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Part 6






Hexiya made her way slowly home. Though she took pleasure from the cold night air, she also looked forward to having a long, hot soak in her outsize bath.

Half a mile below the university, she turned onto the Avenue of the Dead. It was a wide way through an ancient cemetery. Huge tombs and mausolea lay all around, most of them crumbling now into little more than mounds of cracked rock. Even the most recently constructed were at least a thousand years old. Hexiya wondered what the contents of these ancient burial sites might be.

She liked this route to her apartment and had often used it.

As she walked, flakes of snow swirled from the black sky. There was a very faint hissing noise as they rushed across the broken pavings and settled in the clumps of grass.

Another, louder noise came from behind her - footsteps, stepping onto the Avenue. Glancing back, she saw a man's aura like a dark red flame beneath the trees. She also felt the menace within it. Two other figures were behind him, equally hostile.

Immediately she began to run.

Even as she did so, a group of four more stepped from behind the wall of a shrine ahead of her. She brought herself up short.

For a moment she wondered if the ambush was just chance, just bad luck.

But no. There was no doubt in her mind. They had been sent for her.

Who by?

There was no time to consider. She threw her bag over a gravestone, freeing herself to move more easily.

Even as she did so, the shapes behind her raced after her. She could hear booted feet on the crumbling road. The ones ahead were spreading out across the way - three men and a woman. Their chainmail glinted dully in the night. Varantan warriors, she realised. The best fighters the city had to offer - dedicated, organised, deadly.

She plunged off the Avenue, ducked beneath the overhanging boughs of trees and leaped over broken tombs. For a moment she thought she might escape. Compact and strong, she was also fast and agile. She could run swiftly and easily through the darkness. The chaos of ruined graves and sepulchres barely slowed her swift form.

Then two more warriors stepped out from behind a stand of thorn bushes, ahead of her and to her right.

Swerving to her left, she passed a mound of rocks and bounded over a fallen statue. Rounding a tall, thick-trunked tree, she almost collided with yet three more chain-clad fighters.

How many? rushed her thoughts. She had no doubt that she had been chased here deliberately. Like an animal driven neatly into a trap.

She skidded, her booted feet sliding across frosted grass and going from under her. Desperately she turned, one hand pushing off a shattered tombstone, trying to reverse her direction.

Too late. Those following closest were right upon her. The rest were already surrounding the area.

She went still, half fallen to the ground. Then, slowly, she stood straight.

They made a circle around her. Twelve in total. Eight men, four women. Their armour was dark green. Most carried swords, though none were drawn. Two had bows. One of the women carried a pair of axes.

One of the men stepped forward. The leader, probably. A big man, bearded and fierce. His face was determined, ruthless and cruel. He had the look of a soldier with a mission to carry out. The lust and hate in his gaze seemed boundless, and shocked her with its extraordinary intensity. His aura was painful for her to look at, so corrupted was it by malice.

He stopped just a pace away from her, towering over her, and looked down into her eyes. She returned his stare, not with hostility but with openness. Trying to make contact with him. Trying to make him see her as a person, not as an object or an enemy. After all, he was a Varantan Warrior. And Varantan Warriors were known for judgement and wisdom, not for brutality or injustice.

But this, she saw, was no enlightened fighter. He was a man possessed by a hot, sick craving for pain and death. What had happened to him?

Then she glimpsed, just for a moment, the colour that wormed beneath his aura. The bloody, twisting knot of redness that looped around the hues that were his own. Even as she saw it, it vanished. Concealing itself, hiding from her gaze.

And then she saw something else, in the deeps of his eyes. Behind the lust and viciousness: terror, horror and desperation.

It was almost as if he had become two people.

Suddenly - so quickly that she hardly saw it coming - he tried to strike her with the back of his metal-gauntletted hand. Had the blow connected, it would have knocked her sprawling.

Just barely, she ducked beneath it.

One of the others tried to grab her from behind. She twisted away.

Then they were upon her. She brought an elbow up into a man's face. She felt a crunch of bone and heard a cut-off cry of pain. Fists grasped her by her shortish blonde hair and yanked her head back. She struck out with the base of her hand and felt it slam into a woman's throat. The woman collapsed backwards, clutching her crushed windpipe.

Hexiya fought like a frenzied animal. But it was no use. Their weight and numbers were too much for her.

Three of them managed to hold her from behind - one gripping each arm, another looping an arm around her neck.

With the last of her freedom she kicked high and sideways, straight into a warrior's face.

Then their leader stepped in front of her, bunched his metal-shod fist, and slammed it into her stomach with all his prodigious weight and strength.

She doubled up. The pain and ache was appalling. She could not breathe. Tiny gasps escaped her as she tried and failed to draw in air.

Half a minute passed before she finally dragged in a great breath. Then she hung limp and shuddering. Tears streamed from her eyes.

'Strip her,' said the warrior leader.

They did so. When they were done, they knotted one end of a rope around her neck and tied its other end to the trunk of a tree.

Then the beating started.

They took their time with her. They took it in turns. They were careful to hurt each part of her body. They would select an area of unmarred flesh, damage it with mailed fists or booted feet, then move on to the next unhurt part. There was a cold precision in the way they did it.

Time became a haze of pain and disorientation. Hexiya's awareness became nothing but suffering and the taste of blood.

At length it was over.

'Use her,' said one of the women. There was hunger in her voice.

Two of the men stepped towards her.

No no no , Hexiya cried in her mind. No more no more no more . The words repeated, useless, within her. She had been reduced to a confused and wounded animal.

And then, suddenly, she was splashed with a great gout of hot red liquid. Through swimming vision she glimpsed one of the warriors collapsing in front of her. His head was dangling from his shoulders at a crazy angle. It was ripped half away from his neck.

There were screams. She heard the screech and thud of blades. Blades that struck armour, cut through metal and ripped through flesh.

She was aware of bodies hitting the ground. Brief clashes of metal. The crunch and shattering of bone. Cries that were abruptly cut off as some awesome force cut through the warriors.

Blood was everywhere.

Then all was still. The fearful butchery was over. She could hear nothing but her own harsh breathing, the sighing of wind in the treetops above, and the hiss of wind-driven snow.

Even through her pain she wondered what great power could have torn through twelve elite warriors in less than a minute.

Then she felt fingers at her neck, undoing the rope that bound her. They gently lifted her hair out of the way. It was a cool, thrilling touch that she recognised - different now, but one she could still place.

She had thought it must be a group of killers, or a monstrous machine of some kind. But she sensed only the one presence.

'Sorry I took so long to get here,' said the voice of the one who had saved her. 'Damn, they really worked you over.' There was shock and compassion and sorrow in the tones. A catch in the throat as if the speaker was struggling against tears.

And then the figure was in front of her, kneeling down before her. A long-limbed and powerful woman who was achingly beautiful even in the dimness and through the mist of Hexiya's confused mind and the pain of her body. Eyes the colour of blue ice, almost like mirrors in the night. Long black hair falling about a sculpted face and over her shoulders. A leather-clad figure, reaching out for her.

'Kaledria,' breathed Hexiya.

And Kaledria took her in her arms and held her close, murmuring gentle words to her that she could not afterwards remember, in a language she did not understand.




A few minutes later she found herself lying on her back, staring at the branches swaying high overhead. The wind blew through frost-rimed needles. Stars glinted, sharp diamond points in the blackness.

She was lying on her coat, shivering and terribly cold. Kaledria was binding a wound in her thigh.

'I'm freezing.'

'I know, I'm sorry. I just wanted to see what needed immediate attention. Two of your ribs are broken and there's a deep gash in your leg. And you're going to be black and blue for a while. But you'll heal well enough I think.'

She helped her sit up. 'Let's get you clothed again.'

Somehow, together, they located Hexiya's clothing and got her dressed.

'I'm covered in blood,' murmured Hexiya.

Kaledria glanced at the dead bodies around them. 'Good that most of it isn't yours.' There was a moment's silence as Kaledria helped her to stand. Then: 'How do we get to your home from here?'




They arrived at Hexiya's apartment half an hour later. It had been painful to walk, though she had leant against Kaledria most of the way and had been amazed at how strong she was.

Underneath the pain, a warm glow of wonder and happiness filled her. Kaledria! Alive and with her once again. It was a marvel that staved off some of the lingering terror and humiliation of the beating. She would willingly have endured far worse to bring her back.

Inside, she threw the bolts home and locked them down, then leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Then she fumbled with a candle and matches that were always on a table beside it, bringing light to the hall space.

She looked up into Kaledria's face. Not surprisingly, she looked very different to when she had been a child. No longer a girl, but a woman of truly astonishing appearance.

'I am so happy you are here.'

Kaledria smiled, blue eyes looking down into green. 'Me too.'

Hexiya stumbled through to the bathroom. She slowly and painfully climbed out of her clothes. Kaledria lit more candles and brought them in.

'Sit down for a moment.'

Hexiya did so, on the edge of the bath. Then Kaledria looked into her eyes and felt around her skull and neck with her fingers, just as she had done earlier. When she sat back she looked satisfied. 'Just checking again,' she said. 'You'll live.'

Hexiya took a shower, standing then sitting under the steaming water, feeling the ache of her limbs and body and face. She gently soaped and rinsed herself, including her hair. It hurt, but she felt better for it: she imagined that she was washing away the ugly taint of what had been done to her.

It was painful for her to look at the damage that had been done to her. Bruises had flared all over her body. Cuts and grazes marred her skin. She did not want to see what her face might look like.

She took a bath. Adding a pleasant fragrance that made mountains of bubbles, she lay down to soak for a while.

Kaledria came to her after a while. 'I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you. I just wanted to know that you're all right.'

She managed a small smile. 'I've been better, but . . . Kaledria, we have so much to talk about. About what happened to you. And about tonight. Those warriors . . .' She sighed and raised a hand to her face. It was trembling slightly. 'But I'm so tired. My head hurts and I can't think straight. We'll have to talk tomorrow, if I can.'

She tried to get up out of the bath, but her strength failed her. She slumped back, gasping at the pain.

Kaledria lifted her up - so easily, as if she weighed almost nothing. She used the shower to rinse off the bubbles and soap. Then she dabbed her dry with a towel, gently and kindly, then wrapped her in it and led her through to the bedroom.

She pulled back the bedclothes. 'Here,' she said as Hexiya sat down and eased herself onto her back. She drew the sheets and blankets up to her neck. 'Sleep well and long.'

Hexiya suddenly reached out and grasped her forearm. 'Don't go,' she said. 'Please don't leave. Not again.'

Kaledria smiled. 'I won't,' she said. 'I'll stay here and watch over you through the night. I'll not die on you like I did before.'






Hexiya's sleep was peaceful enough, though she woke a few times when she tried to turn or move, pain bringing her momentarily to consciousness. Sometimes she was aware of Kaledria sitting in a chair next to her bed. At other times she was gone, though she could feel her presence elsewhere in the apartment.

In the morning she opened her eyes to find herself feeling a little more comfortable. Most especially, her thoughts were clear and swift again. She felt none of the disorientation or dizziness of the previous night.

She lay still for a while. Then there was a gentle knock on the door of her room. Kaledria came in.

'Good morning,' she said. 'I realised you were awake. So I brought some breakfast.'

Gone were the leathers Kaledria had been wearing the previous night. Now she was dressed in a light cotton top and shorts, and she was barefoot. She was carrying a tray with hot bread, butter, honey, fresh fruit and a jug of steaming coffee. She set it down on the bedside table.

The sight of Kaledria struck Hexiya with almost stunning intensity, making a warm shiver rush right through her. Though she had seen her in her dreams as a woman, she had only known her as a child. Now she was able to regard her in reality.

Kaledria was about eight inches taller than Hexiya. Her hair was long, shimmering black in the muted light, falling about her shoulders and down her back. Her fair skin was lightly tanned. Her face had a remarkable sensual beauty, and her sculpted features also hinted at her inner strength. She had an amazing smile. And she had wondrous eyes, the lightest and most intense blue, that Hexiya felt she might fall into.

Her eyes . . . Kaledria had, of course, changed. And her eyes had changed. Hexiya saw the extent to which Kaledria had not only becomed a magnificent-looking woman, but also a woman of great experience. Her gaze was no longer that of a girl of wise but young years, but that of a seasoned, accomplished and knowledgeable woman who had seen much in her life. Far more than Hexiya herself, she suspected.

And Hexiya marvelled too at Kaledria's body. She had long, straight limbs and a visible litheness and ease to the way she moved. She looked strong, and had the honed look of a true warrior. When Hexiya considered that Kaledria also had very pleasing curves, she suddenly realised that she was smiling.

Looking up, she saw that Kaledria was regarding her with unself-conscious ease. 'I could model for you if you want to paint me,' she said.

Hexiya felt the touch of a blush upon her face. 'Sorry. It's just . . .' She shrugged.

Kaledria's expression was gentle and warm. 'I know. I couldn't help watching you in the night, too. Wondering at what you have become.'

Hexiya painfully pulled herself to a sitting position. Kaledria stacked pillows behind her. She sank back into them with a sigh.

Regarding Kaledria as she sat down on a chair next to her, she said with a quizzical smile: 'How did you know I was awake?'

The blue-eyed woman smiled too and it was as if the sun was coming out. 'I felt it. During the night I felt your dreams like shifting, colourful friezes moving before me and through me. I felt your pain. And a few minutes ago I felt your wakefulness. Your spirit had been like a deep ocean of hidden currents. Then it changed into a cool, clear stream.'

'You can read my mind?'

'Not your individual thoughts, but . . . Well, perhaps with practice.'

Hexiya reached out and took her hand. She traced the shape of Kaledria's long and shapely fingers. There was no self-consciousness or embarrassment about the intimacy. The depth of her certainty about her was profound, no matter the gulf of years that had separated them. 'I'm still struggling to believe that you are real,' she said. 'Sometimes I doubted that you would come back, no matter the closeness of your presence in my mind. I wondered if I was crazy.'

'I wanted to come back sooner. But I couldn't.'

'Why not?'

A haunted, fearful look touched Kaledria's face. A slight frown creased her brow. 'I'm not sure,' she said at length, very softly. 'I . . . cannot remember very much.'

'What do you mean?'

'I remember being a child, in Kohidra, with you. I remember . . .' Her shoulders rose and fell as she struggled with her thoughts and tried to find the right words. 'I remember the faking of my death.' She fell silent.

'What happened?' whispered Hexiya, very gently.

'You remember the fight against the masks? When Arak hit me on the back of my head with a rock? And the night you thought I'd died as a result of that injury?'

Hexiya gave her a small nod.

'That night,' continued Kaledria, 'in my sleep, I had a strange dream. But it was more than just a dream. It was so vivid, so full of thunderous meaning. In it I found myself standing on a low cliff. A broken landscape of moors and crumbling escarpments lay all around me. A single crimson sun was setting in a blaze, throwing everything into red relief and black shadow. It was a bleak, impressive place, quiet in the warm evening light. I thought perhaps I was looking across what had once been a battlefield.

'And beside me there stood a man. A big man. Heroic of aspect. Like a military leader from some ancient age. Broad-shouldered, great-limbed, bearded, with a piercing gaze. He wore exotic armour that might have been forged in antiquity. Chain and metal bands, dark red and blue, cut and dented in many places. He was leaning upon the haft of a great war-axe.'

'Romgallak,' said Hexiya.

Kaledria regarded her, obviously surprised. 'You know him.'

'I meet him in my dreams, sometimes. There are paintings of him in my studio.'

Kaledria took this in, pondering the matter. Then she continued: 'He seemed sad when I met him. He told me that he wanted his military campaigns to end but that there was always one more enemy. He seemed remarkably gentle for one of such fiercesome appearance.

'And he told he me I had to join him. He said that if I stayed in Kohidra with you and Avassia, both of you would die. He explained that I would have to live elsewhere, until it was safe or necessary for me to return.'

'Where did you go?'

Kaledria pursed her lips for a moment. 'I can't remember very much. The memories faded the moment I stepped back into this world. But I can recall a few things. Feelings mostly, and a few images.' She sighed, and said:

'I remember a great room full of pillars, and sunlight streaming down over a throne. And me sitting there, dressed in regal-looking clothes.

'And I remember a great naval battle on a wild northern ocean. Warships in flames. Sea-beasts feeding on drowning sailors. The clash of swords. I was in the midst of a boarding.

'And I remember a world with a golden sun and seething emerald jungles. I fought my way across five thousand miles of it.

'I can recollect a planet with two blue suns, and an endless ocean speckled with coral atolls and archipelagoes.

'I can recall other things too, and even a few people I've known. But all jumbled up. All out of context.' She shook her head. 'Perhaps it will come back.'

Hexiya poured spiced tea for them both. 'We buried you,' she said, very quietly.

Kaledria looked into her eyes. 'You buried a perfect replica of my body,' she said. 'An empty shell. Romgallak set the doll down in the bed while I stood by and watched. For a while I couldn't believe that you did not wake up. Then I realised that you were not even breathing. Time was frozen. I could not have woken you if I had tried.' She grimaced. 'And then we left. To other worlds.'

'How could such an action have saved my life? Or Avassia's?'

Kaledria considered this. 'I'm not sure,' she said. 'Though I've thought about it often enough. Romgallak told me something about the unfolding of possible futures. He said that most of them would result in your death. Many would be truly catastrophic. He admitted he was not sure about his actions. But I trusted him.' She shrugged. 'And then, not so many hours ago, I felt your anguish in my mind as you were attacked. And I returned. I just . . . stepped through a wall, and navigated the ways between the worlds.'

They fell silent. In quiet companionship they sat together as they shared the breakfast Kaledria had brought.

'How are you feeling?' asked Kaledria after a while.

Hexiya looked down at herself. The bruises that covered her had become livid. The grazes and cuts that crisscrossed her body looked worse than she had thought. 'As well as I could expect, I suppose,' she said. Memories of what had happened to her the previous evening suddenly rushed through her. Her heart beat hard in her chest. Tears welled in her eyes.

And then Kaledria was taking her in her arms. She held her close and rocked her gently back and forth as she cried. She was a warm, safe presence that allowed her to release all the anguish she felt about what had happened.

It was not until a long time later that they sat back from each other.

'I am so glad you are here,' said Hexiya, her voice hoarse. 'It is an amazing thing. All these years I thought about you. It was as if everyone I met was just a shadow, while you had once been like a light. And though I knew you only during that brief time we had together as children, I still felt you. In my heart, in my dreams, in the depths of my mind. In every waking moment.'

Kaledria looked at her for long moments. Her pupils were wide and dark and suggested endless depths. 'I felt you too,' she breathed. 'It is as if we are parts of one another.'




Hexiya slept through the rest of the morning. In the early afternoon she struggled into a nightshirt and went through to the living room.

Kaledria was standing at one of the windows, looking out. Snow was falling, turning the city into a magical place of white roofs and glowing domes, clogged streets and shadowy walls. The mauve sun was just visible through a gap in the cloud cover.

She turned. A smile touched her face.

They made tea together, then settled down at the small table, facing each other. Hexiya cradled her mug in her hands. She took a sip of the delicate, fragrant brew. Then she looked into Kaledria's startlingly blue eyes.

'What are we, Kaledria?' she asked. 'We're not ordinary people. I don't mean we're better or worse than others. I just mean that we're . . . different . I've known it all my life. When I remember the time of my childhood before I even met you . . . I knew it even then. I was an outsider. I have always been an outsider. Only with you do I feel as though I am with someone who is like me. Even my mother, Havena, observed that I was other. For all the fact that we loved each other, we knew there was a gulf between us. It was something that neither of us understood.' She was surprised by the forcefulness of her words.

Kaledria turned her cup in her fingers, seeming to contemplate the steam rising from the red liquid. She looked saddened. 'I don't know what we are,' she said. 'No more than you do. Perhaps I did. But if so, I've forgotten. I just keep hoping it'll come back.'

'So many of your memories are gone?'

'Not all. While you were asleep, I tried and tried to reassemble them. Nevertheless, so much is missing.' She reached across the table to a piece of paper she had been writing on. 'I made a list of all the worlds I can remember visiting or living upon. Twelve, in total. I tried to put them in some kind of chronological order, and have come up with a reasonable guess. But it's all so vague.' An unexpected smile touched her mouth. 'What is strange is that I can remember how to do, for example, certain mathematical processes. I can recall a great deal about astronomy. But I can't remember anything at all about when or where I could have learned such things.'

Hexiya considered this, then said: 'How old do you think you are, Kaledria?'

Ice blue eyes flicked upwards and powerful currents seemed to surge within them. Hexiya realised that she had asked a penetrating question.

'I don't know,' replied Kaledria eventually. 'Having been away for two decades or so, logic would suggest that I am in my early thirties. And I look much the same age as you. Nevertheless, my best guess would be that I have lived for at least a century.'




Later, Hexiya stood in front of the wall-mirror in her bathroom. She spent a little while combing and brushing her shortish blonde hair. It was, she thought ruefully, the only part of her that was undamaged.

The rest of her, she thought, was a mess. Her face still hurt, bruised especially down the right side. She looked into her green eyes. One of them was so bloodshot that there was almost no visible white. She was glad only that her nose had not been broken.

She sighed. She would heal, she thought. There would be no permanent damage beyond a few minor scars.

But she could not help feeling self-conscious about it in front of Kaledria. With anyone else she would hardly have given the matter a thought. But with Kaledria she did not want to feel unattractive or undesirable. Awareness of this confused her a little, but it was a curiously pleasant form of confusion.

She returned to the living room. Kaledria was curled up on the sofa. Hexiya settled in the armchair next to it.

They looked at each other for a long time, in intimate mutual appraisal. It was a silent gathering of knowledge, each about the other.

Then Hexiya said: 'May I look at your aura?'

Kaledria did not hesitate in her response. 'Of course,' she said.

Hexiya did so. And immediately she saw a depth of character that she had never seen in anyone else. Her colours - ruby and gold and light blue - were flames that burned with a steadiness that she had not thought possible. Here was a measure of wisdom, self-belief and personal balance that was unique.

Within the aura she was even able to divine the emotions that welled up from Kaledria's past - the feelings that were associated with her lost memories, though only the palest echoes of the memories themselves. She felt:

The brooding loneliness of one who travelled alone for many weeks, driven by a mission she could not shake off.

The responsibility of leadership.

The compassion for followers who died.

The wonder of seeing new and alien worlds - blazing suns and shimmering skies of rainbow colours.

And far back, at the very root of Kaledria's character, an aching loss; a hurt that had gone unhealed and unsoothed: the loss of Hexiya . . .

She started. For a moment she had glimpsed her own face in Kaledria's aura. Not her face as it was now, but her face as it had been when she had been a child. She felt a lump in her throat and a great tide of emotion crashing against the shores of her mind. The knowledge that Kaledria had missed her as she had missed Kaledria . . . It felt like a vindication of her life and existence.

Still they stared at one another.

And looking at Kaledria, Hexiya did not need to wonder what was left of the girl she had once known - the girl full of fire and adventure, lust for life, a trifle reckless, her spirited self not all at odds with those contrasting moments she had had - of thoughtfulness, tenderness, concern, kindness.

It was all there. The passion of the child had grown and developed, until the woman had become both warrior and philosopher, full of both desire and depth.




They prepared a meal together, though Kaledria did most of the work - it was painful for Hexiya to move around too much. They enjoyed it, deciding what to cook and how to cook it, sharing tasks and helping one another.

Before long they had a wonderful feast ready, laid out in splendour. Exotic lakefish soup, fried vegetables, grilled meat with green spices, pancakes, fruit, cheeses and biscuits. Hexiya brought out a stone bottle of good red wine.

They lit candles and sat down to eat. Outside the evening was drawing in. Darkness gradually cloaked the snow-covered city.

They talked of small things at first. Of the winter. Of Hexiya's work at the university. Then of Havena and Avassia.

'I would like to visit her, if possible,' said Kaledria. Her eyes were suddenly full of humour. 'I can't exactly write to tell her I'm fine. She'd think it was a letter from a crazy person.'

At length they talked of more pressing subjects.

'You remember the things that happened to us as children?' said Hexiya.

Kaledria's eyes widened a fraction, candlelight reflected from ice blue, her pupils dilated in the soft glow. She gave her a small nod. Apprehension touched her face.

'Similar things seem to be happening again.'

'Tell me.'

So Hexiya proceeded to tell her what she had seen.

She told her about the severed hand she had seen in the gutter. The wizened old man she had glimpsed in a cage in the biology laboratories. The vast swarm of insects - ghost beetles - that had flown over and through Varanta. The fearsome man she had seen and recognised, who had been present at the workshop where her father had been killed. The blood-tainted auras she had seen among the people of Varanta. Aratha's strange behaviour. The blood test with its strange result. And lastly, the attack of the Varantan Warriors from which Kaledria had saved her.

'Those warriors,' she said. 'I cannot get them out of my mind. Not just because of their cruelty. There are people who take pleasure from hurting others. But . . .'

'You feel like it doesn't make sense,' prompted Kaledria.

'Yes. Varantan Warriors have a reputation for noble behaviour. But those ones were . . . I don't know . . . It was as if they were acting out some insane fantasy. The malice and hate in their eyes was astonishing. And yet, behind it, I thought I could detect fear, terror, desperation. Even sorrow. It was as if they had been sent to do something both pleasurable and abhorrent to them. As if each of them had been . . . split in half.'

'Do you think they might only have been acting cruel?'

Hexiya shrugged, then winced at the movement. 'I don't think so.'

'I should have questioned one or two of them.'

They fell silent. Kaledria, after brooding for a while, said: 'So. As you said, perhaps the force we dealt with when we were children has returned. Or perhaps something else is going on. Either way, I think, once you're strong again, we should try to find out.'

'It terrifies me that, if it really has returned, it probably followed me ,' said Hexiya. 'Why else would it manifest itself here? And the similarities are undeniable. Most especially, nothing seems to make sense.'

Kaledria looked deep into her eyes. 'We will see.' After a long moment she poured them more wine. Swirling the deep mauve liquid in her glass, she regarded the way the candlelight shone through it. Then she looked across the rim of faceted crystal at Hexiya. 'How about trying to find and follow the man you saw? The one with metal skin and two swords?'

Hexiya felt fear well up in her. She felt an urge to protest, but could think of no reason to.

Kaledria did not miss her expression. 'He really frightens you,' she said softly, a note of surprise in her voice. She reached out and covered her hand with her own; and squeezed gently.

'I don't know why,' said Hexiya. 'Perhaps just because I saw him on the day my father was killed. But I don't think so. I feel . . .' She struggled to think of words that might describe the sensation. 'I feel that I know him. Not just as someone I once encountered. More than that. Like . . . like how a grazing animal might recognise a dangerous predator. Not just because it has seen such an animal kill. Not just because it sees claws and fangs. But because its evolution has programmed it to know it. At the deepest level of its biology it recognises the animal and knows the animal. And it understands that it means death.'

They did not speak for a little while as Kaledria considered Hexiya's words. Then she looked up into Hexiya's eyes and her expression softened, full of gentle warmth and deep affection. 'I am so glad to be with you again,' she said quietly, in honest and open wonderment.






They stayed in Hexiya's apartment for the following three days. It gave Hexiya time to recover in part from her injuries. More, it gave them time to get to know each other again.

It was a wondrous time. They fit each other as if they had been designed to do just that. They perfectly complemented one other. Their characters matched without flaw. They even marvelled at their combined appearance when once they stood side by side before the large mirror in the living room: tall and small; dark and blonde; fierce and angelic. Both of them were silent with wonder at how they looked together. And then they found themselves smiling, and turning to each other, green eyes looking up into blue, blue eyes looking down into green.

On their second afternoon together, they entered Hexiya's studio. There were canvasses and papers, boards and easels, paints and paint-pallets, brushes and pencils, sticks of charcoal and pastels, stacked paintings and sketches. The place was an artistic and impressive chaos. The scents of oil and turpentine hung in the air.

But Kaledria was almost immediately transfixed by a picture on the far wall. She crossed the room and stood before it. 'Romgallak,' she breathed. For a long while she gazed, amazed, at the heroic-looking warrior-leader. 'The same man that took me from you and led me to other worlds.'

'Did you meet him after that?'

Kaledria shook her head. 'I don't remember. But I feel I must have done. Just looking at him makes me feel a kind of safety. Like he might have protected me. Like he was my friend.' She narrowed her eyes, taking in the details of the painting. 'He was wearing the same armour when he came to me,' she continued. 'It's incredible, the way you've portrayed him. Just like him.'

A smile brushed Hexiya's lips. She remembered how pleased she had been when she had finished the picture.

At length Kaledria looked away. 'Who's this?' she asked, turning to the next canvas.

'Her name is Mavaea.' This was an old woman with a wrinkled face and sunken eyes - the face of someone who had had a difficult life. But despite the years there was an acceptance and kindness in the woman's visage. Hexiya had painted the picture all in dark greys. 'I've met her in a number of dreams,' she said. 'Sometimes she tries to talk to me, but I can never quite hear what she is saying. When I try to read her lips she turns away. Every time I've seen her she has seemed exasperated and a little annoyed that I can't understand her.'

Kaledria looked at another painting, on the adjacent wall. She smiled a wide smile. 'And what about her ?'

Hexiya grinned too. 'That's Obenaia.'

'Does she always stand so provocatively in your dreams?'

'Sometimes. I think she's proud of being so sensuous. As she should be.' And she told Kaledria a little about her. 'She seems to radiate tenderness and compassion,' she said as she finished. 'She seems full of . . . love . . . though that's an inadequate word. I've dreamed of her and Romgallak more than I have the others. She always likes to see me, and seems saddened when I have to leave.'

The next painting Kaledria looked at was of an urchin. His legs and bare feet were scabby and dirt-covered and his face was grubby. His hair was a thick, tangled mop. His dark eyes were large, and pain was revealed in them.

Kaledria stepped closer to the picture. She rubbed her fingers across her forehead. 'I . . . think I recognise him,' she said.

'His name is Borudin,' said Hexiya.

'Tell me about him.'

'He lives in a dangerous quarter of a huge city. The city is in the middle of a desert of black sand. Three violent orange suns blast down their heat by day, and sometimes five purple moons ride up into the sky. Borudin helps his father in a factory. When I dream of him he is always on his way to work. He doesn't want to go, as the labour is hard and he always feels hungry. Once I asked him if he could leave. And he told me, very fiercely, that he would if he ever found a way. Then he told me I was beautiful, so I couldn't come from anywhere nearby. When he asked me where I was from, I tried to tell him. But for some reason I couldn't remember.'

'Borudin,' murmured Kaledria. 'I have a feeling I met him. But as a man, I think, not as a boy.' She shrugged, looking slightly exasperated. 'I don't know.'

The next picture she regarded was of a man who was turned half away. Not an oil-painting, this one, but a drawing in charcoal. It was less detailed than Hexiya's usual style, for in her dreams she had never really been able to see him clearly. He was a mystery, cloaked and hooded, his face always concealed.

'That's Kallakan. I've never had much more than a glimpse of him, as if my sight is somehow obscured. When he speaks he seems both to threaten and to promise. And while I suspect he is utterly ruthless in some ways, he also seems to be a defender of his own sense of justice. And I think he's powerful. More powerful, perhaps, even than Romgallak.'

Kaledria pursed her lips, taking in her words. At length she looked at another painting, of a regal-looking woman with long red hair bound by a circlet of silver. A long cloak of pale blue fell around her shoulders to the floor, where its end was trimmed with white fur. She was very striking to look at and seemed very noble.

'Her name is Caless,' said Hexiya. 'In some of my dreams she's a princess. In others she's a queen. When she's a queen, she tells me she has ruled a world for several decades and that she is revered by her people. But like Romgallak, she wishes that her task would end. Though she is considered a good leader, she does not want to be a leader at all.'

Kaledria turned to the next picture. This one was of a handsome man in travelling clothes. He was walking through a forest and held a kind of flute in his hand.

'That's Eriath,' said Hexiya. 'A musician, traveller and sage. We've never spoken. Whenever we meet he plays his flute for me. And he is a truly wonderful musician.'

Next Kaledria looked at a painting of a young, raven-haired priestess standing on the steps of a temple.

'Her name is Vaudia,' said Hexiya. 'I've not met her often. And afterwards I have never been able to remember what we might have talked about.'

Next to the depiction of Vaudia was a painting of an old man. He was sitting beside a fireplace and had a glass of liquor in his hand. Kaledria gazed at this canvas for a long time.

Hexiya said: 'That's Avikant. A great-great-grandfather. When he looks into the flames he tells stories of the past. I like him. He's very peaceful and calm and accepting of life. And he has a pleasant and gentle sense of humour.'

The final picture was of a plump, middle-aged, ruddy-faced woman staring across a garden in which children played.

'Her name is Olifara,' said Hexiya. 'She's very energetic and full of life. When she speaks, she's always full of the wonders of her children.'

Kaledria faced Hexiya. 'It's amazing,' she said. 'All these people . . . You've only met them in dreams, and yet -'

'They're real? I was never really certain.'

Kaledria nodded. 'I think so. Though I'm only sure about Romgallak, and fairly sure about Borudin. But it wouldn't surprise me if I've met all of them.'

'How could that be?'

Kaledria ran her fingers through her long, night-black hair and shook her lovely head. 'I really don't know.'

They were silent for a while, staring at the paintings. Then Hexiya said: 'I have another kind of dream too. Equally powerful. Thunderous and full of meaning. In them I'm always looking for you. Wandering countless worlds, searching each of them and hoping I might finally locate you.' She looked down. 'I wonder if I'll stop having them now that you are here.'




The next night they went out into the streets. Snow lay thick upon the ground. Stars were bright points in an utterly black sky. The City of Varanta was remarkably quiet.

They walked slowly, the frozen whiteness creaking under their booted feet. The first people they saw were a man and a woman, far down the hill from them, crossing the Way of the Moons. They were cloaked and shadowy with distance and darkness. Their features were quite hidden.

'What do you see?' asked Kaledria.

Hexiya stopped. She felt for the form of the world around her. She saw colours rush in upon her - colours of forces not visible to most.

Now the couple looked like a pair of flames moving slowly across a velvet tableau of darker hues and heavy, impenetrable masses.

'Lovers,' she said. 'Quiet people. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not that I can see.'

They walked on, down the hill and to the right, into a district called Rope. Hexiya knew that this area was usually quite busy at night.

More people passed them. Harlots hurrying home or on their way to work. Drunks lurching from the taverns. A group of city guardsmen. Other people on unidentifiable errands. Each time Hexiya observed their auras she could not see any sign of the blood-coloured tendrils she had seen beneath the auras of so many. Except, looking more closely . . . was there a deeper redness there, hiding from her?

It was Kaledria who suddenly took Hexiya's arm and whispered: 'Something is very wrong.' There was fear in her voice - something Hexiya had almost never heard.

They halted and pressed into the shadow of a wall.

'Do you feel it?'

Hexiya nodded mutely.

In this place with its nightlife and activity, they felt as if they were alone in a world of hostility. No matter that they could not see anything out of the ordinary. No matter that no one threatened them. They both sensed that everyone around them was menacing, frightening and dangerous.

It was as if everyone shared some terrible secret. As if only the two of them were ignorant of it. As if they were the lonely subjects of a vast experiment. As if the other citizens of Varanta were merely acting. As if they were playing a great joke upon them to satisfy their malicious perversity. As if they were observing them from the corners of their eyes and laughing silently. As if they were leering and lusting for them. As if they knew some awful truth and were anticipating how it would destroy them.

Could it be true? wondered Hexiya. Could a million people know something that they were ignorant of? Could they know of some terrible fate that was rushing upon the two of them, and be craving its fulfilment? Were they chuckling to themselves as they thought of the doom that would soon engulf them? Were they, with malignancy and hatred, looking forward to their destruction?

It was as if the two of them had been sentenced to the most appalling punishment. And that everyone knew it and knew what the punishment was - except for them.

The sword and axe and knives and throwing blades that Kaledria carried were reassuring, but not much.

'I don't want to be here,' said Hexiya, very quietly.

'Neither do I.'

Not wishing to run and draw attention, they walked quickly back towards Hexiya's apartment. As the district of Rope fell behind them and the streets became quieter, so the sensation of being watched and laughed at diminished. Nevertheless they felt greatly relieved when they stepped into their flat and bolted the door behind them.

'What happened out there?' asked Kaledria as they made a pot of tea. Though they were indoors now, and perhaps safe, she had spoken in little more than a whisper.

They talked about it for a while, sitting by candlelight at the dining table. Yet they did not know what to think - whether the sensations they had felt had been based in truth or not.

Hexiya felt tired. Before long she excused herself, went to the bathroom, showered, then went to bed.

As she drifted into confused dreams, she wondered why Kaledria was sleeping on the sofa, in the living room.






Morning arrived, obscured by fog. Nothing but the nearest rooftops could be seen from the windows of the apartment. The streets below were completely hidden.

Kaledria had risen early. She had gone out for a few minutes to buy fresh bread and fruit from a stall on the street beneath the corner-window of the kitchen - four floors down. It was cold out.

They lit a merry fire in the fireplace before settling down to breakfast, and the room became pleasantly warm. Hexiya considered how pleasant it was to have Kaledria there with her. After so many years of taking her meals alone - and feeling quite indifferent as to whether anyone might wish to join her - the feeling of warmth and companionship was something wonderful.

As they were finishing their meal there was a gentle knock on the door. It made Hexiya jump.

They glanced at each other.

'Are you expecting anyone?' asked Kaledria.

'No. But the people at the university are probably wondering what has happened to me.'

She rose from the table, wrapped a black satin gown around her - she had been wearing only a nightslip - and went to find out.

'Who is it?'

'Ellakan,' said a deep, familiar voice.

She threw the bolts and opened the door.

He was standing on the landing, some way back from the threshold. He was holding a bunch of delicate, beautiful flowers - pale blue and white. The slight look of self-consciousness upon his face - not a characteristic she had ever expected to see on him - vanished when he saw her. He was obviously alarmed.

'Hexiya! I thought you might be ill, so I stopped by . . . The others were concerned about you too. But -'

She held up a hand to stop him; looked down as she brushed her forehead with the fingertips of her other hand. 'I'm all right,' she said softly. 'Come in.'

He stamped his boots and entered. She closed the door behind him. Though the momentary self-consciousness had gone, he seemed strangely humbled. Perhaps he was concerned about being intrusive in her home.

He is interested in me, thought Hexiya inwardly. She wondered what to say to him. His manner was gentlemanly, respectful, charming.

He gave her the flowers.

'Thank you,' she said. His eyes - one brown, one grey - looked into hers.

When he stepped around the wall of the tiny hallway into the living room, he saw Kaledria, who was holding her sword in her right hand. It brought him to an abrupt halt. She was wearing only a sleeveless t-shirt, and shorts of thin cotton.

She shrugged apologetically and leaned her sword back against the wall.

'Ellakan, this is Kaledria.' said Hexiya.

'Pleased to meet you,' said Kaledria.

Hexiya smiled despite herself, but strove to hide her amusement at his discomfiture in the face of the unexpected, half-clad, strikingly beautiful - and quite imposing - woman before him.

'You too.' He regained his balance remarkably quickly. He was slightly taller than Kaledria and his height was emphasised by his military bearing and powerful build.

'Would you like a cup of tea?' she asked. 'I'd be happy to make you some breakfast if you want.'

Soon they were sitting around the table. She had put the flowers in a vase to one side.

Ellakan regarded Hexiya gravely. 'What happened?' he asked, his voice very low and soft. She sensed the compassion in him. 'If you don't want to talk about it I understand . . .'

She shrugged her shoulders. 'I was attacked,' she said simply. 'I don't know why.'

'Your beauty perhaps,' he said, then seemed to think he had spoken without thinking. Again he had that unexpected look of diffidence.

Ellakan is a sensitive man, she decided.

'I took a beating,' she continued. 'It could have been worse. Then Kaledria found me.'

Ellakan, his mouth grim, rubbed his jaw. For a moment he looked like he wished he could meet whoever had hurt her, and give back to them everything they had dealt out. He looked very fierce.

'What's the news?' asked Hexiya.

He glanced down, lifted his cup, and took a gulp of tea. A dark look crossed his brow. 'The army is on alert,' he said. 'The southern garrisons are ready in case they are attacked. I've spent the last few days overseeing the strengthening of one of the fortifications in the mountain-passes.'

'You really think Akadar will attack?'

'I don't know,' he replied, and there was weariness in his voice. 'But Akadar's latest emissary was belligerent in the extreme. He made demands of our Overlord that the Overlord will never meet.'

'What demands?'

'The handing over of some of the forts and desert towns on the east side of the mountains.'

'It sounds like he's just trying to provoke a fight.'

'That's what the Overlord thinks too.' He shook his head. 'It doesn't make sense though. If they want a war, why are they giving us so much time to mobilise our forces and dig in? What could possibly be the reason? It seems completely without sense.'

'Maybe Akadar has no intention of attacking,' said Kaledria. 'Maybe its king wants to see if he can gain some territory just by making threats.'

'It's possible,' said Ellakan. 'But the Overlord is not a man to bow down without a fight. Surely the king knows that.' He was quiet for a moment then said: 'You know, I can't help but think this is all just an elaborate bluff to make us miss what is really going on.'

'What do you mean?'

'There are any number of possibilities. But for example . . . Akadar is an ally of Lagomasr. And Lagomasr is directly to our north. By rattling its swords, Akadar places our attention firmly in the south. Thus we will be particularly vulnerable to an attack from the north.'

'A good theory,' mused Kaledria.

'The Overlord realises this, of course,' continued Ellakan. 'Though he does not wish to spread our forces too thinly, he considers that the most important thing is to hold the mountain passes - to south and north - and to make sure that the forts are stocked to endure long sieges. That way, no matter what happens, we will have forces in nearly impregnable positions. Should an enemy fall upon Varanta before dealing with them, they will be a serious thorn in their back. And I'm inclined to think it's a good policy.'

Hexiya poured more tea for them. 'How are the people?' she asked. 'We were out walking yesterday. Everyone seemed . . . different.'

Ellakan looked at her. His gaze was penetrating. Disconcerting, too, with its uneven colours. 'They're afraid and more,' he said. 'There was a battle in Red Moon Plaza yesterday. Also, a caravan nearing the city on the East Road was attacked. And there have been a large number of other incidents. Things inexplicably going wrong. Petty arguments among the soldiers suddenly getting out of control. Accidents during the construction of fortifications. Strife between captains and soldiers.' A look of exasperation crossed his face. 'Before and during every war I've seen before, people have always pulled together in the face of a common enemy. But this time it's different. The people of Varanta aren't together, but apart. The whole city seems to be threaded with fracture-lines and steeped in discord.'

Hexiya looked out into the thick whiteness that swirled slowly beyond the windows. 'What weather for a war,' she said softly. 'Ice on the ground, and fog so dense one couldn't tell an enemy from a friend.'

She turned back to Ellakan. 'Have you been to the university?'

'I was there yesterday evening. I wanted to collect a couple of books on construction techniques. Everyone there is worried.'

'How's Aratha?'

Ellakan smiled. 'Buried in her research. Apparently she's doing nothing but working. Not even sleeping. That creature she's been examining is the talk of everyone. It's got people fascinated.'

Hexiya regarded him, waiting for more.

'They thought it was from the ocean,' he continued. 'Probably a species from the depths. But Ragak and Avina both maintain that it can't be.'

Hexiya nodded. If the two palaeontologists said such a thing, there was a good chance they were right. 'What is it then?'

'Well.' Ellakan spread his hands. 'Kella says she thinks it's of alien origin. Not from this world at all.'

'And Aratha? She's the one who's been doing most of the examinations.'

'She won't say. Apparently she's been acting as if possessed. Ragak thinks she wants to spring a great surprise on everyone. That she's discovered something really revolutionary but is keeping it under wraps until she has proof.'




Ellakan took his leave shortly thereafter.

Kaledria was looking at Hexiya as she closed and bolted the door behind him. 'A good man,' she said. 'He likes you.'

She smiled.

'You don't feel the same way about him?'

Hexiya noticed a touch of gentle and well-concealed concern in her voice. She doesn't want me to like Ellakan, she realised.

Her smile vanished. More seriously, she said: 'No.' Then, in a quiet voice: 'I'm more interested in someone else.'

Kaledria nodded, looked disappointed, then looked down and blushed.






Hexiya spent another two days convalescing. Then, early on the third morning, they decided to set out into the city again. Their hope was to track down the man who had so frightened Hexiya a few days previously. His image - cloaked, metal-skinned, with two swords at his back - still haunted her.

Hexiya dressed well against the cold outside - warm clothes, pale mauve in colour, setting off her green eyes; good boots; a long coat of pale cream, with a capacious hood; a black scarf; soft leather gloves.

Kaledria donned the leathers she had arrived in - black, exotic and tooled across the front with abstract patterns. Throwing blades and knives were concealed in her high boots and gauntlets. More were strapped at her thighs and sheathed on her wide belt. Her double-bladed hand-axe hung at her side. She looked outlandish, fascinating, dangerous and not a little alluring.

Hexiya opened a cupboard and drew out a long black cloak. She handed it to her with a smile. 'It's cold out,' she said.

Kaledria swung it around herself, fastened it, and drew the wide hood over her head.

'You're hardly going to go unnoticed on the streets, but . . . Well, anyone will think twice before causing you trouble, as well.'

Brilliant blue eyes looked down into gentle green. 'Do you know how to fight, Hexiya?'

'Not like you. I studied certain martial techniques with a master who taught at a school on Mount Rakator. Unarmed, though. I don't think I would be much good with a blade.'

Kaledria picked up her sword and then they set out into the streets. Hexiya led the way down the Way of the Suns, towards the place where she had seen the man with metal skin. She felt very afraid. It was not just the power he had radiated - the sense that he possessed enormous might, that he was an elemental force and utterly irresistible. It was also that feeling she had described to Kaledria - that she had recognised, in the deepest part of her, that he was death.

It was extraordinarily cold. Though Varantan winters were often severe, they were rarely so frigid as this. Fortunately there was little wind. The fog drifted slowly, heavily, coating the walls of the buildings with rime. Snow creaked underfoot.

Few people were about. Those they saw appeared like ghosts out of the whiteness, then vanished again, hurrying to find shelter and warmth.

At length Hexiya said: 'We're almost there.' As they walked a little further, more slowly now, she tried to discern the shapes of the surrounding buildings through the obscuring murk. Soon she halted. 'He was standing just over there,' she said with a gesture. 'Talking with an old woman. She was obviously frightened of him.'

'And the next time you looked he was gone?'

She nodded.

There was a tavern on their left. Though it was just ten yards away, it was barely visible. If not for the two brands that smoked and flamed in brackets to either side of its signboard, they would not have seen it.

'Let's try this place then,' said Kaledria.

Outside the entrance, a harlot was standing, apparently waiting for customers. Her hair was a dark confection of curls. Her face, pretty enough, was heavily made up. Her garish clothes revealed more than they hid of the flesh beneath. They were garments that she should have worn in the summer, not on this frozen winter day.

She smiled wanly at them as they stepped up to her. Her skin was blue-white from the cold. She was not even shivering.

Hexiya touched her arm. 'What are you doing out here?' she asked, her voice gentle. 'You'll die if you stay here dressed like that.'

'I have to stay,' she said - an unclear mumble through numb lips.

'Have to?'

The girl nodded a fraction. 'No choice.'

'Come into the warmth,' said Kaledria. 'We'll buy you something hot to eat and drink.'

The girl shook her head to protest, but did not resist as they led her gently but unanswerably within. The murmur of quiet conversation surrounded them. The scents of woodsmoke, food and alcohol were warm and welcoming. They sat the girl in a booth not far from the fire that blazed merrily in the tavern's huge fireplace. At the bar they ordered honeyed tea, soup and bread.

They rejoined prostitute. The barman - a fat, balding fellow with a long beard - brought three earthenware mugs and a large jug that steamed with pleasant fragrances of fruit and spices.

Hexiya poured for them.

The girl held her mug close to her. She had begun shivering uncontrollably. After a while a touch of colour crept back into her face. Her mouth trembled as if she was on the verge of tears.

'I'm not supposed to be here,' she managed. 'They'll punish me. They'll know I didn't stay outside.'

'Who will?'

'The things from my dreams.' The way she said it, it was as if she assumed that the two of them would know what she was talking about.

'Tell us about them,' Hexiya urged.

The girl grimaced. 'They're made of black smoke. Smoke that shifts and writhes. Or perhaps they are just serpents of dark, liquid fumes that have taken the form of men. They told me how I had to dress. They told me where I should stand. They said I had to wait for a special customer. That I'd know him when I saw him.'

Hexiya met Kaledria's gaze. There seemed little to say.

Soon the barman returned with soup and bread. He set it down on the table. 'Can I get you anything else?' His voice was rough, probably from drink - he had a swollen red nose. But his manner was pleasant enough.

'You might be able to help with something,' said Hexiya. 'A man came in here, eight days ago. Tall and powerfully-built. Bearded. Cloaked in grey, with two swords at his back. Frightening. Very imposing. Even awe-inspiring. You'd remember him if you saw him.'

The barman nodded. Big and fierce-looking though he was, a touch of fear had entered his eyes.

He sat down and leaned close, smelling of smoke and beer. Keeping his voice low, he said: 'I saw him all right. I won't forget him either. Such strange skin. As if he was made of metal. He took one of the harlots at the bar. Led her upstairs. Butchered her like he was preparing an animal at a slaughterhouse. I told the city guards, but . . .' He trailed off, shaking his head.

'What?' asked Kaledria.

He seemed uncertain of what to say. A dark frown creased his brow and blood rushed to his face. 'It was a strange thing. When I ran down to the nearest guardhouse and asked them to come, it was as if they had been expecting me. And when they came here and took away the body, they were telling jokes and laughing.' Rage shone now in the barman's eyes. 'I did not know what I could do. That poor girl. Not much older than this one.' He gestured to the shivering young prostitute as she ate her soup. 'Bad times,' he said, 'when a girl can be cut up like that. When Varantan guards don't care.'

'Where did the man go?'

He stared at the table, glowering. 'I don't know. I wish I did. I'd hire some mercenaries and go after him. No, he just headed out into the night. An hour later I checked the room he had taken and found the girl.' Looking up, he said: 'Why are you interested?'

'We're hunting him,' said Kaledria.

He regarded her for a long moment. 'You look like you can fight,' he said. 'But so did he. And he was a lot bigger than you. He looked like he could put his fist through a wall if he wanted to.'

'Do you have any idea how we might find him?'

He spread his slab-like hands wide. 'Ask at the guard stations and the marketplace. Ask the beggars - they see everything. A man like that does not walk unnoticed, not even in a city as big as this.' He stood up. 'Be careful. I'd call some Varantan Warriors for help if I were you.'

Rather unsteadily, he stood and walked with a heavy tread back to the bar.




They stayed until the young harlot had finished eating. Then they met each other's glance. It was time to leave but they did not know what to do with her.

'Don't go,' said the object of their concern suddenly, guessing their thoughts. Her eyes were full of fear. 'Please.'

Hexiya gazed at her. The girl was not the often coarse, hardened type that might seek such a profession. But she wondered how long it would be before the light of hope went out of her eyes and was replaced by dull acceptance. She wondered how long it would be before her spirit was destroyed, and even her life. In Varanta, the life of a street-prostitute was wholly different to that of a temple-courtesan or a palace concubine, or even that of a slave-girl to a rich merchant. Unless, perhaps, she was lucky enough to acquire regular customers who were gentle with her.

'What should we do?' she asked softly.

'I cannot go out again,' said the girl, staring fearfully at the front door. 'They will kill me.'

'The men made of snakes of smoke?' asked Kaledria.

She nodded, her eyes wide and afraid.

'And if we were with you? Would you come out then?'

The girl bit her lip. 'Could you fight them for me? If they attacked?'

'I'd try.'

A degree of resolution and courage was revealed in the girl's face. Her sudden look of strength was surprising. She was no mouse.

They got up together.

'Wait,' said the barman as they crossed the floor.

They turned as he vanished around a corner. A moment later he came back with a cloak and handed it to the girl. 'Take this,' he said. 'Bring it back if you can.' He looked almost apologetic. 'It's cold outside.'

She nodded her thanks. 'I will.'

Outside the fog drifted slowly, billows moving over and around them in strange caresses. Large flakes of snow fell through the whiteness.

The girl walked between them as they set off down the street. They had not gone more than ten paces when she stopped, a gasp of fear escaping her.

Hexiya looked around, alarmed, but saw nothing. Kaledria stepped away, drawing her sword with a soft slither of oiled metal against leather.

The girl was wide-eyed and terrified. She was staring straight ahead of her.

'What's there?' hissed Hexiya. There was nothing around them but the pale obscurity of the thick, freezing mist.

The girl's arms came up over her face. She screamed, a pathetic howl of despair.

Still Hexiya could see nothing. Quickly she tried to see what was not ordinarily visible.

The street was transformed into darkness and shadow. Kaledria was a blazing flame of red and gold and blue. The prostitute was a muted blue, delicate and fragile. No one else was nearby.

Then there was a sudden rush of movement from further along the Way. Spectral shapes, manlike but insubstantial, raced towards them. Alarm thrilled through her and she ducked aside. She was sure she was too slow to avoid them; but the things flashed past her.

The girl screamed. Two shadow-men were twisting around her, bearing her to the ground. Even as she fought, their shapes melted and shifted. Smoky black tentacles wrapped around her. The tips of the serpent-shapes opened like sooty flowers. Then they fastened upon her exposed flesh.

Immediately they began to drain her. The light and heat of her aura dimmed, though she struggled feebly against the awful embrace.

'What is it?' said Kaledria, bafflement and urgency in her voice as she knelt beside and held onto the writhing girl.

Hexiya glanced back into the normal visible spectrum. Again she could see nothing of the creatures of smoke. Spasms were racking the girl's body. Ten or more bite-marks had appeared on her cheeks, forehead, belly and legs. They were not like snake-bites. Circular tooth-marks surrounded the deeper penetration of central fangs.

Looking again at the girl's aura, Hexiya saw that it had begun flickering uncertainly. She tried to take hold of the smokey tendrils, not knowing what else she might do. But her hands passed straight through them. She could feel nothing at all. No tangible menace. No enemy she could fight. And still the spectral serpents drained the girl of life.

The prostitute wailed, shuddered, moaned and slapped at herself. Hexiya, numb and impotent, could do nothing but watch as she slithered across the frozen ground on her back. Her skin was going dark with blood as bite after bite appeared upon her. Welts were appearing where she was gripped by invisible tentacles.

Her cries grew weak. Her struggling lessened. Less than a minute after it had begun, it was over.

Hexiya and Kaledria, kneeling on either side the girl, stared down at her where she lay still in death.




Hexiya knew of a shrine, overseen by the clerics of the Temple of the Night, that was not far away. Together they carried the young harlot to it, and left her within its confines. A priest would visit soon. He would see to the rites. Hexiya left money for his troubles upon the girl's chest.



Continued in Part 7


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