, all we have to do is follow it. I’m not sure if Crawling Jenny has any vulnerable organs, but if it has, that’s where they’ll be.”

She set off down the corridor without looking back, hurrying to catch up with the dragging sounds ahead. The others exchanged glances and moved quickly after her. Barber carried the unconscious madman over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift. It didn’t seem to slow him down any. Hawk glared suspiciously at the thick mass of cobwebs lining the corridor, but it seemed quiet enough at the moment. Which was just as well, because Hawk had a strong feeling his axe wasn’t going to be much use against a bunch of cobwebs.

They soon caught up with the tendrils dragging the body, and followed at a respectful distance. Storm’s magic kept them unseen and unheard as far as Crawling Jenny was concerned, but no one felt like pushing their luck. Hawk in particular was careful to keep to the center of the corridor, well away from both walls. He found it only too easy to visualize hundreds of tentacles suddenly lashing out from the walls and ceiling, wrapping up victims in helpless bundles and dragging them off to the waiting stomach.

Eventually, the tendrils dragged the body into a dark opening in the wall. Winter gestured quickly for everyone to stay where they were. Barber lowered the unconscious madman to the floor, and stretched easily. He wasn’t even breathing hard. Winter moved slowly forward to peer into the opening, and the others moved quietly in behind her, careful not to crowd each other so that they could still retreat in a hurry if they had to. The silver light from the corridor shone brightly behind them, and Hawk’s lip curled in disgust at the sight ahead. The narrow stone cell was filled with a soft, pulsating mass of mold and fungi studded with lidless, staring eyes that burned with a horrid awareness. Sheets of gauzy cobwebs anchored the mass to the walls and ceiling, and frayed away in questing tendrils. As the team watched, two of the tendrils dropped Johnny Nobody’s writhing body onto the central mass, and a dozen snapping mouths opened, crammed with grinding yellow teeth. They tore the body apart and consumed it in a matter of seconds.

“Damn,” said Winter. “We’ve lost another one.”

“So much for Johnny Nobody,” said Barber quietly. “Poor Johnny, we hardly knew you.”

“I don’t know about you,” said Hawk quietly to Winter, “but it seems to me that swords and axes aren’t going to be much use against something like that. You could hack at it for hours and still not know if you’d hit anything vital.”

“Agreed,” said Winter. “Luckily, we should still have one incendiary left.” She looked at Barber, who nodded quickly, and produced another of the glowing stones from his pouch. Winter nodded, and looked back at the slowly pulsating mass before her. “When you’re ready, Barber, throw the incendiary into one of those mouths. As soon as the damned thing’s swallowed it, everyone turn and run like a fury. I’m not sure what effect an incendiary will have on a creature like that, but I don’t think we should hang around to find out. And Barber—don’t miss. Or you’re fired.”

He grinned, murmured the activating Word, and tossed the glowing stone into one of the snapping mouths. It went in easily, and Crawling Jenny swallowed the incendiary reflexively. The SWAT team turned as one and bolted back down the corridor. Barber pausing just long enough to sling the unconscious madman over his shoulder again. A muffled explosion went off behind them, like a roll of faraway thunder, quickly drowned out by a deafening keening that filled the narrow corridor as the creature screamed with all its many mouths. A blast of intense heat caught up with the running figures and passed them by. Hawk flinched instinctively, but Storm’s magic protected them.

Rivulets of flame ran along the walls and ceiling, hungrily consuming the thick cobwebs. Burning tendrils thrust out of the furry mass and lashed blindly at the running SWAT team. Hawk and Fisher cut fiercely at the tendrils, slicing through them easily. Burning lengths of cobwebs fell to the corridor floor, writhing and twisting as the flames consumed them. Charred and darkened masses of cobwebs fell limply from the wall and ceiling as a thick choking smoke filled the corridor. Storm suddenly stumbled to a halt, and the others piled up around him.

“What is it?” yelled Hawk, struggling to be heard over the screaming creature and the roaring of the flames.

“The exit’s just ahead,” yelled Storm, “but something’s got there before us.”

“What do you mean, ‘something’?” Hawk hefted his axe and peered through the thickening smoke but couldn’t see anything. The flames pressed closer.

Storm’s hands clenched into fists. Stray magic sputtered on the air before him. “Them. They’ve found us. The Pale Men.”

They came out of the darkness and into the light, shifting forms that hovered on the edge of meaning and recognition. Smoke drifted around and through them, like ghostly ectoplasm. Hawk slowly lowered his axe as it grew too heavy for him. His vision grayed in and out, and the roar and heat of the fire seemed far away and unimportant. The world rolled back upon itself, back into yesterday and beyond.

Memories surged through him, of all the people he’d been, some so strange to him now he hardly recognized them. Some smiled sadly at what he’d become, while others pointed accusing fingers or turned their heads away. His mind began to drift apart, fragmenting into forgotten dreams and hopes and might-have-beens. He screamed soundlessly, a long, wordless howl of denial, and his thoughts slowly began to clear. He was who he was because of all the people he’d been, and even if he didn’t always like that person very much, he knew he couldn’t go back. He’d paid too high a price for the lessons he’d learned to turn his back on them now. He concentrated on his memories, hugging them to him jealously, and the ghosts of his past faded away and were gone. He was Hawk, and no one was going to take that away from him. Not even himself.

The world lurched and he was back in the narrow stone corridor again, choking on the thick smoke and flinching away from the roaring flames as they closed in around him. The rest of the team were standing still as statues, eyes vague and far away. Some of them were already beginning to look frayed and uncertain, their features growing indistinct as the Pale Men leeched the pasts out of them. Hawk glared briefly at the shifting figures shining brightly through the smoke and grabbed Storm’s shoulder. For a moment his fingers seemed to sink into the sorcerer’s flesh, and then it suddenly hardened and became solid, as though Hawk’s touch had reaffirmed its reality. Shape and meaning flooded back into Storm’s face, and he shook his head sharply, as though waking from a nagging dream. He looked at Hawk, and then at the Pale Men, and his face darkened.

“Get out of the way, you bastards!”

He thrust one outstretched hand at the drifting figures, and a blast of raw magic exploded in the corridor. It beat on the air like a captured wild bird, and the Pale Men were suddenly gone, as though they’d never been there at all. Hawk looked questioningly at Storm.

“Is that it? Wave your hand and they disappear?”

“Of course,” said Storm. “They’re only as real as you allow them to be. Now help me get the others out of here.”

Hawk nodded quickly, and started pushing the others down the corridor. Their faces were already clearing as they shook off their yesterdays. Smoke filled the corridor, and a wave of roaring flame came rushing towards them. Storm howled a Word of Power, and gestured sharply with his hand, and a solid steel door was suddenly floating on the air before them. It swung open, and the SWAT team plunged through. They fell into the corridor beyond, and the door slammed shut behind him.

For a while, they all lay where they were on the cool stone floor, coughing the smoke out of their lungs and gasping at the blessedly fresh air. Eventually, they sat up and looked around them, sharing shaken but triumphant smiles. Hawk knew he was grinning like a fool, and didn’t give a damn. There was nothing like almost dying to make you feel glad to be alive.

“Excuse me,” said a polite, unfamiliar voice, “but can anyone tell me what I’m doing here?”

They all looked round sharply, and found that the madman Barber had brought out with them was now sitting up and looking at them, his eyes clear and sane and more than a little puzzled. Storm chuckled suddenly.

“Well, it would appear the Pale Men did some good, in spite of themselves. By calling back his memories, they made him sane again.”

The ex-madman looked around him. “I have a strong feeling I’m going to regret asking this, but by any chance are we in prison?”

Hawk chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s only temporary. Who are you?”

“Wulf Saxon. I think.”

Winter rose painfully to her feet and nodded to MacReady, who had been standing patiently to one side, waiting for them to notice him. As far as Hawk could tell, the negotiator hadn’t moved an inch from where they’d left him.

“Mission over,” said Winter, just a little breathlessly. “Any trouble on your end, Mac?”

“Not really.”

He glanced back down the corridor. Hawk followed his gaze and for the first time took in the seven dead men, dressed in prisoner’s uniforms, lying crumpled on the corridor floor. Hawk gave the unarmed negotiator a hard look, and he smiled back enigmatically.

“Like I said: I have a charmed life.”

I’m not going to ask, thought Hawk firmly. “Well,” he said, in the tone of someone determined to change the subject. “Another successful mission accomplished.”

Winter looked at him. “You have got to be joking. All the creatures we were supposed to capture are dead, and Hell Wing is a blazing inferno! It’ll cost a fortune to rebuild. How the hell can it be a success?”

Fisher grinned. “We’re alive, aren’t we?”

Back in the Governor’s office, the SWAT team stood more or less at attention, and waited patiently for the Governor to calm down. The riots had finally been crushed, and peace restored to Damnation Row, but only after a number of fatalities among both inmates and prison staff. The damage to parts of the prison was extensive, but that wasn’t too important; it would just give the inmates something to do to keep them out of mischief. Nothing like a good building project to keep prisoners busy. Not to mention too exhausted to think about rioting again.

Even so, it probably hadn’t been the best time to inform the Governor that all his potentially valuable Hell Wing inmates were unfortunately deceased, and the Wing itself was a burnt-out ruin.

The Governor finally stopped shouting, partly because he was beginning to lose his voice, and threw himself into the chair behind his desk. He glared impartially at the SWAT team, and drummed his fingers on his desk. Hawk cleared his throat cautiously, and the Governor’s glare fell on him like a hungry predator just waiting for its prey to provide an opening.

“Yes, Captain Hawk? You have something to say, perhaps? Something that will excuse your pitiable performance on this mission, and give some indication as to why I shouldn’t lock you all up in the dirtiest, foulest dungeon I can find and then throw the key down the nearest sewer?”

“Well,” said Hawk, “things could have turned out worse.” The Governor’s face went an interesting shade of puce, but Hawk pressed on anyway. “Our main objective, according to your orders, was to prevent the inmates of Hell Wing from escaping and wreaking havoc in the city. I think we can safely assume the city is no longer in any danger from those inmates. Hell Wing itself is somewhat scorched and blackened, I’ll admit, but solid stone walls are pretty fire-resistant, as a rule. A lot of scrubbing and a lick of paint, and the place’ll be as good as new. And on top of all that, we managed to rescue Wulf Saxon from Messerschmann’s Portrait, and restore his sanity. I don’t think we did too badly, all things considered.”

He waited with interest to see what the Governor’s response would be. The odds favored a coronary, but he wouldn’t rule out a stroke. The Governor took several deep breaths to calm himself down, and fixed Hawk with a withering stare.

“Wulf Saxon has disappeared. But we were able to learn a few things of interest about him, by consulting our prison records. In his time, some twenty-three years ago, Saxon was a well-known figure in this city. He was a thief, a forger, and a confidence trickster. He was also an ex-Guard, ex-city Councillor, and the founder of three separate religions, two of which are still doing very well for themselves on the Street of Gods. He’s a confirmed troublemaker, a revolutionary, and a major pain in the arse, and you’ve let him loose in the city again!”

Hawk smiled, and shook his head. “We had him captured. Your people let him loose.”

“He’s still an extremely dangerous individual that this city was well rid of, until you became involved!”

Fisher leaned forward suddenly. “If he’s that dangerous, does that mean there’s a reward for his capture?”

“Good point, Isobel,” said Hawk, and they both looked expectantly at the Governor.

The Governor decided to ignore both Hawk and Fisher, for the sake of his blood pressure, and turned to Winter. “Regretfully, I have no choice but to commend you and your SWAT team for your actions. Officially, at least. The city Council has chosen to disregard my objections, and has ordered me to congratulate you on your handling of the situation.” He scowled at Winter. “Well done.”

“Thank you,” said Winter graciously. “We were just doing our job. Have you discovered any more about the forces behind the riot?”

The Governor sniffed, and shuffled through the papers on his desk. “Unlikely as it seems, the whole thing may have been engineered to cover a single prisoner’s escape. A man named Ritenour. He disappeared early on in the riot, and there’s a growing body of evidence that he received help in doing so from both inside and outside the prison.”

Winter frowned. “A riot this big, and this bloody, just to free one man? Who is this Ritenour? I’ve never heard of him.”

“No reason why you should have,” said the Governor, running his eyes quickly down the file before him. “Ritenour is a sorcerer shaman, specializing in animal magic, of all things. I wouldn’t have thought there was much work for him in a city like Haven, unless he likes working with rats, but he’s been here three years to our certain knowledge. He’s worked with a few big names in his time, but he’s never amounted to anything himself. He was in here awaiting trial for nonpayment of taxes, which is why he wasn’t guarded as closely as he might have been.”

“If he worked for big names in the past,” said Hawk slowly, “maybe one of them arranged for him to be sprung, on the grounds he knew something important, something they couldn’t risk coming out at his trial. Prisoners tend to become very talkative when faced with the possibility of a long sentence in Damnation Row.”

“My people are busy checking that connection at this moment, Captain,” said the Governor sharply. “They know their job. Now then, I have one last piece of business with you all, and then with any luck I can get you out of my life forever. It seems the security forces protecting the two Kings and the signing of the Peace Treaty have decided there might just be some connection between Ritenour’s escape and a plot against the two Kings. I can’t see it as very likely myself, but, as usual, no one’s interested in my opinions. The SWAT team, including Captains Hawk and Fisher, are to report to the head of the security forces at Champion House, to discuss the situation. That’s it. Now get out of my office, and let me get back to clearing up the mess you people have made of my prison.”

Everyone bowed formally, except for the Governor, who ostentatiously busied himself with the files before him. Hawk and Fisher looked at each other, nodded firmly, and advanced on the Governor. They each took one end of his desk, lifted it up, and overturned it. Papers fluttered on the air like startled butterflies. The Governor started to rise spluttering from his chair, and then dropped quickly back into it as Hawk and Fisher leaned over him, their eyes cold and menacing.

“Don’t shout at us,” said Hawk. “We’ve had a hard day.”

“Right,” said Fisher.

The Governor looked at them both. At that moment, all the awful stories he’d heard about Hawk and Fisher seemed a lot more believable.

“If you’ve quite finished intimidating a superior officer, can we get out of here?” said Winter. “Those security types don’t like to be kept waiting. Besides, if we’re lucky, we might get to meet the Kings themselves.”

“That’ll make a change,” said Hawk as he and Fisher headed unhurriedly for the door.

“Yeah,” said Fisher. “If we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll get to intimidate them too.”

“I wish I thought you were joking,” said Winter.