Bladesinger, bladesinger, sing me a song,

                        With your weapons so deadly and your magics so strong

                        You chase through the Void on the Winds of Hell,

                        And death is the only story you tell.



                                                            Chapter Twenty-Four



            Barundar rolled to his feet, snatching up his axe from where it had fallen a few feet away.  He was bleeding from a dozen cuts - some serious - but he didn't feel them.  The battle rage had descended on him.

            "Go!" Reanyn said

            An iron grip fastened on his ankle.  The nearest of the two dizanter, still stretched out prone on the floor, had seized him.  Barundar swung down with all his might, going down to one knee with the momentum, the blade of his axe striking the armored gauntlet immediately below the wrist.

            The blade sparked as it connected, and rebounded from the armor with a ring.  The dizanter's armor buckled under the tremendous blow, and there was a sound not unlike the crunching of bone.  The creature gave a hissing scream, its fingers spasming and releasing their hold on the giff.  It pulled its hand back, cradling it.

            The second dizanter had already come to its feet.  It leaped for the giff, impossibly swift, its ornate pike coming down in a killing blow.

            Barundar scarcely had time to lift his axe to block, still down on one knee.  The two blades met with a fearsome clash, and for a moment the giff feared the terrible blow would snap the haft of his weapon.

            But it held firm, and the dizanter whirled the pike away, striking out with a sideways blow aimed for his midsection.

            Barundar came to his feet smoothly, blocking it, then blocking again as the dizanter lunged with a blow aimed at piercing his heart.

            Again he blocked.  Again.  The damn thing was fast - much faster than it looked.  He backed off a half step under the onslaught.  In his peripheral vision he saw that the other dizanter had come to its feet, still cradling its injured wrist.  He felt something bump his thigh - the wreckage of one of the tables, half demolished but still standing on two of its legs.

            The dizanter stepped back, whirling its pike above its head and swinging the blade to attack from the opposite direction.  Barundar seized the smashed table behind him and with a grunt, hurled it at the creature.

            The dizanter was momentarily surprised by the unexpected maneuver.  It sidestepped, but not quickly enough to avoid a glancing blow on the shoulder by the flying table.  It staggered back a moment.

            Barundar didn't hesitate; he used the distraction.  With a growl he turned and flung himself at the nearby window.

            Most of the glass was already gone.  The few shards that remained shattered under the impact of his body, some scoring deep cuts on his arms and torso.

            He smashed through, landing in a roll on a heap of crumbling stonework that lay piled up on the ground outside.

            He grunted as he landed hard on the uneven rock; there was a splintering crack and a rush of pain in his side as one of his ribs was broken, and the air was forced from his lungs.  But he hauled himself to his feet.  The battle rage had taken him; he would feel his hurts later.  Somehow he had lost his grasp on the axe - it had skittered to a rest on the rocks a few feet away.

            There was a man not five paces away, a shorthaired human armed with a shortsword and wearing a black tabard.  The man had been running by when Barundar had come crashing out of the window, and he had just brought himself to a surprised halt as the giff came to his feet.  The man looked uncertain but he raised his sword, stepping forward for a quick blow while the giff was off balance.

            Barundar tensed, coiling his muscles for a dodge or jump.  If the man was any kind of swordsman at all, the giff probably wouldn't be able to move quickly enough to avoid the blow, but maybe he could avoid a serious injury if he was fast…-


            The world rocked, as a deafening explosion thundered, shattering the night.

            A gigantic fist of hot air smashed into his back, lifting the giff off his feet and hurling him through the air.


                                                            *          *          *


            His hands were fast, their movements assured.  In a half crouch, his back to the main rock they sheltered behind, the newcomer worked.  Calmly he laid out several balls and smokepowder charges, and in seconds he had reloaded the pistol.

            Tianna stared at him in disbelief.  This... boy was Twilight Jack?"

            "Now then," he said, finishing.  "Where is Windhook?"

            There was a second, smaller explosion from within the building, an aftershock of the first, and a tremble went through the ground.  Both she and Nym were startled by the blast, but the young man never lifted his clear blue gaze from them.  He lifted his pistol and pointed it at her.  "Windhook," he repeated.

            "I... in the building, maybe," she said, shaking her head.  "I don't know.  We never saw him.  These others came crashing in-"

            But he wasn't listening to her anymore.  He turned to the side, raising a finger to his lips, motioning her to silence.

            Beyond him, in the dim light of the small fires still burning, the rocky courtyard looked empty.  There was no movement, no sound.

            She looked at Nym for some explanation, but the dracon had retrieved his arquebus and was busy reloading it.  He wasn't as fast as Jack but he was well-familiar with his weapon.

            "What's going on?" she asked.

            At that moment Jack rose, whirling and aiming at once.  There was a crack as he fired, and almost as quickly as he had stood he was back in his crouch again.

            From out in the darkness there was a startled yell, and the scrabbling sounds of men dodging back for cover.

            Jack was already reloading.

            "They're trying to get around us," said Nym, raising his arquebus and sighting down it, scanning the darkness.  "We're in a good spot."

            "Forward, dogs!" yelled a voice from closer to the building.  "It's only one lone dracon and a girl!  He's reloading!  Move!"

            From off to the left, someone gave a battlecry and Tianna could hear the sounds of running footsteps.

            Nym fired, and a man out in the darkness screamed.

            A heartbeat later, Jack stood and fired out into the dark again, returning to his crouch and reloading.

            "Down!  Down!" shouted someone else.  "He's got more than one gun!"

            "Fool!" came that first voice - the one from nearer the building (maybe even from within it, Tianna thought)  "It's just one dracon!  Take him before he reloads!"

            "Yes," shouted Jack suddenly, "come and die.  I've a liking for killing fools."  His hands had not paused in their work.  Deftly he loaded another shot into the starwheel.  "Watch the building," he said to Nym in a lower voice.  "Once they realize they can't cross the open space to get to us, they'll try to flank us by coming through the hole in the wall or over the roof."

            The dracon jerked a nod.  He was still reloading.  "Got seven charges left," he said.  "You?"

            "Five," said Jack.  "Enough, if we make them count."  He looked at Tianna and jerked a nod toward the crossbow.  "Know how to use that?"

            She gave a startled nod.

            "Hold!  Hold!" cried the voice from near the building.  "That's no dracon!"  A rich, melodious laugh followed - the sound of it seemed odd and out of place in the middle of a battle.  "Twilight Jack, or I am very much mistaken," the voice called.  "I thought you were dead, old man!"

            "Hoped, you mean," Jack shot back.  "Sorry to disappoint you."  He had finished reloading and now crouched with his back to the rock, weapon held ready.

            Tianna had crawled over and retrieved the crossbow.  It looked in good order but was not loaded.  She spied a quarrel of crossbow bolts on the body of the crossbowman and started towards him.

            Jack put out an arm to bar the way.  "Hold girl," he said shortly.  "That's Cyril Blackthorne out there.  Step from cover and he'll send you to join your ancestors."

            "We're not here for you, Jack!" called the other man.  "We just want the girl and the Wayfarer!  Walk away, old man, and you get to keep breathing!"

            Jack said nothing.  In a lightning quick move his hand darted from cover, seizing the ankle of the dead crossbowman.  He hauled him within reach and nodded to the quarrel of crossbow bolts.  "Now load.”

            "What do you say, Jack?" the man called again.  "Leave and live.  Stay and die.  There's paper on them, but there's none on you."

            "I thank you for your courtesy," said Jack.  "Your concern for my welfare is touching.   In like spirit, I'll extend the same courtesy to you.  Stay and die; leave and live - with the provision that you turn Windhook over to me."

            That strangely pleasant laugh sounded again.  "Such bravado!" Blackthorne called.  "I don't think you understand your situation, old man.   I've got fifteen men out here with me, all well-trained lads.  And I've got two dizanter, and the most powerful psionicist in known space.  You might want to rethink your position."

            "I've got one dracon who's a crack shot, three starwheels in perfect working order," - Jack glanced over at where Reanyn lay - "one very dangerous bionoid, and one elven girl to reload and a good supply of ammunition.  Add to that a thirty-yard killzone that any of your men foolish enough have to cross and fairly good cover for us.  You might want to rethink yours."

            "Is that the Wayfarer you're talking about, old man?  The bionoid, I mean?  Because the last time I saw him he didn't look so good.  I haven't heard much from him during our conversation, old man.  I wonder if that's because he's dead."

            "Maybe he is," Jack called back.  "Why don't you come over and find out?"

            "They're moving," said Nym in a low voice.  "He's trying to mask them by talking."

            Jack gave a nod.  He listened for a moment, then held up three fingers meaningfully and pointed to the left.

            "Don't be stupid, Jack," the man called back.  "I've got you hemmed and pinned on three sides.  Time is on my side, not yours.  I have the luxury of calling for reinforcements."  There was a pause.  "You still there, old man?"

            "Just a second," said Jack.  He gave Nym a quick nod, and suddenly the two of them were on their feet, firing out into the darkness in the direction Jack had pointed.

            There was a scream of pain from that direction as well as a ringing 'SPANG', as if one of the shots had ricocheted off of some metallic object.

            Jack and the dracon dropped back into crouches again the instant they had fired.  From out in the darkness there were two loud reports of firearms and the whine of a crossbow almost before they had dropped behind cover.

            Two fist-sized holes were punched into the wall behind Nym by the gunfire, a quarter-inch apart.  They had appeared, Tianna thought, at the spot where the dracon's head had been a mere heartbeat before.  Nym took no notice, busy with reloading.

            "You missed," said Jack quietly.  He shoved the crossbow at Tianna.  "Reload, girl."

            Nym gave a half shrug.  "He's shielding them with the dizanter.  Their armor's too tough to penetrate at this range."

            Tianna fumbled with the crossbow, turning it point down and cranking jerkily at the windlass.  It moved slowly, falteringly.

            "You were saying, Blackthorne?" called Jack.

            For a moment there was only silence.  After a long minute the voice came again.  "Last chance, old man.  You're no bounty hunter, Jack; this has nothing to do with you.  You can still walk away from this."

            Tianna thought it strange to hear Twilight Jack referred to as 'old man'.  To her eyes he looked like a human boy on the verge of manhood.  She knew the legend, of course - everyone had heard the Storyteller's verse on him - but seeing him in the flesh it was difficult to believe he was virtually an eternal.  Still, there was something dangerous about his eyes...

            "I intend to," Jack called back.  "After you're dead."  He nodded to Nym.  "Be ready," he said, lowering his voice.  "He wouldn't be delivering ultimatums if his men weren't in position."

            That rich laugh sounded again.  "Have it your way, old man."

            There was a scrabbling sound from out in the darkness.

            "They're coming." said Nym grimly. 

            Jack nodded.  "Alternate your shots with mine," he said.  "They'll drop for cover and then run for us while we reload.  The longer it takes them to get to us the better.  And keep an eye on that building."  He looked at Tianna.  "Keep that crossbow handy, girl.  And lay out the bolts."

            "I know what to do," said Tianna.  "Don't call me 'girl'."

            Jack paid her retort no mind.  He gave a nod to Nym, stood and whirled in one motion, and fired into the darkness.

            Just as quickly he was down again and reloading.  There were four sharp reports and the top of the pile of rocks they were huddling behind exploded into tiny clouds of dust as missed shots clipped it.  A crossbow bolt skittered into the wall behind Nym and shattered, tumbling to the ground.

            Nym started to rise, but Jack held up of a forestalling finger.  "Give it a moment.  We don't want to be predictable, and be careful to move between each shot.  Blackthorne will have a weapon trained on the spot you rose at last, never doubt it... now!"

            The dracon rose, took aim, fired.  Immediately he was down again.

            "Seven," he said, quickly reloading, "the closest still twenty yards off.  He was rising as I took him."

            But Jack had finished loading his weapon.  He held it for a moment, then glanced at Tianna.

            He moved so quickly that for a moment Tianna wondered where the crossbow had gone.  Her hands held only air.

            Jack rose and fired the starwheel with his left hand, the crossbow with his right.

            He was down an instant later, shoving the crossbow back at her.  "Reload," he said simply.

            He can't have had time to aim, she thought in wonder.  Not that fast.  No one is that fast.

            "Nine," he said, "not counting the two I took.  I only see one dizanter."  His hands worked quickly, reloading.

            Nym stood to fire again, bringing the stock of his arquebus to his shoulder in one fluid motion.  There was a small burst of flame at the end of the weapon as the dracon fired.  He gave a small cry of pain and surprise at the same moment, and lurched backwards, nearly dropping his weapon as he stumbled.

            Tianna's first thought was that it was the weapon's recoil that had knocked him off balance, but the dracon had clutched the far side of his draconian face with a clawed hand.  It came away bloody.

            "Blood and hells!" snorted the dracon.  "Neogi-spawned bastard clipped me!"  There was a line scored into the side of his face, Tianna saw.  It ran along his cheekbone from the edge of his toothy mouth to where the shot must have richocheted off his the bony fan-shaped spur which protected his sinous neck.  A little to the left and an inch higher, and the shot would have taken him in the eye, killing him.

            There was a hissing scream from overhead followed by a sound like a distant explosion, and suddenly the sky overhead was turned brighter than day, flooding the entire area with a brilliant white light.  Slack-jawed, Tianna glanced upwards, then immediately winced at the brightness.

            "Reload, girl," said Jack curtly.  His eyes flickered to something beyond her shoulder, and his starwheel whipped up, pointing straight at her.

            And fired.


                                                *          *          *


            "No use," said Tavras angrily.  "That hell-spawned starjewel... the girl is too close to it.  Every time I try to make contact I get nothing but noise."

            "And the others?" asked Blackthorne.

            The psionicist shook his head.  "Contact is strictly line-of-sight.  It would be more difficult with them anyway - I don't have a previously established connection."

            The two took shelter behind the wall of the building.  Blackthorne was closest to the corner, and kept a wary eye on the pile of rocks where his prey was sheltered.

            "I think you are drained, mindbender," he said.  "Your mind-battle with that human left you weakened."

            Tavras gave him an angry look.  "Never think I am weak, Blackthorne.  That would be a mistake, and you are a man who doesn't make mistakes.  You might have warned me you were going to destroy the building.  The explosion nearly caught me off-guard, and I was still linked to the man when death took him.  Do you know the risk of touching a dying mind?"

            "You're paid well for your risks, mindbender...  Thayliss!  Report."

            A lean tall form had come loping up.  It was one of the dizanter.

            It came to a halt.  When it spoke it's voice was disconcertingly low hiss.  "We have them encircled," it said.  "Etrayslith leads the men who approach across the clear space, as you instructed.  A second group stands ready to come through the building.  All are in position, and await your signal."

            "And the giff?"

            It shook its head.  "We lost him in the explosion, lord.  It is likely he is destroyed already."

            "Never take anything for granted, Thayliss," said Blackthorne.  "It is a hard lesson to learn, and one that will kill you if you disregard it."

            There was a bundle at his feet; a large woolen sack with something in it that squirmed.  Blackthorne nudged it with the toe of his boot.  "The much sought-after Jarren Windhook.  You will take him away from here, back to the city proper."

            The dizanter made an angry sound.  "I am to shun the battle and perform wet nurse work?  I hunger for blood!"

            "You are injured, Thayliss."  Blackthorne nodded at the dizanter's left wrist, which was turned at an odd angle.  "I don't waste my assets.  The Duchess' men will suffice, I think."

            "They are useless dogs!" hissed the dizanter.  "If the Wayfarer lives, he will scythe them like wheat."

            "That," said Blackthorne, "is precisely why I hired them.  We-"

            "You were saying, Blackthorn?" called Jack from out in the darkness, interrupting the quiet conversation.

            Blackthorn gave the dizanter a hard look.  "You will obey my will, Thayliss.  You are bound by your oath.  Take Windhook to the city and await my arrival."

            The dizanter made an angry sound in the back of its throat, then stooped, taking a grip on the sack.  It hoisted the bag up in one arm, then turned and sped off into the darkness.

            "You're certain you want to send it away just now," said Tavras after the dizanter was gone.  "If that's Twilight Jack out there; it does change the odds."

            "It's perfect," said Blackthorne with a smile.  "I knew he was on Syrrus B; that's why I sent Diamond Jill after him.  But I never expected him to walk into the same ambush I set for the Wayfarer.  Two birds; one stone.  And there's more paper on Jack than the Wayfarer and the girl combined."  He raised his voice, calling back.  "Last chance, old man.  You're no bounty hunter, Jack; this has nothing to do with you.  You can still walk away from this."

            There was a pause.  "You don't really mean to let him go," said Tavras in a low voice.

            "Of course not," he answered.

            "I intend to," Jack called back.  "After you're dead."

            Cyril Blackthorne laughed.  "Have it your way, old man," he called back.  He smiled.  "The men are nearly in position, I think."

            "Why not blast them with your sorceries and have done with it?" asked Tavras.

            "I may yet; they must not be permitted to leave this place alive.  But I will try the hirelings first.  There is paper on three of them, at least, and I need trophies to prove that they have been taken.  My magics would leave little remaining traces of them."


                                                *          *          *


            Slowly Barundar swam back to consciousness.  His back felt scorched; a stinging mass of blisters and bruises.  Somewhere to the left of him he heard the crunching of gravelly stones underfoot grow and quickly fade as someone went running by.

            He ached everywhere - his side especially - but he forced himself up onto hands and knees.  His muscles protested the move in a dozen different places.

            His vision was blurred, but gradually came into focus.  There were a few scattered small fires from the... what had it been?  An explosion?  The flickering, dim light seemed only to heighten the surrounding darkness, making it even more absolute.

            The building was farther behind him now and slightly to the left.  The explosion had flung him some fifteen yards, to land helter-skelter among the rubble.  The building itself was still intact, for the most part, though good sections of the roof were missing, along with scattered holes in the walls.  It glowed with the dim flickers of tiny fires from within, but the force of the explosion had obviously blown out the larger fires.

            There came the distant report of a firearm firing followed by a man's scream.  The far side of the building, the giff thought.  A moment later came a second, louder shot, from the same direction as the first, and Barundar tensed.

            He knew that sound.  Nym's arquebus.

            On his knees, he began searching for his axe, feeling with his hands in an attempt to locate it.  The darkness was such that he couldn't make out individual shapes on the ground, the rocks fading into one indistinct mass, but he scanned the surrounding area anyway, hoping the dull metal of the axehead would gleam in the flickering light.  The last time he had seen the weapon had been after plunging through the window, when it had slipped his grasp and tumbled to the ground a few yards-

            His left hand encountered something soft and fleshlike, covered with a warm, sticky wetness.  When he raised his hand to the light, he saw that it was covered in blood.

            He lowered his hand again, feeling around.  The swordsman, he realized, it must have been the swordsman he'd faced off with just before the explosion.  His questing fingers traced the unfortunate fellow's face - his touch told him that most of the skin had been burned away and the eye sockets were empty - and down to the man's chest, pushing away a few of the rocks that covered him.

            The man had obviously been killed in the blast.  Barundar reflected with a shiver that he had been standing closer to the explosion than the human had.

            "Good thing giff aren't as delicate as humans," he muttered aloud.  He'd located the man's right shoulder and was following the line of the arm.  The man had had a sword.  Not as good as an axe, but it would do...

            Barundar suddenly swore under his breath.  The man's arm ended in a ragged tear of flesh and exposed slivers of bone below the elbow.  Of the sword there was no sign.  The damage the human had taken was surprising, and the giff made a mental note to count all his fingers and toes when he had a chance to see himself in the light, and make sure nothing was missing.

            There was another report from the far side of the building, and Barundar grunted.  He pulled himself to his feet (with a suppressed groan) and turned toward the building.  Weapon or no, Nym needed help.  If he had to, the giff would use his bare hands.

            He had gone no more than six paces when something shifted beneath his foot and he nearly stumbled.

            He went to one knee, feeling underfoot, and his palm contacted the cold, familiar shape of his axe.

            Quickly he snatched it up, running towards the building.  The haft felt good in his hands.

            Keeping close to the wall, he turned to the right, skirting it at a quick walk.  Strangely, despite the explosion and the fires that still burned within, the wall was only slightly warm to the touch.

            He rounded the corner and froze.

            Ten yards ahead, at the next corner of the building, stood a man.  He was facing away, a crossbow held braced on his shoulder, aimed out into the darkness.  Except for his head and weapon, the man kept his body ducked back behind the corner, no doubt for cover.

            Barundar waited a long moment, but the man didn't fire.  He held his pose, his crossbow trained on something out of sight around the corner.

            Probably waiting for a signal, thought Barundar.

            Stealthily he crept forward, his axe held ready.  Giff weren't known for silent movement, but Barundar did a fair job.  Fortunately there were still a few scattered reports of weapons being fired, and the occasional cry of pain from out in the darkness, and the sounds helped mask his movements.  Still, if the man turned and saw him, there was plenty of time for him to shift his aim with that crossbow...

            At the midpoint there was a jagged hole torn in the wall which emitted a dim glow from the fires flickering inside.  Barundar paused at the edge, glancing in quickly and then returning his gaze to the crossbowman.

            It was an empty room, smaller than the main chamber, with chunks of burning debris on the scorched floor.  Must be the back room, thought Barundar distractedly.  The far wall had been wooden, and little remained of it but the support beams for the roof, for the explosion had torn great sections of it away.  Beyond, through a smoky haze, parts of the main room were visible.

            Barundar darted across the opening, then halted, looking back in.  Had there been a flicker of motion through the smoke in the main chamber?  Someone entering the front of the building?  Perhaps...

            But the haze of smoke was deceptive and he saw nothing more.  He returned his attention to the crossbowman.

            The man was still frozen in place, muscles tensed, ready.  The giff edged closer.  The tiniest sound could betray him now, and he walked softly.

            Barundar reached striking distance and the man still hadn't moved.  A quick blow to the base of the man's neck dropped him like a stone, the crossbow tumbling from nerveless fingers.  Fortunately the weapon didn't discharge.

            Barundar dragged the man's limp body back a few paces, dumping it, then retrieved the crossbow and started towards the corner.  He slipped the haft of his axe in his belt and cradled the missile weapon in one arm.  He had never been expert with ranged weapons, but if he was going to be caught in a crossfire, it might be handy to have one.

            He peered around the corner, in the direction the crossman had been focused.

            Some twenty yards down he saw the dim outlines of a number of people crouched behind a pile of rocks.

            A shot was fired from out in the darkness beyond the huddled group, and Barundar flinched as it ricocheted off the wall a few feet from where he stood.

            Immediately one of those behind the rocks stood and returned fire.

            It was Nym.  The dracon was facing away from him, but Barundar would have recognized his large yet slender frame anywhere.

            Barundar considered.  A quick rush would bring him to Nym and whoever else was taking shelter behind the rocks, but if he came on them unawares, one of them might fire on him before realizing who he was.  On the other hand, if he called to alert them to his presence, he would also be giving away his position to whoever was firing on them.

            From far out in the darkness there was a hissing sound, and a globe of bluish-white light streaked upwards.  It rocketed up for half a second, then with a

CRACK! burst into a blindingly white explosion that flooded the entire area with dazzling light.

            Barundar winced at the sudden brilliance and turned his eyes away, blinking furiously.   Spots danced in his vision.

            At the same instant four humans seemingly stepped out of the wall at a point farther down from where he stood, not far behind Nym and those who were taking shelter with him.


                                                            *          *          *


            Twilight Jack's shot took the first man in the throat.  At such close range it did terrible damage, ripping through the entire left side of the man's neck and nearly decapitating him.  The force of the impact flung the man backwards like a ragdoll.

            Tianna gave a small cry, whirling.

            There were three more of them, none more than five paces away.  It was obvious they had come through the hole in the building.

            The second man vaulted over his fallen comrade, slashing at Jack with a wickedly curved scimitar with a serrated edge.  With a grunt Tianna fell on her side as he slammed by her.

            The third man leaped for Nym.  The dracon had just finished reloading and was turning when the man came down on him, viciously swinging a long-handled axe with an large blade.

            The dracon took a step back and to one side, narrowly escaping, but the man was fast, and swung again, this time in a side-chopping attack.

            Hampered by the very rocks he had taken shelter behind, Nym could do little more than back off a faltering half-step and block with his arquebus.  There was a 'crack!' as the two weapons met, and instantly the axe-wielder pulled back and swung again, this time aiming an overhead blow at Nym's head.

            Nym managed to block again, but the force of the blow nearly drove him to his knees, and the crescent blade of the axe had halted, quivering, only a few inches from his face.  Realizing the dracon was off-balance the man pulled back and swung again and again in a quick flurry of blows designed to keep Nym from regaining his feet.

            Tianna fumbled for the crossbow.  It had tumbled to the dirt a few feet from her, and though it was cocked and ready she had not yet fitted a bolt to the bowstring.

            At the same time Jack was facing off with the other two men.  The one with the scimitar had attacked with three quick slashes to the head, groin, and torso.  Jack held himself calmly in reserve until the man had committed himself, then shifted back from the first blow, side-stepped the second, and stepped into the third swing, seizing the man's wrist and yanking him off-balance.  He had reversed his grip on the starwheel, and aimed a blow at the base of the man's neck.

            The man was well-trained though, and rolled with the pull, twisting free of Jack's grip.  He ducked his head into the roll, escaping the main force of Jack's blow and earning only a light graze instead.  Nearly instantly he was back on his feet, the scimitar ready to strike again.  He advanced a little more cautiously.

            The third man had a pole-axe, and swept a blow at Tianna as he passed.  She had been reaching for the crossbow, but gave a small shriek and scrambled back.  The man was obviously less-than-expert with his weapon; he had missed her by more than a foot.  Still he swept his weapon overhead, leaping forward in a strike that surely would disembowel her.

            Jack sent the man with the scimitar into a low roll, swiping at the back of the man's head and landing a glancing blow.  He turned his backswing into a throw, sending his starwheel flying.

            The man with the pole-axe gave a grunt as the hurled firearm slammed straight into his face with a crunching sound.  He stumbled backwards, nearly dropping his weapon, blood streaming from his nose and torn lips, then whirled on Jack, forgetting the elf girl.

            The one with the axe was chopping furiously at Nym - again, again, and again.  Desperately the dracon blocked, each time narrowly escaping the blows.  Suddenly an unexpected blow knocked the arquebus from his hands.  With a triumphant cry, the man lifted his axe high and brought it down in a killing blow.

            Desperately Nym caught the haft in his hands as it descended, grunting under the force of the blow.  The axe trembled as Nym fought to keep the blade from descending any further. Forced nearly to his knees, it seemed inevitable that he would succumb to the furious attack... until suddenly his right foreleg lashed out, the clawed foot striking into the man's abdomen.

            The man screamed as the claws dug into his flesh, scoring deep wounds and catching on bone.  His grasp on the axe faltered, and Nym snatched it away, at the same moment pushing down on his leg, putting more and more of his weight on it, and the man cried out as he was forced to the ground.  The dracon reared, dragging his claws free of the man's flesh, then plunged down onto the man with both forelegs, crushing, and rending at once.

            Tianna scrambled to where the crossbow lay, snatching it up.  She grabbed at one of the quarrels in the dead man's quarrel - fumbling it, grabbing it up again, and fitting it to the bowstring.

            Three men came vaulting over the makeshift rampart from the opposite direction - the first wave of those who had been advancing across the 'kill' zone.  Two of them bore swords and kept coming.  The third held a crossbow, and came to a rest at the top of the rocks, bracing himself with one foot atop a flat rock, the knee bent.  He sighted down the crossbow and fired, all in one motion.

            Nym had just begun to turn to confront the newcomers.  That motion was the only thing that saved his life.  There was a meaty sound as the bolt slammed into him from behind.  He staggered off-balance as the crossbow bolt tore through his right shoulder, the force at such close range propelling it straight through his body.  His right arm spasmed and hung useless.

            "No!" cried Tianna helplessly, raising the crossbow and firing.  The bolt went wide, missing the man by several feet and whipping off into the darkness beyond.

            The man cast his crossbow aside and drew a dagger.  "Time to die, slut!" he shouted, leaping on her.

            Nym's cry of agony turned to one of fury as he caught his balance and whirled.  One of the swordsman slashed at him, but with his left hand he caught the man's wrist in an iron grasp and pulled him closer.  He growled, his fearsome mouth opening wide to engulf the man's head, then snapping shut in a crushing grip.

            The man's limbs quivered once as the dracon shook him furiously, snapping his head from side to side, his teeth digging into the man's neck with tremendous force.  An instant later, the man's head was torn from his body, which collapsed in a bloody heap.  Nym spat out the remnants of the man's head, roaring with rage.

            Tianna tried to roll aside as the man came down on her, but he caught her hair, hauling her back off her feet.

            Tears sprang to her eyes as he threw her down onto the ground, a fistful of her hair clutched in his free hand.  He reared back with his dagger, but she managed to catch his wrist with her right hand.  She clawed at his face with her free hand, but he merely yanked her head up and slammed it back down onto the hard-packed earth, stunning her.

            Stars danced at the edge of her vision.  Still she managed to keep her hold on his wrist, and though she could not remember how she'd done it, she now had both hands on his wrist, forcing the point of the dagger away.

            He leered above her, a fierce grin on his face.  "Think you can stop me, whore?" he sneered, and brought his full force to bear.

            She groaned in despair as the dagger began lowering towards her breastbone despite her best efforts.  Even with one hand he was much stronger than she.

            He yanked her head up and slammed it into the ground again, and the dagger jerked another few inches towards her flesh.

            "How's it feel to die, slut?" he asked, still grinning fiercely.

            She realized she was going to die.

            It happened so quickly that for a moment Tianna wasn't certain what had happened.

            There was a furious roar and the weight of the man was suddenly hurled upwards and off of her by some tremendous force.  The dagger went spinning from nerveless fingers and the torso was lifted nearly to a kneeling position before it came crashing back down again, half-on and half-off her, so that only her legs were trapped beneath it.  Of the man's head there was no sign.

            She managed to pull herself free of the limp body and scrambled to a sitting position.

            More men had come over the low rocky wall in the meantime, at least five of them, though maybe more.  The battle was pitched, and in the uncertain light of the flickering fires it was difficult to tell.  There were two bodies sprawled at the top of the rocky embankment, both human, one with a crossbow bolt jutting from its left eye (who had fired it she couldn't guess).

            Barundar had appeared from nowhere, hewing right and left with his great axe.  There was little doubt that it had been the giff that had saved her.

            A group of three men surrounded Jack, stabbing and slashing at him.  The body of the man with the pole-axe was on the ground not far away, eyes staring sightlessly up at the eternally black sky.  Jack had his weapon now, whirling, ducking and slashing to keep the three attackers at bay.  As Tianna watched, one of the three gasped and fell backwards, his hands clutching at the bloody and gaping wound Jack had opened in his throat.  The other two ignored their companion and leaped to the attack, hoping to catch Jack off balance.  For a moment Tianna thought the young assassin would be caught off-guard, but a quick side-step and parry saved him.  Calmly he counter-attacked, driving the two men back again.

            Barundar had charged at the two men attacking Nym.  The dracon had one of them by the throat, shaking him like a ragdoll.  He cast him aside as Barundar appeared.  The second man shifted to the left to avoid being caught between the two nonhumans, then swung a blow aimed at Nym's knee with the warhammer he held.

            Tianna didn't see what happened next, for another pair of men came over the top of the rock pile and a third appeared around the right side of it, running to help those attacking Jack.

            Barundar caught one of them in midair in a ferocious swing that nearly severed the man in two and sent his body flying aside.    The other screamed a shrill battle cry and slashed at the giff's face.

            The third man tackled Jack from behind, grabbing him with both hands and trying to hamper Jack's effectiveness with the pole-axe and drag him to the ground.  The two swordsman darted forward, hoping for an opening.  Jack whipped his head back, smashing the man's mouth and loosening his hold, then did a quick side-step, evading the first swordsman's slash and parrying the second one's strike even though his motions were restricted.      

            Tianna had scrambled back a few paces from the dagger-wielder's corpse and the fury of the battle.  Her palm came down on something cold and metal.

            Nym's arquebus! she realized with a start, though how the dracon's weapon had been flung so far from where the dracon fought was a mystery.  She lifted it, and was surprised by how heavy it was; the dracon wielded it so effortlessly she had assumed it was a much lighter weapon.

            Clumsily she turned it, looking for the trigger.  She knew virtually nothing about smokepowder weapons, but she had seen Nym fire it enough times to know the basic mechanics of the thing.

            There was a hiss and the lean, inhuman form of the dizanter came bounding over the rock pile, vaulting over the combatants in an impossibly high somersault landing in a half crouch right before her.

            It cocked its head, scanning from her to the prone figure behind her.  "Wayfarer," it said in a hissing, sibilant voice.

            She closed her eyes and pulled back on the trigger.

            Nothing happened.

            "Void!" she swore, looking at the weapon.  Maybe it hadn't been loaded after all...  Then she saw that the hammer wasn't cocked.

            There was a moment of blackness, and the world blurred.  When it came back into focus, she found herself sprawled akimbo a few feet from where she had been sitting.  She wasn't sure what the dizanter had hit her with, but her head throbbed painfully and a wave of dizziness almost took her back into unconsciousness.  Incredibly, she still had her grip on Nym's arquebus.  Somehow she focused on it, fumbled back the hammer.

            The dizanter itself had bounded over to where Reanyn lay.  With a triumphant hiss it whirled its alien pike so that the point hovered just above the Wayfarer's breastbone.  It raised the haft a few inches, preparing to drive the weapon home in a killing blow.

            She raised the arquebus in unsteady hands and fired.

            The weapon jumped in her hands like a thing alive.  The recoil slammed the stock hard into her ribs, knocking the wind out of her and tumbling her backwards.  The noise of the blast deafened her momentarily, and she found herself laying on her back, gasping for breath and staring upwards at the darkness.

            Her hands were empty; she must have dropped the thing.  She tried to force herself back to a sitting position, but her side was on fire and her muscles wouldn't obey her.  She managed to raise her head a few inches before dizziness forced her back down; it was the best she could manage.

            The cries and yells of the fighting and the clash of steel on steel sounded like a distant, far-away dream in her ears.  She felt consciousness slipping away from her...

            ...And fought to bring it back.

            Her breathing steadied and the blurriness of her vision eventually came into focus.  The youthful face of Twilight Jack suddenly appeared above her.  "You alive, girl?" he asked, eyeing her critically.  Some distant part of her mind noted that it was quiet; the sounds of battle had vanished.

            "Reanyn," she asked, "Reanyn was being attacked by that... thing.  Is he... ?"

            "Dead," he said.  "Not Reanyn.  The dizanter.  At that range your shot took off most of its head, armor or not."

            "But Reanyn?" she persisted.

            "Alive," grunted Jack, helping her to a sitting position.  "But he won't be for long if we don't get moving."

            She felt lightheaded and faint for a moment, but she forced herself to remain upright until it passed.  A few paces away Barundar huddled over a groaning Nym, quickly tying off a rough armsling with a makeshift bandage torn from the dracon's shirt.  Blood soaked through the bindings on his shoulder, and his arm hung at an unnatural angle.

            He caught Tianna's gaze and gave her a weak smile.  "That's going to make it difficult to aim, I suppose...  Unh!"  He gave an involuntary grunt of pain as the giff tied the makeshift bandage off.

            Between them, all around them, were the bodies of slain men.  In the darkness it was difficult to make anything out more than still forms, but she knew what they were.

            "What happened?" she asked, surveying the carnage.

            "We won," grunted Barundar without turning.  "For the moment, anyway."

            Jack hauled her to her feet.  "No time for explanations, girl.  Blackthorne will blast this place to the Nine Hells any moment.  If you can walk, fine.  If not, too bad for you.  I need the Wayfarer alive.  I don't need you.  We’re leaving."  He strode to where Reanyn lay.

            "Where are we going?" she asked, swaying but managing to keep her feet.

            "The fires have burned down enough for an escape," Jack said, hoisting Reanyn's limp form up into a carry over his shoulder.  "Blackthorne has us ringed.  We go the way I came.  Come on."

            Barundar was on his feet, pulling up Nym.  The dracon stood unsteadily, but he stood.

            Tianna took a step and almost tottered as a wave of dizziness came over her.  Barundar put a hand on her shoulder, steadying her.  "You've taken a blow to the head," he said.  "I'll help you."

            Together the three hurried after Jack.

            About twenty paces back from the rock pile, in a direction away from the building, there was a low ridge which ran in a straight line in either direction.  Beyond it lay a ten-foot drop into a small trench.

            When Jack reached it, he summarily dumped Reanyn over the ridge and into the trench.

            "Careful!" said Tianna angrily.  "He's hurt."

            "He's a living weapon, girl," said Jack without looking back.  "Hurry!"  He overstepped the ridge and landed lightly in the trench.

            Barundar nodded to her and quickly she followed Jack down.  She landed hard and stumbled, though the drop was not far, for the darkness of the trench made it impossible to see the bottom.

            The giff was right behind her, and helped the dracon to follow.  It would have been a difficult task for Nym in any case, for his body was not suited to climbing, but injured it was twice as difficult.

            There was a scream from the sky and Tianna looked up.  A pair of bluish white globes were streaming upwards, much like the one that had lit up the sky earlier.  Except that these didn't explode when they reached the apex of their climb, but rather arced back down, headed for the ground, leaving hazy white tails behind them as they plummeted.  It seemed to Tianna that they were headed, generally, in the direction of the rock pile they had sheltered behind during the battle.

            "Hurry!" said Jack, "we don't want to be here when those hit!"

            He had hoisted Reanyn and was running full fledged towards the end of the trench, where a circular black hole continued on, forming a large tunnel in the rocky ground.

            Tianna raced to follow.

            She had just reached the entrance to the tunnel when there was a ground-shaking roar and a burst of white light so bright it was nearly blinding, even though she was facing into the darkness of the tunnel.  A tremendous shockwave sent her flying through the air.