The first thing I did after Junket was out of sight was call up Kaylan. He surprised me by actually taking my call.
"What do you want, Konstantine?" he asked. "I haven't got much time right now."
"Make time," I said.
"It's nice to see you're off the ground again. I trust you didn't make too much of a mess on Junket."
"No, not yet. We were attacked by a demon. I got in a very brief gunfight with Vinny Vea, and I'm planning to go back and finish the job at some point."
Kaylan sighed. "You're insufferable, you know."
"That's exactly why you love me."
"Get to the point please."
"Two things. First, I have two new crewmembers. I need the stipend increased. Actually, three."
"Three? Talon, I don't have funds like that."
"I need something extra."
"I'll see what I can do. Who are they, and why are they there?"
"Duncan Kyle is my engineer. And Rune is ... well, he is."
"Rune? Does he have a last name?"
"I don't know. I'll ask." I called out for Rune, and he showed up a second later. He had allowed Anala to clean his wounded eyes and put an ointment around them, but he still refused to let her use her healing power on him. Pus filled blisters covered his eyes, and he could barely see. Peter perched on his left shoulder, guiding him. "Kaylan wants to know if you have a last name," I said.
Rune grinned. "Tell him Ryan Phoenix. He might know that name," he said.
I told Kaylan the name Rune gave me. For a long time, there was silence. Then Kaylan said, "That man is dangerous and insane. Take him to Boil immediately."
"Why?" I asked.
"That's a direct order."
"But I need him. He's got information I've been looking for."
"If you think you can keep him from blowing your ship to pieces just for fun, you're welcome to keep him. But I will not recognize that psycho as a member of your crew."
"Oh come on. He's just misunderstood."
"I assume that bird is the third one you were talking about."
"Was there anything else?"
"Do something about the pirates."
"What exactly do you expect me to do?"
"You've got a military force. Use it for something other than hostile takeovers."
"Are you telling me how to run my empire?"
"You're walking a very thin line, Konstantine."
"They've got magic weapons. They're pissed off because they're broke. You're not going to have an empire much longer."
"Fine. I'll consult my advisors. Are you done?"
"Contact me when you have something important to share."
Kaylan broke the connection. I listened to the static for a minute and caught the faint murmur of voices under the hiss and buzz. It wasn't usual radio chatter. That was a closed frequency. I pressed my ear to the speaker. A deep, gravely voice whispered, "Kill him."
The cold spiders exploded around me and scurried down my skin. I passed out, but I could still feel myself trying to get up and run from whatever it was. I saw six bodies lying in a row covered in white sheets and a small shape under a pillowcase. I heard the sound of metal being torn apart. I looked up from the bodies. The hull split open. I saw black space full of distant sparkling stars. Or rather it was the debris of stars that had been smashed as whatever opened Blue Ava's Angel made its way to me. The last thing I saw was a hand with a silver claw fitted over its thumb reaching towards me.
"Talon! Hey, can you hear me? What the hell is wrong with you?" Rune shouted.
It seemed that I had managed to get up and try to run. I ran right into Rune, and when he tried to hold me still, I fought. I could feel that hand on me, and though I knew Rune was just trying to keep me from hurting myself, I struggled to get out of his grip.
Behind me, Peter squawked and flapped, tugging at the back of my shirt. Rune put his hand on my forehead. I felt his fingers lengthen, and the sharp tips punctured my skin. "Still," he said.
I couldn't move no matter how hard I tried. "What the fuck did you do to me?" I asked.
"Calm down," he said as he lowered me to the floor. "You're gonna hurt yourself."
"What did you do? Let me go."
"It'll wear off in a minute. Just relax."
I heard Danel walk up to us. "Are you two playing nice?" he asked. "Or should I even ask what's going on?"
I felt whatever Rune had done to me wear off. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Danel was glowing bright orange again. Rune and Peter were blurs of orange, red and yellow flame with white-hot cores. A shadow flickered by behind them. I could feel it staring at me. My ears popped as the pressure around my head changed. Voices hissed. It sounded like they were being sucked backwards through a black hole. Then it was all gone. I felt normal, like nothing had happened at all.
"Talon?" Danel asked.
"I'm okay," I said. "I think."
"What happened?" Rune asked.
"Just a vision."
"That looked like a little more than just a vision."
"They aren't nice to me sometimes."
"Maybe you should go rest," Danel said.
"Bullshit. You're shaking."
I looked at my hands. I was shaking. I should have lain down for a little while, but I went to get a cup of coffee instead. Sleep was the last thing I thought I needed.
I was alone only for a few minutes. Then everyone was in the galley.
"Talon, we have a problem," Danel said.
"I can handle little problems. No major disasters right now, please," I said.
"We don't have enough sleeping quarters for everyone. There's only one empty room."
"Rune can sleep with me," Anala blurted out. Her face turned bright red. "I mean, in my bed. No, I mean … I mean in the room. On the floor. Why is this just not sounding right no matter what I say?"
Rune's face was turning red, too, and Peter seemed to be laughing at him.
"I can sleep in the cargo bay," Duncan said.
"No, you won't," I said. "If we get attacked again or if the pirates decide to start boarding ships, that won't be a very safe place to be."
"I don't mind sharing a room with Anala," Rune said.
"Why couldn't I say it that way?" Anala asked.
"Okay, it's settled then," I said. "It's late. Let's all get some sleep, and we'll figure out where we wanna go in the morning."
I had a vague plan in mind. I wanted to grill Rune to find out what he knew about the three stars and go wherever he thought we could find more information. Maybe we'd stop to see Daigoro along the way to find out if he knew anything more. Since his assassination of Joelle Blackstone, he'd been searching for information as well. I'd talked to him at the bonfire that was a crossroads for all three stars but not recently, and last I'd heard, he'd been unable to find anything useful. He'd tracked down some of the most powerful psychics in the universe. None of them knew anything. So far, all we really knew was that our powers were different from what others termed psychic abilities. I stayed up for about an hour, trying to think of all the questions I wanted to ask Rune. There were too many, and I gave up.
As I passed by Anala's room, I heard her say, "You're being stupid."
I stopped to listen. I shouldn't have, but I couldn't help it. Anala was beautiful, but I had never seen her act like she was aware of herself in that way, even though in some places, she'd gotten as many cat calls and lascivious looks as Cherry. Rune had looked at her only briefly and had said nothing to her, but that one glance had her all worked up.
"I'm not being stupid," Rune said. "Just stubborn."
"What if you get sick? What if the infection spreads to your brain? Or what if your vision is permanently damaged?"
"I'll heal. Slowly, but I will. Even if my brain gets infected."
"You can hardly see."
"Why are you being like this?"
He didn't answer. There was a long pause, and I hid myself in the shadows, afraid he'd come rushing out to find another roommate.
"I'm afraid," he said.
"Of what? There's nothing to be afraid of."
"I've never been touched by a healer witch before."
"There's a first time for everything." Her face was getting red. I didn't have to see her to know that.
"Anala, I don't want to hurt you. I'm afraid I might. I'm made out fire, fire that's older than the universe. It's older than God. I don't want to take the chance that it could hurt you. Or that you could hurt me."
"There's no way I could hurt you."
"You don't know that."
"What if it made both of us stronger?"
"You're already stronger than you were two years ago."
"Please let me heal you. I hate seeing you like this. And if you want to look at me, I want you to see clearly."
Again, Rune was silent for a while. Then he said, "All right."
I decided that was all I wanted to hear. I was glad he'd changed his mind. His condition just didn't seem to be improving on its own the way he kept insisting it would. I reminded myself to grill him about what he was made of and what kind of powers he had. And to ask him why the hell he thought it was a good idea to scare Kaylan that way.
I stood in the dark corridor for a minute, listening. It was quiet except for breathing and the faint creak of the hull as we moved slowly through space. I didn't think I had anything to worry about. My visions bothered me, but there wasn't a lot I could do about them. If there was another demon on board or if it was whatever was after Duncan, all I could do was wait until it showed itself and hope no one got hurt.
I undressed and got into bed. Cherry rolled over and wrapped her arms around me. "I was beginning to wonder if you were ever coming to bed," she said.
I slipped my hand between her thighs. "Sorry to keep you waiting," I said.
"You better make it worth it."
Something was different about Cherry that time. Her body felt softer and warmer. Her kisses were more tender. She held me tighter. If our bodies could have melted into each other, they would have. I remembered the way Petrine felt during her pregnancy and the vision I'd had of Cherry holding a baby. But it wasn't the right time. Then again, Rune was right about the accuracy of my visions. I knew that, but sometimes, things did happen at the wrong time.
In the dark, Cherry smiled at me, her eyes shining with tears. I kissed the corners of her eyes, the lobes of her ears, the tip of her nose. I wanted to say something but could think of no words that sounded right together. But she could read my mind. "I am," she whispered. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to say "let's get married" or some sappy thing. I wanted to forget every bad thing that had ever happened to me and live the rest of my life with that moment's feeling in my heart.
But I could feel something darker beneath that; some horrible, sinister thing. Something like used oil, with a metallic tang and a film of iridescent green grown over it like algae over a pond that had once been beautiful.
Then she died.
Her eyes bulged. She coughed. I asked her if she was okay. She couldn't answer. She was gasping for breath. She stopped coughing. Her nostrils flared. Her lips began to turn blue. I tried to pound on her back. I couldn't even touch her. Something threw me half way across the room and held me back. Blood ran from her eyes and nose and over the corners of her mouth. I screamed her name. I could see its fingers around her throat, slim shadows with one thumb sheathed in a silver claw. Cherry scratched at the hands. Her lips were slick with blood. She opened her mouth. A bubble of blood and saliva formed and burst. "Make it stop," she mouthed.
As soon as I could move again, I ran out of the room, screaming for Anala and forgetting that I was naked. Anala came out, pulling on her robe. I expected Rune to be right behind her. When I didn't see him, I panicked. I thought maybe he'd killed Cherry or that whatever killed her had killed him, too. It didn't take me long to become completely incoherent with fear, anger and grief. It took Anala a long time to calm me down enough to find out what happened.
Regan was bawling as soon as she ran out of her room. Firefly had told her something, and she was terrified. Anala wrapped me in a blanket, and I sat in the galley with Regan in my lap, holding her tightly and trying to keep it together. And failing miserably. "It got Peter, too," Regan said through her tears. If there was anything I didn't want to see right then, it was what Rune could do when he was pissed off. And he was going to be more than pissed off. Peter wasn't just a pet or a familiar. Peter was like a brother to Rune.
Anala heard what Regan said and ran off, shouting Rune's name.
Dylan, Danel and Duncan all came out of their rooms to see what was going on. It didn't take long for Danel to have to try to physically restrain Dylan. Wide-eyed with fear, Duncan backed himself into a corner and stayed there. Dylan turned away and sat down on the floor, his massive shoulders heaving with choked sobs. Danel sat down at the table and covered his face with his hands. Anala's shouts echoed distantly.
Blue Ava's Angel lurched, throwing us all off balance. Regan shrieked. Everything went dark, and we were dead in the water. We fumbled around for flashlights, eventually finding one under the sink in the galley bathroom. Danel went and got my clothes for me. A few minutes later, Anala came back holding a halogen lantern and a few flashlights. Rune was behind her, cradling Peter's body in his arms like a baby. His eyes were healed, but they were still cloudy. His tears turned to steam.
Things happened in silence after that. With a gentle and loving touch, Anala took Peter's body from Rune and carried him to my room where Cherry was still sprawled out on the bed. She arranged Cherry neatly on the bed after a brief examination. She pulled the sheet up over Cherry's face. She placed Peter next to Cherry and covered him with a pillowcase. She performed funeral rites and recited prayers, and I watched her aura flare from a thin white band to a flame. The popular rumor about healer witches was that at the height of their power, they could raise the dead. I almost asked her to try.
"Talon, lights," Danel said a while later.
"Lights?" I asked.
"They aren't on. Nothing is on."
"Are you going to do something?"
"Do you really think I can? She was pregnant, goddamn it! How the fuck am I supposed to think about lights right now?"
"We don't need to see to die," Dylan said.
Anala put her hand on my shoulder. Her static prickled my skin.
Rune stood up. I noticed one of Peter's feathers in his left hand. "Are there weapons on board other than what you carry with you?" he asked.
"Don't blow my ship up," I said.
"Answer the question."
"Yes. There's a crate in the cargo bay with a few shotguns and grenades and things like that."
"Okay. I know you're not gonna like this, but I'm taking over your ship. Just stay calm and follow orders. Don't think. Act. Got it?"
"It's my ship."
"You're the pilot."
"But - "
"Talon, you and Duncan go find out why we stopped. Get the lights on. Get life support on. Get the radio on. Go armed and stay together. If there's trouble, don't fight it. Just get away from it. Danel and Dylan, go get the weapons. Bring them back here. Anala, stay with Regan."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I'm gonna find our new crew member."
"Are you insane?"
"You don't want me to answer that question."
There was silence for several minutes. No one wanted to say what they were thinking. Rune, don't. You're fucking insane. It'll kill you, too. I need you alive, damn it. No one wanted to say anything at all.
Rune turned and walked out of the galley.
"He doesn't have any weapons," Danel said.
The cold spiders burst across the back of my neck. I shuddered. The scene in front of me was indistinct. It was covered in a red haze, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized what I was seeing. It was a wedding. Then it was gone.
"Daddy, I don't wanna get married," Regan whispered.
"You don't have to," I said. I wasn't sure which bothered me more; seeing my daughter marrying Rune or seeing it through that unnerving red haze.
Dylan stood up. "Come on, Danel," he said. "Even if he doesn't come back, we can't sit here and wait for whatever it is to come after us. I don't wanna go without a fight."
Danel said nothing. He was pale. Something had scared him pretty bad, and I figured it had more to do with Rune than whatever had killed Cherry and Peter. He followed Dylan out to the cargo bay in a daze. Duncan was still plastered in the corner, his eyes wide. His hands, splayed on the wall behind him, looked like they were searching for seams he could rip open and hide inside.
"Let's go, Duncan," I said.
"I … I have to get my starburst."
He ran out of the galley and back towards his quarters.
"You better follow him," Anala said. "We'll be fine here. Just hurry."
Duncan was already coming back out of his room when I got to that corridor. In his right hand, he held the small spherical object he'd used to blind Vinny. "Okay, I'm ready now," he said. He slung his backpack over his left shoulder.
Life support and the lights came back online without any problem. We kick and cursed the radio, and it refused to respond. We couldn't call for help. Even if we could, it wasn't likely that anyone would be able to reach us before we were all killed. We had to get Blue Ava's Angel moving again. That was the only way we'd get anywhere near help. Of course, help was only going to consist of burying the bodies.
"It's too fucking quiet," Duncan said as we crawled towards the engine.
"It's an Akurei, isn't it?" I asked.
Duncan didn't answer.
I grabbed his ankle and jerked him to a stop. "Isn't it?"
He rolled over to face me. His eyes were full of tears. "Don't let him kill me, please. I don't wanna die."
"Why is it after you?"
"I just don't wanna die."
"Duncan, you better tell me everything. That son of a bitch killed my woman and my unborn child. I don't have a whole lot of patience for your secrets right now. If that thing kills any more of my crew, I'll kill you myself."
"They bleed me. Look." He thrust his arms towards me, showing me all the little scars. I remembered a dream I had had where I'd seen something cutting him open. "They sacrificed all my people, drained all their blood and drank it to make themselves stronger. They ran out before I was returned. When they found me, they knew they had to keep me alive to drain me every day. Do you have any idea how much it hurts? And now they realize that if they just kill me, they can use my whole body, and they can save pieces like canned tomatoes. My bones, my organs, my blood. I don't wanna be someone's dinner."
"How do I kill it?"
"What the hell am I supposed to do? Let it kill everyone? Who's gonna save your ass then, huh? How the fuck can we kill it?"
Before Duncan could answer, there was a hollow boom. Blue Ava's Angel lurched to one side, throwing us against the bulkhead. I heard Danel and Dylan screaming and Rune taunting the thing.
"Come on, motherfucker!" Rune shouted. "You wanna play with fire? I got your fucking fire right here! Let's go, you bastard!"
There was another boom. It felt more contained, and the ship remained steady. Then there was silence again. I was certain that they were all dead. When I turned around to head towards the engine again, Duncan was gone. Forget the fucking engine, I thought. If Duncan was going to play hide and seek, I hoped he would hide in the barrier he put up around the engine and take some time to get the damn thing going again. I went back towards the galley.
Rune was slumped over the table, his left arm stretched out in front of him. It took me a second to notice that his hand was gone. Regan was peeking at the charred stump through her fingers. Anala wasn't quite sure what to do.
Danel, Dylan and the crate of weapons barricaded the opposite door. Neither of them were hurt, but they both seemed terrified.
Rune lifted his head when I came in. "Did you get everything on?" he asked.
"Not the radio," I said.
"I don't know. He's hiding somewhere."
A low growl came from Dylan. "It's that thing that was after him," he said. "Maybe if we just handed the little brat over, it'd go away."
"I like that idea," Danel said.
"No, don't send him away!" Regan said.
"He's not going anywhere," Rune said. "But his little friend sure as hell is."
I sat down at the table. I couldn't keep myself from staring at Rune's lack of hand. It was regenerating. If I watched it close enough, I could see the flesh knitting itself together and the bones lengthening. I couldn't watch it for very long. It was disturbing to say the least.
"Why can't we hand him over?" Danel asked.
"He's part of the crew. We can't just hand him over," I said. "I didn't turn Shane in. Why is this any different?"
"Shane didn't have invisible killers following him on board."
I decided not to continue that conversation. Even two years removed from Shane's suicide, I couldn't quite reconcile the whole thing. He'd done it to save the rest of us, but in doing so, he'd done more harm than good.
Tiny little fingers were sprouting from Rune's stump. Regan had dropped her hands from her face and was staring at it. "Weird," she said.
"That's nothing," Rune said. "I once met a guy who had to regenerate his eyes after they'd been burned out."
"Doesn't that hurt?" Anala asked.
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I reached into it and let a grenade go off. I think I wounded it, and I'm pretty sure it was freaked out."
"Can you kill it?"
"I don't know. I'm not even sure what it is or what it's made of. But I'll try."
"It's called an Akurei."
"Oh, you got the pointy eared bastard to talk, I see."
"I've never heard of one of those."
"He said they killed all of his people. They drink his blood to keep them strong. It seems they might get greater benefits if they kill him and eat his organs and stuff like that. That's why he ran away. He doesn't want to die."
"Well, if that's what they do, that's what they do. We have no right to keep them from gaining power. But Duncan's with us now. So the Aku whatever the fuck you called it can die. I just need to take a little nap first." Rune put his head back down on the table and was out. The little fingers continued to grow at a slow and steady pace.
Regan extended her finger and bent towards the new hand.
"Regan, don't touch that," I said. "You don't know where it's been."
"It's been in his arm," she said.
"Okay, so you do know. But don't touch it."
She sat back, a little disappointed.