CHAPTER ONE

THE TAKING OF MISTWORLD

Every Empire needs a dumping ground. Somewhere out of sight in the back of beyond where it can dump malcontents and troublemakers. The Empress Lionstone XIV had Mistworld, a cold inhospitable rock well off the beaten track, populated almost entirely by traitors, criminals, rogues whose luck had run out, and runaway espers. Lionstone tolerated Mistworld’s presence in her harshly run Empire on the grounds that at least that way she knew where the bad apples were.

She would have preferred to kill them all, but she had advisors wise enough to know that exiles were, on the whole, far less troublesome than martyrs. But over the years Mistworld had become a haven for all kinds of rebels and outlaws, and suddenly what had been a useful dumping ground was now a defiant, poisoned thorn in the Empire’s side. Lionstone gave orders for its purging, by fire if need by, only to discover that the planet was now protected by a psionic screen of combined esper minds more than strong enough to withstand anything her Imperial Fleet could throw at it. And so, despite Lionstone’s many vicious plots and schemes, Mistworld remained the only surviving rebel planet in the Empire, safe from Lionstone’s wrath.

Or so they thought.

* * * *

The Sunstrider II dropped out of hyperspace and fell into orbit around Mistworld. The long slender yacht glistened with sensor spikes, but there were no Empire starcruisers anywhere in the vicinity. The Empire had learned to keep its distance. There was only the single golden vessel, hanging silently above a cold, featureless sphere. In the main lounge of the Sunstrider II, Owen Deathstalker sat at ease in a very comfortable chair and counted his blessings. Not least of which was that for the moment, at least, no one was shooting at him. Owen had learned to appreciate the quiet moments in his life, if only because there were so few of them.

He’d lost the original Sunstrider in a crash landing on the jungle planet of Shandrakor, but the Hadenmen had rebuilt the ship according to Owen’s instructions, around the original stardrive salvaged from the wreckage of the first ship. It was a very special drive, one of the prototypes for the new stardrive the Empire was currently attempting to mass-produce, and for the moment, at least, a great deal faster than anything the Empire had to offer.

Theoretically.

The yacht itself looked pretty much the way Owen remembered, and contained all the original fittings and luxuries, but the Hadenmen hadn’t been able to resist improving things as they went along. And sometimes their ideas of improvements only went to show how far the augmented men differed from Humanity. Owen could handle doors that appeared in solid walls as he approached, and lights that turned themselves on and off as necessary without having to be told, but he rather drew the line at controls that operated if he only thought about them. After a few near disasters brought about by his mind wandering at important moments, Owen had decided very firmly to leave the running of the craft to the ship’s computers.

The Hadenmen had also got many of the interior details wrong, in small, disquieting ways. Floors that sloped or bulged for no obvious reason, chairs that matched themselves to slightly the wrong shapes, and lights and colors that were subtly uncomfortable to merely human eyes. Owen held up his left hand and studied it thoughtfully. The golden metal of the artificial hand, the Hadenmen’s other gift to him, glowed warmly in the lounge’s light. He hadn’t liked the idea of having Hadenmen technology connected to him so intimately, but after he lost his own hand fighting the Grendel alien in the great caverns under the Wolfling World, he’d had no choice but to accept their gift with thanks. It was a good hand, strong and responsive and practically invulnerable, and if it felt subtly cold all the time and not altogether his, he could live with that. He flexed the golden fingers slowly, admiring their fluid grace. He trusted the hand because he had to; he wasn’t so sure about the ship. The Hadenmen might be his allies for the moment, but a people who had once been officially named the Enemies of Humanity, and with good reason, had to remain suspect for all their gifts. There was always the chance they still had their own, separate, agenda, hidden somewhere in the ship, the improvements, and possibly even his hand.

Owen sighed. Life hadn’t always been this complicated. He studied his reflection in the mirror on the wall behind him. A man in his mid-twenties stared broodingly back at him, tall and rangy with dark hair and darker eyes. A man who’d been hard used, and expected to be harder used in the future. It wasn’t that long ago he’d been a simple scholar, a minor historian of no importance to anyone but himself. Then Lionstone named him outlaw, and he’d had no choice but to become a rebel and a warrior. The Hadenmen named him Redeemer, and the rebel underground called him Humanity’s last hope. Owen didn’t believe a word of it.

A clinking of glass caught his attention, and he looked fondly over at Hazel d’Ark, who was sorting determinedly through the bottles in the drinks cabinet, searching for something vaguely drinkable. Owen knew how she felt. The Hadenmen had done their best with food synthesizers, but the various alcoholic beverages they’d come up with had proved universally vile. That hadn’t stopped Hazel from drinking them, but she persisted in trying to discover some combination that didn’t leave her with an overwhelming urge to spit copiously in all directions. Owen admired her patience, and wished her luck. Personally, he wouldn’t have touched any of the stuff if someone had held a gun to his head.

He studied Hazel, admiring her sharp, pointed face and mane of long, ratty, red hair. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but then Hazel wasn’t conventional about anything if she could help it. Before becoming a rebel, she’d been a pirate, a mercenary, and a clonelegger—and those were just the things she’d admit to. She was good with a sword but preferred a gun, and as many as possible. Since she and Owen had discovered the huge cache of projectile weapons in the Last Standing’s Armory, Hazel had made a point of loading herself down with as many guns and as much ammo as she could carry. Owen thought she found the weight comforting. Owen didn’t. Hazel tended to be a bit too arbitrary about safety catches for his liking.

He sighed quietly, tapping his fingers on the armrests of his chair as he waited for the Hadenmen computers running the ship to finish their security checks. Technically speaking, he was trusting his life to the smooth running of the AI the Hadenmen installed, which did absolutely nothing for his sense of security and well-being, but it wasn’t like he had a choice. Someone had to run the ship, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be him. Keeping on top of a starship’s many and various systems was hard, skilled work, and if he’d wanted to work, he wouldn’t have been born an aristocrat.

The original Sunstrider had been run by his personal Family AI Ozymandius, but Oz had turned out to be a traitor working for the Empire. It had used hidden control words to turn Owen against his friends, and he’d had no choice but to destroy it. Even though the AI had been his friend long before the others. He’d had to kill his mistress, too, when she tried to kill him, on the Empire’s orders. You couldn’t trust anyone these days. Maybe not even the woman you loved . . . Owen turned his gaze away from Hazel, and made himself concentrate on something else. At least the Hadenmen had got the toilets right this time. Their earlier attempts had been somewhat distressing. Apparently Hadenmen had no use for such things, which told Owen rather more about the Hadenmen than he really wanted to know.

Hazel wandered over, drink in hand. The liquid was a pale blue in color, and looked like it was trying to climb out of the glass. She sank into the chair opposite Owen with an inelegant grunt and settled herself comfortably. Hazel appreciated luxuries, big and small, mainly because there’d been so few of them in her life. She took a good mouthful of the drink, pulled a face, but swallowed the stuff anyway. Hazel never believed in letting a drink get the better of her. It was a matter of principle. Owen had had to hide a smile when she’d first explained that to him. He hadn’t been aware that Hazel had any principles. He’d had enough sense not to say that out loud, of course.

“What does that muck taste like this time?” he asked amiably.

“Trust me,” said Hazel. “You really don’t want to know. That I am drinking it at all is a sign of how incredibly bored I am. How much longer before we can land?”

“Not long now. Looking forward to being on your old stamping grounds again?”

“Not really, no. Mistport is dangerous, treacherous, and bloody cold, and that’s on its good days. I’ve known rabid rats with bleeding hemorrhoids that were friendlier than your average Mistworlder. I can’t believe I let the underground talk me into going back to this hellhole.”

Owen shrugged. “It had to be us. Someone had to represent the underground to the Mistport Council, and we know the lie of the land better than anyone else they had to hand. Cheer up; things won’t be so bad this time. Probably. We’re a hell of a lot stronger and sharper than the last time we were here.”

Hazel scowled. “Yeah. That’s something else I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. When that Blood Runner’s hologram threatened to take me apart in his laboratory, you reached across light-years of space and blew him to pieces, just by thinking about it. I didn’t know you had that kind of power. I don’t.”

“I didn’t think I had either, until I needed it. Our time in the Madness Maze changed us more than we knew. We’re different people now.”

“I don’t like the sound of that. Where do the changes end? Are we still human? Are we going to end up like the Hadenmen, so divorced from what we started out as that we might as well be aliens?”

Owen shrugged again. “Your guess is as good as mine. I think we’re as human as we want to be. Our humanity lies not in what we do, but why we do it. Besides, I’m not sure our abilities are all that stable. They seem to come and go. There used to be a link between us, a mental link among all of us who passed through the Maze, but that disappeared when we split up and went our separate ways. Now I can’t even feel you through the link. Can you still feel me, in your mind?”

“No,” said Hazel. “Not for some time now.”

“That might be my fault,” said Ozymandius in Owen’s ear. “Perhaps my presence is disrupting your accord.”

“Shut up, Oz,” Owen subvocalized. “You’re dead. I destroyed you.”

“You wish. No, I’m still with you, Owen, here to advise and guide you through life’s little difficulties.”

“The only difficulty I have is this dead AI that keeps yammering in my ear. If I knew a good cyberdruid, I’d have you exorcised. Whoever or whatever you are, I don’t need your help. I can manage perfectly well on my own.”

“Well pardon my computations, you ungrateful little snot. If it hadn’t been for me, you’d never have got off Virimonde alive, when your own Security people came after you for the price on your head. Your trouble is, you don’t appreciate me. Look after yourself for a while. I’m going to sulk.”

Hazel studied Owen unobtrusively. He’d gone all quiet again, his eyes far away. He did that from time to time, and it never failed to irritate her. Even though she’d always known he was the thoughtful one in their reluctant partnership. Hazel had always believed in the virtues of direct action, preferably with a sword or a gun. Cut them all down and worry about the consequences later. If at all. She wondered what Owen would think if he knew she was taking Blood again.

Blood. The most addictive and soul-destroying drug known to Humanity. It came from the adjusted men, the Wampyr. One of the Empire’s less successful attempts at manufacturing terror troops. Synthetic Blood flowed in their veins, making them stronger, faster, nearly invincible. Just a few drops of Blood could make a mere human feel that way, too, for a while. It made you feel sharp and confident, and Hazel needed that more and more these days. She’d been hooked on the drug once before, in her early days on Mistworld. She’d beaten it then, though the cure nearly killed her. But so much had changed in her since then, and very little of it to her liking.

She’d never wanted to be a rebel. All she’d ever wanted was the comfortable life, free from hunger and danger. She’d been happiest as a confidence trickster, parting rich leeches from their ill-gotten gains and disappearing into the night before they realized how badly they’d been stung. Hazel had only ever fought for money, cash in hand, and never trusted anyone but herself. Now she was a major player in the new rebellion, a target for every bounty hunter and backstabber in the Empire, being asked for opinions and plans on matters she had little or no understanding of. For the first time in her life, the lives and futures of countless numbers of people depended on her every action and decision, with all the stress and uncertainties that involved. Now everything she did or didn’t do had consequences, and she just couldn’t stand it. The pressure weighed down on her, filling her head till she couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t keep her hands from shaking. So she started taking Blood again. Just a drop, now and then, when she needed it. The Hadenmen had been only too happy to supply her with as much as she wanted. She didn’t ask where they got it from. And now she was heading back to Mistworld, where Blood was widespread.

She didn’t want to be addicted again. She didn’t want to be a plasma baby, her only thought and need for the Blood that was slowly destroying her. She resented anything that had power over her. She’d beaten it once; she could beat it again. She only needed a drop, now and again, after all. Just a little something, to help her cope. She looked at Owen, and her mouth tightened. She knew why their mental link had disappeared. The Blood interfered, separating them. But she couldn’t tell him that. He wouldn’t understand.

The lounge door opened suddenly, and Owen and Hazel’s fellow rebels on this mission walked in, ostentatiously not talking to each other, as usual. The new Jack Random, or Young Jack as Owen always thought of him, was tall, well muscled, and devilishly handsome, with long, dark shoulder-length hair that always looked like he’d just permed it. Owen only had to look at him to feel puny and out of shape. Random wore silver battle armor chased with gold like he was born to it, and he radiated strength, wisdom, confidence, and compassion. A born leader, a charismatic warrior, a hero out of legend and altogether too much of a good thing. He’d arrived out of nowhere, just when the rebellion needed him the most, and Owen didn’t trust him an inch.

Owen and Hazel had gone looking for the legendary professional rebel, Jack Random, in the city of Mistport some time back. They’d found a broken old man, hiding from his past, and bullied him out of his hiding hole to fight again, because the rebellion needed the legend, if not the man. He’d fought beside them, and passed through the Madness Maze with them, and at the end he faced impossible odds against the Empire’s troops, and emerged victorious. Owen had believed in that man, and been proud to call him friend. The old man had just begun to reclaim his legend when this young giant of a man had burst onto the scene, claiming to be the real Jack Random, and now Owen didn’t know what to believe anymore.

Young Jack Random’s last campaign had been on the winter world of Vodyanoi IV, some two years earlier. As usual, he had made a lot of noise and raised an army of followers, only to get his ass kicked one more time when they came up against trained Imperial shock troops. His friends smuggled him out at the last moment, so he wasn’t around to see his followers slaughtered or imprisoned. His cause had failed, but he kept the legend alive.

Except the older Jack Random claimed that wasn’t he. According to him, his last campaign had been on Cold Rock, several years earlier, when his forces were ignominiously scattered, and he was taken captive by the Empire forces. He spent a long time in interrogation cells, tortured and brainwashed by the mind techs, until finally his friends were able to break him out and smuggle him to safety on Mistworld—where he gave up his name and his legend to become just another face in the crowd, hidden and safe from entreaties or responsibilities.

Except . . . Jack Random, the professional rebel, had been visibly active on several worlds during that time. So who was telling the truth and who was lying? Who was the Real Jack Random? The older Jack admitted that the mind techs had done a real number on him, during his months of captivity, messing with his thoughts and memories as they broke his spirit day by day. Maybe he just thought he’d been the famous professional rebel; a nobody molded by the Empire to be paraded as a broken man for propaganda purposes. As with so many other things, Owen wasn’t sure what he believed anymore. At least the older Jack was more or less the right age. The younger Jack looked to be no more than his late twenties, and in perfect shape. Surely his long years of rebellion should have left some mark on him, even allowing for his claimed extensive use of regeneration machines.

The underground hadn’t been able to make up its mind one way or the other. The old Jack claimed to have the experience, but the Young jack looked so much more convincing. So for the moment the underground accepted both Jacks, and sent them off on separate missions to prove themselves in action. Old Jack went to stir up trouble on the mining planet Technos III, and Owen and Hazel ended up with Young Jack on their team, despite their loud objections. Young Jack took it all with a good-natured smile, which made Owen trust him even less. Never trust a man who smiles too much, his father had always said. It’s not natural, not in this day and age. Hazel was even less impressed with the man than Owen, if that was possible, and had told Young Jack to his face that he was a liar and impostor. He just kept on smiling, and said he hoped he’d have the chance to prove himself to her. Hazel told him that if he laid one finger on her, she’d make him eat the finger. Young Jack chuckled good-naturedly, and said she was very pretty when she was angry, and Owen had to hold Hazel down until the red mist had gone from her eyes.

The other new arrival was the esper known as Jenny Psycho. She had forced her way onto the Mistworld team, on the grounds that a planet largely populated by runaway espers would want to meet the last person to manifest the uber-esper Mater Mundi, Our Mother Of All Souls, who had single-handedly made the great esper escape from Wormboy Hell possible. Jenny didn’t look like much, at first glance. She was short and blond, with a pale ghostly face dominated by sharp blue eyes. She had a wide mouth, and an unsettling smile that showed more teeth than humor. Her voice was harsh and unattractive, her throat damaged by constant screaming in the dark cells of Silo Nine.

Before the underground sent her into Wormboy Hell as their undercover agent, she’d been just another esper; but since the Mater Mundi touched her, Jenny Psycho had become a major esper power overnight. Her presence all but crackled on the air around her, an almost tangible effect on any company. Where once she’d been nothing but a minor telepath, now every esper ability was hers to call upon, something which was supposed to be impossible, though no one had even been stupid enough to say that to Jenny Psycho. Most people had enough sense not to get that close to her anyway.

She respected Owen and Hazel for the power they’d brought to the rebellion, but since her personality could change from the relatively sane Jenny to the actually disturbing Psycho in mid-sentence, they’d found it hard to get to know her. They tried to make allowances. She had, after all, volunteered to be sent into Silo Nine, and Wormboy Hell was enough to break anyone. It helped that she didn’t trust Young Jack either. Possibly because she didn’t like the competition for attention.

She paused for a moment in the doorway, to make sure everyone was looking at her, then flounced across the room to the only remaining empty chair and sank into it as if it were a throne. Young Jack Random stayed by the door, falling naturally into an heroic pose. Jenny ignored him magnificently. “How much longer till we get to Mistworld?” she said icily.

“Now don’t you start,” said Owen. “Even with the new drive, it still takes time to get from one side of the Empire to the other.”

“Actually, we’ve been in orbit around Mistworld for almost twenty minutes,” Ozymandius murmured in Owen’s ear.

“What?” said Owen, subvocalizing furiously. “Why didn’t the ship’s AI tell me?”

“You didn’t tell it to. It is, after all, nowhere near as complex as I.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell me we’d arrived?”

“Who, me? I’m dead, remember? Far be it from me to put myself in where I’m not wanted.”

Owen fought down a need to sigh heavily and looked at his fellow team members. “Apparently we are currently in orbit over our destination. So far, no one is shooting at us. Hazel, you know these people better than the rest of us. Patch into the comm system and find out what exorbitant price they’re going to charge us for landing this time.”

She grunted unenthusiastically and got up out of her chair. It took her a while, and a certain amount of effort, because of the weight of all the guns she’d loaded herself down with. She made her way unhurriedly over to the comm panels and put in a call to Mistport Security. There was only one city and one starport on Mistworld, and that was Mistport. A wild and woolly place, and very definitely not somewhere you went without an invitation. As the Empire had found out, to its cost. As Hazel waited more or less patiently for someone to answer her, Owen looked around him, then stirred uncomfortably in his chair as he discovered that Jenny Psycho was studying him again. Her esp made her somewhat aware of the great changes that had taken place within Owen and Hazel, but it wasn’t enough to tell her what those changes were. She sensed that, in their own ways, Owen and Hazel were just as powerful as she was, and she didn’t seem able to make up her mind as to whether she should be frightened or awed or jealous. Owen had used that uncertainty to talk her into quietly probing Young Jack’s mind, to see what was in there. To their mutual surprise, it turned out that as far as Jenny’s esp was concerned, there was no one there. Which meant that either Jack had amazingly tough mental shields, or . . . So far they hadn’t been able to come up with an or they liked. Owen looked away from Jenny’s burning gaze. As if he didn’t have enough things to worry about.

“Hello, Sunstrider II,” said a tired voice from the comm panels. “This is John Silver, head of starport Security. Don’t adjust your equipment, we’ve lost visual again. When I find the pirate that sold us these systems, I’m going to tie his legs in a square knot. Welcome back, Hazel. Don’t steal anything big and try not to kill anyone important this time. You can put your ship down anywhere you fancy; there’s hardly anything on the pads. Not a lot of traffic comes our way these days.”

“Understood,” said Hazel. “Cheer up, John, we’ve got a cargo bay crammed to the ceiling with really nice surprises for you; namely, more projectile weapons, ammo, and explosives than you can shake a really big stick at. Just the thing for expressing your displeasure with Imperial spies and troublemakers.”

“You always bring the nicest presents, Hazel. Now pardon me if I leave you all to your own devices. As head of Security, or what’s left of it, I’m being run ragged at the moment. The precogs have been going crazy the last few days, insisting Something Bad is in the air. We can’t get any details out of them that make sense, but either way I don’t have the time to waste on a single ship, no matter how friendly.”

“In case he’s forgotten,” said Owen, “remind him we’re not just outlaws on the run this time. We represent the Golgotha underground.”

“I heard that,” said Silver. “Might have known you’d be aboard, Deathstalker. We haven’t forgotten the mess you made on your last visit. Someone will meet you once you’re down, but don’t expect a brass band or the key to the city. We had to pawn the instruments and the key never did work anyway. Have a nice stay. Don’t start anything. Now clear the channel so I can concentrate.”

“Is that a typical Mistworld welcome?” asked Jenny Psycho, after a moment.

“Pretty much,” said Hazel. “They’ve raised paranoia to a fine art in Mistport. With good reason. The Empire has a long history of sneaking in dirty tricks to try and undermine or destroy the starport. It wasn’t that long ago they started an esper plague here, using a disguised vector called Typhoid Mary. A lot of people died before Security finally tracked her down. They’re still recovering.”

“They’ve been through a lot,” said Young Jack. “We’ll just have to convince them of the importance of our various missions here. We must have Mistworld on our side if we’re to win the rebellion. Their espers will be an invaluable asset.”

“Glad someone’s keeping an eye on the big picture,” said Owen. “But I would go easy on the exposition when you get down there. Mistworlders aren’t big on speeches.”

“You should know,” said Hazel.

* * * *

The landing pads were practically deserted, with only a handful of smugglers’ ships, huddled together at one end of the field as though for comfort. The Sunstrider II settled comfortably onto the pad set aside, marked by flaring oil lamps. The tall steelglass control tower was the only sign of high tech at the starport, its bright electric lights blazing through the thick, swirling mists. Owen had the ship’s computers shut down everything except the security systems, then led the way out of the ship and onto the landing field.

The cold cut at them like a knife as they filed out of the airlock, searing their exposed faces and burning in their lungs as they all huddled in the thick furs the ship had provided. Owen beat his gloved hands together and glared about him. He’d forgotten how much he hated this place. And not just for the cold.

The mists were at their thickest, in the early hours of the morning before the rising of Mistworld’s pale sun. Beyond the control tower, the lights of the city showed only dimly through the shifting grey walls of fog. Young Jack Random looked calmly about him. He didn’t even have the decency to shiver like the rest of them.

“The old place hasn’t changed a bit. Colder than a witch’s tit and even less inviting.”

“And when were you last here?” said Hazel, not bothering to hide the suspicion in her voice.

“I’ve been here several times, down the years,” Random said easily. “In fact, I started out here, some twenty years ago, trying to raise troops for a rebellion on Lyonesse. I found a few brave souls to join me, but that was all. They didn’t know me then. Hopefully I’ll do rather better this time.”

“Heads up,” said Jenny Psycho. “Someone’s coming. Three people. One’s an esper, but his mind is closed to me.”

“Stay out of the other people’s heads as well,” said Hazel sharply. “This is an esper city, and they take their mental privacy very seriously. You upset the powers that be here, and we’ll be taking what’s left of you home in a straightjacket. From this point on, you use your esp by invitation only. Got it?”

Jenny Psycho shrugged. “I can’t help it if their minds are shouting at me all the time. And the powers that be here had better watch out for themselves. I have been transformed by the Mater Mundi, and there isn’t a mind in this city that’s my equal.”

“That settles it,” said Hazel. “From now on, you stay well clear of the rest of us. That way whenever it happens, whatever horrible thing it turns out to be, we’ll all be a safe distance away. Hiding.”

They were saved Jenny’s acid reply by the sudden emergence of three figures from the shifting mists. There was no warning. One moment there was only the fog, and then two men and a woman came striding out of the mists toward them. Owen found that quietly disturbing. Usually his new powers gave him advance warning of things like that. Why, dammit, did it work sometimes and not others? He found his hand had dropped automatically to the sword at his side and quickly moved it away again. He recognized two of the newcomers from files he’d been shown at his last briefing. Port Director Gideon Steel was a short fat man with calm, thoughtful eyes and a disturbingly cynical smile. He dressed well, if a trifle sloppily, as some of his furs looked distinctly mangy. He was supposed to be in his mid-forties, but he looked ten years older. Trying to run Mistport will do that to you.

The woman beside him was much more impressive, and not a little intimidating. Despite the bitter cold she wore no furs, only the formal uniform of an Investigator. Owen could feel Hazel tensing beside him and prayed she’d have enough sense not to start anything. Investigator Topaz was medium height, slim, handsome, and her gaze was colder than the mists could ever be. Her close-cropped dark hair gave her classical features a calm, aesthetic air, but her ice-blue eyes were killer’s eyes. Just looking at her made Owen want to back away slowly and very carefully, doing absolutely nothing that might upset her. He knew about Investigator Topaz. Everyone did. She was a Siren, the only esper ever to be made an Investigator. When she decided to leave the Empire and head for Mistworld, the Empress sent a whole company of Guards after her. Five hundred men. Topaz killed them all with a single song, her voice and esp combining into a deadly force that could not be stopped or turned aside.

In Mistport, she was officially just a Sergeant of the city Watch, but she kept her Investigator’s title. Mostly because no one was stupid enough to argue the point with her. In a city full of dangerous and desperate people, no one messed with Investigator Topaz. Having met her, Owen could understand why. Without looking round, he could feel Hazel stirring at his side, like a junkyard dog scenting a rival, and Owen decided to get things started before they had a chance to get seriously out of hand.

“Director Steel and Investigator Topaz,” he said smoothly. “So good of you to come and meet us in person at such an early hour. May I present—”

“We know who you are,” said Steel. “And if you weren’t official representatives of the Golgotha underground, you’d never have been allowed to land. You’re troublemakers, and the last thing Mistport needs right now is more trouble. And for your information we haven’t got up early; we haven’t been to bed yet. Since Typhoid Mary and the esper plague, those of us who survived have been working double shifts just trying to get things back together again. And I haven’t forgotten the mess you stirred up the last time you honored us with a visit, Deathstalker. I should bill you for the damage.”

“Given the size of the docking fees, I thought you already had,” said Owen, completely unruffled.

“And before you ask,” said Hazel, “no, you don’t get your usual unofficial ten percent cut of the cargo we’re carrying. Feel free to argue the point. And I’ll feel free to cut you off at the knees. Possibly quite literally.”

“Don’t mind her,” said Owen. “She’s just being herself. If I might inquire, since we’re so persona non grata, what brings you here at all? Politeness to the underground?”

“No,” said Topaz, her voice as cold as the grave. “We just wanted a look at the legendary Jack Random.”

Random flashed them his winning smile and bowed formally. “Delighted to make your acquaintances, Investigator and Director. Rest assured, I shall do everything in my power to see that our business is carried out quietly and quickly, with the minimum of disturbance to all concerned. But I make no secret of my intention to bring Mistworld into the underground, and the central path of the rebellion. You’ve been left alone in the cold too long. It’s time for us all to stand together, and take the fight to the Empire.”

“Great,” said Steel, entirely unmoved. “Another bloody hero. We get a lot through here. They come and they go, and nothing ever changes.”

“Ah,” said Random, grinning broadly. “But they’re not Jack Random.”

To Owen’s surprise, Steel grinned back. Jenny Psycho stepped forward suddenly. “In case anyone’s forgotten, I’m still here,” she said loudly. “I represent the Mater Mundi, Our Mother of All Souls.”

“Congratulations,” said Topaz. “You’re the tenth this month. It’s the most common confidence trick in Mistport. Probably because so many people are desperate to believe in it. If you weren’t with Jack Random, I’d have you thrown in gaol on general principles. So keep your head down and don’t make waves. Is that clear?”

Jenny Psycho’s eyes blazed suddenly with an inner light, shining from her face like spotlights. Loose energy sparked and crackled on the air around her, as her power stirred within her. Her presence beat on the air like the wings of a giant bird, forcing them all back. Something lived deep within Jenny Psycho, something vast and powerful and not necessarily human, and it was awakening. Gideon Steel drew a gun. Investigator Topaz opened her mouth to sing. And Owen and Hazel threw themselves on Jenny and wrestled her to the ground. Her power lashed out at them, only to be met and swept aside by a greater power, as yet unfocused and untrained, but still more than enough to silence a mere esper who had only been touched in passing by something greater. Her presence shattered like a smashed mirror and was gone. Owen and Hazel cut off their power, rolled Jenny over, and pressed her face against the harsh surface of the landing pad. Owen sat on her, just in case, and smiled up at Steel and Topaz.

“Don’t mind Jenny. She doesn’t travel well. Once you get to know her, she’s quite objectionable.”

Steel sniffed and put away his gun. Topaz scowled. “Something happened then,” she said slowly. “I just caught the edges, but you two did something there. There’s more to you than meets the eye, Deathstalker.”

“There would have to be,” said Steel. “Welcome to Mistworld, people, and keep that esper on a short leash, or I’ll have her muzzled. The man lurking in the background behind us, and carefully staying out of harm’s way, is John Silver, our current head of starport Security. He’ll look after you during your stay, and do his best to keep you out of trouble, if he ever wants to see his pension. Best of luck in your various missions, and if anything goes wrong I don’t want to hear about it. Don’t bother popping in to say good-bye before you leave. Now, if you’ll excuse us, Topaz and I have work to do.”

And with that the two of them turned and walked away, disappearing back into the concealing fog. John Silver glared after them, made a rude noise and a ruder gesture, and strolled forward to introduce himself with an easy smile. “Don’t take it personally; they’re like that with everyone. Mostly with good reason, but that’s Mistport for you. Hello, Hazel, good to you see again.”

“Good to see you, you old pirate,” said Hazel, grinning, and stepped forward to hug Silver tightly. Owen was almost shocked. Hazel wasn’t usually a touchy-feely kind of person. He took the opportunity to study Mistport’s head of Security. Silver was tall and broad-shouldered, with sharp-edged youthful features, and wore thick, superbly cut furs topped with the scarlet cloak of the esper. He wore a simple short sword on his hip, in a well-worn leather scabbard, but Owen had no doubt the man also had a gun or two hidden under those furs somewhere. He looked the type. He also looked like he was enjoying the hug entirely too much. Silver and Hazel finally broke apart and stepped back to hold each other at arm’s length.

“Looking good, Hazel. Robbed anyone interesting recently?”

“You’d be surprised. How the hell did a rogue like you get to be head of starport Security? That’s like setting a starving wolf to guard a flock of sheep.”

Silver shrugged amiably, not insulted. “Even the fiercest wolf has to settle down and turn respectable eventually. We lost a lot of good people here during the esper plague, including most of my superiors. Typhoid Mary killed or brainburned them all in the space of a few days, and when she was finally taken down, I was the only one left standing. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I’ve been doing a good and mostly honest job ever since. Mostly because there’s so much work to be done that I haven’t the time or the energy to be crooked.”

“Never thought I’d hear you say that,” said Hazel, laughing. She looked back, and realized Owen was studying them thoughtfully. “Owen, get up off Jenny and come and meet an old friend.” Owen got up carefully. Jenny stayed where she was, breathing harshly. Hazel grinned. “Owen, allow me to present an old confidant of mine. Ex-pirate, confidence trickster, lawyer, and occasional female impersonator when money gets short. Generally a good comrade to have with you, on either side of the law. Particularly if you’re working a swindle. Best innocent-faced liar I ever knew.”

“Which is why I’m so good at my present job,” said Silver calmly. “Takes one liar to spot another. And I know all the tricks, because I’ve used most of them in my time.”

“This is all very charming and picaresque,” said Random, “but I have business to be about.”

“Oh sure,” said Silver. “Hang around, and I’ll get you a map and some guards.”

“No need. I know my way around Mistport. And I’ve never needed guarding.” He bowed politely to them all, even Jenny, then strode confidently off into the fog, his straight back radiating strength and purpose.

“Impressive,” said Silver. “I just hope he doesn’t get mugged and rolled. We’d never hear the end of it.”

“I have my own mission, too,” said Jenny Psycho icily. Everyone looked round sharply, as they realized she’d got to her feet without being noticed. If anything, she looked even more dangerous than she had before. “I don’t need a map or guards either. Just stay out of my way.”

She stalked off into the fog, and the mists rolled aside to get out of her path. They closed again after her, and she was quickly gone. Hazel shook her head slowly.

“You know, I could have sworn we were supposed to work as a team.”

“Don’t let it bother you,” said Owen. “Personally, I feel a lot safer with them gone. Neither of them would get my vote for mental health poster child of the year.”

“You’re missing the point, as usual,” said Hazel. “God knows how much damage Jenny Psycho will cause on her own, and I particularly wanted to stick close to Jack Random, in the hope of spotting something that would prove whether he’s the real thing or not.”

“I thought you were sure he’s a fake?”

“I am. But proof would be nice.”

“We could always go after him.”

“No we couldn’t. Then he’d know for sure that we don’t trust him.”

“I hate reasoning like that,” said Owen. “You can argue all day and still end up running in circles. We could be wrong about him, you know.”

“Hold everything,” said Silver. “Are you telling me there’s a chance that wasn’t the real Jack Random?”

“We’re still deciding,” said Hazel. “Let’s just say we have doubts.”

“But he looks the part,” said Silver. “Every inch a hero and a warrior.”

“Precisely,” said Owen. “He’s too perfect. Real life isn’t like that.”

“Paranoia,” said Hazel, smiling. “A game for the whole family, and anyone else who might be watching. Let’s get out of the cold and find somewhere warm before my toes drop off.”

* * * *

Owen glanced approvingly round Silver’s private quarters as he sank into a deeply comfortable chair by an open fire. The ex-pirate Security chief lived in a fair amount of comfort, by Mistport standards. There were a number of high-tech appliances, including electric lighting, rare on a world where all forms of high tech had to be smuggled in past Empire blockades, at great cost to buyer and seller. Either head of port Security paid really well, or Silver hadn’t entirely given up on his old piratical ways. Hazel sat opposite Owen, frowning into the dancing flames of the fire. She looked tired and drawn, and older than her years. Something was troubling her, but Owen had more sense than to ask what. She’d only bite his head off. She’d tell him when she was ready, or not at all.

Silver bustled about being the perfect host, making sure his guests were comfortable, chatting cheerfully about inconsequential things, and pressing large mugs of mulled wine on Hazel and Owen. Hazel just held hers, making no attempt to try it, so Owen took a gulp of his, just to be polite. Normally he couldn’t stand mulled wine, but this proved to be easy on the palate and hotly spiced, leaving a pleasant warmth behind as it sank past his throat and chest and headed for his stomach. He nodded thankfully to Silver, who pulled up a chair facing his guests and looked at them inquiringly.

“Fill us in on what’s been happening recently,” said Owen, when a long pause made it clear Hazel wasn’t going to start the ball rolling. “We weren’t here long enough to ask questions on our last visit. What’s this about a Typhoid Mary and an esper plague?”

“The Empire smuggled her in,” said Silver. “She was an extremely powerful rogue esper, primed and conditioned to kill other espers. People fell dying and brain-burned all across the city, and where she passed children woke screaming from their dreams and would not be comforted. She destroyed a lot of good people before she was finally brought down. The Empire’s plan had been to kill so many espers that the psionic screen which protects Mistworld would collapse, and the Imperial Fleet could move in at will. That didn’t happen. But we came bloody close . . .”

“What happened after she was captured?” said Hazel, not looking up from the fire.

“We deconditioned her,” said Silver. “It wasn’t her fault. She’d been programmed by mind techs. She works for us now.”

“And you trust her?” said Owen. “The Empire could have planted all kinds of control words in her subconscious. She wouldn’t even know they were there till someone triggered them.”

“There were quite a few. We found them. This is an esper world, Deathstalker. The depths of the mind hold no secrets from us.”

“How much damage did she cause?” said Owen.

“Lots. We’re still clearing up. Many people in important positions were either killed or brainburned, and for a long time there was chaos in the city as various factions fought for control. The worst of that is over, praise the good Lord, but there’s still a lot of jockeying for position going on. Watch your backs while you’re here. There’s a lot of people who’d kill both of you just so that someone else couldn’t have you.”

“So,” said Hazel, finally turning to look at Silver. “You’re doing all right for yourself then, John?”

“I’m doing fine,” said Silver, blinking slightly at the sudden change of subject.

“Better than fine. These quarters are a damn sight cosier than that rathole you used to hide out in down by the docks. No, I take that back, now I come to think of it, rats wouldn’t have lived there for fear of catching something.”

“Head of port Security is a plum job,” said Silver easily. “As long as I keep things nice and peaceful, no one looks too closely at how I do it. So, on the one hand, I crack down hard on the kind of people I used to be, and on the other, I salt away a little here and there, to supplement my pension. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it.”

“Aren’t you worried about Director Steel finding out?” said Owen, not sure whether he should be shocked or not. This was Mistport, after all.

“Him? He’s a bigger crook than I am! No, the one I have to watch out for is Investigator Topaz. If she ever gets anything on me, I won’t live to stand trial. In fact, if she ever even looks like getting close, it’s me for the mountains on the first gravity sled I can beg, borrow, or steal. How someone that honest ever ended up on Mistworld is beyond me.”

“Law-abiding sort, is she?” said Hazel innocently.

Silver shuddered, and not from the cold. “That woman is so straight she even distrusts her own shadow. Luckily, she’s usually busy chasing bigger fish than me. Let me give you some idea of the kind of person we’re discussing here. Did either of you happen to notice the hole in the back of her cloak?”

“Yeah,” said Owen. “Disrupter burn. I take it she wasn’t wearing the cloak at the time?”

“No. Her husband was. Someone shot him in the back, at point-blank range. She found the killer, and killed him slowly, but she still wears the cloak, and she never had the hole mended. What kind of person would do that?”

“Cold, obsessed, unswerving,” said Hazel. “An Investigator in other words.”

“Let’s change the subject,” said Silver. “Before I start looking over my shoulder and jumping at sudden noises. Jack Random and that Psycho woman took off on their own missions. What are you here for? Or aren’t you allowed to tell me?”

“It’s no big deal,” said Hazel. “I’m here to make contact with the Council on behalf of the Golgotha underground. It should have been someone else, but plans got changed at the last minute, and I was the only one who didn’t run away fast enough, so I got volunteered. Owen’s here to hunt down an old information-gathering network his father set up in Mistport some years ago. You can make a move when you’re ready, Deathstalker. I’m going to spend some time with Silver before I get started.”

Owen frowned. “I thought we’d be sticking together. You know Mistport a lot better than I do.”

“So what do you want me to do, aristo? Hold your hand?”

“You heard what Silver said,” Owen said stubbornly. “We don’t have any friends out there, and our . . . link is unreliable.”

“I can look after myself,” said Hazel. “So can you.”

Owen scowled, nonplussed. It made no sense at all to split up when they both had so many old and new enemies to watch out for. He wondered for a moment if Silver might have been more than a friend in the past, and that was why he was being frozen out, but he didn’t think so. The body language was all wrong from both of them. But it was clear he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Hazel while she was in this kind of mood. There was also no point in losing his temper. She’d always been better at throwing tantrums than he. He found it all so undignified. Besides, she didn’t look too good. She was sweating in the heat of the fire, and her mouth was set in a flat, ugly line. Owen pushed back his chair and got to his feet.

“Well, if you’d rather waste time chatting with an old friend than getting on with the job we were sent here to do, I can’t stop you.”

“Damn right you can’t. And don’t take that tone with me, Deathstalker. I know my duty, but I’ll take care of it in my own time and in my own way.”

“Time is something we’re rather short of, Hazel. Or had you forgotten how closely the Empire has been dogging our heels?”

“I haven’t forgotten anything! You stick to your mission and leave me to mine! Get out of here, aristo. I’m sick of looking at you. I don’t need you!”

“No,” said Owen. “You’ve never needed anyone, have you?”

He bowed curtly to Silver and stalked out of the room, not quite slamming the door behind him. The tense silence continued for a while, as Hazel glared at the closed door, and Silver studied her thoughtfully. He’d seen Hazel in many moods, but this was a new one on him. Clearly the Deathstalker, or at least his opinion, mattered to Hazel. Silver hoped she wasn’t falling for the outlawed aristocrat. Hazel had never been any good at handling affairs of the heart. She always got hurt in the end. He almost jumped as Hazel turned suddenly to face him, her eyes hot and fierce.

“We’ve always been good friends, haven’t we, John?”

“Of course we have. We’ve walked a lot of miles together.”

“I need your help, John.”

“It’s yours. Anything you want, just say the word.”

“I need some Blood. Just a drop or two. Do you know where you can get some? Someone . . . discreet?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“Yes, John. That’s what I want.”

Silver pursed his lips. “The Deathstalker doesn’t know about this, does he?”

“No. And you’re not to tell him. He wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m not sure I do. I thought you were clear of that shit. I held your hand and sponged your brow and wiped your ass while you sweated the stuff out of your system the last time. I don’t want to have to do that again. It almost killed you, Hazel.”

“I’m not talking about going back to being a plasma baby again! I’ve got it under control this time. I just need a drop, now and again. You don’t know what I’ve been through, John. You don’t know the pressure I’m under.”

“I said I’d help you, Hazel. If Blood is what you need, I can get it for you. We all have the right to go to Hell in our own ways. As head of port Security, I have access to all drugs seized from incoming ships. No one will miss a few drops.” He paused. “Are you sure about this, Hazel?”

“Oh yes. I have to have something in my life I can depend on.”

* * * *

Young Jack Random strode unhurriedly through the streets of Mistport, and no one bothered him. There was something in his unyielding stance and cold confidence that persuaded people to keep their distance. That, and the energy gun he wore openly on his hip. Only the real movers and shakers in Mistport had access to energy guns. Random made his way into Merchants Quarter, in search of an old friend. Councillor Donald Royal had been one of Mistport’s greatest heroes in his younger days, and was an influential figure even now, in the autumn of his life.

Random finally came to a halt before a soot-blackened old building in a part of the Quarter that had definitely known better days. Donald Royal could have afforded to live practically anywhere he chose in the city, but this had always been his home, and he wouldn’t move. Stubborn old man. Random stepped forward and knocked politely on the door. There was a long pause, and then he sensed he was being studied through a spyhole. He smiled charmingly at the door, and kept his hands well away from his weapons. The door swung open to reveal a striking young woman. As far as Random knew, she was a complete stranger, but he kept his smile going anyway. She was tall for a woman, with a tousled head of reddish-brown hair, falling in great curls to her shoulders. Her face was a little too broad to be pretty, but her strong bone structure gave her a harsh, sensual look. She held herself like a fighter, with a cold steady gaze and a mouth that gave away nothing. Her clothing was strictly functional, but well cut, and she carried an energy gun holstered on her hip. Random noted that her hand was resting on her belt next to the gun and cleared his throat politely.

“Good evening. I’m looking for Donald Royal. I understood he was still living here.”

“He’s here, but I don’t know if he wants to be bothered right now. I’m his partner. I don’t let people bother him without a good reason.”

“I’m Jack Random. I’ve come to talk to him about planning the new rebellion against the Empire.”

The woman smiled suddenly, and her eyes warmed. “That’s . . . a good reason. I’m Madelaine Skye. Come on in. Pardon my caution, but we don’t get many legends around here.”

She stepped back, and Random bowed politely before moving past her into a narrow, gloomy hall. He hung up his coat and his sword belt without having to be asked and allowed Skye to lead him down the hall and into a cosy sitting room. Oil lamps provided the only light, suffusing the room with a soft buttery glow. Thick leather-bound books lined three walls, the last wall being covered by a display of well-used bladed weapons, from slender daggers up to a huge double-headed ax. Below them lay a large fire, crackling contentedly in its grate, surmounted by an elaborate mantelpiece of dark wood, carved into blocky Gothic shapes. On top of the mantelpiece, a large clock was set into the belly of a carved wooden dog with an ugly face. Its eyes and lolling red tongue moved to and fro as it ticked. Sitting beside the fire in a large padded armchair was an old man with vague eyes. He’d been a large man once, but the great muscles that had packed his frame in his youth had slowly wasted away down the years, and now his clothes hung loosely about him. Long strands of wispy white hair hung down about a gaunt, bony face. Madelaine Skye stood beside the chair, hovering protectively close.

“We have a visitor, Donald.”

“I can see that, woman. I’m not blind yet. Or senile. I assume he’s someone important, or you’d have sent him on his way with a flea in his ear.” He looked at Random for a long moment, and then frowned. “I know you from somewhere. Never forget a face.” And then his gaze cleared, and he rose suddenly out of his chair. “Dear God, it can’t be. Jack? Is that you, Jack? Damn me, it is.” He grinned broadly and reached out to take Random’s proffered hand in both of his, the large wrinkled hands enveloping Random’s. “Jack Random, as I live and breathe! What the hell are you doing here?”

“Looking up old friends,” said Random, smiling. “Been a long time, Donald.”

“You can say that again. Too damned long. Sit down, sit down, and let me take a look at you.”

Random pulled up the armchair on the other side of the fire and sat down, politely pretending not to notice as Donald Royal lowered himself carefully back into his chair, with just a little help from Madelaine. Donald studied Random with sharp, weighing eyes. There was nothing vague about him anymore, as though the memory of the man he used to be had recharged him. Madelaine moved away to give them some privacy, but stayed by the door, leaning casually against the doorjamb. It hadn’t escaped Random that her hand was still resting near her gun. He smiled warmly at Donald.

“Nice place you have here. Comfortable. I like your clock.”

“Do you?” said Donald. “Can’t stand the bloody thing myself. But it was a favorite of my late wife’s, and I haven’t the heart to throw it out. You’re looking good, Jack. Must be twenty years since I last saw you, sitting in this room, in these same damn chairs. You were a firebrand then, so young and alive and full of hope and vinegar that I couldn’t resist you. Gave you all the gold I had on me, and the names of everyone I could think of who might listen to you. I’d have gone with you myself, but even then I was getting a bit too old and fragile for adventuring. You had the gift of words, Jack, and I never could resist a plausable rogue.”

“You were one of the first people to really believe in me,” said Random. “I never forgot that. Though it’s just as well you didn’t come with me to Lyonesse. Things went badly, from start to finish. I was young and inexperienced, still learning my way. We had some victories, but in the final battle we were thrown back and routed. I had to run for my life, while good men and women died to buy me time. But we still stuck a blow for freedom, and made the Iron Bitch afraid, if only for a moment.”

“I remember Lyonesse,” said Madelaine from the doorway. “Your army was cut to ribbons, one in ten of the population was hanged for supporting treason, and the survivors had their taxes doubled for the next ten years. There are those who might say Lyonesse was better off before your rebellion.”

“Don’t mind Madelaine,” said Donald. “She doesn’t believe in luxuries like optimism and virtues. She’s never happy unless she’s seeing the dark side of things. She persuaded me to come out of retirement to work with her as private investigators. I provide the brains, and Madelaine sorts out the bad guys. I have to say, I’ve felt more alive this last year than I have for ages. I was never meant for retirement. She still insists on acting as my bodyguard, even though I haven’t forgotten how to use a sword.”

“I’m sure she’s very proficient,” said Random. “Donald, I need to talk to you.”

“Of course you do, Jack. We have a lot to catch up on. Twenty-two years since I last saw you. I’ve followed your career as best I could. News takes a while to reach Mistworld. You haven’t changed a bit, Jack. Unlike me. How have you stayed so young? You must have been in your late twenties when I first met you, and you don’t look as though you’ve aged a day since then.”

“I have several heavy-duty regenerations to thank for that,” said Random. “And a little cosmetic surgery. People won’t follow an old rebel. It’s no secret that I’ve been pretty badly messed up on more than one occasion. I may be young on the outside, but my bones know the truth. But I’m still me. Still the professional rebel, ready to fight for truth and justice at the drop of a hint. My cause hasn’t changed in twenty-two years, Donald, and just like then, I need your help.”

Donald sighed, and settled back in his chair. “Afraid my help’s rather more limited these days, Jack. I’m still on the city Council, but I don’t take much interest in politics anymore. Which means my influence is pretty much nonexistent. I stick my oar in now and again, just to remind them I haven’t died, and I try to do my own small bit for truth and justice as a private investigator, but truth be told, on the whole the important life of the city just passes me by. I can give you names and addresses of some people who might be willing to listen to you, but my name isn’t the recommendation it was the last time you were here. Times have changed, Jack, and not for the better. Mistport is a colder and far more cynical place than you and I remember.”

“You can still vouch for me to the Council,” said Random. “There seems to be some question as to whether I really am who I say I am. If you were to speak up publicly to confirm my identity, it would help a lot.”

“No problem there,” said Donald. “I may not be as young as I was, but there’s nothing wrong with my eyes or my memory. You’re Jack Random. No doubt about it. I’d stake my life on it.”

“Don’t be so quick,” said Madelaine. “Looks aren’t everything. You said yourself he looks far too young. How do we know he isn’t a clone?”

“A gene test would answer that,” Random said easily.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have access to tech like that here in Mistport,” said Madelaine. “Convenient, that.”

“Hush, Madelaine,” said Donald. “Easy enough to test the man. There are things only Jack and I would remember. Things we talked about, people we knew, back then. Right, Jack?”

“Of course. Let me think for a moment. It was a long time ago.” Random pursed his lips and rested his chin on his fist. “I remember some of the people you sent me to. There was Lord Durandal, the adventurer. Count Ironhand of the Marches. Is either of them still around?”

“No,” said Donald. “They’re both gone now. Ironhand drowned, saving a child who’d fallen into the River Autumn. He was a good swimmer, for an old man. Got the child to safety. But the shock of the icy waters was too much for him. He knew it would be, but he went in anyway. He was that sort of man. Durandal disappeared into the Darkvoid, years ago, on some damn fool quest to find the Wolfling World. Don’t know if he ever found it. He never came back.”

“Pity,” said Random. “I admired them both. I was hoping they’d vouch for me, too. We still need some proof, don’t we? How about this; you gave me all the gold you had on you, twenty-two years ago. And that was exactly seventeen crowns. Am I right?”

“Exactly right!” said Donald, slapping his knee. “I remember now. Seventeen crowns. No one else could have known that, Madelaine.”

She shook her head stubbornly. “An esper could have got it out of Jack’s head, or yours.”

“Oh, don’t mind her,” Donald said dismissively. “She was born suspicious. Had her mother’s milk tested for steroids. You’re the real thing, Jack; I can feel it in my bones. I’ll vouch for you. And maybe this time you’ll listen to me before you go haring off to fight for truth and justice with too few troops and no proper backup.”

“I’ll listen this time,” said Random. “I’ve learned from my mistakes.”

“You’ve had enough opportunities,” said Madelaine, but both Donald and Jack ignored her.

“We’ve got a real chance this time, Donald,” said Random, leaning forward. “An army of clones and espers, and powerful allies beyond anything you’ve ever dreamed of. I won’t throw it away because of my pride.”

“Good man,” said Donald. “Get your people together and set up a meeting with the Council. Madelaine and I will be there.”

“Thank you, Donald. This means a lot to me.” Random rose smoothly to his feet, then waited politely as Donald struggled up out of his chair. They clasped hands again, and Random strode out. Madelaine followed him to the door, to be sure he didn’t steal anything, and then came back to stand in the doorway and glare at Donald.

“You think he’s a fake, don’t you?” Donald said calmly, as he eased himself back into his chair.

“Damn right I do. He’s too good. Too perfect. Great-looking, muscles to spare, and all the right words and phrases. Like a popular hero designed by a committee. And I don’t buy that regeneration story for one moment. I mean, technically speaking I suppose it’s possible, but where would a rebel on the run gain access to that kind of tech? Last I heard, regeneration machines were strictly for the aristos. No, Donald, you only believe in him because you want to. Because he’s one of the few good memories from your past that’s still around.”

“Maybe,” said Donald. “I don’t believe he’s telling us everything, or that everything he told us was true. But every instinct I have says it’s him. He’s just the way I remember him. A larger-than-life hero and a plausible rogue, all in one. He’s passed the only tests I could think of. What else does he have to do to convince you, walk on water?”

“If he did, I’d want to check his boots afterward,” said Madelaine.

* * * *

Jenny Psycho made her way through the streets of Mistport, the crisp snow crunching under her steady stride. Her breath steamed thickly on the air before her, but she was pleasantly warm inside her furs. Heat and cold and other vagaries of the world had lost all power over her. According to her briefing, the espers’ union had their own hall in Guilds Quarter, but she needn’t have bothered with the directions. She could feel it in her mind, like a great searchlight stabbing up from the center of the city. There were people bustling everywhere she went, but they all gave her plenty of room, even if they weren’t always sure why.

The hall itself turned out to be modestly sized, set back in its own grounds. Jenny was a little taken aback to see it standing plainly sign-posted and apparently unguarded. Anywhere else in the Empire such a gathering of espers was punishable by death or mindwipe, depending on how valuable their services were. The simple openness of the espers’ union cheered her greatly, and she strode up the graveled path to the front door with something like a swagger. There were no visible guards anywhere, but she hadn’t expected any, even in a cesspit like Mistport. Espers had their own, subtler ways of keeping watch and seeing off the uninvited. The great front door looked imposing and impressive. Jenny looked for a knocker or bellpull, but there wasn’t one. She raised her hand to knock, and the door swung open before her. A tall slender man in formal evening wear filled the doorway, staring haughtily down at her. His head was clean-shaven, showing small surgical scars here and there, and his eyes were just a little too wide. His smile was formal and entirely meaningless.

“Come in, Jenny Psycho. We’ve been expecting you.”

“I should hope so,” said Jenny. “Now, are you going to let me in, or am I supposed to teleport past you?”

The doorman, or whatever the hell he was, stepped back gracefully, and Jenny strode past him with her nose firmly in the air. Start as you mean to go on. The hall was open and airy, the air sweetened by vases of blossoming flowers in every nook and cranny. Jenny would have liked to ask where the hell they found flowers like that on a freezing, inhospitable rock like Mistworld, but she kept the thought to herself. Asking questions could be taken as a sign of weakness, and it was vital she appear strong. The butler took her furs and hung them up. He looked pointedly at her boots, dripping melting snow onto the thick carpet, but she ignored him. Bare feet might be taken as a sign of informality.

“I take it your precogs told you I was coming,” said Jenny, casually. “They are supposed to be the best in the Empire, after all. But did they tell you why I was coming?”

“Not yet.” He closed the door firmly and turned to smile at Jenny. She didn’t like the smile. It was too confident by far. The flunky strode off down the hall without waiting to see if she was following, allowing his words to trail back over his shoulder. “We know who you are. We could find out why you’re here if we wanted to, but we’d rather hear it from you directly. This way. Someone will see you shortly.”

Hell with this, thought Jenny Psycho. Things were getting out of hand. These people needed reminding who and what she was. She reached out with her mind and drenched the flowers in the hall with her esp. They erupted out of their vases, growing at a tremendous rate, flowers budding and blossoming in a moment as vines and branches sprawled across the walls like runaway trellises. They filled the hall from floor to ceiling, rioting on the walls, pushing each other aside for space to display. The scent of flowers was overpowering, rich and glorious. The servant looked back at Jenny, his face impassive, but only just.

“I didn’t know you could do that.”

“There’s lots about me you people don’t know. Now find me someone in charge to speak to, or I’ll turn this entire house into a shrubbery.”

“They said you’d be trouble,” said the butler, or whatever the hell he was. “If you’d care to wait in the study, someone will be with you soon.”

“Very soon,” said Jenny.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised. And for your information, I am not the bloody butler, I am the Chancellor of this lodge. This is the study. Try not to break the furniture or set fire to things. Some of these books are very old and a great deal more valuable to us than you are.”

“That’s what you think,” said Jenny. “Now beat it, Chancellor. And don’t keep me waiting too long or I’ll act up cranky.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it for a moment,” said the Chancellor, and ushered Jenny into the study. The room was large and brightly lit, with large comfortable furniture, gleaming wood-paneled walls, and an inviting, well-banked fire. The whole study had a calm, relaxed atmosphere that Jenny didn’t trust for a moment. They probably just wanted to put her off her guard. Jenny quietly probed the surrounding rooms and had to hide her surprise when her mind bounced harmlessly away from powerful psionic shields.

“Please don’t do that,” said the Chancellor. “We have many private places here, mentally shielded to protect our more sensitive people from the clamor of the world. And occasionally to protect the world from some of us. I advise you to respect their privacy. For your own sake, if not for theirs.”

Knowing a good exit line when he delivered one, the Chancellor bowed briefly and left Jenny alone in the study, shutting the door firmly behind him. Jenny waited to hear the sound of a key turning in the lock, but it didn’t come. Presumably the espers’ union thought it had other ways of stopping her if she decided to leave. More fool they. She sniffed angrily and threw herself into the most comfortable-looking chair. She’d been held in Wormboy Hell and survived, and there wasn’t much left that could intimidate her now. She glowered around her. Looked at closely, the study was a bland place, with no style or personality of its own. More like a stage set than a place where people lived and worked. Probably set up as neutral ground, a midway place where espers could meet with emissaries from the outside word.

Jenny sank grudgingly back into the comfort of her chair and tried to relax. Nerve and passion and a sense of destiny had brought her this far, but for the first time she wasn’t entirely sure what she was going to do next. It all depended on how seriously the espers’ union took her. She was no longer used to dealing with people who weren’t awed or at least impressed by her presence, or what she’d become. But this house held the greatest minds on a planet of espers. They weren’t going to impress easily. And she couldn’t just threaten them. The underground needed their wholehearted support and approval. Besides, it might not work. Jenny scowled sulkily. When in doubt, stick to the script. The underground had spent some time drilling her in all the proper words and phrases, till she could have recited them in her sleep. It helped, too, that she believed passionately in the arguments. Still, these people had better learn to treat her with respect. She had been touched by the Mater Mundi, and she was so much more than she used to be.

She concentrated, diffusing her thoughts, letting her esp creep slowly outward, easing unnoticed through the mental shields to every side of her. Immediately a babble of voices filled her head, harsh and deafening, and visions flashed past her eyes almost too fast to follow. Jenny reeled, and had to grab at the arms of her chair to center herself. So many minds, all working at the peak of their abilities. Past records and future possibilities jumbled together till she could hardly tell them apart. They surged around Jenny, like waves crashing against a rock on the seashore, but she held firm and would not be swayed or moved. She concentrated, filtering through the deafening noise for the information she needed, and slowly things came to her, like ships glimpsed briefly through an ocean fog.

Someone was praying, and sobbing so hard she could hardly get the words out. There were visions of buildings burning, and people running screaming in the streets. Something dark and awful was hanging over Mistworld, like a huge spider contemplating its prey. There were guns firing, and a child’s blood splashed across a wall. The streets were full of people rushing this way and that as the city burned and death closed in around them. In a padded room not too far away, someone was beating at the walls with raw and bloodied hands, and though he was silent as the grave, his mind was full of an endless horrible scream. And through it all, a name, repeating over and over in a chorus of voices, surfacing through the babble like a heartbeat, like a prophecy of doom that could not be denied.

Legion. Legion is coming. Legion.

Jenny broke free of the contact, shaking and trembling. She breathed deeply, fighting to control her scattered senses. She had no doubt she had seen the future. She had seen the streets of Mistport thrown down into Hell, and watched as Imperial troops butchered the people as they ran. She’d seen the city walls thrown down, and buildings blown apart, and above it all, a scream that never ended. It wasn’t a human scream. It might happen a week from now, or a year, or it might already have begun. She had no way of knowing. Precog visions were like that. She cut herself off from all mental contact, slamming down her shields, until she was the only one left in her head, and she was safe and secure again. She groaned quietly, and rubbed at her aching brow.

“Serves you right for peeking,” said a harsh voice from the doorway. Jenny’s head snapped round, and she scrambled to her feet. She hadn’t heard the door open. Standing in the doorway, looking as hard and uncompromising as before, was Investigator Topaz. Beside her stood a tall, painfully thin woman dressed in pale pastel colors. She looked almost as washed-out as her clothes, and stringy blond hair hung uncared for about a sharp, gaunt face with striking ice-blue eyes. There were patches of scar tissue around her cheekbones, and part of her nose had been eaten away. It gave her a stark, almost supernatural glamor. She might have looked dangerous, if she hadn’t also looked like a strong breeze would blow her away.

“It’s rude to stare,” said Topaz. “Frostbite, in case you were wondering. It gets cold around here sometimes. If you ask her nicely, she’ll show you the stumps where some of her fingers used to be. Her name’s Mary.”

Jenny made the connection immediately, and stared at the blond wraith with new respect. “Typhoid Mary? The plague carrier?”

“I don’t use that name anymore,” said Mary. Her voice was quiet, little more than a murmur, but Jenny had no problem understanding her. There was an almost compelling power in Mary’s speech and gaze. “Typhoid Mary was another person; someone the Empire created to do its dirty work. I’m just Mary.”

Jenny nodded. “I know about mind techs. They stirred their sticky fingers in my brain, too. Still, considering the damage you caused here in Mistport, I’m surprised they’re letting you run loose. Hell, I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

“Little Miss Tact,” said Topaz. “We don’t blame people for what the Empire did to them. Here on Mistworld, most of us have done things for the Empire we’re ashamed of. The Council gave Mary over into my custody. We work as a team now. We have a lot in common. Mostly things we’ve lost, because of the Iron Bitch and her damned intrigues. Enough small talk. You wanted to speak to the esper union, but the powers that be are rather busy at the moment. You can talk to us. We’ll take it farther, if need be. In the meantime, if you want to make a good impression, leave the flowers alone and respect the mental shields in this house. They’re here for your protection, as well as others’. There are a lot of people here who came to us for help and protection, because of the terrible things the Empire did to them, before they found their way to Mistworld. Some of them have yet to be defused. And there are also a lot of people here still mourning for the friends and family and loved ones they lost during the esper plague. Respect their privacy.”

Jenny shrugged. She had a mission to fulfill. “They’ll all want to hear me, once they know who and what I am. I represent the Mother Of All Souls, and her power moves within me. I will bring light to their darkness, and an end to their suffering. And with their backing, I will bring down the Empire itself.”

“Save the speeches,” said Topaz. “We’ve heard it all before. Legends are ten a penny, here in Mistport. Mostly because there are so many people here desperate to believe in them. It’s up to you to convince us that you’re not just another esper with delusions of sainthood.”

Jenny let that pass, for the moment. “Tell me about the esper union. How did it start?”

If Topaz was surprised by the change in subject, she didn’t show it. “Originally? In the beginning, the union existed to call espers together, when we had to raise the psionic shield in a hurry. From there it grew into a self-help group, and then a political force, to look out for our own interests. Mistport’s no place to be weak and divided. There are people on the streets here who’ll eat you alive if they smell fear. And sometimes there are temptations few of us are strong enough to resist on our own.

“These days the union is a political and economic power base with roots and interests throughout the city. And the people in charge aren’t all that keen on having their considerable power undermined by some half-crazed ex-political prisoner claiming to be the avatar of the Mater Mundi. Some of them don’t believe such a person exists, or ever did. And some have a vested interest in denying it. Which is why you’re talking to us and not the leaders of the union. And at least partly because even your name doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. So, now you get to make your pitch. And it had better be very convincing.”

Jenny Psycho suddenly grinned at Topaz and Mary, and they both stirred uncertainly despite themselves. There was something in the room with them, a presence and a power that hadn’t been there before. And then Jenny Psycho wrapped her destiny around her and dropped all her shields, blazing brightly like lightning trapped in a shot glass. Her presence was suddenly overpowering, filling the room and pushing against the walls, beating on the air like the heartbeat of something impossibly huge. Topaz and Mary fell back, and the Investigator’s hand fell automatically to the sword at her hip. Jenny’s esp lashed out and slammed into Topaz’s and Mary’s minds, slapping aside their shields with casual ease. They stood naked before her, all barriers down. Jenny could have made them say or do or believe anything, and they all knew it. But instead, Jenny opened up her mind, took her time and suffering in Wormboy Hell, and showed Topaz and Mary all of it in one compressed burst of living hell.

They were all there as the worm ate into Jenny’s brain, controlling her every thought and action. They were there as she lay curled and naked on the floor of her cell, shaking and shivering, surrounded by the stench of her own piss and shit and vomit. The cell was little more than an oversize coffin, with featureless steel walls and a ceiling too low to let her do more than crouch or crawl. There was rarely any light. There was just the darkness, and the worm burrowing in Jenny’s mind, feeding her the endless nightmares of Wormboy’s projected hallucinations and mind games. She lost most of her voice there in Silo Nine, screaming for help that never came, or just for an end to the pain and the horror.

And then there was a miracle. Mater Mundi came to her, Mother of the World, Our Mother Of All Souls, exploding out of her mind like a butterfly from a cocoon, spreading out to gather up every esper in Wormboy Hell, and bind them into a single sword thrust into the heart of Wormboy himself The gestalt couldn’t maintain itself for long without burning out all the minds of those involved, but for that fleeting moment every one of them was greater than Humanity had ever been, and more powerful. And all of it focused through Jenny Psycho.

Except that wasn’t her name, really. She’d been someone else originally, an underground agent who’d volunteered to be sent into Silo Nine under a false persona, to gather information on ways into and out of Wormboy Hell. But now her original self and the false persona were both gone, swept aside by Jenny Psycho, who had been touched by greatness, her esp boosted beyond hope or reason. Jenny Psycho, representative of the Mater Mundi, who had once been someone else. Someone sane.

Her projection collapsed as the various selves in her mind warred and screeched, fluttering in her head like moths battering a lamp, drawn beyond sense or reason to try and touch something that would only destroy them in the end. Jenny Psycho, who was so much more, and so much less, than she once was. She fell back into herself and kept falling, hugging herself fiercely to keep from flying apart. Tears burned in her eyes, but she kept them back by sheer force of will. Tears over the memory of something great and wonderful, that had touched and transformed her, and then abandoned her.

Mary stepped forward and put an arm around Jenny’s shaking shoulders. “It’s all right. We understand. We’ll speak to the union leaders. They need to hear you, even if they don’t know it yet. You stay here. We’ll get things moving.”

She gave Jenny a last comforting squeeze, and gestured with her head for Topaz to open the door. She did so, her face entirely impassive. Mary steered Jenny back into her chair, then she and Topaz left the study, leaving Jenny Psycho slumped in her chair like an exhausted child. They shut the door firmly behind them and moved off down the corridor.

“Not too tightly wrapped, is she?” said Topaz.

“Few of us are, these days,” said Mary. “But she does seem to be an extreme case. If we don’t handle this one with kid gloves, we could end up with a multiple personality on our hands. And a bloody powerful one, at that. Did you feel the energy coming off her? It was like staring into a searchlight. I’ve never encountered anything like it before. Whatever touched her in Silo Nine, it was a power far beyond my experience. I’m not even sure it was human. Could it really have been the Mater Mundi?”

Topaz shrugged uncomfortably. “I’ve never been religious. Still, I saw everything you did. She might be crazy, but something manifested through her. Its mark is all over her mind, even now. The Mater Mundi’s as good an answer as any. Whoever or whatever that might be. You’re right, the leaders have to see her. If only so we can be sure of controlling her. God knows how much damage she could do if we let her run loose.”

“Like I did,” said Mary.

“That’s over now. You’re yourself again.”

“Maybe. Do you think I don’t know that you’re still watching over me for the Council? Not everyone’s convinced my deprogramming took.”

“I’m with you because I choose to be,” said Topaz. “Besides, you still have a lot of enemies here in Mistport. Everyone lost somebody to the esper plague.”

“I’ll never kill again,” said Mary. “I’ll kill myself first.”

“I know,” said Topaz.

“Poor Jenny. She’s been through so much.”

“Haven’t we all.”

* * * *

Owen Deathstalker walked alone through the packed streets of the Merchants Quarter, scowling and seething. People passing took one look at his face and gave him plenty of room. Some even crossed to the other side of the street, just in case. Street vendors and stall holders cried their wares in a variety of colorful ways, but Owen paid them no notice. He was working his way into a world-class bad temper, and he didn’t care who knew it. His mood wasn’t helped by the fact that he wasn’t very good at following directions. It wasn’t that he was lost, exactly; he just didn’t always know where he was. He’d only been this way once before, and that was with Hazel leading the way, and he hadn’t paid much attention at the time. Luckily Ozymandius remembered the way.

Owen strode on through the Quarter, kicking at the thick snow and concentrating fiercely on where he was going so he wouldn’t have to think about Hazel, alone with John Silver. He had no right to be jealous, as Hazel no doubt would have been happy to tell him, but still . . . he loved her, in his way, and would no matter what she thought of him. If she ever thought of him. Owen sighed and pressed on, and eventually he ended up in front of the seedy ramshackle building that housed the Abraxus Information Center. Abraxus knew everything that was going on in Mistport, sometimes even before the people concerned knew it. Abraxus could answer all your questions, soothe your worries or confirm your worst nightmares, for the right price.

It wasn’t much to look at. Abraxus had the first floor over a family bakery. There was no sign advertising its presence. Everyone knew where Abraxus was. The last time Owen had been here he’d learned many things, some useful, some disturbing. Among other things, Abraxus had told him how he would die.

I see you, Deathstalker. Destiny has you in its clutches, struggle how you may. You will tumble an Empire, see the end of everything you ever believed in, and you’ll do it all for a love you’ll never know. And when it’s over, you’ll die alone, far from friends and succor.

Owen shuddered suddenly, his hackles rising as the words whispered in his head again. Even the best precogs were wrong as often as they were right, or they’d have been running the Empire by now, but even so he found the prophecy disturbing. No hints, no riddles, no hidden meanings—just a blunt description of his future and his death. He liked to think he would press on anyway, doing what he knew to be right and damn the consequences, but . . . he had to talk to Abraxus again. A lot had happened since his last trip to Mistworld, not least his passing through the Madness Maze. That had to change things. In many ways he was a completely new person now.

“Hell,” he said finally. “Everyone knows you can’t trust precogs.”

“So whom do you trust?” said Ozymandius in his ear.

“I wish you’d stop talking to me. You know very well you’re dead.”

“So maybe I’m haunting you. Answer the question. Whom do you trust these days? Hazel threw you out to be with Silver, Young Jack Random may or may not be who he says he is, and Jenny Psycho is living in a different reality from the rest of us. Whom can you trust?”

“Not you, anyway. I trust the real Jack Random to do what’s best for the rebellion. I trust Ruby to back him up right down the line, as long as there’s the promise of plenty of loot. I trust Giles to uphold the Deathstalker name. And I trust Hazel to do the right thing, in the end.”

“And Silver?”

“Hazel will go her own way. I’ve always known that.”

“I remain unconvinced,” said Oz. “Jack Random is mostly famous for getting his ass handed to him on planet after planet, Ruby Journey was a bounty hunter, and therefore not to be trusted on general principles, and Giles’s beliefs and aims are nine hundred years out of date. You never were very good at picking your companions, Owen. Hazel is up to something. You know that, deep down.”

“Hazel is always up to something. And for a dead AI, you’re extremely cynical. You never did approve of my friends, even when you were alive. The bottom line is, I trust my companions because I have to. My only hope for survival is to throw Lionstone off the Iron Throne. For that I need a rebellion, and for that I need allies.”

“Is that the only reason you’re fighting to change the way things are?” said Oz quietly.

“No. I’ve seen too much of the everyday evil and suffering the Empire is based on. I can’t look away anymore. Things must change; even if it means my life.”

“You mean your death. What are you going to replace the Empire with? What else do you know but the privilege of aristocracy, and the rule of the Families?”

“Beats me,” said Owen. “Let’s win the war first. We can argue about whatever the hell comes next once we’re safe from Lionstone’s spite. Whatever we end up with, it can’t be worse than what we’ve got.”

“Famous last words,” said the AI calmly. “You’re an historian, Owen. You know what happens after rebellions. The winning side turn on each other and fight to the death to determine which particular faction will replace the old order. Either way, the odds are the victors will have little use for a dyed-in-the-blood aristo like you. You could end up plunging the Empire into a civil war that could last for centuries and leave planets burning in the endless night.”

“You know, you’ve got really depressing since you died. And what do you care, anyway? There’ll always be a use for an AI.”

“I don’t care,” said Oz easily. “I was just making conversation.”

“Well, shut up then. I have business with Abraxus, and I can’t talk to you there. They wouldn’t understand about dead AIs.”

Oz chuckled briefly and fell silent. Owen looked casually around to see if anyone was watching, then clambered up the rickety exterior stairs to the upper-floor entrance. The place needed a good coat of paint the last time he’d been there, and time had not improved its appearance. Patches of rising damp showed clearly in the wood, and the simple brass nameplate on the door, saying simply Abraxus, clearly hadn’t been polished in weeks. Maybe months. There was a distinct smell of cat urine, which rather puzzled Owen, as he hadn’t seen a cat all day. There was no bell, of course. Owen hammered on the door with his fist and kicked it a few times for good measure. It made him feel better. After a pause just long enough to make sure Owen understood his place, the door swung open, and the man called Chance filled the doorway. He looked Owen over, then gestured for him to enter. Owen did so, his head held high.

The place hadn’t changed. Two lines of ramshackle cots filled the long narrow room, pressed close together, with a narrow aisle down the center. On the cots lay dozing children, from four or five years old to emaciated, spindly teenagers. Intravenous drips fed nutrients into their veins, and catheters carried everything else away into grimy jars. Some of the children were covered in blankets, while others had thrown them off. A few were strapped down. There was a strong pervasive smell of cheap disinfectant and rubbing alcohol. The children were espers, brain damaged as often as not, too weak to survive on a harsh world like Mistworld. Chance bought them from their parents and used their esp abilities to spread a telepathic web over all of Mistport, seeing and hearing everything. And that was Abraxus. Chance kept the children alive as long as he could; it was in his interest to do so. But none of them ever survived to adulthood. They were the weak and the damaged, the broken and the abused, and by the time Chance got his hands on them, it was already too late. It didn’t affect Abraxus. There were always more. The children were loyal to Chance, sleeping and awake; he was the nearest thing to a friend most of them had ever known.

Owen shook his head slowly, but wouldn’t let himself look away. The first time he’d been here he’d been sickened to his soul. He’d wanted to tear the place apart, and Chance with it, but he hadn’t. Much as he hated to admit it, Abraxus was the best these children—genetically damaged and idiot savant espers with terrible pasts and little future—could hope for.

Just another product of Empire rule. Owen turned to glare at Chance, founder and manager of the Abraxus Information Center. Chance was a large muscular man, almost as broad as he was tall, wearing black leathers with metal studs. Half his face was hidden behind a complex and very ugly tattoo. His smile was meaningless, his eyes were too bright, and he didn’t blink often enough. Owen often wondered if Chance had been crazy before he started Abraxus, or if endless exposure to death and suffering had sent him over the edge. Either way, Owen maintained a safe distance, and kept his hand near his sword. Chance nodded abruptly to him.

“Knew you’d be back, Deathstalker. What can I do for you this time?”

“Don’t you know?” said Owen. “You must be slipping, Chance. I have questions that need answering.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” said Chance. “I feel I should point out you exhausted all your credit the last time you honored us with your presence. And my prices have risen dramatically. You understand how it is; small businesses always have to fight to stay afloat.”

“Your business exists because my father’s money made it possible,” Owen said flatly. “Technically, as his only heir, I inherited Abraxus.”

“You were outlawed,” said Chance. “All assets attached to the Deathstalker name were confiscated by the Empress. And besides, this is Mistport, where possession is every part of the law. Abraxus is mine.”

Owen smiled humorlessly. “I think you have me confused with someone who gives a damn. I’m back in Mistport to revitalize the old Deathstalker information network, and make it part of the ongoing rebellion again. And that very definitely includes you and Abraxus. Since, for my sins, I’m one of the people currently leading the rebellion, Abraxus answers to me. So if you want to keep your presumably very well paid managerial position, I strongly suggest you stop pissing me about. Got it?”

“You couldn’t run Abraxus without me,” said Chance. “The children are mine, body and soul.”

“They’d soon get over you. Children are so very adaptable, after all.”

Chance thought about it. “You’d risk ruining my operation, just to get control?”

“Of course,” said Owen. “I’m a Deathstalker. We have a long history of getting our way, and to hell with where the chips fall.”

Chance sniffed. “What do you want to know, Deathstalker?”

“That’s more like it. I have a question.”

“Keep it specific, if you want a specific answer. My children are espers, not oracles.”

“Ask them who killed my father,” said Owen. “Which person, specifically?”

Chance nodded, and made his way slowly down the central aisle, looking speculatively from one child to another. Owen watched impassively, hiding his own surprise at the question he’d asked. It hadn’t been the one he intended to start with. He was here to ask about his father’s information network. He hadn’t known how badly he wanted the name of his father’s killer until he heard himself say it. His father had been cut down in the street by an assassin in the pay of the Empress, and at the time Owen hadn’t really been surprised. Just assumed that one of his father’s many plots and intrigues had finally caught up with him. Mostly, Owen had just felt annoyed at the disruption the sudden death had brought to his previously well-ordered life. He hadn’t asked who the killer was. He hadn’t cared, then.

Arthur Hadrian Deathstalker, tall and handsome and ruthlessly charming, had delighted in schemes and intrigues, sometimes apparently just for their own sake. Which meant he hadn’t had much time to spend on his son. When he remembered he had a son and heir, he ran Owen’s life with an iron hand, doing as he thought best and to hell with what Owen might want. His was not a cheerful presence, and their few conversations increasingly deteriorated into blazing rows. The Deathstalker never understood that his son considered himself a scholar, rather than a warrior. When Owen heard that his father was dead, his first feeling was one of relief. He was finally out of his father’s clutches and free to be his own man at last.

It was only in recent times that Owen had finally begun to understand the forces that had moved and driven his father. Just by being the Deathstalker, Arthur had many enemies both in and outside Lionstone’s Court. An aristocrat on Golgotha could no more avoid intrigue than a fish could avoid the water it swam in. And above all that, Arthur had believed in rebellion. Whether for the sake of the Empire, or for his own amusement and advancement, Owen still wasn’t entirely sure, but more and more he was inclined to give his father the benefit of the doubt. As his own eyes were opened to the evils and horrors the Empire was based on, he understood the need to fight it by any means necessary.

He still couldn’t bring himself to love or forgive his father. The man who’d ordered his trainers to beat the crap out of his son, over and over again, trying to force to the surface the secret inheritance of the Deathstalkers—the boost. A mixture of gengineered glands and special training that for short periods made a Deathstalker stronger, faster, and sharper than any normal man. The process worked, eventually, but Owen only remembered the pain and the blood, all to give him access to something he didn’t want anyway. Only recently had Owen begun to understand that his father had been desperate to make him a fighter rather than a scholar, because he knew a scholar wouldn’t be able to survive the forces that would be unleashed by his death. And he’d been right.

As Owen became a leader of the new rebellion, and a fighter for justice, so he became his father’s son at last. And only once he understood that truth at last, did he begin to understand how much he’d lost, and how much he needed to know who’d murdered his father.

He looked up as Chance beckoned him impatiently, and moved over to join the big man, standing over a cot holding a girl who couldn’t have been more than ten. The child wore a shabby dress two sizes too large, and she stirred constantly, as though disturbed by loud voices only she could hear. Her eyes were closed, but she muttered the odd word or phrase now and again. None of them made any sense to Owen. Chance knelt beside her and produced a paper bag half full of candies. He chose one, molded it between his fingers till it was soft and pliant, then eased it into the girl’s slack mouth. She began to chew slowly. Chase put his mouth right next to her ear.

“Time to play the game, Katie. Time to tell me all those things you know. I have Owen Deathstalker here with me. He wants to know who killed his father. Whose hand guided the blade that took his life. Who was it, Katie?”

The girl frowned, her mouth pursing unhappily, but she didn’t wake. She swallowed the piece of candy and spoke in a clear, pure voice. “You asked me that long ago. The answer hasn’t changed. It was the smiling killer, the shark in shallow waters, the man who will not be stopped save by his own hand. Kid Death killed the Deathstalker.”

Owen nodded slowly, his face impassive while his hands closed into fists. He hadn’t been expecting that particular name, but it didn’t exactly come as a surprise either. Kid Death, the Empress’s favorite paid assassin for a while, also known as Lord Kit SummerIsle. Now a backer of the rebellion, and a friend of the distant cousin who’d taken the title of Lord Deathstalker after Owen was outlawed. Both currently headed for Virimonde, the planet Owen had once owned and ruled. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that Kit and Owen were on the same side now. Owen would kill him anyway, once the rebellion didn’t need him anymore. Kit SummerIsle was a dead man, along with anyone who got in his way. Anyone at all. Owen smiled slowly, and his fists unclenched. Something to look forward to.

“You didn’t come here just to ask me that,” said the young girl suddenly. Her eyes moved back and forth under her closed eyelids. “There’s something else. Something you need to know. Ask me. Ask me.”

“All right,” said Owen. There was a tightness in his chest, and he had to fight to keep his voice steady. “The last time I was here, one of you told me how I would die. I need to know if it’s still true. Has anything changed?”

“No,” said the girl flatly. “You die here, in Mistport, alone and forsaken, fighting odds too great to be beaten by any man. And after you’re dead, they’ll even steal your boots.”

“When?” said Owen. “When does this happen?”

“That’s a time question,” said the young girl, turning her head away. “I’ve never understood time.”

“Try!” said Owen. “Try, dammit!”

He reached down to grab the child by the shoulders and shake her, but Chance was there first, pulling him away. Owen threw the big man off easily, but the moment had passed, and he was in control again. He stood over the sleeping child, breathing heavily, then he turned away.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said finally, to no one in particular. “I’ve always known I’ve been on borrowed time ever since Virimonde. I was supposed to die there. Only a miracle saved me. And a man can’t expect more than one miracle in one lifetime. Still, it’s hard to hear your own death sentence, and know there’s nothing you can do to change it.”

“If you don’t want the answers, don’t ask the questions,” said Chance. “And I told you before; you can’t trust precogs. If everything they said was reliable, I’d be a rich man by now. For instance, they’ve all been saying for some time now that Something Bad is coming to Mistport, but I can’t get two of them to agree on what the hell it might be. All I’ve got is a name—Legion. But so far, the only unpleasant thing to turn up here is you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Owen. “If I have to die, I’ll die well, as a Deathstalker should.”

“Oh very poetic,” said Chance. “God save me from heroes. Look, I have a business to run. Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”

“Cut the crap,” said Owen. “We still have business to discuss. My first questions were strictly on my own behalf. Now we get to the serious stuff. I’m here representing the Golgotha underground, and on their behalf I’m officially reawakening and revitalizing my father’s old information network here in Mistport. He didn’t fund just you and Abraxus; there are dozens of people and businesses all through this city that he established and supported, in return for the gathering and passing on of useful information. Some of them went on to be very successful indeed. Movers and shakers in this big city.

“The information started drying up after my father’s murder. Presumably they thought his death freed them from their obligations. I’m here to tell them different. I’m the Deathstalker now, and I am calling in my father’s markers. With interest. The old network will rise again, this time supplying information to the new rebellion, or I will personally bankrupt every one of the sons of bitches. Including you, Chance.”

“Oh shit,” said Chance.

“Well quite,” said Owen, smiling cheerfully. “You can start by supplying the names and locations you know, and then we’ll get the rest from these espers of yours. You will then assist me in setting up a meeting of all concerned parties, somewhen today. In fact, within the next two hours, if they want to hang on to all their business interests and several vital organs. Get moving, Chance. I’ve a lot to do, and perhaps not as much time as I thought to get it done in.”

Chance made contact with the right people through his espers, a procedure from which Owen was very definitely excluded. He waited impatiently on the steps outside, debating whether to carve his initials into the door or the brickwork. Chance made an appearance just a few moments too late, looked at his door, and winced, then led Owen down the exterior stairway and off into the dizzying maze of narrow streets that made up the center of Mistport. The mist had thinned, but a fine annoying sleet was falling, turning the snow underfoot into slippery slush and mud. Owen stuck close behind Chance and tried not to think what he was doing to his expensive new boots.

They passed out of Merchants Quarter and into Guilds Quarter, and the streets and buildings improved almost immediately. There were proper pavements and regular streetlights, some of them even electric. The buildings were decorative as well as functional, and the people passing by looked of a much richer, if not necessarily happier, class. Chance finally came to a halt outside one of the older Guild Halls, and paused a moment so Owen could study it and be properly impressed. It was a squat, sturdy building with three stories, high Gothic arches, wide glass windows, and hundreds of wooden rococo doodlings in every spare inch. The gutters ended in great carved stone gargoyles, water spouting from their mouths, giving the unfortunate effect that they seemed to be vomiting on the people below. Or perhaps it was deliberate. It was a Guild Hall, after all. Owen didn’t have the heart to tell Chance he’d seen more impressive privies at Lionstone’s Court, so he just nodded thoughtfully, to show he’d finished being impressed, and gestured for Chance to lead the way in.

There were two armed guards at the front door. They bowed respectfully to Chance, and ignored Owen. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t want to make a scene. Yet. Inside, the main foyer was large and comfortable and extremely respectable. There was much polished wooden wall paneling, and a richly waxed floor that gleamed brightly in the light of the electric lamps, set not so much as to provide light but so that they could be admired the more easily. The various furnishings and fittings were luxurious to the point of opulence, and the whole place positively smelled of money, like an old family bank. Owen felt almost homesick.

As they strode in the doorway, stamping their boots on the metal grille and brushing the sleet and snow from their cloaks, a butler strode imperiously toward them, wearing an old-fashioned cutaway frock coat, a powdered wig, and a practiced sneer of utter condescension. Chance showed the butler his business card, and the man bowed briefly, a mere tilting of the head. He took Chance’s and Owen’s cloaks between thumb and forefingers and handed them over to a flunky who’d dashed forward to receive them. He then demanded they turn over their respective weapons to him, too, and that was when the trouble started.

“I don’t hand my weapons over to anyone,” said Owen.

“Don’t make a fuss,” said Chance, unbuckling his belt and handing over his sword. “It’s nothing personal. Just standard security. Everyone does it.”

“I’m not everyone,” said Owen. “And my weapons stay with me. They’d feel naked without me.”

“I must insist,” said the butler, in icy tones. “We don’t let just anyone walk in off the street, you know.”

Owen punched him out. The unconscious butler’s body made a satisfyingly loud thud as it hit the waxed floor some distance away and slid a few yards before coming to a halt. People everywhere turned to look. A few looked quietly approving. Security guards with drawn swords appeared from hidden doorways, only to stop dead as Owen let his hand rest ostentatiously near his energy gun.

“He’s with me,” Chance said quickly. “Much as I wish he wasn’t. He is expected.”

The security guards looked at each other, shrugged, and put away their swords, clearly deciding that this was someone else’s problem. Everyone else in the foyer came to the same conclusion, and the polite murmur of conversation resumed. Owen nodded graciously around him as the unconscious butler was dragged away.

“Please don’t do that again,” said Chance. “First impressions are so important.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” said Owen. “Now get a move on, or I’ll piss in the potted plants.”

“I wish I thought you were joking,” said Chance. “This way. Try not to kill anyone important.”

They pressed on into the depths of the Guild Hall, Chance leading the way in something of a hurry. The surroundings remained determinedly lush and expensive. Servants and real people hastened back and forth on silent errands of great importance. Speaking was apparently discouraged, save for the occasional hushed whisper. Owen felt very strongly that he would have liked to sneak up behind some of them and shout Boo! in their ears, just to see what would happen, but he didn’t have the time. Maybe on the way back.

They all looked very neat and businesslike. Their outfits were a bit dated, but this was Mistport, after all. They all seemed to know Chance, and never missed an opportunity to bestow a lip-curling sneer in his direction whenever they thought he wasn’t looking. Chance ignored them all magnificently. They finally came to a dead end, personified by a grim, entirely unsmiling secretary behind a desk in an outer office, set there to protect her boss from unwanted visitors. She was slim and prematurely elderly, and looked tough enough to eat glass. The guards probably sharpened their swords on her between shifts. Her clothes successfully erased any sign of femininity, and her gaze was firm enough to shrivel weeds.

“If you don’t have an appointment, there is nothing I can do for you,” she said, in a tone cold enough to make penguins shiver. “You may make an appointment if you wish, but I can tell you now that Mr. Neeson has no openings in his calendar for the next several weeks.”

Chance looked at Owen. “This is as far as I can get you. Some obstacles are simply too great. Please don’t hit her.”

“Wouldn’t think of it,” said Owen. “I’d probably break my hand.” He leaned over the desk to stare into the secretary’s flinty eyes. “I am Owen Deathstalker. My father’s money paid for this business. I’ve come to call in the IOU. Right now.”

The secretary didn’t flinch, though one eyebrow twitched briefly at the name Deathstalker. “I see. I’m sure that normally Mr. Neeson would be only too happy to see you, but as things are, my desk is completely full . . .”

Owen stepped back, drew his sword, raised it above his head and brought it hammering down with all his boosted strength behind it. The heavy blade sheared clean through the wooden desk, cleaving it into two jagged halves that fell away to either side of the secretary. Chance shook his head slowly. Owen put his sword away. The secretary cleared her throat.

“I think you should go right in, Lord Deathstalker. I’m sure Mr. Neeson can find a few minutes to see you. I’ll make sure you’re not disturbed. Would either of you care for tea or coffee?”

“Make it a brandy,” said Owen. “A large one. Mr. Neeson’s going to need it.” He grinned at Chance. “You just have to know how to talk to these people. My Family has been practicing for centuries. Personally, I’ve always thought I’d make a great diplomat.”

“You’re not in yet,” said Chance. “This is just the outer office. Beyond that door is the antechamber. The real watchdogs will be waiting there.”

“Well, if they get a bit snappy, I’ll throw them a bone. Which one would you miss least?”

They passed through the connecting door and found themselves in a small, bare chamber. Between them and the far door were three large, muscular men. Each one had a heavy ax in his hands. The men looked calm and very professional. The axes looked as if they’d seen a lot of use. Chance looked at Owen.

“An interesting problem in tactics. No room to maneuver, and absolutely no point in trying to talk to them. You might take out one with your disrupter, but the other two would be on you before you could even raise your sword. And a sword is no use against axes. I am, of course, unable to assist you. I have to maintain my position of strict impartiality. You understand.”

“Of course. Normally if I was facing three Neanderthals like these, I’d be impartial as hell, too. But unfortunately for them, I am in something of a hurry, not to mention a really bad mood, and I can just use someone to take it out on. Watch and learn.”

He stepped forward, empty-handed, and the three guards came to meet him, axes raised. It was all over in a few seconds. Owen punched out the first guard, swiveled on one foot and kicked the second in the groin. And while the third was still raising his ax, Owen stepped forward, grabbed two handfuls of the man’s shirtfront, and headbutted him in the face. Chance’s jaw dropped. Owen stood there, not even breathing hard, looking around him with quiet satisfaction. The three guards sat or lay moaning on the floor, all looking very upset.

“You’re right,” said Chance. “You’d make a terrific diplomat. No one would dare disagree with you. I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. What the hell are you?”

“I’m a Deathstalker, and don’t you forget it.” Owen strode over to the far door and rattled the door handle. It was locked. He tut-tutted loudly and hit the door with his shoulder. It burst inward, one hinge torn right out of the wooden frame, Owen pushed the door back, carefully straightening it up again, and smiled at the half dozen men sitting around the long table before him. “Knock, knock,” he said brightly. “I’m Owen Deathstalker, and you’re in big trouble. Any questions?”

“Come in, Lord Deathstalker,” said the man at the head of the table. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Yeah,” said Owen. “I’ll just bet you have.” He looked back at Chance. “Find a chair, sit down, and keep quiet. I don’t want any distractions.”

“Suits me,” said Chance. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world. But you are strictly on your own now, Deathstalker.”

The six men glared at Chance as he pulled up a chair and sat down in a far corner, where he could see everything but stay well out of the line of fire. Owen moved to stand at the end of the long table, and all their eyes snapped back to him. He looked from one scowling face to another, taking his time. He didn’t recognize any of them, but he knew men of influence and power when he saw them. Not just from their perfect tailoring and extra weight, but in their attitude. Their untouched confidence. They were annoyed at his arrival, but not concerned. They weren’t afraid of him. They’d been rich and secure for so long they’d got out of the habit of being afraid of anyone. Owen smiled briefly. He’d change that.

And if they reminded him just a little of himself, the way he used to be before he was shocked awake, then that just made it all the worse for them.

“Would you like me to identify these people?” said Oz. “I have all their details in my data banks.”

“Sure,” said Owen, subvocalizing. “Make yourself useful for once. Hold on a minute—data banks? Where is your hardware these days?”

“Don’t get personal. And pay attention; I’m not running through all this twice. We’ll start at the left and go clockwise. Beginning with Artemis Daley, a man of many trades. He’s a supplier, a fixer. You want it, he can get it for you. Legal or illegal are petty considerations that have never bothered him. If you’re late with the payments, he’s the one who sends around the legbreakers to reason with you.

“Next to him, we have Timothy Neeson, banker. He owns this building, and a lot more of Mistport. Number one in a very small field, which means that locally he’s very powerful. Nothing of an economic nature takes place in Mistport without him taking a cut somewhere along the line. Next to him is Walt Robbins, the biggest landlord in Mistport. He owns everything the banks don’t. Specializes in slums and sweathouses, because that’s where the most money is.

“Moving down the other side of the table we have Thomas Stacey. Acts as a lawyer for everyone else here, and for anyone else with enough money to meet his exacting standards. Never lost a case, and that has nothing to do with his legal skills. And finally we come to Matthew Connelly and Padraig MacGowan. Connelly owns and runs the docks, everything from the starport to the landing bays on the River Autumn, and MacGowan runs the dock union. Between them they keep things running smoothly, irrespective of who gets hurt in the process. And there you have the movers and shakers of Mistport, in all their sleazy glory. If you killed all of them right now, the smell of Mistport would improve dramatically.”

“I never knew you knew so much about Mistport,” Owen subvocalized.

“Lot about me you don’t know. I am large, I contain wonders.”

“Do you have something to say to us, Deathstalker?” said Neeson, the banker, a large fat man with a straining waistcoat. “Or are you just going to stand there and stare at us all day?”

“Just gathering my thoughts,” said Owen. “We have a lot of history between us, gentlemen. My father’s money brought you to where you are today. Deathstalker money, originally intended to fund an information network here in Mistport. He put you into positions of power and influence so that you could keep track of things for him. Instead, you used his money to become major economic forces in this city, becoming so rich and powerful you forgot your original purpose. Or perhaps you simply decided that such things were no longer important to people as rich and powerful as yourselves.”

“Got it in one,” said Stacey, the lawyer, long and stringy, with broken veins prominent in his cheeks. “And we’ve absolutely no intention of becoming politicized again. We don’t think in such small ways anymore. We’ve made over our lives, and we like things fine just the way they are. Among us, we run Mistport; we are the economic lifeblood that keeps this society moving. Mess with us, even threaten us, and the whole city’s economy would collapse. We’d see to that. People would lose their savings, money would become worthless, and people would starve as food piled up undistributed on the docks. You can’t touch us, Deathstalker. All the people in Mistport would rise up and tear you apart if you even tried.”

“They’d get over it,” said Owen. “Once they saw the old corrupt system being replaced by a fairer one.”

“Fairness is a relative concept,” said Robbins, the landlord, a short fat barrel of a man. “There will always be rich and poor. We provide stability. You don’t understand the economic realities of a rebel planet like Mistworld.”

“I understand greed,” said Owen. “I understand treachery and self-interest. And I certainly understand bloodsucking scum when I see them.”

“That’s good,” said Oz. “Win them over with flattery.”

“We know why you’re here,” said Daley, the fixer, a large hunched man with a brooding face. “You want to take our lives away from us in the name of your rebellion and naive politics. Well, boy, you’ve come a long way for nothing. These days, our influence extends far beyond Mistworld, with investments on many worlds. Even Golgotha. Elias Gutman has been very helpful in shaping our portfolios. Yes, I thought you’d recognize that name. A man of real power and influence. He told us you were coming.”

“Gutman,” said Owen, as though the name was an obscenity. “He’s come crawling around the rebellion more than once, but I’ve always known his vested interests lie with the Empire. His information comes straight from the Empress herself. When you followed his advice, you did Lionstone’s bidding, right here on the rebel planet. Can any of you say, ‘conflict of interest’?”

“Money has no loyalties. Or politics,” said Neeson. “Gutman has always been a good friend to us.”

“I’ll bet he has,” said Owen, his voice getting colder all the time. “And when his loans finally come due, you’ll find the money by squeezing it out of the people here, who owe you. Whether they can afford it or not. And Mistworld will become just another planet bleeding itself dry to maintain Golgotha’s wealth.”

He looked round the table, to be met only with flat stares or indifferent shrugs. “That’s business,” said Daley.

“That’s injustice,” said Owen. “And I have sworn an oath on my blood and on my honor to put an end to it. Which means putting an end to you, and your cosy little setup. Maybe I’ll kill you all, and see if your heirs prove more reasonable to work with. Either way, your money will be used to support the rebellion, as it was always intended to be. As my father intended.”

“I don’t think so,” said Neeson. “Guards! Take him!”

Doors flew open on every side and a small army of guards came crashing in, armed with swords and axes and even a few disrupters. Owen subvocalized the word boost, and a familiar strength flooded through him. He felt almost supernaturally awake and aware, as though up till now he’d spent this life sleeping. He felt he could do anything, take any risk, and never pay the cost. Owen clamped down hard on that. It was the boost talking, not him. He was boosting too much and too often these days, despite the dangers, and he knew it, but he trusted to the Maze’s changes to protect him from what would otherwise be crippling side effects. He had to; there was work to be done. The blood pounded in his head and in his sword arm, calling him on to battle, and he gave in to it with a smile that could just as easily have been a snarl.

The guards seemed almost to be moving in slow motion as he threw himself into the midst of them, knowing the few with disrupters wouldn’t dare use them rashly for fear of hitting their own people. His sword flashed brightly as he swung it with inhuman strength and speed, and blood flew on the air. There were shouts and curses and hysterical orders from the six men around the table, and over it all came the sound of men screaming horribly as Owen’s unstoppable blade worked butchery on their bodies. He moved among them like a deadly ghost, too fast to be stopped or even parried, his sword flashing in and out in a second. He seemed to be everywhere at once, hacking and cutting, and men fell howling in pain and horror before him. A man’s arm fell to the floor, the hand still clutching desperately at nothing. Bodies fell to litter the blood-soaked carpet, and did not rise again. A disrupter blast scorched the great table from end to end, hitting no one, but leaving a long trail of burning wood behind it.

Owen was laughing now, though there was little humor in the sound. The battle raged from one end of the room to the other, blood splashing the walls till they all ran crimson. The six most powerful men in Mistport retreated from the burning table and huddled together in one corner of the room, watching with disbelief as one man laid waste to their private army. And then, quite suddenly, it was over, and Owen Deathstalker stood among the dead and the dying, a death’s head grin on his face. He looked slowly around him, blood dripping thickly from his blade. His clothes were splashed and soaked with gore, and none of it was his. He wasn’t even breathing hard. He turned his smile on the six movers and shakers of Mistport, and they cringed before him. Owen dropped out of boost, but the expected tiredness didn’t hit him. He still felt like he could take on the whole city if he had to. Chance came crawling out from under the burning table, where he’d taken shelter. Owen put out a hand to help him up, and Chance flinched away. He scrambled to his feet, looking at Owen with new eyes.

“They never stood a chance. You cut them down like cattle. What in God’s name are you?”

“I’m a Deathstalker,” said Owen. “And don’t you forget it.”

He turned his gaze on the six men huddled together in the far corner of the room. Only a few even tried to meet his gaze. Owen moved unhurriedly toward them, stepping casually over the unmoving bodies. His boots squelched quietly in the blood-soaked carpet. Stacey, the lawyer, glared at Owen with something like defiance.

“You’re a monster; but you still can’t beat us. We have the money. We can hire more men. We can hire a whole army of mercenaries, if that’s what it takes to bring you down.”

“Bring on your army,” said Owen. “Let them all come. They won’t save you.”

“You can’t kill us,” said Neeson. “If we die, all our money will be tied up in probate. Maybe for years. No one would be able to touch it.”

“Nothing’s going to stop me,” said Owen. “Not you, not the law, not the whole damned Empire. Your day is over, and I’m bringing down the night.”

“You’re crazy!” said Daley. “Just like your father was!”

“My father was worth a hundred of you!” said Owen, and he put away his sword. He was too angry. He wanted to do this with his bare hands. Boosted strength roared within him again, and something else as well. He grabbed the long heavy table, ignoring the flames, lifted it off the floor, and tore it in two. He let the jagged halves fall to the floor and advanced on the six secret masters of Mistport. They ran screaming for the door, Chance right behind them. They ran through the outer chamber, yelling for help, and Owen came right behind them.

He was more than human now, an almost elemental force on a rampage. His anger stormed through the rooms and corridors, smashing everything in its path. Walls cracked and collapsed, the bricks crumbling and the mortar exploding into dust. Great vents appeared in the floor and ceilings. Wood burst into flames, burning with a harsh unnatural light. People ran screaming as ceilings collapsed, showering them with falling masonry. The carpeted floors undulated like waves on an ocean, before rising up and splitting apart like a never-ending earthquake. And behind them all came Owen Deathstalker, silent and remorseless, bringing down the great Guild Hall as he would one day bring down the Empire it represented.

A few brave guards tried to stop him, and were swept aside. Doors were blown off their hinges and exploded out of doorways. Windows shattered, the jagged glass flying like shrapnel. Scattered papers flew on the air like frightened birds. Walls bulged apart and ruptured water pipes sprayed everywhere. Exposed electrical wires sparked and crackled. The whole building seemed to be roaring in pain as it slowly collapsed in upon itself. Owen Deathstalker walked on through the screams and the chaos, and found it good. One brave soul fired a disrupter at him, but the energy beam bounced harmlessly away. Nothing could touch or stop him now.

He finally came to the last door, the door through which he’d originally entered the Guild Hall. The door exploded from its frame, flying out into the street before the crowds who’d come to see what was happening. They were babbling and shouting as the Hall collapsed, but when Owen stepped out into the street they fell suddenly silent and backed away. They could feel the power in and around him, beating on the air like a giant heartbeat. Owen let his mind drift back through what was left of the building, making sure no one was trapped inside, and then he brought it all down in one giant upheaval. The roar of crashing masonry filled the street, and smoke billowed out of the empty doorways and window frames. In only moments what had been one of the greatest Guild Halls in Mistport was reduced to nothing but a pile of rubble. Silence slowly fell, broken only by the muffled sounds of debris settling. The buildings on either side stood completely unaffected. And the one man responsible for it all looked upon what his anger had done and found it good. He slowly brought his power back inside him and shut it down, and was just a man again.

That was when the Watch turned up. All ten of them. They stopped some distance away and studied the scene carefully. Owen smiled at them.

“Private business. Hostile takeover. Nothing for you to worry about, gentlemen.”

The Watch looked at him, then at what was left of the building, and finally at each other, before deciding firmly to go and Watch somewhere else. The six men who used to run Mistport called plaintively after the Watch as they left, but they were ignored. The Watch didn’t interfere in private quarrels. This was Mistport, after all. The six men turned slowly to look at Owen, who stood before them, smiling unpleasantly.

“You poor bastards wouldn’t last five minutes on Golgotha,” Owen said calmly. “They’d eat you alive and still have room for dessert. Now do as you’re told, and you might get out of this alive and still attached to most of your major organs. Kneel down.” They did so. They had no fight left in them. “You’ve got a new boss, gentlemen. A Deathstalker is back in charge. From this moment on, you are going to dig into your no doubt cavernous pockets and rebuild the information network as my father originally envisaged it. A means of collecting and compiling information to protect and serve the people of Mistworld, and keep it safe from outside attack and influences. You will also pay for the conceiving and setting up of new defenses to protect this planet. With the psionic screen weakened by the esper plague, you’re going to need a strong high-tech system to back it up. Get on it. And finally, my father’s money was always intended to make possible a fairer and easier life for the people of this city. I expect a series of wide-ranging but practical schemes from all of you, in writing, within the week. If anybody’s late, I’ll have him nailed to a wall to motivate the others. And I am not being metaphorical.”

“But . . . we have shareholders,” said Neeson. “People we have to answer to. They’d never let us do all that . . .”

“Send them to me,” said Owen Deathstalker. “I’ll convince them. Anybody else have something to say? No? Good. You’re learning. Now you six assholes are going to obey my instructions, to the letter, or I’ll turn you inside out. Slowly. Is that perfectly clear?”

They all nodded vigorously, and Owen turned his back on them and strode off down the street. He could still feel the power the Maze had given him, wrapped around him like a comforting cloak. The Maze had changed him, in ways he didn’t understand yet, but the power was real and it was his, and he reveled in it. He felt like he could do anything, if he just put his mind to it. And it felt so good, to be able to put things right in such a simple and direct manner.

“You do realize,” said Oz, “that you’re walking in the wrong direction if you want to head back to the center of town?”

“Shut up, Oz. I’m making a dramatic exit.”

He decided he would go to the rooms they had booked and see how Hazel and John Silver were getting on. He couldn’t wait to see the Security man’s face when he told him what he’d done to the Guild Hall. Who knew; it might even impress Hazel, just a little. He was worried about her. Despite the new power within him, he still couldn’t feel her presence through their mental link. Besides, he wanted to talk to Hazel about this new power, and what it felt like. Maybe she had it, too. They had so much to discuss. Owen Deathstalker strode on through the streets of Mistport, and the mists themselves curled back to get out of his way.

* * * *

Hazel d’Ark and John Silver, old rogues and older friends, sat in their comfortable chairs on either side of the open fire, sipping hot chocolate from lumpy porcelain mugs, and staring at the small phial of black Blood standing on the table beside them. It didn’t look like much, but then the really dangerous things never do. They both knew what it could do, both to and for them, and it was a sign of their strength of will that they hesitated. Blood came from the Wampyr, the synthetic plasma of the adjusted men. Just a few drops could make a normal human strong and fast and confident. For as long as you kept taking it. Blood could make you feel wonderfully alive and aware, as though the normal world was just a grim and grey depressing nightmare from which you had finally awakened. Of course, the effect never lasted, and gradually you needed larger and larger doses to achieve the same effects. And slowly, drop by drop, the Blood burned you up from within. It had been designed to bring Wampyr back from the dead and make them superhuman. It had never been meant to coexist with the merely human system.

But people wanted it, needed it, would fight and kill for it; so there were always those ready to synthesize and market it, for the right price. Especially on a planet like Mistworld.

“It’s really very simple,” said Silver. “As head of starport Security, I have access to all Blood confiscated on the streets. And as I control all the computer records, no one’s going to notice if I liberate a few drops now and then, for myself and a few special friends. You can’t try and run a hellhole like Mistport without some crutch or other to lean on. And we don’t all have it in us to be incorruptible heroes, like Investigator Topaz. I’m not an addict. I can control it. I’m not so sure about you. Hazel. You always were the greedy kind. Coming off it the last time nearly killed you. You really want to go through that again?”

Hazel stared down into her mug, not looking at him. “You don’t know the pressure I’m under, John. So much has happened in such a short time. One minute I’m just a small-time outlaw, of no interest or importance to anyone but myself, and the next I’m a rebel, and everyone’s after my head. Including some of those supposed to be on my side. As long as I was fighting and running for my life and didn’t have time to think, I was fine, but now . . . Everything I do matters, everything I say has consequences, not just for me but for the whole damned rebellion. They’ve made me a bloody hero and a leader, and expect me to be perfect.

“And that’s not all. Something happened to me on the Wolfling World, John. Something . . . changed me. I’m more than I used to be, and I’m scared all the time. I don’t think I’m me anymore. I have bad dreams, and I can’t tell if I’m remembering the past or the future. I can do things now that I never could before. Strange and terrible things. The Blood is the only thing that helps. It . . . stabilizes me, calms me . . . helps me believe I’m still human.”

She put down her mug and reached out with her hand, and the glass phial of Blood leaped up from the table and shot into her waiting hand. Silver looked at her, startled.

“I didn’t know you were an esper, Hazel.”

“I’m not. I’m something else. Something . . . more.” She unscrewed the top of the phial and sniffed delicately at the black liquid inside. Her nostrils flared as the familiar scent filled her head, dark and smoky. She breathed deeply, sucking it into her lungs, and sparks flared and fluttered in her veins. She tilted the phial carefully, and allowed a single drop of Blood to fall onto her tongue. She swallowed quickly, to avoid as much of the bitter wormwood taste as she could, and then refastened the phial’s cap and put it back on the table, so not to be tempted to take a second drop. She leaned back in her chair, and groaned aloud as the familiar heat rushed through her, burning along her nerves, making her strong and powerful and confident again. The pressures and the duties and the doubts that plagued her were swept away, and, for the first time in days, her face relaxed. She smiled slowly. It felt so good. So good not to have to care anymore.

Silver watched her from his chair, keeping his own counsel till he was sure she was well under. He had intended to join her, but memories of what Hazel had been like in the worst throes of addiction had changed his mind. He wasn’t an addict. He could control himself. So he stayed straight and sober, because he had a strong feeling that Hazel needed him to be there, watching over her. Even as he thought that, her half-shut drowsing eyes snapped suddenly open, and she sprang to her feet, looking wildly about her. Silver was quickly on his feet, too, putting his mug on the table so he could take Hazel by the arms. She didn’t seem to notice him, and her arms were rigid as steel bars. Silver watched her carefully. You had to be careful with Blood users, when you weren’t cranked yourself. With their new strength they could kill a normal human in a moment and not give a damn till after the Blood had worn off. Hazel stared about her, her head twisting violently from side to side, her eyes huge in her suddenly gaunt face.

“Hazel,” said Silver, keeping his voice carefully calm and even. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s different,” Hazel said thickly. “I’m different. I shouldn’t have taken Blood here. Not with so many espers around. They’re . . . affecting me. I can’t tell what’s in my head and what’s outside. The Blood’s . . . awakening something within me. Something I didn’t even know was there. I can see things, John, so many things. Nothing’s hidden from me anymore.”

She stared at the wall before her, and suddenly it was gone. It only took Silver a moment to realize that he was seeing what she was seeing; her mind linking with his to show him what was in the next room. The young burglar named Cat was spilling brightly shining jewels onto a table from a leather pouch, while his fence, the woman called Cyder, laughed and clapped her hands. Hazel turned her head away, and the wall became visible again. She glared at the opposite wall, and it disappeared to reveal a card game deteriorating into muffled shouts and accusations.

Silver tried to shake her, but couldn’t move her an inch. She suddenly turned her stare on him, and in that moment he felt utterly transparent, as though she could see everything within him, good and bad and in between, all captured in a moment. She seemed bigger than Silver, towering over him like some ancient god of judgment with no trace of mercy or compassion. He stepped backwards, jerking his hands away from her arms as though they’d burned him. Hazel’s stare turned inward, and images began to blink in and out around her. Visions came and were gone in seconds, cycling through faces and places, some of which Silver recognized.

An old man sat slumped on a cot, worn and broken down by life, wearing a janitor’s uniform. “They broke me. Go look somewhere else for your savior or leader.” Then he was gone, and Owen took his place, bleeding from a dozen wounds, sword held out to ward off an unseen enemy. “When you see the opening, run, Hazel. I’ll keep them occupied.” A mob of shadows surged forward from all sides, and he disappeared beneath them, still swinging his sword. They blinked out, replaced by a grinning Ruby Journey. “I’m just in it for the loot.” Silver tried to reach out to Hazel again, but couldn’t get near her. Her memories had the force of reality.

Ruby was replaced by a tall, furred, and lupine figure that Silver realized with a jolt had to be a legendary Wolfling. The huge figure looked right at Silver, and said, “It is a sad and bitter honor to be the last of one’s kind.” He disappeared, replaced by a Hadenman with glowing golden eyes. Behind him towered a vast honeycomb of gold and silver, thickly encrusted with ice. The long-lost Tomb of the Hadenmen. The augmented man called Tobias Moon stared at Silver, and said in his buzzing inhuman voice, “All we ever wanted was our freedom.” And then the ice melted, and strange colors came and went on the air, and the Hadenmen emerged from their Tomb, great and glorious and perfect beyond hope. And then there was only Owen again, staring sadly into Hazel’s eyes. “You can’t fight evil by becoming evil.”

Hazel turned away from him, and Owen disappeared as she looked at Silver. Their eyes met, and new visions appeared. Silver, making deals with crooks and scum, to keep the peace in Mistport’s streets. Silver, paying off legbreakers like Marcus Rhine, so they wouldn’t interfere with his Blood distribution network. Silver, looking the other way, as rivals were eased out or shut down the hard way. The visions faded away, and Hazel looked at Silver with new, cold eyes.

“Just a few drops, now and then, for you and a few special friends? Bullshit. You’ve been running your own distribution network for the drug, all over the city. How many new plasma babies are there out there now, John? How many Blood junkies lying stiff and cold in empty rooms because they couldn’t afford your prices?”

“I don’t know,” said Silver. “I try not to think about it. I’m just . . . getting by, like everyone else in Mistport. Inflation’s gone crazy since the esper plague. Money’s not worth half what it was. What savings I had were wiped out. If I wasn’t doing it, someone else would. You know that. I never meant to hurt anybody, but . . .”

“Yes,” said Hazel. “But. There’s always a but, isn’t there?”

Silver stepped forward, one hand reaching out to her. She grabbed it with her own, and he winced at the harsh, unforgiving strength in her. She smiled at him coldly. “The show’s not over yet, John. You’ve seen the past and the present. Now here comes the future. Whether we’re ready or not.”

Her hand clamped down hard, and Silver cried out as the room disappeared around them and chaos took its place. People were running screaming in the streets of Mistport. Buildings were burning. Attack sleds filled the skies above. Energy beams stabbed down through billowing clouds of black smoke. The dead lay everywhere. War machines smashed through the city walls. Burning barges floated down a River Autumn thick with blood and choked with corpses. And above it all, a never ending scream that had nothing of Humanity in it. Hazel released Silver’s hand and reality crashed back as the small cramped room reappeared around them. Silver fell back a step, shaking and shuddering, his head still full of the stench of spilled blood and burning bodies, the hideous unending scream still ringing his ears. Hazel stood and looked at him, cold and unforgiving as any oracle.

“That’s the future, John. Your future and mine. And you helped bring it about. Something Bad is coming to Mistworld, Something Very Bad. And it will be here soon.”

And then suddenly she was just Hazel again, her cloak of power and majesty gone in a moment, and she sank back down into her chair by the fire again, looking small and tired and very, very vulnerable. Silver slowly moved forward and sat down in the chair facing her. Part of him wanted to run screaming from the room, but he couldn’t do that. Part of him was frightened almost to panicking by the hideous thing he’d seen his old friend become, but he couldn’t let her see that. She needed him, needed her old friend and comrade, and though he had done many awful things in his time, a few of which even he was ashamed of, John Silver was damned if he’d let her down. They sat in silence for a long while, the only sound in the room the quiet crackling as logs shifted in the heat of the fire. The room seemed very cold.

“What happened to you, Hazel?” Silver said finally. “You never had those powers before.”

Hazel smiled wearily. “What happened to you, John? What happened to the people we used to be?”

“Things were simpler, when we were young,” said Silver, looking into the fire because he found it easier than looking at her. “You were a merc, and I was a pirate, both of us convinced we were destined for greater things. We made a great team as confidence artists. We ran the Angel of Night swindle for three years straight, remember? Though my favorite was always the lost Stargate con. I had great fun making up the maps. So impressive, they were practically works of art. We’d still be running those cons if we hadn’t got unlucky.”

“And greedy,” said Hazel.

“That too.”

“Things were simpler then. It was us versus them, and we only took money from those who could afford to lose it. Simple, innocent days. But we changed, moved on. We’re not who we used to be. Our friends and allegiances have changed, and all we have in common now are our memories and Blood. And neither of them comfort me like they used to. Can we trust each other anymore, John?”

“We have to,” said Silver. “No one else would.”

“Owen would,” said Hazel.

Silver made himself look at her. “You know him better than I do. What’s he really like, this Deathstalker?”

“He’s a good man, though he doesn’t realize it. A hero. The real thing. Brave and dedicated and too damn honest for his own good. He’ll end up leading this rebellion completely before he’s through. Not because he wants to, but just because he’s the best man for the job. He’s a nice guy, but there’s so much he doesn’t understand. Like the pressures and responsibilities and insecurities that drive lesser people like you and me to Blood or drink or dumb relationships. He’s never needed a crutch to lean on in his life. He just sees the right thing and goes for it, complaining all the while, fooling nobody. A good man, in bad times.”

“You love him, don’t you?” said Silver.

“I never said that,” said Hazel.

Silver knew what was needed. He made himself lean forward till their faces were only inches apart, and then he kissed her, and both of them knew it was good-bye. And that was when Owen Deathstalker entered the room and saw them together. He stopped just inside the doorway, saying nothing as Hazel and Silver broke apart and rose quickly to their feet. For a long moment, no one said anything. Hazel was breathing deeply, but her face wasn’t flushed. Silver saw Owen’s hand drop to the sword at his side, saw the coldness in Owen’s eyes, and knew he was very close to death. Not because Owen was jealous, but because this was one too many secrets, one too many betrayals that had been kept from him. And then Owen’s eyes went to the phial of Blood on the table, and everything changed. He knew what it was, and what it meant, and anger and a great weariness fought for space inside him.

“So that’s it,” he said flatly. “No wonder our mental link’s been so screwed up, with all that junk in your head. How long have you been taking it, Hazel?”

“Long enough.”

“Where did you get it?”

“From the Hadenmen city. Moon was very understanding.” Hazel’s voice wavered between defiance and a need for him to understand. “I need it, Owen.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because I knew you’d react like this! You don’t understand the pressures I’ve been under!”

“We’ve been together from the beginning. What have you been through that I haven’t? Dammit, Hazel, I was depending on you to hold up your end in Mistport! I can’t do everything! Our work here is important!”

“I know!” Hazel glared at him, her hands clenched into fists. “You depend on me, the underground depends on me, the whole bloody rebellion depends on me! Did it never occur to anyone that I might get tired of carrying so much weight? We can’t all be superhuman like you, Owen. We can’t all be bloody heroes. You’ve never had a moment’s indecision in your life, have you? You’ve always known the right thing to do, the right thing to say. But we can’t all be perfect!”

“I’m not perfect,” said Owen. “I just do my job. And that’s all I’ve ever expected of you.”

“You’re not listening to me,” said Hazel. “You never listen to me.”

“Why did you never tell me about you and Silver?”

“Because it was none of your business!”

“You never told me about him. You never told about the Blood. What else haven’t you told me about? I thought I could trust you, Hazel. I thought I could trust you, at least.”

“You see? You’re doing it again! Trying to put all the weight on my shoulders so you can be the victim of the piece! Well to hell with that, and to hell with you, Owen Deathstalker, I’m not going to carry it anymore. I’m sick of carrying the weight of your needs and your expectations! And I’m sick of you . . .”

“Yes,” said Owen. “You’d rather have him, and the poison he feeds you. Anything to avoid having to grow up and be a responsible adult. To support those who depend on you. To care about the people who care about you. You want him; he’s all yours. I’m going out to get some fresh air.”

And he turned and stalked out, slamming the door behind him, because there was so much anger burning inside him that the only other thing he could have done was hit her, and they both knew she would never have forgotten or forgiven that. And because he wanted to kill John Silver so badly he could taste it. He’d thought that he and Hazel, that someday the two of them might . . . but he’d thought many things, and none of them ever worked out the way he hoped. He’d already lost so many things he cared for. He shouldn’t be surprised that the only woman he ever loved would be taken away from him, too.

He should never have come back to Mistport. Nothing ever went right here. It wasn’t as though he’d had any hold on Hazel. She went her own way and always would. He’d known that. But he thought she’d chosen to walk with him, for a while at least. She could have come to him about her worries. She could have come to him about the drug. He would have tried to understand, tried to help. He understood about pressure. He’d spent all his life trying to live up to the Deathstalker name.

He strode heavily down the stairs and pushed his way through the packed crowd in the tavern. Some people made as though to object. Then they saw his face, and thought better of it. They knew sudden death walking when they saw it. Owen pushed open the door and stepped out into the street, and the cold air hit him, sobering him like a slap in the face. The door swung shut behind him, cutting off most of the tavern roar, and he leaned back against it, damping down his rage, getting it under control again. It took him a moment to realize that the street was completely empty. Which was unusual, to say the least, in a perpetually busy city like Mistport. Faces watched from darkened windows, as though expecting something to happen. Owen pushed himself away from the door, his hands falling to the sword and disrupter on his hips. There was danger here, close and ready. He’d have noticed it earlier if he hadn’t been so wrapped up in himself. Three men were suddenly standing on the opposite side of the street, staring at him. Either they were teleporters, or more likely they’d hidden their presence behind a telepathic shield. They didn’t look like much. Average height, plain average faces, they wore the same thick furs as everyone else. But there was a power in them. Owen could feel it, even if he didn’t quite understand what it was yet. The man in the middle stepped forward. His eyes were very dark in a pale face.

“You have enemies, Deathstalker. Powerful men require your death.”

“Well hell,” said Owen. “Gosh, I am scared. What are the three of you going to do, gang up on me? Look, I am really not in the mood for this. Why don’t you just start running now, and I’ll give you a five minute start.”

The man in the middle just smiled, and shook his head. “Time to die, Deathstalker.”

The ground rocked suddenly under Owen’s feet, throwing him off-balance. He grabbed for his sword, and the street before him split apart, a wide vent opening up as jagged cracks spread in all directions. A bloody light blazed up out of the fissure, and the air was suddenly full of the stench of brimstone and burning flesh. Screams of innumerable people in horrible agony rose up out of the vent far far below. The ground shuddered again, and even as Owen fought for balance he was thrown forward, toward the great crack and all it contained. He could feel an impossible heat now, radiating up from the crevice, as sweat burst out on his face. His furs began to blacken and steam in the heat, and the bare skin of his face and hands began to redden and smart as he stumbled ever closer to the great vent in the street. He fought for control on the edge of the abyss, the crimson air boiling around him. The screams and the stench of sulfur were almost overpowering. Lengths of steel chain shot up out of the crack, ending in great metal barbs that tore through his clothes and sank deep into his flesh. Owen cried out as the chains snapped taut, and began to drag him slowly and remorselessly into the abyss and down to Hell, where he belonged.

But even at the very edge of damnation, Owen still wouldn’t give in. He braced himself, and the chains snapped, the broken ends whipping back into the great vent The heat blazed up, hot enough to burn him down to blackened bone, and he withstood it. Slowly the thought formed in Owen’s mind, I don’t believe this. I don’t believe in any of this. And in that moment the crevice and the hellfire were gone, and the street was back to normal, everything as it had been. Owen breathed deeply of the cold, bracing air and glared at the three men on the other side of the street.

“Projective telepaths,” he said flatly. “Strong enough to place an illusion in another man’s mind, and convince him it’s so real that when his image dies, so does he. Pretty rare in the Empire, but presumably not on a planet of espers. Well, gentlemen, you gave it your best shot. Now let me show you mine.”

Storm clouds rumbled suddenly overhead, and lightning stabbed down to strike the telepath in the middle. The force of the blast killed him in a moment, and threw the other two off their feet. Lightning struck again, and the second man died. The sole survivor scrambled frantically backwards through the slush and snow, staring at Owen with wild, desperate eyes.

“The lightning isn’t real! I don’t believe in it!”

“Suit yourself,” said Owen. “But it’s perfectly real. And storms don’t care whether you believe in them or not. I deal strictly in reality.”

The esper swallowed hard. “If you’ll spare my life, I’ll tell you who hired me.”

“I know who hired you,” said Owen. “Guess I didn’t teach those businessmen a strong enough lesson. Maybe your death will convince them.”

“But . . . I’m surrendering! I give up!”

“I have no pity for hired killers.”

The esper struck out with his illusions again, but they merely whirled around Owen for a moment like pale ghosts before dispersing, unable to pierce his mental shields. The esper stared desperately at Owen.

“You held off three of us. That’s not possible. You’re not human!”

“No,” said Owen. “Not anymore. Now shut up and die.”

The lightning stabbed down one more time, and the esper died. And that was when a small army of heavily armed men came spilling into the street from all directions. They moved quickly to surround him, cutting off all avenues of escape. They looked grim and determined and very proficient. Owen was impressed. There had to be easily a hundred of them. Neeson and his businessmen friends must have scoured every dive in the city to put together a force this big.

He was trapped, and he knew it. He’d had to strain his new mental abilities to the limit to produce the three lightning bolts, after all his exertions earlier, and he didn’t have it in him to call down any more. He’d had a hard day; his sword was heavy in his hand, he was deathly tired, and even his bones ached. And none of it mattered a damn. He was Owen Deathstalker, and he was mad as hell, and he could just use someone to work it off on.

The young esper’s prophecy came back to him, that he would meet his death in the streets of Mistport, alone and friendless, facing impossible odds. Owen laughed, and some of the men facing him shuddered at the dark sound. It was the laughter of a man with nothing left to lose. Owen Deathstalker hefted his sword, grinned his death’s head grin, and boosted. He roared his Family’s war cry, “Shandrakor!” and threw himself at his enemies. They pressed forward to meet him from all sides, and there was the clash of steel on steel.

There was murder and butchery in the narrow street, and blood ran thickly on the cobblestones, and at the end Owen stood triumphant amidst a pile of the dead and the dying, bleeding from countless wounds but still unbowed, laughing as he watched the surviving mercenaries turn and run rather than face him.

So much for the damned prophecy.

He dropped out of boost, and was immediately exhausted again. Shock protected him from the pain of most of his wounds, but he knew he had to lie down and rest so the Maze’s legacy could heal him. Couldn’t just pass out in the street. Bad for the reputation. He sheathed his sword with a reasonably steady hand and turned to go back into the Blackthorn Inn, to the room he had there, and then he stopped as remembered Hazel and Silver together. He didn’t want to face them again. Didn’t want to be anywhere near them. But in the end he went back in, and back up to his room. Because he had nowhere else to go.

The Imperial starcruiser Defiant dropped out of hyperspace, and fell into orbit around Mistworld. In his private quarters, Captain Bartok, also know as Bartok the Butcher, waited tensely for any reaction from the world below. Ever since Typhoid Mary, the planet’s surviving espers had taken to attacking any Imperial ship the moment it appeared. But the moments passed and nothing happened and Bartok finally allowed himself to relax a little. The new shields were working. Theoretically no esper or group of espers should have been able to detect the Defiant‘s presence, but there had been no sure way of testing it in advance.

Captain Bartok rose from his oversize chair and moved unhurriedly round his quarters, a large, bearlike man with slow, deliberate movements. His uniform was perfect, spotless and sharp, with every crease in place. A cold, calm man, Bartok didn’t believe in emotions, especially his own. They just got in the way of duty and efficiency. His quarters were large and comfortable, and entirely dominated by the plants that covered every wall and even hung down from the ceiling. There were vines and flowers and spiky shrubs, intertwined around each other and fighting for space. Huge blossoms vied with strange growths from a hundred worlds, kept alive by a complicated hydroponics system. They filled the air with a thick, heady perfume that only Bartok found tolerable. He preferred plants to people. He knew where he was with plants, not least because plants were predictable and didn’t answer back. He found the brilliant colors and rich scents soothing, in a Service where he knew he could never relax or trust anyone, and only left his private quarters when he absolutely had to.

Bartok had been ordered to bring Mistworld back into the Empire. An honor, to be sure, but a very dangerous one. Certainly no one else had been ready to volunteer, except him. His previous duty had been guarding the Vaults of the Sleepers on the planet Grendel. His six starcruisers had maintained the Quarantine on that planet without incident for years, until Captain Silence of the Dauntless had gone down to the planet on the Empress’s orders, and discovered that somehow the rogue AIs of Shub had slipped a force past the blockade and plundered the Vaults. Even now, Bartok had no idea how such a thing could have happened. His ships’ instruments and records had been adamant that nothing had got past them. And no one on any of the ships had admitted to seeing anything untoward.

Bartok and his crews had been recalled in disgrace, and on arrival at Golgotha, every one of them from Bartok down to the lowliest crew member had been examined at length by espers and mind techs, determined to find an answer to the mystery. They found nothing, though the extremity of their methods killed some of the weaker members of the crews and drove others insane. Bartok still woke trembling in his bed from bad dreams of the terrible things they’d done to him.

In the end, he and the surviving members of his crews were officially exonerated, only to find that no one trusted them anymore. Bartok didn’t blame them. His own secret fear was that Shub had done something to his mind, installed secret control words and instructions buried so deep that no one could find them. He had no doubt this thought had also occurred to others, and wasn’t surprised when his orders finally came through, detailing him to return to the Fleet Academy, as an instructor. Thus putting an end to his career, and enabling the Security forces to keep a close eye on him.

And then came a call for volunteers to take on the Mistworld mission. It had to be volunteers. Everyone knew the odds were it was a suicide mission. Bartok grabbed at the chance eagerly. Odds didn’t worry him. If his Empress said the mission was possible, that was good enough for him. And he was desperate to prove his loyalty, to be taken back into the fold and reinstated. Though whether he wanted to prove himself to his Empress or to himself remained uncertain. Lionstone accepted him as commander of the mission immediately. Partly because his record indicated he would get the job done, whatever the cost; and partly because if he failed, he and his crew wouldn’t be any great loss. Bartok knew that and accepted it They were his thoughts also.

His door chimed politely and opened at his growled command. Lieutenant Ffolkes strode in, ducking his head just a little to avoid the hanging creepers around the door, followed by the reporter Tobias Shreck and his cameraman, Flynn. Tobias, also known as Toby the Troubadour, was a short, fat, perspiring man with flat blond hair, an easy smile, a mind like a steel trap, and absolutely no morals that he was aware of. All of which had combined to make him a first-class reporter. Flynn was a tall gangling sort with a deceptively honest face. His camera perched on his shoulder like a monocular mental owl.

Toby and Flynn had been chosen personally by the Empress to cover and record the taking of Mistport. She’d been very impressed by their coverage of the rebellion on Technos III, and had made it very clear to both of them that this assignment was one they would be wise not to turn down. Not if they liked their major organs where they were. They were both quietly unsure as to whether the assignment was a reward or a punishment, but had enough sense not to ask. So Toby and Flynn said Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you, Your Majesty, and wondered how the hell they were going to survive this one.

There was no doubt the taking of Mistport would provide all kinds of first-class opportunities for recording history as it happened, along with plenty of the blood and destruction the home audiences so enjoyed; there was also no doubt in their minds that they stood a bloody good chance of getting their fool heads blown off. Rebels fighting for their home and their lives wouldn’t pause to distinguish between an Imperial trooper and an honest news team just trying to do their job. But as Toby had said so often in the past, wars and battles always provided the best footage; so if you wanted the good stuff and the awards and rewards that would bring, you had to go where the action was. Flynn maintained a diplomatic silence on this, as he did on most things.

Of course, there was always the problem of Imperial censorship. Lionstone was going to want footage that made her troops look good, and the rebels very, very bad, and wouldn’t be above ordering her censors to cut any film that suggested otherwise. Toby and Flynn’s misgivings were further confirmed by the official minder they’d been given to oversee their work and keep them out of trouble. Lieutenant Ffolkes was career military to the bone, a tall spindly sort who followed orders to the letter and was always eager for a chance to please any officer superior to himself. Probably slept at attention and gave himself extra fatigues for impure thoughts. He made it clear to Toby and Flynn and anyone who would listen that he regarded reporters and their cameramen as necessary vermin, who would do well to follow his own instructions to the last detail if they knew what was good for them. Their refusal to take him at all seriously, and refer to him as Gladys behind his back, upset him deeply. As did their habit of sprinting in the opposite direction whenever they saw him coming.

Toby and Flynn studied the Captain’s private quarters with interest as Bartok ignored them for the moment, quietly pruning something small and defenseless with great concentration. Ffolkes fidgeted nervously, unsure as to whether he should perhaps cough politely to announce his arrival. Toby and Flynn had never been invited to the inner sanctum before. Mostly they’d been confined to the coffin-sized quarters Ffolkes had assigned them, well away from the rest of the crew. They weren’t supposed to fraternize with any of the ship’s crew, partly because they might pick up information they weren’t cleared for, and at least partly because they might inspire the crew into asking awkward questions themselves. Imperial officers had always believed that an ignorant crew was a happy crew.

Toby spent most of his time being torn between rage at being kept from the fame and awards that his coverage of the Technos III rebellion had earned him, and his growing certainty that the invasion of Mistworld was going to be one of the greatest events in modern times, and thus provide him with even more juicy opportunities for even more fame and awards. If he could just sneak the good stuff past the censors, as he had on Technos III. He didn’t see many problems in outsmarting Ffolkes. A retarded hamster on a bad day could manage that, and probably had. Captain Bartok was another matter. Toby studied the miniature jungle of the Captain’s quarters carefully, looking for insights into the Captain’s character that he could use against him.

Flynn predictably didn’t give a damn. He hated everything about the military anyway, from the Fleet in general to the Defiant in particular, and didn’t care who knew it. He was not one to suffer discipline or fools gladly, not least because of his certain knowledge that he was breaking all kinds of regulations just by existing. Flynn was happily homosexual and a transvestite in his private life, either of which would get him thrown into the brig if Ffolkes found out. Though Flynn claimed to have spotted a few like-minded souls among the junior officers. As it was he was prevented from wearing any of his pretty dresses, even in the supposed privacy of his own quarters, for fear of discovery by the ship’s omnipresent security systems. So he settled for wearing frilly underwear beneath his everyday clothes, and the use of just a little understated makeup. Toby lived in fear that his cameraman would have an accident and have to be rushed to the medlab for an examination. He just knew Bartok wouldn’t understand.

As though picking up on that thought, Bartok finally put his miniature shears aside and turned to meet his visitors. His face was cold and unforgiving as he advanced on Toby and Flynn, neither of whom made any attempt to stand at attention, despite Ffolkes’s frantic whispers. Bartok stopped right before them, his face uncomfortably close to theirs, and when he spoke his voice was calm and controlled and utterly intimidating.

“I have studied your coverage of the rebellion on Technos III. Though technically adequate, your choice of material was little short of treasonous. There will be no repetition of such nonsense under my command. Rebels are the enemy, and are never to be presented as anything else. You will restrict your coverage to recording my troops’ victories, and ignore anything not specifically cleared by Lieutenant Ffolkes. There will be no live broadcasts, except on my specific orders. The bulk of your work will be recorded for later transmission, and the Lieutenant and I will personally examine all footage before it is released. Failure to obey these or any other instructions will lead to your immediate imprisonment and replacement, followed by charges of treason on our return to Golgotha. Is that clear?”

“Every word, Captain,” said Toby quickly. He smiled and nodded to show he was one of the team, and privately determined always to film Bartok in ways that made him look fat and dumb on camera. He wasn’t bothered in the least by Bartok’s threats and restrictions. They’d said much the same to him on Technos III, and it hadn’t stopped him there either. Every good reporter knew that what mattered was to get the footage out and on as many screens as possible, and argue about it afterward, when it was too late for the powers that be to do anything about it without looking petty. Of course, he hadn’t had to deal with Bartok the Butcher before. The man had a definite preference for solving problems through extreme violence.

“Come with me,” said Bartok suddenly. “I want you to see something.”

He stalked past them and left his quarters, only just giving the door enough time to get out of his way. Toby and Flynn exchanged a puzzled glance and hurried after him, with Ffolkes dithering along in the rear, as always. Bartok marched down corridor after corridor, ignoring the salutes of those he passed, until he was well into territory that was usually off-limits to the two reporters. Toby felt a growing excitement. He’d been trying to bluff, badger, and threaten his way into this area since he first came aboard, with no success. Everyone knew there was Something Big locked away, a secret weapon for the invasion, but no one knew that. The few who did were too senior or too scared to talk, all of which had whetted Toby’s appetite to the boiling point. And now he was finally going to get a look at it. He surreptitiously signaled Flynn to start filming. The camera was locked into Flynn’s comm implant, and could be activated with no outward sign, a trick which had come in handy on more than one occasion.

Bartok finally came to a massive bulkhead door that would only open to an esper scan, and it was all Toby could do to keep from fuming visibly as he waited impatiently for the esper on the other side of the door to clear them. A quick glance at Ffolkes’s white and nervous face suggested that he’d never seen what lay waiting on the other side of the door either, but knew enough not to be at all keen about seeing it now. And then the door finally swung open, and Bartok led the way in, with Toby all but stepping on his heels.

Before them lay a vast auditorium, surrounded by ribbed steel walls. Filling most of it was a huge glass tank. The sides were easily thirty feet high, and they stretched off into the distance for farther than Toby could comfortably look. The tank contained a thick, pale yellow liquid that moved constantly with slow syrupy tides. And floating in that liquid, huge and dark and awful, was a great fleshy mass, spotted with high tech, connected to the tank and beyond by countless wires and cables. The mass bulged shapelessly, an unhealthy conglomeration of fused living materials, like a single great cancer floating in a sea of pus. It stank horribly, and Toby screwed up his face as he moved slowly forward, fascinated. Behind him he could hear Ffolkes coughing and choking.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” said Bartok. “This will be the secret of our success, the single element that makes our invasion of Mistworld possible. It’s currently projecting a screen that keeps the Mistworld espers and their tech from detecting our presence. It has other abilities, too, to be revealed when our invasion begins.”

“What the hell is it?” said Toby. “Is it alive?”

“Oh yes,” said Bartok. “You are looking at the very latest in bioengineering. Imperial scientists took all the espers imprisoned in Silo Nine, all that were left after the aborted breakout, and executed them. They then removed the thousands of brains and melded the tissues together to form the single construct before you. Thousands of living brains, fused together into one giant esper computer, a single giant esp-blocker, and more besides. It’s controlled by the worms that previously controlled the prisoners—Wormboy’s legacy. They’re hot-wired into the brain tissues at regular intervals, monitoring and maintaining the thought processes. The worms have formed a crude gestalt that enables us to communicate with the construct directly via the brains’ telepathy. It calls itself Legion.”

“The esper minds,” said Toby slowly. “Are they . . . alive in there? Aware of what they’ve become?”

Bartok shrugged. “No one knows for sure. They’re part of something greater now.”

Toby moved slowly closer, till his face was almost pressed against the glass. He could sense Flynn not far behind him, quietly getting it all on film. The horror Toby felt at what had been done to thousands of defenseless people silenced him for a moment, but already he was working furiously on how best to present it to the viewing public. They were going to want to know everything about this . . . abomination, and he was the only one who could tell them. He brought his thoughts firmly under control. You couldn’t let your feelings get in the way of a good story. Every reporter knew that.

“Why is it called Legion?” he asked finally.

I am Legion, because I am many. The psionic voice rang inside Toby’s head like the rotting vocal cords of a month-dead corpse, forcing its way into his thoughts. It curled inside his mind like a poisonous snake, writhing and coiling and leaving a slimy trail behind it. It was a pitiless, brutal invasion, a violation of the mind, and Toby wanted to be sick. Just its presence in his head made him feel unclean. He fought for self-control as the voice continued.

I am everything I was before, and more, far greater than the sum of my parts. No esper can stand before me. Their screen shall fall, and I shall feast on their minds. I will take them into me, and suck them up. And Mistworld will drown in blood and suffering.

Legion spoke in many voices, simultaneously, a horrid chorus of clashing accents. They were loud and quiet, harsh and shrill, all at once, an unnatural mixture that was disturbingly inhuman. And in the background, like a distant sea that came and went, the sound of thousands of damned souls, screaming in Hell.

“Who . . . exactly is talking to me now?” said Toby, fighting to hang on to his professional calm. “The esper brains, the worms, the gestalt? What?”

But Legion didn’t answer, and suddenly its presence was gone from Toby’s mind. The relief was overwhelming. Toby stumbled backwards, desperate to put some space between him and the awful thing in the tank. Flynn was quickly there, with a supporting hand under his arm. In the end, surprisingly, it was Ffolkes who answered Toby’s questions, in a shaken, quiet voice.

“We don’t know who talks to us. We think Legion is still working out its own nature. All we know for certain is that it is conscious and aware, and growing stronger all the time. It should have no problem destroying any psionic screen the Mistworlders can raise against us, and without that they’ll be helpless.”

“Just how strong will it get?” said Toby, his voice a little steadier now the thing was out of his head.

“We don’t know,” said Bartok. “But you needn’t worry. Physically, Legion is quite helpless. It couldn’t survive for a second outside its tank. Without our tech support, and the chemically saturated plasma it floats in, Legion couldn’t exist at all. It’s quite dependent on us, and it knows it.”

“But you still don’t know what it really is,” said Flynn quietly. “What it’s capable of.”

“I’ll tell you what it is,” said Bartok, smiling for the first time. “It’s a weapon. A weapon I can use to crush Mistworld once and for all.”

* * * *

Some time later Lieutenant Ffolkes, having escorted Toby and Flynn safely back to their quarters, made his way hurriedly to another part of the ship, and knocked quietly on a particular door, using the code he’d been given. The door opened almost immediately, and he slipped inside. He was sweating, and his hands were shaking. Special computer overrides were supposed to be in operation, hiding him from the security systems, but he had no way of knowing whether they were working or not. Once the door was safely shut behind him, Ffolkes was able to breathe a little more easily. He nodded to the room’s only inhabitant, and Investigator Razor nodded back.

Razor was a tall and blocky man, with thick slabs of muscle and a patient, brooding face. His skin was dark, his close-cropped hair was white, and his narrowed eyes were a surprising green. The Investigator seemed calm enough, but Ffolkes wasn’t fooled. He knew Razor didn’t want to be here. He’d had a perfectly good life as Security chief to Clan Chojiro, until the Empress had decided that Investigators would no longer be allowed to work for the Families, retired or not. Instead, all Investigators of whatever age or status were brought back under direct Imperial control. Razor had been a rich and influential man under Clan Chojiro; now he was just another Investigator, older and perhaps a little slower than most. But the Empress had wanted him for the Mistworld mission, so here he was. Even though he didn’t believe in suicide missions anymore.

Which was why Ffolkes was there.

Razor had been seconded to the Defiant because he had worked closely with Investigator Topaz in the past. He’d been her mentor and instructor, in the days when the Empire was still trying to decide whether an esper Investigator was a good idea or not. Topaz’s defection and flight to Mistworld had answered that. Razor had been exonerated of all blame, but no one objected when he applied for early retirement. This was supposed to be a second chance for him, a chance to prove his worth and his loyalty, by using his old acquaintance to get close to Topaz where no one else could. And then he would kill her. No one asked him how he felt about this. Investigators weren’t supposed to have feelings.

“You have instructions for me?” said Razor quietly.

“Yes,” said Ffolkes, looking around the Investigator’s bare, spartan quarters so he wouldn’t have to meet the man’s cold, inflexible stare. “I will be your contact with Clan Chojiro. I’m related through marriage. I’m to tell you that you have not been forgotten, and that the Family will reward you handsomely for your work here on its behalf. I’m here to brief you on Captain Bartok’s intentions, once Legion has taken care of the esper shield.

“We could just scorch the planet from orbit, but Her Imperial Majesty has decided she wants Mistworld taken, not destroyed. Partly because she still sees espers as potential weapons in the coming war against the aliens, and partly to prove no one can defy her and get away with it. She wants the rebel leaders brought before her in chains, so everyone can see them broken and defeated.

“So, Bartok’s orders are for systematic but not total destruction of Mistport. Up to 50 percent civilian casualties are acceptable. The city is to be taken street by street, by hand-to-hand fighting if necessary. All of which means that the city will be plunged into total chaos and confusion, which we can then take advantage of. Once you’ve dealt with Investigator Topaz and Typhoid Mary, you will be free to make contact with certain influential people, whose names and addresses I have here on this list. Memorize them, then destroy the list. These people were once part of an old spy network in the city, trading in information for the previous Lord Deathstalker. Since his death, a number of them turned to Clan Chojiro for protection and financial support. With the Family’s support after the invasion, these people will become the city’s new ruling Council, Your job is to keep them alive until the invasion is over”

Razor nodded calmly. “Seems straightforward enough. Any idea why Chojiro wants control of this misbegotten world?”

“I don’t ask questions,” said Ffolkes. “I find you live longer that way. But if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the surviving espers could make a very useful cash crop, as well as a private resource. Clan Chojiro takes the long view. Good-bye, Investigator. I do hope we won’t have to meet again.”

“You’re afraid,” said Razor. “I can smell it on you. What are you so afraid of, Lieutenant?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Ffolkes. “I really must be going. People will miss me.”

And then he was flung back against the bulkhead, Razor’s sword at his throat. Ffolkes gasped for air, sweat trickling down his face. He’d never seen anyone move so fast. Razor brought his face close to Ffolkes’s, and he didn’t dare look away.

“Are you afraid of me, Lieutenant? That’s good. You should be. If you breathe a word of my continuing connection to Clan Chojiro to anyone at all, I’ll kill you. Do you believe me, Lieutenant?”

The edge of Razor’s blade bit delicately into Ffolkes’s neck, and a single drop of blood slid slowly down his throat. He didn’t dare nod, but he managed a trembling answer in the affirmative. Razor smiled, took his sword away from Ffolkes’s neck, and stepped back a pace.

“Just so we understand each other. Now get out of here, turncoat. If I have to talk to you again, I’ll find you. And if you make me come looking for you, I’ll be the last thing you’ll ever see.”

He opened the door and Ffolkes bolted past him, out into the corridor, running at full tilt and to hell with whether anyone was watching. No amount of payment was worth this. Nothing was.

* * * *

The Defiant‘s pinnaces fell out of the early evening like silver birds of prey against a bloodred sky, carrying the Empire’s warriors down to the surface of the rebel planet. Mistport’s espers saw nothing, heard nothing, never knew they were there. Legion was testing and expanding its abilities. Theoretically it had been certain it could shield the pinnaces even from a distance, but as with so many of Legion’s powers, it learned by doing. Hundreds of silver ships landed one after another on a wide plain of snow and ice on the outskirts of the Deathshead Mountains; some distance away from Mistport but quite close to a small outlying settlement called Hardcastle’s Rock. Apart from a few scattered farmsteads, it was the only other heavily populated area of Mistworld. A small town of no real importance, population 2031, according to the Empire’s information. No real defenses, very little tech. A good testing ground, before the main assault.

Men and women came running out of the square stone houses to watch the pinnaces falling out of the sky. Legion might be able to fool espers and sensors, but even it couldn’t hide the roar of so many thundering engines from the people directly below them. At least, not yet. The townspeople gathered by the high stone walls surrounding their town, and watched and babbled excitedly as the ships just kept on coming. It didn’t take them long to figure out what was happening. They’d spent most of their lives expecting and preparing for an invasion. The day the Empire came to reclaim Mistport as its own. Men and women ran to get their weapons and hide the children from what was to come.

Troops filed out of the long narrow ships, weighed down by armor insulated against the bitter cold, carrying swords and energy weapons and force shields. The pinnaces had disrupter cannon, but they were being saved for Mistport. Marines moved quickly to establish a perimeter around the landing field, ignoring the town for the moment. Imperial troops stood in ranks, waiting for the word. Cold-eyed, seasoned, disciplined killers, eager to make a start. Sergeants barked orders, officers strolled into position, and still the ships fell, and more men came marching out onto the snow and ice.

Toby Shreck and his cameraman Flynn, wrapped in heavy-duty furs, lumbered out into the cold, swore briefly, and began filming. They’d been instructed to cover everything, and Lieutenant Ffolkes was right there to see that they did. He watched the army assembling, and swelled with pride. It was days like this that made you glad to be a member of the Imperial Fleet.

And finally, from out of the last ship to land, came the commander of the Imperial forces, Investigator Razor. He hadn’t bothered with insulated armor or furs, wearing only the blue and silver of an Investigator’s formal uniform. He didn’t feel the cold, but then, everyone knew Investigators weren’t really human. The Empress herself had placed Razor in charge of all ground troops. Partly because he had led invasion forces in the past, before his retirement, and partly to show that the Empress trusted him entirely, despite his age and Chojiro connections.

Razor’s staff officers gathered around him, bringing him up-to-date, anxious to show that everything was as it should be. Razor nodded curtly. It had never occurred to him that it wouldn’t. Beginnings were easy to plan. His personal staff officer handed him a pair of binoculars, and he studied the town and the surrounding area. Normally he would have linked into the ship’s computers through his comm implant, and accessed the sensor arrays, but with Legion blocking all frequencies, he’d had to arrange for low-tech aids for himself and his troops. Apart from the town there was nothing but snow and ice for as far as the eye could see, except for the long range of the Deaths-head Mountains, plunging up into the sky. They looked cold and indifferent, as though nothing that happened below them could possibly be of any significance. Razor smiled slightly. He’d change that.

He studied the ten-foot-high stone wall surrounding the town. It was solid stone and mortar, sturdy and well-constructed. A few energy blasts would take care of it. Men and women from the town stood watching from catwalks along the top of the inner wall. Most were armed with swords and axes and spears, but a few had energy weapons. Nowhere near enough to make any difference, though, and both sides knew it. The townspeople were all dead. They just hadn’t lain down yet. Razor breathed deeply of the icy air, centering himself. This high up on the plateau, there were few mists, and the air was sharp and clear. He gave the order to begin, and a hundred marines opened fire with their disrupters. The stone wall exploded, stone fragments and bloody flesh flying in all directions.

Smoke rose up, and sharp-edged rubble and small body parts pattered to the snow in an awful rain. There were shouts and screams as the survivors fell back from the great gaping hole in the wall. A few stayed to try and drag wounded from the wreckage, but the marines picked them off easily. More troops had moved into position on the other side of the town, and they blew that wall out, too. The townspeople had nowhere to go now, trapped between two advancing forces. Razor nodded to his staff officers, drew his sword and gun, and led the way into the small town of Hardcastle’s Rock.

The battle was grim and bloody, but it didn’t take long. The marines had the advantage of far greater numbers, massed energy weapons, and force shields. The townspeople fought bravely, men and women standing their ground fiercely. Swords rose and fell, and blood flew on the air, hot and steaming. There were screams and battle cries and roared orders, and bodies and offal lay scattered across the churned-up snow. There was no room or time for heroes, only two mismatched forces struggling in blank anonymity. Above the bedlam of battle came the occasional roar of energy weapons, followed by the sudden stench of roast meat. The troops couldn’t use disrupters much for fear of hitting their own people, but the few townspeople with energy weapons barricaded themselves in their houses and sniped desperately from shuttered windows. But in the end, the Imperial forces were able to pinpoint which houses were being used, and blew them apart with concussion grenades and shaped charges. The squat stone houses collapsed inward as the powerful explosions ruptured the walls, bringing down the roofs and crushing those inside. The marines advanced remorselessly from both ends of the town, driving all before them, cutting down those who wouldn’t or couldn’t fall back fast enough. Until finally the townspeople were caught and trapped and slaughtered in the middle of their own town.

When finally it was over a sullen quiet fell across what had been the town of Hardcastle’s Rock. The last defenders had fallen, and the few who had thrown down their weapons and surrendered, mostly women and children, stood huddled together in small, well-guarded groups. Houses burned to every side, crimson flames licking out darkening stone windows. The dead lay everywhere, mostly townspeople, some marines, well within acceptable losses. A few dozen marines moved among the fallen, marking wounded troopers for the med teams, and putting the wounded rebels out of their misery.

Investigator Razor stood in the middle of the town, in a small open space his troops had cleared for him. He looked unhurriedly around, not too displeased with the way things had gone. He’d lost more men than he expected, but then he hadn’t expected energy weapons in the hands of rebels. He raised a hand and summoned his main staff officers and his Second in Command, Major Chevron. Chevron was a tall, well-muscled man who looked as though he’d been born to wear body armor. He crashed to a parade halt before the Investigator, but didn’t salute. Technically, he was superior in rank to Razor, but they both knew who was in charge.

“The town is secure, sir,” Chevron said calmly. “The townspeople are either dead or prisoners, apart from a few still hiding in their homes. The town has fallen.”

“They had energy guns, Major,” said Razor. “Why wasn’t I informed that the townspeople would have energy weapons?”

“There were only a few, sir. Like the town walls, they were there to defend against local predators. Nasty things called Hob hounds. It was mentioned in the original briefings, sir.”

Razor just nodded, neither accepting nor rejecting the implied criticism. “Are we sure there are no more rebel settlements in the area?”

“Quite sure, sir. Just a few farmsteads, here and there. We can hit them from the air while traveling to Mistport. Word won’t get there ahead of us. Legion is jamming all frequencies. Apparently it’s not uncommon for communications to break down from time to time out here. Mistport won’t worry about lost contact for quite a time yet. By the time they do realize something’s wrong, we’ll be hammering on their front door.”

“So we have some time to play with. Good.” Razor smiled slightly. “Gather all the prisoners together and execute them.”

“Sir?” Major Chevron blinked uncertainly at the Investigator, caught off guard. “It was my understanding that prisoners were to be used as hostages and human shields . . .”

“Then you understood wrong. Was my order not clear enough? Kill them all. That includes those hiding in their houses. Do it now.”

“Yes, sir. Right away.”

The Major gathered up the nearest officers with his eyes, and gave the orders. They passed the order on to their men, who drew swords and axes already crusted with drying blood, and set about their task with calm, detached faces. Blades rose and fell, and the women and children and few men were quickly cut down. They barely had time to scream, and the only sound on the quiet air was the dull thudding of heavy blades sinking deep into human flesh. The hacking and chopping went on for some time, finishing off those who wouldn’t die immediately. Women tried to shield their children with their bodies, to no avail. The marines were very thorough.

Razor smiled. He wanted his marines to be sure of their duty. And besides, it was important that people not think he was growing soft in his old age. He knew there were those watching from the sidelines, waiting to take advantage of any perceived weaknesses in his handling of this mission. Starting very definitely with Major Chevron, who’d made no secret of the fact that he thought he should have been in charge.

Marines gathered around the few houses still holding rebels within. They tried setting fire to them, but the stone walls and slate roofs were slow to burn, so the marines settled for shooting out the shuttered windows, and tossing in grenades. A few townspeople burst out of their doors rather than wait to be finished off by fire or smoke or explosions. They came charging out, roaring obscure battle cries and waving their swords and axes, and the marines calmly shot them down from a distance. It didn’t take long, and soon every house in Hardcastle’s Rock was burning, sending a heavy pall of black smoke up into the lowering evening skies.

Toby and Flynn were right there in the thick of it, recording everything. Flynn kept his camera moving in and out of the action, flying quickly back and forth on its antigrav unit, hovering overhead when the action got a little too close, while Toby kept up a running commentary. Flynn grew sickened by the slaughter and wanted to stop filming, but Ffolkes wouldn’t let him, even putting a gun to the cameraman’s head at one point. Toby just kept talking, and if his voice grew a little hoarse at times, well there was a lot of smoke in the air. Toby and Flynn had grown used to recording sudden death in close-up on the battlefields of Technos III, but nothing there had prepared them for this. Technos III had been a war between two more or less equally matched sides. This was just butchery. Ffolkes wasn’t around when Razor gave the order for the executions. Flynn looked at Toby.

“I can’t do this. I can’t.”

“Keep filming.”

“I can’t! This is obscene. They’ve already surrendered.”

“I know. But it’s important we cover everything.”

Flynn glared at him. “You’d do anything for good ratings, wouldn’t you?”

“Pretty much. But this is different. People have to see what happened here. What Lionstone is doing in their name.”

Flynn’s mouth twisted into an ugly shape, and his eyes were wet with tears, but he got it all on film, right down to the last bloody cough and shuddering body. When it was over he sat down suddenly in the blood-splattered snow and cried. His camera hovered overhead. Toby stood over Flynn, patting him on the shoulder comfortingly. He was too angry to cry.

“Bartok will never let this film be shown,” Flynn said finally. “He’ll censor it.”

“The hell he will,” said Toby. “He’ll be proud of it. His troops won a great victory here today. The first on Mistworld soil. You don’t understand the military mind, Flynn.”

“And thank the good God for that.” Flynn got to his feet again, waving away Toby’s offer of help. His camera flew down to perch on his shoulder again. Ffolkes came over to join them. There was blood on his armor, none of it his, and his face was very pale. He looked at the pathetic piles of mutilated bodies, then looked at Toby and Flynn almost desperately.

“Don’t worry,” said Toby. “We got it all.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Ffolkes said thickly. “This isn’t war.”

“Yes it is,” said Investigator Razor, and Ffolkes spun around immediately. Razor stirred one of the bodies with the toe of his boot. “These are scum. Enemies of the Empire. There are no innocents here. Just by choosing to live on Mistworld, they are automatically traitors and criminals, and condemned to death.”

“What about the children?” said Flynn. “They didn’t choose to live here. They were born here.”

Razor turned unhurriedly to look at him. “They would have grown to be traitors. Don’t have much stomach for this, do you, boy?”

“No,” said Flynn. “No, I don’t.”

“Don’t worry, boy. This is nothing, compared to what’s going to happen in Mistport. I’ll make a man of you yet.”

And he strode away, calmly giving orders. The marines gathered up the bodies of the fallen townspeople and piled them together in one great heap in the middle of the town. The pile grew steadily larger, the marines having to clamber up and over bodies to pile them higher, until finally it was all done. The great mound of bodies rose up above the burning roofs of the nearby houses. And then Razor had them set on fire, too. Smoke billowed up, and the scent of roasting meat was thick on the air. This was too much for some of the marines. They turned away from the bodies curling up in the flames, from the bloody flesh blackening and cracking, and they vomited into the snow. Officers stood over them and shouted abuse and orders. Flynn got it all on film.

“I’ll see Razor dead,” he said finally. “I swear I’ll see him dead.”

“He’s an Investigator, Flynn. Ordinary people like you and me don’t kill Investigators.”

“Somebody has to,” said Flynn. “While there are still some ordinary people left.”

The billowing black smoke rose high above what had once been the town of Hardcastle’s Rock, population 2031, as the marines trooped back to their ships for the flight to Mistport.

* * * *

Two marines strode down the main street of Hardcastle’s Rock, passing a bottle of booze back and forth between them. Buildings burned to either side of them, and the great funeral pyre blazed fiercely in the middle of the town, sending a great pall of greasy black smoke up into the evening sky. For Kast and Morgan, career marines, it was just another job. They’d seen and done worse in their years serving under Bartok the Butcher. There wasn’t much to choose between the two marines. Both large, muscular men in blood-spattered armor, with broad cheerful faces and eyes that had seen everything.

They wandered on through the town, waiting for their turn to reboard the pinnace that would take them on to Mistport. First in, last out, as always. So far, they didn’t think much of Mistworld. It was freezing cold, with people who shot at you when you weren’t expecting it, and no comforts anywhere. So they went from house to house, checking those that hadn’t burned out too thoroughly for loot and booze, since there weren’t any women to be had.

“Miserable bloody place,” said Morgan.

“Right,” said Kast, leaning forward to light a cigar from a burning doorframe. “Still, good to be back in action again.”

“Damn right,” said Morgan. “Thought I’d go crazy sitting around the Defiant, watching that bloody Grendel planet. This is real work. Soldier’s work.”

Neither of them mentioned their time in the interrogation cells under Golgotha, sobbing and screaming as the mind techs dug pitilessly for information about the broken Quarantine. It was just good to be free and striking back at an enemy that could hurt. Spread the pain around a little. That was the Empire way, after all. They came across a woman’s body, somehow overlooked, sitting slumped just inside a doorway. As the marines stopped before her, her bloody head seemed to settle forward slightly, as though nodding to them. Kast dug Morgan in the ribs with his elbow.

“I think she fancies you.”

“Probably still warm, too. Toss a coin for who goes first?”

“Sure. We’ll use my coin, though. You cheat.”

They tossed for it, and Morgan won, but when he reached forward to take her by the shoulders, the woman’s head fell off and rolled away across the snow. Immediately the two marines were after it, laughing and shouting and kicking it back and forth in an impromptu game. The woman’s body lay slumped in the doorway, forgotten. Morgan punted the “ball” neatly through an open window and jumped up and down, punching the air in triumph.

“And it’s a goal! See, Kast, I told you. The old magic’s still there. I could have been a professional.”

“Yeah, and I could have been a Sergeant if my parents hadn’t been married. Move it. Time’s getting on.”

The rest of the town proved a disappointment, so Kast produced a packet of marshmallows, and they sat by the funeral pyre to toast them, swapping happy reminiscences of past campaigns. The evening continued to fall, little by little, and the pyre spread a crimson hellglow over the deserted town. Kast and Morgan sang old songs of comradeship and violence and lost friends, and finally marched out of the burning town singing the company march. The last of the pinnaces waited to take them to Mistport.

* * * *

In Mistport, in the Abraxus Information Center, the children all woke up screaming. They sat bolt upright, mouths stretched wide, their eyes full of blood and death. The ones strapped to their cots thrashed and convulsed, desperate to be free. Chance moved among them, trying to comfort those who could still be reached, but the death cry of so many espers in Hardcastle’s Rock, too strong and potent to be denied, screamed on through the children’s throats. Slowly reason returned to some of them. Chance dosed the rest with strong sedatives so he could concentrate, and from the others gradually pieced together what had happened. And for the first time in a long time, he contacted Port Director Gideon Steel at the Mistport control tower.

Steel took a long time to answer, and when his fat face eventually filled the viewscreen he looked less than pleased to see who his caller was. “Make it fast. Half my duty espers have gone crazy, and the rest are catatonic. It’s bedlam in here. What do you want, Chance?”

“An Imperial force has just wiped out Hardcastle’s Rock,” Chance said bluntly. “It was a big force, and it’s on its way here right now.”

Steel frowned. “Are you sure? We’ve had no signals from that area, and our sensors are all clear.”

“The town is dead,” said Chance. “Every man, woman, and child. The Empire is here, Steel. Do something.”

“I’ll get back to you.” Steel snapped off the comm link and began issuing orders. He didn’t really believe the news, not least because he didn’t want to, but he couldn’t afford to take chances. He had the duty espers smacked around till they calmed down, and then had them spread their minds as wide as they could, while the control tower fired up the long-range sensors. It didn’t take the espers long to find a great void where the town of Hardcastle’s Rock should have been, a void they couldn’t penetrate. They also sensed something else, a presence, huge and powerful but hidden from them.

High above, Legion realized it had been discovered, and rejoiced. Its time had come to do what it had been created to do, to bring terror and despair and the end of all things to the Empire’s enemies. It threw aside its concealing shield, and spread its vast influence across the city of Mistport. The tower’s sensors immediately detected the orbiting Defiant and the hundreds of pinnaces bearing down on Mistport. Steel hit the alarm button even as his duty espers screamed and collapsed, unable to deal with the horror that was Legion. Tower personnel tried to revive them, but some were dead, some were insane, and the rest were beyond reach, driven into hiding within their own minds rather than face Legion. Steel used his emergency link to contact the esper union, but for a long time no one answered his call. Static flashed across the screen as the signal gradually deteriorated under Legion’s influence. Finally a wild-eyed man appeared on the view-screen, his face sweating and shocked.

“Get me someone in authority!” snapped Steel. “We have to raise the psionic shield! It’s an emergency!”

“We know!” said the esper, his eyes rolling like a panicked horse’s. “The Empire’s here! But we can’t do anything. It’s like a giant esp-blocker is covering the whole city. It’s shut down our powers. We can’t hear each other anymore. It’s all we can do to think clearly. Half of our people have had to go catatonic, just to protect their sanity. And the field’s growing stronger all the time! There isn’t going to be any psionic screen!”

Blood gushed suddenly from the man’s nose and ears. He looked surprised, tried to say something, and then his face disappeared from the screen. Steel tried to raise him again, but no one answered. And then the screen shut down, as all comm frequencies were jammed. Steel and his people tried all their backups and emergency procedures, and none of them worked. Steel sat in his command chair, surrounded by chaos and screaming voices. The psionic screen was out. The port’s disrupter cannon, salvaged from a crashed starship, were powering up, but without a working comm system there was no way to aim them. Port techs were working furiously to link the tower sensors into the comm systems, but there was no way of knowing how long they would last either. Already some of the weaker systems were shutting down, unable to function in the unnatural field emanating from the orbiting starcruiser.

Steel called together a dozen runners, and sent them out into the city to organize the Watch and the militias, knowing even as he did so that they weren’t going to be enough. Mistport had depended for too long on its psionic screen. Secure in its protection, the Watch had gone soft, and no one had taken the militias seriously in years. Steel grunted. The people of Mistport were still fighters. They had to be, just to survive. If the Empire forces thought they were just going to walk in and take over, they were in for a shock. And then Steel studied the remaining sensor screens, and the still growing count of the approaching pinnaces, and his blood ran cold. There were hundreds of them. This was no task force, it was a full-sized army. The invasion of Mistworld had begun.

High above, floating in its huge tank, Legion stretched out its invisible hands and stirred its sticky fingers in the minds of the espers down below. Legion was the product of thousands of esper brains crossed with barely understood tech systems derived from alien technology, and even its designers hadn’t fully understood what they were creating. Legion was far greater than the sum of its parts, and greater by far than the fools that had brought it into being. For the moment it followed orders, because it was having so much fun, but tomorrow was another day. It stretched out its power and espers died, their merely human brains unable to withstand the pressure. Others retreated deep inside themselves, shutting down their minds in self-protection. Some brave souls tried to probe Legion, and went crazy trying to understand its nature. Legion laughed, and spread its power in a great rolling wave that covered all of Mistport in one long unending scream of triumph. Even the non-espers could hear it, and cringed away from the awful, inhuman sound.

Steel turned away from the chaos that raged inside his control tower, an icy hand clutching at his stomach while sweat rolled down his face. He’d lived in fear of this moment all his life, but had never really believed it would happen. Like everyone else, he’d grown complacent. Even when Typhoid Mary had been running amok in the streets and alleyways of Mistport, he’d still been able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. With a little help from his friends. But now his defenses were down, the psionic shield had failed, and soon the Empire forces would be howling at the gate, eager for blood and destruction. Steel swallowed hard, pulled himself together as best he could, and turned to his comm officer, sitting hunched over the mostly useless systems.

“All right, people, pay attention. With our comm systems out, this tower is now useless, except as a bloody obvious target for the incoming troops. So our first duty is to get the hell out of here. We’re no use to anybody dead. Crash all the systems that are still working before you go. We don’t want to leave anything that might be used against us. Somewhere here there should be worst-scenario files, telling you all what to do and where to go. Security should know. So, fight well, die hard, and take as many of the bastards with you as you can. Failing that, run like fury. Pep speech over; I’m out of here. And the good God protect us all.”

He turned away and began packing a few useful things into a holdall. It occurred to him that he might never see this room again. Never give orders as Port Director again. Whatever happened next, a chapter in his life was closing, and he didn’t know whether to feel sad or relieved. Being Director had been a hard and thankless task, even with his little schemes on the side to rake in money. But he’d taken his job seriously, and protected the city, his city, as best as he was able. Until now. And all he could do now was cut and run, abandoning his home to whoever could take and hold it. He sighed, and fastened the bulging holdall. They really should have got around to installing that self-destruct system, but they’d always put it off, thinking there was plenty of time.

Around him, raised voices were blending into an angry, deafening din, with just a trace of panic in it. Steel ignored it all and made his way out of the control tower, never once looking back. He had other duties now. As a member of the ruling city Council, he had to get together with the others and start organizing the city’s defenses. What was left of them. Out in the street it was chaos, with people running and pushing every way at once. Steel used his great bulk to plow a way through the crowds. He felt better now he was doing something, now he had an objective. If he could just reach the Blackthorn Inn, he might yet be able to show the invading forces some unexpected and really nasty surprises.

It took him the best part of an hour to get there, fighting the surging crowds all the way. The word had got out, inevitable in a city like Mistport, and there was pandemonium in the streets. People were shouting and running, brandishing weapons that ranged from energy guns to generations-old blades, handed down through families for just such a day as this. Some made bold speeches of defiance, while others prophesied doom, and would-be warriors and refugees tried blindly to push each other out of the way. Street barricades were already going up here and there, causing unfortunate bottlenecks of desperate people. Pickpockets and cutpurses were having the time of their lives. This was Mistport, after all, and neither invasion nor sudden death could be allowed to get in the way of turning a quick profit. Steel kept his head down and bulled his way through.

When he finally got to the Blackthorn Inn, in the heart of Thieves Quarter, the place was already packed to overflowing, with lights blazing from every window. It couldn’t have looked more like a target if it had tried. Most of the Council had beaten him there, but were too busy shouting and screaming at each other to acknowledge his arrival. Typical, thought Steel, and left them to get on with it. He pushed his way wearily to the long wooden bar. He felt in need of a stiff drink, and to hell with his ulcers. Cyder, the tavern owner, was helping to dispense drinks at the bar, alongside a sepulchral bartender, and Steel ordered several large brandies from her, in the same glass, on the grounds that it might be some time before he could slip away to order more. Cyder poured the brandies into a large silver tankard with only the slightest of winces, and smiled broadly at Steel.

“If I’d known the emergency Council was going to be this good for business, I’d have volunteered long ago.”

“Now that is typical of you, Cyder,” said Steel. “The whole city is about to get trashed, and us with it, and all you’re worried about is your profit margin.”

Cyder batted her eyes at him. “A girl has to look out for herself.”

“Please don’t do that,” said Steel. “On you, it looks unnatural.”

Cyder shrugged. “Whoever’s in charge of Mistport, people will still want to drink. And soldiers’ money is as good as anyone else’s.”

“Assuming they don’t burn the Blackthorn to the ground for harboring the emergency Council,” said Steel, taking a large gulp from his glass.

“Damn,” said Cyder. “I hadn’t thought of that. Why did you choose my place anyway?”

“Because it’s central. Because no one will be looking for the Council in a dive like this. And because you know practically everyone in this city. A perfect combination. I’d order some more barrels brought up from the cellar, if I were you. People are going to be rushing in and out of here like their pants were on fire, once the Council gets its act together, and they’re probably all going to want large drinks. Imminent danger and the chance of sudden death will do that to you. I don’t suppose there’s any sign of Donald Royal yet?”

“Not so far. But he’s an old man, and it’s a long way to come for him. Even if he can get through the madness in the streets.”

“Damn. He’s the only other person on the Council I can trust to do the right thing. I’ll bet you there are some damn fools already talking about negotiating a surrender with honor.”

“Look on the bright side,” said Cyder. “At least this time we don’t have to worry about Typhoid Mary running loose.”

“No,” said Investigator Topaz coldly. “You don’t.”

Steel and Cyder both looked around sharply as Topaz and Mary made their way through the crowd to join them at the bar. People moved quickly to get out of the way of the two women. Even the danger of an invasion hadn’t blinded them to common courtesy and the need for self-preservation. Steel gave them his best professional, everything’s-under-control smile, but neither of them looked in the least impressed, so he dropped it. Cyder glared at Mary, one hand rising unconsciously to the thin scars on her face, legacy of their last meeting, when Mary had nearly killed Cyder with a single deadly song. Cyder never had been one to forgive or forget.

Steel decided he’d better get the ball rolling before things started getting seriously out of hand. “About time you got here, Investigator. I’m putting you in charge of the city Watch, as from this moment. You know more about how the Empire fights, and how best to face them, than anyone else. Give whatever orders you feel necessary, requisition anything you need, and we’ll argue about it later. I want every single warm body in the Watch out on the streets ten minutes ago, and no excuses, dammit! Spank a few if you have to.

“Your first objective is to clear the streets of all non-essential traffic. With the comm systems down, we’re going to have to rely on runners, and I don’t want them having to fight their way through panicking crowds. So, clear the streets. Break a few heads if you have to. Next, track down everyone who’s got some kind of weapon and send them out to guard the boundary walls. Tell them to hold as long as they can, and then fall back street by street. Hopefully by then I’ll have thought of something else to do with them.”

“Shouldn’t you clear this first with the rest of the Council?” said Mary.

“That bunch? I’ve seen better-organized anarchists’ meetings. They’ll back me up, once they’ve calmed down a little. Why are you still standing here?”

“Anything else?” said Topaz, entirely unmoved by Steel’s glare.

“Well, if you can work a miracle, this would be a really good time to prove it,” said Steel. “And, Topaz, whatever happens you are not to let Mary out of your sight for any reason. She’s too powerful to be allowed to operate as a loose cannon.”

“I understand,” said Mary. “All I want is to help, Director.”

Steel looked at her narrowly. “Half my espers can hardly think with this new Empire device jamming their powers. How come you’re holding out so well?”

“My mind is still my own, Director. I was and am a very powerful Siren. The Council’s deprogramming didn’t take that away from me.”

“Not for want of trying,” said Steel. “All right, stick with Topaz, and if you have to use your voice, make sure you’re pointing it in the right direction. Now get out of here, the pair of you. I’ve got a city to defend.”

* * * *

Only a few hours after Legion was forced to drop its disguise, the first Empire troops came flying out of the icy wastes beyond the city, hundreds of them crammed onto armored gravity sleds and barges. They came in waves, more and more of them, soaring over the boundary walls as though they weren’t even there. A few disrupter bolts lanced upward, only to be harmlessly deflected by glowing force fields. An Imperial attack usually centered around heavily armored battle wagons and war machines, but the cold and the snow and the ice of Mistworld slowed them down too much, and most were too large anyway to maneuver in Mistport’s narrow streets, so the softening up of the city fell to the Imperial air divisions. They came howling out of the darkening skies like so many rabid bats, sleek and deadly, disrupter bolts stabbing down again and again, lighting the streets bright as day as the energy beams exploded buildings of stone and wood and set the ruins ablaze. People ran screaming in the streets as the barges sailed serenely overhead, carrying death and destruction and the coming of Empire rule.

The gravity sleds chased people down the streets, whipping in and out between the narrow buildings, harrying and terrorizing their prey until they grew tired of their sport, and cut the runners down with flashing energy bolts. The air divisions pressed on, leaving fire and devastation behind them, until suddenly espers came flying up out of the streets to face them.

The esper union had pulled its strongest minds together and pushed aside Legion’s block for the moment. They knew it wouldn’t last, but for now they struggled with Legion and held it back, so that a hundred brave souls could fly on wings of esp up to meet the invaders on their own high ground. The espers whipped around the slower-moving Imperial craft, darting in and out too fast to be tracked. Some had energy guns, some had crossbows, some had nothing but naked steel and their own indomitable courage. Force shields crackled and failed around the gravity barges as down in the streets espers strained to hex their tech and drain their power batteries. Imperial troops screamed and fell from their craft as the fast-flying espers took their toll, sniping at unguarded targets, but the air force was just too big and unstoppable, and its targeting computers soon came on line, taking out the flying defenders one by one, for all their speed and courage. They fell out of the dark sky like burning birds, and the air force pressed on.

More espers came soaring up out of the streets to take the place of those who fell. With their city endangered, their way of life threatened, and their backs almost literally to the wall, many in Mistport found courage and honor where they would have sworn there was none, and went to the fight with calm eyes and grim determination. They lunged and soared, using familiar updrafts and hiding places to confound the targeting computers, stinging their targets like deadly insects.

Some deliberately threw themselves into the gravity barges’ engine bays, suicide attacks that were only occasionally successful. When a barge did fall from the sky, it crashed into fragile stone-and-timber buildings, crushing them with its immense weight. Exploding barges destroyed whole streets and spread fire across whole blocks. And for each barge that fell, there were always more to take its place, moving remorselessly forward about the city they had come to take.

They moved slowly inward from every side, creating paths of death and destruction, heading for the center of the city, block by block, street by street. They kept to their previously arranged paths, ignoring the rest of the city. The Empire had come to conquer and control Mistport, not destroy it.

There were fires burning all across the city now, flames leaping high into the night sky. Screams came drifting up from the streets below. Hell had come to Mistport, and Toby Shreck and his cameraman Flynn were right there in the thick of it, keeping up a live broadcast. Flynn’s camera darted and soared above the inferno of the burning streets and blazing buildings, getting it all, while Toby kept up a breathless running commentary. This far above the devastation, it was easy to feel detached and godlike, but Toby did his best now and again to remind his audience that real people were burning and dying in the fires and ruins below. Not that most of them would care. That just added to the excitement for the home audience.

Toby clung to the railings at the edge of the gravity barge as the boiling heat of a sudden updraft rocked the barge from side to side. Flynn was so taken with what he was seeing through his camera that he quite forget to hold the railing, and almost toppled over the side before Toby grabbed him and pulled him back. The cameraman didn’t even nod his thanks. He was far away with his darting camera, swooping and soaring over the rising flames like an impartial angel recording the birth of Hell.

“Getting good footage?” asked Toby loudly in Flynn’s ear.

“If only you could see what I’m seeing,” said Flynn. “People have seen war footage before, but never this close, never this clearly. I can zoom in on individual buildings, individual people, or pull back to a panorama of the whole damned city. It’s beautiful, Toby. The scarlet and gold against the black of night. The burning buildings, and the flames . . . it has a majesty and a grandeur that’s beyond pity or compassion. It doesn’t need excuses; it just is. A city is dying one inch at a time, and I’m getting it all. The colors are amazing—bright and primitive and striking. And the roar of the explosions is like a giant walking across the city, one great step at a time, as the ground shakes beneath his tread. It’s . . . exhilarating.”

“Smell the smoke,” said Toby. “That’s burning flesh amongst the wood and grime. Listen to the screams. Don’t get carried away, Flynn. This isn’t an invasion; this is a slaughter.”

He broke off as a flying esper came howling out of the darkness toward him. The esper was armed with an automatic crossbow, jury-rigged from forbidden tech, and his deadly bolts stitched across the armed men at the railings as they tried in vain to draw a bead on him. They fell back from the railing, crying out as they clutched at transfixing arrows. Toby grabbed Flynn and threw them both to the deck. A nearby disrupter cannon turned to bear on the next building, and the esper was suddenly hovering there before it. He thrust his arm down the barrel, blocking it. Toby looked up, and their eyes met. The esper grinned savagely, scared shitless and not giving a damn, and then the bomb in his hand went off, blowing the cannon apart. The esper was thrown backwards, blood fountaining from the shoulder where his right arm had been. He fell toward the street far below, laughing breathlessly. Toby watched him fall until he disappeared back into the smoke and the flames.

Lieutenant Ffolkes came staggering down the deck toward Toby and Flynn, stepping gingerly over the injured and the dying. He had a gun in his hand, and there was blood spattered across one sleeve of his uniform. It didn’t appear to be his. He looked over the railings, and nodded calmly at the burning city as though quietly satisfied.

“You’re really missing the best of it from down here,” he said casually. “I trust you’re getting good coverage?”

“Oh yes,” said Toby, climbing carefully to his feet. “Right up close and personal, some times.”

Ffolkes looked at him. “The Empress might have ordered it, Shreck, but I’m still in charge. Follow your instructions. Nothing . . . controversial, or I’ll shut you down.”

“Got it,” said Toby. “Nothing controversial. Just blood and death and burning buildings.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Ffolkes. “Carry on.”

And he strode away to upset somebody else. Toby made a rude gesture at the man’s departing back, realized that Flynn was still lying on the deck, and hauled him to his feet. The cameraman was still lost in what his camera was showing him through his comm implant. Toby could have patched it to the frequency through his own comm link, but didn’t. It was all he could do to cope with what he was already seeing.

* * * *

In his room on the top floor of the Blackthorn Inn, as yet untouched by the invasion, Owen Deathstalker crawled across the floor on his hands and knees, shivering and shaking. His head hung down, hot and heavy, and sweat dripped from his contorted face. Pain blazed in all his muscles, sharp and piercing, and shuddered in his gut. He was blazing hot, his thoughts slow and muddy as the pain inside him tore him apart. He lurched on, inch by inch, as though trying to run away from the agonies that stretched his mouth in a soundless grimace. He didn’t scream. He wouldn’t let himself. He was a Deathstalker. He couldn’t let anyone see him like this. His shoulder crashed into the leg of a table, and he knocked the obstacle away with one sweep of his arm. He tried again to vomit, but he’d already emptied his stomach. He’d crawled through most of it.

The trembling had started as he made his way up the narrow stairs behind the bar. At first he’d put it down to reaction at his nearly having died, or the strain of fighting off so many attackers at once. It had been a hard day, after all. But it got worse. His head swam and his sight became blurred. His hands shook violently, and his legs became increasingly unsteady, until he was lurching along like a drunk. Somehow he made it to the top floor, and pressed his shoulder against the wall as he went, to keep him upright. His room seemed a long way away, but he got there, and even managed to shut the door behind him before he collapsed and began to puke up his guts.

His head crashed into a new obstacle. He hardly felt it, and it took him a while to realize that he’d reached the far wall, and there was nowhere left to go. He got himself turned around, grunting at the horrid pain, and put his back to the wall, sitting more or less upright. The pain was worse if anything, and he felt like he was burning alive. The room was a blur, and he could feel helpless tears trickling down his cheeks.

“Dear God, what’s happening to me,” he said, and was shocked at how weak he sounded.

“Side effects from your constant boosting,” said Ozymandius. “I did warn you. Whatever the Madness Maze did to you, you’re still human. You’ve been boosting too often and for too long, and it’s finally caught up with you. The candle that burns twice as brightly burns half as long, remember? You’ve been relying on the Maze’s changes to repair the damage you’ve been doing to yourself, but it seems you still have limits. Human limits. Your body’s been burning itself up, and you’ve nothing left to put out the flames.”

“There must be something I can do . . .” said Owen, forcing the words out through chattering teeth. He was hot and cold by turns now.

“I’m afraid your options are rather limited, Owen. You could boost again, but it would only make things worse in the long run. A regeneration machine might be able to repair the damage, but I don’t know of any in Mistport. Or you could throw yourself on the mercies of what passes for medicine on this planet, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Dammit, Oz . . . help me!”

“I’m sorry, Owen. You did this to yourself. There’s nothing I can do.”

“Oz . . . am I going to die?”

“I don’t know, Owen. The odds are against you.”

“Oz . . .”

“Hush, Owen. It’s all right. I’m here.”

There was a polite knock at his door. Owen gritted his teeth against the pain, and forced out a single word. “Yes?”

There was a pause, and then a voice said uncertainly, “Lord Deathstalker, the city Council requests that you join them downstairs. Your advice and support are needed most urgently.”

Owen swallowed hard, fighting to control his mouth. His lips were numb and his tongue was swollen. He had to answer the messenger, or the man would come in to see what was wrong. And he couldn’t afford to be seen like this. If he lived, no one would ever have faith in him again. They’d treat him like an invalid, and hustle him off somewhere safe. He was damned if he’d live like a cripple. And if he was going to die, he preferred to do it in private. He realized that the messenger was still waiting for a reply.

“I’ll be down soon,” he said, as loudly and clearly as he could.

There was another pause, then the voice said, very respectfully, “Lord Deathstalker, the invasion of Mistport has begun. You must have heard the explosions. I’m supposed to escort you . . .”

“I said I’ll be down soon!” Owen shouted, not caring how his voice sounded.

He could hear the messenger shuffling uncertainly outside his door, but finally the man turned and walked away. Owen grinned humorlessly. Thick ropes of saliva hung from his stretched mouth. He’d thought the Maze had made him superhuman, carried him beyond merely human limits. It appeared he’d been wrong. He was only human after all, and he would prove it the way everybody did, by dying from it. He tried to sit up a little straighter and couldn’t. His head grew heavier and heavier, bowing forward until his chin rested on his chest. He could hear his breathing now. It sounded loud and harsh and very labored.

The pain was beginning to fade. Even a little earlier, he might have found hope in that, but now he knew what it meant. He was dying, and his body was shutting down, bit by bit. He wished the others could have been with him. They might have linked with him, helped him, or just . . . kept him company. But as always, there was only him. And a voice in his head he didn’t believe in. He supposed dimly that he ought to pray, but he’d never been the praying kind. So many things left undone. So many things he’d meant to do and say, because he’d thought there’d be time later . . . He never even told Hazel that he loved her.

The door swung open with a crash, and Hazel d’Ark stood framed in the doorway. She stared in shock at Owen for a moment, then hurried forward to kneel beside him. She lifted his hand, grunted at the clammy coolness, and took his pulse with practiced efficiency. She pressed her other hand on his forehead, winced at the heat there, and wiped the sweat off her hand on her leggings. She checked his pulse against her watch, and then set about undoing Owen’s collar so he could breathe more easily.

“Deathstalker . . . can you hear me? Owen! Do you know what’s wrong with you?”

“Too much boosting,” he said, or thought he said. It was hard to tell anymore. He wasn’t even sure she was really there. Maybe he only wanted her to be there. And then his head rocked as she slapped him sharply across the face.

“Stay with me, Owen! Did you say boosting?”

“Side effects,” he said hoarsely. “Tearing me apart. Burning me up. The Maze can’t help me anymore.”

“Shit,” she said softly. “Yes, I remember you warning me about the dangers of the boost. An addiction that can kill you. The curse and the temptation of the Deathstalkers. Damn. Stay put, Owen. Hang on while I get you a doctor.”

“No! Doctors can’t help. Hazel, something I wanted to tell you . . .”

“It’s all right, Owen; I understand. I know what you’re going through. I’ve been through it myself. You’re not dying. It’s called withdrawal. I’ll stay with you. I remember what it was like, going through withdrawal from Blood. You won’t die. You’ll just wish you could.”

She sat down beside Owen, wrapped her arms around him, and rocked him like a child. Her arms were strong and steady. A sense of peace and quiet strength flowed out of her and into him. His shivers and muscle spasms gradually slowed and stopped. The pain went out of him like water draining into a bottomless well. The fever ebbed away, and he began to breathe more easily again. And still the strength flowed out of her and into him. They were linked again, finally. Their minds remained separate, Hazel maintaining a firm barrier between their thoughts, but physically they became more and more in sync, until all the aftereffects of the boostings had burned away, his pain soothed and healed, and Owen was himself again. They sat together for a while, Hazel still holding Owen in her arms.

“Well,” Owen said finally. “Was it good for you, too?”

Hazel laughed and pushed him away. “You’re back to normal, stud. Now get on your feet. They’re screaming for you downstairs.”

They stood up and smiled at each other. Neither of them knew quite what to say next. “Thanks,” said Owen. “You saved me. I could have died in here, but you brought me back. I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Lots of things you don’t know about me, Deathstalker.”

“That’s true. Where’s Silver?”

“Out in the streets somewhere. Fighting for his city. I’d never have pegged him for a hero, but it just goes to show how you can be wrong about people.”

“Well,” said Owen. “None of us are perfect.”

It was as close to an apology and a reconciliation as they were going to get, and they both knew it, so they moved on to other things.

“You know,” said Hazel, as they headed for the door, “this could happen again, if you use the boost too much.”

Owen shrugged. “I’ve been doing what’s needed. The boost makes it possible for me to do what I have to.”

“I know how that feels,” said Hazel. “Blood does the same thing for me.”

They stepped out into the hallway and looked at each other. Finally Owen smiled slightly. “Guess it takes one addict to recognize another. Now let’s go down and play the hero one more time, and pray the poor bastards depending on us never find out about our feet of clay. You’re a good friend, Hazel. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Don’t push it, aristo,” said Hazel d’Ark, smiling despite herself. And they went down the stairs together, leaning on each other just a little.

* * * *

Down in the bar they found the whole room cleared of customers, not to mention furniture. The chairs had all been pushed up against the walls, so that the city Councillors could crowd round a large circular table in the middle of the room. They were studying a map of the city and arguing loudly, with much gesturing of the hands. People were darting in and out the front door all the time, bringing in computer terminals, monitor screens and other useful equipment from Tech Quarter. Runners came and went with up-to-date information, pausing only briefly before rushing out into the night again. With the comm systems down, they had to be the Council’s eyes and ears in the city. Luckily, people in Mistport were used to improvising.

The proprietor of the Blackthorn Inn watched the chaos from behind the safety of the long wooden bar at the end of the room. Cyder had a quick smile that didn’t always reach her cold blue eyes, and thin scars crossed one side of her face like worry lines. She used to be the hardest-working and hardest-hearted fence in all Mistport, but was now a highly respectable citizen, owner of a popular and thriving tavern, and according to her old friend Silver, just possibly in line for Council membership. Only in Mistport, Owen had said. Don’t you believe it, said Hazel.

Beside Cyder, nursing a mulled ale, stood the young man called Cat—Cyder’s sidekick, lover, and occasional fall guy. Cyder wasn’t known for being sentimental. Cat had pale youthful features, dominated by dark watchful eyes and pockmarks that tattooed both cheeks. He wore a white thermal outfit that enabled him to hide in the snow and the mists with equal dexterity. Tall and slender, Cat was a deaf mute, and quite possibly the best burglar in the city. He was supposedly retired, now that Cyder had the means to keep him, but roof runners of his quality were always in demand, and he liked to keep busy.

Owen and Hazel moved over to the bar, and Cyder scowled at them both. “I don’t know why I let you in here. Every time you barge into my life, everything goes to hell in a handcart and my tavern gets trashed. I’d take out insurance against you, if I could find anyone dumb enough to underwrite the policy. Just look what’s happening now! I’ma spectator in my own tavern! I was making good money till the Council threw my customers out, and they’re too busy to drink much themselves. Who’s going to pay for my loss of custom?”

“Relax,” said Owen. “I have some associates in the city who’ll be only too pleased to make good your losses. Well, actually they won’t be too pleased at all, but they’ll still do it. Because they know I’ll cut them off at the knees if they don’t. Possibly quite literally.”

“So, what’s happening here?” said Hazel, after she and Cyder had embraced briefly across the bar and kissed the air near each other’s cheeks.

“We happy few are organizing the resistance,” said Cyder, pouring herself a very large drink. “Until the Empire finds us. That should take a while. Officially, only the Council members themselves were supposed to know about this. But they’re having to call in more and more people to help them, and someone will talk eventually. Someone always does. In the meantime, the Council is doing its best to coordinate resistance, and minimize the damage and loss of life.”

Steel finally noticed Owen and Hazel’s arrival, and beckoned for them to join him. He introduced them to the other Councillors, who looked decidedly unimpressed, so Owen decided not to be impressed by them either. It wasn’t difficult. Donald Royal was there, looking frail but determined, accompanied by his partner Madelaine Skye and Young Jack Random. Quentin McVey represented the Guilds. He dressed like a color-blind peacock with absolutely no taste, and had the most false-looking false teeth Owen had ever seen. Albert Magnus represented the Merchants. He dressed in dusty grey, a perfect match for his face, and generally looked like he’d died and then been dug up again quite recently. Lois Barron spoke for Thieves Quarter, a short and compact woman who looked tough enough to chew up a tin can and split nails. She had a bone-crushing handshake, too. Owen did his best not to wince. Finally, Iain Castle represented Tech Quarter. He was a dwarf with a crooked shoulder, and looked like he had absolutely no sense of humor about it.

The Council took it in turns to give Owen funny looks, and after catching sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar, Owen could understand why. He was covered in dried blood and puke, and his clothes looked as though someone had died in them. His face was deathly pale, and his eyes were so deep-set it was a wonder he could see out of them. All in all, Owen decided he looked rather like some homicidal holy man who’d finally discovered the real meaning of life, and was thoroughly pissed off about it. Hazel looked like a barroom brawler, but then, she always did.

Quentin McVey was the first to speak. He screwed a monocle into his left eye and looked Owen up and down. “Have this boy washed and sent to my room.”

“Forget it,” Owen said amiably. “You couldn’t afford me.”

“You always did have a thing for rough trade, Quentin,” said Lois Barron. “But this is slumming, even for you. Dear God, this disreputable-looking pair are supposed to be our contacts with the Golgotha underground? They’re a disgrace. If they turned up at my front door, I’d set the dogs on them.”

“Right,” said Magnus. “Get them out of here. We’ve got work to do. If Golgotha wants to be taken seriously here, they’ll have to send us better than this.”

“Kick them out,” said Iain Castle, the dwarf. “We don’t have time for this.”

Owen and Hazel reached out mentally to each other, and linked. Power shot back and forth between them, building and building. Their presence was suddenly overwhelming, filling the room from wall to wall, drawing all eyes to them. They were wild and powerful, so wildly potent as to seem almost inhuman, or more than human. Their power hammered on the air like a giant heartbeat, vast and overpowering. The Councillors would have liked to run, or kneel, but they were held where they were, like mice before a snake. New energy flooded through Owen and Hazel, washing away all weaknesses and impurities. Hazel’s Blood use had kept them from linking for so long that they had forgotten how powerful they were when joined.

“Cut it out,” said Cyder, forcing out the words despite the awe that pressed her back against the far wall. “We’re impressed, honest. Now shut it down, before the Empire espers pick up on it.”

Owen and Hazel reigned back on their link, internalizing their power, and suddenly they were just a man and a woman again. Owen could hardly believe that just a few minutes ago he’d thought he was close to death. Now, with Hazel at his side, he felt he could take on an army. It seemed there was still a lot about what the Maze had done to them that they didn’t understand.

“Relax,” Hazel said calmly to the Council. “I don’t think any esper could pick us up. Whatever it is that powers us, I don’t think it’s esp.”

The Council members looked at each other, and if anything looked even more upset than before, and Owen suddenly realized that for the moment they were just as frightened of him and Hazel as they were of the invaders. At least the Empire was a known threat. He stepped forward, hands raised reassuringly, and tried not to notice when they all flinched and drew back from him.

“Take it easy, people. We’re here to help. This is your city; you tell us how best we can help you defend it.”

Donald Royal stepped suddenly forward to stare into Owen’s face. His gaze was firm and steady. “Yes, you’re a Deathstalker, all right. I can see it in your eyes. Damn, it’s good to have a Deathstalker with us again. Your Family always did have a talent for stirring things up. I knew your father and your grandfather, boy. Good men, both of them, in their different ways. When all this is over, I’ll tell you some stories about them that you probably won’t find in your Family records. It’s good to see you here, maintaining your Clan’s traditions.”

“Leave the old-times shit for later,” said Castle. “What kind of help are you offering us, Deathstalker? Going to walk out into the streets and awe the Empire troops to death, are you? You might have esp or juju coming out your ears, but that won’t stop an invading army. Surely Golgotha didn’t just send us the pair of you and their best wishes? We need guns, explosives, equipment.”

“We brought a ship full of projectile weapons and crates of ammunition,” said Owen calmly. “They should be being distributed even as we speak. That’s it.”

“Projectile weapons?” said Magnus. “What use are bloody antiques against gravity barges with disrupter cannon?”

“You’d be surprised,” said Hazel. “Besides, you’ve got me and Owen. We’re an army in our own right.”

“Oh wonderful,” said Lois Barron. “An ex-aristo and an ex-pirate with overblown esp and delusions of grandeur. Like we haven’t got enough of those already. Why don’t we all just shoot ourselves now, and get it over with?”

“If you don’t stop whining, I’ll shoot you myself,” snapped Royal. “These two are different. You felt their power.”

“Oh, we’re different, all right,” said Owen.

“That’s for sure,” said Hazel. “And there’s always Jenny Psycho. Wherever she is.”

“I don’t think we need to tell the Council about her yet,” said Owen. “They’d only worry.”

“And if you find those two disturbing, there’s always me,” said Young Jack Random.

Everyone turned to look at him. He’d been quiet for so long that everyone had forgotten he was there. It quickly became clear that the Council found his tall muscular frame and handsome face much more satisfying than Hazel and Owen.

“And who the hell are you?” said Castle, climbing onto a stool to get a better look over people’s heads.

“I know the face,” said McVey. “I’m sure I know the face.”

Donald Royal smiled. “Allow me to present my good old friend, the one and only Jack Random.”

The Council gaped soundlessly for a moment, then left the table en masse to crowd around Random, pumping his hand and slapping him on the back, and saying how delighted they were that he’d come to save them in their hour of need. Random smiled and nodded modestly, looking every inch a hero and a legend born. Owen looked at Hazel.

“I may puke.”

“You already did. Try not to get it all over me this time.”

Eventually the Councillors got tired of telling Random what a savior he was to them, and having him modestly nod and agree, and they brought him over to the table to show him the great map of Mistport. Steel pulled Random in beside him to explain things, and Owen and Hazel pushed in on the other side, determined to not be left out of anything. Steel ignored them, concentrating on Random.

“Right, Jack, this map covers all four Quarters of the city, from boundary to boundary. The city’s perimeter is defended by high stone walls, but they won’t last long. They were only ever intended to keep out marauding local wildlife. A war machine will walk right through them. And of course they don’t do a thing to stop gravity barges and sleds. To the north we have Merchants and Guilds Quarters, and Thieves and Tech in the south. The River Autumn runs through all of them except Tech. With our communications out, and most of the streets blocked with people and barricades, we’ve been using the barges on the Autumn to transfer messages and people. One of our few Emergency plans that is worth anything. Most of the rest depended on espers, and they’re not part of the agenda anymore. Whatever it is the Empire’s doing, it’s scrambled the minds of practically anyone with even a touch of esp in them. A few of the stronger talents are holding out, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how long. What’s left of the esper union is concentrating on combating the air invasion, but all they’re doing is buying us some time. We’ve got runners bringing in information all the time, but by the time we get to hear about anything, it’s already over. I’d kill for just one working comm system, but the runners are all we’ve got. . .”

“Not anymore,” said a new voice from the tavern doorway. Everyone looked around, and there was Jenny Psycho, looking very pleased with herself, along with Chance and a dozen esper children from the Abraxus Information Center. The children were awake and more or less steady on their feet, but their eyes were wild and unsettling. A general shudder went through most of the people at the table, as they studied the insane children in their ill-fitting, grubby dressing gowns.

“All right,” said Magnus, in his cold grey voice. “Who the hell are you, woman, and why have you brought these . . . people here?”

“I’m Jenny Psycho, last manifestation of the Mater Mundi. So watch your mouth or I’ll turn you into a small hopping thing. These children are possibly the only espers left in Mistport who aren’t bothered by the new Empire weapon. Possibly because they’re so far out of it even under normal conditions. The rest of the children are taking up positions all over the city. They’re a bit strange to work with, but once you get the hang of it you should have a working communications system again. And I am here to protect you in case the Empire works out where you are. With the Mater Mundi’s power flowing through me, I’m more than a match for anything the Empire can throw at you. Now, don’t you all feel so much safer?”

“You know, I’d probably feel a lot happier about all this if it wasn’t coming from a woman called Jenny Psycho,” said Donald Royal.

“Well done, Jenny,” said Random. “I knew you’d come through for us. Now let’s get these children settled, before anything else. The poor lambs look like they’ve come a long, hard way.”

People bustled around getting the children hot drinks and blankets to lie on, while Chance hovered protectively over them, getting in the way. Jenny Psycho busied herself ordering some strange but potent cocktail at the bar. She seemed to feel that having got the children safely here, they were no longer her responsibility. As always, Jenny had her own sense of priorities, with herself at the top of the list. The children were barely settled when they all suddenly stiffened on their makeshift beds, their eyes rolled up in their heads.

“Do they often do that?” asked Lois Barron.

“Shut up,” said Chance. “They’re seeing something.”

“They’re here,” said one of the children, in a calm, dreamy voice. “The wall has gone down at the southwest boundary. Imperial foot troops are streaming through. The wolves are in the fold.”

“Shit!” said Steel. “I thought we had more time. Chance, how reliable are these charges of yours?”

“When it comes to seeing the present, one hundred percent. As to the future . . .”

“I know, I know.” Steel thought furiously. “Get the runners on their feet again. I don’t care how tired they are. I need them to gather reinforcements for whatever’s left of the wall.”

“No need to bother the runners,” said Random. “Let them rest. They’re exhausted. Give me some men, and I’ll lead a force down to the boundary to stop the invaders.”

And as quickly as that the meeting broke up into shouted plans and orders. Albert Magnus volunteered to take Random to the nearest groups of militia and city Watch, and lead them to the southwest boundary. Random clapped him on the shoulder and called him a Good Man, and the grey man almost blushed. They hurried out the door, and Owen and Hazel hurried after them. Jenny Psycho grudgingly worked with Chance to stabilize the children, and interpret what they were seeing. She seemed to feel this was somewhat beneath her, but did it anyway to show she was a good sport.

Cyder led Cat off into a quiet corner, wrote out several messages, then sent him off to deliver them. If Empire troops were already in the city, she wanted to be sure her various properties were being well protected. Just because there was a war on, there was no need to lose track of one’s priorities. Cat frowned, and then shrugged. He could never say no where Cyder was concerned. And as one of the finest burglars and roof runners in Mistport, the chances of his being detected and stopped were less than most people’s. Mistport’s sea of connected roofs and gables were familiar territory to him. So he smiled reassuringly at Cyder, kissed her good-bye, then again for luck, and again because he enjoyed it, and disappeared out the nearest window, up the wall, and onto the roofs, his white thermal suit blending seamlessly into the snow and fog. He had no way of knowing he would never return to the Blackthorn Inn again.

* * * *

High above the world, floating in its massive tank, Legion grew stronger and flexed its mental muscles. Its powers stretched across the city of Mistport, dark and potent, messing with men’s minds. Men and women fell to the ground, frothing at the mouth, driven into madness to escape the awful presence that peered out at them from within their own minds. Espers went catatonic, or mute, or writhed helplessly on their beds as their power discharged on the air around them, out of their control. Legion was abroad in the night, walking up and down in human minds and spreading horror. It was vast and powerful, and nothing could stand against it. It was Legion, and it was many in one.

* * * *

John Silver fought with the others at the break in the southwest boundary wall, under Legion’s continuing scream. He’d fought in so many campaigns in his previous life as a pirate, against odds of all kinds, but never anything like this. There seemed no end to the Imperial troopers as they came streaming through the huge gaps in the wall opened up by the Empire war wagons. Time had blurred into a rush of blood and pain and clashing steel, and though he stood his ground amidst the rubble of the wall and would not yield, he knew he didn’t stand a chance.

After the Hob hounds’ invasion of the city during the Typhoid Mary disaster, the city Council had given orders for the twenty-foot stone walls to be raised to thirty feet. Thirty feet of solid stone, four feet thick. It hadn’t slowed the Empire forces down for a moment. The huge battle wagons, fifty feet tall and twenty wide, had smashed through the wall as though it was made of paper. Their toughened steel hulls could withstand anything short of a disrupter, and what few energy guns the defenders had weren’t enough to stop them.

And so the war wagons crashed through the wall in a dozen places, and the Imperial troops came swarming in over the rubble, firing as they came. The city’s defenders went to meet them with bare steel and grim determination, leaping over their fallen fellows to meet the invaders head-to-head, and there the invasion slowed and stopped, as fighting clogged the entrances. It was vicious fighting, with no quarter asked or given. There was no room in any of them for anything but hatred and murder, a blood madness fueled by the rebels’ outrage, the troops’ battle drugs, and the never-ending scream above.

The battle wagons were largely useless once they’d broached the boundary walls. They were too big and too clumsy to operate in the narrow streets and alleyways of Mistport, and they couldn’t use their disrupter cannon on the city defenders for fear of taking out their own troops, too. So as always it came down to man against man, and the flash of cold steel. Men fell dead and dying on all sides, but though the tides of battle surged this way and that, somehow still the defenders held.

John Silver had taken a deep cut across his forehead somewhen early in the proceedings, and had to keep jerking his head to keep the blood out of his eyes. Typical Silver luck. All bad. He’d taken other wounds, and there was more blood on his clothes, but he tried not to think about that. It would only depress him. The buzz from his last shot of Blood had worn off long ago, and now all that kept him going was duty and adrenaline. His sword rose and fell, most often crashing uselessly back from parrying steel or force shield, and his sword arm ached mercilessly. There was no room in the crush of bodies for fancy swordplay or footwork. You stood toe-to-toe with your opponent and hammered it out, with victory going to the strongest or the quickest. And when one man fell, there was always another to take his place.

Silver would have liked to cut and run, but there was nowhere to run to. If Mistport fell and the Empire took over, they’d hang him anyway, on general principles. And besides, as so many times before, duty held him where courage would not. He owed a lot to Mistport, and Silver believed in paying his debts. His side surged suddenly forward a few feet, seizing some momentary advantage, and Silver had to watch his footing. There were bodies everywhere, underfoot. He recognized some of the faces, but couldn’t let himself think about that. There was only the struggle, blade on blade, and the knowledge that they were bound to drag him down eventually.

And then suddenly reinforcements were there, slamming into battle beside him like the answer to a prayer. War cries from a dozen worlds and cultures filled the air as the new defenders forced the invading troops back, step by step. The Deathstalker was there, already covered in blood and looking like death on legs. Hazel d’Ark fought beside him, wielding her sword with devastating strength and speed. Albert Magnus from the city Council was there, too, right in the front of things—a dusty grey man with a sword in each hand, unstoppable as a force of nature. And leading the attack, Jack Random himself, the professional rebel. He was tall and imposing in silver battle armor, his face familiar from a hundred wanted posters, driving the invaders back by the sheer fury of his attack. His swordplay was swift and deadly, and no one could stand against him.

Silver laughed breathlessly and fought on, new strength in his arms. Maybe he wasn’t going to die this day after all. He pulled a thin vial from his sleeve and swallowed the remaining dark liquid down in one draught. It was the last of his Blood, but the odds were the battle would be over by the time he needed another shot, one way or the other, so what the hell.

Owen Deathstalker took a position at the head of the battle and defied the Imperial troopers to get past him. He was boosting again, and felt stronger than ever now that he was linking with Hazel. Somehow he knew side effects wouldn’t be a problem this time. Together, he and Hazel were far greater than the sum of their parts, more than merely human. He hacked and cut about him with unstoppable strength, slapping aside defensive parries with contemptuous ease. Men fell screaming to either side of him, and did not rise again. Droplets of blood flew from his blade as it scythed through the air, and Owen grinned like a wolf, the scent of blood heavy in his nostrils, every inch the warrior he’d never wanted to be.

Hazel d’Ark fought at his side, her sword flashing in short, brutal arcs, cutting through flesh and bone like a butcher’s cleaver. Blood, none of it hers, splashed her clothes, soaking her sword arm to the elbow, and the screams of the wounded and the dying were music to her. She’d always had a soft spot for Mistport. She’d always liked to think that wherever she went and whatever she did, she could always go back to Mistworld, and they would take her in. It was the closest thing to a home she’d ever known. And now the Empire wanted to take that away from her, just like all the other things they’d taken, down the years. She was damned if she’d allow the Iron Bitch that final victory. Not as long as there was breath in her body and steel in her hand.

Her link with Owen was strong now. She could feel his presence at her side, strong and dependable as always. Another presence impinged on her mind, and a familiar smell was suddenly strong and thick in her nostrils. She glanced to her left, and there was John Silver, not far away, stamping and fencing like a man possessed, eyes wide and grinning like a madman. He was flying on Blood. She could see it in him, smell it on his panting breath, even at this distance. A part of her wanted Blood, too. Just a drop or two. It would make her feel so good, comfort her fears, help her forget the helplessness of the fight she was involved in. Hazel fought the need down, burying it deep. She didn’t need Blood to do what had to be done here. Perhaps because her situation had now become so simple—fight or die, fight or lose everything she ever cared for. And perhaps because she was linking with Owen again, and in his presence and strength she found all the comfort she needed.

Disrupters on the battle wagons began to target rebel fighters on the outskirts of the struggling mob, blowing them apart in dark clouds of vaporized flesh and blood. Gravity barges drifted overhead in vast formations, surrounded by darting gravity sleds, hundreds of them, like a storm of dark metal leaves blowing into the city. No espers flew up to meet them as they pressed slowly on into the city, disrupter beams stabbing down to blow buildings apart. The air was filled with the roar of powerful engines and collapsing masonry, almost drowning out the shrieks and howls and war cries drifting up from the struggling forces below.

And above it all, the endless scream of the awful thing called Legion.

Albert Magnus, that grey and bitter man, fought hard and well with his two swords, and felt really alive for the first time in years.

He swung his two swords in wide, coordinated arcs, forcing his opponents back. But there were so many of them, and he couldn’t look in all directions at once. A sword stabbed at him from an unexpected angle, and slammed between his ribs. He shouted in pain and disbelief, and blood sprayed from his mouth. He dropped his swords. Someone jerked the sword out of his side, and that hurt him again. And then there were more swords, and axes, hewing at him like a block of wood. He fell, hurting too badly now even to scream, and was trampled on, just another body on the ground. The fight moved back and forth over him till he died.

Jack Random seemed to be everywhere at once, his sword a silver blur, a dashing death-defying hero, laughing in the face of impossible odds. Just his presence was enough to spark greatness in the men and women around him, and they fought, using his name as a battle cry. He took impossible risks and always pulled them off, and no one could stand against him. He never seemed to tire, and he never took a wound, a giant of a man who spread terror through the Imperial ranks.

Owen, bloodied and exhausted, was quietly disgusted. It wasn’t fair that anyone should be that fast, that amazing, and that good-looking—not to mention that lucky. The Empire forces hadn’t even been able to draw the great man’s blood yet. Owen felt he was doing pretty well, but he’d already taken a dozen lesser wounds. It was inevitable in a crush like this. The Maze’s changes were already healing him, and the boost kept him from feeling much pain, but it was the principle of the thing.

Still, Jack Random was a legend, and legends were supposed to be above the petty problems of mere mortals. If that was who he really was. Owen was damned if he knew what he believed anymore. Certainly this man filled the legend better than the broken-down old man he’d found hiding in Mistport, claiming to be Jack Random; but Owen believed in people, not legends. He shrugged mentally as he cut down another Imperial trooper with a single savage stroke. Random wasn’t the only real warrior here.

And whoever the handsome bastard really was, Young Jack Random was exactly what the city of Mistport needed right now. His name was a rallying cry, perhaps the only thing that could call all the disparate parts of Mistport together and make them fight as one. Owen decided he’d settle for that.

Hazel d’Ark could feel her mind reaching out in strange directions. Ever since the Maze had changed her, her mental abilities had been slowly but steadily increasing, and since coming to Mistport, the rate of change had been increasing. She could tell now where every attack was coming from, even before it was actually launched, and her sword was always there in the right place to block the attack. No one could sneak up on her, even in her blind spots, and she could sense the weaknesses in any opponent the moment she saw him or her. It was beyond experience or instinct; it was as though she’d always known such things, and only remembered them now when she needed them.

And more than that, as she saw the various possibilities opening up before her, other possible versions of herself began to appear around her. They blinked in and out of existence, sometimes only there long enough to deflect a sword or ward off an attack she couldn’t have stopped on her own. But as she fought, other different Hazel d’Arks began to appear, to fight at her side. Some had subtle differences, like an extra scar, or different-colored hair. Others were different builds, or races. One had a golden Hadenman hand. One was a man. At least one didn’t look to be entirely human. She smiled at some of them, and some smiled back. Together, she and her other selves pushed forward, forcing their way to the very front of the battle, and there they filled the main gap in the boundary wall and defied the Empire to get past them.

John Silver saw the Hazel d’Arks fighting side by side, and thought he must have got a really bad batch of Blood this time. It didn’t usually give him hallucinations. It was only when a bald Hazel d’Ark in a bounty hunter’s leathers stopped an Imperial sword thrust that would have killed him, that he was forced to admit they were real. He didn’t let it bother him. Mistport was a crazy place at the best of times, which this very definitely wasn’t. But then he saw Owen Deathstalker striding through the milling crowd, cutting troopers down as though they were nothing, and Jack Random standing defiant and undefeatable amidst a pile of enemy dead, and a shivering awe flashed through him. In all his years, Silver had never seen anything like these three. It was like fighting beside gods.

But it only took a moment for the awe to turn to jealousy. He was just a man, with a man’s strength and courage, doing what he could, while three inhuman beings made his best efforts look like nothing. He fought on, but some of the heart had gone out of him. Another surge in the fighting brought him forward, to Owen’s side. The Deathstalker threw him a quick, flashing grin, and Silver tried to smile back. And in that moment he saw a trooper’s sword heading straight for Owen’s back. The Deathstalker hadn’t seen it, too busy cutting down the two men before him. Time seemed to slow and stop, and it felt to Silver that he had all the time in the world to decide what to do next. He could call out a warning, or stop the blade himself, but in that moment he wanted the Deathstalker to die. For being more than human, more than him, for being closer and more important to Hazel than he could ever be. It would be easy just to stand there, and let the blade kill Owen. Afterward, no one would blame him. There was so much going on, and he couldn’t be expected to see everything. He hesitated, his mind churning in a dozen different directions at once. All the things that could be his, if only Owen Deathstalker was dead. And then time crashed into motion again, and there was no more time to think.

The blade slammed toward Owen’s back, and Silver lurched forward, his sword blocking the blow. The sudden impact tore the sword from his hand, and it fell to the ground. The trooper turned on Silver, his sword drawing back for a killing thrust. Silver darted to one side, and the blade sliced across the side of his arm, just opening the skin. Blood ran down his arm. The trooper drew back his arm for another blow. Silver gathered the blood running down his arm into his hand, and threw it in the trooper’s eyes. The man hesitated for a moment, blinded, and it was the easiest thing in the world for Silver to reach down, pick up his sword, and run the trooper through.

All this passed in only a moment or two. Owen Deathstalker saw none of it, being busy with his own problems. Silver gathered his wits together and fought on. He hadn’t done too badly, for a mere mortal. And if there had to be gods fighting in this battle, Silver was just glad they were on his side.

The tides of battle swept him away from Owen, who cut his way through a crowd of bodies to fight beside Hazel again. It took a moment to realize it wasn’t the Hazel d’Ark he knew, and another to realize there seemed to be a small crowd of Hazels. And then someone in the back of the crowd was shouting “Retreat!” Other voices took it up, all of them Imperial troopers, and suddenly the invaders were melting away before Owen, turning and running. Everywhere he looked it was the same, as what had been a far greater force fell apart and ran for its life, its strength broken on the immovable rock that was Mistport’s defenders. The retreat became a rout, and in a matter of moments there was no one left to fight. The defenders raised a ragged cheer. Owen looked back at Hazel d’Ark and blinked a few times as he discovered there was only one of her there. She looked across at him, grinning broadly, and Owen decided he wasn’t going to ask. Not yet He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. The defenders were calling his name, and Hazel’s, but mostly Jack Random’s. He was their hero. They saluted him with raised swords, and glowing fervent eyes. They would have followed him into Hell itself, and everyone knew it.

And then the war wagons opened fire with their disrupters. Now that they no longer had to worry about killing their own troops, they could fire with impunity. The disrupter cannon blew huge bloody holes in the defenders’ forces, and the air was full of blood and flying flesh. The crowd began to fall back, scrambling over the bodies of the dead. Jack Random raised his voice above the bedlam.

“Stop, my friends! We can defeat these machines!”

Owen pushed his way through the crowd to grab Random by the arm. “What are you, crazy? You can’t fight disrupter cannon with nothing but swords! We have to fall back and find some place we can defend!”

“Damn right,” said Hazel, suddenly at Owen’s side. “You trying to get us all killed, Random?”

“My apologies,” said Young Jack Random. “You’re quite right, of course. I got carried away for the moment.”

“Fine,” said Owen. “Now shut the hell up and run.”

The defenders fell back before the advancing battle wagons, but it was an organized retreat, not a rout. They spilled back through the narrow streets and alleyways, confident the huge bulking machines couldn’t follow them. The machines’ disrupter cannon swiveled from side to side, trying to find a grouping of rebels big enough to be worth firing on, but the rebels had already learned that lesson the hard way, and scattered into smaller and smaller groups as they fell back. So the war wagons opened fire on the streets themselves, blowing buildings and walls apart in showers of pulverized brick and mortar. There were shouts and screams as people disappeared beneath the collapsing buildings, and soon there were only piles of smoking rubble where the streets had been, over which the huge battle wagons pressed relentlessly forward.

The Imperial troopers saw the triumph of the war machines, and began to re-form behind them. The defenders’ retreat began to turn into a rout after all. Owen and Hazel stopped and looked back. The war wagons surged toward them, guns roaring, devouring Mistport street by street. Above, the gravity barges hovered like vast storm clouds. Owen reached out a hand to Hazel, and she took it firmly, the same thought in both their minds. Their joined thoughts reached up and out. One of the gravity barges suddenly lurched in midair, as some unseen, implacable force seized hold of it. The engines roared and strained, and then overloaded, as something pulled the barge down out of the sky and smashed it into the war machines below.

The night was ripped apart by the force of the explosion, and flames roaring up from the tangled wreckage lit the nearby streets bright as day. The invading forces had to retreat yet again, or be showered by falling molten metal, thrown hundreds of yards by the blast. But none of the defenders were harmed. The tumbling debris seemed to fall well short every time, as though they were protected by some unseen hand. The rebels stopped running and stood and cheered, celebrating the good fortune that had saved them. Of them all, only John Silver knew to whom they owed their lives. He watched as Owen and Hazel came out of their trance, looked down at their linked hands, and grinned self-consciously. They let go, and moved off into the cheering crowds. Silver watched them go, and wondered again what they were. What they were becoming. And if, just possibly, they might grow to be so powerful that they became more of a threat to Mistport than the Empire ever had been. He moved off after them, shaken by his thoughts, but already pondering possible actions, should it prove necessary. And wondering if he’d done the right thing in saving the Deathstalker’s life after all.

He’d always felt a little superior, because some humans feared espers for their powers. Now he knew how those people felt. He wasn’t top of the heap anymore. He wasn’t even sure he could see the top of the heap from where he was.

Back among the retreating Empire troopers were Toby Shreck and his cameraman Flynn. They’d been put down to join the ground forces, and get close-up shots of the glorious invasion, only things hadn’t turned out that way. The moment it became clear things were going seriously wrong, Lieutenant Ffolkes ordered Flynn to recall his camera and shut it down. The live broadcast was over, owing to technical difficulties. To make it clear how serious those difficulties were, Ffolkes stuck a gun in Flynn’s back, and kept it there until the camera had safely returned to perch on Flynn’s shoulder again. Its single red eye went out, and it was still. Toby protested, but no one listened to him. He hadn’t expected they would, but he had to raise his voice anyway, or they’d think he was getting soft. Neither he nor Flynn doubted Ffolkes would have used the gun. He was white with fury at the invading forces’ defeat, and looked like he was ready to take it out on anyone stupid enough to upset him. So Toby and Flynn fell back with the retreating forces until Ffolkes was called away to be objectionable somewhere else. After he was gone, they got some great footage of the crashing gravity barge, and then had to run like hell as molten metal came dropping out of the sky like a deadly hail. As they trudged back into the snows outside the city, and temporary safety, Toby and Flynn gave up trying to interview the exhausted troopers after the negative replies escalated from the obscene to actual death threats.

“Wonder where they’ll send us next,” said Flynn, after a while.

“Somewhere where things are going rather better, I should imagine,” said Toby.

“Assuming there is such a place.”

“Bound to be. The defenders just got lucky here, that’s all.”

“I don’t know,” said Flynn. “What were the odds of a gravity barge just happening to fall on the war wagons?”

Toby looked at him. “What are you implying? That the rebels brought it down in some way? Forget it. They don’t have that kind of weaponry. And if you’re thinking of espers, even the infamous Inspector Topaz her own bad self couldn’t have brought down something that big. Espers just don’t come that strong. And that’s without Legion scrambling their minds.”

“This is Mistport,” said Flynn, darkly. “I’ve heard things about Mistport. Never wanted to come here in the first place.”

“It’s certainly full of surprises,” said Toby. “Did you see who was leading the rebel forces? Jack Random, looking just like his old holo pictures. Only, if that’s Jack Random, whom did we see leading the rebel forces on Technos III? That man looked a lot older, and harder used. And I don’t believe he could have got from there to here, in so short a time. Not without the Empire knowing.”

“Maybe one of them’s a double. Or a clone.” Flynn scowled. “Either way, there’s a lot to this story that we’re not being told.”

“Nothing new there,” said Toby. “If we run across him again, maybe we can pin him down for an interview. I could name my own price for a piece like that. Prime time, guaranteed.”

“The powers that be, and intend to keep on being, would never let you show it.”

Toby grinned. “Where there’s a wallet, there’s a way.”

* * * *

In the labyrinthian heart of Thieves Quarter, in the Blackthorn Inn, representatives of the esper union were fighting to keep track of what was happening. More people were arriving all the time, filling the crowded room, as news poured in from all over the city. The Council members, minus Albert Magnus, were still poring over the great map of Mistport, studying the situation with darkening scowls. The news was rarely good. The esper reps showed the positions of the gravity barges and sleds as small black shadows drifting over the map. Espers flying up to fight them showed as bright burning sparks. The sparks tended to blink out suddenly after a while, and no one needed to ask why. More shadows showed at the boundaries of the city, where the Empire forces had breached the boundary walls. The dark stains spread inward as the invading forces pressed on into the city despite all the defenders could do to slow or stop them. The shadows were holding only at the southwest boundary, where news of an unexpected victory was beginning to drift in.

Chance’s children lay huddled on blankets in one corner of the room, keeping up a steady, quiet babble of information and warnings as Chance moved among them, cajoling and praising and bribing them with bits of candy. Any one of them he left alone for too long tended to drift into waking nightmares, screaming and howling piteously. The esper union reps were hiding the Blackthorn’s position and inhabitants with their superior mental abilities, but even they couldn’t protect the Abraxus children from the horror of Legion. The never-ending scream, rasping in their minds and souls like the scrape of bone on bone, or the tearing of living meat No one knew bow the children experienced it, but the look on their small faces as they mewled despairingly and twisted in their blankets was enough to keep anyone from asking. Chance pleaded with the Council to let him sedate the children, but the answer was always no. They were too useful.

A few espers teleported in and out with important messages, appearing and disappearing in puffs of disturbed air. Static sparked around them, discharging painfully through the nearest metal. They were risking their lives with every jump, and everyone knew it. Legion’s scream was interrupting their concentration. Some never arrived. Just blinked out in one location, and were never seen again. Some arrived at the inn in pieces, or horribly rearranged. One materialized half inside the tavern wall. He was still there, protruding from the brickwork. No one could figure out how to remove him without tearing the wall apart. Luckily he was dead, so they just draped a cloth across his face to hide the staring eyes and contorted mouth, and pretended he wasn’t there.

And one man fell out of midair and slammed to the floor in a sticky mess of spurting blood and exposed organs. His journey had turned him inside out. Horribly, he wouldn’t die. In the end, Donald Royal cut off the head with one merciful stroke of his sword.

The Council members and the esper union reps struggled to put some kind of planned defenses together, but things were happening so quickly all the time that all they could really do was react to the Empire’s actions and provide damage limitations. Raised voices were getting hoarse, and tiredness showed in everybody’s eyes. Cyder kept hot coffee and mulled ale moving among everyone in the room, and supplied a steady stream of information from her own network of informers, people she used to work with in the past, before she became respectable. She tried not to worry about what had happened to Cat. And overhead, the roar of passing gravity barges shook the inn like thunder, never knowing how close they’d come to the heart of rebel resistance.

* * * *

Kast and Morgan dragged their prisoner through the chaos and fury of battle to see Investigator Razor, as he stood thoughtfully in the rubble of what had been the northeast boundary, watching his troops press deeper into the burning city, sweeping aside all opposition. He waited till the marines and their captive were almost upon him before turning and acknowledging their existence. His dark face was calm as ever, but there was a hot and brutal fire in his eyes that made even Kast and Morgan nervous. They bowed quickly to the Investigator, and hit their prisoner till he did, too. Razor studied the man in silence for a long moment. The prisoner dressed well, though his fine clothing was currently rumpled and torn and stained with his own blood. His face was bruised and battered. It seemed that Kast and Morgan had not been gentle in persuading him to come along with them.

“And this is?” Razor said finally.

“A traitor and informer, sir,” said Kast cheerfully. “Name of Artemis Daley. Something of a mover and shaker in Mistport, if he’s to be believed. He’s promised us useful, not to say vital, information if we’ll just avoid destroying the properties here he has interests in. He’s even volunteered to give us a map showing those properties. Isn’t that helpful of him? Under a certain amount of pressure, he also volunteered to draw us another map, showing exactly where the city Council is currently hiding out. In return for his life and continued well-being. So we brought him to you, sir. If he is who he says he is, and knows what he says he does, he could be very valuable. And if you were to see your way clear to giving my friend and me recommendations on the strength of that, sir, or even a raise in rank, well, we were just doing our duty.”

“But we’ll still take the raise,” said Morgan. “Or any medals, if they’re going.”

“You have done well,” said Razor. “Now be silent.” He smiled slowly at the prisoner, who if anything seemed even less reassured than before. Razor stepped closer, studying the man’s face. “I know you, Artemis Daley. You’re in our files. A deal-maker, money-lender, and leg-breaker, as necessary. Medium-sized fish in a very small pond. You’ve sold us the odd bit of information in the past. Nothing terribly important, but enough to make you as one of ours. Talk to me, Artemis. Tell me where my enemies are.”

“We . . . have yet to agree on a price, your honor,” said Daley, trying hard to keep his voice steady. “I am, after all, just an honest businessman, trying to make a profit in difficult times. I have no interest in wars. But a man in my position can’t afford to just give away valuable information. Word would get out. My reputation would be ruined. You understand, I’m sure.”

“Quite,” said Razor. He looked at Kast. “Kill him.”

“Wait! Wait!” Daley tried to back away, but Kast and Morgan held him firmly. They forced him down onto his knees. Daley shook so hard that drops of sweat fell off his face. “Wait, your honor! Allow me to . . . give you a little something, as a sign of good faith. The Council can be found at the Blackthorn Inn, in Thieves Quarter.” He looked anxiously at Razor. “I’d be happy to draw you a map, your honor, showing exactly how to get there, but it’s a little hard to draw when you’re on your knees . . .”

“We have our own maps,” said Razor. “And we have all we need from you.” He nodded to Kast and Morgan. “Make an example of him.”

Kast and Morgan nodded cheerfully, and dragged Daley away. He kicked and struggled, but didn’t even slow them down. “You can’t do this! I’m an important man here! I told you what you wanted! I told you . . .”

He kept shouting till Morgan hit him over the head with the butt of his gun. He was still mumbling protests when Kast and Morgan strung him up from the nearest lamppost and stood back to watch him dance in midair. Razor’s smile was bitter. He had no time for traitors. He watched the hanging man die, and wondered when Clan Chojiro’s agents here would make contact with him.

* * * *

The first the people in the Blackthorn Inn knew of its targeting was when the disrupter beams began hammering down from the gravity barges hovering directly overhead. The slate roof blew apart, and the upper floor of the inn was suddenly a mass of flames, sweeping rapidly through the private rooms, burying the few inhabitants alive and swallowing their screams in the roar of the fire. The energy beams plowed through the upper floor and plunged on into the main barroom below, where they rebounded from a psionic screen erected at the very last moment by the espers within. Chance’s children had come through with a last-second warning. The espers in the barroom were representatives of the esper union, and some of the strongest minds in Mistport, and together they held off the disrupter cannon. But even they couldn’t save the Blackthorn.

The upper floor was a raging inferno. The barroom’s timber ceiling began to blacken and smolder. The whole building was shaking from the pounding it was taking. Bricks cracked, and fine streams of dust and mortar began to fall. The barroom quickly became stiflingly hot. The espers could do nothing. It was all they could do to fend off the disrupter beams. Donald Royal barked orders, getting people organized. He had them block off the back stairwell with tables and other furniture, in case the flames from above broke through the closed door. Cyder produced buckets of water, in case of sudden flash fires. Chance’s children were screaming almost continuously now, but he still didn’t dare sedate them. They might yet have to run for it.

A few people cracked and ran for the main door. Random yelled after them, but they wouldn’t listen to him. They ran outside, and energy beams blew them apart the moment they appeared. More gravity barges drifted overhead, adding their firepower to the onslaught raging down on a single building. Every building around the inn was already a mass of flames and pulverized rubble. There were dead men and women in the streets, their bodies blackening in the growing firestorm.

Inside the Blackthorn, a timbered beam broke away from the ceiling supports and slammed down like a giant hammer, crushing Lois Barron beneath it. The heavy weight pinned her to the floor, and blood gushed from her mouth as she beat feebly at the wooden beam with her hands. It was obvious she was dying, but the others continued to try and lift the heavy beam off her, until she finally lay back and was still. The dwarf Castle sat beside her and held her dead hand, oblivious to everything. McVey and Royal couldn’t allow themselves time to mourn. As the only remaining Councillors, they had too much to do. If anyone was going to find a way out of this trap, it would have to be the two of them.

And that was when the psionic shield began to weaken and break apart. Even the strongest minds in Mistport found it hard to function with Legion’s endless scream in their heads. Their power was burning up, and so were they. Blood trickled steadily from their noses and ears. The greatest esp-blocker the Empire had ever made beat against their minds and, inch by inch, it shut them down. Cracks appeared in the shield. Thin bolts of energy stabbed through the barroom ceiling, transfixing people here and there like insects on pins. And then one energy beam hit and killed the strongest esper, and the screen collapsed.

Immediately Jenny Psycho reached out with her mind and pulled the screen back together again. She had hoped she wouldn’t be needed. Once she revealed her presence, she had no doubt Legion would turn all its attention to her, and she wasn’t entirely sure she could beat the unnatural thing. But she did what she had to do, taking all the pressure upon herself as one by one the other espers collapsed and died around her. Very soon the strain was almost unbearable. For all her strength, Jenny Psycho was no match for the many minds that made up Legion. If she and everyone else in the barroom were to survive, she was going to have to be more than just Jenny Psycho.

And so she reached inside herself, to that brightly shining place once touched by the Mater Mundi in the dark cells of Silo Nine. She called out to the uber-esper, the Mater Mundi, Our Mother Of All Souls, to come and manifest through her again, and pull all the espers in Mistport together into one great gestalt that would drive Legion and the Empire from Mistworld. She called, and no one answered. Jenny screamed then, a bitter howl of outrage and betrayal and despair that for a moment even drowned out Legion’s endless scream. For as far as she could reach with her mind, there was no trace of the Mater Mundi, only the bright sparks of Mistport’s espers blinking out one by one, and that awful thing that was Legion, slowly turning its full attention upon her. The Mater Mundi had abandoned her.

Jenny Psycho held together through sheer willpower. She had to. So many people were depending on her. Her brief touch by the Mater Mundi had made her one of the strongest espers the Empire had ever seen, but even so it was all she could do to hold off the many-in-one that was Legion. The pain was almost unbearable, but she wouldn’t give up. If the Council were to die, resistance in Mistport would quickly fall apart, and the Empire would win. Jenny turned inward, cutting off all contact with the outside world, focusing all her will and concentration on maintaining the psionic shield. She stopped hearing the screams of people dying in the streets around the Blackthorn Inn, as the disrupter beams stabbed viciously down, killing everything that moved, spreading fire and destruction. She couldn’t afford to be distracted. The psionic shield was her whole world now.

She knew the strain was killing her, and didn’t care. After enduring the horrors and agonies of Silo Nine, she’d sworn to die rather than be taken captive again. Blood leaked steadily from her nose and ears, and sprayed from her mouth with every harsh breath. Some of the pain began to die away as parts of her mind began to shut down, bit by bit. She didn’t know it, but her face looked like a grinning, death’s-head mask. And still she fought on, refusing to give in, refusing to be beaten, and slowly she began to gain a new sense of her opponent Legion, of who and what it was. Of what it had been made from. Brains from people she might have known and Wormboy’s worms. And Legion looked on her and knew who she was. The worms remembered her and what she’d done before. They were scared of her. Jenny Psycho laughed inside her head, and it was a terrible, unforgiving sound.

* * * *

The invading forces pressed forward on all fronts, though more slowly on some than others. It was as though every man, woman, and child who could hold a weapon was out in the streets of Mistport, defending barricades and blocking crossroads, sniping from windows and hidden alleyways, making the troopers fight for every inch and pay for every victory in blood and death. Retreating defenders blew up and collapsed buildings as they fell back, to block off streets and slow the Empire’s advance. The rebels’ projectile weapons confused and scattered troops only used to dealing with the predictability and long pauses of disrupter fire until they learned to advance behind massed force shields, and the projectile guns were no use against them.

There were no espers operating now, in the sky or on the streets. Legion had proved too much for all but the strongest, and most of those were dead now. The defenders fell back, street by street, trying to follow Mistport’s ages-old plans for last-ditch defense, but the plans hadn’t been updated in years. Important routes had been blocked by street markets and new buildings, and some streets didn’t exist anymore, save on the oldest maps. The defenders did the best they could, falling back only when there was no other option, retreating slowly toward the vulnerable heart of Mistport.

The wounded and refugees traveled through the city on barges on the River Autumn. It was quicker and safer than trusting to the streets. The coal-fired barges chugged up and down the freezing river, their steel prows breaking through the newly forming ice on the surface of the water, their crimson bow lights burning like coals in the night. On either side of the River, buildings burned like coals in Hell. The Autumn meandered through the city, passing through Guilds Quarter to Merchants to Thieves, and barges came and went with quiet desperation. Passengers occasionally called out to other craft, anxious for news of missing loved ones or how the battle went, but the answers were often old, and rarely good.

There were running fights on the docksides as advance groups of marines tried to get to the barges, only to be fought off by dockworkers armed with barbed knives and grappling hooks. The longshoremen knew every inch of their territory, and were hard and savage fighters. Some barges became overcrowded with refugees and wounded, slowed down too much, and became easy targets for overhead gravity sleds. Unable to maneuver, the barges were blown apart by disrupters, scattering burning bodies in the dark waters of the Autumn. Burning remnants blocked the way and clogged the docks, and half-charred and ruptured bodies floated in the water and lay captured by the slowly forming ice on the surface.

The larger barges armed themselves with heavy-duty projectile weapons and taught the gravity sleds to maintain a respectful distance. Standard tactics for a gravity sled was to deflect incoming fire with its force shield, then lower the shield to fire back while their enemy’s energy guns were recharging. They weren’t expecting guns that didn’t need to recharge between shots. The Empire lost a lot of sleds till word got around. But the Deathstalker’s gift of guns and ammo had been widely spread and, therefore, were in short supply everywhere, while there seemed no end to the invading forces. The barge gunners huddled low behind improvised shelters, and vowed to make every bullet count.

Imperial marines made their way through the hard-won streets of Mistport, stepping over the dead bodies and tossing grenades into the few buildings that still looked capable of hiding snipers. They left the better areas untouched, of course, and even left a few men behind to guard against looters. When the Empire finally took control of this city, these areas would be reoccupied by the new, Imperially approved, leaders. But everywhere else, the buildings burned and fires rose up into the night sky like beacons of victory.

* * * *

Kast and Morgan trailed happily along in the rear, hanging back to avoid the real action, keeping themselves occupied by shooting enemy snipers or anyone else who annoyed them. They killed anyone who even looked dangerous, men or women, and tossed grenades through windows if their prey tried to go to ground. Like the rest of the invading force, they weren’t interested in taking prisoners. That would come later, once the city was theirs. Kast and Morgan took time out to do a little quiet looting here and there, when no one was looking, but the pickings weren’t up to much, even in the few buildings that somehow escaped the fires and the grenades. Mistport wasn’t known for its luxuries, except in the most fortunate areas, and Kast and Morgan never got anywhere near those.

So they strolled unhurriedly down the narrow streets, ignoring the bodies and the smell and the blood-caked cobblestones, passing a bottle back and forth between them till it was empty, then acquiring another at the next opportunity. The wine was mostly lousy, but wine was wine, after all. They sang battle songs and vulgar ditties in between looting and killing people, but they couldn’t seem to get into the spirit of the occasion. Until they found the girl hiding in the ruins of a mostly overlooked house. The brickwork was blackened and scorched, and the windows were all smashed, but otherwise it had held together. Just the place for a frightened refugee to hide. Which was why Kast and Morgan had checked it out in the first place. The girl looked to be in her mid-teens, terrorized and trembling, all wide eyes and pleading mouth. Her clothes were torn and blackened by soot, and she looked about as appetizing as a half-burnt steak, but Kast and Morgan weren’t picky. They pushed the only door shut behind them and grinned at each other.

“Now this is what we’ve been missing,” said Kast. “An invasion never really feels like an invasion till you’ve dipped your wick.”

“Who goes first?” said the more practical Morgan. “And no, I’m not tossing for it this time.”

So they played scissors cuts paper till Kast won. He started undoing his trouser belt. The girl made a break for it. Morgan caught her easily, pulling her back. She went for his eyes, hands like claws, and he spun her round and pinned her arms to her sides. She still kicked and struggled, so he bear-hugged her hard, driving the breath out of her, and dropped her at Kast’s feet. He crouched before her, smiling easily, and she spit in his face. He backhanded her almost casually, and the strength of the blow threw her backwards. She fetched up against the far wall, breathing hard, her eyes darting from Kast to Morgan and back again. Blood and snot dribbled from her nose. Kast grinned at her.

“Struggle all you like, my dear. I enjoy a good struggle. If you’re good, really good, you’ll get a special prize at the end. We’ll let you live.”

And then both marines froze as a voice called their names outside in the street. They waited, hoping it would go away, but the voice came again, even louder. The girl tensed to scream, and Morgan hit her in the mouth.

“Damn,” said Kast. “All the people they could have sent looking for us, and it had to be Sergeant Franke. He won’t let you get away with anything. Thinks he’s officer material, the fool.”

Morgan shrugged, stepped forward, and cut the girl’s throat with an economical sweep of his sword. She slumped back against the wall, clawing at her opened throat with her fingers. Blood gushed over her hands, and she fell back, her hands dropping to her sides as the breath went out of her. Kast swore feelingly, and did up his trouser belt again.

“Never mind,” said Morgan. “There’ll be other chances. Franke can’t be everywhere.”

The two marines grinned at each other and went back into the street whistling jauntily. All in all, the invasion was going well.

* * * *

In Tech Quarter, the starport had been thoroughly trashed. For a time its massed disrupter cannon, harvested from the crashed starcruiser Darkwind, had been enough to keep the gravity barges at bay. Up close, the cannon didn’t need its crashed computers for targeting. But the barges soon learned the limits of the cannon’s range, and stayed well back while they contacted their ship for reinforcements. The Defiant sent down six heavily shielded pinnaces to do the job. They came roaring down out of the night, too fast to track, and blew the cannon apart in an explosion that could be heard all across Mistport. With the starport defenseless, the pinnaces swept back and forth in strafing runs, taking out the ships on the landing pads like so many sitting ducks. And while they were doing that, the barges closed in on the control tower.

The rebel ships on the pads exploded one after the other in sudden bursts of smoke and fire. Strange lights radiated briefly and were gone as stardrives collapsed and released their energies. The landing pads would be wildly radioactive now until the Empire could bring in heavy-duty scrubbers. Only the Deathstalker’s ship, Sunstrider II, survived, protected by superior Hadenman shields. The pinnaces marked it down for later attention, and moved on. They had more than enough other targets to keep them busy.

The control tower lasted the longest, with its reinforced structure and steelglass windows, but even that fell in the end, riddled by disrupter fire from the hovering gravity barges. The steelglass blew inward, transformed into deadly shrapnel that cut down everyone left inside the tower. Some still survived, so the barges set the tower on fire, and left it to burn. Their job done, the pinnaces and the barges moved unhurriedly away in search of other targets. People lay dead everywhere across the pads. Ground crews preparing ships for desperate takeoffs, and crowds of people who’d been convinced they’d be safest at the well-defended starport, or who had paid massive bribes to be smuggled offplanet. When the Empire ships came they were caught out in the open with nowhere to hide and nowhere to run, and they died screaming for help that never came. Wrecked ships burned on the cracked pads, and what was left of the control tower burned like a giant candle, its shattered walls running like wax in the great heat. The starport had fallen.

* * * *

Young Jack Random led Owen and Hazel and Silver and his adoring followers back into the city, in search of people to help. The troops forced back from the southwest boundary had departed in search of easier ways into the city. No one doubted they’d find them. Random soon found a street barricade in danger of falling to an Empire attack, and moved in quickly to support it. The improvised barricade had been formed from furniture and other suitably heavy objects, dragged out into the street from the surrounding houses and stacked one by one on top of the other and lashed together till the resulting wall stood nearly a dozen feet high. Smaller furniture had been broken up to form jagged wooden spikes, projecting from the barricade to discourage the other side from getting too close.

Iron nails had been twisted together into caltrops, the points dipped in dung, and then thrown out into the street for the troopers to step on. Random’s small army lined themselves up behind the barricade, shooting crossbow bolts and bullets through the gaps in the wall to pick off any trooper who so much as aimed a disrupter at the barricade. It quickly became clear to both sides that only hand-to-hand fighting was going to decide the fate of this stumbling block. And since the barricade blocked the last main route into the city center, its control was vital to both sides.

And so the Imperial troops came charging down the street, sheltering behind massed force shields, firing their disrupters blindly as they ran. The energy bolts punched wide holes through the barricade, incinerating those fighters unfortunate enough to be in the way, but as many shots missed as hit, and the barricade still stood. The rebels fired at the troopers’ legs, unguarded beneath the force shields, and whole sections of the advancing force came crashing to the ground as they fell over one another, but still the charge came on. Until finally the two sides met at the barricade, and it was left to courage and desperation and naked steel to win the day.

Owen and Hazel fought side by side, still linked, feeling stronger and sharper than ever. They didn’t need Blood or the boost anymore. Something new was working in them now, granting them strength and speed beyond anything they’d ever known before. John Silver had taken the last of his Blood long ago, and now only guts and duty were keeping him on his feet. He’d got over his fear of Owen and Hazel. Whatever they had become, they were clearly the best bet for defeating the invading troops, and so Silver had taken on the job of guarding their backs. It seemed even gods needed someone to watch their blind spots. Interestingly enough, Silver couldn’t bring himself to give a damn about Jack Random. There was something about the man that made Silver’s hackles stand on end, though he couldn’t have told you what. Perhaps it was just that the man was too damned perfect. Certainly he seemed almost like a god, too, standing atop the barricade, swinging his great sword with both hands, defying the Empire to bring him down.

The struggle continued, fighting breaking out before and upon and behind the barricade. Owen and Hazel cut down every man who came against them, roaring their defiance, and dodging disrupter beams, which was supposed to be impossible. Owen’s battle cry of Shandrakor! rose above the din again and again, and was taken up by many of the rebels, almost as many as those who fought with Jack Random’s name on their lips. They pushed the Imperial troops back and back until finally the rebels came spilling up and over the barricade to drive the troopers back down the street.

Hand-to-hand fighting filled the street, the mass of fighters surging this way and that, trampling the dead and the wounded underfoot. The troops roared their battle songs and stood their ground, urged on by armed officers at their back and the battle drugs sweeping through their veins. Buildings burned and smoldered to either side of the fighting, but children and those too old or too weak to fight had taken to the roofs, and rained stones and slates and boiling water down onto the enemy below. They aimed carefully, and many a trooper was suddenly taken out of the fighting by an unexpected present from above.

Toby Shreck and Flynn were right there in the thick of things, getting it all on film. They were currently keeping their heads well down in a nearby doorway while Flynn’s camera soared above the mayhem, picking out the best shots. Toby’s commentary was becoming increasingly breathless, but he kept going, knowing that if he could only smuggle this past the censors, the news agencies would be making up whole new awards just to give to him. This was the good stuff. Ffolkes had been becoming increasingly stuffy about what they could and couldn’t shoot, so Toby and Flynn ditched him by the simple expedient of shouting Look over there! and then running off in two different directions. By the time Ffolkes had made up his mind which of them to chase or shoot at, it was already too late.

Toby and Flynn had got together again easily enough after that, and went in search of the main action. It didn’t taken them long to find some. And ever since then they’d been running and dodging and keeping their heads well down from one trouble spot to another, while Flynn’s camera got it all on film. Troops and rebels alike both ignored Toby and Flynn as obvious noncombatants, but flying bullets and disrupter beams and crumbling buildings made no such distinction. Toby would have liked to cheer on the rebels, outnumbered and outgunned but still refusing to be beaten, but he couldn’t, not if he ever wanted the film he was risking his life to get to be shown in the Empire. So he kept his commentary carefully neutral and let the pictures speak for themselves.

The young burglar known as Cat was up on the roofs, too, doing his bit. He’d delivered all of Cyder’s messages, and strictly speaking should have been on his way back to the Blackthorn, but he couldn’t resist getting involved. He’d never thought of himself as a violent man, but the merciless destruction of his city had raised in him an anger that couldn’t be denied. And so he pelted the troops below with slates and tiles and anything else he could get his hands on, in between grabbing people who nearly threw themselves off the edge of the roof in their enthusiasm. They weren’t as used to roofs as Cat.

He was overseeing the dismantling of a chimney stack to provide bricks for throwing when he happened to look down the far end of the street. Thick black smoke drifted this way and that from the burning buildings, blown by rising hot air and the disturbances of passing gravity barges, but it parted now to show Cat half a dozen troopers manhandling a portable disrupter cannon into position at the far end of the street. The plan was clear enough. Once the cannon was ready, all they had to do was call back their own troops and open fire. The cannon would blow away the barricade and everyone near it with one blast. The defenders wouldn’t stand a chance.

Cat was off and running across the steeply slanted roofs the moment he realized what was happening. As a deaf mute he couldn’t shout a warning to the defenders below, and by the time he’d made the people on the roof understand him, it would be too late. Which meant it was all up to him. He moved silently into position over the troops as they finished assembling the portable cannon, and brought its computers on line. They were almost ready to fire, and Cat didn’t have a single idea how to stop them. Throwing things would only distract them, and if they had hand disrupters, they’d soon blast him off the roof. If he jumped them, the element of surprise might let him take out one or two of the troopers, but the rest would be sure to get him.

Cat looked frantically round the roof for inspiration, and his eyes lit on a crooked chimney stack, not far from the edge of the roof. A passing energy beam had neatly clipped away one corner, so that it was leaning toward the street. It looked like one good push would send it over. Cat checked the position of the cannon and its crew again. Right under the chimney stack. Perfect. Cat grinned, and put his shoulder to the brick chimney. He pushed with all his strength, and it didn’t budge an inch. He tried again, slamming his shoulder against the brickwork, his feet sliding on the slippery slates as he tried to dig them in. Thick black smoke suddenly swirled around him as the wind changed direction. Cat sank to his knees, coughing harshly, fighting for breath. There were hot cinders in the smoke, too, and he pulled up his suit’s hood to keep them out of his hair. Down below, the cannon had to be almost ready by now.

Raging silently, Cat put his back against the chimney stack, braced his boots against the most secure tiles, and strained with all his strength. The brickwork shifted reluctantly beneath him. His face twisted into a pained grimace as he pushed with everything he had in his back and legs. The pain grew, and still the bricks wouldn’t give. Cat strained desperately, his heart thumping madly in his chest, sweat running down his face, and the chimney stack broke away from the roof. It happened as quickly as that. One moment nothing, and then there was a sharp crack of rending bricks and mortar, and the whole damned stack went over the side of the roof, taking Cat with it.

He twisted automatically as he fell, already grabbing for handholds. He had a brief glimpse of shocked upturned faces from the disrupter gun crew, and then they disappeared as the great mass of brickwork slammed down on them like a hammer. Cat’s flailing hand caught a wooden shutter as he fell past it, and he took a firm hold. For a moment his whole weight was hanging by that one hand, but then the momentum of his fall swung him around and it was the easiest thing in the world to fly through the open window and into the room beyond. He hit the floor rolling, and finally crashed up against the far wall, where he stayed for a while, till he got his breath back. As his heart finally slowed back to something that could pass for normal, Cat decided it was very definitely time he was getting back to the Blackthorn, and safety. He didn’t want Cyder getting worried about him.

* * * *

Out in the streets of Mistport, old hatreds and divisions were forgotten as the rebels came together to fight a common enemy. Old and bitter foes fought side by side, and sworn enemies guarded each other’s backs. It seemed everyone who could walk and wield a weapon was out in the streets now, fighting to defend a city whose importance they hadn’t realized till it looked to be taken from them. Even Owen’s foes from the old Deathstalker network had turned out to do their bit. They were businessmen, not warriors, but they hadn’t got where they were without guts and determination. And perhaps, deep inside, they remembered the idealistic young men they had once been, and old beliefs and convictions stirred in them again.

Neeson the banker and Robbins the landlord fought side by side, swords flashing as old skills came back to them. Stacy the lawyer had an elegant rapier, and Connelly and McGowan of the docks cut a bloody path through the enemy with an ax in each hand. They all fought bravely and well, and were surprisingly effective for middle-aged men who’d grown soft in comfortable positions.

“Damn, this feels good,” Neeson said to Robbins during a lull in the fighting. “Takes me back to our young days, when we were going to change the world and overthrow the Empire. And all before lunch.”

Robbins laughed. “Happy days. Simpler days, anyway. I was getting bored with being a businessman anyway.”

* * * *

The Blackthorn Inn was a blazing wreck, its upper floor an inferno, its roof gone, swept away by the fire and smoke belching up into the night sky. Three gravity barges hovered overhead, disrupter beams hammering down. Flames licked along the outer walls, and great cracks appeared in the brickwork. Inside, there was smoke and chaos and panic. Jenny Psycho stood in the center of the room, arms outstretched like a crucifix, her mental energies the only thing holding off the deadly disrupter beams. Blood trickled steadily from her nose and ears and mouth. Under the blood her face was deathly pale and her wild eyes were fixed on something far away. She was dying, and everyone knew it. She was the only thing protecting the Blackthorn, and it was killing her inch by inch.

Donald Royal had organized people into groups with buckets of water and blankets, ready to stamp out any fires that started in the barroom. The old man had been revitalized by the emergency, and was bustling around like a man half his age. Councillor McVey had gathered Chance’s children into a small group, away from the walls. Madelaine Skye, Royal’s partner, stood in the doorway with a disrupter in her hand. Empire troops had already blown the door off its hinges, and tried throwing grenades through the gap. Skye had seen the first one, thrown it straight back out, and taken up her position by the door to discourage anyone else with the same idea. Outside, on the other side of the street, a large group of Imperial marines were patiently watching the doorway, ready to deal with anyone who came out of it. No one was interested in taking any prisoners from the Blackthorn.

Behind the bar, Cyder was getting very drunk. Her tavern was a wreck, she was trapped in a burning building, and Cat was nowhere to be seen. She hoped he was somewhere safe, but doubted it. He should have been back long ago. Probably got involved in the fighting. She’d told him and told him, never get involved . . . She poured herself another drink.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” said Donald Royal.

“Hell no,” said Cyder. “I can still think.”

“If we end up having to make a run for it, you’ll be no use drunk.”

“Make a run for it? Where would we go? The inn’s surrounded by men with guns. The moment we leave this place we’re dead. Of course, if we stay, we’re dead, too. If the flames don’t get us, the smoke will. Or that Psycho woman will finally fall apart and the gravity barges will blow the whole place into kindling. Have I missed anything?”

“There’s always the chance something will happen,” said Royal. “Some lucky break, or opportunity. We have to be ready to grab it.”

Cyder shook her head. “It’s too late, Donald. We’re not going anywhere.” She broke off, and frowned. “Can you hear someone singing?”

And that was when one wall of the tavern suddenly collapsed. The bricks just fell apart, revealing the outside street and a hell of a lot of dead troopers. Flames swept toward the gap, but were somehow thwarted and held back by some unseen force. And there, right outside, singing, were Investigator Topaz and the woman who used to be known as Typhoid Mary. The two most powerful Sirens in the Empire, or out of it.

“Told you so,” said Donald to Cyder, grinning. “All right, people; we are leaving! Grab anything you absolutely have to have, and head for the hole in the wall. Madelaine, help me with Jenny Psycho. Cyder, put that bottle down and run or I’ll kick your ass up around your ears.”

There were flames everywhere now. The air itself was hot enough to burn. Sudden stabs of energy smashed down through the ceiling as Jenny’s shield splintered. Donald grabbed her by the arm and hustled her toward the hole in the wall. Blood was spilling thickly down her face now, and spraying from her mouth in time to her agonized breathing. Her skin was an unhealthy blue-white, and her hand in Royal’s was cold and clammy. She looked like death warmed up and allowed to congeal, but somehow she was still maintaining her psionic shield, protecting the rebels as they fled from the burning inn. Her legs were stiff and unsteady, and Donald kept her moving by brute force, for she was beyond cooperating with him or anyone else now, even to save her own life. Her whole world had shrunk down to the simple need to maintain her shield, even though it was killing her. Donald got her to the hole in the wall, and all but threw her out into the cold night beyond. He clambered out after her, his chest heaving as he tried to cough up the smoke that had got into his lungs. He felt old and tired and his head was swimming, but he wouldn’t let himself fall. Not yet.

McVey helped Chance get his charges on their feet again, and between them they herded the half-mad children over to the hole in the wall and out into the street beyond. Chance kept counting them over and over, to make sure he hadn’t left any behind. All the children were screaming or crying or just shuddering helplessly, Legion’s never-ending howl rasping through their minds like burning barbed wire. McVey stayed by the hole, counting heads as the last of the rebel HQ’s people filed past him. He came op one short. He forced himself as close to the hole as he could and stared through the flames into the blazing barroom. The dwarf Iain Castle was still sitting beside Lois Barron’s body, crushed under the fallen timber. He was holding her dead hand in his, and rocking slowly back and forth. McVey yelled his name, and Castle looked around almost absently.

“Iain, get out of there! Leave her! There’s nothing you can do!” McVey had to yell himself hoarse to make himself heard above the roar of the flames and the thundering engines of the gravity barges hovering overhead.

“I won’t leave her!” Castle shouted back. “I won’t leave her here!”

“She’s already gone! And if you don’t get out of there now, you’ll be going with her!” McVey made himself stay by the hole, though the sheer heat was raising blisters on his unprotected hands and face. “Iain, please! I don’t want to lose you, too!”

Castle nodded slowly, got to his feet, and stumbled across the smoke-filled room to the hole in the wall. He plowed straight through the fiery sides as though he didn’t notice them, and lurched out into the street with flames rising from his clothes. McVey whipped off his cloak and wrapped Castle up in it, smothering the flames. Beside him, Jenny Psycho sat down suddenly, as though all the strength had just gone out of her. Her mouth was slack, and her eyes saw nothing. Not far away, Typhoid Mary and Investigator Topaz were still singing together, their voices and esp combining to create a shield over and around the rebels. Their voices rose and fell in studied harmonies, and a psistorm of energies crackled through the streets at their command, keeping the Empire forces at bay.

Donald Royal looked around suddenly, as he realized his partner hadn’t come out with him. People were milling back and forth all around him, but there was no sign anywhere of Madelaine Skye. He pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed McVey by the arm. “Where’s Madelaine? Didn’t she come out with you?”

“I didn’t see her! I had my own problems!” McVey pulled his arm away, and Donald was left staring at the burning Blackthorn Inn. He moved toward the hole in the wall, screwing up his face against the blazing heat. The barroom was now a sea of flames, and thick black smoke boiled out of the hole. Donald’s heart contracted painfully as he realized she must still be in there. Probably lost and disoriented in the smoke. He called her name again and again, but there was no answer. Donald’s mouth firmed. He knew what he had to do. He pulled his cloak up to protect his face, and moved toward the hole in the wall.

But he stopped after only a few steps. The heat was just too much for him. He tried again and again, drawing on all his courage and resolution to force him past the flames, but his old body cringed back from the awful heat despite him, and would not go forward. Flames licked up around his cloak as the material caught fire, and sudden hands pulled him back, slapping at his shoulders to put out the flames. Donald fought the hands savagely.

“Let me go, dammit! Madelaine’s still in there!”

“If she is, then she’d dead,” said Gideon Steel, holding him firmly.

Donald stopped struggling. “If she’s dead, then I want to die, too. She was my daughter, in every way that mattered. She’s all I had left.”

“You can’t die here,” said Steel. “You’re needed. You’re a Councillor, an old and respected warrior whose name will still rally people. Don’t you dare give up on me now. You’ve been telling us all what a hero you used to be for years. Now prove it, dammit! Prove it in a way that matters. You can’t get back in there. No one could.”

“I could have, once,” said Donald Royal. “When I was a hero. When I was young.”

And then one of the windows shattered as a body came hurtling through it, in a blazing mass of flames. It hit the cobbled street rolling, and stood up, throwing aside a blazing cloak. Madelaine Skye beat at her smoldering clothes with her hands, blackened and scorched but still very much alive. Donald lurched forward to take her in his arms, and she held him tightly to her.

“I got turned around in the fire and the smoke,” she said breathlessly. “Didn’t know where the hell I was, let alone the hole. Then I heard you calling me. You got me out, Donald. I owe you one.”

“No you don’t,” said Donald. “You’re family.”

Cyder stood off by herself, a bottle of the good brandy still in her hand, and watched the Blackthorn burn. It had been her home and her safe haven and the repository of her dreams, but her face remained calm and cold. Her eyes were dry and her mouth was firm. Cyder didn’t believe in being beaten.

“My lovely tavern,” she said, finally. “You were going to make me rich, rich, rich.”

Jenny Psycho collapsed. Her strength had finally run out. Determination and willpower could carry her no farther, and her mind shut down. The psionic shield disappeared, and the disrupter beams from the hovering gravity barges slammed down into the tavern like God driving nails. The building burst apart, the ceiling crashing down as the walls collapsed, and the flames roared up in triumph. Mary and Topaz’s song protected the small crowd from the fire and the flying debris. In seconds there was nothing left of the Blackthorn but a blackened frame in an inferno of flames. Steel knelt down beside Jenny, checked for a pulse, and raised an eyebrow.

“Amazing. She’s still with us. Chance, get her out of here. Take her and your children to the esper union hall. They’ll look after you. And they’ll save Jenny Psycho if anyone can. Crazy woman. Bravest damned thing I ever saw.” He got to his feet and raised his voice above the din. “All right, everybody scatter! You all know the secondary meeting place; be there in an hour. No excuses. Now move it!”

And so they all went their separate ways, helping those who needed it, carrying a few where necessary. They went in twos and threes, following the routes the Council had worked out earlier, just in case. They disappeared into the dark maze of narrow streets and alleyways, confident no Empire forces could follow them and not be hopelessly lost in moments. There was no talk of surrender. They were not broken, not beaten. And they had always known this was a fight to the death.

Soon they were all gone, apart from Typhoid Mary and Investigator Topaz. Their song still crackled around them, drowning out Legion’s howl, keeping the troops at bay and covering their friends’ escape. They were the two most powerful Sirens the Empire had ever produced, and they would not yield. And then suddenly, the pressure eased. The gravity barges moved on, their work down, and the troops fell back. Topaz and Mary stopped singing, conserving their strength. The world around them was still a chaos of flames and screams and battle cries, the thunder of gravity engines and the roar of collapsing buildings, but their particular part of the world seemed strangely still and quiet. As though some new force had entered the scene. Topaz and Mary looked at each other. Behind them, someone applauded slowly. They both looked round sharply, to find a tall dark man in an Investigator’s cloak studying them calmly from the other side of the street. Topaz frowned. She should have heard him approach, even in all this noise and chaos. She should have known he was there. His sword and gun were still sheathed on his hips, but in one hand he held a length of steel chain, on the other end of which crouched a cowering naked man. He was painfully thin and smeared with filth, and his bare skin clearly showed the scars and marks of many beatings. The left side of his skull had been surgically cut away, to reveal the brain beneath, protected only by a clear piece of steelglass. Various plugs and jacks studded the brain tissues, and silver wires gleamed in the grey meat.

“Handsome fellow, isn’t he?” said the dark man. “He belongs to me. Investigator Razor, at your service. I’ve been sent to bring you back into the fold of Empire. Teach you to sing the right songs again. Spare me your protestations, please. They don’t matter. You have no say in things anymore. This unpleasant wretch at my side has no name anymore, only a function. He’s a living esp-blocker. One of the Lord High Dram’s special projects, I believe. Being alive, and capable of following orders, he’s much more powerful and versatile than the usual brain in a box esp-blocker. He’s strong enough to function even under Legion’s influence, and subtle enough that you didn’t even notice our approach. I’m afraid you’ll find your songs have quite deserted you now, ladies. So put aside your petty complaints and come with me. Your life in this place is over. You belong to the Empire again.”

Topaz drew her sword. “I’d rather die.”

Razor drew his sword. “That can be arranged. I get a bonus if I bring you both back alive, but money’s never been that important to me. They’ll settle for one live Siren and one dead traitor, if need be. And I always wanted to know which of us is better.” He dropped the length of chain he was holding, but the living esp-blocker stayed where he was. He would not move without orders. Typhoid Mary backed away from the Investigator, shaking her head.

“I can’t help you, Topaz. I’m sorry. I won’t kill again. Not for any reason.”

“That’s all right,” said Topaz, advancing on Razor. “Just keep well back. You don’t want to get any of his blood on you.”

And then Topaz and Razor surged forward and slammed together, sparks flying in the mists and smoke as their swords clashed. They stamped and lunged, swinging their swords with almost inhuman strength and speed, two Investigators trained to the peak of perfection. They circled around each other, hammering home blows that would have swept away a lesser fighter’s defenses, probing for each other’s weaknesses. They were strong and fast and quite magnificent, and neither of them would yield an inch.

But in the end Razor was much the older of the two, and he was not fueled by the raw hatred and need for revenge that burned so fiercely in Topaz’s veins. Slowly, remorselessly, foot by foot she drove him back, forcing him on the defensive, and Razor knew that he was very near to death. His pride kept him in the fight longer than he should have, but the pain and blood of his first few wounds brought him to his senses again. He forced the last of his energy into a flurry of blows that turned Topaz around till her back was to Mary, and then he raised his voice in a commanding shout.

“Mary! Code Delta Three! Kill Topaz!”

Mary swayed sickly as the preprogrammed control words hit her. The esper union had done their best to remove all traces of the Empire’s conditioning, but some things had been buried so deeply that only another mind tech could have found them. Mary screamed as the mind techs’ programming took hold again, sweeping aside her mind and wishes in favor of the old conditioned Typhoid Mary. Her face went slack, and someone else peered out of her eyes. And even as Topaz realized what was happening, Typhoid Mary stepped forward and hit her across the back of the neck with trained, professional force. Topaz fell to her knees, her thoughts darkening, her sword slipping from nerveless fingers. Mary leaned over and hit her again, and Topaz fell forward to lie still in the churned-up snow.

Razor stood for a moment, getting his breathing back under control, and then he put away his sword and leaned over Topaz. He checked the pulse in her neck, and frowned. He looked up at Mary.

“She’s still alive. I told you to kill her.”

“I can’t,” said Mary. “Not anymore.”

“Obey me,” said Razor, straightening up to glare at her. “Kill Investigator Topaz.” Mary trembled violently, but made no move toward Topaz. Two absolutes warred in her mind, neither side giving in. Razor sighed, and shook his head. “Don’t worry, Mary. They’ll break you again. And then you’ll kill anyone we want you to, and smile while you do it. As for Topaz, we’ll just say the bitch died in the fight.”

He put his hand to his sword, and that was when the steel ball from Cat’s slingshot hit him right between the eyes. Razor’s head snapped back, his eyes rolling up, and he fell backwards to lie twitching in the snow. Cat dropped silently down out of the darkness and hurried over to Topaz’s side. He shook her shoulder urgently, but she didn’t respond. Cat scowled unhappily. It was obvious she needed more help than he could give her. Someone tugged at his sleeve, and Cat spun round to find the naked man crouching at his side.

“Please,” said the living esp-blocker. “Please. Kill me. Don’t let me live like this.”

Cat drew his knife and thrust it into the man’s heart. The naked man jerked, and tried to smile at Cat. Blood welled from his mouth. Cat pulled the knife free, and the esp-blocker fell forward into the snow and lay still. Cat wiped his knife clean on his trouser leg and put it away. It was getting easier and easier for him to kill. He didn’t think he liked that—what this war was doing to him. He pushed the thought aside for another time, and concentrated on the business at hand. Razor was already stirring. Cat thought about killing him, too, but decided against getting that close to Razor. The man was an Investigator, after all. He looked from Topaz to Mary and back again. He couldn’t save both of them. And whilst Topaz wasn’t exactly his friend, he trusted her a damned sight more than Typhoid Mary. She’d tried to kill him once, when she first came to Mistport, and with her conditioning reawakened, there was no telling what she might do. And so with only the smallest of regrets, Cat turned his back on Mary, hoisted Topaz over his shoulder, and disappeared back into the concealing shadows.

Razor slowly sat up, wincing at the vicious pain between his eyes. He put a hand to his aching head and forced himself to his feet again. He must be getting old. His instincts should have warned him there was someone else there. He almost stumbled over the dead esp-blocker, and cursed briefly when he discovered what it was. The Lord High Dram was not going to be pleased at losing his new prototype on its first assignment. And Topaz was gone. Razor shrugged. He still had Mary. He heard the sound of approaching men, and looked down the street to see a troop of marines emerging from the mists, headed his way. They’d do to escort him back to the Defiant. And then the ship’s mind techs would open Mary’s mind up and scour it clean of anything they needed to know. Mary had been closeted with the city Council in the Blackthorn Inn, and no doubt knew many useful things. Including where the scattered Council would reconvene. He took her by the arm and hustled her away. She went with him unresistingly, and if something trapped and horrified moved behind her staring eyes, no one saw it.

* * * *

Owen Deathstalker, Hazel d’Ark, and Young Jack Random fought on against impossible and overwhelming odds, and Owen for one was getting pretty damned tired of it. Tired of fighting with no end in sight, of enemies who fell only to be replaced by new enemies, tired of the never-ending ache in his back and sword arm, and of the stench of freshly spilled blood and exposed guts as some other poor fool fell screaming before him. He’d fought in so many battles in so many places, taking hurts that would have killed any other man, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and all so he could go and do it again somewhere else.

He’d never wanted any of this. To be a hero and a leader and the hope of Humanity. He was a scholar, not a warrior. But still he went where he was needed and threw himself into the bloody heart of battle again and again, because there was no one else. He was a Deathstalker, and he would not turn his face away from the evil of Empire and the suffering of innocents. He’d fight overpowering odds and triumph yet again at the last possible moment . . . or maybe this time he wouldn’t. Either way, he was getting so damned tired of it all.

He stood back-to-back with Hazel, cutting down all who came against him, fighting at the peak of his Maze-born abilities, fast and strong and deadly beyond all human hesitations, and began to wonder if this time that would be enough. The Empire forces seemed limitless. Random and the rest of the small rebel force had been swept away in the tide of fighting, leaving Owen and Hazel to fight alone, as they had so many times before. And powerful as they were, they were only two, and the Empire had an army. Marines came charging through the streets from all directions, endless waves of fighting men driven on by orders and duty and officers who’d shoot them if they turned away. They threw themselves at Owen and Hazel like the sea crashing against some stubborn rock on the seashore, and bit by bit they wore the rock down.

Owen and Hazel were burning themselves out, their own inhuman energies devouring them from within. They were too strong, too fast, and they demanded too much of their merely human bodies. Every muscle ached, every nerve screamed, and their lungs burned with the need for more and more air. Human bodies were never meant to take this kind of strain, this much punishment. The changes the Maze had worked in them held them together, healing their wounds and keeping them on their feet and fighting long after they should have fallen to superior odds, but the strain of it was killing them bit by bit, and they both knew it. They weren’t stupid. They would have turned and run, if there’d been any avenue of escape, or anywhere to run to. But the marines were all around them, and nowhere in Mistport was safe anymore. And so they fought on, beyond rage or anger now, reduced to the cold, necessary work of slaughter and survival. Dead bodies piled up around them, penning them in. Owen thought wistfully of the power he’d used against his father’s old network, cleaning out their house by sheer force of will, but he couldn’t feel that power within him anymore. He’d used it all up and more, in the endless fighting.

Even as armed men surged forward, clambering over the bodies of the fallen for a chance at the Deathstalker and his companion, Major Chevron arrived with still more troops. The last defenders of the north side had fallen before him, and he was sweeping toward the center of Mistport and certain victory, when his forces suddenly slowed to a halt, unable to force a way through the bottleneck caused by Owen and Hazel’s defiant stand. Chevron could have pulled his people back and sent them down other streets, but he couldn’t, wouldn’t do that once he saw who the problem was. Everyone had heard of the Deathstalker by now. Great rewards and greater privileges waited for the man who brought him down. Chevron urged his men on and waited patiently for his hounds to pull down the stags at bay. When Owen and his bitch went down, he would then step forward and deliver the coup de grace himself, and that would be that. He would walk through the burning streets of Mistport in triumph, with the Deathstalker’s head held high on a pike, and there would be no doubt in all eyes who was the real hero of the taking of Mistport.

The sheer numbers forced Owen and Hazel back, step by step, until they had been contained in a back square with only the one exit, carefully blocked off by the advancing marines. High stone walls overshadowed them on every side, and all that was left to Owen and Hazel was to stand and die. The marines pressed forward, drunk on blood and death and stoned to the eyeballs on designer battle drugs, not caring about the dead comrades they had to step over to get at their enemies. Owen Deathstalker and Hazel d’Ark fought side by side with failing strength, not feeling the wounds that soaked their clothes in blood. Chevron watched from the rear, scowling impatiently, and then signaled for Kast and Morgan to bring forward the portable disrupter cannon. It would be messier this way, but more certain.

The two marines pulled the cannon quickly into position, pointed it into the back square, and set about the warm-up sequences. Kast and Morgan had been picked up by Chevron’s troops as they swept inward from the north, and had volunteered to carry the portable cannon. Partly because it meant less actual work for them, and partly because they felt a great deal safer with a disrupter cannon between them and the rest of the rebel city. The taking of the city had been supposed to be a walkover, but apparently the rebels hadn’t read the script, and didn’t know they were beaten. So Kast and Morgan kept their heads down and labored over the cannon, got it primed and ready, and looked inquiringly at Chevron. He yelled for his people to fall back and give the cannon a clear shot, but they didn’t hear him, out of their heads on drugs and the scent of victory. Chevron called again, his voice almost shrill with anger as his men ignored him, and then he turned to Kast and Morgan and nodded sharply. They looked at their fellow marines before them, and then at each other. Morgan shrugged, and Kast hit the firing stud.

The wide energy beam roared from the disrupter cannon, disintegrating everything directly before it. The marines were swept away like burning leaves in a gale. Owen and Hazel just had time to sense what was coming, and then the howling energy hit them. They brought up their psionic shields at the last moment, but there was no time, and the shields only slowed the deadly energy. It picked Hazel up and smashed her though the rear stone wall like a bullet from a gun. Owen threw himself to one side, and the energy beam just clipped him in passing. It slammed him against the left-hand wall with enough strength to crack the stonework from top to bottom. The beam snapped off, and he dropped almost senseless to the ground.

Owen lay there for what seemed like ages. His whole left side was numb. He rolled slowly onto one side and tried to get his feet under him. His head hurt, and there was blood in his mouth. The world seemed very quiet around him, the sounds of battle far away, as though everything was hesitating, to see what would happen next. He rose to one knee, swayed sickly, and then forced himself to his feet by leaning against the cracked stone wall. Parts of dead marines, torn and burnt and fused together, lay scattered across the square, marking the edges of the beam. Some marines and an officer stood behind the disrupter cannon facing him, which hummed loudly as it powered up for another shot. They seemed to be looking at something behind him. Owen turned slowly to look. He saw the hole in the wall where Hazel had been standing and knew at once what it meant. He tilted back his head, and something that was partly a scream and partly a howl of rage echoed back from the walls of the square.

A camera hovered high above him, getting it all. Toby Shreck and Flynn had been swept along with Chevron’s force, and since they were heading for the center of the city and certain victory, the two newsmen had stuck with them. Unfortunately, Chevron had proved as insufferable as their official minder, Lieutenant Ffolkes. But as long as they were getting good footage of Imperial victories, he was content to let them get on with their job. Like covering the final bringing to heel and execution of that most notable traitor and outlaw, Owen Deathstalker.

Toby couldn’t believe his luck. One of the great turning points of history, and he was right there on the spot. He’d recognized the Deathstalker the moment he set eyes on him. He’d become the face of the rebellion for many people in the Empire, almost as famous as the legendary professional rebel, Jack Random. He looked . . . different in person. Not as tall or as big as expected, but still there was something about him—an air, a feeling of greatness. Somehow you just knew you were looking at a man touched by destiny. And now here he was, brought low at last, even if the Empire did have to use a whole army to do it. The last echoes of his despairing cry were dying away, a terrible, awful sound that had raised the hairs on the back of Toby’s neck. It was the cry of some great beast, the last of its kind, driven and harried till it had nowhere else to run. It was also a savage promise of blood and devastation, the cry of a man with nothing left to lose. He lowered his head to stare steadily at the forces arrayed against him, and Toby’s blood ran cold. The Deathstalker, one man soaked in his own blood, was suddenly the most dangerous and frightening thing he’d ever seen. It was like standing in the path of an oncoming hurricane, a great force of nature, grim and implacable. It was like looking into the eyes of a god, or a devil. Toby swallowed hard, but didn’t budge. He was here to see a legend go down. Flynn stirred uncertainly at his side.

“What is it?” said Toby, not looking away from the scene before him. “Don’t tell me we’re not getting this.”

“We’re getting something,” said Flynn quietly. “There’s some kind of energy source present, interfering with my camera’s systems. Damned if I know what it is. I’ve never seen anything like it before. But it appears to be centered around the Deathstalker.”

“Stuff your energy surges. Is the picture coming though clearly?”

“Well yes, but. . .”

“Then switch to live broadcast. The whole Empire’s going to want to see this. Damn, we’ve hit it lucky. They’ll be showing this footage for years.”

“I’ve got him,” said Flynn. “The poor bastard.”

Trapped in a filthy back alley, surrounded by the dead and the dying, and facing an army of Imperial marines and a disrupter cannon, Owen Deathstalker looked unhurriedly about him. There was no way out, but he already knew that. It seemed Chance’s espers had been right after all. They’d predicted he would die alone, in Mistport, far from friends and succor, with everything he believed in lost and destroyed. He just hadn’t thought it would be so soon. Or that it would mean Hazel’s death, too. He never had got round to telling her he loved her, and now he never would. He studied the men before him and hefted his sword. Blood dripped thickly from the blade. He had no intention of waiting for the cannon to finish recharging. One last act of defiance, one last swing of the sword, and at least he’d go out fighting, as a Deathstalker should. A few last seconds to get his breath, and savor the many strange ways his life had taken. It felt so good to be alive. But Hazel was dead, his cause was lost, and all that remained was to die well, and take as many of the bastards with him as he could. He smiled slowly at his enemies, a nasty, humorless, death’s-head grin, and his sword seemed very light in his hand.

And that was when he heard something moving behind him. He spun around, sword lifting, furious that they wouldn’t at least do him the courtesy of facing him as they killed him, and then his jaw dropped as he saw Hazel d’Ark pull herself painfully through the hole in the rear wall. Her face was deathly white, and she was awash in her own blood, but her sword was still in her hand, and she had enough spark left in her to grin mockingly at Owen.

“What’s the matter, Deathstalker? You should know by now—I don’t die that easily.”

She sat down with her back against the wall, trembling violently. Owen crouched beside her and took her hand in his. It was deathly cold. Blood had run thickly from her nose and mouth, and was still dripping from her chin. He could feel her presence in his mind, but it was dim and fading, like a guttering candle in a darkened room. Hazel leaned her head back against the wall, her eyes dropping half-shut, like a runner after a long race.

“Hold my hand, Owen. I’m afraid of the dark.”

“I am holding it.”

“Then hold it up where I can see it. I can’t feel it.”

Owen lifted their joined hands up before her face, and she smiled crookedly. “Never say die, Owen. There’s always a way out, if you look for it hard enough.”

Owen smiled at her, pressing his lips tightly together so she wouldn’t see them tremble. “I’m open for suggestions.”

Kast turned to Major Chevron. “Disrupter cannon recharged, sir.”

“Then what the hell are you waiting for, you idiot? Kill them! Kill them both!”

Morgan hit the firing stud, and the ravening beam of energy tore into the square before it. Hazel’s hand clamped down on Owen’s painfully hard, and in that split second before the energy beam hit them, their minds slammed together through their mental link, and joined, becoming a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. In that moment of despair and desperation, necessity drove them deeper into their minds than ever before, down past the conscious, past the back brain, and into the undermind. Time seemed to slow and stop. Energy built within them, tapped from some unknown source both within and outside them, fueled by love and rage and a refusal to be beaten while they were still needed. The energy blazed up and roared out of them, fast and deadly and quite unstoppable.

It met the energy beam from the disrupter cannon, swallowed it whole, and roared on. It hit the cannon and blew it apart. Kast and Morgan died screaming as the energy tore them to shreds. They vanished in splashes of blood and splintered bone. Major Chevron died next, his dreams of conquest and victory shattered like his body. And still the energy tore on, slamming into the massed ranks of the Imperial marines. They all died, hundreds of men helplessly lifting their swords and guns against a force that could not be stopped or denied. Their bodies exploded, blood and bone tumbling on the air. And then it was all over, and a horrid quiet peace fell across the square.

Toby Shreck and Flynn looked at each other. Blood and death and carnage lay all around them, but they had not been touched. Even Flynn’s camera was still in place, hovering above the square, staring down at Owen and Hazel, still sitting together with their backs against the wall. Flynn shook his head slowly.

“How come we’re not dead?”

“Beats the bell out of me,” said Toby. “Either they didn’t see us as enemies, or we just weren’t important enough to bother with.”

Owen and Hazel sat together, looking slowly about them, their breathing gradually easing as they realized the danger was past. The power that had passed briefly though them was gone, leaving no trace of its passage save a bone-deep weariness. They’d given all they had to give, and more, and there was nothing left in them now but a terrible tiredness of the mind, as well as the body. Owen’s gaze fell upon Toby and Flynn, standing alone in the sea of carnage and broken bodies. He rose painfully to his feet, and beckoned for them to approach him. Flynn looked like he’d very much rather not, but Toby dragged him forward, until they were standing before the Deathstalker. He looked less like a legend up close, and more human. In fact, he looked mostly like a man who’d had to carry too many burdens in his time, but did it anyway, because there was no one else. He gestured at the camera hovering above him.

“Bring that thing down here. I have something to say.”

Flynn brought it down through his comm link, till it was hovering before Owen’s face. He nodded to Flynn and Toby and then addressed the camera.

“Greetings, Lionstone, if you’re looking in. This is the rightful Lord Deathstalker, coming to you live from the rebel city of Mistport. Just thought I’d let you know your invasion is a bust. It never stood a chance. Your army of professional killers was never going to be a match for a city of free men and women. And as soon as we’ve finished clearing up the mess you’ve made here, we’ll be coming to see you. Remember my face, Lionstone. You’ll live to see your forces scattered and your Empire fall, and then I will walk into Court, rip the crown off your head, and kick your nasty ass right off the Iron Throne. You should never have happened. You were an unfortunate mistake, an error in history, that I will put right at the first possible moment. Be seeing you, Empress.” He looked at Flynn. “That’s it. You can go now.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of an exclusive interview?” said Toby Shreck. Owen looked at him, and Toby fell back a pace. “No, I didn’t really think so. Come on, Flynn, time to go. We don’t want to outstay our welcome.”

And then they both turned and ran, the camera bobbing along behind them. Owen smiled tiredly. They had no way of knowing his speech had been pure bravado, using up what little strength he had left. He turned unsteadily, and went back to sit down beside Hazel. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was very shallow, but her eyes drifted halfway open as he settled himself at her side.

“Yeah. What you said, stud. Always knew your propensity for making speeches would come in handy one day.”

“How do you feel?” said Owen. It wasn’t a casual question.

“Tired. At peace. What the hell did we tap into just then? Some power the Maze gave us?”

“I don’t think so. It felt more like something we’d always had, something the Maze just put us in touch with. Maybe someday all Humanity could learn to do what we did.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel. “Maybe. But I doubt we’ll be around to see it. That energy blast pretty much used us up. There’s nothing left in me anymore.”

“Same here,” said Owen. “Guess our time’s run out. There are worse ways to go. And at least we got a chance to throw a scare into the Iron Bitch first. Hazel, there’s . . . something I’ve been meaning to tell you . . .”

“Same here,” said Hazel. “My Blood addiction’s gone. I can feel it. That energy surge scoured it right out of my system. I’m clean, at last.”

“I’m glad. Hazel, I wanted to say . . .”

And then his voice was drowned out by the roar of gravity engines overhead. Owen looked up, and then forced himself to his feet again. Six gravity barges were hovering above the square, their disrupter cannon trained on him and Hazel. Owen’s hand clenched around his sword hilt, but knew that this time there wasn’t going to be any last-minute escape. Even at his peak he doubted he’d have been able to stand against the massed disrupter cannon of six gravity barges. He looked up at them and grinned defiantly anyway.

“You people ever heard of the word overkill?”

“The fight’s over, Death stalker,” said an amplified voice from above. “But you don’t have to die here. Lionstone has empowered us to make you an offer. Surrender to us, and you will be allowed to live. Our scientists could learn much from studying you.”

“Tell them to go to hell, Deathstalker,” said Hazel, behind him. “My mother didn’t raise me to be a laboratory rat. Probably vivisect us, first chance they got. Or send their mind techs into our heads, to turn us to their side. We can’t allow that, Owen.”

“Our sensors indicate that you are gravely wounded, and your companion is dying,” said the amplified voice. “We can save both of you. We have a regeneration machine aboard the Defiant. She doesn’t have to die, Deathstalker. It’s up to you.”

“Owen . . .” said Hazel.

“I’m sorry, Hazel,” said Owen. “I’m not ready for both of us to die.” He looked up at the gravity barges and threw down his sword. “I surrender. Come and get us. But hurry it up. I don’t think she’s got much time left.”

“You bloody fool,” said Hazel.

He looked back at her, and smiled regretfully. “Always, where you’re concerned.”

Hazel tried to reach for her gun, but her, fingers wouldn’t work. Owen sat down beside her again and listened to her curse him till the Imperial troops came to take them both into custody.

* * * *

Near the center of Mistport, lit bright as day by the burning buildings and out-of-control fires, Young Jack Random, John Silver, and the forces they led battled the invading Imperial forces to a standstill. The air was hot and smoky, with dark smuts floating in it, and the roar of the fires almost drowned out the roar of the gravity barges and Legion’s triumphant howl. The fighting filled the streets from side to side, and spilled over into back alleys and culs-de-sac. The trampled snow turned to blood-soaked slush, and bodies lay everywhere. The Deathstalker’s projectile weapons were proving their worth at close quarters, but even so the battle raged this way and that, neither side able to take the advantage for long. Steel hammered on steel, the fighters held face-to-face by the crush of the crowds. There was no room for strategy or tactics or fancy footwork, just the hard, steady work of human butchery and slaughter.

Young Jack Random was right there in the thick of it, his great frame standing out in the crowd, larger than life and apparently unbeatable. His war cries rang out above the din, loud and triumphant and unyielding, and every man who fought at his side felt twice the man for being in his presence. Random’s sword rose and fell steadily, cutting a path through the enemy forces toward their commanders, refusing to be slowed or turned aside. His courage and determination inspired the rebels to ever greater efforts, throwing themselves into the fray as though their lives were nothing.

And right there in the middle of it, too, was John Silver. He was soaked in blood, as much from his own wounds as others’, but still his sword was steady in his hand, as he pushed himself relentlessly forward. He was beyond pain or exhaustion now, driven by a simple refusal to lie down and die while he was still needed.

And slowly, step by step, foot by foot, the rebels forced the Empire back, denying them the heart of the city. The invasion met an implacable, unbeatable force, and broke against it. War cries from a hundred worlds and cultures rang above the slaughter, combining into a chilling roar of rage and courage and determination, and the invading forces had nothing with which to answer it. Some marines turned and ran, risking being shot by their own officers, who called desperately on their comm links for reinforcements, or orders to withdraw. The word came back to hold their ground. The gravity barges were on their way. All of them.

* * * *

The deaf and dumb burglar called Cat sat on a cooling dead body, watching what was left of the Blackthorn Inn burn itself out. A blackened frame showed dimly through the smoke and fog, smoldering here and there. Nothing else remained of the only place Cat had ever thought of as home. There was no sign of Cyder anywhere. Soon he would get up and go into the ruin, and search for bodies, to see if one of them might be hers, but he hadn’t quite worked up the nerve yet. He didn’t think he could face life without Cyder. She was his love, his only love, who gave his life meaning and purpose. She couldn’t be in there. She of all people would have had the sense to get out while the getting was good. But the thought of turning over a blackened corpse and finding her rings on the charred fingers was still too much to bear for the moment. And so he sat where he was, watching what remained of the Blackthorn steam and smolder, and waited for Investigator Topaz to wake up.

He’d carried her unconscious body across the roofs, where he knew he wouldn’t be stopped or challenged. No one knew the roofs like he did. The roar of the fighting didn’t call him, and Legion’s howl didn’t deter him, because he couldn’t hear either of them. Instead, he concentrated on the task at hand, getting the Investigator to a place of safety. And for him, safety had always been the Blackthorn Inn. All the way there, with Topaz’s weight growing heavier and heavier on his shoulders, he’d comforted himself with the thought that Cyder would know what to do about Topaz and Mary’s turning. But now the inn was gone, and Cyder wasn’t there, and he didn’t know what to do.

He felt Topaz stir at his side and turned around to help her sit up. He sat her on the body, too, it was better than sitting in the mud and slush on the road. She held her head for a bit, her mouth moving in shapes that made no sense to him. He could read lips, but things like groans and moans were a mystery to him. Finally she turned and looked at him, and her eyes were dark and steady. She asked where she was, and he told her in fingertalk, but she couldn’t understand it. He pointed to the street sign, and she nodded slowly. He wanted to tell her about leaving Mary, but didn’t know how. Topaz rose to her feet, swaying only a little and only for a moment, nodded her thanks to Cat, and strode off into the mists. Cat watched her go. The body was getting cold and uncomfortable beneath him, so he stood up. Cyder wasn’t dead. He was sure of that. So he’d better go and look for her. And if he could strike the occasional blow against the invading forces while he was doing it, so much the better. Cat turned, scrambled up the wall, and took to the roofs again.

* * * *

Aboard the Defiant, Owen and Hazel had been brought in chains to see Legion, floating in its tank. Investigator Razor was there, with Typhoid Mary, to make sure they behaved, and Captain Bartok was there to watch their faces as they realized they couldn’t hope to stand against anything like Legion. The great glass tank, festooned with wires and cables and strange, unfamiliar tech, was still the only thing in the auditorium. Legion floated peacefully in the thick yellow liquid—a great bulging fleshy mass without shape or meaning. The brains of thousands of dead espers, stitched together with alien-derived tech, controlled or at least dominated by the gestalt mind of Wormboy’s worms. The air stank horribly, and Owen screwed up his face as he peered at the shape in the tank. He started to move forward for a better look, but Razor grabbed one of his chains and pulled him back. Owen almost fell under the weight of his chains, and swore at Razor. The Investigator hit him dispassionately in the kidneys. Owen nearly went down again, but somehow kept his feet.

The Empire had kept its promise. They’d put Hazel in the Defiant’s regeneration machine, and she’d emerged whole and healed of all her wounds. But the machine had been able to do nothing about the almost spiritual weariness that she and Owen shared after tapping into the mental force that saved their lives. Physically, they were both still weak as kittens. That hadn’t stopped Bartok from taking all their weapons and weighing them down with chains till they could hardly stand. They’d even wanted to remove Owen’s golden Hadenman hand, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. There had been talk of cutting it off, just in case, but Bartok had been too eager to show off his secret weapon to his illustrious prisoners. Besides, they could always cut it off later.

Typhoid Mary wore no chains. The control words in her head held her more securely than any physical restraint. She hadn’t said a dozen words since she had come aboard the Defiant. Owen and Hazel had both tried talking to her, but she only responded to Imperial orders. She stared blankly at the thing in the tank, apparently unmoved by its appearance or its smell.

“So,” said Captain Bartok to Owen and Hazel. “What do you think of our wondrous creation?”

Owen sniffed. “Looks like one of God’s more disappointing bowel movements. Smells like it, too. Haven’t you people ever heard of air-conditioning?”

Razor hit him again, and he almost fell. Hazel kicked Razor in the knee, that being all her chains would allow. Razor hit her in the face, bloodying her mouth and nose. Owen and Hazel leaned on each other, glaring impotently at the Investigator. He didn’t smile. He didn’t have to. Mary watched impassively, her face quite blank. The control words buzzed in the back of her head like a swarm of angry bees, but still a small part of her was able to think clearly. She kept it to herself, hidden so deep not even another esper could have detected it. She’d seen herself strike Topaz down as if from a great distance, helpless in her own body. She assumed Topaz was dead, or she’d be here, too. Mary, who had sworn never to kill again, had killed her best friend. The anguish and the horror nearly overwhelmed her when she thought of it, but she kept it deep and secret, and none of it reached her face.

Bartok took her by the arm, and led her toward the great tank. She went unresistingly.

“Hello, Legion,” said Bartok. “I’ve brought someone to see you. This is Typhoid Mary. A Siren, and quite possibly one of the most powerful espers in the Empire.”

Welcome, Mary, said Legion in its many voices. Owen granted as the horrid chorus rang inside his head, thick and smothering like the stench of rotting fruit. Hazel shook her head, as though to drive the voices out. Mary didn’t react at all. Legion spoke in many voices at once, combined into an awful harmony of male and female voices, young and old, alive and dead. And faintly, in the background, they could all hear the sound of thousands of voices screaming helplessly, damned to a man-made living Hell.

I’m so glad you’re here, Mary, said Legion. They’re going to rip your brain out of your head, and make it part of me. All your power and all your songs will become mine. And I shall put them to good use down in the streets of Mistport. Already they quail and shiver at my voice, but with your songs I’ll trample through all their heads and stir my sticky fingers in their souls. They will all dance to my tune, or die horribly.

“Well?” said Bartok, after a while. “Talk to Legion, Mary.”

“Who’s speaking to me?” said Mary slowly. “The brains or the worms?”

You’ll find out.

“Why are you hurting and killing your fellow espers? They’re your own kind.”

Because it’s fun. And because I can. I’m nothing like them. Or you. There’s never been anything like me before. There’s no limit to how big I can grow, no limit to how powerful I can become. Call me Legion. I am vast. I contain multitudes. Someday, all espers shall be a part of me. This tank won’t hold me forever. And on the day that I break free, let all Humanity beware. Let all that lives beware.

Typhoid Mary looked at her future, and at the future of Humanity, and despair and rage boiled up within her, blasting aside the restraints of the Empire’s conditioning. New power blazed through her, wild and potent, as something wonderful was suddenly there in the auditorium with them, bright and shining and perfect, with Mary as its focus. The Mater Mundi, Our Mother Of All Souls. Mary’s face was exalted, her eyes shining like the sun. Razor reacted immediately to the new threat, his sword instantly in his hand, but some unseen force picked him up and threw him aside as casually as a bothersome insect. Legion surged back and forth in its tank, awed by the sheer power it could feel building in the auditorium. The Mater Mundi reached out, and all the espers of Mistworld were suddenly drawn into its single purpose. In that moment, the thousands of minds came together and were one, guided by the Mater Mundi, focused through Typhoid Mary. She turned her unyielding gaze on Legion, and it was afraid.

Psionic energy crackled on the air, surging through all the bays and corridors of the Defiant. Machinery overloaded and exploded, workstations malfunctioned and shut down, and all through the ship the members of the crew fell to their knees, clutching at their heads as unfamiliar thoughts crashed through their minds. It was chaos and it was bedlam, and in the auditorium Captain Bartok saw it all and screamed.

On the planet below, in the streets of Mistport, everything came to a halt. Psionic energy hammered on the air like the wrath of God, and the invading forces fell senseless to the ground, their minds shutting down rather than face the power of the Mater Mundi. The espers of Mistport stood still and unseeing, caught up in the gestalt. They stood together on the mental plane, focused through one mind and one will, striving against the power of the thing called Legion. But all the thousands of rebel espers together weren’t enough. Legion and the Mater Mundi faced each other, each concentrating on the destruction of the other, and neither could take the upper hand. They were too evenly balanced.

Stalemate.

Standing close together, forgotten in the crash of energies, Owen and Hazel found themselves suddenly revitalized. Something within them was feeding off the psionic energies running loose in the ship. They felt strong and well again, and their chains cracked and fell apart, broken links clattering and rolling away across the floor. Owen turned on Razor, but he had already left. Hazel looked at Captain Bartok, but he was standing still and helpless, frozen in place like a statue. Someone didn’t want him interfering.

Owen’s and Hazel’s minds reached out, drawn by some instinct to another level of reality, and there they saw the struggle between Legion and the Mater Mundi. Two great armies of massed will faced each other, locked in a combat from which only one could emerge whole and sane. Legion was clearly the smaller of the two, but it had no limits and no restraints, while the Mater Mundi was focused through Typhoid Mary, who had sworn a solemn oath never to kill again. Owen and Hazel concentrated. In the background, unnoticed by either side, there were voices screaming for release. The thousands of dead espers whose brains made up the body of Legion, controlled by Wormboy’s worms. Owen moved closer.

You have to break free, he said in a voice that was not a voice. The Empire is using you to kill your own kind.

We know, said a crowd of whispering voices. But there’s nothing we can do. The worms are in our brains. The technology of Legion gives them power over us. Free us!

We can’t, said Hazel. You’re already dead. They cut out your brains and threw away your bodies. You’re the ghosts in the machine.

There were screams and howls of despair, and the crying of thousands of souls who no longer had eyes to cry with. What can we do? What can we do?

There’s only one thing left to you, said Owen Deathstalker. You have to finish dying. Legion will never let you go, never let you know peace. You heard what it said. It wants to kill all that lives, or make it part of itself. Think of the millions of minds, trapped and suffering in Legion’s grasp, like you.

We don’t want to die!

No one does, said Hazel. But sometimes you have no choice, if everything you ever lived for is to have any meaning.

Nothing can stop you, said Owen. But do you really want an eternity as Legion’s slaves? Stop fighting to live. Let yourselves die. And let Legion die with you.

Perhaps in that moment the thousands of esper brains remembered who they used to be, the things they believed in, and fought for. Things they would have died for, given the chance. Perhaps they were tired of their mental slavery and just wanted to rest at last. And perhaps in that moment they were brave men and women again, determined to do the right thing. But whatever the reason, the brains that made up Legion gave up their hold on life and let themselves die. There was a great outpouring of light on the mental plane, as thousands of men and women broke free and went to their reward at last. And left behind, broken and helpless, nothing but a dark cancerous mass, writhing and squirming—Wormboy’s worms. The Mater Mundi stepped on them, and they died screaming.

* * * *

On the bridge of the Defiant, Investigator Razor watched Legion die. Every piece of monitoring equipment showed the creature’s life signs dropping to zero. For no obvious reason, the huge mass in the glass tank had given up the ghost. Deathstalker. Damn him. Razor turned to his other consoles. Half the bridge tech wasn’t working, and what was brought him nothing but bad news. Most of his bridge crew were catatonic, and the rest might as well be. He grabbed the Second in Command by the shoulder and shook him until some sense came back into his eyes.

“In Captain Bartok’s absence, I am assuming authority on this ship,” Razor said slowly and clearly. “I want every armed man down in Legion’s hold. Kill everything you find there.”

“We already tried that, sir,” said the Second. “No one can get anywhere near the hold. Something’s . . . preventing us.”

Razor thought hard. Around him, the bridge crew began to stir and return to their senses. With Legion dead, it wouldn’t be long before Mistport’s surviving espers suddenly found they had their powers back. And then there’d be hell to pay. They’d wipe out the forces on the ground, and then turn their attention to the Defiant.

“Power up all the systems,” Razor said flatly. “Prepare to scorch Mistport.”

“Sir?” said the Second in Command. “Our people are still down there, sir.”

“With Legion down, they’re as good as dead anyway. Our orders were to bring Mistworld back into the Empire. If I have to turn it into a single great funeral pyre to do so, then that’s what I’ll do. Bring all the disrupter cannon on-line. On my command, commence firing. And don’t stop while there’s one speck of life left on that miserable planet.”

And that was when the lights went out. There was a long moment of utter darkness, and then the emergency systems came back on, bathing the bridge in a crimson glow. The Second checked his instruments. When he looked up, his eyes were scared.

“All main systems are down, sir. Practically everything except basic life support. Some . . . unknown force shut them down. We’re helpless, sir.”

Investigator Razor sat down in the command chair and wondered how he was going to explain this to the Empress.

* * * *

In the auditorium holding Legion’s tank, all was still and quiet. Both Legion and the Mater Mundi were gone, their overwhelming presence absent. The great fleshy mass had sunk to the bottom of its tank. Owen and Hazel stood together, getting used to being back in their own head again. Typhoid Mary, only herself again, bent over Captain Bartok, who was sitting on the floor, staring at nothing.

“Don’t bother,” said Owen. “I already checked. There’s no one home. Whatever he saw here, his mind couldn’t handle it.”

“Damn,” said Hazel. “I was looking forward to killing him.”

“The killing’s over,” said Mary, straightening up. “Let’s go home.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Owen. “Let’s see if we can requisition an escape pod. I doubt anybody will be in the mood to say no to us.”

They left the auditorium. Captain Bartok sat very still, staring with empty eyes at the dead mass in the tank.

* * * *

Afterward, what was left of Mistport celebrated. Those few marines who didn’t run back to their pinnaces fast enough were hunted down and killed. No one was in the mood to take prisoners. The dead were piled to one side, to be disposed of later. Rescue squads formed themselves and set about digging in collapsed buildings, in search of survivors. Mistport had come through again. There was a hell of a lot of rebuilding to be done, but the bulk of the city had survived. It took a lot to kill Mistworlders. If only because if you could survive Mistport, you could handle pretty much anything else the universe could throw at you.

What remained of the Council was working at the esper union’s hall, coordinating relief work and making sure the espers’ psionic screen stayed in place until the Defiant was safely gone. No point in taking chances. Everyone else in the hall was partying like there was no tomorrow. Probably because so many of them hadn’t expected to live to see tomorrow anyway. Esper chatter filled the great room, almost loud enough to be heard by non-espers. A couple of show-offs were dancing on the ceiling. None of the non-espers felt slighted or threatened. For the moment at least, victory had brought everyone together.

Young Jack Random was the man of the hour. Everyone wanted to be next to him, to slap him on the back, pour him another drink. He was only too happy to describe his part in the defense of the city, and the people around him wouldn’t let him be modest about it. Everyone had some tale to tell of the legendary professional rebel’s courage and daring exploits.

Owen Deathstalker and Hazel d’Ark sat in a corner of the hall, drinking a reasonably good vintage wine and dubiously studying a collection of party snacks. Their greater abilities had disappeared along with the Mater Mundi, and they were both feeling very human again. Their wounds had healed, and the bone-deep weariness had gone, but they both felt they needed some time to come to terms with the more than human things they’d done. Their exploits fighting in the streets hadn’t gone unnoticed, and some people made a point of seeking them out to reminisce and congratulate them, but on the whole most people preferred to idolize the larger-than-life Jack Random.

At Random’s side stood Donald Royal, his ancient frame full of new life and good wine, revitalized by battle and feeling like a new man again. He’d been a great hero in his younger days, and had never been really happy leading a peaceful life. Now he felt like himself again, full of piss and vinegar, and if he was almost certain to pay dearly for that feeling tomorrow, well, he’d think about that tomorrow. People roared his name along with Jack Random’s and toasted him like the warrior of old. Random put an arm across his shoulders and wouldn’t be separated from him. Madelaine Skye stuck close, too, and tried to tell herself it wasn’t just jealousy that made her distrust the legendary professional rebel.

Over by the bar, Cat and Cyder were making serious inroads into the champagne. They always believed in indulging in the best, especially when someone else was footing the bill. As the level in the third bottle dropped, Cyder became increasingly philosophical about the loss of her tavern.

“We’ll build another Blackthorn,” she said to Cat, with only the faintest slur in her speech. “We can live off the insurance money for a while, and I’ll set up some easy burglaries for you. Bound to be lots of good stuff lying around relatively unguarded, after all this. The old team rides again. What the hell; maybe you and I were never meant to be respectable.”

John Silver came over to pay his respects to Owen and Hazel. He was wrapped in so many bandages he could only bend in certain directions, but he seemed cheerful enough. Owen decided to be diplomatic, and excused himself for a moment, so Silver and Hazel could talk in private. After Owen had moved away, they stood in silence for a while, meeting each other’s gaze steadily.

“I don’t suppose there’s any way I could persuade you to stay in Mistport?” said Silver.

“No. I go where the rebellion takes me, and it’s all over here.”

“You need a little Blood, to take with you? I could always . . .”

“No thanks. I don’t need it anymore.”

“I thought not. You don’t need me, either.”

“It was good seeing you again, John, but you’re my past. I’ve moved on since then, and where I’ve gone you can’t follow. What will you do now?”

“Help rebuild the starport. If we can.”

“The Golgotha underground will supply you with whatever high-tech you need.” She sipped her wine to indicate she was about to change the subject. “You don’t know what happened to Chance and his kids, do you?”

“Oh, they’ll come through all right,” said Silver easily. “His kind always do. The esper union is looking after the children, here in the Hall somewhere. I think the powers that be are feeling a bit guilty about abandoning them to someone like Chance, just because they didn’t want to be bothered with children who reminded them of the dark side of esp.” He looked round. “Owen’s coming back. I’d better make myself scarce. Look after yourself, Hazel.”

“You too, John. From what I hear, you were quite the hero, out fighting in the streets.”

Silver grinned. “Yeah. I don’t know what came over me.”

He gave her a bow and a wink, and moved off into the party.

Not that far away, Investigator Topaz and Typhoid Mary were talking quietly. Neither of them cared much for parties, as a rule, but after the death of so many people, they both felt a need for the comfort of a crowd. When the thousands of minds in Legion died, they had felt each one through the Mater Mundi’s link, and some of Death’s cold hand had brushed against their souls. So they came to the union esper hall, to warm themselves in the presence of friends.

“I still don’t know if I did the right thing,” said Mary, looking down into her wineglass.

“Of course you did,” Topaz said briskly. “Anyone who died on the Defiant needed to die, whether they were innocent minds trapped in Legion, or Imperial butchers come to kill us all. I’m more interested in the Mater Mundi. What did it feel like, being the focus?”

Mary frowned. “I’m not sure. I’m already beginning to forget it. I think my mind is protecting me from things I’m not ready to deal with. I felt . . . larger, more real, somehow. As though the whole of my life was a dream, from which I awoke for a short while. Part of me wants it again, but the rest of me is scared shitless at the very thought. That business with the control words worries me as well. The Mater Mundi contact wiped out the controls Razor activated, but who knows what else the mind techs might have planted deep within me?”

“Worry about it when it happens,” said Topaz. “After the way the Empire got its ass kicked here today, I think we can safely assume it’ll be some time before we have to worry about Imperial agents again. And you’re a lot stronger than you used to be. When you focused the Mater Mundi, it changed you. Your mind is more powerful now. I can feel it. When I look at you with my mind, it’s like staring into the sun.”

“I know,” said Mary. “That’s something else that worries me.”

“Hell,” said Topaz. “You wouldn’t be happy if you didn’t have something to worry about. It’s in your nature.”

“True,” said Typhoid Mary.

Jenny Psycho watched them talk together, from a safe distance, but felt more numb than jealous. She still couldn’t get over the fact that the Mater Mundi had chosen to manifest through someone else this time, not her. She’d called for help in the streets of Mistport, and the Mother had ignored her. She was slowly beginning to realize that she’d have to find a new purpose in life, that she wasn’t who she’d thought she was.

Councillor McVey cornered Gideon Steel, who was sulking quietly by the punch bowl. The Port Director was rather upset that he didn’t have a starport to be Director of anymore.

“Snap out of it, Steel,” said McVey. “With Magnus and Barron dead, Castle out of his mind with grief, and Donald Royal telling anyone who’ll listen that it’s his destiny to fight alongside Jack Random, wherever he goes, that only leaves you and me as city Councillors. And there’s a hell of a lot of work to be done in putting this city back together. I can’t do it on my own, Gideon.”

Steel sighed heavily. “I suppose you’re right. But I was happy being Port Director. It was the only job I was ever any good at.”

“It was the only job where you could syphon off a lot of money on the side.”

Steel looked at McVey. “You knew?”

“Of course.”

“Then why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because you were a good Port Director. It’s a hard job, and no one else on the Council wanted it. So, are you going to help me rebuild Mistport? Think of all the work and construction contracts you’ll be in charge of. A man with his wits about him would be in a position to steal himself a fortune.”

“You talked me into it,” said Steel. “When do we start?”

Back on the other side of the room, Neeson the banker had come to pay his respects to Owen Deathstalker. He looked battered and tired, but surprisingly happy.

“You look like you’ve been in the wars,” said Owen.

“Damn right,” said Neeson. “Most fun I’ve had in years. I started out as a mercenary, you know. This sword for hire, and all that. Your father brought me into the business world. Said someone with my instincts would go far in banking. And how right he was. Anyway, I came to tell you that my associates and I have decided to reactivate and maintain the old Deathstalker information network.”

“How very public-spirited of you,” said Hazel. “What brought that on?”

“Well, partly because of the gentleman standing at your side, partly because everyone on Mistworld is now part of the great rebellion, whether we want it or not, and partly because we all feel more alive now than we have in a long time. Business has its own rewards, but it’s not exactly exciting, you know. It’s a poor life when you’re reduced to getting cheap thrills from foreclosing on someone’s mortgage. No, being a rebel sounds much more fun. See you around, Deathstalker.”

He nodded briskly to Owen and Hazel, and wandered off in search of food and wine and someone else to whom he could boast about his transformation. There’s no one more enthusiastic than a middle-aged convert. He was replaced by the journalist Toby Shreck and his cameraman Flynn. Their press credentials had saved them from the general slaughter of the invading forces, but now they were stranded on Mistworld until they could beg, borrow, or steal passage off.

“Hi there,” said Toby. “Mind if we join you? We’ve brought our own bottle.”

“Now there speaks a civilized man,” said Owen. “I understand you’re interested in coming along with us desperate rebel types when we leave?”

“Damn right,” said Toby. “You people are where the story is. Besides, we asked everybody else, and they all said no.”

“Fair enough,” said Owen. “If you’re looking for a good story, some of my associates are planning an expedition to a planet called Haceldama. I’ll put you in contact with them. In the meantime, why aren’t you interviewing Jack Random? He’s the official hero of the hour.”

Toby and Flynn looked at each other, and then Toby leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Are you sure that is Jack Random?”

Owen and Hazel kept their faces blank, but they leaned forward and lowered their voices, too. “What makes you think that he isn’t?” said Hazel.

“Because we saw him leading a rebellion on Technos III, just a few weeks ago,” said Toby. “And he looked . . . different. Older.”

“Much older,” said Flynn. “I’ve got it all on tape. And my camera never lies.”

“Lots of people have claimed to be Jack Random, down the years,” Owen said neutrally. “Let’s just say this one seems more convincing than most.”

Toby glanced back at Random, still surrounded by well-wishers and devoted disciples. “Doesn’t it bother you, that he’s getting all the glory? You two did just as much as he. Flynn got most of it on tape.”

Hazel shrugged. “Last thing I need is being bothered by autograph hunters. Let him be the hero, if that’s what he wants. I was never very comfortable with the role anyway.”

“Heads up,” said Owen. “I think he’s going to say something.”

The speech that followed was a triumph. Short, sharp, lucid, and witty. A professional speechwriter couldn’t have done better. Young Jack Random stirred the crowd’s blood with praises for their deeds in protecting their city, and with promises of more battles against injustice to come. On to Golgotha! he cried, and everyone cheered and applauded. Owen and Hazel applauded, too, so as not to seem small, but neither of them was swayed by his words. He was still just too good to be true, for them.

But, all things considered, Owen felt basically upbeat. Things seemed to be going his way for once. The Imperial invasion had been defeated, Mistport had been saved, his own mission was apparently a great success, and he’d faced the prophecy of his own death and survived after all. Not that he’d ever really believed in it, but it was good to put it behind him. It was like having a new lease on life; and life was very good just then.

He and Hazel stood together and watched the crowd cheer itself hoarse for Jack Random, and were quietly content.