by Mark MacKinnon
The captain sat back in her contoured chair,
at her steepled fingers as she digested what she'd just been told.
"How sure are you?" she asked at last. The only
illumination came from the dim, flickering glow of instrument
panels, and the slim figure in the doorway was cloaked in shadow.
Although her face was hidden, her voice told the captain all she
needed to know.
"I'm certain," the figure replied. "But the duration was too
brief to tell much else." The captain nodded, her unruly hair
brushing against the bruise on her cheek.
"So you don't know where it came from," she murmured.
The shadowed figure shook her head.
"I do have a direction, however," she told the captain, her
voice maddeningly calm. She was almost always calm, that one; or
at least she appeared to be, which added up to the same thing as far
as the captain was concerned.
"That would be helpful," the captain said dryly, closing her
eyes, "if we could move the ship. How are repairs coming?"
"Slowly," the figure responded. "But we should be mobile
within 48 hours. Captain, you should rest. You look ..."
"I'm fine," the captain said, a shade irritably. She opened
her eyes to see the figure in the doorway bow her head docilely.
"Just as you say." If there was rebuke in those words, it
was faint, but the captain sighed anyway.
"See to the others, all right?" she said wearily. "And keep
an eye out for that power signature. If it appears again, I want to
know right away. It could very well represent our only hope of
ever leaving here." The shadowed figure straightened, pausing on
the verge of departure.
"None of this is your fault, captain," the gentle voice
murmured. The captain felt a wry grin pulling at her lips.
"I wish that made a difference," she muttered as the other
woman left in a swish of robes. "I really, really do."
The view from the bell tower was well worth
And that was saying something, considering the shape the old,
rotted wooden ladder was in. Still, the cool moonlight danced on
the curves of the river, and everything looked peaceful, like in a
dream. It was a lovely night, the kind I used to love back before ...
before. Spring was ready to turn into summer, and the night breeze
was cool but no longer cold. The smells of green growing things
drifted on the gentle breeze, and if I closed my eyes I could almost
imagine that all was right with the world.
I sighed, glancing back at the huge old bell that still hung,
somehow, in the middle of the tower. I was seized with a sudden
urge to see if it would ring, but I didn't follow through. After all,
out here in the middle of nowhere there was no telling what might
answer its call.
That barrier had probably been erected for a reason.
A glance downwards revealed only the wild yard
surrounding the old stone building, huge chunks of rubble almost
completely overgrown by long grass and moss. There were signs of
destruction if you looked hard enough, but they were softened,
blunted by time's passage. Whatever had happened here was far in
the past. I braced my feet against the far side of the window I was
sitting in, which took some stretching since I was presently a girl.
The narrow, rutted road I'd been travelling was barely visible off in
the distance, meandering along beside the river, and the cool
moonlight threw the forest into deep shadow. There was no telling
what might be lurking in those shadows.
Not that I had to guess. The creatures that had attacked me
might have been alone, but I wasn't about to take a stroll in order
to find out, especially not now that the sun was down. From my
vantage point, I could make out the piles of ash, still smouldering,
where the nightmare creatures had run smack into the invisible
barrier that surrounded the building and its grounds. The place may
have been a ruin, but the barrier was still very active.
And invisible. I had passed over its perimeter with no
problem, but the last two of my attackers had been stopped in their
tracks, caught in a blaze of white light that had burned them to dust
in seconds. In a way, that had been a disappointment to me; my
past had left me with a primal hatred of demons and monsters in
general. Killing the others in the group that had ambushed me had
been satisfying to say the least.
I wondered how many might still be lurking out there in the
dark, in the middle of nowhere, waiting for me to leave the relative
safety of the old ruin. Maybe they thought I was cowering in here,
afraid. That thought made me smile thinly. After all I'd been
through, not much scared me. Except maybe myself.
I fought off the urge to brood, although not easily. Lately it
seemed that I was spending too much time sunk in black moods,
and more than once I'd ended up seeking out trouble. Well, at least
I didn't have to worry about that tonight. I was in the middle of
nowhere, and unless the local demon hordes came right up to the
door and started knocking I was determined to have an uneventful
I started to slide down from the empty window frame, then
caught myself. What the hell, I decided. I might as well try. What
could it hurt?
Unbuttoning the collar of my black shirt, I reached inside,
my fingers sliding across my chest. Feeling across my breasts didn't
affect me the way it once had; after all I'd been through, the
experience of turning into a girl on occasion had lost the
repugnance it'd once had. I fished around until I caught hold of the
supple cord, then hooked it with my fingers and pulled it out, lifting
it over my head.
The hyperlink key hung at the end of the cord, spinning
slowly as I held it in front of my face. I took a breath, staring into
its depths as I summoned my chi, letting it flow easily, its gentle
glow lighting up the drafty bell tower. The key caught the glow
and held it, glimmering with blue light that seemed to emanate from
deep inside the crystal itself. The small black bolts that had always
appeared in the beginning were completely gone now.
Maybe that was why it had stopped working.
I waited for the key to move, not really believing that this
time would be any different than the last.
My discovery of how to use the key to dowse for the
location of the nearest gate had been accidental, but very useful.
The key should have begun to tremble, then swing in ever-widening
circles at the end of the cord, until finally coming to rest pointing in
one direction, like a sliver of metal drawn by a powerful magnet.
Once, with two gates nearby, it had swung between the two points
uncertainly, but since my arrival on this world, it hadn't reacted at
all. Not once.
I'd been trapped here for over a year now, and it looked
pretty much like I'd never be leaving.
I sighed, letting my aura fade. The key's glow faded with it,
and I slipped it back over my head, dropping it down the front of
my shirt and buttoning up the collar. I was getting used to this, I
told myself, only checking on occasion out of sheer habit. Still, that
familiar restlessness stirred deep in my chest, the need to move, to
leave, to go somewhere else. I'd once sated that need by travelling
between worlds. Wandering in the woods of this place was a poor
substitute for that.
But there wasn't anything I could do about that, was there?
I'd told myself in the beginning, standing on the verge of that first
gate back in Nerima, that I'd have no regrets ... none for leaving,
and none for committing myself to the unknown hazards of the
strange links that existed between the worlds. It was so hard, some
days, to keep that resolution, but at least I still tried.
Even though it looked like I'd never get to see Nerima
again, not even just to see how they were getting along.
No regrets ...
I shook my head angrily, hopping down from the window
before I could get caught up in moping. I'd just go have something
to eat, and then maybe, if I was lucky, a night without dreams.
And tomorrow? Well, I'd worry about that when it got
here. One day at a time, that was the ticket.
But all those days, stretching ahead of me ... sometimes I
wondered how many I'd be able to take. And sometimes ...
Sometimes I thought how nice it would be to just stop ...
I stayed up in the tower for a while longer,
finally overcame inertia. The trip back down the ladder was even
trickier than the climb up, due to the fact that it was now
completely dark. I could see the flickering orange light of the torch
I'd left hanging by the base of the ladder as I climbed down, which
helped a little. When my feet were finally on the cold stone floor, I
retrieved the torch and headed back towards the room where I'd
left my pack.
The light from the fire was welcome, casting a warm glow
through the narrow doorway and down the hallway that led from
the tower. It was so natural, so welcome, that it took me a few
steps to remember that I hadn't built a fire.
I froze, cursing myself silently for getting lost in my own
self-pity. Someone was in here, and I hadn't even known. Could
one of the demons actually have made it inside? But why alert me
by building a fire? Whatever the case, I made a perfect target,
standing in the dark with a lit torch. As I debated the merits of
charging in, a tantalizing scent drifted through the air to re-ignite
my forgotten appetite.
Fish. Someone was cooking fish. Someone was cooking ...
I charged the doorway, flinging myself through in a neat
flip, spinning as I landed to take in the entire chamber. It was a
dead end room with one entrance and only two tiny windows high
up on one wall, easily defended, and since it was mostly empty,
there weren't any places to hide.
Not that the room's other occupant was hiding. She looked
up from the fire, fixing me with a look that was equal parts lazy and
"Well," she murmured. "You sure know how to enter a
room. Sit down, have some dinner. It's nearly ready." I stood
One thing was for sure. She wasn't a demon. The warm
firelight washed over her fine features, picking out red highlights in
her long, loosely braided hair. I approached warily, taken off-
guard. Whoever she was, she seemed totally at ease with my
sudden appearance. In fact, she exuded a sort of casual sensuality
that I found completely disconcerting.
"You're offering me some of my own fish?" I inquired,
spying my pack lying open near her feet. "Well, you've got gall, I'll
"Come now, Red," she said with a slow, insolent smile.
"Sharing with fellow travellers is sort of the unwritten rule of the
road. Don't be stingy." I moved around the small fire, eyeing her
uncertainly. She wore a bodysuit of some dark material that clung
to her body and was cut in a pretty provocative manner, high over
the thighs and narrowing to fasten around her throat, leaving her
long legs and slim shoulders bare. High boots rose over her knees
to mid-thigh, and she wore short matching fingerless gloves. A
long black cloak or coat lay beside my pack.
Well, at least I could be sure she wasn't hiding any weapons
in her outfit. I stood over her, uncertain what to do next. Spending
so much time alone had atrophied my social skills somewhat.
Okay, maybe they weren't that much to begin with, but still.
Finally she glanced up at me, raising one slim eyebrow.
"You can sit down, you know," she said, her full lips
quirking into a crooked smile. "I don't bite. At least, not on a first
date." I had no idea what my expression looked like, but she broke
out laughing and patted the floor beside her.
"Come on, Red," she grinned. "Don't be so grim. Have a
seat." Warily, I sat, watching as she turned the fish on makeshift
"Do you mind if I ask what you're doing here?" I asked.
"Besides cooking my fish, that is." She shook her head.
"Red, would you get over the fish already?" she sighed.
"Look, you provide the fish, I'll provide the wine. There's a full
skin in my coat. Deal?" I shrugged. She had a point; it was
strange to find someone else here, but she didn't seem to be any
sort of threat.
"Deal," I said. "But the name's not Red, it's Ranko. Ranko
Saotome." She reached out her hand, and I extended mine,
thinking she meant to shake it. Instead, she grasped my fingers
lightly and raised the hand to her lips, kissing the back in a courtly
gesture I'd only ever seen in movies.
"Charmed," she purred. "Ledana Aybren. I'm a historian."
My face flushed and I managed to retrieve my hand, which was
tingling where Ledana's lips had brushed it. Had she really just
done that? What sort of woman ... what ...
"Historian?" I blurted, trying to get my chaotic thoughts
under control. She smiled.
"Ah. You were expecting someone a little more dowdy,
perhaps?" she murmured. "Sorry to disappoint you. Yes, I'm
attached to the historical department of the University of Saeni.
I'm a field associate, part archeologist, part researcher. Quite
interesting, actually." I just nodded, swept along by her vivacious
energy. She turned back, retrieving the skewers from the low part
of the fire and examining them critically.
"These look ready," she said, satisfied. "Here." She thrust
the skewers at me and leaned over to rummage around in the untidy
pile of black cloth, giving me a view of just how form-fitting her
bodysuit actually was. Moments later she straightened up,
brandishing a full wineskin triumphantly.
"A feast," she stated. "Or at least, the closest we're going
to come out here." She poured some wine, dark in the firelight,
into the cap and offered it to me, then took one of the fish.
"Cheers," she smiled. I looked at my fish and mentally
shrugged. Might as well eat. There was no sense in worrying
about where this strange woman had come from on an empty
The fish was wonderful, and the wine went well with it.
Ledana drank daintily from a collapsible cup she pulled from one of
the coat pockets and ate enthusiastically.
"So, Ranko," she said at last, licking her fingers fastidiously,
like a cat. "What brings you to an old Seirristan abbey in the
middle of nowhere?" I blinked.
"Is that what this was?" I asked. "I don't know much about
the area. I'm, um, not from around here." She cocked her head at
me, startlingly green eyes searching my face as if looking for
something. Finally, she shrugged.
"You must have heard of the Seirristan order, though," she
said, leaning back and pouring another cup of wine. She raised an
eyebrow at me and I held out my cup. I hadn't heard of the
Seirristan order, and frankly I knew very little about the lands I'd
been passing through. Maybe it would be a good idea to learn
something while I could.
"Just the usual," I lied. She nodded as though what I'd said
"Well, some of the stories about them are true," she
murmured, taking a drink. "They knew many secrets, things that
have been lost over the ages. And not all of those secrets died with
them when they were wiped out during the War of Queens."
"Any secrets that were in a place like this are long gone," I
remarked. She inclined her head, fixing me with a penetrating stare.
"If you really believe that, then why come here?" she asked.
"I didn't intend to," I told her truthfully. "I've just been ...
wandering, really. I was on the road earlier, looking for a place to
stop, when I was attacked by monsters." She perked up at that.
"Attacked?" she asked. "Really?" She looked me up and
down, and I felt myself becoming uncomfortable with her scrutiny.
"What?" I asked defensively.
"No weapons," she said. "Are you a sorceress or
something?" I snorted.
"I'm a fighter," I informed her. "A good one. Those things
bit off more than they could chew." She took another drink, gazing
thoughtfully at me over the rim of her cup.
"You beat them all, just like that?" It was clear from her
tone that she doubted me.
"I beat six," I told her. "The other two ran into the barrier
around this place." She froze.
"Barrier? It's still active?" She looked surprised, and I
sipped my wine, taking my time in responding.
"Gee, I'd think an important historian like you would know
that the Seirristans could do that," I sniffed.
"I just didn't expect it to still be active after all this time,"
she shot back. "You're sure ..."
"I passed through, but when they tried to follow they got
fried," I told her. The food and wine had created a warm glow in
my gut, and somehow I found my earlier mood had evaporated. I
was actually beginning to feel almost relaxed. I watched as Ledana
turned her head to stare into the fire. Her hair was parted in the
middle, arcing up and then falling in a straight sweep along her
cheek down to her chest, obscuring her face in profile. I found
myself noticing that she was actually very beautiful, and somehow
that realization gave me a start.
What's the matter with you? I thought. Getting distracted
by a pretty face! You've been out here too long.
"So what about you?" I asked. She turned back to me,
startled out of her reverie.
"Me?" she echoed.
"Yes. What did you expect to find here, anyway?" For a
moment, I'd seen a pensive look on those fine, almost aristocratic
features, but a mask of haughty amusement slipped back into place
"Like I said before, not all the secrets of the Order died
when they did. The Seirristans often had hidden libraries built
under their monastaries, places to protect their secrets from
outsiders. That fact is not widely known, and so some of those
treasure troves of knowledge remain undiscovered to this day. Or
at least, that's the theory."
"And you thought there might be one here," I said. She
pulled her knees up to her chest and lay her head on her crossed
arms, giving me a languid feline look that made the skin on the back
of my neck prickle. The sensation was disturbing, all the more so
for not being totally unpleasant ...
"What makes you think I didn't find anything?" she asked,
her voice low and throaty. I just looked at her.
"Because you don't have anything?" I guessed.
"You think I'm going to take the entire library back with
me?" Ledana laughed. "Oh, no, my friend. Just a few writings so
that the department head will have something to show when he
goes for funding. A full expedition out here will be expensive, my
friend. And this is dangerous territory, not to mention the fact that
if anyone finds out about this find the competition will be fierce.
Possibly fatally so."
"So you probably shouldn't be telling me about it," I
pointed out. She favoured me with another one of those tingle-
"Actually, I'm telling you for a reason," she said. Uncoiling
gracefully, she stretched out and retrieved three rolled up scrolls
and a small, leather-bound book from her coat.
"You see these?" she asked. "They could be very valuable
to the right person. I'm going to be taking these back to the
capitol, and I could use a bodyguard. A girl who can take out a
pack of demons bare-handed would be quite effective in such a
role, I would think."
"You're saying you want to hire me?" I asked, incredulous.
"Well, there isn't a lot of competition for the job," she told
me with a smile.
"How do you know you can trust me?" I asked. She
"I trust my instincts. And I'll make it worth your while. I'll
even," she added, digging in her coat, "pay you an advance." She
tossed a coin pouch at me, and when I caught it I could tell that it
was pretty full. Opening it showed me the telltale glint of gold
Money. That would come in useful when I reached
civilization again. The only problem was that I was pretty sure she
was lying, at least about some of what she'd told me. Then again,
that could just be because she didn't trust me as much as she
claimed. I weighed the pouch in my hand, then glanced at her
again. Yes, I was certain that she wasn't telling me everything, but
did that really matter? The prospect of having a job, a definite goal,
even if only for a little while, had awakened something in me that I
hadn't even been aware was dormant.
What the hell, I decided. Why not? It would be a nice
change from moping around in the wilderness. And what was the
worst that could happen?
Famous last words ...
Ledana fed a few more sticks into the fire,
watching the girl
out of the corner of her eye. Ranko was a strange study in
contrasts and contradictions. Even through the baggy clothing she
wore, it was clear that she possessed a lush, feminine body. Her
mannerisms were nearly masculine, though, from the way she sat
crosslegged to the way she moved. Yet her unselfconscious
demeanor was oddly attractive, as was her reticence.
Unfortunately, that wasn't why Ledana had opted to keep
the girl around for a few days. She watched surreptitiously as the
redhead rummaged through her pack, pulling out a worn blanket
and spreading it on the dusty floor. Long bangs arced down into
the girl's face as she worked, and she impatiently flipped her waist-
length braid back over her back with one hand in a practised
motion. Ledana waited to see if the girl would remove her shirt.
She didn't. That was to be expected, Ledana supposed; the
night was cool. Still, she'd hoped to get a chance to see.
Patience, she told herself. You'll be travelling together for
a while. There'll be time to see where she keeps it. Ledana turned
to making up her own bed, stealing another glance at the redhead.
It really was too bad, she mused. She'd taken a liking to the girl
right off. Of course, it was possible she could get it from Ranko
without resorting to deceit. There was no way the scrappy girl
could know just what it was that she had, even if she'd somehow
managed to make it respond to her.
Ledana thought back to the characteristic energy pulse
she'd sensed, even in the hidden chamber deep under the abbey.
Just how, she wondered, had a wandering fighter gotten hold of
something like a hyperlink key?
Well, maybe she'd get a chance to ask. But one way or
another, Ledana was going to get that key.
One way or another.