By the time we landed on Lore, Duncan's condition had gotten worse. When I carried him off Maelstrom, he was half conscious and unresponsive. When we got to the infirmary where Anala and two doctors were waiting, his aura was going grey and cold. Anala put her hands on his head. I watched her glow flicker and expand into a blaze of pure white flame. Duncan drew a deep breath and opened his eyes. "Anala," he said.
"Shh. It's okay. I won't let you go," she said.
Barrett came in behind two soldiers who carried in Leysa's body on a stretcher. Anala looked up and choked back a sob. But she had believed that her daughter died eight years ago. All we'd done was bring the body back for proper burial.
"We should leave," I said to Barrett. I didn't think I could stand there and watch Duncan struggle to regain all the life that had been sucked out of him.
Barrett nodded and turned to go.
"Talon, wait," Duncan said.
I went back to his side. He grabbed my right hand.
"I saw Jake there," he said. "Was that real? Was he there?"
"He was. Rune brought him back to help with the war."
"His life is in your hand."
"He gave it to me to hold onto for you."
"Where is he now?"
"Was it Rune?"
"That fucking asshole."
"Sounds like you're feeling better already."
"I'll fucking kill him."
"Duncan, just relax. You can't fucking kill anything right now. Let Anala and the doctors take care of you. I'm not gonna let Rune get away with this. Take this and remember how much Jake loved you." I still didn't know what I was doing or how I was doing it, but I felt Jake's life move from my hand to Duncan's. I think it had more to do with what they were and Shaman's natural ability to conduct power than anything I might have been.
As I turned back to the door, the cold spiders burst out along my spine. I didn't feel the impact my body made on the floor, but I knew I hit pretty hard.
I saw Regan's wedding again, and for some reason, Rune was still the groom. But the more I looked, the more I realized that something about him was very different. The fire was gone.
"Anything interesting?" Barrett asked.
"I don't know," I said. I stood up and rubbed my head. "It was too short."
"Are you okay?" Anala asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
But I wasn't really. I was completely confused. Whatever Rune was trying to accomplish, he didn't want anyone to know his plan. He must have thought we'd try to stop him no matter what, which meant it involved him doing some things he'd rather not do and maybe even dying. I thought of the machine Jake told me about. Pieces of another vision flashed in my head. I saw Rune's hands stretched out towards the demon possessed Kaylan, and I heard him say, "Take it."
"He's fucking insane," I said. I didn't realize I'd spoken out loud until I noticed everyone staring at me.
"I think you need a nap," Barrett said.
"I think I need a beer and a nap."
Unfortunately for me, beer was hard to come by on Lore, but the nap was better for me anyway. I kept all the dreams and visions out of my head. For once, I felt better when I woke up. Not great but at least well enough to do what I needed to do.
Duncan had relapsed. The strain of eight years of torture and being a test subject was too much, and the doctors didn't quite know what to do with him. His responses to human medications were minimal. They had limited access to alien treatments, and his physiological make up wasn't like anything they did have. Anala's healing had worked to some extent, but she couldn't give him back the life force that had been drained. They kept Duncan on life support, hoping that time would heal him. As long as his vitals were stable, he had a chance.
Irial had gotten all the best heavy weaponry he could get his hands on. The vanguard of the GLOBE fleet was armed with plasma cannons that rivaled what the Imperial army had. The rest of the fleet got substantial upgrades. If the GLOBE forces had been any larger, they could have wiped out every Imperial brigade on Xebec and then some in a matter of minutes. They were going to make a nice dent.
The carriers were similarly armed, and the soldiers were equipped with high-powered laser rifles. They were going to make more nice dents.
Blue Ava's Angel, Withershins, Maelstrom and Kore's Charybdis were loaded up with stuff I'd never seen before. I spent at least half an hour listening to the engineer describe the new weapons to me, and I got the feeling he wasn't even sure what some of it was.
Irial was inspecting the weapons on Maelstrom when I got off Blue Ava's Angel. I didn't really want to talk to him, but he saw me before I could get away.
"So what do you think?" he asked.
"I'm impressed," I said. "Where the hell do you get this shit?"
"I had a career before the senate. I have connections."
"A career in what? Black market weapons?"
"The military. After my initial training, I was assigned to a special unit. Most of what we did involved prototype weaponry and covert operations. We had a secret compound inside a mountain on Commonwealth. That cyborg unit that went haywire on Azimov was ours. One of our men also took them out. I wonder what ever happened to him. He was quite talented. He had an amazing grasp of warfare, particularly the aspects deception and misdirection. He was never exactly … normal, I suppose. Anyway, the unit was disbanded because certain maneuvers were considered too dangerous and certain members were loose cannons. But the weapons and the technology still existed. I simply kept up with where they were stored."
"What was the guy's name?"
"Why? Do you think you know him?"
"I know I do. I just wanna hear you say it."
"It was Ryan Phoenix."
"No wonder Kaylan was scared of him."
"What are you talking about?"
It took Irial a minute to make the connection. He hadn't seen Rune since Rune had joined my crew, and Rune hadn't been forthcoming with details of those years of his life. "Ah. I see. It makes sense that he betrayed you, then."
"How does that make sense?"
"Talon, he's insane. He's part of what caused our unit to be disbanded. He refused to follow direct orders. The only thing he seemed interested in was destruction. Enjoying your job is one thing, but he was like a child on his birthday. He had no regard for human life whatsoever."
"I think you're wrong about that."
"The man took pleasure in killing innocent people. How am I wrong?"
"He's just misunderstood."
"Stop fooling yourself."
"I've seen a different side of him."
"What you've seen is the temporary sanity that settles over his mind when he thinks he's headed in the right direction. When he finally sees the obstructions on his path for what they are, it's gone."
"He risked his life to rescue me."
"Yes, and he also brought back a dead man to be his spy and then took that life away again. Don't let his bravado fool you into thinking he's a hero. He's very intelligent and cunning. And he's willing to take risks that most people don't."
"But he's made out of the fire that created the whole universe."
"The fire is not the man. The vessel thinks for itself."
"But - "
"No more. You're being foolish. See his actions for what they are. If he is any kind of god, it is a dark, angry one of chaos, destruction and greed. He has no love for you or anything that is merely flesh and blood. If you can't overcome your idealistic view of him, he will kill all of you."
"Just because he abandoned me doesn't mean I should abandon him."
Irial just stared at me. I watched strange shapes twist through his aura. That was doubt and fear. He'd watched my eyes change color. He'd just seen the Shaman as an oracle. It made him wonder if his absolute condemnation of Rune was the right choice. Still, he made a good point. I had to put my own feelings aside if I was going to get the job done. Irial's aura smoothed out. "Don't abandon the rest of the universe to satisfy your own emotions. You may love the sacrificial lamb dearly, but it must still be sacrificed."
"Thanks for the weapons."
I couldn't take much more of that. Even after Rune had blown open an escape route for Duncan and Leysa and let himself fall into an incinerator to allow me to get out of there, I couldn't quite believe that he was still on our side. I wanted to believe it, but it required more faith than I had to give at that point. It required belief in an undying love that I had seen thrown away already. I refused to use Shaman to find the answer. I didn't like the idea of wasting my energy like that. I'd have more concrete proof in the end anyway. Only that would tell me if Rune's outstretched hands held life or death.
Later, I watched Anala perform funeral rites for Leysa after Etienne's soldiers had buried her. When everyone else had walked away from the graveside except me and her, I watched her aura flare brighter than I had ever seen before. Lightning prickled through the white glow.
"I never thought I would reach this," she said.
I said nothing. I could feel how much power was rolling off of her. She'd come to the highest point of a healer's power; the rumored Lazarus touch.
"But what can I do with it?"
"Please don't use it that way."
"I don't want to. My daughter is gone. I never thought I'd see her again the first time I lost her. Somehow you brought her back to me. Now she's come back to me again so I can send her to peace. She died protecting Duncan. I didn't even realize she'd fallen in love with him. She deserves to rest. It would be wrong to bring her back. But what's the point of being able to raise the dead when it's impractical to do?"
"Raise the living."
I left her alone to think about that. It didn't take her long. She ran up behind me, grabbed my arm and dragged me to the infirmary with her. It was dark and cold. The only sounds were the soft hissing and beeping of the machines keeping Duncan alive. His body looked tiny and frail. He'd always been kinda scrawny, but he'd never looked sick. Through the red haze, several of the scars on his forehead and wrists glowed black. They'd been inflicted with magic, probably from the machine. A faint orange light pulsed in his right hand. I didn't want to have to put his name on a bullet again.
"I need to know if he wants to live," Anala said. "He's been through eight years of hell. He spent ten years chained to a wall and drained for the power of his blood. He lost two families. He's lost his brother twice. He's lost Leysa. His whole life has been nothing but loss and suffering. If he wants it to end, I want to turn off the machines. If he wants to live, I'll bring him back."
I put my hand on Duncan's foot and closed my eyes. It felt like sliding down a razor blade. Anala tried to hold me up and couldn't.
It was dark where I ended up. I could see nothing, not even my hand flat against my nose. I tried to get some sense of where I was, but the place had no dimensions, no compass points, and no horizon. I listened. I heard a small scratching noise. I followed it and found a grey light in a corner. Duncan was on his knees, scratching at a wall with one of Jake's knives. He'd broken open his starburst for light, but it was fading. The obsidian wall in front of him had yet to give up a chip or a flake.
"Duncan," I said.
He looked up from his impossible task. He didn't recognize me. He backed himself into the corner and held the knife out in front of him. "What the fuck are you?" he asked.
I wondered what he was seeing. "It's me, Talon."
He looked me up and down. "Right."
I tried to look at myself but found no easy way to do so. "Anala can get you out of here, but only if you want to live. She knows you've suffered, and we all know you'd find peace in death. It's up to you. We can turn off the machines, or she can heal you."
Duncan looked at the wall. He knew he'd never get through it. The light from the starburst flickered out. "Get me the fuck out of here!" he screamed. I saw his hand pulse orange light once. I reached out for his hand and woke up on the floor of the infirmary.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Anala was kneeling beside me. "He wants to live," I said. I could still hear him screaming for someone to get him out.
Anala stood beside Duncan and took his hand in hers. Her aura flared and popped. As I watched, the white glow spread and spun itself into a cocoon around Duncan. Lightning spiraled through it. It moved slowly at first then sped up until the whole thing appeared to have a steady blue glow. Then it burst. The room was suddenly still and quiet. The white light shining on Anala and Duncan wasn't coming from her aura.
Duncan opened his eyes and clawed at the respirator in his mouth. The light around them faded. Anala took the respirator out of Duncan's mouth, and he gulped in fresh air. "I saw an angel," he said.
"It was all glowing and blue and white, and it had huge wings and no face. And it said it was Talon."
Anala looked at me. I shrugged.
"Was it really an angel?" Duncan asked. "Was it really him?"
"I don't know," Anala said.
"Don't ask me," I said. "I don't know what I looked like."
"So the three stars really are angels," Duncan said. "But that means … that means the fire made you. So how are we supposed to kill him? How the hell am I supposed to avenge my brother?"
"Duncan, take it easy. I don't know what we're gonna do about Rune yet. But I promise you, he won't get away with anything he's done, and he isn't gonna turn the universe into nothing again."
The next morning, Etienne and Irial planned the attack. I just listened. It sounded like a good plan to me because it sounded exactly like something Rune would do. That would be to our advantage. He had no idea the kind of help I had. He wouldn't expect a full out attack. He'd be looking for isolated hits. He'd be looking for us to sneak in. Well, we would be sneaking in, but he'd be so busy trying to fight off the GLOBE fighters, he wouldn't notice anything else. At least I hoped he wouldn't notice anything else.
Throughout the day, we checked on the ships, checked the weapons and checked our guts. I was terrified, especially at the thought that I was going to be taking my daughter in there with me, but I had no thought of abandoning the plan. If it was going to work at all, I had to be there.
Against the doctors' orders, Duncan spent the whole day tuning up the ships. Except for the new scars, he seemed back to normal already. He was thrilled to be able to get his hands greasy again, and Blue Ava's Angel was happy to have him back. He made all the other engineers crazy, but he could do things they couldn't do. All the ships responded to him in a way that made the engineers begin to doubt that the machines were just metal, wires and glass.
I gave him the box I had used to store the magic from the bank vault on Junket.
"Cool, you still have the akibako," he said. "I thought I'd never see it again. Thanks for holding on to it."
"It wasn't me. It was Rune. I got captured two years after you and Leysa tried to blow yourselves up."
"Yeah. They experimented on me, gave me a new heart and new lungs, did all kinds of strange things to my brain. Fortunately, I don't remember much of it."
"How did you get out?"
"Rune figured out where I was. He and Daigoro and some mercenaries got me out."
"That doesn't make any fucking sense. Why would he rescue you if he was gonna end up trying to kill you?"
"I really don't know. But he did. Maybe he's got some other plan. Maybe not. Right now, I don't really care."
Duncan looked down at the box and turned it over in his hands. "Hey, you put something in it."
"I needed storage space."
He slid the box open. His eyes got wide. "Holy shit. Where the hell did this shit come from?"
"A bank on Junket. It was protecting the vault door."
"Damn fucking right it was protecting something. You don't have any idea what it is, do you?"
"This came right out of the sun."
"In Texas. The sun is like this giant storehouse of stuff. The akibako came from there."
"You didn't make that?"
"No. It's just an artifact. It was in my family for generations until … I was going to use it to stop the Akurei. Anyway, the sun stores some of the most powerful magic ever used. It's kept there because no one can do anything with it. It's too powerful."
"Then who used it on the bank?"
"I don't even wanna know."
"It wasn't Vinny. I wonder if Irial had anything to do with it."
"It would have ripped Irial in half. He just oozes bad vibes. And he's all broken up."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. Anyway, the akibako sort of works like that other box I made. Except it's stronger. If I had been able to use it on the Akurei, they would've been trapped inside forever. It can send evil stuff away, or it can make good stuff better. And it always looks like it's empty, unless you know what you're looking for."
"So the stuff I put in there … "
"It was strong before. It's stronger now."
"Hang on to it. We'll probably need it for later."
"You think it would restrain him? You think restraining him would do any good? You think that the people he's hurt want to show him any mercy? I could use this magic to tear him to pieces. Let's see him regenerate from that."
"Duncan … "
"I never really liked him in the first place. There was always something about him that felt wrong. The flame that made the universe is trapped in the body of a monster. Is that right?"
"I'm going to fix that. That machine they tested on you is meant for the stars. I'm gonna use it on him."
"But who gets the power you take from him? It has to go somewhere. Are you gonna give it to the demon? Are you gonna give it to yourself?"
"It needs to go back where it belongs."
"Don't kill him. Death would be too kind. Even hell would somehow be peaceful for him."
"It'll work itself out. Trust me."
At midnight, Etienne called all his troops together. The van would be leaving at one to reach Xebec's orbit shortly before dawn. The attack would begin with the rising sun.
"We are on death ground," Etienne said. "The enemy has had us at bay for long enough. We are tired and starving. We are desperate. We have but one option. We will fight like twice the number we are. We will not retreat. We will give no thought to our lives. If we are defeated, we will die knowing that we did our very best, that we were not cowards, that we never lost sight of hope. We will be heroes. But we will not be defeated. Victory is the only choice we have. We are on death ground, and we will fight."
The chaplain blessed the troops, the ships and those who would be left behind. I tried to find some seed of doubt in my mind, some reason to stay with my family, some reason not to confront Rune and the demon. But there was none. It was going to be nasty. It was going to be painful. It was going to be fatal for someone. I didn't care. This started when I crashed a ship full of demons and lost my life to save the universe. Not that I thought of it that way at the time. I just couldn't let those demons live. I was prepared to let it end the way it started.