The bonfire crackled. I watched the embers flit up into the dark sky. Daigoro's feet shuffled in the sand. Regan was building a sand castle, but the sand was too dry and the castle kept melting away.
"Any news?" Daigoro asked.
"I found someone who might be able to help us find some answers," I said. "But that's the least of my concerns right now."
"Are you in trouble?"
"There's something on my ship that's killing my crew."
"Where are you?"
"Don't come. It'll kill you, too. We can't do anything. We can't see it."
"I can't just let you sit out there and die."
"But - "
"Daigoro, just stay away. It's not safe."
"When it gets what it wants, it'll leave. But it'll have to kill all of us to do that. Then you can come and bury the bodies somewhere."
Daigoro grinned. "I'm not going to listen to you. You know that, don't you?"
"We'll see about that."
The bonfire faded. I was inside some kind of cell, suspended a few feet above the ground. Daigoro was sitting behind me. Regan was on her knees, pounding on the surface of the cell. Tears poured down her cheeks. "Don't!" she shouted. "Don't give it to him! Rune, stop!" Rune was standing in front of something that looked like Kaylan but somehow wasn't Kaylan. He held his hands out. "Here. Take it," he said.
There was a bright flash, and my head snapped up like I was trying not to fall asleep. I rubbed my eyes. Nothing much had changed. We were all still sitting in the galley. The ship still wasn't moving. Rune was flexing the fingers of his left hand.
"Do you have a plan?" I asked.
"How do you fight something you can't see?" he asked.
"Heh. Yeah, or … or you find some way to get where it is so you can see it."
"That's assuming it's not just invisible."
"It's not. If it were just invisible, I'd have a better sense of where it is. Dylan would be able to smell it."
"I don't think I like what you're about to tell me."
"You and Duncan are the only ones who can see it all the time."
"I can't fight it. I'm just a pilot."
"Uh-huh. That's why you carry two guns."
"There's nothing I can do."
"Stop being so pessimistic. There's a way out of this. There's a way out of everything. I've seen a lot worse than this, and I'm still here."
"We're not talking about you. We're talking about me. I'm human. I don't have any … I can't grow back if I lose my parts."
"I know what you lost."
"You have no clue."
"Do you think I've never lost someone I've loved? Do you think I stay away from people because I won't die? No, I don't. I can't. I'm not some emotionless machine. It doesn't matter how hard it is. It's worth it. And I'll keep doing it until there is an end. Because I will continue, that means I don't sit back and die inside when they leave. I take the memory with me and let it strengthen me."
"All right. So what if I go looking for this thing and it ends up killing me? What are you gonna do then? You can't see it, so you have no chance of killing it. And if you do kill it, you can't get the engines fixed. You can't fly this ship."
"You're being selfish."
"It's gotten me this far."
"It's not getting you much beyond this, is it?"
I got up and walked out of the galley.
Rune was right. I was being selfish and stupid. Something about the whole situation made me shut down, though. It wasn't just Cherry's death. Maybe it was because I already knew how it ended. I just didn't understand why I kept having visions of a future that wasn't going to happen. If the Akurei killed us all, how could Regan and Rune ever get married? How could I ever end up in a bathtub full of ice, seeing everything through a red haze? Not that I wanted any of that to happen, but it was a future. Then again, I knew damn well that everything I saw was subject to change.
The worst part was that I was afraid. I had seen the thing twice. When I heard the voice on the radio and when Cherry died. The first time, it did nothing. It just looked at me. When it killed Cherry, it knocked me across the room and somehow held me there. What the hell was I supposed to do against that kind of power? Or maybe that was what I needed to do. Use my ability to see it to distract it so that Rune could kill it. But that would still end up with me dead. I was banging my head against a wall.
All the thing really wanted was to take Duncan back to Texas and turn him into a nice meal. So wouldn't it naturally go looking for Duncan? As long as the rest of us stayed away, its search would go on uninterrupted. So what did I decide to do? Go looking for Duncan. Naturally.
I started on the bridge, kicked at the radio a few more times and thought about just piling everyone into the escape shuttle and leaving both Duncan and the Akurei with a few explosives. Rune would probably enjoy having something to blow up. But we were both thinking about it the same way. Blue Ava's Angel wasn't just a ship. She was home. The crew was family. You don't just walk away from your home and your family and blow it all up because you can't see any other way out. That would be the last resort. I had to get myself together and fight for it. And I'd feel a lot better if I knew exactly where Duncan was.
I crawled into the space between the outer hull and the inner hull, and I knew right away that something bad would happen. The demon's hatred was still lingering in that part of the ship. It affected everything. I could feel it trying to make me weaker, trying to make me give into my fear. I ignored it and crawled towards the engines.
The cold spiders slid down my spine and back up again, spreading out over my shoulders and my scalp. I stopped and looked down at my hands as they slipped down my arms and over the backs of my hands. I could see them. They didn't quite look like spiders. They looked like scarab beetles. They were light blue, as if they'd been frozen. They flowed over my skin and vanished when they touched any other surface.
A shadow flicked across my peripheral vision. I tried to turn, and something slammed into my cheek. My head bounced off the outer hull and rang like a gong. Everything went dark. I felt bony fingers slip around my throat and squeeze. I opened my eyes. Its face was black and angular, like it was carved out of obsidian. The thin slit of its mouth was grinning at me, and its green eyes glowed like radioactive waste. I could feel the point of the silver claw on its thumb pressing into the hollow of my throat. I drew my lasers and fired into its midsection. Really really horrible place for a gunfight.
It made no sound, but it backed away from me, doubled over in pain. I put my guns up. I couldn't risk anything longer range than point blank. My best option was to get the hell away from it.
I scrambled through the crawlspace as fast as I could. It recovered quicker than I expected and came after me. It didn't walk or crawl. It seemed to float, almost like a ghost, which made it a hell of a lot faster than I was. It got a hold on my legs and pulled me back towards it, trying to slam me against the sides of the crawlspace. It let go, and I turned to face it, drawing my guns again. It raised a sword over its head.
I shoved myself backwards and tried to turn to scramble away. The sword came down on the inside of my thigh. Blood spurted in an arc back at the swordsman. It had hit an artery. So not only was I going to die, but no one would ever find the body.
It was about to take another chop at me when I felt Duncan's hands slip under my armpits. He dragged me backwards into the pocket of protective magic he'd put around the engine. The Akurei could no longer see us. It wasn't sure if we were still there or if we'd moved to some other part of the ship. The sword vanished, and it floated away.
Duncan took his shirt off and wrapped it tightly around the wound in my leg. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he asked. He pressed down on the cut and tried to find some way to elevate my leg. We were in a tight spot. There wasn't much room to move around.
"I came looking for you," I said.
"Why the fuck did you do that? Were you trying to get killed? Goddamn, don't you stop bleeding?"
"I hope so." I was starting to feel a little light-headed.
"Shit." He reached into the barrier with two fingers and scooped a little of it out. He shoved his fingers under the makeshift bandage and spread the magic goop around on the cut. I almost had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out.
The world went grey and quite for a while.
When I came to, Duncan had his fingers pressed to my neck and was counting my pulse. "Fake ticker, huh?" he asked.
"Where's the thing with the sword?"
"Hopefully far away."
"How can you tell my heart's not real?"
"It's too regular. And it sounds a little different. Come on, I need to get you outta here. You need Anala."
"Am I still bleeding?"
"No, but you're not healing. Come on."
Duncan dragged me out into the crawlspace. I couldn't help him out much. The wound hurt, and I had lost a good amount of blood before he was able to stop it. We made it to the cargo bay without incident and almost made it all the way to the galley. I felt it before I saw it. I shoved Duncan away from me and told him to run. He ran and started pounding on the galley door.
I turned to face the Akurei. The sword flashed towards me. I put my hands up, hoping I could get another psychic shield. The cold prickles coated my skin. The sword seemed to bounce off something, and the Akurei drew back a little. I felt blood trickling from my nose, and I started to sweat as the fever rose.
"Ah, you have tricks," it said. It took a step towards me, holding the sword at its eye level and angled down to the left. "It's nice to see you fighting back for a change."
"Give me the boy, and I'll leave the rest of you alone."
"Get off my ship."
"Give me the boy."
"Get off my ship!"
The sword strike came from the right. I was barely able to block it. I stumbled and felt the cut in my leg reopen. The sword came at me from all directions, hard and fast, and I was having the same problem with the shield I had before. I couldn't keep it up forever. My vision grew darker and darker until there was only a pinprick of light.
"Amateur," the Akurei said.
The sword slashed across my chest, tearing me wide open. I only saw the wound for a second before I hit the ground, but I could have sworn I saw wires and oil rather than blood and filet o' Talon. I heard Regan screaming. A flash of heat passed above me, and metal clashed.
The absolute darkness I found myself in after that was familiar. I'd been there not too long ago. I could feel the time stream flowing by me again. I knew I wasn't dead or in any danger of dying. I was more worried about Rune trying to fight something he couldn't see. I closed my fingers around the stream and tried to find where that fight took place. I didn't like what I saw.
Rune had attacked the Akurei with two knives, which it had no trouble dodging and blocking. As long as the fight moved, Rune was able to sense where the Akurei was. What he couldn't do was get inside the sword. He tried to disarm it with his whip only to have the whip cut in half. He threw one of the knives. The Akurei caught the knife and threw it back, burying the knife to the hilt in the center of Rune's chest. It moved in to slice him up one side and down the other. Rune pulled the knife out of his chest. Fire leaped from the wound, singeing the Akurei. It managed to take one more swing at him, and the point of the sword caught him across the face.
When Rune collapsed, Dylan came out to attack. That fight was shorter. The Akurei recovered from the burning and plunged the sword through Dylan's chest as he lunged. Then the Akurei was gone. It was injured, but it would heal in no time.
Dylan was dead. Anala had tried to heal the wound, but the sword had gone straight through his heart. She'd already spent most of her energy healing me. Danel helped her take Dylan to the room where Cherry and Peter were. She covered him with a sheet and went through the funeral rites and prayers with tears streaming down her cheeks.
Rune didn't appear to be alive, but with him not being quite human, Anala had difficulty telling. Either way, he hadn't regained consciousness, and no one was really sure if he would.
I opened my eyes when I felt a searing heat uncomfortably close to my skin. For a second, I wasn't sure where I was. I should have recognized the ceiling I was staring at, but it was glowing bright blue. It was Blue Ava's Angel's aura. I didn't know ships had auras.
Rune's smear of white-hot flame cooled, and I could see his face. A scar twisted across his cheek, making his grim expression grimmer. "They told me you'd be hard to kill," he said. "But I rather enjoyed the challenge."
"What?" I tried to sit up but couldn't move.
"You're not going anywhere."
"What's going on?"
Rune laughed. "Who knew a demon could pay so well?"
"You did all this for a bounty?"
"I'm over 3200 years old, Talon. Immortal or not, no one gets by that long being on the wrong side. It's not always the good side or even the side I believe in. But I know a loser when I see one. I hate to say it, kid, because I do like you, but you're a loser. Sorry."
"Fucking son of a bitch!"
I sat up suddenly, reaching for his throat as he laughed at me, but the flesh I felt in my hands was too cool to be his.
"Hey, whoa! What the fuck are you doing? Good guy here," Duncan said. He was holding my wrists, keeping me away from him. My hands didn't look like my own.
I dropped my hands to my lap. "Sorry," I said. "It must've been a dream."
"Yeah, a royally fucked up one."
I looked down at my chest. The scar from the sword wound was almost invisible.
"You got some interesting shit in there," Duncan said. "I bet you don't even know what it can do."
"I can breathe. That's all I need."
"You got tweaked without knowing about it? Ugh. That's fucking creepy."
"I was dead. I didn't have a whole lot of choice in the matter."
"Well, if you ever find yourself underwater, don't bother to hold your breath. Those lungs are made so that they can be filled with water and process the oxygen in the water. And they're super efficient, but you could probably tell that already. Just don't take up smoking. Real lungs heal that damage if you quit. These won't."
"I don't think that'll be a problem. Speaking of smoking, how's Rune?"
That wasn't the answer I wanted to hear. Duncan's eyes filled with tears. I looked around the galley. Danel was asleep under the table, which had been shoved up against one of the doors. The crate of grenades blocked the other. On the floor near the sink, Anala sat next to Rune's still form, silent tears dripping off her chin. Regan was asleep in her lap.
"I don't care if he is my brother. That bastard deserves to die," Duncan said. Tears quivered on the rims of his eyes but didn't fall.
"I guess it's story time, huh?"
"You don't have to. But I thought you were a different race."
"I am. He was changed."
"Akurei are just evil Kihaku then?"
"It's a little bit more complicated than that, but that's the basic idea."
"Like turning humans into vampires?"
"If vampires existed, yeah." He rubbed his arm across his eyes. "They call him Shikaku Hitokage, the shadow assassin. He used to be just Jake. When the Akurei first started to take over, I got hurt pretty bad fighting them, so he got me to Boston somehow. When I was better, he came to take me back, but in the meantime, they'd changed him. They knew what kind of skills he had. They needed someone like him on their side. So he wasn't exactly taking me home for a nice happy family reunion. It took me a long time to remember everything that had happened and to figure out what was going on. There are still a few things I don't remember. Probably because I don't want to remember. But I know they wanna kill me, and they wanna use him to do it."
"So Boston is part of Texas."
"No. Boston, Massachusetts."
"It's not under Junket?"
"No. It was on Earth."
"So you're not really sixteen."
"Not exactly. I am, but … okay, here's the part that I can't really explain because I don't know. Texas has gateways to other places. It's not just under Junket. It's under Earth and a whole bunch of other places. Boston was closest to where we lived at the time. So I was born to a woman named Isabelle and a man named Kevin. I was their kid. They named me Duncan. I had a bratty little sister, a dog, a girlfriend. I worked on cars with my dad. I played soccer. I had a crush on this really hot redheaded singer. I can't even remember her name now. When I was about sixteen, I started having really bad headaches. The doctors thought it was cancer or something. But they never found anything. I was seeing things. It was because I was starting to remember. Then Jake came to get me. The headaches stopped, but I lost that family."
Duncan pulled his knees up to his chin and buried his head in his arms. No wonder he was so scared. His own brother was the one trying to kill him. As much as his story made it easy for me to decide to fight for him, that simple fact made it that much harder. Duncan didn't want me to kill his brother. He wanted his brother back the way he used to be.
I got up and went over to Anala. She looked up at me and wiped away her tears. "I can't feel him any more," she said.
I sat down and put my arms around her. I didn't think she would ever stop crying.
There was no blood on Rune's body from the wounds, just charred marks where the flames had come out. Duncan was right. He was cold. There was no breathing, no pulse, no physical signs of life. I tried to look for an aura and saw only a grey space. "He's gone, Anala. There's nothing you can do."
She wanted to scream, but all she managed was a choked sob. "I'm going to kill that thing," she said.
"But - "
"You give life, remember. You're not a killer."
"But I killed that demon, and this thing is just as evil. Talon, I have to do something before it gets the rest of us. Even if I can hurt it just a little. Wouldn't that give you a better chance of killing it?"
"I don't think I can kill him."
"Then what are we going to do?"
"We could try to get off the ship, but I think he would follow us. We could let him have Duncan. That's what he wants."
"We can't do that."
"I'll think of something."
A while later, Danel and I took Rune's body to the room with the others. Anala was barely able to get through the funeral rites. I wanted to cry. I looked at the shapes under the clean white sheets. It hadn't been long since I'd seen the faces of those shapes and their bodies moving and alive. And suddenly, they were all still and silent, covered in white.
Anala was on her knees beside Rune. She had pulled the sheet down from his face and pressed her hands against his cheeks. "Open your eyes," she whispered. "I saw heaven and hell and everything in between in your eyes. I saw the vastness of the universe and its emptiness and fullness. I saw the beginning of time itself. I saw God in your eyes. Open your eyes and show me again. Please, open your eyes."
Rune's eyes didn't open, and everything that she had hoped to see was lost.
The deep hollow grief that I had felt when Shane died came back. It was deeper and bigger. I almost fell.