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Starbursts and Shadows: the Obligatory Derelict Ship Episode

I put Blue Ava's Angel down at the spaceport in the center of Crossgrove. Most of the people were on their way out. The fair had been over for a day or so, but bad storms had kept most passenger ships on the ground. A lot of them stared at me with expressions ranging from fear to pity to admiration. It seemed that everyone knew why I had come back.

I didn't bother to check if Duncan and Hitokage were gone. Blue Ava's Angel sobbed a little. She missed Duncan already, and she didn't like the rough hands of the engineers at the port. I tried to tell her it would be okay, but I wasn't sure that it would be.

My visions still bothered me, and the fact that Rune hadn't come out since he'd brought Cherry to the galley wasn't very reassuring either. The door was locked. He wouldn't answer, even for Anala, and I didn't want Dylan to rip the door open.

We'd been there about six hours, long enough for me to tell Mom and Daigoro everything and long enough to be seen by Vinny's henchmen, when one of the dockworkers brought me a message typed out on a small electronic card. "He's at the Wheel," the message said.

"Who sent this?" I asked.

"No one," the dockhand said.

"Where'd it come from?"

"Bird dropped it."

"Thanks."

He didn't go away.

I flipped him a coin. He walked off, grumbling nasty names he was too chicken to say to my face.

I knew the message was from Rune, but I hadn't seen him leave the ship. I went on board to see if he was there. I knocked on the door. He didn't answer. "Hey, Rune. Open up," I said. He didn't respond. I tried to open the door and almost fell when it opened without resisting at all. The room was empty.

I went back out. "Did anyone see Rune leave?" I asked.

I got strange looks, shrugs and head shakes.

"Let's go to the Wheel," I said.

"Are you crazy?" Danel asked.

"Yes."

No one argued with that, and everyone went with me.

The Wheel was pretty full at that hour. The bar was jammed, and Britt and a kid with big ears and too many freckles were hustling to get everyone served. Every table was packed. Two waitresses rushed around between the tables, the bar, the tiny kitchen and each other. Vinny was sitting at his corner table lording over the usual evening poker game. A goon stood on his left, his hands resting on the two large slug guns at his hips. On Vinny's knee was a girl in a green leather corset, matching knee high boots and a green bobbed wig. He had his arm around her waist. She wanted to be somewhere else.

The place died when I walked in. There weren't even whispers or twitching trigger fingers. Vinny looked up. He'd had the burns Duncan's starburst had given him healed, but he'd scared. The girl's eyes met mine, and I shuddered. Her eyes were the same color as Petrine's, a blue as clear as a perfect summer day.

I walked over to Vinny's table and slammed my palm down in the middle of his game, upsetting stacks of chips and scattering cards. The man on my left stood up and started to protest. I shoved him back against the wall without looking at him.

"What the fuck - " Vinny said.

The girl skittered away from him. The goon flexed his fingers.

"You knew I'd be back," I said.

"You fucking - "

"Noon tomorrow. Just you and me. And we'll settle our differences once and for all."

"What is this, a date?"

"It's a fucking duel, you son of a bitch!"

"You're outta your league, Konstantine."

"We'll see about that."

"Why don't you just take Green Ava for a night, and we'll forget about the whole thing, eh?"

I wanted to punch him, but he bent over in pain before I even completed the thought.

"What are you, Canadian? The man wants a duel, not a fuck," Rune said.

I looked at him as Vinny rubbed his knee. I hadn't even noticed Rune was at the table. He grinned at me.

The goon drew and shoved a gun in Rune's face. "Get up from the table, red," the goon said.

Rune stood up and put his cards down on the table face up. He had a royal flush. The other players groaned and slapped their cards down. "Are you gonna shoot me?" he asked.

"If I hafta. Both of you get out of here now."

"Damn. I was winning, too." Rune put his hand on the barrel of the gun. Steam rose from under his palm, and he bent the barrel down towards the floor. "You gonna shoot me now, cowboy?"

The goon just stared at his melted weapon, too shocked to realize that he had another that was just fine.

Vinny's eyes darted around the room. I wondered if he was looking for Duncan. He licked his lips. "Okay. Fine. You got a duel. Noon tomorrow. Where?"

"Right outside," I said.

I turned my back on Vinny and started to walk away. Cold spiders flared across my shoulders. I heard a gun hit the floor and the click of another gun being drawn and cocked. I didn't flinch when it went off. I turned back to Vinny. Rune was standing between me and the goon, his left hand clenched around the bullet. The goon's eyes were wide. Vinny was sweating and shaking.

"Don't get any ideas, Vinny," I said. "Even if you do manage to kill me, I got plenty of people watching my back who won't let you get away with it."

Rune opened his hand, and the bullet dripped to the floor.

The place was still dead quiet when we walked out.

I turned to Rune. I wasn't sure what I was going to say to him. I knew what I wanted to say, but he beat me to the punch. He reached under his coat and pulled out a bundle, which he placed in my hands.

"Use them well," he said. He walked away, headed, it seemed to me, towards where we'd landed before. I heard a screech, and Peter landed on Rune's left shoulder. I didn't bother to ask him where he was going or when I'd see him again. He needed time. Dying had disturbed him more than it had the others. Everyone knew that whether they died early or lived to be a hundred, something did come after death. Rune would never see that place again. Something about Hitokage's magic had caused him to die when a wound like that normally would have healed in seconds. I couldn't imagine how hard it was for him to see the peace that he would always be denied.

I unwrapped the bundle. There were two slug guns. The metal sparked and flashed. The handles were inlaid with lapis with delicate mother-of-pearl wings. On the butt of each gun was a name. One was Hizashi; the other Getsuei. I had no idea what the names meant, but they gave the guns a certain feel. Like Rune's knives, there was more to those guns than met the eye.

"Those are very pretty, Talon," Mom said, looking over my shoulder. "What exactly are you going to do with them?"

"I have a duel to fight," I said.

"What for?"

I had never told her everything. I had told her that Regan's mother was dead, but I never said how it happened. Wisely, Mom never asked. I wrapped the guns up and tucked them under my arm. "Vinny's the one who killed Petrine," I said.

She hugged me and said no more.

I couldn't sleep that night. I stared at the ceiling. I worried about Rune. I worried about Duncan. I worried about the duel. I worried about the weather. It had started to rain again.

"You're getting old," Cherry mumbled against my shoulder.

"I thought you were asleep."

"Your worrying is keeping me awake."

"I've never been in a duel."

"You're a better shot than he is. You'll be fine."

"What if it doesn't stop raining?"

"You'll get wet."

"What if Rune doesn't come back?"

"You'll find him again."

"What about Duncan?"

"That kid can take care of himself. He didn't decide to go without some kind of plan."

"That's all lies. You're just telling me what I wanna hear."

"But you like the lies, don't you?"

"For now."

"Let me give you something else to think about."

It helped, for a little while anyway, to have no concern other than her mouth and her hands.

The next day was clear and cool. The sky was as blue as a perfect summer day. The weather on Junket had never been so nice and never was again.

I stood at one end of the street. The Wheel was glutted with onlookers. Every window of every building had faces plastered to them. Vinny was at the other end of the street, surrounded by goons and five girls. His Avas. Green, Red, Pink, Black and Blue. Another Blue. I wondered how many of each there had been and how many he'd killed with his own hands to keep them from running away. They were in a triangle in front of Vinny, Blue at the point. He expected me to shoot through them to get to him. They were scared. He shoved the girls forward.

Rune stepped out of building to my left. He stood beside me with his hands in his pockets and a lit cigarette in his mouth. "Like the guns?" he asked.

"Very pretty," I said.

"Fired them yet?"

"No. Not yet."

He grinned and said nothing.

When Vinny was within fifty feet of me, he stopped. "You'll have to go through my Avas to get to me, Konstantine!" he shouted. "They'll fight to the death for me!"

They all had tiny guns in their hands pointed at me. Not one of them looked like they wanted to die for Vinny. On the surface, Vinny seemed like a nice caring pimp. He gave them shelter and clothing and great health care benefits. But that just drew them in. Once in, they could never leave. He wouldn't let them.

"Daigoro, get the girls out of the way," I said.

The guns flew from the Avas' hands and dropped somewhere far away. The girls screamed. "What the hell is going on?" Vinny roared.

Gently, Daigoro lifted the girls and set them down on a roof.

"Thanks," I said.

"You're welcome," he said. He wiped blood from his nose.

"That's a dirty trick, Konstantine!" Vinny shouted.

"So's using the girls as a shield," I said.

In the distance, church bell began to strike. Dylan and Rune both turned to watch something behind us.

One

I flexed my hands above the guns. I had twelve shots to kill him if I needed that many. The bullets were made out of the same material as the guns themselves. I didn't know what it had taken to make them and didn't want to waste them.

Two

Vinny bared his teeth. The goons moved to the side of the street. The Avas stared down from their perch.

Three

"Kill him, kill him, kill him " Cherry chanted under her breath.

Four

"Be careful," Mom said.

Five

Vinny hunched over, like he was going to run at me. I spread my fingers out and tightened them. The stream of time whispered against my skin. "Daigoro " I said. He nodded.

Six

I closed my eyes. I heard the wind chimes and the gong. My sinuses buzzed. Just like the shoot out with Hern Szigeti on Gehgal, I knew every move Vinny was going to make before he made it.

Seven

Vinny's heels dug into the ground. Sweat dripped off him. The faces in the windows tensed.

Eight

"Die, Konstantine!" Vinny screamed.

Nine

I opened my eyes as he rushed at me, drawing his guns. "Bring it on," I said.

Ten

He fired both guns. I raised my hands. The bullets bounced harmlessly away. I dropped the shield before it could drain me.

Eleven

Vinny almost stumbled, but he kept coming. I drew the gun from my left side, Getsuei. The barrel met his forehead. "For my Blue Ava," I said.

Twelve

He didn't see me draw Hizashi from my right. I fired into his crotch. With his eyes and mouth wide open, he dropped to his knees. Dark blood oozed over his hands. His goons didn't move. The Avas were cheering. The people in the buildings were pouring out to get a better look at what I had done. I turned away, curious about what Dylan and Rune had spotted in the distance behind us. "Anala, don't let him bleed to death," I said.

"But he deserves to die!" Cherry shouted. "He raped and murdered my sister! How many other women has he done that to? He should die!"

I put the guns away. Tears glittered on Cherry's eyelashes. "Dying won't teach him anything," I said, but I knew it wasn't me speaking. Just like in that jail cell. I was channeling something, something very wise, and I let it speak. "Why take the chance that he'll have peace in death? While he lives, he can think about what he's done. He can repent. If he fails to understand, then life will be more than enough suffering to satisfy the spirits of his victims."

She let it go at that.

"Talon, your eyes they changed color," Mom said.

"They did?"

"She speaks through you," Daigoro said. "The Shaman star is an oracle."

That was interesting, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I had suspected that part all along. Still, it didn't explain everything.

Rune and Dylan had gone to meet up with what they'd seen approaching. They were walking back now. Rune had a smallish figure draped over his right shoulder, and Dylan was carrying someone else in his arms. The body in Dylan's arms was barely alive.

"Is that what I think it is?" Danel asked.

"It's Jake," Regan said.

Anala had done what she was going to do for Vinny. She waited, her eyes closed and her head down, gathering more energy. Vinny's thugs had come to drag him away, and the Avas were shouting for someone to get them down.

Dylan put Hitokage's limp body at Anala's feet. She stared down at him. There was blood on his mouth. "I ought to let him die," she mumbled.

Duncan came awake as Rune put him down. "No!" he said and crawled over to his brother. "Don't let him die, please."

Anala knelt beside Hitokage. She passed her hands over him. "What happened?" she asked.

"He he took me back and then he he you can't let him die! Please save him! Please, Anala, don't let him die!" Tears shimmered on the rims of Duncan's eyes.

Anala put her hands on Hitokage. Hitokage opened his eyes and pushed her hands away. "Don't bother," he said.

"You have severe internal injuries," Anala said. "If I don't, you'll die."

"A small price to pay."

"Goddamn it, Jake. Let her help you," Duncan said.

"I have the right to chose my death."

"No!"

"This is how I should have died. For you."

"No!"

"I will always be with you, Duncan."

Hitokage's eyes slipped shut. As we watched, his body withered then vanished, leaving behind the crumbled pieces of the armor and the torn and burnt bits of the cloak. Duncan folded over, his forehead touching the dirt. He didn't move except for his hands slowly clenching and unclenching.

Anala stood up and wiped at the tears that were starting to form in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Duncan," she said.

Duncan didn't reply.

Something cold brushed past my cheek. Chills broke out along my arms. I closed my eyes.

I saw a dark room. In the center of the room was a set of shackles suspended from the ceiling. There were at least fifteen figures in the room, but I couldn't see them. "Well done," one said when Hitokage walked into the room with Duncan.

There was silence. Hitokage had his hand on Duncan's shoulder. He looked around at the figures hiding in the shadows. "Fuck you," he said.

The shadowy figures didn't need more of an explanation than that. Hitokage still wasn't fully recovered from Anala's lightning and the knife wounds, but he was well enough to kill at least twelve of the fifteen before their numbers overwhelmed him. Duncan could have run at any time, but he stayed. He pulled various things from his backpack, distracting the Akurei and finally pulling his brother's broken and battered body away when the battle was over.

The vision faded, and I opened my eyes.

"I don't get it," Cherry said. "Was that the thing that killed us or not?"

"It was," I said.

"Wasn't he supposed to take Duncan back?"

"He did."

"I still don't get it."

"He wasn't evil. He just didn't have a lot of good choices to make. If he'd saved Duncan but kept fighting rather than become one of them, he would have been killed, and Duncan would have had no way back. And I don't think we've seen the last of him."

NEXT: "Brain Damage"!