Cyril Blackthorne is a fearsome soul

                        With his eyes so clear and his smile so cold

                        He lusts for blood, he likes to kill

                        He tastes their fear, and crushes their will

                       

 

 

 

                                                            Chapter Twenty-Three

 

 

 

            "This is the place?"  Barundar was dubious; the giff shot Nym a glance.  "Looks like an unlikely spot for a meeting."

            Reanyn raised the torch he held.  The dim outline of a lone building lay ahead, a blocky stone structure squat and low, standing in the darkness amidst surrounding rubble.  "Unlikely or not, this is the place."

            "What concerns me," said Nym, "is that it looks like a very likely spot for an ambush."

            Although nearly the entire inside area of Syrrus B had man-made structures lining it, it was not all occupied.  Indeed, the true 'city' of Syrrus B, while extensive, occupied only a portion of the interior, and vast areas of the outer city stood abandoned, crumbling stone ruins long since deserted for reasons forgotten.

            Here the blackness was nearly absolute; they had left the dim lights of the city proper far behind.  Both Reanyn and Barundar held torches, but the flickering pools of light they cast did not extend far, and the dark shapes of crumbling walls and windowless buildings loomed up on all sides, seeming to shift threateningly in the uncertain light.

            The instructions had been clear: this was the place where Windhook would meet them.

            The building sat atop a slight rise, and though it was only a single-story structure it was tall and fairly imposing.  The empty window sockets showed only blackness beyond; there was no sign that any other person had passed here in decades.  It was a squat, blocky structure of antique design; Tianna wondered it if had once been an inn or an alehouse.

            Barundar puffed out his cheeks.  In one smooth motion he drew his axe from his belt loop.  "Well, if we're going to do it, then let's do it."

            Reanyn passed his torch to Tianna.   "I don't expect trouble," he said, "but if things get dangerous stay low and keep behind me."

            She nodded.

            The building was surrounded by blocks of rubble and circled by a broken and crumbling waist-high wall of stone.  There were several spaces where the wall had crumbled away completely; it was through one of these that they passed.  Tianna wondered if it might have originally been the gate but decided it was impossible to tell.

            Barundar and Nym reached the front door of the building first, halting and waiting for Reanyn and Tianna.  At a nod from Reanyn, they stepped back.

            The door was made of stout weather-beaten wood, aged and cracked in several places, and hung crazily askew from one twisted hinge.  There was only a hole where the handle should be.

            Reanyn tried to push it open, but found that the wood had swollen so that it was jammed into the doorframe.  He took a step back and lashed out in a lightning-swift kick.

            The door splintered under the force of the blow, flying backwards into the black interior of the building as the rusted hinge gave way.  It made a dull boom as it crashed to the floor within.

            Reanyn entered first, with Nym right behind him, arquebus held at the ready.  Barundar took up position behind Tianna, bringing up the rear.

            The room they entered was a large one, with a high ceiling and a wooden floor that creaked unsteadily underfoot.  The chamber was empty for the most part, but here and there lay small piles of wreckage from what had once been tables and chairs, and along the far wall there stood a high wooden bar.  Perhaps Tianna had been right; maybe this had been an alehouse. 

            The room was utterly silent and dark.  It had the look of a place long deserted; the taste of old dust was thick in the air.

            Reanyn raised his torch, and there was a squeak and a scrabble as something small and furry skittered across the floor on the far side of the room, heading for the shadows.  Rats.

            They all started at the sound.  Nym had raised his weapon and taken aim; sheepishly he lowered it.

            "You're certain this is the place?" asked Barundar.  "Looks abandoned to me."

            "Maybe we're early," said Nym.

            Reanyn didn't answer either one.  He was staring towards the bar.  "Jarren Windhook?" he asked, stepping forward.

            A small man stood up in the shadows behind the bar.  Apparently he had been crouched there, though Tianna wondered how Reanyn had known.  He held a crossbow awkwardly in his hands.  "Alright, that's far enough," he said as Reanyn approached.  "You just stay where you are, hear?  I don't want to hurt nobody, but I will if I have to."

            "You are Jarren Windhook?" asked Reanyn.  He glanced back at Tianna for confirmation, but she shook her head.  She had never seen this man before.

            "I'm here on his behalf," said the man.  The crossbow trembled in his hands.  "Let's leave it at that."

            "Peace, Gerrod."  There was an open doorway behind the bar that led to a back room, and a second man emerged from it.  Tianna recognized him as Hyrund Skaltos, the seeker from the herb shop who had arranged the meeting.  "Gerrod here has... reservations about giving Jarren over to bounty hunters," he said apologetically.  He gave the little man a sharp look.  "Mind you don't shoot yourself in the foot with that thing.  I don't even know why you brought it in the first place.  We're hardly here to do battle."

            The little man scowled, but did not lower the crossbow.  Tianna noticed that despite Hyrund's words the butt of a starwheel pistol jutted from his belt.

            "Where's Windhook?" asked Reanyn.

            "He's here," said Hyrund, "and you'll get to see him in good time.  But first there are things we must discuss."

            "Such as?"

            "Such as what you mean to do with him when you've got him.  Where you plan to take him; how you plan to keep him safe."

            "Haven't we been over this before," grumbled Barundar.

            Hyrund shrugged.  "Maybe.  But we didn't go into specifics then.  I want to know exactly where you're taking him and what your plan is.  Tell me why you think you can protect him."

            Reanyn was silent for a moment.  "I'm a bounty hunter by trade.  My business is finding people.  I know how to hide someone.  If he comes with me, he'll be safe."

            "If he comes with you where?" insisted Hyrund.

            Reanyn shook his head.  "I can't tell you where.  If I did, and someone found you...  The secret wouldn't be safe."

            The little man with the crossbow gave Reanyn a suspicious glare.  "And what guarantee does he have that you won't harm him?  You're a bounty hunter, like you said, just like the others."

            "I don't think he has much choice except to trust me," said Reanyn.  He spoke loudly, as if to be heard by someone waiting in the next room.  "There are a lot of men after him, he has to know that.  They're after the Raver, and most of them will do anything to get information on him.  If Windhook falls into their hands, it won't go easy for him - most won't let him live after they've gotten what they needed."

            "Right," said the little man with a sneer.  "So what makes you any different?"

            "I'm not after the Raver," said Reanyn.  "I don't think he exists.  I took a contract from the Imperial Elven Fleet to find Windhook.  As for his safety, I offer my word of honor that he will not come to harm."

            A moment of silence passed, and Hyrund shook his head.  "I'm afraid that's not good enough-" he started, but just then there was a commotion at the entrance.

            Tianna turned to look, and took an involuntary step back.  A creature from a nightmare was shuffling through the entrance.  It looked like some kind of giant worm or slug, and filled the doorway with its bulk.  It had two eyes on stalks that moved independently of each other, and a gigantic open maw, lined with jagged-looking teeth.  It oozed into the room quickly, surging forward.

            Barundar growled deep in his throat.  His axe was in his hands and he grabbed Tianna roughly with one hand, pulling her behind him.  "I knew it was a trap," he growled.  "Keep behind me, girl; I'll take care of the monster."

            Nym had raised his arquebus.  "Stand back; I've got a clear shot." he said, speaking at the same time as Barundar.

            "Wait, wait!" cried Hyrund.  "Hold your fire!  It isn't what you think!"

            The creature had surged into the room.  Now its eyes fastened on the giff and the dracon, and it backed off a little, seeming to wilt.  "Pardon, pardon," it said.  "Pardon, pardon.  Did not mean to frighten."  The words emanated from the direction of the creature, but its gaping mouth never moved.

            The giff and the dracon had both held their attacks at Hyrund's cry, but eyed the thing warily.

            "What... what is it?" asked Tianna, peering around Barundar's shoulder in horror.

            "A friend," said Hyrund quickly.  "He did not intend to startle you."

            "A fal," said Reanyn, and he sounded more than a little surprised.

            "Can't be," said Barundar in disbelief.  "It's not big enough."

            "Looks big enough to me," muttered Tianna, but no one took notice of her comment.

            "Jitessar is one of our seeker brethren," said Hyrund.  He eyed the fal sharply.  "He was supposed to keep well clear of this meeting, though."

            "Pardon, pardon," said the fal again.  "Would not have disobeyed, brother Hyrund Skaltos, but there is danger in the city."

            "Danger?" asked Hyrund.

            "Jitessar was pursued," said the fal.  "Men, seeking to capture Jitessar.  Jitessar did not know what to do."

            Hyrund grew concerned.  "You didn't lead them here?" he said.

            "No, no.  Men who followed were left behind.  But Jitessar thought it prudent to seek wise Hyrund Skaltos' advice."

            "Who was after you," asked Reanyn.

            "Men," the creature said.

            Hyrund shook his head.  "I'm afraid Jitessar has difficulty telling the humanoid races apart.  He's only three hundred years old, and has little experience with men and the outside universe.  We all look alike to him."

            "So it could have been anybody?" asked Nym.  "Goblinoids, humans, elves, dracon, giff?"  He moved past the fal to the entrance, peering out into the darkness.

            "Men," said the fal again.

            "Doesn't matter," said Reanyn.  "It's just one more reason why Windhook should come with me, right now.  Someone's on Syrrus B, looking for him, and apparently they know where to look.  Whoever he is, he isn't going to be friendly."

            Nym turned from his place at the door, moving to a nearby window, still looking out.  "How do you know you weren't followed?" he asked.

            "No, no," said the fal emphatically.  "Men who followed were left behind."

            At that instant Tianna's body went completely rigid.  She was able to give one gasp before paralysis overtook her.  Her head turned, seemingly of its own volition, and her eyes scanned the room, looking at each person in turn.

            Reanyn glanced at her, hearing her gasp.  "What's wrong?" he asked, stepping forward.

            She tried to shriek; to communicate, but she had no control.  She heard herself answer.  "Nothing... nothing.  Thought I saw a rat."

            Reanyn didn't look convinced.  He stepped closer.

            "No need for concern," she heard herself say.  "Don't come any closer-"

            Abruptly control returned to her when Reanyn stepped near.  She nearly collapsed.  "Tavras!" she cried.  "Tavras was in me!  He must be nearby!"

            Hyrund had a fierce expression on his face, his eyes closed.  "He's here," he said.  "Near, very near.  So powerful..."

            "Why, thank you," came a familiar voice from the entrance.  Wayland Tavras stood there, an insolent smile painted on his face.  There was no sign of the injury he had taken during the battle on the Nightwarder.  "I'm flattered.  Especially since the compliment comes from a fellow practitioner of the Art."

            "Tavras," said Reanyn grimly.

            "There are men moving out there," said Nym from his place at the window.  "He's not alone."

            Barundar growled and sprang at Tavras, axe lifted high for a killing stroke.  His aim was perfect, and the ferocious blow sheared straight down into Tavras's head - and continued straight through his body, encountering no resistance.  The giff yelped with surprise and lurched off balance, nearly falling.

            Tavras's image flickered once, as if it was a projection, and he vanished, reappearing yards away, between Nym and Hyrund.  "Missed me," he said with a malicious smile.

            "He's playing mind tricks!" shouted Hyrund.

            A shiver went through the ground beneath Tianna's feet and a tremendous boom deafened her momentarily.  A section of the left wall exploded inward, sending fist-sized pieces of stone and mortar flying.

            A flying shard struck her side painfully, and that coupled with the violent vibrations beneath her feet sent her tumbling to the floor.

            For a moment she lay stunned, blinded by the choking dust that suddenly filled the room.  But the cloud quickly cleared, dust swirling to the floor, and she rolled to her side, trying to get back to her feet.

            As she looked around, she saw that she was not the only one who had fallen.  She couldn't see Hyrund or the little man with the crossbow from where she lay, but both Barundar and Nym were picking themselves up.  Reanyn had somehow managed to keep his footing, as had Tavras.

            Two tall forms came loping through the new opening in the wall.  From where she sat, she could make out little other than dim silhouettes, but it seemed to her that they did not move like men.

            "Windhook!" cried Hyrund from somewhere off to her left.  "Get Windhook out!  He's in the back!  I'll hold off the mindbender!"  She spotted him a second later, caked in whitish dust, standing in front of the bar.

            Tavras, in contrast, seemed unaffected by the dust; it swirled away from him as if repelled.  "You?" he said mockingly.  "You'll hold me off?  I think not."

            Hyrund stiffened, his eyes shut and fierce concentration etched on his face.  Tavras only smiled more widely.

            "Dizanter!" roared Barundar, leaping forward to engage the two tall forms that had entered through the new hole.  "Two of them!"

            Tianna was confused.  She had heard of dizanter, but every story of them she had ever heard said that they always worked alone.  And if they were as deadly as the stories said...

            She tried to scramble to her feet but felt herself gently lifted in one smooth motion.  Reanyn crossed the room in two bounds and pushed her into Nym's arms.  "Get her out of here, now!" he shouted.  "I'll get Windhook!"

            Nym nodded once and sprinted for the door, holding her as if she weighed no more than a doll.

            The whir-chuck of a crossbow being fired sounded behind her, accompanied by a human scream.  A bolt flashed by the dracon, burying itself in the wood of the doorframe as they passed through.

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            Reality blurred.

            In an instant the room and the sounds of fighting were hushed, and Hyrund found himself... elsewhere.

            He was on a vast dusty plain, with a strange dull-orange orb hanging overhead, tinting everything red.

            Of Tavras there was no sign, but Hyrund knew he was here.  He could sense him; feel the malevolent force of the man's incredible mental power.

            There was a rumbling beneath his feet; Tavras was approaching, his first attack would soon come.

            Hyrund concentrated, and an obsidian tower came into being on the spot where he stood, growing out of the ground like a living thing, the sand and dust swirling away from it.  Up and up it went, with sturdy ramparts and graceful buttresses.

            Hyrund stood on the ramparts at its top, surveying his work.  It was good; the tower would hold.  It was not invulnerable; nothing here could be, not against someone as powerful as Tavras.  But it would hold.

            "YOU WILL HOLD ME?"

            The voice came from everywhere at once, accompanied by a thunderous, rolling laugh.

            "YOU ARE NOTHING!  AN INSIGNIFICANT WORM TO BE CRUSHED BENEATH MY BOOTS!  YOU DARE TO CHALLENGE ME?"

            And that quickly, the first attack came.  A tremendous roar shook the earth, and Hyrund watched it crack and separate into a yawning chasm.  The chasm spidered its way towards the tower, opening beneath it, widening.  The tower began to lean dangerously, suddenly unsteady in its foundations.

            Quickly Hyrund counterattacked, using his will to change the structure of the tower.  Thick buttresses arced out and out like spiders legs, seeking firm ground, steadying the tower.

            No sooner had Hyrund managed to stabilize the tower then the second attack came.  A thundering herd of black insect-like creatures the size of elephants came storming across the plain from all directions, surrounding the tower.  They made a terrible screeching noise as they approached which deafened and stunned Hyrund, and the tower shook as they began scaling it, their razor-sharp claws digging into the obsidian as if it were soft mud.

            Hyrund willed defenders into existence; hundreds of twelve-foot tall humanoids made of diamond and armed with gemstone pole-arms.  They rushed to the ramparts, meeting the attackers with a fearsome crash as they came up the tower.

            Hyrund looked up, and saw the sky was darkened with other attackers.  Blue-green wyvern-shaped creatures on the wing, heading for where he was standing.  As he watched, the front rank dipped into a dive, straight for the tower.

            He threw up a hasty shield, and the tower grew a covering dome, which the fliers struck, but it was a flimsy structure, hastily constructed, and the creatures clawed their way through it.

            Hyrund pulled some of the already beleaguered defenders from their task of repelling attackers at the ramparts, and they faced upwards, weapons poised, waiting for the fliers to break through the dome.  The first flier did so, and tumbled down.  The defenders made short work of it, but the second came soon afterwards, then the third and fourth, and more, and more, until they were falling like rain.

            The gigantic insect creatures, meanwhile, had gained a foothold in several places on the ramparts, pushing the diamond defenders back.  Hyrund tried to call more into being, but he was finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.  His defenders were losing ground, and the attackers were clawing their way to where he stood.

            Just then there was a blinding blue-white flash accompanied by a resounding CRACK!  Hyrund found himself on his side, his feet knocked out from under him, nearly stunned.  Fifteen paces away, two of his defenders had been vaporized; the place where they had been standing was now a scorched indentation in the obsidian, lined with rubble.

            A second bolt of lightning arced down from the sky, striking a clump of three more of Hyrund's defenders, twenty paces away from him.  One moment they were fighting off attackers; the next they were gone.

            Hyrund fought to his feet.  I'm losing, he realized.  I have to do something!

            Lightning continued to strike down, about once every three seconds, each bolt unerringly finding a clump of Hyrund's defenders and obliterating them, leaving behind only a scorched pit in the obsidian.

            Hyrund thought furiously.  Tavras was simply too powerful; he was maintaining three separate attacks at once.  All he could do was try to maintain his defenses, and those were failing quickly.  Perhaps if he went on the offensive, forced Tavras to the defense...

            "KNOW FEAR, WORM!" came Tavras's booming voice from the empty air around the tower.  "YOUR DESTRUCTION IS AT HAND!"

            Hyrund focused his will, concentrating on the dull-orange sun above.  A moment later and a fiery phoenix emerged from it, streaking downwards.  It would find Tavras's center and attempt to devour it; it was the most powerful attack he knew.

            The phoenix screamed as it plummeted, but before it had reached the halfway point the red sands opened up and a gigantic winged serpent surrounded by blue fire emerged, streaking upwards.  The two met in mid-air with a roar, fighting, clawing, biting.

            The phoenix screamed in agony, and Hyrund watched in dismay as the fiery serpent ripped one of its wings off, devouring it.  With a wail, it plunged earthwards, its flames dimming as it fell.  By the time it crashed lifelessly onto the plain, its fires had gone out.

            My most powerful attack, thought Hyrund, certain now that his doom was at hand.

            His defenders were all but overwhelmed now.  A few yet remained, fighting in pockets here and there, but the greater part of them had been ripped asunder by the endless waves of attackers or the merciless bolts of lightning.  Three had surrounded him and were fighting to keep back the attackers.  He saw that they would be overwhelmed within moments.

            He focused his concentration, tried to will more defenders into existence, but nothing happened, and he realized that Tavras had cut him off from his source of psionic power.

            He cried out in frustration, trying to reach his source, encountering the shield Tavras had woven.  As he watched, his three remaining defenders went down before the attackers, torn to pieces.  One of the insect things paused for a moment, looking down at him in malicious triumph, then its claws descended on him, ripping, piercing, tearing, and Hyrund screamed.  And kept screaming.

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            Barundar was rolling on the floor, grappling with one of the two dizanter.  Like all of its kind, it was a tall being, entirely encased in strange plate armor which was covered in razor sharp spikes and edges, and though Barundar had his hands locked on the creature's throat, squeezing for all he was worth, he appeared to be getting the worst of the exchange, for he was already covered with light cuts.

            The other dizanter had skewered the little crossbowman on the end of his pike, and was lifting the still-screaming human up, letting gravity and the human's weight slowly impale him.

            Reanyn raced for the bar, but the second dizanter dropped its pike at his approach, sending it and the human who was skewered on it to the floor.  It leaped at Reanyn.

            Reanyn sidestepped a lightning fast kick and blocked a knife-hand strike to his throat.  He lashed out in a series of strikes and kicks, which the dizanter deflected or dodged in an equally quick series of blocks and moves.

            The two moved like dancers, striking, blocking, kicking, ducking, spinning... until the dizanter managed to snatch a handful of Reanyn's shirt.  It dragged Reanyn into its embrace, plainly attempting to impale him on the spikes that lined its armor.

            Reanyn allowed himself to be pulled forward, using the dizanter's momentum against it.  He struck hard with his fist at the creature's abdomen, and the armor there crumpled under the blow, forming an indentation.

            Plainly surprised by Reanyn's strength, the creature let go its hold.  Reanyn caught its wrist as it backed, twisting and pivoting, and the dizanter went flying off its feet.

            Reanyn's foot lashed out in a lightning kick, and the dizanter went tumbling into the far wall, hitting hard and going down.  It was stunned momentarily, not permanently injured, but Reanyn had no time to make certain of the kill.

            He took a step to where Barundar and the second dizanter wrestled and struck out again with the knife-edge of his hand, connecting hard with the side of the dizanter's helmet.  Again a small dent appeared where the armor crumpled under the impact.

            The dizanter was more surprised than hurt, but the distraction gave Barundar the advantage he needed.  With a roar, he hurled the dizanter away, so that it crashed into a nearby still-standing table.

            "Get out," shouted Reanyn, already leaping the bar and heading for the back room.  "They're dizanter!  Even you can't handle two of them at once!"

            "But Windhook-" protested the giff.

            "Leave him to me!"

            Reanyn didn't look back to see whether the giff obeyed or not.  He sprinted through the doorway and into the next room.

            He pulled up short, staring at what he found there.  "You!"

            The man who held Jarren Windhook smiled.  "Me," he said simply, and opened his palm.  A fist-sized sphere flew from it, straight toward Reanyn.  Its surface was black, but spiderwebbed with cracks that pulsed with a red light, as if the interior of the sphere held some fiery substance.

 

                                                            *          *          *

 

            Nym sprinted out of the entrance, running full out.  With his four legs, the dracon could move much faster than a man, especially when galloping in a straight line.    

            A shot rang out nearly the moment they exited the building, and a tiny 'spang' cracked into a nearby block of stone, raising a little spray of dust.

            Nym instantly changed directions, veering off to the right and heading for a pile of large blocks near the building.  "Bloody hell," he murmured.  "There are more of them, and armed too."

            A moment later and they had reached the pile and sheltered between it and the wall of the building.  Nym set her down and crouched to make himself a low target.  "Keep down," he said, snatching the torch from her hands and hurling it away into the darkness.  "No sense in us making ourselves targets for them."  Tianna was surprised at the sudden darkness that swallowed them both.  She had forgotten she was even holding the torch, and was amazed she had managed to keep her grip on it during the battle.

            Nym had unlimbered his arquebus.  Now he rested its butt against his shoulder, standing and taking aim into the darkness.

            For a moment he stood there, still as a shadow.  Then he fired, the weapon roaring.  Instantly he crouched again, refilling the powder chamber, tamping it down, reloading a new ball.  "Got one," he said quietly.  "But there's more of them.  Eight or nine, at least."

            Tianna stared out into the darkness.  To her eyes it was absolute; she had no idea how the dracon could have seen anything out there at all.

            Behind them the building quivered and rocked with an internal explosion.  Gouts of flames roared out of suddenly-created holes in the roof and walls, illuminating the entire area brightly.  Table-sized chunks of wall went flying, some crashing down near where they sheltered.

            The force of the concussion knocked the wind out of her.  She flinched back from the sudden light and heat.  "Great Abyss!" she said, hardly realizing that she spoke aloud.  "If Barundar and Reanyn were in there when that happened..."

            The roaring flames died down almost as suddenly as they had appeared, fading to a few small fires on the roof and a dim flickering from within the shattered building.  There were a few smaller fires scattered around the building; chunks of wood and debris hurled from within during the explosion, still burning, and by the light of these smaller fires, Tianna could see out in the darkness.  There were men out there, five or six that she could see, most armed with crossbows.  The ones she could see were picking themselves up off the ground; apparently the explosion had caught them by surprise, and they too had lost their footing.

            Nym, though, had not.  He did not reply to Tianna's statement, but there was a grim look on his face.  He sighted down the barrel of his weapon and fired again, and one of the men silhouetted by the dancing flames screamed and collapsed.  Immediately the dracon crouched again, reloading.

            There was a strange groaning sound to Tianna's right, near one of the large chunks of stone that had been hurled from the building.  A humanoid figure lay prone there, motionless.

            At first she thought it was someone who had been badly burned or disfigured, but as her eyes adjusted to the dim light she saw that it was not a human at all, but some alien and terrible insect-like humanoid.

            It was tall, taller than a human or elf, maybe ten feet in length, with an iridescent exoskeleton that glittered in the uncertain light.  There were sharp-looking spikes at the shoulder and a razor sharp blade protruded from each forearm as well as the head.  The head was a mix of insect and humanoid - two large compound eyes and a pair of mandibles, but in the same place where a human's eyes and mouth would be.  And set into the center of the forehead was a glowing blue gem, which pulsed weakly with light.

            One of the dizanter?  It was about the right size and shape, and no one really knew what they looked like under their armor.  Whatever it was, it was in bad shape.  It was scorched all over from the flames, with large tears in the exoskeleton at the chest, abdomen, and right leg where muscle tissue could be seen beneath.  Its wounds oozed blood - red blood, like a human's.

            As she watched in disbelief, the wounds began to knit themselves, the exoskeleton closing over them and stitching itself together.  The thing groaned again, and Tianna grabbed up a nearby rock.  Whatever it was, it didn't look friendly, and if it could heal that quickly...  Tianna crawled towards it, keeping low.  Maybe she could bash the thing's head in while it was still helpless.

            "What are you doing?" asked Nym as she raised the rock to strike.  "Put that thing down, and leave him alone!"

            "What?" she asked, shocked.

            "Reanyn, you fool girl.  That's Reanyn!"  The dracon turned, raising his arquebus again, aiming out into the darkness.

            Tianna lowered the rock slowly, staring at the creature in disbelief.  This thing... Reanyn?

            Even as its wounds completed their knitting, the creature's form rippled, changing, metamorphosing.  Skin replaced chitin; hair appeared, the compound eyes were replaced with elven eyes... In moments, Reanyn lay before her, his clothing torn nearly to rags.

            Of the terrible wounds that the creature had born there was no sign, but his face was smudged with soot and his eyes were closed.  His breathing was shallow.

            Tianna stared at him in a mixture of revulsion and fascination.  So this was his secret; the reason he had been dismissed from the Fleet.  The reason he was listed as an impure. 

            "A living weapon," she said aloud.  But that couldn't be right; the living weapons had been bio-engineered for the first Unhuman War, hundreds of years past.  Reanyn had served in the Second Unhuman War, not the first.  He wasn't old enough to be a living weapon.  But what, then?

            "Don't touch him," said Nym.  "He'll heal faster if he's left alone.  Bad enough he's hurt, but if he wakes up with you cradling him in his arms..."

            Tianna straightened from where she was bent over Reanyn, about to protest that she had hardly been 'cradling' him, but her eyes widened with surprise.  "Look out!" she cried, pointing over the dracon's shoulder.

            Nym whirled.  A human male had vaulted over the rubble, sword held high, and was coming down on him in a killing blow.  Nym swung his arquebus like a club, catching the flying man on the side of the head with a resounding crack and sending him tumbling away to land in a heap.

            But a second man was right behind the first, striking with a dagger.  The arquebus fell from Nym's hand as the man landed atop him, sending them both sprawling to the ground.  The dracon had caught the other man's dagger hand at the wrist, and the two wrestled for the weapon.

            Tianna came to her feet to help, but two more men came sprinting over the pile of stones, one bearing a crossbow and the other a pike.

            The one with the crossbow landed right in front of her.  "Hello, sweetmeat," he said, leering.  "How about a kiss?"

            The man with the pike raced to aid his companion, raising his weapon to spear Nym from behind.

            A shot rang out from Tianna's left and the pikeman groaned and toppled backwards, blood spattering from a hole in his forehead.

            The crossbowman whirled.

            A fifth man stood at the edge of the pile of rubble.  As Tianna watched, he lowered the starwheel pistol he had fired and stepped forward.  He was a young man, probably not yet into his twenties, but there was something about his eyes...

            The crossbowman raised his weapon and fired.  His aim was true, but the young man merely leaned, making the movement seem lazy and contemptuous, and the bolt flew past him, skittering off the rocks behind.

            The crossbowman snarled, dropping the crossbow, and unsheathed a wickedly curved shortsword.  "Die!" he yelled, attacking the newcomer.

            The younger man merely waited, calmly.  When the other man had committed himself to the attack, he shifted, just slightly.  The sword stroke came down, but connected with nothing.  The younger man lashed out in an incredibly quick move, seizing the swordsman's wrist and sending him flying.  Somehow he managed to take the sword from him at the same time, and struck once with it as the swordsman stumbled past.

            The swordsman was dead before he hit the ground.

            The younger man reached Nym's side in two quick steps.  The man the dracon wrestled with was on top, pushing the point of the dagger nearer and nearer the dracon's throat.

            The young man reached down and gripped Nym's assailant by the hair, pulling his head back.  Calmly, he used the sword he had taken to cut the man's throat, and then stood.

            The man gurgled once in surprise and pain.  Then his eyes glazed with death, and Nym hurled him away, clambering to his feet, panting.

            The young man tossed down the sword, crouching and taking the starwheel pistol from his belt again.  Quickly and efficiently he began reloading it.

            "Who are you?" Tianna asked, staring at him.

            "The name's Jack," he said.  "Twilight Jack."