When Ghostshadow walked into the office, the first thing he noticed, aside from Archer's displeasure, was the other man standing next to the desk. The man's greed and jealousy stank worse than Archer's decomposing flesh. Ghostshadow sneered at him and sat down in front of the desk. He didn't want to sit. He needed to move. He needed to slide. The stillness was killing him.
"Chaos tells me you wrecked your room last night," Archer said.
"I am disappointed in you, Robyn."
"The pretty bastard fucking tricked me." He clenched his fists tight. His insides began to pop and ripple like boiling water.
"What about the girl?"
"I watched her get on a ship headed to Destiny."
"And you just let her go?"
Ghostshadow didn't answer.
"Why did you let her go?"
"Because of the man who gave her the money for the passage."
"Who was it?"
"The one who used to be fire."
Archer looked up at the greedy man. The greedy man smiled. "What did I tell you, Archer?" he said. "My uncle must know something we don't, and it must be hugely important for Ryan to be involved that closely."
"And you're sure there's no way you can find out what they're up to?" Archer asked.
"No. I suspect that the only thing they're interested in is helping Nikolai. Whatever else they know is something we'll only learn in time."
"Well, my only concern is the jewel." Archer turned his attention back to Ghostshadow. "Which one of them has it?"
"I don't know," Ghostshadow said.
"I want both of them back here. In pieces if you have to. Now get out my sight and do not return until you can do your job."
Ghostshadow stood up, glared at Archer and the greedy man and left, letting the door slam shut behind him. "Fucking bastard," he said.
Chaos was walking down the hall with a stack of electronic slates in his hands. Ghostshadow stopped. He had to force himself to not grab Chaos and rip him apart from the inside.
"You look upset, Robyn," Chaos said. "Everything all right?"
"Who's the new toy Archer has in there?" Ghostshadow asked.
"That's not a toy. That's a very powerful business partner. Behave yourself around him, would you?"
"Too late for that. Who is he?"
"So we play with nobles now?"
"Didn't you know? That pretty thing you're hunting is a noble."
"My pretty? A noble? You don't say? That's interesting. What's that got to do with the new toy?"
"Everything. The new toy is the pretty's brother."
"Which means ... my pretty is related to the angel I wanted to kill. Which means ... which means ... "
"Which means what, Robyn?"
"Shaman. That's what she was trying to say."
"I have to go."
Ghostshadow slid away. Chaos shook his head and went into Archer's office.
The labs built underneath the office building were a little warmer than the offices above it, but only a little. Ghostshadow stepped into the lab where Miss Leto was working on Seren. "I need your tracker," he said.
Miss Leto looked up from a control panel she was studying. "Don't you knock?" she asked.
"I need your tracker, and I need her now."
"I take that as a no."
"My pretty ran away from me."
"I don't blame him."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"Look, bitch -"
"Seren is not well today."
"She can still track."
Miss Leto sighed. "All right. We can try. But if it starts to go bad, I will stop it. You'll have to track your pretty some other way." She walked over to the gurney where Seren lay. "Seren? Can you hear me, honey?"
Seren opened her eyes. "The ghost ... " she said. Her chin puckered, and her eyes quivered.
"It's okay. I won't let him hurt you. Do you remember the boy who we met the other day?"
Seren nodded and almost smiled. "Pretty star."
"Yes, the pretty one. We need you to find him. He has something that belongs to Mr. Esterhazy."
"Why are there two?"
"Two Shamans," Ghostshadow said.
Miss Leto looked up and scowled at him.
"That's what she tried to say when he walked into the room. That's why he almost fell on his ass. You tweaked her to track Talon. She picks up on the star, not the man."
"That boy can't be the Shaman."
"He's Talon's nephew."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Oh yes. Very sure."
"Does that mean Talon's dead?"
"I don't know. But it means Seren can easily find my pretty. So get to it."
Seren closed her eyes. Concentration and pain twisted across her face. "Moving. Fast. Fractured planet. He goes to the boy with the pointy ears and nice hands. A sword. Will hurt the ghost. Kill the ghost. The sword hurts bad."
"That's enough, Seren," Miss Leto said. "You can stop now." She turned dials on the side of the gurney.
"Fractured planet," Ghostshadow said.
"She can't handle any more, Ghostshadow. You'll have to figure that out yourself. Now get the hell out of here. You're disrupting the readings."
"He's going to Junket."
Ghostshadow slid out of the lab and tore through the dimensions to the docks in Nocturne. Nothing that left from the docks in Opera went anywhere near Junket. Nocturne was more of a commercial port, and while few of those ships went to Junket, some did after a shipment of goods had been delivered and before another load was picked up. It was a creepy place, but it still had the cheapest supplies, best beer and friendliest whores. Ghostshadow watched the board in the terminal scroll through a list of flights. Nothing really caught his eye. His eye didn't seem to want to catch anything. He felt something ooze up behind him. He closed his eyes. Hands reached through his shoulders and slipped into place at the end of his arms. It pulled, and then the rest of it fell into place. He felt better. He opened his eyes and checked the board again. Nothing was leaving for Junket any time soon, but a little freighter called Blue Geisha was heading for Destiny in five minutes. He smiled to himself and reached into his pocket for his little gold box of gunpowder. A trip to Destiny would be far more entertaining that a trip to Junket.
The nasty weather on Junket forced Dexi's Midnight Runner to stay in orbit for nearly an hour before she could pull into the port at Crossgrove. Pain ripped across Nick's head just as they were touching down. "Ghost follows. Run. Hide. He carries pain in his hands for you," Seren said in his head. He could almost see her. A tiny rim of red crept into the corner of his left eye. He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple.
"Hey, are you all right?" Lash asked.
"I'm okay," Nick said. He blinked. The pain and the red went away.
"You don't look okay."
"You sure? Because if there's something wrong in your head and your brain explodes or something before we get to Teatree, I'm probably not going to get paid."
"If I die before we get there, not getting paid will be the furthest thing from your mind."
"Don't say shit like that. You make me all nervous."
"Well, then I guess I won't tell you what I plan on doing while we're here."
Lash covered his eyes with his hand. "Don't do this to me."
"What are you planning on doing?"
"I'll tell you when it's done."
"Nick ... "
"Trust me. I'll be fine."
"I don't like the sound of that."
The port at Crossgrove had been completely overhauled in the last several years. There were more docks, more engineers who were better trained and more conveniences. There was a timetable so that several ships didn't try to take off all at once as had sometimes happened in the past. Bad weather still delayed flights up to several hours every day, but the personnel at the port kept things running smoothly.
When they got off the ship, Lash was surprised at the variety of life forms he saw milling about. Most of them appeared to work at the port, but some he couldn't tell for sure. There were aliens from far reaches of the universe that humans rarely saw. There were strange, dark shapeless things that Lash had never seen before. There were tiny things that scampered underfoot with parts and tools, saying, "Excuse me! Pardon me!" in high pitched voices. Male and female prostitutes lounged around a few of the docks, all of them in similar get ups of colored leather and wigs. The only color he didn't see on either the women or the men was blue. He got so caught up in staring that Nick had to grab his arm and pull him along.
Instead of a terminal similar to the ones on other planets, the Crossgrove port had something that was more like a garage. There were five hangars, two of which had ships parked in them, and it smelled of oil and fried wires. There was a small office at the front of the building that served as the booking and information window. When they got inside, Nick stopped and looked around.
"What the hell are we doing here?" Lash asked. "Do you need a mechanic?"
"Yes, actually, I do," Nick said. "There he is. Come on."
They headed towards one of the hangars where a strange looking ship that had once been a fighter was being worked on. Only half the engineer was visible. He was bent over an opened panel, reaching in as far as he could. They could hear him swearing at whatever it was he was working on.
"How do you know that's who you want to talk to?" Lash asked.
"Can't you hear him? I've never met anyone else who cusses like that. Except maybe me when I'm drunk," Nick said.
They stopped just inside the hangar.
"Hey, Duncan!" Nick shouted.
"Yo! I'm busy!" came the answer from inside the ship.
"Come out for a second. I need to talk to you."
"What the fuck? Damn, no wonder it's running like shit. Fucking little rats chewed everything to fucking shreds. Shit. All right. Gimme a second."
About a minute later, Duncan Kyle extracted himself from the ship with bunches of shredded wires in one hand and wire cutters in the other. He looked down at his visitors. His big green eyes got bigger. He dropped the wires and the cutter and jumped down from the ladder he was standing on. "You fuck!" he said. "What the hell are you doing here?" He threw his arms around Nick and hugged him tight. "Damn, I've been worried about you. I started hearing some things I didn't like."
Nick hugged him back. "Nothing to worry about. Just being hunted by a psychopathic Slider who thinks I'm pretty."
"No, that's not what I heard. There's an intergalactic APB out on you. I had BII boys crawling through here yesterday."
"You didn't have to lie to them. You haven't seen me."
"That's not the fucking point, Nicky."
"Um, can I ask a stupid question?" Lash asked. "How do you two know each other?"
"I scrounge for parts on Walden City sometimes. He kicked my ass playing pool at the bar."
"Uh-huh." Lash could tell that was a lie, but he let it go. He pulled the envelope from his pocket and handed it to Duncan. "This was left with me to give to you."
Duncan studied the envelope. From his sour expression, Lash guessed that he recognized the handwriting on the front. Duncan opened it, read the letter quickly then tore it and the envelope into tiny shreds, which he stuffed in his pocket. "Fucking asshole," he said. "Thanks for the delivery."
"You're welcome. I think."
Duncan shrugged. "Forgiving is one thing. Forgetting is different. I can't forget. Anyway, what are you doing here, Nick?"
"I need a hiding place for something," Nick said. "It's fairly small, but I need to make sure it's as secure as possible and as undetectable as possible. I have something in mind." He touched his fingers to his side, just above his hip.
"You're fucking nuts."
"And this surprises you?"
"I didn't say that."
"I'm asking you to do this because you're the only one I trust not to fuck it up."
"I'm an engineer, not a surgeon."
"If I do it myself, I'll end up cutting out something important."
"I don't have any healers."
"I don't think I'll need one."
"You're fucking nuts. Okay. All right. I'll do it. Let me finish some things here and grab some tools. Meet me at the Wheel. And don't fucking drink anything, okay? I don't need you all thinned out if I'm gonna cut you open."
"Excuse me, what the hell did you just say?" Lash asked. "You're gonna what?"
"I told you you wouldn't like it," Nick said.
"I can't let you do this."
"Sure you can."
"My employer is not going to like this."
"Too bad he doesn't have a choice."
Lash had watched Nick hustle two pilots out of several hundred dollars at the pool table by the time Duncan got back to the Wheel, and though no one else was sitting at the bar, he had gotten the strangest feeling that he wasn't alone. Some kind of presence hung nearby, watching everything. It was a strong presence, whatever it was, and very sad. When Duncan came in, it seemed torn, and then it was gone. For a second, Duncan paused and looked over his shoulder at the door. Then he shook his head and sat down at the bar next to Lash.
"Who are you working for?" Duncan asked.
"I don't know exactly. An old blind man. He said his name was Rowen, but I didn't believe him," Lash said. "When he hired me, he told me a robbery would take place and that he wanted me to make sure the thieves got away with it. I've been dealing mostly with his son-in-law. I don't know why this concerns them."
"There was a girl. Nick's partner. She's gone to Destiny as far as I know. I was told to follow Nick. Except I have a hard time following someone who knows I'm there, so I'm just escorting him now."
"The APB says he's wanted for questioning in relation to a robbery at the Museum of Antiquities. Those BII fucks aren't gonna let this go. So you've got them and the Slider to deal with."
"Who's on the case? Do you know?"
"No, I just had the locals stop by. Well, the sort of locals. There's no BII branch on Junket because Vinny kept them out. They came from Lore to say hi. I don't think they'll come back, but you might wanna keep an eye on what they do. If they put out a reward of any kind, there are things here that will tear you apart to get to him to collect. And I can't promise I'll be around to stop them. Your next stop is Xebec, by the way. Withershins will be fixed and ready to go in the morning. No one's gonna look for you on a Senate escort."
"You don't have to do this."
"Yeah, I do. I owe Talon my life."
Lash decided it was better not to ask Duncan why that had anything to do with Nick. He was starting to think that the less he knew about the job, the better off he would be.
Duncan slid off the barstool after telling the bartender that Lash's drinks were on the house. He went over to the pool table where Nick was demonstrating trick shots to the pilots since they had run out of cash to bet on games. Then Duncan and Nick went upstairs.
"Are you sure you want me to do this?" Duncan asked when he shut the door.
"I can't just keep the thing in my pocket," Nick said. "It could be stolen. I might lose it. This way, it's always on me."
"You could just swallow it or something."
"So I can shit it out later?"
"No one would want to take it from you after that."
Duncan dropped his backpack on the bed and opened it. He pulled out a relatively small box. "I have something in here to give you later," he said. "You'll need it." He tapped a side of the box and a compartment opened. Something snarled. "Oops, wrong one." He tapped another side. The open compartment closed and another one opposite the first opened. "There it is." From the compartment, Duncan pulled a knife in a leather sheath, some bandages, cotton pads, rubbing alcohol, a sewing needle, a syringe, a bottle of anesthetic, tweezers and a red lollipop with a smiley face on it. "Okay, I think I'm ready."
"I appreciate this, Duncan," Nick said.
"I would do anything for you, Nick. You know that. This is about on the outer edges of that anything, but I know there aren't a lot of people out there you can trust right now. So I'm willing to cut you open. Now take your clothes off and lay down. I did not just say that, did I? That sounds fucking bad."
Nick wanted to laugh, but he felt a little nervous. He undressed and tried not to let Duncan see that he was anxious. He lay down.
"Are you sure this is what you want to do?" Duncan asked.
"It's in the left pocket."
Duncan filled the syringe with the anesthetic and swabbed down Nick's hip with the rubbing alcohol. He injected the anesthetic. "We'll give that a few minutes," he said. He picked up Nick's pants and fished in the pocket for the jewel. "Where'd you get the light gem? Wait, don't answer that. I don't wanna know."
"You know what's funny about that? The owner of the jewelry store hired Holden to ship the light gems from Lost Tree."
"Too bad you didn't get more than one. I could use a few, and I know lots of people who'd love to get their hands on uncut ones like this. You numb yet?"
"I don't know." Nick poked at his side. He could feel that he was touching something, but the something didn't seem to know it was being touched. "If I scream when you cut, then I guess not."
"Try not to scream. I don't need someone running up here to see what I'm doing to you. It's just gonna look all kinds of bad."
"I think it's numb. Don't worry."
Duncan unsheathed the knife and swabbed the blade with the rubbing alcohol. "You probably won't feel this anyway. My light gem blades are getting better. I've got one that cuts sheet metal."
"You scare me sometimes. You have too much time to play with things."
"I'm gonna cut you now. Don't hold your breath. Don't tense up."
Nick closed his eyes. He felt the press of Duncan's fingers and then something cold. The cold went deep and sank through his pelvis, settling in his knee. Then he felt more pressing, followed by the sensation of something being nestled into his side. "It's in," Duncan said. "How you doing?"
"Almost done. Lemme close you up."
Nick opened his eyes and watched Duncan threading something through the eye of the needle. As he watched, he began to notice a faint blue line hanging from the needle. Duncan stuck his finger in the compartment he'd pulled his tools from, scooped something up and rubbed his finger against the incision. The bleeding stopped instantly. Duncan carefully sewed up the incision. He swabbed it off again then bandaged it.
"All done. Still okay?"
"Yeah, thanks. What was that thread you used? It looked weird."
"You could see that?"
"You're not supposed to be able to see that. The only other person I know who can see that shit is Talon, and he can only see it because - " Duncan slapped his hand over his mouth, and his eyes got big. "Holy shit no fucking way."
"How can you be if he's still ... unless he's ... he's not, is he? Talon's not dead?"
"Duncan, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Shaman. Talon could see the magic because of Shaman."
Nick was silent.
"I have no idea. I don't know how I could be. He is still alive as far as I know. And I think the whole universe will know as soon as it happens when it finally does."
"Does your bounty hunter know?"
"This is worse than I thought, isn't it?"
"I've had visions all my life. I've had déjà vu and dreams and my eyes glow. It's gotten worse recently. The visions are clearer. The dreams are stronger. When we opened the Shikkongou and I saw the jewel, I had a vision of a path illuminated by the light of a star. I thought maybe it just had something to do with getting the jewel back to Talon, but it didn't feel that way. The star felt like mine."
"Okay. All right. That sounds ... fuck, this isn't good. Well, at least it's safe to assume Talon knows about this. I don't think he'd have hired someone to follow you if he didn't know exactly what was going on."
"How do you know Talon hired Lash?"
"I asked him."
"But he doesn't know."
"He said he was hired by an old blind man named Rowen."
"But that's ... duh. I forgot that Talon's real name isn't Talon. I was starting to suspect it was him and Ryan, but ... I can't believe I forgot that."
"It's easy to forget because it isn't who he really is."
"What am I supposed to be doing?"
Duncan shrugged. He picked up the lollipop and stuck it in his mouth. "Just go with it," he said around the lollipop. "Maybe it's not, maybe it is."
"I don't even know how to use what I've got."
"There was a time when Talon didn't know either. If he can figure it out, you shouldn't have any trouble. You need to rest now. I don't want you moving until you're a little more healed. Tristan said he'd take you to Xebec in the morning. And don't let me forget about the thing I wanna give you before you leave."
Duncan picked up a blanket from the chair in the corner of the room and covered Nick with it. He put all the things he had taken out of his box back into the compartment, and Nick wondered how so much stuff could fit into such a small place. When Duncan was gone, Nick closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep. He was tired. The anesthetic was wearing off a little, and he could feel a tight, tender line of pain across his hip. Not moving to avoid causing himself pain exhausted him even further, but sleep was on the other side of the universe from him. He concentrated on his breathing and let his mind go. It wandered for a while, bouncing around the questions he had like a pinball. He wondered about Kitsune. For just a second, he saw her gazing down into a well. Something seething and nasty was standing in front of her. He almost broke himself out of the trance and rushed to the port to find a flight to Destiny, but he knew that he would get there too late. So he stilled himself. She would be okay. He had to believe that. Eventually, he found his mind settled into a comfortable, silent place. It wasn't as dark as he had expected it to be. He focused on the light. It was coming from a star fixed just above him. It was unlike any star he had ever seen before. The clarity of the light amazed him, and where that clear, pale blue light shone, he could see the path he was on. There were several small detours along the way, some snaking so far away from the main path that he couldn't see where they went. But they all came back to the larger path at some point. He set one foot upon the path.
"You took too many breaths," a voice said.
Nick looked around. He saw no one, but he knew the voice. It was his sensei, Sagara Denko.
"If you know this is the way, don't fight it," Denko said. "You have good reason to be afraid. You will be hurt. Emotionally and physically. You may even die, but death is not always the end of things. Death is sometimes where it begins, as it has been for the angels. Each began with the power, but each died at some point and saw something beyond themselves that helped them stay with their chosen paths. But if you fear death and failure, the ghost will swallow you. His shadow is already falling across your wings."
Nick listened to the silence, waiting for more advice, but none came. The only thing he could do was keep walking.
The morning after their initial investigation of the theft of the Shikkongou, Gaston and Aaron went back to the BII offices to find that rumors about what had happened were wildly out of control, and their supervisor demanded that some kind of statement be made. The only worry was that if they mentioned what had been stolen, the manhunt would get out of hand. They made the briefest statement they possibly could stating that yes, an artifact had been taken from the Museum of Antiquities and no, they had not caught the thief but yes, they had a very solid lead and hoped the case would be solved in a matter of days, the artifact returned and the thief sentenced to several years on Boil.
They went to the forensics lab after that to see what they could get from the piece of hair they had found in the airshaft. The head of the forensics department, Catherine Gandy, was studying the report on the hair when they came in.
"So what do we have, doc?" Gaston asked when they sat down in her office.
She didn't look at them, just raised one slim eyebrow. "I think you're both up shit's creek," she said.
"With or without a paddle?"
"You don't even have a boat, Richardson." Catherine closed the file and laid the electronic slate on her desk. "You've brought me probably the most baffling piece of evidence I've ever seen in my life." She turned to her computer and brought up an image of the strand of hair they had given her. "Looks like, feels like, smells like ordinary human hair, but the DNA pattern wasn't human. I did five tests just to make sure. I did five more with different equipment. I had someone else do a few. This ... " she brought up an image of a spiral of DNA. "... this is a fox."
Gaston and Aaron looked at each other and then back at Catherine. "What do you mean?" Aaron asked.
"I mean it's a fox. Small, red, brown or grey canine with a long snout and bushy tail, native to the planet Earth, surviving in small numbers on a few planets with densely forested areas such as Commonwealth, Teatree and, at one time, Saint Dominic before the demons blasted the hell out the place. This strand of hair carries fox DNA, not human DNA."
"What does that mean to us, though?"
"Means you got a big problem. Either you've got a seriously tweaked thief or a fox stole the Shikkongou."
"Well, can you pin it down any further?" Gaston asked. "What planet did the fox come from? Maybe if we know that, we can find out what kind of experiments were run there involving foxes and find out who they did it to."
"It seems to be a female of the red variety found on Commonwealth."
"Commonwealth got pretty well wiped out during the war," Aaron said. "Finding those records might be hard."
"Depends on who ran the experiments. If it was the Empire, you'll likely find some kind of record in the archives. They all sent reports to Xebec almost daily."
"Do you think you could check that out for us? Thanks, we really appreciate that," Gaston said, giving Catherine his biggest grin.
"I'll find you a starting point," Catherine said. "I do have other cases to work on. Oh, and there were no finger prints on those strips you found, but I was able to trace the manufacture of the material to a company called Winterhaven Materials, which is part of the A.D. Esterhazy Enterprises conglomerate. It's mostly used in surgical procedures and cargo netting. Winterhaven Materials doesn't make those strips, but I wouldn't be surprised if another Esterhazy company did. He does have operations involved in reconnaissance equipment that work closely with the military. But good luck trying to get anywhere on that front. I'd say it's likely that the thief got the strips on the black market or stole them from the military."
Gaston and Aaron left the lab. "I think we should check out Esterhazy's companies anyway," Aaron said. "Wouldn't hurt to ask, and if the strips were stolen, they might know."
"But they didn't report it," Gaston said.
"Of course not. Why would they? That's a big breech of security, and if they report it, they're going to lose business. It's probably a dead end anyway. I'm more concerned with finding that Tsyplakov kid."
"Have we heard anything on that yet?"
"Not a peep. Can't really even find out more than his name and that he lives on Walden City."
"Well, he's not on Lyric any more; that's a safe bet."
"What reason would he have had to stay? He did the tour of the museum and came back here, and then what? There's not a lot of sight seeing to do on Lyric. But if he's heard about the APB, and he has to have heard by now, why hasn't he come back or contacted us if he's not involved in the robbery?"
"Because he's twenty-one and might think to hell with the BII."
They checked to see if any more information had come in on Tsyplakov, but so far, they had been able to learn nothing about where he was originally from or what he did for a living. They got a report that he had been seen boarding the passenger liner Golden Sunrise which had headed back to its home port on Aria. No one at the port in Opera could place Tsyplakov there when Golden Sunrise pulled in. Later that day, they heard that Tsyplakov and the bounty hunter Lash Larabie had been seen boarding the cruiser Dexi's Midnight Runner shortly after Golden Sunrise had taken off. Since the BII didn't have a branch on Junket and no one on Junket was likely to be cooperative over an electronic contact, they decided they would visit Junket personally.
Destiny was a strange planet, not that Kitsune had ever had the opportunity to visit many planets, and living on a giant space station made most planets seem somewhat strange, but there was something different about Destiny. The air was almost tangible. When she had gotten off Slingback, the first few breaths she took were hard, as if she had been in a smoky bar far too long. Her lungs had ached, and she had found a small restaurant to sit in and get used to it. She had seen other travelers wearing respirators and had noticed a big billboard outside the terminal with some kind of warning she hadn't bothered to read. So she asked the waiter about the air and learned that the air on Destiny was indeed a bit thicker than it was on other inhabited planets due to the overlapping layers of other dimensions through which the Sliders moved. Most humans adjusted in a few hours, while others became quite ill before they got used to it. Kitsune could feel that she was already adjusting well to the new environment, but she decided to lounge in the restaurant for a few hours, eat and have a few drinks off the birdman's money.
When she was done at the restaurant, she wandered back to the terminal and picked up a news slate. The first article was about the robbery at the Museum of Antiquities. It didn't state what had been stolen; just that the BII had a solid lead and hoped the case would be closed in a matter of days. The APB on Nick was mentioned in a side bar, but nothing was said about him being a suspect in the case. Kitsune found no mention of herself. For a moment, she wanted to go to the BII branch and tell them about Esterhazy and confess that she had done it, just to keep them away from Nick. But if she did that, she knew he would be right behind her. She hoped that if they kept running, got enough evidence on Esterhazy's illegal experiments and made it to Teatree in tact that they wouldn't have to serve time. Maybe Nick's family would be willing to spend enough money to keep them out of jail, or maybe Talon's influence would be enough.
She was thinking too far ahead. She had to get the evidence first, which meant getting back to Aria. She stood in the terminal watching the board for what felt like forever and didn't see any flights to Aria that were leaving in the next three days. Traffic on Destiny moved at a snail's pace compared to elsewhere in the universe. It was a stop on the two-month pilgrimage that ended on Lost Tree, but a brief stop because of the time it took to adapt to the heavy air. The rest of the travelers weren't tourists.
Kitsune booked passage on a liner that headed to Commonwealth the next evening, and then she followed the pilgrimage trail, which led to a wishing well said to have been built five hundred years ago by a Slider who had the power of the Shaman star.
The garden that surrounded the well was the most beautiful place Kitsune had ever seen. Colors popped through hundreds of shades of green in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Birds and butterflies flitted through the trees and the flowers. A thin ribbon of a brook babbled over smooth rocks. Kitsune wanted to crouch near the water and clap with delight at the sound the water made. She touched the leaves and the flowers and breathed in the sweet scents. She had never seen anything like it. She had never seen so many plants in one place. There were no gardens on Walden City. The only plant she had ever seen there was the bamboo stalk in the red and gold vase that Nick kept on the windowsill of their apartment. By the time she had reached the wishing well, she was so caught up in the simple beauty of the garden that she almost forgot why she was on Destiny in the first place.
The well itself was an ugly mass of worn brown stones about chest high. It was at least four feet wide, and the water came to within an inch of the rim. There was little vegetation surrounding the well; a few scraggly looking blades of grass and a bright green vine bursting with blood red, star shaped flowers crawling up one side of the well. Several flat stepping-stones were embedded in the ground leading up to the well. Kitsune couldn't hear birds chirping, and she didn't see any butterflies.
She stepped up to the well. The water inside was black and as still as glass. She blew on the surface and watched the ripples. When the ripples stopped, she touched the water. It was bitterly cold, and, like the air on Destiny, it felt a little thicker than normal water. As the ripples from her touch subsided, she began to see a shape forming. It wasn't on the surface but a few inches below. As she watched it, she began to recognize Nick's face. Something seemed to be happening around him, but she couldn't see what it was. His eyes began to glow. The glow brightened and grew until it was the only thing she could see. Then it seemed to burst out of the water, and she thought she felt thick drops land on her face. The image she saw then was amazing. It was an angel. The lines of its clothing and body glowed a soft blue, like it was made out of supple neon tubes that moved in a breeze she couldn't feel. Huge blue wings spread out from its back, and its hands reached towards her, breeching the surface of the water. Though its face had no features she could see, she knew it was Nick. She reached for the hand. Her fingertips tingled as they pressed against the angel's palm. The hand closed around hers.
A stone plunked into the middle of the well. The image rippled away. The glowing blue hand broke around Kitsune's hand like wisps of smoke. She looked up. Ghostshadow grinned at her. She wanted to run, but she knew she wouldn't get away from him.
"Hello, fox," he said.
She said nothing. She started to reach for her shotgun.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. If you fire a shot here, there will be all kinds of people running to see what was going on, and you'd have to explain and you'll probably never see pretty again."
"What do you want?"
"What do you think I want?"
"I won't give you the jewel."
"Of course you won't. You don't have it. It's hard to give someone something you don't have, isn't it?"
"I won't give you Nick either."
"Then I'll take him from you."
Ghostshadow slid. Kitsune backed away from the well and turned to run. He was in front of her. She swung at his head with the butt of the shotgun. He caught it and wrenched it from her hands. He slammed the butt of it into her cheek. She fell down. The back of her head cracked against a stepping-stone. Things were dark for just a second. She felt him kneel over her then felt the points of his hips pressing into hers as he pinned her to the ground. She squirmed. His cold fingers latched around her throat. He pulled a knife from his boot and pressed it against her cheek, just under her left eye.
"Get the fuck off me, you freak," she said through her teeth.
"Now, now, fox," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you. Not too bad. This is for my pretty. He'll see what I do to you. He'll know I'll do much worse to him because he tricked me, and that was wrong. He shouldn't have run away from me." He drew the knife down her cheek. She gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut. He pressed his mouth to the cut and licked the blood. Then he sat up and spit it out. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Dirty," he said. A slow smile spread across his face. "Let's see if the rest of you is just as dirty as your blood." With the point of the knife, he lifted the thigh of her pants leg then cut up and across. His other hand slipped away from her throat and tore open the front of her shirt. His cold hand cupped her breast. She felt the knife tugging at her underwear. She swallowed hard and started feeling around on the ground for a rock or something she could hit him with. She felt his fingers crawling through her pubic hair. She wanted to scream. His fingers caressed her labia with a touch that was surprisingly gentle, as if he were going to make love to her rather than rape her. He sniffed his fingers. "Ah, dirty," he said, closing his eyes. Her fingers closed over a rock that had a sharp edge. She turned the rock so the sharpest point was facing him. He lifted off her slightly to unbuckle his pants.
"I said get the fuck off me, you fucking freak!" she screamed, bringing the rock towards his head as hard as she could. She felt something crunch at the impact point. He rolled off her, hitting his head on the side of the well. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed her shotgun. He wasn't moving. Blood was pulsing from the wound in his head. She should have shot him right then and there, but all she wanted to do was run.
She didn't know how long she ran nor in which direction she was going. She needed to put as much distance between herself and Ghostshadow as possible. The cut on her cheek stung, and she realized she was crying. After a long time, she couldn't run any more. Her legs throbbed and her lungs cried out for thinner air. She was in a city of some kind. She couldn't read the signs. She couldn't see any people except for brief blurs as they slid by. She hid in an alley and sat with her back in the corner, hugging her knees to her chest. Then she felt the angel's arms fold around her, comforting and protecting her. She heard Nick's voice in her head. "It's all right. I'll make him pay for that," he said.
Kitsune must have passed out in the alley. When she opened her eyes, she saw the kindly face of an older woman leaning attentively over her. "Where am I?" Kitsune asked.
"You're in the city of Coriander," the woman said. "I'm Ria. My husband found you in the alley outside when he was taking out the garbage."
"This is ... a clinic?"
"Yes. Harlan and I have been running this place together for many years. I'm a healer."
"So you're human?"
Kitsune said nothing and let her eyes wander around her surroundings.
"The cut on your cheek scarred. I'm sorry."
Kitsune shook her head. "Thank you for helping me. I can't stay long. I have to catch a flight to Commonwealth."
"Stay the night at least. You aren't hurt badly, but I can tell you're frightened."
"He ... he tried to rape me." Tears welled up in her eyes.
"Do you know who it was? Do you want to go to the police?"
Kitsune blinked away her tears. She looked at Ria and almost screamed.
"Is something wrong?" Ria asked.
"He looked like you. He has the same eyes."
Ria lowered her head and sighed. "Robyn. I knew he was here."
"Is he ... "
"No, he hasn't been here. And he better not if he knows what's good for him. He may be my child, but that twisted soul of his is not."
"What happened to him? To make him that way? He couldn't have always been like that."
"No, he was a very sweet boy at first. But I think the other children's teasing got to him. He was the only one at his school who was half human, and most Sliders don't like humans. It took him a long time to learn to slide, and I could tell that every time he did it, he was being torn apart. He felt it more and couldn't pull himself together completely every time. By the time he was sixteen, he seemed okay with it, but most Sliders move easily by the time they're four or five."
"Did you know when you had him that that would happen?"
"If Harlan and I had known, we would have never had a child. As it is, we never had another. But I think it was his grandfather's death that really hurt him. There's a tradition at Slider funerals of placing a coin in the mouth of the dead as payment for the soul's passage into the other world. Jordan passed away when Robyn was nine, and Jordan had asked for Robyn to put the coin in his mouth. I thought Robyn was too young. We had a long talk with him about death and all that, and he took it all very well. He was sad and a little scared, but he understood what had happened. He said he wanted to place the death coin because he loved his grandfather and didn't want him to get stuck outside the gate. But something happened at the funeral. He said he heard Jordan calling out to him, telling him to follow him, and Robyn did. Harlan had to pull him back, and Robyn didn't move or speak or eat for three whole days after that. When he finally came around, I could tell he was different. I could feel some kind of void around him. He was darker, and the way he watched things was different. He started to get into fights at school; he just wasn't the same boy. There wasn't much I could do. I just kept loving him and hoping he'd be okay. He never was okay."
Kitsune almost felt sorry for Ghostshadow, but only almost. Mostly, she felt sorry for Ria. She chose her next words carefully. "He's going to die," she said. "He's chasing down a friend of mine, and I know Nick will fight him every step of the way. Robyn won't stop until both Nick and I are dead, and Nick isn't going to let that happen."
Ria smiled. "I'd kill him myself if I could bear to destroy my own son. He's like a rabid animal. He can't be cured, and he's suffering. The kindest thing to do is kill him. Get some rest. We'll make sure you get to the terminal in time."
"Thank you, Ria."
Slowly, Ghostshadow opened his eyes. His head throbbed. He touched the cut gently, wiping away the crust of blood. Tiny fractures radiated out from the impact point. He healed himself then stood up. His head spun. He stumbled against the side of the well and almost fell in. He stared into the deep black water. He didn't like the face that stared back at him or the blood dried on the face. He plunged his hands into the water to strangle it. He lost his balance and fell into the well. He couldn't tell how far down he fell before he began to rise again, but it felt like something had pulled him down. It would have kept pulling, too, but whatever it was, it decided it didn't want him.
He climbed out of the well and lay face down on the ground for a while, listening to his blood as it pounded behind the wounded area of his head. He touched the wound again and healed it again. The throbbing stopped, but his head felt hollow and raw. He stood up and tried to slide. He felt the tearing begin and saw things in front of him start to splinter, but he didn't move. He started to walk away and stumbled. The blow had hurt him worse than he thought. He would need to take some time to recover before he continued his hunt, but that was time he didn't really have. Archer knew better than to send anyone else after the thieves or to have someone check up on him, but Ghostshadow knew that the quicker he got the jewel back to Archer, the sooner it might be that he could find a way to keep from losing himself every time he slid.
He stumbled along the garden path, snatching birds and butterflies out of the air and crushing them in his bare hands. A huge butterfly with shimmering blue wings caught his eye as it rested on a sunflower. He pinched one wing between his thumb and index finger. The butterfly flapped ferociously. Pale blue dust coated his hand where its wings beat him. He crushed one wing in his fist then tore it from the slender black body. He dropped the wounded butterfly to the ground then bent down over it. He shredded the other wing with the tip of his knife. "That's what I'll do to you, pretty," he murmured to the butterfly. "Tear you." He rubbed the underside of the butterfly's body with his finger. "Yes, I'll tear you and make you bleed and make you mine. And then I'll crush you." He pressed his finger down on the butterfly until its exoskeleton cracked and the butterfly's guts sprayed across the ground. He laughed. "Crush you and tear you. No one runs away from me, pretty. No one."
He stood up and tried to walk away, but he was still stumbling. He fell. Before he hit the ground, he slid. His scream made ripples in the well water.