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Brain Damage

"The hands that will save the universe are stained with blood."

It was my voice, but those weren't my words. Daigoro and Regan were watching me. I couldn't move. I just stood there, watching the embers from the bon fire as they leaped into the black sky and vanished. It had been a long time since I'd been there. I scanned the sky and found the three stars. Shaman, Firefly and Yuusei. We were all where we should be. It might have been some comfort to me, despite what I had figured out, that we were meant to be there. I just didn't find any comfort in the fact that what had brought the three stars into being could so easily turn its back on them.

It wasn't just a vision that had shown me the book. It was a memory that somehow got lost. Rune had taken us to Lost Tree, which had been a desert for quite a while. Its former inhabitants were determined not to lose their culture and excavated every important site they could still locate. But the sands were cruel. They would dig forever and never really save anything.

The Eye of Isis had been an island in the middle of a crystal clear ocean. People built temples there, and strange powers were awakened. The Eye of Isis was at the intersection of about fifteen leylines. Nowhere else in the universe harbored that much energy.

Deep inside one of the oldest temples, Rune had long ago found a library that contained empty books; at least to his eyes, they were empty. Eventually, he figured out that the books were journals kept by various incarnations of the three stars. We could read them. I only read one of Shaman's books. It was the only one I had to read. And Rune could read it, too. He'd written in it. It had been kept by a man named Mike and started with an entry about how Ryan and Peter had run away from the orphanage. Mike knew he'd see them again. He'd had visions. On the four pages before the first entry were the sketches I'd seen in the vision. When I started to ask the hard questions, Rune took us to another room below the library. Against one wall was a shattered glass canister surrounded by scorch marks. He'd been born there.

Then he told us more about what he was, about why he'd been made and how he'd fought against that purpose. The eternal flame of the universe, that which made the universe and gave birth to God herself; that which, along with God, made three guardian angels; that which had the power to end the whole damn thing in the blink of an eye had been made flesh to be an assassin. That was all. But Rune never really tapped into his power. He could have made things difficult, but he'd found too much about living that he enjoyed.

That was why he couldn't betray us. He made us. So why had he turned?

The black sky bled to white. I saw Rune's hands reaching towards a figure that stood in front of him, laughing. I saw a bright flash and heard screams. I opened my eyes. Even through the red, I knew Valewind was cold just by looking at it.

Valewind wasn't a war front. There were no Imperial forces lurking. There were no demons. It was just too fucking cold for anything or anyone, which made it equal parts a good place to hide and a miserable place to wait things out.

The bag Rune had given me contained my guns, Hizashi and Getsuei, the ones Rune had made for me out of that strange metal that sparked and swirled. There were two boxes of bullets. On each bullet was the name of someone who had died in the war, and the first one I picked up said Shane Decker. There was a smaller box of black wood with inlays of an iridescent metal in four leaf clover shapes. Inside the box was a ring made of Rune's metal with a small bright diamond set in it. He'd left a note with the ring. "Give this to Regan," it said. Yeah, right. There was a leather pouch that was stiff with dried blood. Inside it was a locket with the name Rowen engraved on the back. There were several objects of various shapes and sizes that I couldn't quite figure out. They were Duncan's. He was always making things. Some of them worked. Some didn't. Some were just toys. Others were weapons. Those were weapons. I found the Imperial insignia badges Kaylan had given us in an envelope. I remembered the day we'd taken them off. I had wanted to destroy them, but Danel had talked me out of it. "If we win, we'll still have a place," he had said. Our official pardon was still sealed up in its wooden tube, but the gold tassel had been torn off. Blue Ava's Angel's registration papers were still in the large plastic folder the official at the docking bay had placed them in. I squinted through the red haze at the dates and the signatures. Seventeen years ago, things had been clear, and it all seemed like smooth sailing. I had never been completely comfortable with it. It was too easy. It was too good. I had always been able to feel something dark lurking nearby. I could have done things differently. I had the fate of the universe in my hands. I could have changed everything. But I just watched.

I looked at my hands. A voice whispered in my head, "These are not the hands that save the universe. The hands that will save the universe are stained with blood." I shuddered. I wondered how Rune betraying us had anything to do with saving the universe.

I loaded the guns. The right hand gun, Hizashi, was loaded with Shane, Duncan, Leysa, Danel, Dylan and Hiram. I loaded Getsuei with my brothers, Benjamin and Wesley, and with Serena Beckham, Theo Mosley, John Hampton and Rebecca Avery. Every shot would kill, and every life we'd lost would be avenged. If I had a bullet with my own name on it, I would send it straight through Rune's heart.

We'd been on Valewind for half a day. We had no food and no other supplies. The refugees hiding in the underground caverns refused to help us. I couldn't blame them. It was our fault they had lost their homes.

Jake contacted me and told me he had found the underground prison. He'd seen Leysa but not Duncan, and the rest of the cells were empty. He found out that the demon-possessed Kaylan had no real power but had several powerful henchmen. One of them was a psychic named Seren who seemed more than a little reluctant to help. I could see her in Jake's mind. It was the pink-haired girl who had tracked me to the mountain compound. The others were demons, aliens and humans with big mean streaks, including Hern Szigeti who did nothing more than bash heads and break arms when orders weren't followed. It didn't appear that Rune had been in contact with anyone who worked for the Empire, and he hadn't been seen on Xebec since the battle in which Danel and Dylan had died. Jake had heard news of the successful attack on the compound and that a prisoner had been taken. Beyond that, he hadn't heard much. There was too much activity for him to risk a lot of sneaking around. I reminded him that his life was mine and that I wanted it back alive.

In the meantime, Tristan had talked to Kore, and she sent him coded coordinates for where my family was staying.

When the planet Quetzal became overcrowded and pollution had made it almost uninhabitable, the government had built a huge space station and launched it into orbit. Walden City was supposed to have been a haven, but like everything else, it went south pretty damn fast. With the Empire collapsing around it and the economy having been shit for years, Walden City was mostly ghettos. Not quite a nice safe hiding place, but certainly one that was unexpected.

There was only one problem in getting there. It was practically on the other side of the universe from Valewind.

"How are we on fuel?" I asked.

"Low," Barrett said.

"Not to mention the fact that we have no food," Anala said.

"How far can we get before we have to stop?" I asked.

"Well, Blue Ava's Angel holds more fuel, so you could probably get as far as Teatree. We would probably need to stop on Lore or Parable," Tristan said. "And then there's the problem of money and finding people willing to help us."

"What's the situation on Lore right now?"

"It's been quiet," Barrett said. "But - "

"Wait a minute. Junket's closer than either of those. What about Junket?"

"You don't wanna go there."

"Why not?"

"Do you remember what Duncan told us about Texas?" Anala asked.

"Yeah."

"It's not like that any more. The Akurei that Jake didn't kill managed to lick up enough of his blood that they were able to push Texas up and make it more visible. It killed them, but it's just not a nice place any more."

"It was never nice in the first place."

"As I was saying, Lore's got one major problem," Barrett said. "An army. Not an Imperial army; not a demon army. A resistance army. They'll shoot us down as soon as they see us. They've got enough weapons to take out anything that comes their way, and the rumor is that they got something really nasty waiting in the wings. They won't help us."

"Even if we paid them?"

"What do you plan to pay them with?" Tristan asked.

"Gold."

"From where?"

"Junket."

"Talon, are you crazy? We can't go there."

"You're not. I am. You don't have enough fuel for the stop. So you're going to meet me on Lore."

"Where are you going to get gold on Junket?" Anala asked.

"From the bank."

"You're going to rob a bank?"

"Sort of. Is it stealing if I'm taking what's mine?"

"Excuse me?"

"When I was the pilot on Lady Brannagh's ship, we used to stop on Junket a lot. Supplies were cheap. Drinks were cheap. We all stashed gold there. After I quit that, I still stashed a lot there since I went there all the time. And I planned to use it when I took Petrine and Regan away from there, but anyway, it's still there."

"But if the place is all creepy with the monsters from Texas, what makes you think you can get to your gold?" Tristan asked.

"Just a hunch."

"Sounds like you know something we don't."

"I know Vinny."

I wasn't looking forward to going back to Junket, but if there was any chance of getting my gold or anyone else's gold, I had to. Besides, I was pretty sure that Texas rising to the surface was an improvement. There wasn't much that would make the place worse.

As soon as I landed at the port in Crossgrove, Regan was in my head.

"Where the fuck are you?" she asked. "I've been trying to reach you for days. I thought they got you again."

"I'm sorry, Regan," I said. "We've been on Valewind, and it takes pretty much all I got to fly without crashing."

"You know, you've got a really bad habit of making a liar out of yourself."

"Well, if everyone would just leave me the fuck alone, I'd be able to go wherever I want."

"Rune didn't leave the base with you, did he?"

"No."

"He's with the Emperor now."

"I don't know where he is."

"Where are you?"

"Junket."

"Junket? What the hell for?"

"We have no food, and we're low on fuel. We're gonna have to stop on Lore before we make it to Walden City. Barrett told me there's some kind of resistance movement on Lore that's likely to be uncooperative. I think I have a way to make them less uncooperative."

"What about Vinny?"

"He can try to mess with me if he wants."

"And the monsters?"

"I haven't seen any yet, but I've dealt with worse. I'll be fine."

Regan giggled. "It's not you I'm worried about. It's them."

"I promise I won't be long."

"Don't promise, Daddy."

"Can I bribe you with ice cream, then?"

"I'm too old for that now."

"Too old for chocolate and vanilla?"

"Daddy "

"Are you sure you don't want ice cream?"

"I just want you to get here safe. And soon."

When I stepped off Blue Ava's Angel, there was grey blob of a creature wearing green overalls and a green cap waiting for me. "No visitors," it rumbled. Its breath reeked of fish and onions.

"This is a business trip, lumpy. I'm not here for fun," I said.

"How you know my name?"

"I'm psychic. Could you move? I'm in a hurry."

"Psychic?"

"And in a hurry."

Lumpy grinned. I think. "No hurry. Lord Vinny talk to all visitors."

"Lord Vinny?"

"He give me job. He tell me eat all troublemakers. We go see Lord Vinny now."

"All right. Lead the way."

"You get inside. You no run away."

"What?"

Lumpy took hold of my arm and pulled me towards him. I pulled my gun. "Why you shoot Lumpy?"

"I don't wanna shoot Lumpy, but if you do what I think you're gonna do, I will. I won't run. Promise."

Lumpy looked down at his hand on my arm. He frowned, I think, and let go. I put my gun up and followed him.

Crossgrove was fractured. I looked with Shaman and saw strange grey buildings poking through the streets and out of windows. I didn't see any humans or aliens that I recognized, just the odd Texans. They oozed and floated by, staring at me as I tried to avoid Lumpy's trail of oniony sludge. It was like being in a busted up house of mirrors.

For about five minutes, a scrawny creature with large pointed ears and wide yellow eyes had been following us. It kept lifting its nose and sniffing. I thought it liked Lumpy's smell and was hoping for leftovers, but the more I watched it, the less it seemed to even notice Lumpy, much less want a piece of his fish and onion snack. It got closer, and every once in a while, it reached out to try to touch me. I figured ignoring it was the best thing to do, like the caged animals at the zoo. Don't feed it, don't make eye contact and maybe it won't tear your throat out. Besides, Lumpy didn't seem too worried. When we were just outside the Wheel, the creature jumped up on my shoulders and started yanking at my backpack.

"I smell Kihaku," it said. "Kihaku the King, the last one, the last one. I smell him. Where is he? You took him away again, again. Just like the Shadow did when the Shadow turned. Took the King away! Give him back to us! Give him back!"

Lumpy grabbed the thing by the scruff of its neck and pulled it away. It kicked and screamed. Lumpy shoved it against his chest. It disappeared into his gooey bulk, but I could still hear it screaming. Something inside Lumpy made a sound like stones grinding, and the screams stopped. Lumpy belched.

"What the fuck was that?" I asked.

"Dinner," Lumpy said.

"Did dinner have a name?"

"It called ikujinashi. Used to be servants to royal family before Shadow turned. Now they mostly dinner. Sometimes lunch."

Cold chills enveloped me, and I felt my head strike the sidewalk before I had a chance to warn Lumpy about my impending unconsciousness. I saw a long dark hallway. A woman with round cheekbones and long red hair crept along the wall with a candle in one hand. She was looking for something or someone. Ahead of her, she saw the light of another candle and sighed. She recognized the shape of the shadow the flame cast on the stone wall. She ran the last few steps. "Oh, Jake, thank God it's you. I've been so worried. Where's Duncan? Someone said he was injured," she said. Then she stopped. The candle fell from her hand and burned her foot. Jake turned to face her. His mouth was covered in blood. He dropped the body he'd been feeding from. It was his mother. Duncan's wife screamed and tried to run, but Jake was too fast. Her piercing scream echoed through blackness as the vision faded. The cold spiders kept running over my skin, and I wondered if I had been wrong to trust Jake so quickly. Texans measured time by his becoming an Akurei. That couldn't be a good sign.

I felt a vague stinging sensation on the side of my head. A fat cold spider crawled up the back of my neck. I saw a laboratory, machines, piles of documents and scientists with evil glints in their eyes. Someone turned a dial, and a girl screamed. I heard her voice in my head. "Help me. Please help me." I wanted to, but there was nothing I could do.

The stinging feeling got annoying. I opened my eyes. The red haze blanketed the room. I could tell there was a woman sitting next to me mostly by smell and not distinct sight. I smelled leather, rubbing alcohol, bandages and roses.

"Hey, you okay?" she asked.

"How long have I been out?" I asked.

"Half an hour."

"Are we at the Wheel?"

"Yeah."

"Where's Vinny?"

"He's downstairs."

I started to get up. She pushed me back down.

"You took a nasty bump. You might wanna stay put for a while."

"I'm fine. My head is hard. I got metal plates wait, they're not metal any more. My point is - "

"Dude, just relax. Whatever business you got with Lord Vinny can wait a little while longer, can't it? Let me just clean you up, and then, if you want, I can - "

"No."

"All right, fine. And here I thought I was gonna get the first human we've seen here in years. And a nice looking one at that. Damn."

She finished cleaning my wounded head and bandaged it up. It turned out that I had given myself a nice deep gash when I landed on the corner of a building that was jutting up through the sidewalk. I damn near put my eye out. As it was, I ended up with a huge purple bruise and a tiny crack in my orbital bone. Of all the things I might have expected to beat me up in Crossgrove, the sidewalk wasn't one of them.

I felt a little woozy, so the girl helped me get downstairs where Vinny was waiting.

"Our visitor is ready to see you now," she said.

Vinny just stared at me. His jaw dropped. He turned pale. Through the red, I watched his nasty black aura turn an ashy grey. "You " he said. He raised a finger at me. Then I noticed why he wasn't standing up. He was in a wheel chair. His legs stopped at mid thigh.

"Hiya, Vinny," I said. I stumbled over to the table and forced his hand into mine. I pumped it enthusiastically. "Aren't you glad to see me? I bet you thought I was dead. Well, I guess I don't die so easy. Can you believe that?"

He yanked his hand back. "Get the fuck off me, Konstantine! You're fucking nuts. What the fuck are you doing here?" He still hated me, but I could tell he was glad to see me. The Empire wasn't good for business, and he knew I was the only one who could change things.

I sat down. "Can I get a beer? I haven't had a beer in six years. I could really use a beer or twenty."

Vinny waved his hand. I heard the girl walk to the bar. She came back to the table with two mugs. "So what are you doing here?" he asked. "You didn't come here to torture me more. I know you. You want something."

I sipped my beer. Then I gulped it down and asked for another one. Halfway through the second one, I felt like talking. "How's business these days, Vinny?"

"Shit. I got shit. These stupid fucking Texans ran everyone off, and they ain't got no money. They screw my girls and drink my beer and all that gets us is another day."

"Why didn't you run off?"

He didn't answer.

"What happened to your legs?"

"That fucking monster you call your friend. When he came back here after you were captured, he was just fucking nuts. I don't know what he was looking for, but he was pissed. He took it out on me. I guess I shoulda stayed outta his way, but I had a duty to protect my people. He woulda killed everything and everyone on this planet."

"Which monster? Dylan or Rune?"

"The red-haired freak."

I don't know if it would have been less surprising to hear that Dylan had done it. I'd seen Dylan get that pissed. I'd seen him tear through soldiers. I'd never seen Rune lose control like that. I guess I just didn't want to admit that he was capable of that kind of thing. But it did give me another excuse to keep him away from Regan.

"So you wanna tell me what you're doing here?"

"No."

"Now look - "

"But I will anyway. I need money."

"I can't give you a loan."

"I'm not asking you for a loan. I'm asking you to get me into the bank."

"You wanna rob a bank? Couldn't you have gone to another planet to rob a bank?"

"I'm not robbing it. I'm making a withdrawal."

Vinny nodded. "I see. I figured you would have taken that by now. I don't know if it's still there."

"I think the Texans would be paying you with my gold if it weren't there."

"What do I get for helping you out?"

"A little bit of good karma. It might keep you out of the worst part of hell."

"I'm already in hell because of you."

"You killed the woman I loved. You took her away from her daughter. What was I supposed to do? Pat you on the back? Give you a medal? It's enough that I let you live."

"I don't mean just that. That weird kid you took with you last time. If he hadn't left, Texas woulda stayed where it was. If you hadn't gotten captured, I'd still have my legs. If you hadn't fallen for my prostitute and gotten her pregnant and tried to take her away, I would have never had to kill her. And none of this would have happened. None of it! She'd still be here. You'd still be coming here to pay for her. There'd be no Texas. There'd be no Empire. I'd still have my legs and my testicles and my dick. It's like you were born to fuck up my life."

"Everyone has to have a purpose."

"I oughta tell you to go fuck yourself and let Lumpy snack on you."

"But you won't."

"But I won't. You know why?" Vinny didn't finish his thought. "Fuck you, Konstantine," he said. He picked up his beer and threw it at me. I ducked. The girl who smelled like roses caught the mug and no longer smelled like roses. She slammed the mug down on the bar and stalked upstairs. "Fuck you," Vinny said.

"Are you done?"

"For now."

"If I thought I could do it without you, I would. If I thought that killing you wouldn't turn this place into even more of a hellhole, I would. But this place needs you, and you deserve it. I know how things work. I don't have to like it."

"All right, look. It's getting dark. Going out there at night is a fucking bad idea. Stay here. Drink, eat, sleep, whatever. I'll come back in the morning, and we'll go over to the bank."

"I don't have time to waste."

"I know. You don't want to go out there at night. The creepy Texans come out at night, and they don't care who or what you are. They'll tear you to pieces, and then they'll tear each other to pieces over who gets to keep your pieces."

Vinny was right. I didn't want to go out there at night. I stood in the doorway for a while after he left and watched the city turn itself over to the dark. Shadowy things dripped up out of the sidewalk and gobbled up whatever might have been nearby. Ghosts drifted down the streets, wailing. I heard one voice above the others, singing songs with words so painful I could hardly listen to them without feeling like whatever she'd been through had happened to me, too. The streets skittered with life forms. Every once in a while, I spotted a human with the creatures. Prostitutes, both male and female, bodyguards and Vinny's henchmen. No wonder they called him Lord Vinny. He would always find a way to have his fingers in the pie no matter what kind of pie it was.

I sat at the bar and drank until I felt tired then went back upstairs and slept. For the first time in six years, I dreamed. I used to hate my dreams, but I had never wanted them to go away. When they did, I missed them. But they came back to me. That counts for something, doesn't it?

I saw a tear-shaped jewel in a young man's hand. His eyes were glowing. I saw a long dark hallway. At the end of it was a bright light behind a door. I ran towards the light, thinking it was going to save me. The door was locked, and I couldn't open it. I dreamed that I was alone in a desert. It was cold. Above me was a thick veil of stars. Meteors streaked across the sky. A tiny fire burned nearby. There had once been a forest there. I saw Rune and Regan in an empty room. He was telling her something. She was starting to cry. He held her for a while, and then they kissed. She pushed him away and slapped him as hard as she could. Someone else came into the room, and she stalked out. An hour later, she knocked on his door, and he took her to his bed. I decided that I was going to kill him. And if that didn't work, then I was going to beat the shit out of him and make him wish I had killed him. And I was going to look into chastity belts for Regan.

I thought it was an earthquake at first. The whole room shook. I nearly fell out of the bed. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. A wide man with a hazy violet aura was standing at the foot of the bed. His left foot was propped up on the frame. "Rise and shine, sleepy head," he said. His voice was high and tinny. "Vinny doesn't wanna waste a lot time. The Rising Shadow celebration starts tonight. You don't wanna be here when it does."

"What's the Rising Shadow celebration?"

"A nasty party. Not fun nasty. Nasty nasty. It's an observance of the day the Shadow turned."

"This turning shadow shit is really starting to bug me."

"Why? Because you're responsible for his death?"

"I didn't kill him."

"You're holding his life. You reek of it. What are we supposed to think that means?"

"Go tell your boss I'll be down in a minute."

The wide man gave me a nasty little grin with sharp grey teeth and moved out of the room like he might've been a shadow himself. I was already dressed, so I got my guns and my backpack and tried to look out the window. It was morning. It wasn't quite as dark, but something about the light seemed ominous. Cold chills ran up my arms. I waited for a vision, but it wasn't those chills. It was just because of the creepy morning.

The bar was full when I got downstairs. Everyone who worked for Vinny was there. There were ten Avas in various colors, several bulky guys with weapons, a few who were bulky enough to not need weapons, a smattering of weaselly looking men and women in suits, four slender, pretty boys in colored leathers similar to what the Avas wore and of course, Lumpy.

"Your timing sucks, Konstantine," Vinny said.

"It always has," I said.

"The Rising Shadow celebration doesn't happen on a regular schedule. Their sense of time is fucked up. It would be just our luck that it would happen while you're here."

"Sorry. I could always try telling them the truth about Jake. That might make them less inclined to celebrate his betrayal."

"No. You're going to keep your fucking mouth shut, get your fucking gold and get the fuck off my planet as soon as you can."

"All right, then. Let's go."

For a second, Vinny didn't seem to think I was serious about him going with me, but he knew better. He wheeled himself towards the door.

The sidewalk felt a little spongy when I stepped outside. I wondered if I'd stepped on something. I paused and looked at my feet.

"Move it, Konstantine," Vinny said. "If you just stand there like that, one of the ghost dancers might snag you."

"Ghost dancers?"

"It's not as pleasant as it sounds."

"Of course not. I haven't forgotten where I am."

"Let's go."

I had to wrench my foot out of the squishy sidewalk. I felt cold, bony fingers swiping at my legs. In the day, I could barely see them. They were wispy scraps of ghosts, and they were pissed. They watched me as we walked to the bank. They knew I could see them. Their hollow, fragmented eyes seemed to touch mine. I shivered and stumbled. Vinny chucked under his breath.

"You can't turn it off, can you?" he asked.

"I could, but - "

"You'd be blind."

"It's a red haze, actually. It's like my eyes are full of blood."

"Is it because of what they did to you?"

"Do you really care, or are you just looking for things to use against me?"

He didn't answer. He was concerned.

"I don't remember what they did. Not everything. They took the metal out of my head. Who the hell knows what they did to my brain while they were in there? They wanted to know if a psychic could control a machine. That one backfired."

"If Rune hadn't chopped my legs off, I would have joined his army. I don't know what it is about you, but you seem to be the key to peace in this universe. My business doesn't run so well in war time."

"I noticed."

"You can do this, can't you?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter whether I can or not. I don't have a choice."

"Why did you come here alone?"

"There wasn't anyone to come with me."

He let it go at that, and I let him think that I was fighting the war on my own.

The bank was the only building in Crossgrove that didn't seem to have pieces of Texas sticking out everywhere. The white marble floor was clean and shiny. The teller windows were polished. The trays on the center island for deposits and withdrawals were all filled with the right documents. The carpet in the waiting area was clean, and an array of recent electronic magazine slates sat on the round table between the chairs. The place looked as if it had been cleaned the night before.

"This is weird," Vinny said.

"I take it you keep your money somewhere else."

"I woulda thought the bank was just as fucked as everything else."

"It's magic."

I had to look hard to see it, but it was there. The place was coated in a fine mesh of magic.

Vinny had a set of keys for the vault door and tried three of them before one worked. The lock had been changed every day, and only the vault teller and manager knew which key to use from day to day. That made it a little harder for other employees to try to lift the keys and break into the vault, but it had been done. It just required a little more patience. Once the outer door was unlocked, we were facing the big vault door with the highly complicated combination lock. There were four locks, actually, and it took four people to open the vault, each one with a combination. The locks had to be opened in a specific order or the security system would kick in, trapping anyone trying to open the vault behind a Plexiglas wall. The few inches between the Plexiglas and the vault door would slowly fill with water while the police received an electronic distress signal. I knew all this because the first time I'd been on Junket was at the request of Lady Brannagh's uncle who was in charge of security for the bank. He wanted to see if the system worked, so he asked us to break into the vault. It's a damn shame we weren't real bank robbers.

"How are you at safe cracking?" I asked.

"One lock, not so bad. This, I don't think so."

"Well, pick one and get cracking."

"Can't you do the psychic thing to it?"

"What, are you afraid you can't do it?"

"You can't. Can you?"

"It doesn't work that way."

"A lock is a machine."

"All right, fine. I'll try. You're in my way."

I pulled Vinny's wheel chair back from the door a few inches so that if the Plexiglas did come down, Vinny would stop it from going all the way down, and I might have enough time to get out of the way. Vinny looked up at the ceiling and noticed what I had done. He started swearing under his breath and put his hands on the wheels.

"Don't move," I said.

"You're fucking crazy. If that thing comes down, it'll cut me in half."

"Not if you're really really still."

"Fuck you."

Last time I broke into the vault, I had the help of three other people. We each got one combination through various methods, and Lady Brannagh had gotten all the specifics on the locks. So we knew what to do. The second time, I wasn't so sure. That was over twenty years ago. The combinations weren't the same, even if I somehow remembered all of them. The order had probably been changed as well. I pressed my hands to the door. The magic mesh closed over my fingers. I was going to have to take that off first. I wished Duncan were there. Then I thought of the things in my backpack. Maybe one of them would help.

The first one I pulled out was round with tiny vertical slits along the surface. I remembered when Duncan had made it. It was a new, improved starburst, and he'd been a little too eager to try it out. He never got a chance. I shoved it in my pocket, just in case.

The second one I grabbed looked like a magic wand or something, and I couldn't think of what it might be good for. It wasn't like Duncan had written an owner's manual for those things.

I rooted around until I came up with a box. It was a smaller version of the box Duncan had used to hold the pirates' magic. I wondered how many compartments the small one had and how I would know which one to use, but as I ran my fingers over it, searching for grooves and openings, I found that it only had one compartment. That narrowed things down a bit. I sat down and reached into the magic webbing. I took hold of a loose end. It seemed like it was too easy to move it, but then I got the feeling that the magic somehow knew I was one of the good guys. It slid through my hands and into the box with very little tugging on my part.

With the magic out of the way and conveniently stored for later use, I went back to trying to open the vault door. Vinny was starting to sweat. I could tell it had gotten a little darker outside, and I could hear the wailing and singing ghosts. "You better hurry the fuck up," Vinny said. I wasn't as worried about the Rising Shadow celebration as Vinny was, but I still agreed with him.

I put my hands on the door and closed my eyes. My palms tingled. Nothing happened. I concentrated harder. I heard tiny whispers, not loud enough to understand. Then something popped. Cold washed over me. I heard footsteps. I heard friendly tellers wishing people nice days.

"Can I help you, sir?" a woman asked.

I looked up. I was still standing at the vault door with my hands on it. A woman in a tailored grey skirt suit was standing next to me, smiling. I looked behind me. Vinny wasn't there.

"Sir?"

"Um, I need I "

"Would you like to make a withdrawal?"

"Yeah. I have some gold in here."

"All right, sir. What's your name?"

"Talon Konstantine."

"How much would you like to take out?"

"All of it. I don't know how much is there. I don't remember."

"That's no problem. I'll check your balance for you. I'll be right back."

I watched the woman walk to an office on the other side of the bank and punch in my name on her computer. Her eyes got wide for a second. She wrote something down and cleared the screen. She walked back over to me. "I don't think I'd remember a figure that high either," she said. She showed me the slip of paper, and I lost count of all the zeros after the eight and the first five zeros.

"Eight million?" I asked.

"Eight hundred million."

"How the fuck did that happen?"

"You've been making regular deposits for several years, sometimes in very large amounts."

"That's not true. I haven't touched the damn thing in over twenty years."

She smiled. "Someone has."

It came to me before I was ready for it, and I didn't like it very much. "Irial."

The woman shrugged. "Would you mind stepping back, please?"

I stepped back. Two extra arms unfolded from her sides. Her brow furrowed as her four arms worked at the locks. I listened to the tumblers falling and sliding into place. Her face smoothed. The four arms took hold of the handle and pulled the door open. Five minutes later, there was a stack of slim cases in the center of the vault, and I was back in the empty bank with Vinny.

Vinny pushed himself into the vault. "How the hell did you do that?" he asked.

"I don't know. What did I do?"

"You went through the door and opened it from the inside."

"I didn't open it."

"Right. Whatever. Do you have what you need?"

"Yeah. There's just one problem." I pointed to the stack. It was in a neat pyramid with the top layer stopping about chest high.

"Holy shit. How much is it?"

"About a million times more than what I expected."

"And you have no way to get it out of here." He laughed. "I could lock you in the vault with all your gold, and you'd suffocate. All for money!"

I picked up one of the cases. It wasn't too heavy. I put a couple in my backpack.

"That's gonna take forever," Vinny said.

I pulled Getsuei and aimed at Vinny. "Get out of the chair," I said.

"What?"

I pulled the hammer back. "Don't make me waste bullets on you. Get out of the wheel chair. Now."

Vinny managed to get himself out of the wheel chair quicker than he might have without a gun in his face. "You're gonna pay for this," he said, crawling over to the side of the vault. "When this war is over, you're gonna be seeing an awful lot of me. I'm gonna make your life hell. You're gonna wish you were still their little science experiment. I'm gonna - "

"You're assuming that either of us will be alive when the war's over. That might not be the case."

"It damn well better be! You can't treat me like this and get away with it! Your life will be hell, do you hear me? I'm gonna kidnap your daughter and make her a whore just like her mother! I'm - "

I shot the stump of his left leg. He howled. "I told you not to make me waste bullets."

I loaded the wheel chair with as many cases as I could. When I passed the Wheel on my way to the port, I stopped in and asked for volunteers. Three of the big men and Lumpy helped me get all the gold to Blue Ava's Angel pretty quickly while a couple of the Avas took Vinny back to the Wheel to bandage up his wounded stump. I left them half of one case, which ended up being about 1.6 million, and I got off of Junket just as the sky went pitch black and the ghosts and monsters of Texas began to celebrate the Rising Shadow.