This is a work of fanfiction.  All Ranma ½ characters are copyright
Rumiko Takahashi and are used without permission for entertainment
purposes only.
Midnight Panther characters property of Yu Asagiri (Sonya, Kei, Lou,
et al.)
Record of Lodoss War characters (Pirotess) property of Ryo Mizuno
 

TSC Vol. 5

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
 
 

             I -- Destiny's Fool

     "Go then.  There are other worlds than this."
                                        -Steven King, "The Gunslinger"
 

     The screaming.  The screaming had stopped.  I couldn't recall
exactly when, but a slight turn of my head showed me why.  The guy in
the robes was dead, his slumped body being consumed by strange
purplish flames.  That nagged at me for a moment, until I caught sight of
something lying on the ground near my feet.
     It was his mask, broken in two pieces.  That explained it.  They
always burned if their masks were removed.  I blinked, realizing for the
first time that I was lying on my back.  Gingerly I sat up, my body
informing me that it was mostly intact but moderately unhappy.  Blood
ran from a couple of cuts on my face, and my right arm was numb.  I
absently hoped it wasn't a serious injury; this place hadn't exactly
impressed me with its medical facilities.
     And I was kind of stuck here.
     Slowly, I looked around, trying to stop my thoughts from
buzzing around in my skull long enough to recall just what had
happened.  There were huge, smoking chunks of stone embedded in
the ground all around me, and off to the left a desolate ruined building
with a high central tower was silhouetted against the nearly full moon.
     Ambush.  Yeah, that was it.  Another ambush by the maniacs in
the black robes and white masks.  Two of them this time, and things
had gotten hairy.  Then I'd gotten in close against one guy, my chi bolt
against his black lightning, and ...
     And boom.  A gentle breeze rustled through the long grass,
carrying the scents of late spring like a perfume, and I had the urge to
lie down and sleep.  Once again, Ranma Saotome triumphs against the
mysterious clan of assassins that ...
     A bolt of adrenaline shot up my chest and into my muddled
brain.
     Two.  There'd been two of them; what had happened to the
second guy?
     "Boy!" a deep, resonant voice boomed out, as if to answer me.
Damn.  There was still one more, and I was sitting here in la-la land.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed myself into the shelter of a jutting shelf of
carved stone larger than a city bus.  The sun wasn't long down, and the
surface of the stone still held some of the day's heat.  I panted as
quietly as I could, rubbing my numb arm as I took stock of my
condition.  I was winded, a little dazed, but I could walk.
     It would be better if I could fight.
     "Boy!" the voice came again.  "Come, now!  You have
vanquished all of my brothers sent against you!  I hardly think that little
blast was enough to kill such a resilient foe!"  I leaned back against the
rock, trying to pinpoint his position from his voice.  I knew he wanted
me to answer so he could do the same.
     Tough.  If he wanted me, he was going to have to come in and
get me.
     Laughter floated up on the night breeze.
     "The time for games is over, boy!" he called, an unsettling edge
of mad humour in his voice.  "I am the last of us.  You have accounted
for all the rest of the Brotherhood who tracked you here.  And I must
commend you for your skill, boy.  I hardly expected you to last to the
end.  But perhaps things were meant to be this way."  I crouched
slightly.  There was no way he could see me from beyond the perimeter
of the rubble-strewn yard that led up to the old ruin.  And his voice
wasn't moving.  If he wanted to babble and give me time to recover,
who was I to argue?
     "Well, you see," he continued as if I'd answered him, "the
others were blind in their devotion to the Dread One.  I, however, while
a loyal servant, am a more ... pragmatic man.  And an ambitious one.
We two are alone now, beyond prying eyes, and I propose that we be
reasonable."  He stopped then, obviously waiting for an answer.  The
numbness in my arm and shoulder began to fade, to be replaced with a
hot prickling sensation.  I needed more time.  I needed to keep him
talking.
     "I'm listening," I called out.  He laughed again, a sound that
would have been unnerving on a crowded city street, never mind in the
dark of night in the middle of nowhere.
     "Excellent!" he cried.  "Let the night bear witness, then!  Ah,
you are a clever one, boy.  Just when I thought we had you, you
slipped the trap and made your way to this forsaken place.  Perhaps
you didn't think we could find you, or would follow if we could.  But
our master does not tolerate failure, boy.  To return without the key
would have meant a slow and unpleasant death."
     I blinked as his words registered.  The key?  The KEY?  This
was all about the bloody KEY?  I choked back a tide of wild laughter.
These guys had spent months hunting me and trying to kill me for a
hyperlink key that was now, as far as I could tell, useless.
     This could only happen to me.
     "Did you think that by coming here you could gain the time you
needed to master it, boy?" he went on, jovial now.  "A good plan, but
one doomed to failure.  That artifact has been sanctified in His
darkness, and will not be perverted by a fool on a futile quest to restore
that which is lost to your kind and sealed away.  You have chosen the
wrong masters to serve, my young friend.  Their blank gaze is no
reward at all.  They do not see, neither do they know.  Their time is
past.  My master, though, is generous."
     "So if you bring him the key, you'll be rich," I said sourly.
     "Money?  You disappoint me, boy," my opponent replied.  "The
dark offers all, forbidden pleasures of the flesh and the mind, power
over the lesser, any reward your mind can conceive and many you'd
never imagine in your wildest fantasies."
     "Trying to recruit me?" I asked.  I could flex my right hand
now, and though I still had little strength in my arm I was pretty sure the
injury wasn't serious.  I just needed a little more time.  Just a little more.
     "Oh, no," the man called back.  "You stole what was His, and
for that you would suffer greatly.  But if I was to return with the key,
and say you were dead, none would question me."  I started looking
for another hiding place.  He might have me pinpointed by now.  I
spotted one not far away, and crouched low.
     "So," I called out.  "I give you the key, you don't kill me.  That
it?"  As soon as I finished speaking I dashed across the broken ground,
keeping low, and slid into a shadowed nook formed by the remains of a
fence or wall.
     "Not quite that simple," the man in black replied.  "You give me
the key AND the path to escape this world, and I let you live your life
out in peace.  It seems a boring place, really, but the alternative is
death."  I felt  another bark of laughter trying to force its way past my
lips, and clenched my jaw tightly.  So, he thought I knew how to leave
this world?  Boy, was he in for a disappointment.  I was trapped here,
and if he and his friends had indeed followed me from the other Earths
then he was stuck too.
     My sudden silence seemed to anger him, because his tone took
on an ugly edge.
     "You would not have come here if there were not a way to
leave, boy," he sneered.  "I know your kind, zealots all.  You cannot
serve THEIR revival if you are trapped out of time in a backwater.  The
others would have killed you and been trapped here, secure in the
knowledge that our master's tool was in safe hands.  I, however, mean
to have my just rewards, and if I have to tear the secret of escape from
your shattered mind, then I shall do just that!  Will you accept my
generous offer, boy?"  Ha.  Fat chance.  He'd kill me anyway, once he
had what he wanted.
     And if he was linked to the key, then he could be one of them ... the
ones who'd destroyed my world.  He and his friends may have looked
human, but if they served those creatures then to me they were just as
bad as those things I'd fought before.  And I knew what to do with
creatures like that.
     No mercy.
     That was when I spotted him.  He was floating through the air
slowly, his blank face seeking the spot where I'd been hiding until just a
few moments ago.  When he spoke again, his voice came from the far
side of the yard, where it had been coming from the whole time.
     Treachery.  What a surprise.
     He'd see that I wasn't there in mere moments; if I was going to
act, it had to be now.  The element of surprise would only let me get in
one attack if I was careful, and I couldn't afford to waste it.  Of course,
I had another advantage; he wanted me alive.  NEEDED me alive,
believing that I was hiding the secret to leaving this place.
     Two small advantages were a damn sight better than none.  I
concentrated, letting my chi flow, pool, and focus.  My world narrowed
to the silently floating assassin, and I watched as he brought one hand
up, wreathed in black fire, nearly able to see the spot I'd been speaking
from. Nearly.
     Now.
     I popped up and unleashed a bolt of chi directly at him, the
sensation of power making all the small hairs on my arms stand straight
up.  It hit him square in the chest, slamming him back into a chunk of
rock with savage force.  He spun into the ground, his robes spreading
around him like the wings of a great black bird, and his enraged shrieks
were music to my ears.  I didn't stop to savour the moment, though.
As soon as he was down I was running.
     I was over the ragged stone in a low, graceful arc almost before
I could form the intention to jump.  He was struggling to his feet
already, and unleashed a bolt of black lightning at me from his knees.
     But when it struck, I was gone.  Something burned in my blood
that hadn't been there for what seemed like a long time, something hot
and urgent.  When the others like him had attacked me, I'd fought
back, but then I hadn't known what they were, or why they were after
me.  Now I did.
     And I was seriously mad.
     Balls of black fire spun out from his hands as he stood, his
featureless white mask showing nothing of the rage he must be feeling.
I soared through the air, twisting away from his attacks, the world
slowing down for me while it went red around the edges.
     Step.  Pivot.  Flip, slide, leap, spin, step step ...
     He must have realized at the last moment what I intended to do,
because he put his arms up as if surprised.  I barrelled straight in, my
hands thrust out at chest height to unleash another chi blast at point-
blank range.  He managed to deflect part of the force of the blast as
more black fire flared around his hands, but he was still thrown back by
my bolt.  Not badly hurt, though, I realized dimly as I surged forward
again.  He was already summoning another bolt before even hitting the
ground.  I needed to get to him quickly, needed to get through his
defences ...
     Then the night was lit up with a clean, white light and more
shrieks filled the air, this time not of rage but shock and pain.
Instinctively, I threw up my arm to shield my eyes, my battered sense of
self-preservation trying to make itself heard over the hot pulsing of
blood in my ears.  Fortunately, it wasn't needed.
     This attack was not directed at me.
     The robed figure hung in mid-air, trapped in the arc of flight my chi
bolt had imparted.  White bolts of light snaked around his writhing
form, making him twitch and jerk spastically.  The light threw the yard
and the building behind him into stark relief, and suddenly I knew what
it was, or had been.
     Some sort of church.  The remains of what might have been a
wall formed a broken, barely visible line under the point where my
opponent hung, pinned by those searing bolts.  I felt a feral grin pulling
at my cheeks, and didn't fight it.
     This place looked to have been abandoned for a long time, but
apparently not long enough.  Certain creatures were still unwelcome on
these grounds.
     I'd thrown the murderous bastard right into some sort of holy
barrier.
     Finally, he stopped twitching, and his body fell forward, face
first, onto the uneven ground.  The light died immediately, and I blinked
away the blue-white afterimages.  My night vision was ruined, and I
cursed as I tried to pick out the robed form in the suddenly inadequate
moonlight.  When I could, it was still unmoving.
     But he wasn't dead.  I was pretty sure of that; the others had all
burst into flame when they'd been finished.  And anyway, I had to be
sure.  I advanced cautiously, ready to dodge if he was playing possum.
     He wasn't.  There was an unpleasant smell hanging in the air as
I came close, and the sound of laboured breathing.  I reached down
and grasped his loose robes, still smoking from contact with the barrier,
and hoisted him up.  My injured shoulder twinged, but I ignored that
and my other assorted injuries.  I wanted to look this guy in the face.
     Such as it was.
     I held him off the ground, feeling an unreasoning rage build
deep inside, where the light never reached.  I fought it back, not all the
way mind you, but just far enough that I wouldn't lose control.  If this
guy could still answer questions, then he was going to.  I was owed a
few answers.
     His mask was cracked, but still somehow intact.  Looking at it,
I wondered idly how these guys could breathe, talk, and see through
the damned things.  Hell, I wondered how they could even eat.  The
masks were white and covered the entire face, making it a featureless
oval.  I couldn't even tell if this guy's eyes were open or not.  I didn't
particularly want to wait around; I wasn't in a patient mood.
     He saved me some aggravation by slowly reaching up and
trying to pry my hands from the front of his robes.  His grip was weak,
though, and he didn't get anywhere.  I could still hear his breathing as
clearly as though he wasn't wearing anything over his face, and it
sounded wet and raspy.
     "Well ... played, boy," he gasped at last.  "A masterful
strategy."  I didn't bother to tell him that I hadn't known the barrier was
there, or that my entire strategy had been to smash him into a greasy
blob.
     "I want to ask you a few questions," I said, marvelling at how
even my voice was.  "About the key.  About the thing I took it from.
About ..."  About what?  I couldn't seem to form coherent thoughts, to
find the core of my anger.  I thought about my home, my family, about
Akane lying still and pale in my arms, and all I could think of was ...
     "Why?"  I didn't realize I'd spoken aloud at first, until the
man's voice came back to me, heavy and clotted with pain.
     "Why?" he repeated.  My eyes narrowed.
     "Yeah.  Why?  My family, my friends, my fiancee ... why did they
have to die?  Why did you and your kind destroy my home?  Why do
you want this key so badly?  Why, why, WHY?"  With each 'why' I
shook him like a doll, and he clung helplessly to my hands with his own,
his skin cool and clammy.
     "Not even ... a seeker after higher purpose," he gurgled at last.
"Just a lost boy thrust into something he doesn't ... understand.  I am
disappointed."
     "Tough," I growled.  "Answer my questions."  He chuckled, a
low, not quite sane sound.
     "I think not," he hissed.  I smiled then, and I expect the
expression was quite unpleasant.  Then I took a small, slow step.
     Towards the barrier.
     His grip on my hands tightened, but not by much.  There wasn't
much fight left in him, not enough to overcome my anger.  He gurgled,
and I took another small step.  His back had to be close to the edge of
that barrier now.  I felt a surge of ... of something in the air, and an
almost subliminal hum, like from a transformer.  My new friend kicked
his feet feebly.  It appeared as if all the fight had been taken out of him.
     "Boy," he gasped.  Then, when I didn't respond, he repeated
himself.  I held him absolutely still, ignoring the strain in the muscles
across my upper back and in my arms.
     "All right," he sighed at last, his grip on my hands loosening.  "I
am beaten.  I shall tell what little I know.  Only, lean close, for my
strength fails ..."  And I nearly did.  I was nearly caught, that's how
anxious I was to hear those answers.  But I'd learned caution the hard
way, and those lessons had stuck.  As I began to incline my head
towards his, one of his thin, spidery hands jerked up to his face.
     Those masks were damned tough, a fact I knew from
experience.  But apparently, they weren't hard to remove ... if you
were the wearer.
     Not hard, no.  But invariably fatal.
     He nearly had me, but as he yanked the mask off I let go of his
robes and threw myself frantically back and away, the strange purplish
flames licking out at me with an unnerving hunger.  He tried to hold me,
to grab me as he was falling and pull me in, but I was just fast enough.
I hit the ground and rolled, feeling the unwholesome heat licking at my
exposed skin, and clambered to my feet to watch him burn.
     Even while being consumed by that unnatural fire, he managed to
stagger forward a few steps, but there was no way he was going to
catch me now.  I could make out his features through the hungry flames,
with his mask gone, and as always I was surprised at how
ORDINARY these guys looked underneath.
     "Boy."  He stood there, swaying slightly as if battered by an
unseen wind, but he didn't scream, even though the enchanted flames
were burning him alive.  The pain must have been awful, and his hands
were clenched into shaking fists, but he didn't scream.
     All the others had screamed.
     "You have bested me," he called out, his voice raw with agony
and tinged with that dark madness.  His robes burned and his exposed
skin blackened and tightened against his bones, but still he stood and
faced me.
     "Today you have won, but you will fall, boy," he went on, his
voice wavering but not breaking.  I thought he was staring at me until I
realized that his eye sockets were empty now, flames coming from
inside his skull and licking up to ignite his hair.  "As those precious to
you fell.  Because you oppose our Master, you will be dragged down
into the dark, and I will be waiting for you, boy ... and your screams ..."
He stopped, nearly fell, then threw his head back and howled into the
night sky, purple fire streaming from the gaping hole of his mouth.
     "YOU WILL SCREAM, BOY!" he shrieked merrily.  "THE
DARK WILL HAVE YOU AND YOU WILL SCREAM FOR
RELEASE AND OH, SHALL I SAVOUR YOUR SUFFERING!
THE DARK IS COMING AND IT SHALL NOT BE STOPPED,
AND OUR MASTER SHALL REIGN OVER ALL OF YOU ALL
OF YOU WILL BOW TO HIM AND SCREAM YOU WILL YOU
WILL SCREAAAAAAMMMMMM ...."  His knees buckled finally
and he collapsed, like a bundle of sticks shifting in a campfire.  I
watched him, my face impassive.  I suppose I should have been
horrified, but frankly my capacity for horror wasn't what it used to be.
     I wanted to say something, something to make him understand what
he and his kind had cost me, but I couldn't think of a damned thing.
I've never been any good at words when they were really needed.
     So I just watched him burn until there was nothing left but ash.
     Then I did speak, so softly I could barely hear myself.
     "I win," I said.

***

     The view from the bell tower was well worth the climb.  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 distant river, and everything looked peaceful, like in a dream.
Well, maybe not one of my dreams, but in a normal person's dream of
peace and tranquillity.
     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.
     Almost.  But, if I strained, I could smell the faint tang of smoke
on that breeze, trapped in the cool damp stone of the old abbey, or
whatever it was.  Two of the robed assassins had died here tonight, and
all that remained of them was hot ash scattered on the night breeze.
     And I felt curiously empty.
     I didn't regret their deaths, or the part I'd played in them.  They
would have killed me if they could have, after all, and now I finally
knew why.  No, this emptiness was something else.
     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 outside had to be there for a reason.  Instead, I leaned
back, balanced easily on the sill of one of the open windows that
surrounded the top of the bell tower and closed my eyes, feeling the
earlier rush draining away and the ache of my injuries, minor though
they were.
     In the months since I'd left that other Nerima, I'd buried the
worst of the pain deep down, letting time form a scab over the open
wound on my soul.  There was still pain and anger, but I didn't mind
that so much.  In fact, I needed both, especially the anger, to get by.
They filled the void sometimes when nothing else would, kept me going.
And that anger had served me well tonight, given me strength when I
needed it.
     But now the fight was over, and the world was waiting for me
again.  The world, and all its frustrations.
     Some nights I lay awake and brooded until the gray light of
dawn touched the sky.  I wondered if I'd made the right decision in
leaving that other Nerima mostly, even though I'd resolved a hundred
times not to second guess that decision any more.  And even though, in
my most clear-headed moments, I was sure that staying would have
made me a shadow to my double, that staying would have been easy
and maybe even pleasant, but not what I needed, still there were the
doubts.  After all, hadn't I been given a second chance?  I'd left behind
something that was, if not my home, at least a version of it that I could
have learned to live with, and for what?  Some ill-formed quest for a
place where I could find answers to questions I hadn't even puzzled out
yet?  Yes, there were always the doubts.
     In the dark.  Always, in the dark.
     But that was only part of it.
     In the beginning, I'd had freedom.
     Learning to use the key had been an interesting experience, to
say the least.  With no idea what I was doing, I'd set out from the
Tendou dojo looking for the pathways between the worlds.  And,
rather quickly, I'd found them.
     Undoing the collar of my shirt, I fished out the key, staring at it
for a long moment before pulling the cord over my head.  I let the key
dangle, watching as it spun lazily, catching the moonlight in tiny sparks.
About as long as my middle finger, it did look kind of like a key, with a
loop at one end and a slight hook at the other.  It was carved out of
some kind of blue crystal, and was heavy for something that fit in the
palm of my hand.
     Holding my hand up, I stared at the key, summoning my chi and
focussing on the crystal.  It began to softly glow in response, glimmering
with a soft bluish light.  There were a few small sparks of black
lightning, but nowhere near as many as there had been in the beginning.
I didn't know why that was; maybe they were what had made it work.
     It wasn't working now.
     The key glowed, but it didn't move.  That was the problem.
The first time I'd done this, the key had spun at the end of its cord,
describing ever-widening circles, until it had finally stopped, pointing in
one direction.  And in that direction, as it turned out, had been the
nearest gate.
     Dowsing like this could find a gate, and when I was very close
to one of those invisible portals, the key would begin to vibrate, to
thrum against my skin like a tuning fork.  Once I was at the gate all I
had to do was summon enough chi and it would open for me.
     That had let me wander through dozens of worlds in those first
two months.  And if, at any time, I began to get that familiar restless
feeling, that vaguely unsatisfied yearning, I could always just find the
nearest gate and go to the next world.
     But not now.  Now, I was trapped.  The key hung unmoving at
the end of its cord, as it had since the day I'd entered one gate and
inexplicably woken up in a field, cold rain falling on my face.  I'd never
blacked out while crossing a link before, but then there was just so
much about this whole business that I didn't know.  I suppose I'd been
lucky up until then that I hadn't run into any major problems.
     That's the trouble with luck.  It always turns.
     Sitting in that field, I'd tried to find the nearest gate, and that
had been the first time the cold fingers of fear had settled, oh so lightly,
on the back of my neck.  Because the key didn't move then, not even
to show the gate I must have come through.  Hadn't moved then, or
since.
     Like it or not, I was stuck here.
     That had been six months ago, and at first I'd wandered
around, finding out just how boring this place was.  The towns were
small and dingy, and they had no machines to speak of beyond the odd
windmill.  I'd seen many worlds, and slowly I began to realize that all of
them had been more interesting than this one.  Not safer, necessarily,
but more interesting.
     Then the attacks had begun.
     At first I'd thought I must have offended some local lord or
something.  I mean, this guy in black robes with a weird blank mask
jumped me one night and started firing fireballs at me without so much
as a challenge.  But old habits die hard, and I came out on top.
     Then there was a second, and later a third.
     And nobody I asked knew anything about robed men with
white masks.  Well, at least now I knew why.
     But, if they'd come from another world, how had they found
me?  And why had the last one believed that I'd know how to leave?
What had he said?
     (You would not have come here if there were not a way to
leave, boy)
     Like I'd come here on purpose.
     (I know your kind, zealots all.  You cannot serve THEIR
revival if you are trapped out of time in a backwater)
     I hadn't understood much of the rest of it, but then he'd been at
least a little crazy.  Hell, maybe that was why he'd gotten the job.
     That thought led to a darker one.  He'd spoken of a master,
someone he served.  Was there someone out there, somewhere, who'd
given the order to attack and destroy my home?  I'd thought the one-
eyed monstrosity that I'd taken the key from was in charge of the
invasion, but when that nice shiny sphere had detonated inside of old
One-Eye, I was confident that he'd ceased to be anyone's master, dark
or otherwise.  But someone had sent those maniacs after me, looking
for that key.  And if he was the one responsible for what had happened
to my home, then he wouldn't survive long after I caught up to him.
     I forced my hands to unclench slowly, and hung the useless key
once more around my neck, dropping its cool weight inside my black
shirt to hang against my chest.  Thoughts like those weren't helpful.
After all, even if such a person (or creature) existed, I had no way to
find him, and no way to reach him.
     If he even existed.
     Hopelessness tried to fill the void, and I fought it back out of
sheer stubbornness.  I'd felt sorry for myself on enough occasions to
know just how seductive it could be.  I'd beaten the men who had
wanted to kill me, and denied them their prize.  Maybe Akane and the
others could rest a little easier because of that.
     Yeah.  I was still alive, and the bad guys were dust.  That had to
count for something.  I leaned back against the cool stone and stared
down at the area surrounding the main building.  The ground was
uneven and filled with chunks of stone from what might have been
outbuildings.  From here, I could see the worn remains of the wall
which had once surrounded the abbey itself, and which marked the
boundary of the barrier which had reacted so badly to my robed
opponent.  I, on the other hand, had crossed it with no problem.
     Magic.  Old magic, but still workable.  Maybe there would be
something interesting about this place after all.
     If there was, I'd find it.  After all, I had nothing but time.
     A shooting star arced across the wide night sky just then, and I
thought briefly about wishing on it, but in the end I didn't.
     Kid's stuff.  And such things had lost their charm for me.
Maybe forever.

***

     I slept in the main part of the abbey that night.  My dreams
were unsettled, but I didn't wake up screaming, which was an
improvement.  I still did that on occasion, but the nightmares were
beginning to fade with time.  I felt vaguely guilty about that, somehow,
at the same time as I felt relief.  Weird.
     The dreams I did have that night were very strange, or at least they
seemed that way at the time, but they evaporated when I woke up, and
I couldn't recall anything of them.  Maybe the abbey was haunted.
That thought didn't seem as strange to me as it might once have.  I'd
seen far stranger things, after all.
     But if it was haunted, I didn't see any ghosts, and no harm
came to me.  Hell, the barrier had kept that bastard out and let me in.
That told me all I needed to know.
     The place was pretty much a wreck inside, full of dust and rock
and vines.  It was pretty clear that nobody had been here in many,
many years.  Still, I felt obliged to show a little appreciation to the
protection that had been granted me.  I went outside and picked some
fresh flowers.  It didn't take long; it was spring and they grew wild and
numerous around the overgrown grounds.  Then I came in and took a
small flask of sake from the pack I'd retrieved the previous night.
     I left both on the remains of what might have been an altar at
the front of the main room.  The large, high ceilinged chamber was
otherwise empty except for rubble, so that seemed like as good a place
as any.  Then I bowed my head, clapped my hands once, and thanked
whatever spirits might be there for their protection.  I'd never been a
particularly spiritual person, but I figured it couldn't hurt.  It had been
long enough since I'd felt safe somewhere that I was moved to be
grateful.
     I finished and turned from the altar, only to be brought up short
by a loud, resonant tone that thundered through the still morning air.  It
reverberated through me, and I nearly leapt out of my skin before I
realized what it had been.
     The bell.  The old bell in the bell tower.  I waited, but the sound
was not repeated, simply dying away into nothing.  A small smile
quirked at the corner of my mouth.
     "You're welcome," I said softly.  Then I grabbed my small
pack and left, stepping out into the warm spring sunshine, feeling
strangely light.
     So nice to know that when the whole world seems to be
against you, and when you least expect it, you might still find a safe
harbour.

***

     I walked.
     That was pretty much the only way to get around here.  Well,
there were horses, but I wasn't really fond of them.  Not to mention
that they were expensive, and I didn't have much money.
     But that was fine by me.  I'd done a lot of walking in my time,
and I was used to it.  I walked wherever the wind took me, never
bothering to stay in any one place for very long, and that suited me fine
too.  It looked like my robed friend had been telling the truth about
being the last of the assassins; the last attack had come with the end of
spring, and now summer was in full swing.
     The old abbey was far behind me, and the future, whatever it
might be, was ahead.  And here I was, somewhere in the middle,
listening to the drowsy drone of cicadas in the heat of the summer sun,
trudging along a dusty road with my head down.
     When you don't know where you're going, there's no
particular hurry to get there.  This was something I'd discovered at
some point along the way, and if it wasn't particularly profound it was
at least true.  My shirt was slung over my shoulder, rolled up under the
strap of my pack, and sweat ran freely down my neck and arms.  I
wore a bandanna around my forehead to keep the sweat out of my
eyes.
     I'd smiled wryly when I'd pulled it out.  It was one of Ryouga's
trademark black and yellow bandannas, the one he'd given me when
I'd left to go on this journey.  His lucky bandanna, he'd called it.
Almost with a straight face, too.  I reached up and touched the fabric,
feeling a momentary pang, then let my hand drop.  This was no time for
wallowing in the past.  I was stuck here, and I was just going to have to
make the best of that fact.  After all, even without the key, I had an
entire world to wander in.  Surely that should be enough for anyone.
     If only this world wasn't so bloody BORING.
     I hadn't seen anyone for days.  The road was narrow and not
particularly well-kept, and I was beginning to wonder if it actually went
anywhere.  Well, if it didn't, then I'd just turn around and go back.  It
wasn't like I had someplace to be.
     When the sun was at it hottest I stopped for some lunch,
sprawling under the spreading shade of a handy tree.  I gnawed wearily
on a piece of dried meat and washed it down with some warm water
from a waterskin, with some berries for dessert.  I'd need to refill the
waterskin soon, and the dried meat was almost gone.  All I had left
besides that was a small flask of cheap wine and some dried nuts.
     I pulled out the wine and hefted it in the palm of my hand.  I'd
never understood why Pop and Mr. Tendou had liked to drink so
much, but these days I usually had some spirits of the liquid kind riding
along in my pack.  There were nights when I couldn't sleep, and it
helped to have something.  I knew it was a crutch, of course, and that
was the worst part.  Getting drunk and maudlin didn't really help
anything, but it got me through some rough nights, and so despite my
best intentions I couldn't bring myself to throw the flask away.
     But it was for sleepless nights when my ghosts wouldn't rest,
not for hot afternoons.  I stuffed it back in the pack with the rest of my
meagre rations and spare clothes.  If I didn't find a town soon, I'd be
reduced to eating roots and berries and whatever game I could catch,
and not for the first time either.
     Sighing, I lay back on the soft cool grass under my sheltering
tree and relaxed.  There was no reason to go walking in the heat of the
day, after all.  I closed my eyes, listening to the noisy whining of the
damned cicadas and the occasional flutter of birdsong, and somewhere
along the way I managed to fall asleep.
     When I woke up from my nap, the sun was well past its highest
point, the shadows beginning to lengthen.  I stretched and sat up, a little
surprised that I'd managed to fall asleep, and gratified that my sleep had
been dreamless.  It was still hot, but I felt refreshed and decided to
press on, maybe find someplace to shelter for the night.
     When I returned to the road, I saw a steep wall of steely clouds
in the distance, the westering sun picking out highlights along their
flanks.  The bottoms were dark, and I thought I could see the flicker of
heat lightning within the distant storm.  Rain tonight, maybe.  But maybe
not; it was the weather for it, but I'd seen similar clouds several days
running and had yet to be rained on.
     It would be nice to have some rain, of course, to cool
everything down.  But if I didn't find shelter, I'd be a cool girl.  That
thought didn't bother me the way it once would have, though.  In fact,
I'd taken to treating my stints as a girl as sort of a vacation from my life.
In girl form, I was always Ranko Saotome, a wandering fighter with no
past.  All right, maybe it was a little schizo, but like the wine this too
helped sometimes, even if it wasn't necessarily healthy.  And if it
reminded me of how different I was from how I had been, well, what
about it?  Part of the reason I'd set out on my own was to find myself,
to find out what I was now.
     I eyed the clouds again through the summer haze, and guessed
that I wouldn't be Ranko tonight.  The storm would pass me by.
     As it turned out, I was right.  The storm never did materialize.
     But something much stranger did.

***

     The cicadas had given way to crickets as the shimmering ball of
the sun finally disappeared entirely below the horizon.  The forest was
dense here, high and close to the road, and I didn't see a good place to
stop for the night.  My earlier nap had left me refreshed, though, and I
decided to keep going for a while.  There was enough light from the
moon and stars to navigate by easily.
     I was distracted, brooding a little if the truth be told, as I
approached a curve in the narrow road.  It took me some time to
realize that a low-lying mist had appeared among the closely packed
trees on either side of the road.  I stopped as I realized that it was
drifting across the road, hugging the ground, extending gauzy fingers
around my feet.
     Something was ... not right.  I just had a sense of it, and it
wasn't only the strange mist.  The crickets had stopped.  There was no
birdsong, either, no rustling of small animals in the woods.  Even the
gentle breeze that had sprung up after sunset was now still.  I stood
there, senses questing outwards, but no obvious danger presented itself.
The sensation of wrongness didn't go away, though.
     The night had been fairly bright, with the moon past three-
quarters full and the sky clear.  The mist, though, seemed to give off its
own faint luminescence, making it look even more eerie.  I felt the side
of my mouth twist up in a half smile as I stood there.
     May as well go on, I thought wryly.  After all, what have I got
to lose?
     So I started walking again, the thickening mist eddying like
intangible water around my ankles, then my shins, my knees.  I rounded
the curve and saw that the mist thinned out a bit ahead.  The road
dipped slightly, and not too far ahead I could see a crossroads.  The
trees pulled back from it, leaving it isolated in a sea of low lying mists
which didn't quite obscure the roads themselves.
     As I walked, a snatch of drunken conversation came back to
me, something I'd heard in a tavern not long before my final
confrontation with the robed assassins.  One man had been talking to
another, in a hoarse whisper that somehow managed to be as loud as
normal speech, at a table behind me.
     "They buried him face down, like," he'd said, sounding half-
horrified and half fascinated.  "In an unmarked crossroads, they buried
him."
     "Whu' fer?" his drinking partner had asked suspiciously.
     "So he wouldn't come back, my son.  So he wouldn't come
back."
     I wondered if that was a problem they had in this world, people
coming back after they'd been buried.  But goose pimples broke out
along my bare arms in spite of the night's warmth.  It was easy to laugh
about some superstitious rube in a nice crowded tavern, but here I was
in the dark, a strange fog all around, looking at just such an unmarked
crossroads.  And something deep in my brain was screaming at me that
there was a bad, bad WRONGNESS here.
     Spooky.  Akane would have hated it.  She'd always hated
ghost stories and the like.
     As if just thinking her name was some sort of talisman, I started
forward down the hill.  Stupid, I told myself.  It's just a crossroads in
the middle of nowhere, nothing to be afraid of.  How can you have
fought all those robed lunatics and still get the heebie-jeebies about a
little fog?
     As I walked, I kept sweeping the fog warily.  The sensation of
wrongness didn't get stronger, but it didn't fade either.  I trusted my
instincts, but they didn't seem to know what they wanted to tell me.  I
was loose, ready for action.
     That's when I saw him.
     The mists eddied around the point where the roads met, and
when they cleared I could see a cloaked figure standing there, arms
crossed, hooded face obscured by shadows.
     Waiting.
     Waiting for me.
     Of this I had no doubt.  For a moment, I was certain that he was
another of the robed Brotherhood of the Flaming Mask, but as I moved
steadily closer I knew that wasn't right.  His cloak was drab brown, not
black.  And in the shadows of his hood I could see a glimpse of his jaw
as he waited silently.
     My footsteps were oddly muffled, and a quick glance at the sky
caused a chill to run down my back.  The night had been clear, but now
I could see no stars, no moon.  Only darkness.
     The anger, never too far beneath the surface, began to roil and
churn, and I welcomed it.  Whoever you are, pal, I thought grimly, if
you're looking for trouble you're gonna find it.  And if someone buried
you face down in that crossroads, and now you're looking for
directions so you can go home, you're gonna be sorely disappointed.
     The anger.  I'd missed its intensity.  I hadn't felt it this strongly
since the last of the masked men had died, and I knew at that moment
that I'd been somehow lost without it.  If I let it out, if I gave it free
reign, then maybe my nights would be more peaceful, maybe the doubts
would lose their strength.  Maybe.  Because, even now, when I was
fighting it all went away.  When I was fighting, I just WAS.
     This guy was about to find that out.  I came closer, walking
slowly but confidently, not stopping until I was only a couple of arm's
lengths away.
     Then he spoke, and the anger was slashed neatly down the
middle by confusion and shock.
     "Hello, Ranma Saotome," the man said, his face still mostly
hidden by the shadowed depths of his hood.  "I have been waiting for
you."
     He knew my name.  That fact registered first, but another one
came in a close second.
     His voice.  There was something familiar about his voice.
Something, and it set my heart to racing.  What?  What was it?
     "Who are you?" I asked, my mouth painfully dry.  I was dimly
aware that I had lost the initiative in an instant.  If, in fact, I'd ever truly
had it.  He just chuckled.
     "I?  I am a wanderer, like yourself," he said softly, and again
something chimed in my chest, almost painfully, at the sound of his
voice.  How do I know you? I screamed silently.  How?
     "What do you want?"  That hadn't been the question I'd
wanted to ask.  I could see his mouth twist into a grin.
     "Oh, I want to speak of many things," he told me.  "For you
have come to a crossroads, and Destiny hovers in the wings, ever
watchful.  Will you be Destiny's master, Ranma Saotome, or Her fool?"
I stood facing him, sweat trickling freely down my back, poised to
attack.  My senses screamed at me, warning of the wrongness all
around.  Wrong didn't necessarily mean dangerous, but all things
considered, I wasn't particularly inclined to give anybody the benefit of
the doubt.
     "How about we talk about it face to face?" I asked, eyes
narrowed.  He just stood there, half a grin visible under the shadows of
his hood.  I had a feeling it wasn't a very friendly expression.
     "You wish to see my face, young man?" he asked.  "Impress me."
His voice was mild, but with a contemptuous undertone, and that was
all it took.  I sprang forward, grabbing the cloak and pulling it free in
one smooth motion.  It arced up in a swirl of heavy fabric, rustling as it
settled slowly to the mist-shrouded ground.
     He was gone.
     "Hardly impressive," a low voice said in my ear.  I jumped and
whirled, unable to believe he'd gotten behind me so quickly.  "Can you
really have beaten all of the Brotherhood's men who sought you here?"
He stood behind me, stance loose and non-threatening, and I could
only stare.  If he'd chosen that moment to attack, I wouldn't even have
been able to move.
     Because now I could see his face.  And even though I'd never
seen that particular aloof expression on it before, there was no
mistaking who it was I'd met at this haunted crossroads, on a world far
from home.
     "Doc?" I whispered.  He cocked his head, the diffuse light gleaming
on his round glasses, and raised one eyebrow.  It WAS him.  Doctor
Tofu.  Impossible as it seemed, it was him.
     Wasn't it?
     "Ah," he said, an arrogant smile playing at his mouth.  "You
recognize my face.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, should I?  After
all, I knew a man with your seeming once, a long time ago.  And these
patterns do tend to recur again and again, sometimes distorted but still
recognizable.  It is the way of things, after all."  I just stared at him, no
clue what he was talking about.
     "Doc?" I repeated dumbly.  Idly, he reached up to adjust his
glasses, a gesture that was heartbreakingly familiar.  But the moment
passed, and he gazed at me, no sweat marring his face even though the
night was still warm.
     "No," he said flatly.  "Not 'Doc'.  We have never met, you and
I, not before this.  But I know something of you, Ranma Saotome.
You see, I have been watching you."  I was starting to shake off the
shock, starting to register what he was saying.
     "You," I said slowly.  "You're a Doctor Tofu from this world."
He cocked his head again, and spread his hands slightly.
     "A fair guess," he said dryly.  "But wrong.  I am from a world
far from this forgotten place.  And you may call me Baahnid."  I stared
at him.  Baahnid, huh?  Well, he moved like the doc, but he didn't act
like him.  And just because he looked like someone I trusted didn't
mean I should trust HIM.
     Then more of what he'd said sank in.
     "You've been watching me?" I asked suspiciously.  "For how
long?  Since I got here?"  His mocking smile widened.
     "Oh, since before that, youngster," he said.  "You drew my
attention before you arrived here, and the attention of the Brotherhood
as well, in your ignorance.  On the other hand, you've done remarkably
well for someone who has had to discover the secret ways as he has
gone along."
     "Gee, thanks," I said acidly.  He bowed, also mockingly.  I got
the idea mockery was a big part of his repertoire.
     "You have made serious mistakes, boy," he said, a dark edge
creeping into his voice, "but you have survived them and persevered.  I
doubt many could have accomplished the same, in your position.  And
so you have drawn my interest."  I watched him carefully.
     "Lucky me," I sneered.  I was beginning to really dislike this
guy.  Maybe it was the disappointment of coming so close to a piece of
home, only to have it snatched away.  At any rate, my nerves were still
on edge.
     "Yes," he said, "lucky you."  Either he missed the sarcasm or,
more likely, chose to ignore it.  "Because, you see, you just may be
worthy."  He met my gaze and smiled, a thin, hard-edged expression
that didn't reach his eyes.  They remained cold and watchful.
     Yeah.  This guy was about as far from my Doc Tofu as it was
possible to get.
     "Worthy?" I asked.  This was strange.  He didn't seem to want
to fight me, but he didn't seem anxious to tell me anything either.  "Of
what?"
     "My aid," he said simply.  I snorted.
     "I don't need your help," I told him with a glare.  "I've been
doing fine on my own."
     "Fine?  Fine is pushing it, young Ranma," he replied coolly.
"Adequate, perhaps.  You survived the Brotherhood's attempts to kill
you and reclaim the key, but now what?  Will you be satisfied with life
in a backwater, Ranma Saotome?  Do the fires in your heart truly burn
so weakly?  After all, a haven can become a prison ... for a man who
loses his way."
     "You talk like I have a choice," I snapped back.  "I'm stuck
here."  He smiled then, another in his seemingly endless supply of
unpleasant expressions.
     "Look around you, boy," he said softly.  "Do you not see?
Destiny, that fickle and faithless bitch goddess, has put us in each
other's path.  Tonight, here, you stand at a true crossroads, the nexus
of possibilities.  Any man might become Destiny's master, or Her fool,
but few recognize the moment of truth when it comes."  I shifted my
weight automatically as he moved, always maintaining my guard and
keeping at least two avenues of attack ready without being obvious
about it.  I was beginning to become curious in spite of myself, but I
wasn't ready to trust this guy yet.
     "So what decision do I have to make, then?" I asked warily,
watching him.  He craned his head back to stare up at the perfectly
black sky for a long, drawn out moment.  When he brought his gaze
back down to mine, all traces of mockery were gone.  His eyes were
flat, cold, and strangely deep.  It was like there was something not
human behind those eyes, something old and alien.
     "Not only you, Ranma Saotome," he said, his voice low and
soft but with an edge that made me want to shudder.  "We both stand
at the brink this night.  I, however, have been here before.  I have
walked the razor's edge and dared the cold, uncaring winds of chaos
and the hunger of the dark.  And while I have survived, many others
have not."
     "I'm not afraid, if that's what you're getting at," I said, my chin
coming up slightly.  I projected confidence, even though I wasn't sure
what I was being confident about.  He stared at me for what seemed
like a very long time, and at last his mouth quirked up in a tiny smile
that, unlike all the others I'd seen on his face, seemed genuine.
     "Oh, I believe you," he said, his voice like a gust of wind over
barren desert.  "Else I would not have decided as I have."  He turned
for a moment, staring off into the darkness as if searching for some
distant landmark.  Then he turned back to me, and suddenly it felt like
the air itself was charged with electricity.  I thought for a second that the
storm from earlier had changed direction again, and lightning was
striking nearby.  But there was no storm, no lightning in the starless sky.
Just us and, if Baahnid was to be believed, Destiny, all standing
together at a deserted crossroads, trying to find our way with neither
signs nor map.
     "What the hell," I breathed, "is that?"  It was hard to draw a
breath, and my skin prickled with the nearness of power.  Baahnid
smiled again, his dark eyes shadowed and obscure.
     "That is the presence of choice," he murmured.  "The power of
free will.  Pity that most never realize how exhilarating it is.  But my
choice is made, Ranma Saotome, and so you must now make yours."  I
fought not to tremble as adrenaline flooded my body.  I swallowed
once, again, my dry throat clicking uselessly.
     "Tell me," I managed at last.  He nodded as if he'd expected
no less.
     "I know many secrets, young man.  Many secrets, things lost to
the winds of time and history, things forgotten or buried or hidden
away.  I know, for example, that the key you bear is useless here
because there are no gates in this place for it to find.  I know what that
key is, where it comes from, and what it truly unlocks.  I know what
master the Brotherhood serve.  I know the stakes of the war which
rages now, all around us, fought in shadows.
     "And I know the way to escape this place."  That invisible
electricity seemed to twist and tighten between us as we faced each
other, and the urge to do something was building in me like battle lust.
Do something, yes, but what?  I didn't understand this, but I felt like the
ground under my feet was fragile, treacherous, shifting like loose shale.
My chest was tight, but somehow I drew a shaky breath.
     "And you'll tell me?" I asked.  He laughed, a harsh, grating
sound.
     "If you prove yourself worthy," he answered, his cold eyes
burning now, battering me with the force of a winter gale.  "Only then
will I share any of my secrets with you."  I nodded.  If he really knew
what he claimed, he wouldn't just give the information away, would he?
He'd want something in return.
     "How?" I asked simply.
     "I will wait," he replied, the planes of his face shadowed by the
luminescent mist.  "Somewhere on this world, there is a haunted place,
a shunned place.  It is known by many names by those who still speak
of its existence, but most commonly it is called the Wastelands.  And
deep in the Wastelands, forgotten by all but a very few, stands a city.
It had a name once, but that too is lost to the ages.  When it is referred
to at all, it is called the City of the Dead."  His eyes were locked on
mine, and we might have been the only two people alive in the entire
world just then.
     "From the centre of that desolate metropolis rises a tower, a
black monolith that kisses the clouds themselves.  I will await you there,
Ranma Saotome.  I will await you there, hoarding my secrets, and if
you win through, then you will have earned the right to share them, and
you will find the path to freedom."  Something like a shock arced down
my spine, flashing out along my nerves in an almost liquid surge of
molten power, and then the tension snapped and I could breathe again.
I stared into his eyes, this stranger who looked like Tofu Ono but was
nothing like that warm and compassionate man, and knew that I'd
made my choice.  It hadn't been conscious, that decision, but it was
made nonetheless.
     "You call that a choice?" I asked, a savage grin fighting to
surface on my face.  I held it back as best I could, but some trace of it
still broke through.  He shook his head, slowly, first one way, then the
other.
     "It sounds like an adventure, does it not?" he asked quietly, still
without a trace of that arrogance which had seemed so much a part of
him before.  "You are so young.  Let me tell you this, Ranma Saotome.
You think your choice is made, but this is not the end of it.  The path is
long and arduous, and many pitfalls await you."
     "It'll take a lot to stop me, pal," I told him, striking my open
palm with my other fist.  A trace of a sneer returned to his face, and he
snorted.
     "Fighting?" he asked contemptuously.  "Combat is the least of
what you will face, foolish boy.  Your heart burns now, today, but
young hearts often burn hot and fierce, but not long.  There will be
times when you will wonder if you dreamt all of this.  There will be
times when you wonder whether I told you the truth.  You may find
comfort or safety or refuge, perhaps even love, and be seduced off the
path, trading the softer pleasures of friendship and family for the
uncertain rewards of your quest.
     "And even if you finally find that which you've searched for, the
Wastelands are a formidable barrier.  And your ghosts, uneasy as they
may be, will be stirred should you dare enter the City of the Dead.
You will face the fire, and whether you be tempered or shattered is not
certain, not even to me.  Others have been offered this path, not many
but a few over the centuries."  I blinked.
     Centuries?
     "And how many of them made it?" I asked, knowing I wouldn't
like the answer.  He smiled, that sharp, cutting smile.
     "None," he said.  "None have won through, although not all
died.  No, some just lost the way, chose comfort and family over lonely
crusade.  But they all started out certain, as you are certain.  And I,
who hoard my hard-won secrets jealously, would not waste them on
one who is not worthy."  The mists at his feet started to churn, rising to
shroud his legs, then his hips.  He smiled and tilted his head, a small
acknowledgement, and I knew our meeting was nearly over.
     "Wait!" I shouted.  "I ... where do I start?"
     "Why, here, of course," he said simply.  I blinked.
     "But how do I find these Wastelands?  Where do I start looking?"
He laughed then, and it was almost like the doc's laugh, with just a faint
tinge of darkness in it.
     "The test," he told me, "begins now.  I will wait, no matter how
many years it takes, Ranma Saotome.  If you falter and abandon your
quest, I will know.  If you die, I will know."  The mists rose up in a
wall, and I lunged forward, trying to grab hold.  There was nothing but
mist, though, and it slipped through my fingers and dissipated in the
warm night air.
     "But ... they could be ANYWHERE!" I howled.  Faint laughter
mocked me, drifting lazily on the gentle breeze.  I stood at the centre of
the crossroads, watching as the strange mist seemed to drain away into
the depths of the woods, disappearing as quickly as it had come.  With
a start, I realized that the crickets had started up again, and a quick
glance upwards showed that the stars and the moon were once again in
their accustomed places.  Slowly, I walked over and picked up my
pack from where I had dropped it, slinging it over my shoulder by its
single canvas strap.  Then I stood a moment at the centre of that
crossroads, swivelling to face each road in turn.  They all stretched out
into the darkness, and their secrets could not be fathomed except by
travelling them.
     But which one?  Which one would lead me to where I wanted
to go?
     Had he really said YEARS?
     It was already starting to seem a little unreal, that encounter, but
I knew it had happened.  His cloak still lay on the ground where I'd
dropped it, and I picked that up too.  It was sturdy and in good shape,
and I knew it would come in handy in the future, so I rolled it up and
tied it to the bottom of my pack with a pair of leather thongs.  Then I
surveyed my choices again.
     Which way?
     In the end, I chose one at random.  Whether that made me
Destiny's master or Her fool, I really couldn't say.  It just felt right.
     I started walking.
     It would be a long, long time before I stopped.

***

     He stood upon the edge of the bluff, wind plucking at his
clothes, and stared out over the valley below.  In his younger days he
would have seen only prey in such a lush land, laid out under the cool
light of the moon.
     When she arrived behind him, he knew it.  He should have been
surprised, he supposed, but was mostly just weary.  He didn't turn,
determined to make her speak first.
     Eventually, she did.
     "Was that really who I thought it was?"  Her voice was
melodic, angelic, perfect.  As always.  But there was a touch of
something unusual underlying it.  Uncertainty.
     He'd surprised her.  Served her right for watching him.
     "Yes, Ayelia.  That was him."  She snorted, a delicate sound.
     "An ... odd choice, Baahnid," she said at last, with something
far more familiar in her tone.  Disapproval.  He smiled thinly.
     "I do not choose them, Ayelia.  They just ... are.  Born out of
the clash of dark and light, defying fate's capricious decrees, they
appear in the tangled threads of the future.  And occasionally, I will see
one and know that he might be THE one."  He fell silent as he
continued to stare out over the valley, seeing for a moment a different
valley, a valley long ago and far away ...
     "I do not choose them," he continued at last, surprising himself.
"I find them."
     "It is pointless, Baahnid," she said, exasperated now.  "When
will you admit that?  Nothing will be accomplished by some lone human
champion.  In the end, we who stand above them will end this threat."
He turned then to see her watching him, her head held high and proud,
the single twisted spire that extended from her forehead throwing off
cold sparks of moonlight with every tiny motion.  Her platinum coat
drank in the cool lunar glow and gave it back as a fey glimmer.
     Moonlight really did become a unicorn, he thought sourly.  But
then, most things did.
     "You are wrong, Ayelia," he said softly, turning back to stare
again at the vista below.  "But I will not have this discussion with you
again.  You simply do not understand the strength of their hearts."
     "And you do?" she asked, a steely edge of anger creeping into
her lovely voice.  "You are no more HUMAN than I, Baahnid!  Or
have you forgotten that?"
     "That," he replied in a voice so soft it was nearly carried away
on the breeze, "is not the point."  There was silence for a few long
moments, and he began to hope that she would simply leave.
     In vain, as it turned out.
     "Your power and knowledge are wasted in this ... this vanity,
Baahnid."  There was something else in her voice now, something soft
and sad and almost pitying.  "Although ancient feuds lay between us, I
am not ashamed to admit that I respect you.  Your voice is missed in
our councils, the balance of your views sorely lacking.."  He smiled
then, and although it was tiny, almost non-existent, he was glad she
couldn't see his face, for she would never have let it slip by.
     "Victory lies with the mortals," he murmured.  "Of this, I am
certain.  As I have said many times, to your derision."
     "You are blinded," she said, the cool velvet of her voice marred
by a hint of arid heat.  "She is dead, Baahnid, dead these many years.
Can you not mourn her and move on?  You never belonged with
them!"  Anger twisted tightly in his gut at that, sudden and fierce,
although the only outward sign was the clenching of his fists and a slight
tremor in his jaw.  He took a breath, another, willing his voice to come
out neutral, unaffected.
     "Why don't you go stick your head in a virgin's lap?" he asked
mildly.  He heard a soft snort, then felt a ripple of power.
     She was gone.  At last.
     They never understood.  And they never would.  For all their
power and grandeur, they were not the focal point on which the battle
would turn.  For the Old Ones had left the mortals something special,
something that burned brightly in their hearts, something that drove them
to accomplish feats that should have been far beyond them.
     Once, Baahnid would have agreed with the fair 'corn, in her
assessment of the mortals.  But that was before.
     Before her.
     It had all begun with her, hadn't it?  And where would it end?
He glimpsed the lines of destiny sometimes, the tangle of possible
futures, but those were only limited glimpses and he had never seen the
end.  Never, not once.
     But the patterns of the many worlds, and the lives of those living
in them, tended to repeat and reflect.  It was, after all, the way of
things.
     And now Destiny had crossed his path with that of Ranma
Saotome once more.  Ranma Saotome.  Once, he'd known a man with
that name, that face.  They'd fought against one another and then
side-by-side.  They'd shared much.  He'd loved the man like a brother.
     And, in the end, he'd killed him.
     Once, long ago and far away.
     Ranma Saotome, he thought bleakly, casting his gaze out over
the valley once more.  Destiny has reunited us, after a fashion.  And I, I
can only hope that you do not fail me this time.
     The shadows grow long.  And I fear our time is running short.

***
 

             II -- Ship of Fools

     "For my purpose holds
     To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
     Of all the western stars, until I die."
                                     - Tennyson, "Ulysses"

     She'd lost them, but probably not for long.  There were just too
many of them, and these streets were their home turf.  Although she
was undisputably a dangerous woman, this wasn't the kind of battle she
really excelled at.
     But then, seducing and then killing ALL of her pursuers would
likely prove beyond even her charms.
     It'll be a snap, Sonya, she thought sourly.  Go to this address,
Sonya.  Nobody'll be looking for you, Sonya.  Completely routine,
Sonya.
     She was going to kill Drake for this, and that haughty elf too.  If
she survived.
     The cold was seeping through her thin blouse, sapping the heat
that her run had generated.  She'd lost her cloak back at the shop, and
was thankful that the icy rain had at least stopped.
     Like the weather is my biggest concern right now, she thought
ruefully.  She touched the small package tucked inside her belt,
reassuring herself that it was still there.  Then she took a deep,
steadying breath, and tucked an errant lock of long raven hair back
over her shoulder.  Sonya knew that the safety she felt huddled in this
alley was illusory; the net was tightening, and if she didn't move she'd
be caught for certain.
     Of course, her chances weren't much better if she tried to run,
but she'd be damned if she'd just let the Duke's men take her.
     And they WERE the Duke's men, of that she had no doubt.
For him to be operating so boldly in this city meant that Pirotess had
been right after all.  So much for Trossik being a free city.
     Bloody politics.
     Sonya began to edge deeper into the alleyway.  In truth, she'd
gotten turned around while barely slipping the snare that she'd
unwittingly wandered into, and she was more than a little lost.  Still, first
things first.  She couldn't risk the open streets, so she'd have to try to
navigate the narrow winding labyrinthine alleyways that formed the
shadowy backstreets of the upper city.  If she was very, very lucky, she
would lose her pursuers and manage to make her way close to the
skydocks.
     Gently, she eased around the first corner ... and found out that
she'd apparently used up all her luck for one night, as she found herself
facing a small group of armed men.
     Sonya recovered first, and took to her heels, cursing under her
breath.  Her pursuers overcame their shock much too quickly for her
liking, though, and an angry clatter told her that she had only a few
second's lead on them.
     Not enough.  Not nearly enough.
     The light back here was spotty at best, isolated pools of dingy
yellow dispelling the gloom, and if she'd had a greater lead she might
have tried to hide again.  That wasn't an option now, though.  She
thought about the small, lethal weapons she carried about her person,
including several throwing blades, but there weren't nearly enough of
those left.  And her pursuers were calling more of their friends to join
the chase.  She dodged a half-seen pile of garbage at the last moment,
then took a turning at random, catching a glimpse of three more men
coming out of the branch she hadn't taken.  One wrong step, one
wrong turn, and they'd be all over her.
     Sonya, she thought with a strange mixture of exhilaration and
regret, this could be it.  She wished then that she'd said good-bye to
Lou and Kei, but Lou had been tinkering with the engine and Kei had
been sleeping, and after all, it was just supposed to be a routine pick-
up, right?
     Ah, hell, she thought, I always knew I'd come to a bad end.
But I'm taking a few of these guys with me.  That was bravado, of
course; she might get a few of them, but she wouldn't be dying, not
right away.  No, they'd want her alive.  For questioning.  Or bait.
     That didn't bear thinking about, so she ran, trying to extend her
life by a few more minutes, looking for some chance, no matter how
slim.
     She skidded on the wet cobblestones and careened around a
corner, and then it was all over.  There was another pack of them,
racing straight towards her, waving swords and crossbows.  It was
almost flattering that the Duke had set so much of his vaunted
intelligence network to catch one woman.
     It took her a moment to realize that this group was also chasing
someone.
     He raced over the uneven cobblestones with almost feline
grace, and his eyes met hers as they raced towards each other, lingering
briefly before sweeping along to take in her own band of pursuers.
Sonya had the sudden feeling that he'd noted everything, catalogued it,
in just that glance.
     Then he was by her.
     He ran straight at the group behind her, catching them off-
guard, his long black braid trailing behind him as he soared effortlessly
through the crowd.  He leapt, his feet hitting the wall at the turn, and
took three quick steps straight up, then snapped his body into a flip that
carried him back towards Sonya.  Barely pausing when he reached the
ground, he threw himself into the oncoming crowd, a blur of balletic
motion.  Sonya gaped as he moved in a deadly but beautiful dance,
each punch and kick melding seamlessly into the next as swords and
men flew everywhere.
     As chaos broke out, she snapped out of her astounded daze
and whirled in a tight arc, flinging a handful of diamond-shaped blades
out behind her.  Several of her pursuers staggered and at least two fell;
their wounds were not likely fatal, but they'd been slowed for a few
vital moments.
     Now if she could only take advantage of the sudden shift of
momentum ...
     "Hey!" she shouted, lunging toward the fighter.  "This way!"
He'd forced the oncoming group back, and that left enough room to
reach a small, poorly lit alley that branched off, snaking between two
high brick buildings.  Sonya plunged into the alley without hesitation,
and sensed rather than saw him follow.  A crossbow bolt from the rear
ranks rocketed off the wall near the entrance, noisily chipping brick,
and she smiled wickedly as she savoured the cries of confusion they'd
left behind.
     They'd gained precious seconds.  Now, if she could just stay
ahead of the pack, she still had a chance.  Still had a ...
     She clattered to a stop, dumbfounded, as the stranger pulled up
abruptly behind her.  He didn't ask what the problem was, for which
she was grateful.  He really didn't have to; looking over her shoulder,
he could see for himself.
     Dead end.
     Fabulous.
     "Oops," she winced.  From the junction behind them came the
sounds of pursuit once again, and this time there was no place to run.
She turned, only to find the handsome stranger regarding the walls
critically.  No way out there, she despaired, just high sheer walls, at
least eight stories, not even any windows of balconies in sight ...
     Then he smiled.  It wasn't much of a smile, just a twitch of one
corner of his mouth, but it caught her off guard.  Not nearly as much,
however, as he did when he stepped forward and scooped her into his
arms with no apparent effort.
     "Hang on," he advised.  Sonya was too dumbfounded to argue.
As the sounds of angry, armed men drew near, the stranger's eyes
narrowed slightly.  Sonya had time to notice that they were blue with
just a hint of gray, and really quite attractive.
     Then he sprang.
     The leap carried them higher than she would have thought
possible, but even as her stomach seemed to drop out through her feet
she noted that it wasn't nearly high enough.  The leap carried them
close to a stained, blank wall, and she braced for the impact.
     It never came.
     Instead, the stranger swivelled his body in mid-air, planting his
feet against the cracked brick and bending his knees to absorb the
impact.  Then he pivoted slightly in place before they could begin to fall.
     And launched them upwards again.
     He springboarded off of the next point, higher up on the
opposite wall, and upwards they flew.  Below them, angry shouts
erupted as they Duke's men realized what was happening.  Several
crossbow bolts whistled through the air, but none of them came close
to hitting the soaring couple.
     Then a spell bolt exploded against one of the walls, and Sonya
felt a cold chill spread through her.
     A combat-rated mage.  The Duke was serious about this, all
right.
     But that mage only had time for one shot before they soared
over the edge of the wall to land on the roof, high above the fray and
out of sight.  Then the stranger was off and running, bounding across
the rooftops with unearthly grace, carrying her as if she weighed
nothing.
     His cloak streamed out behind them like a banner as he leapt
easily from rooftop to rooftop, the night air biting at exposed skin as it
whipped past them.  Sonya leaned into the stranger's chest a little,
enjoying the play of flat muscles against her body as he moved.
     Well, what do you know? she thought, amused.  I'm rescued.
I guess ...
     Finally, after tracing what seemed to Sonya like a random path
over half of the rooftops in the city, the stranger came to a stop in the
shelter of a large brick chimney.  He leaned back against it, winded,
and cast a quick glance into the gloom.
     "I don't think they were quick enough to follow that," she
murmured, gazing up into the stranger's face with a sultry smile.  He
blinked, seeming to realize all at once that she was still in his arms.  Her
own arms were still draped over his shoulders, and she started to
tighten her embrace when he set her down, lightly, on the rough surface
of the roof.  And if she wasn't mistaken, he appeared to be blushing
slightly.
     Of course, that could have just been a flush from exertion.
     "Are you okay?" he asked.  A nice voice, to go along with
those eyes and that chest.  She winked insouciantly.
     "Well, I had the situation under control," she lied cheerfully,
"but your solution was certainly ... fun.  And I do like to have fun."  He
didn't seem to know what to say to that.  She stifled a wistful sigh.  The
art of flirting was just lost on some people.
     "So, what did you do to get the Duke's men after you?" she
asked.  He blinked.
     "The Duke's men?" he asked blankly.
     "Yes.  Perhaps you remember them.  There were about twenty,
heavily armed, chasing you down that alley?" she prompted.  "The
same crew that was after me."
     "Those guys were all together?" he asked, a crease appearing
between his brows as he frowned.  She shook her head sadly.
     "Of course," she said.  "Did they fight when they came together
in the alley?  No, they all came after US.  Get it?"  He didn't; she could
tell just by looking.
     "The Duke's men are out in force in the upper city," she
pressed.  "And he's become a power, even here.  Nobody would send
their people out tonight, not guilds or gangs or rival networks.  Nobody
wants trouble with these guys."
     "I didn't want trouble with them, either," he said ruefully.  "I
was just asking about the Wastelands at this bar, then all of a sudden
these guys show up and tell me I'm going with them.  They tried ..."  He
broke off abruptly, staring at her face.  She could only imagine what her
expression must have looked like.
     "You came to the upper city," she said slowly, "went into a bar,
and starting asking about the Wastelands?"
     "Uh, yeah," he replied cautiously.  "I was, uh, discreet, though."
     "Clearly."  She shook her head.  Just wonderful.  Why did the
good-looking ones always have to be stupid?
     "Look," he snapped, irritation seeping into his voice.  "I've
been looking for the damned place for over two years now, and I ..."
He trailed off slowly, his eyes narrowing.
     "Wait a sec," he said.  "Do YOU know about the
Wastelands?"  Sonya ran her fingers slowly through her hip-length hair,
giving the stranger a measuring look.  A treasure hunter, maybe, or
some kid looking for adventure and excitement?  No.  Not just that,
anyway.  She could see it in his eyes, a shadow, a darkness.  The faint
smell of danger, of death.
     She loved that in a man.
     "Most people regard them as little more than a myth," she
shrugged.
     "I've been finding that out, yes," he growled.  She favoured him
with a slow smile.
     "But in this part of the world, we know better," she continued.
"Yes, I know about the Wastelands."  He tried to keep his face neutral,
but Sonya had lived most of her life reading men's faces.  Just like that,
she had him; all she had to do was reel him in.
     "You know how I could get there?" he asked, his eyes
gleaming with a light that was almost feverish.
     "Well, yes," she said slowly.  "I could tell you that, but ..."
     "But?"
     "I'll make you a deal," she said, brushing her hand down the
front of her blouse to surreptitiously check that her precious burden
remained undisturbed.  "I need to get somewhere, fast.  But that's
going to be a problem, with the Duke's entire organization looking for
me."
     "The Duke rules this city, huh?" the stranger asked.  She
sighed.  Outlanders.
     "You're clearly new in town," she said flatly.  "So let me clear this up
for you.  Trossik is a free city, technically.  But in reality, several
factions hold the real power here, and the Duke's group, hiding behind
his pet councillors, is the most powerful now.  If we're caught, we don't
go to jail, we disappear.  And if we reappear up in north of the border
in a slave market or some rich lord's harem, who's to know?"
     "Just for asking about the Wastelands?" the stranger blurted.
An unpleasant smile tugged at her lips.
     "The Duke doesn't encourage people to ask about outlaw
domains," she told him.  "So.  The deal.  You get me to the skydocks,
and in return I'll tell you how to reach the Wastelands.  Trust me,
spending some time with me beats the alternative.  There are a lot of
people in this city who'd just as soon slit your throat as tell you
anything, and if you have to go blundering around ..."  She trailed off
suggestively, and he grimaced.
     "I get it," he sighed.  "Okay, deal.  Which way?"  She smiled.
     "Actually, I'm kind of lost," she told him.  "I think we'll have to
go down to street level until I get my bearings."  His lips thinned into a
tight line and she added, "I don't think there are enough buildings for us
to travel this way out there anyhow."  He grumbled but didn't say
anything else, and they quickly located a rust-pitted ladder that led to
the alleyway below.
     Once they were safely in the shadows of the alley, Sonya
paused to think.
     "The fog is beginning to roll in," she murmured.  "That should
help us, but ..."  A sneeze caught her off guard, and she paused to wrap
her arms around herself, cursing her lost cloak.  "Damn, it's freezing!"
     Something swirled around her, and she started as a heavy cloak
settled around her shoulders.  Cocking her head, she shot the stranger a
grateful smile.
     "Thanks," she said.  He just shrugged.  Without the cloak, she
could see that his clothing was clearly foreign.  He wore a black, high-
collared shirt with red trim and fastenings down the front, loose black
pants bound snugly at the ankles, flat shoes, and a wide red sash
wound tightly around his narrow waist and tied off at his right hip, the
ends dangling to his knees.  His dark hair was bound back in a narrow
braid that fell to the small of his back.
     Not bad, she thought ruefully.  If only this trip was pleasure and
not business ...
     "If you put the hood up, it'll be impossible to recognize you,"
he said.  She nodded.
     "But what about you?" she asked.  "If you've been asking
around about the Wastelands, then they'll know your face for sure."
He grimaced.
     "Well, I think I can do something about that," he told her.  She
watched, puzzled, as he walked deeper into the alley.  A decrepit old
rain barrel hunched by one damp wall, looking thoroughly disreputable.
The stranger stopped by the barrel and seemed to steel himself, then
cupped his hands and thrust them into the barrel.  Then, to her
astonishment, he raised his cupped hands and poured icy water over his
head.
     And CHANGED.
     He turned and walked back to her, and she could only stare.
     The hairstyle was the same, but it was red now, a deep blazing
colour that showed highlights of burnished copper even in the dim light
of the alley.  The eyes were the same blue-gray, but fringed with long
dark lashes.  The face had changed as well, the cheekbones higher,
wider and more pronounced, the chin narrower, the lips fuller.  And the
body ...
     The stranger's body strained at his clothing in ways it hadn't
before, the shirt bulging in the chest, the sash no longer tight around the
waist, the hips flaring under the loose black pants.
     He was shorter.  He was prettier.  He was ...
     He was a ... girl?
     "Not a bad trick, huh?" she asked.  Her voice was still nice, a
touch throaty, but now it was unmistakable female.  Sonya just gaped
as the girl came closer, until she realized that she was now taller than
the stranger.  Staring down into those eyes, though, she saw something
comforting; the darkness, the shadow, was still there, coiled and
shimmering with latent fury.  Boy or girl, this one was not tame, and no
one to be trifled with.
     And, as usual, that thought aroused Sonya, despite how
inappropriate the circumstances.
     "I've never seen anything like that before," Sonya said, her
voice hushed, as the vivacious red-head adjusted her clothing in a series
of well-practised motions.
     "Ah, you get used to it," the girl said.  "Nobody'll recognize me
like this, right?"  Sonya could only nod.  No, there wasn't much chance
of that.
     "Right," the girl said briskly, "let's get going."  Sonya stopped
her though, and the red-head looked at her questioningly.
     "It occurs to me," Sonya said, a trace of her usual confidence
returning, "that we haven't even been introduced.  I'm Sonya."  The girl
smiled, a quick crooked grin.  The expression was oddly endearing.
     "Ranko," she answered.  "Ranko Saotome."
     "Well, Ranko," Sonya said, peering out at the street beyond the
sheltering alley.  "Time is growing short.  Shall we push our luck?"
     With that, they set out for the skydocks.

***

     I walked along the damp streets, unwilling to give any sort of
free reign to the elation that wanted to well up from deep inside.  The
last two years had taught me to temper any optimism and to doubt
everything.  Thanks to a worn map I'd stumbled across, I'd recently
left the continent of Livdren and ended up here in Saeni.  The map had
been an old one, and in a big blank area on this continent had been
written the legend "Beware the Wastelands of the Soul".  The monks
who'd let me search through their library out of gratitude after I'd killed
a marauding demon hadn't been able to tell me much about the map
and nothing about the Wastelands.  However, they all agreed that if
such a place existed it would likely be on the continent of Saeni.
     They hadn't thought much of Saeni and its inhabitants.  In fact,
they'd referred to them as decadent and wild, flaunting their strange
magic and knowledge in defiance of the will of the gods.  Or something.
     Frankly, that had sounded a whole lot more interesting than
what I'd been seeing.
     And so far, it was.  As to whether the Wastelands were really
here, well, just mentioning them had gotten me chased by armed men,
hadn't it?  I sneaked a glance at Sonya as we walked.  The cloak did a
good job of covering her up, but I had trouble forgetting her piercing
blue eyes, or her disconcerting habit of standing close when she talked.
She was a very beautiful woman, but trustworthy?  It was entirely
possible, after all, that she'd only told me what I wanted to hear so that
I'd help her get to these skydocks.
     Still, I didn't have much to lose.  If she did know something
about the Wastelands, I wanted to hear it.  And with some shadowy
organization out looking for me just because of an innocent question,
my options were definitely limited.
     The fog had come in quite heavily, and there were fuzzy haloes
around every light as we walked.  It made sounds muffled and
indistinct, but I had the feeling it would be a bigger handicap for our
pursuers than it would be for us.
     I glanced back at Sonya, a troubling thought occurring to me
just then.  She knew why I'd been chased, but I hadn't actually gotten
around to asking why this Duke's men had been chasing HER.  I'd
helped her on an impulse, in the heat of the moment really, without
knowing anything about the situation.
     Well, too late to worry about it now.  I'd become quite
philosophical about these things in the two years since setting off from
that dark crossroads.  I'd just have to keep alert in case there was
more trouble.
     Which, of course, there would be.  It seemed that, wherever I
went, there was always more than enough trouble to go around.
     The buildings had become lower and more widely spaced as
Sonya led me through the unfamiliar streets.  This part of the city was
nowhere near the gates that led to the lower city, at least as far as I
could tell.  The upper city was built on a wide plateau, and there was
only one road that led from the lower to the upper city.  That, of
course, meant it would be easy for anyone looking for us to find us if
we tried to leave.
     I hoped that Sonya had a plan ... although, truth be told, it had
been awhile since I'd been in a good scrap.  I'd gone easy on those
guys earlier, since I hadn't known if they were town militia or what.
Now that I knew they were part of some political power struggle, I
wouldn't have to hold back.
     Politics have never been my strong suit.
     "We're nearly there," Sonya murmured.  The night air was
damp and chill, but walking was keeping me warm even without my
cloak.
     "Nearly where?" I asked.  She turned, and I could see her face
in the shadowed depths of the hood.
     "The skydocks," she replied.  "See?"  We rounded a corner,
and I saw a series of low buildings, like warehouses, lining the street we
were on.  Barely visible through the shroud of fog was a shabby-
looking fence.  Lights burned in the distance past the fence, their
intensity blunted by the diffusing mist.  Sonya began to quicken her
pace, and I hastened to keep up.  We stayed in the shadows near the
edge of the buildings until we reached the fence.
     "There's a gate down that way," she said, her voice pitched
low.  "But I'd rather not use it, in case someone's watching ..."
     That was as far as she got.  I scooped her up neatly, just as I'd
done back in the alley, and with her in my arms hopped the fence
easily.  Then I set her down again on the other side.  She stepped back,
those electric blue eyes seeking me out over a wry smile.
     "Even as a girl you're very strong," she said.  "Reminds me of
a friend of mine."  It seemed she would say more, but then she simply
turned and motioned me to follow.
     We were in a large yard full of shapes shrouded by gloom and
fog.  I could make out stacks of crates and some parked wagons,
which provided lots of cover as we moved.  Sonya seemed to know
the way, so I stuck close behind her, wondering if there was trouble
waiting up ahead.
     Finally we reached the edge of available cover.  Ahead, there
was nothing but a lot of open space, hemmed in by gray fog and
hulking, indistinct shapes.  If I squinted, they looked vaguely like large
ships, but that was impossible.  The upper city was too high for that ...
     "Hey," I whispered.  "Are those things flying ships?"  I'd seen a
couple while approaching the city, soaring effortlessly through the air.
The sight had been an impressive one, and I suddenly realized that if
such things were to dock at this city, something called skydocks was
probably where they'd do it.
     "Airships, yes," Sonya replied under her breath, distracted.
"Damn, which one was it?  I can't see anything in all this fog ..."  She
peered intently into the mist-shrouded gloom, then finally sighed.
     "We're going to have to get closer," she muttered.  "Come on,
and stay close."  I followed her, intrigued in spite of myself.  I'd thought
earlier that there was only one way off the plateau, but here was
another.  If there was a ship waiting, we'd be free and clear.
     Of course, if this was an avenue of escape, the bad guys would
be watching it.  I no sooner had that thought then the flesh on the nape
of my neck start to crawl.
     We weren't alone out here.
     I lunged, pushing Sonya to the ground just as something came
whirling out of the darkness at her.  It continued on past us, striking a
nearby light pole and exploding into a tangle of slim cables which
proceeded to wind themselves tightly the pole.  I pulled her up and we
were running even as the first shouts rose up around us.  By the sound
of it, there were a fair number of enemies, but they seemed to be
scattered around.  The fog would hide us, but it would also hide them.
And, to judge by the trap which had nearly snared Sonya, they were
ready for us.
     Crap.
     "Where are we going?" I asked as we ran.  Her hood had
fallen back, and Sonya's hair streamed out behind her as she ran.
     "I'm not sure," she confessed.  "It all looks so different in the
dark and fog ..."
     "You're not sure?" I asked, incredulous.
     "Hey, this was supposed to be routine!" she snapped back.
The sound of running feet came from all around, oddly muffled by the
fog.  Then something exploded above us, flaring an actinic white and
dispelling some of the gloom.  The fog still managed to diffuse some of
the light, but the flare was powerful enough to reveal more of the area
around us.
     "There!" Sonya shouted, grabbing my hand and pulling me
towards a metal walkway beaded with moisture.  "This is it, I'm sure!"
We raced down the dock, our feet clattering noisily on the slick metal
surface.  This walkway was narrower than the one where I'd seen the
big ships tied up, and there didn't appear to be anything docked on
either side.  The sounds of pursuit behind us began to intensify, and I
had a very bad thought.  Over the side, I couldn't see anything but fog,
and I chanced a quick glance at Sonya.
     "Tell me there's something under this dock," I said.  She smiled
grimly.
     "Sure," she shot back.  "The ocean ... a couple of hundred feet
straight down."  Swell.  The bad guys had us cornered, then, if Sonya
hadn't chosen the right dock.
     I was really hoping she had.
     "Oops," she said.
     "Oops?"
     "The slip is empty."
     "The slip ..."
     "Where our ride should be."
     Swell.
     She kept running, and since I didn't have a better plan I
followed.  Unfortunately, a waist-high railing loomed up out of the night
all too soon.  Sonya hurdled the railing easily, and I followed, landing
on the end of the dock.  The metal here was painted with black and
yellow stripes, and standing on this side of the rail there was only a few
feet of dock before the big drop.  Sonya walked tentatively up to the
edge and peered over.  I followed, stopping beside her and turning to
look back the way we'd come.  There were bobbing lights moving
along the dock, and dark shapes were beginning to resolve as they
came closer.
     They weren't hurrying now.  They knew we had nowhere to
go.  I felt a faint smile forming on my lips as I let my body ease into a
loose stance.  Well, fine.  No matter how many of them there were, I
wasn't going down without a fight.  If the only way out was through
these guys, then I'd go through them.
     "Jump," Sonya said.  I glanced over at her blankly.
     "Beg pardon?" I asked.  She moved in front of me, those blue
eyes alive and sparkling with the nearness of danger.
     "Jump, Ranko," she repeated.  "Quickly!"
     "Are you out of your ...?" I began hotly.  She cut me off by framing
my  face with her cool hands, a smile that was equal parts knowing and
mischievous blossoming on her ripe lips like a flower.
     Then she somehow flowed across the half-step that separated
us, and suddenly her body was pressed against mine, her mouth
brushing mine, then clinging, lips parted, breath hot and sweet.  My
eyes widened as my breath caught in my throat, choking off a startled
whimper.  For a long, spine-melting moment, she taunted my lips with
that delicate silken pressure, her long nails digging lightly into the tender
skin in front of my ears as she did so.  Then, oh so slowly, she pulled
away, and it was all I could do not to instinctively follow her.  Instead, I
gasped, drawing molten air into my lungs as her hands drifted lazily
down, brushing the sides of my neck and flowing over my shoulders to
rest, light as butterflies, against my chest.
     "Sorry, hon," she breathed.
     And pushed.
     I'm not ashamed to admit that her kiss had such an effect on
me, I wasn't able to react until I saw the edge of the dock receding
past my toes.  And by then it was far too late.
     I was still trying to recover from that shock when my fall was
abruptly ended.  Judging by the look on the face of the man who caught
me, he was nearly as surprised as I was.
     "What the hell ...?" he exclaimed.  Then his head swivelled
back up, and he set me roughly on my feet.  I staggered back, falling
over something and landing on my butt just in time to see Sonya drop
neatly into his arms.
     "Drake," she said as if she'd just met him on the street.  "How
nice you could make it."  She smiled sweetly up at his dark scowl.
"Your routine pick-up has gone very badly wrong, handsome.  We
should probably be going.  Now."  He glanced over at me, and opened
his mouth.
     "Ranko's with me," she said before he could speak.  "Don't be
difficult, Drake."  He set her down, and I realized for the first time we
were in some sort of boat.  Only that couldn't be right, because there
was no way I'd fallen all the way to the ocean.  If I had, I'd be dead.
     The man Sonya called Drake moved up to the front of the long
boat and slid easily into a seat.  I could vaguely make out a steering
wheel of some sort, and some simple controls.  He did something, and
from behind us came a series of harsh coughs, then a shuddering roar.
I leaned over the side and found we were indeed in a boat.  This boat,
though, was floating in the air, suspended by some invisible force in the
sea of fog.  There were two engines jutting out from the back, raked at
an angle on narrow support pylons.  From the backs of the engines
protruded long spikes, and there were propellers of some sort on those
spikes which were turning faster and faster even as I watched.
     Sonya hauled me back into the boat by my shirt.
     "Hang on!" she shouted over the engine's roar.  The boat
slewed around and began to accelerate, much like a motorboat in
water.  There was a flare of light from behind and above, and a streak
of fire arrowed down from the edge of the dock, narrowly missing us.
Then we were away, the dock and its lights already vanishing into the
fog.  Sonya collapsed into one of the bench seats near the back, and
threw her arms out to the wind, her long hair streaming back from her
face.  Then she glanced at me and smiled wickedly.
     "Having fun yet?" she asked.
     And laughed, a wild, uninhibited sound that rivalled the wind.

***

     The front of the flying boat was sheltered by a small cabin.  The
cabin was open into the back of the boat, but there was a canvas
covering that could be dropped down and tied into place to form a
back wall.  Sonya and I moved up into that cabin to escape the wind,
and she untied the rolled canvas and let it drop into place, then secured
it to the floor.
     I took the opportunity to check out our saviour.  He was tall,
taller than I would be even in boy form, and I knew he was strong from
the easy way he'd handled me before.  His long, silvery hair was parted
in the middle, framing his face and falling thick and straight to his waist.
His
high cheekbones and long, narrow jaw combined with tilted, emerald green
eyes to make a face that radiated cool confidence, with just the faintest hint
of danger that was all the more daunting for not being flaunted.  His body
seemed lean and hard, too, at least what I could see through his loose
clothing, and I suspected the long, curved swords strapped beside his chair
were his.
     I also had no doubt he knew how to use it.  My instincts told
me that this man would be dangerous in a fight.  And when it came to
fighting, I always trusted my instincts.
     "So, Sonya," he said, one hand on the wheel and the other on
the throttle.  "Aren't you going to introduce your new friend?"  His
voice was controlled, giving nothing away, but I had the feeling he
wasn't happy with the way things had turned out.
     Well, that made two of us, but considering the attitude of the
crowd we'd left behind, I'd take my chances with Drake.
     I wondered if he was her boyfriend.  I wondered where the hell
THAT thought had come from.  I tried not to think about the way
Sonya's breasts had felt, pressed against mine, as she'd kissed me.
     My life just never gets any simpler.
     "I told you, Drake, this is Ranko," she said.  "Ranko, Drake."
     "And why did you bring her here?" he asked, glancing over at
her.  Sonya sat beside him, and I sat behind her, so I could see them
both in profile.
     "She saved me, Drake," Sonya said, the slightest edge creeping
into her throaty voice.  "I wasn't just going to leave her on that dock."
     "And just why did you need saving, Sonya?" he asked, his
voice still cool, controlled.  "This was supposed to be a routine matter."
     "Are you suggesting that I screwed up, Aladair Perss Drake?"
she asked, her voice now full of jagged ice.  "Because I'll have you
know your "reliable" source was compromised.  He nearly got me
caught by the Duke's cretins."  I winced.  If a tone that icy had been
directed at me, I'd have looked for the nearest exit.  I half expected her
words to have drawn blood, but the only effect Drake showed was
mild surprise.
     "Sonya, are you sure?" he asked slowly.
     "Of course I'm sure!" she snapped.  "I said just what you told
me to, and the next thing I know trouble's sneaking up behind me.
Good thing I'm the suspicious type."  He looked vaguely troubled.
     "I can't believe Karn would betray anyone to the Duke," he
murmured.  "He hates the Virmalli more than anyone."  He fell silent
then, staring ahead moodily.  I noticed his gaze kept flicking to a small
globe set in a round metal case, sort of like a compass.  I hoped it was
telling him where to go, because in this fog I was totally lost.
     "This is troubling," he said at last.
     "Oh, I'm fine," Sonya said acidly.  "Thanks for asking."  A faint
ghost of a smile graced his lips, and he inclined his head slightly.
     "I had no doubt you would be, Sonya," he said.  "A Midnight
Panther can take care of herself, yes?"
     "This isn't the sort of job I usually did," she grumbled,
apparently unmollified.  "Something like this is more up Lou's alley."
     "Indeed.  Still, we will have some trouble without the package you
were sent after."
     "Drake," she said softly, looking up at him from under her
eyelashes.  "Give me some credit."  He glanced at her again, this time
surprise showing clearly on his face.
     "You got it?" he asked.  She smiled slyly.
     "You DID doubt me," she purred.  "Unwise.  When it comes
to men, I always get what I want, Drake.  Always."  Something in her
voice seemed to resonate deep in my belly, and I felt acutely
uncomfortable.  There was a dangerous, untamed sensuality about
Sonya that both attracted and repelled.  Mostly attracted, if I was to be
honest.
     "That will make things easier," he said.  "But I have a bad
feeling that we won't have much time now that the Duke knows we're
in the area.  First Harldon, then Omeesia.  Now he's set his sights on
us.  He seems intent on controlling ..."  He broke off, casting a quick
glance at me, as if he couldn't speak freely in front of me.
     "And you, Ranko," he said.  "Your clothing marks you an
outlander.  Are you new to the borderlands?"
     "Yeah," I admitted.
     "Then I suppose you don't understand much of what's going
on."
     "You could say that," I told him dryly.  He nodded, turning
back to the controls.
     "Well, it looks like you're along for the ride now."  He adjusted
the throttle slightly, and pushed another lever forward a notch.
     "I'm afraid, though, that you may have cause to regret that," he
continued softly.  "Before very long, you may wish you'd never seen
either of us."  I sat back.  Sonya crossed her arms over the back of her
seat and rested her chin on them, giving me a sultry smile.
     Swell.  Just swell.

***

     It was about thirty more minutes before anything happened.
There was some sort of tension between Drake and Sonya, and I
wasn't sure if I was the cause or not.  They didn't talk much for the rest
of the trip, though, and the only sound was the air buffeting the boat as
it raced through the sky.
     I took advantage of the lull to think about my situation.  I didn't
know where we were going or what would happen when we got there,
although this didn't bother me as much as it once would have.  After all,
that had been the story of my life for a couple of years now.  And if
there was trouble, I'd just deal with it as necessary.
     I wanted to press Sonya about the Wastelands, but Drake's
presence gave me pause.  I'd already caused a ruckus just by
mentioning them; I wasn't sure if it was safe to bring up that subject
around anyone but Sonya at this point.  I'd just have to wait until I
could get her alone.
     Thinking about Sonya made me acutely uncomfortable for
some reason.  I felt a crease form between my brows as I frowned.  I
couldn't quite put my finger on why, and felt a strange reluctance to
dwell on the subject, mostly because I kept remembering how she'd
kissed me on the dock.  Purely as a distraction, I reminded myself
hastily.  But I'd still ...
     Enough about her, I told myself angrily.  This is getting me
nowhere.  Instead, I took another look at the flying boat.  Nowhere in
Livdren had I seen anything like this, and this was nothing compared to
the big ships I'd seen briefly flying overhead before.  It made me
wonder what else they had here.  At the very least, something like this
could make my journey a lot easier, and a lot quicker.
     Assuming, of course, Sonya really could tell me how to get to
the Wastelands.
     "Here we go," Drake said, breaking the moody silence.  I sat
up, peering through the curved windscreen.  At first I didn't see
anything, but as Drake pulled back the throttle and began to turn,
something loomed out of the fog.  I saw bare masts, and then a long,
dark hull.  It looked vaguely like a sailing ship, but the shape was
wrong, the hull too rounded and with projections in odd places.  I
couldn't get a good look, though, through the fog and dark, just fleeting
impressions.
     It looked like some ghost ship, coming out of the fog that way,
with dim lights glowing from round windows set in the dark hull.  We
swung into position beside and behind the ship, and Drake turned to
Sonya.  She sighed and glanced at me.
     "Come on, Ranko," she said.  "Give me a hand, would you?"
She bent down and undid the canvas and we stepped out onto the
unprotected rear deck, Sonya giving a little shiver as we did so.  I
didn't know why she was acting cold; she still had my damned cloak.
Well, Baahnid's cloak, and I'd be wanting it back.  I'd discovered over
time that it had a few handy properties.
     There was a large, U-shaped frame hinged about the middle of
the boat.  Right now, it was lying flush with the gunwales, facing the
rear.  Sonya took one side and I took the other, and at her prompt we
pulled together.  The frame came up easily, locking into place once it
was perpendicular to the deck.  There was a large steel ring at the top,
and as I watched, Drake eased us in close to the ship.  A boom was
swung over the side, and a hook dangled at its end.  We manoeuvred in
until the hook slid neatly through the ring, then Drake killed the engines.
The propellers slowly ceased rotating as we were hoisted up and
swung inwards, then lowered to a cradle on the deck.  There were a
few people milling around, and they clustered near us as the boat was
made secure.
     "Sonya!"  A girl pushed to the front of the onlookers
impatiently.  Her darkly tanned skin contrasted with the white coveralls
she was wearing unzipped to her waist, revealing a dark tank top and
very feminine curves.  The wind toyed with her tousled mane of collar
length dark hair as she waved, flashing a relieved smile.
     "Hi, Lou," Sonya replied.
     "You're so late!" the other girl called.  "I was starting to get
worried!"  She nervously touched a pair of tinted goggles that hung
around her neck, looking like she was torn between relief and irritation.
     "Sorry," Sonya told her as one of the men gave her a hand
getting down.  "I ran into some problems."
     "Are you okay?" Lou asked, clearly concerned.  Sonya smiled
gently.
     "Of course," she said with an wink.  "But thanks for asking."
She glared at Drake as she said that, but he ignored her, leaping nimbly
down with his sheathed sword in one hand.  I followed, ignoring the
offers of assistance, and watched as Sonya reached inside her belt and
came out with a small object, round and metallic with a cylinder
protruding from one end.  She tossed it lightly to the girl called Lou.
     "There you go," she said, sounding pleased with herself.  "Hard
to believe such a little thing could shut down our engine."
     "Well, it did," Lou said, handling the strange piece of hardware
as if it were gold.  "We were lucky to get ahold of this."
     "You have no idea," Sonya sighed.
     "Lou," Drake broke in, his voice a serious counterpoint to
Sonya's bantering.  "Now that you've got that, how long to get the
engine up?"  Lou hesitated, suddenly looking uncertain.
     "I ... I'm not ... if the chief was here ..." she began, dropping
her gaze to the deck.
     "He's not," Sonya broke in, plopping her hand on top of Lou's
head and ruffling the girl's already unruly hair.  "But he's taught you a
lot, and he left the engine room in your hands.  That means he trusts
you, right?"  Lou smiled, and that smile revealed that, under the baggy
overalls and the smear of grease on one cheek, she was really beautiful.
I'd missed it until then, somehow.
     "Right," Lou said, practically glowing.  Then she turned to
Drake.
     "At least four hours," she said, but there was no uncertainty in
her voice now.  Drake just nodded.
     "We may not have four hours," he said with a faint grin.  "But
just in case, you'd better get started."  He started to walk across the
deck, then stopped and turned to Sonya and me.
     "You'd better come along, Sonya," he said.  "The captain's
going to want to hear about what went wrong.  And she's going to
want to meet our guest, too."  He turned back and started striding
across the deck, his long legs eating up the distance.  Sonya shrugged.
     "Well, come on," she said to me as Lou dashed off
enthusiastically.  "Time to meet the lady in charge."  I followed her
across the deck, ignoring the openly curious looks from the crew.
     All the while wondering just what sort of a mess I'd landed
myself in this time.

***
     The captain sat behind a polished wooden desk, lounging in her
chair with a quiet, lazy grace.  I stood, watching her as she watched me
back.
     I definitely got the better part of that deal.
     I hadn't expected the captain to be an elf.  I'd never seen one
before, hadn't even known that there were any in this world.  I
wondered if they were all as exotically beautiful as this one.  Her dusky
skin contrasted with long white hair that was swept back from her face,
falling straight past her shoulders and down her back.  Her long,
gracefully tapered ears were adorned with narrow silver earrings which
caught the light as she tilted her head curiously.  She also wore some
sort of decoration on her forehead, a roughly rectangular piece of
metal with several long, thin strips dangling from it held in place by a
fine chain around her head.
     "Well," she said softly.  Her voice matched the rest of her
perfectly; low for a woman, cool, with a hint of the exotic.  "Who do
we have here?"
     "Ranko Saotome, captain," I said politely, sketching a quick
bow.  Never hurts to be polite, another lesson I'd learned travelling in
strange lands.  Sonya stood beside me, Drake off to one side, leaning
against the wall with his arms and long legs crossed.  The captain
shifted her gaze to Sonya.  Her eyes were long and narrow, slightly
tilted up at the ends, like a cat's.  I suppressed a wry grin at the thought.
Maybe that explained why she seemed so intimidating to me.
     "May I assume," she murmured dryly, "that things did not go
smoothly?"
     "You could say that," Sonya shot back.  "Pirotess, your man in
Trossik nearly got me killed.  If it hadn't been for Ranko, we wouldn't
be talking right now."  Pirotess raised one slim, elegant eyebrow.
     "Indeed?" she asked, her appraising stare shifting back to me.
"Well, much as I would like to hear the details, first things first.  Did you
get what you were sent for?"  Even though she was still looking at me, it
was obvious who the question was meant for.
     "Of course," Sonya sniffed.
     "Lou has the part, P," Drake broke in smoothly.  "But it'll be
hours before the engine is up and running, and judging from the hot
reception Sonya ran into at the rendezvous point, we may have
company before then.  I think we should move now."
     "The Duke?" Pirotess asked, looking back to Sonya.
     "Definitely.  I had three guys try to box me in using a standard
Royal Marine capture manouevre."
     "You recognize a Royal Marine manouevre?" Drake asked, his
voice tinged with suspicion.  Sonya tilted her head and gave him a
secretive smile.
     "I know a lot about Royal Marines that they don't advertise,"
she replied coyly.  He snorted and glanced away.
     "Given recent events in the borderlands, he is the most likely
culprit," the alluring captain broke in smoothly.  "And with his
resources, we might be facing serious opposition."
     "Very serious," Sonya told her, all traces of her smile fading.
"They used combat magic as well.  They were ready for anything.
Well," she added with a sly smile and a glance in my direction, "almost
anything."
     "We should get underway," Drake said, looking at the captain.
"We're too close to the city here ..."  The captain cut him off, raising
one slim hand and glancing at Sonya.
     "Sonya, why don't you and our guest wait outside for a
moment?  I need to speak to Drake."
     "Sure," Sonya said.  "We'll go sit in the lounge for a while.  I
for one need something warm to drink.  Come on, Ranko."  I nodded
and followed her out the door.  Once we were in the narrow corridor, I
turned to Sonya.
     "I guess there are things they don't want to discuss in front of
strangers," I said wryly.  Sonya laughed.
     "Don't take it personally," she advised.  "Pirotess takes her
responsibilities seriously.  Come on, let's go relax for a while.  Things
never seem to stay quiet for long on this ship."

***

     Drake watched the door shut, then turned back to Pirotess.
     "So?" she asked, a faint smile on her full lips.
     "It's a little too convenient, isn't it?" he asked wearily.
"Sonya's about to be caught by the Duke's enforcers, when suddenly
this outlander rescues her?"
     "You think she's a spy," Pirotess said, pressing the tips of her
fingers together lightly.
     "I think she could be," Drake clarified.  "And I think that Sonya
was ... presumptuous ... in bringing her along.  She's part of a bigger
organization than just three girls now, she has to give some thought to
the risks her actions pose, both to this ship and its crew."
     "My, my, Drake," Pirotess said, her smile widening slightly.  "I
had no idea you listened to all my lectures so closely."  He didn't flush,
although this woman was one of the few people who could make him
do just that.  Instead, he acknowledged her with a slight bow.
     "Guilty," he said with a wry grin.  Then the grin faded, and he
straightened up, walking over to sit uninvited in a chair opposite the
captain.  He was one of the only people who could be so casual with
her, a fact that was more important to him than he would ever let on.
     "But she could be a spy," he said soberly.  "And if so, we'll
have to deal with her soon.  Either that or find someplace to let her off.
We can't take her where we're going."  Pirotess nodded absently.
     "I don't think she is a spy, though," she said at last.  Drake's
eyebrows raised, as much surprise as he was willing to show.
     "What's this?" he asked.  "Woman's intuition?"  The lovely
dark elf fixed him with a cool stare.
     "I trust my intuition," she informed him.  "And it tells me that
this outlander is no mere tool, not the Duke's, not anyone's."
     "It's not like you to trust so easily, P," Drake said, a frown
tugging at his mouth.  She sat back then, smiling again.
     He loved it when she smiled.
     "I didn't say I trusted her, Drake," she said.  "I only said that I didn't
believe she was a spy.  At any rate, I'm going to want to speak with
Sonya at some length about what exactly happened in Trossik.  Karn
has been operating discreetly there for years, right under the noses of all
the factions.  If he was turned, then Trossik won't be safe for us for
quite a while."
     "Trossik," Drake said dryly, "is never particularly safe for
anyone."
     "Well put," Pirotess conceded with an amused gleam in her
eyes.  "Nevertheless, we are too close to the city.  If the hounds have
been loosed with our scent, I'll feel safer someplace less exposed.
We'll ..."  She stopped, her posture stiffening in a manner so subtle that
Drake doubted anyone who didn't know her as well as he did would
have caught it.
     Trouble.
     Seconds later, his human ears detected the sound that had
alerted his captain.  Running feet, and a shout.
     No way is this going to be good, he thought grimly.
     He was right.

***
 

     When Sonya told me that things never stayed quiet, I had no
idea just how true her words were.  I was trying to decide how to bring
up the subject of the Wastelands once we were alone when someone
skidded around a corner and came racing towards us.  I recognized
Lou, the girl from earlier, but she looked frantic.  Beside me, Sonya
stopped, obviously as surprised as I was.
     "Lou!" she blurted.  What ...?"  Lou barrelled between us
without slowing.
     "It's trouble!" she called as she passed.  No kidding, I thought.
Sonya met my eyes and, together, we turned and followed Lou.  Her
destination, as it turned out, was the captain's cabin.  She burst through
the door without knocking and slid to a halt, panting, in front of the
captain's desk.
     "Captain!" she cried.  "We've got to get out of here, right
now!"  Pirotess was standing, hands braced flat on her desk, but
looking unfazed by Lou's sudden entrance.
     "Lou," she said softly.  "Be calm.  Tell me what has happened."
     "That new converter core that Sonya brought," Lou gasped,
still breathing heavily.  "I wanted to run a diagnostic on it before putting
it in ... captain, there's a spell marker on it!"
     "What?" Drake exclaimed, bolting out of his chair.  Lou
nodded frantically.
     "I had the sprites wipe it, but they thought it was probably a
tracking spell of some kind, which means ..."  Apparently, nobody
needed to be told what that meant.  The captain stalked over to one
wall and snatched a scabbarded sword with one graceful movement,
fitting it to her swordbelt as she moved.
     "Drake," she said, her voice controlled, "muster the crew on
deck.  We may still have time to run, but if not ..."
     "Right."  He dashed past us, moving with an economical grace that I
noted almost automatically, and disappeared down the corridor.
Pirotess began striding along in a different direction, and we followed
her.
     "Lou," she said.  "Arm yourself, and rouse Kei.  Meet us on
the deck."  Lou nodded and slipped away.  That left just the three of us
walking down the hall.  Soon we went up a narrow flight of stairs and
emerged on the deck.  Sonya and I kept following the dark elf as she
strode towards a large, enclosed cabin that dominated the raised rear
deck.
     "Ranko Saotome," she said as she walked.  I moved up beside
her.
     "Captain?"
     "Unless we are very lucky, we will soon be locked in combat.
Can you fight?"
     "Can she?" Sonya echoed, smiling.  "I'll vouch for her fighting
skills, captain."  Pirotess glanced at Sonya, her cool gaze not missing
anything, then back at me.
     "Very well," she said, "then WILL you?"
     "Sure," I told her.  "We're all in the same boat, aren't we?  So to
speak."  She didn't smile, just nodded.
     "Very well," she said.  "But make no mistake.  This enemy will
attack without mercy, and seeks nothing less than our destruction.  This
battle will be no place for the faint of heart."  I smiled then, my eyes
narrowing.
     "I've fought for my life before, captain," I said, the words hard-
edged.  "I know what to expect."
     "We shall see."  She didn't say anything else on the subject.
     I should have been wondering what sort of mess I'd gotten
into, but instead I found myself looking forward to a fight.  That little
dust-up earlier had only whetted my appetite.  I hadn't been in a good
fight for far too long, and it was almost scary how eager I was to put it
all on the line.
     You're supposed to be keeping focussed on your goal, a small
rational part of my mind insisted, but it was drowned out by the rising
tide of hot, almost feverish battle lust.  I'd been plagued with nightmares
again in recent weeks, and part of me knew this was the way to vent
the helpless, twisting tension that had been building in my gut.
     Time to cut loose, I thought longingly.  Really cut loose.  It's
been so long ...
     We trailed Pirotess into the cabin and followed her into a
large area that looked out over the ship through enormous curved glass
windows that formed the entire front wall, curving around to the sides
and giving an almost unobstructed 180 degree view.  The room was
dominated by a large ship's wheel surrounded by waist-high consoles, a
combination of low-tech and high-tech that made my head hurt.
     "We're going to rig for sail," Pirotess told the slender girl with the
strawberry-blonde hair standing behind the wheel.  "Make ready ..."
     "Wheelroom, this is Lookout!" a tinny voice interrupted.
Pirotess stepped over to one console and pulled a flexible tube with a
flared mouthpiece on the end up to her lips.
     "Report," she said with cool efficiency.
     "Engines, ma'am!  And running lights, dead astern!  They're
coming up fast!"
     "The sails, captain?" inquired the girl at the wheel, her long ponytail
swinging gently as she turned to meet the dark elf's eyes.
     "Not enough time," Pirotess said, one slim hand falling to the hilt of
her sword.  Her fingers trailed lightly over the cool sheen of light that
glimmered on the metal of the bell hand guard.  If she was worried
about the prospect of a fight, she didn't show it.  Through the windows
I could see people racing onto the deck, armed with all sorts of
different weapons and looking ready for trouble.
     "Well?" Sonya asked impatiently.  Pirotess favoured her with a
faint smile that managed to be tinged with haughty arrogance,
amusement and fierce defiance all at once.
     "We must finish them quickly," she said.  "One ship we can
handle, but if they keep us occupied or disable us until reinforcements
arrive our chances of survival will not be good."  So saying, she swept
out of the room.
     "I love her talent for understatement," Sonya said with a lazy
smile, following.  I glanced at the girl behind the wheel, who was pulling
a sword from a nearby wall-mounted rack.  It had a bell hand-guard
like the captain's, but the blade looked wider and heavier.  She caught
me looking and winked.  I nodded back, then followed the other two
out into the cold damp night.
     As I did so, I could hear a low, droning sound that was steadily
growing louder.  Somewhere in the fog, the enemy was approaching.
     And I couldn't wait to meet them.

***

     Pirotess caught Sonya's arm lightly as the outlander girl tarried
a moment in the wheelroom.
     "Watch her during the battle," she said softly.  She didn't have
to use Ranko's name; Sonya knew who she was referring to without
having to be told, just as she understood why Pirotess was giving this
assignment to her.
     "Yes," she acknowledged, her voice equally soft.  "But she
won't betray us."  Pirotess hadn't known Sonya for very long, but she
was certain of one thing.  The girl believed what she was saying.
     Pirotess didn't waste time wishing she had more time to deal
with everything that had cropped up.  The situation was what it was,
and wishing otherwise would be a waste of time.  Instead, she turned
wordlessly and leapt nimbly to the main deck.  Sonya followed, the
red-headed outlander not far behind.
     The crew was ready.  That didn't surprise her at all; they were
a small but experienced group, and there was no better crew anywhere.
Her eyes sought out Drake automatically, and she suppressed the urge
to smile when he gave her a thumbs-up and a wicked grin.  Drake was
prepared.
     No surprise there.
     She noted absently that the port-side boat cradle was empty.
Fast work.  Drake again; he knew when to take initiative.
     She strode to the middle of the deck, meeting him there.  The
sound of engines was louder now, and a dim glow appeared through
the fog.
     "A cutter," Drake said without preamble.  "Small and fast, but
we can't run anyway, so that's irrelevant.  They haven't the crew to
take us in an extended fight, P.  I figure they'll get some boarders over
the rail to keep us busy, then try to damage the ship to keep us from
leaving.  If those rumours about the Duke having battleships hidden in
Crakrean Green are true, we'll really be for it if they can drag this out."
     "Then we will simply have to finish the fight in short order," she
said smoothly.  As was her habit, she took in the disposition or her
people at a glance.  A staggered line of men and women armed with
swords, pikes, and in the case of brawny Karrig the Younger, a huge
battle axe, stood ready to receive anyone foolish enough to board the
ship.
     And the enemy would almost certainly attempt a boarding.  If
they could gain the wheelhouse, or even get someone below deck, they
could do a great deal of damage.
     Pirotess could see the cutter now, though, as it loomed out of
the thick fog.  A fast ship, unmarked and unremarkable, and
undoubtedly the best that the enemy commander had been able to lay
his hands on.  But hardly a match for her Phantom Hawk, at least under
ordinary circumstances.  No, the enemy would have to act boldly if
they hoped to neutralize the Hawk, and they knew it.
     As did she, which was why she'd taken bold action of her own.
Even now one of her combat sorceresses was circling around in one of
the ship's boats, hidden by the dark and fog, to come up on the
intruder from behind.  Hopefully, the cutter's crew would be too
focussed on gaining the Hawk's deck to realize the danger until it
was too late.
     The cutter corrected course and angled in towards them, her
crew crowding the narrow foredeck.  There was an archer perched in
the single mast, scanning them for a target.  Even had she not known
these were the Duke's troops, she never would have mistaken them for
pirates or raiders.  They were formed up with military precision, cool
and watchful, not wasting any energy with taunts or whoops as the two
vessels drew near.  Royal marines, the lot.  Tough, but her crew had
handled tough before.
     Ah.  There.  The tingle of magic.  Their mages were about to
open the hostilities.  Fortunately, she was not unprepared.
     A streak of bright orange fire erupted from a tall figure
sheltered near the back of the cutter.  It arrowed towards her ship, only
to explode harmlessly against an invisible barrier.  She felt another flare
of magic skitter across her skin as Miika counterattacked the enemy
sorcerer.  Her attack didn't get through either, but Pirotess was familiar
with magical combat.  The two would feel each other out at first,
searching for an opening to exploit.  Of course, if the disparity in their
respective strengths was too great, the fight would be over very
quickly.
     The cutter was angling in sharply now, and Pirotess braced for
the impact.  Another flare of magic lit up the steadily decreasing space
between the ships, and Pirotess wondered what was keeping Melissa
and the others.  The boat should be in position by now ...
     The shout came just as archers on both sides let loose their first
volleys.
     "CAPTAIN!"  The unfamiliar tone of panic in Kimma's voice
made Pirotess whip her head around.  The lookout was hanging out of
the crow's nest, waving wildly at ...
     Pirotess just had time for a curse.  Another ship had appeared,
descending from above, tendrils of fog streaming from its dark hull.  Its
engines were off, and Pirotess understood in an instant what had
happened.  When Lou had wiped the tracking spell, the pursuing ships
must have realized they would be expected.  The cutter had barrelled
straight in, drawing all the attention, while this second, larger ship had
climbed high and gotten into position above them, her engines muted by
distance and lost in the cutter's own roar.  Then, with their engines shut
down, they'd descended silent as a ghost ship.
     And I fell for it, Pirotess grimaced as lines snaked over the side
of the second ship and troops descended quickly to the Phantom's
deck.  A spell bolt exploded near her, revealing that the second ship
also carried at least one mage.
     Bad.  Very bad.
     Then the cutter slammed heavily into the Phantom's port rail,
and her crew was faced with an attack from both sides.

***

     I gathered that the appearance of the second ship was a big surprise
to everybody.  Well, it was to me, at any rate.  But as armed people began
to swarm the deck, I figured it was worth taking a shot at the second ship.
It was smaller than ours, but from above they had the advantage.
     So I summoned all my chi and cupped my hands, concentrating.
Then I let go with an intense bolt.  I'd picked a spot pretty much at random
and let fly.  The bolt knifed through the hull and went right on out the top,
sending debris and a couple of bodies flying.  That surprised me, since all
the pretty shiny magic energy flying around seemed to keep getting
blocked.  Still, not one for questioning my good fortune, I let fly with two
more shots.  The ship tilted to one side and began sliding downwards to the
extreme displeasure of the poor saps still clinging to the ropes.
     "Nice work, Ranko!" someone shouted in my ear.  It was Sonya
again, looking radiant in the midst of all this chaos.  Or maybe because of
it; she seemed to shine in the presence of danger, even more than usual.
     "Thanks!" I returned, dodging flaming wreckage that rained down
as an explosion lit up the deck of the other ship.  "Looks like I hit
something important."
     "She's losing lift," Sonya confirmed, eyeing the shifting crowd.
"Let's leave her to the others and see if we can't get this other ship off our
rail!"
     Heavily armed men were pouring over that rail where grappling
hooks and things had been thrown to lash the two ships together, and
things started tp get a little wild.  The sorcerers seemed to be duelling each
other for the moment, so I concentrated on the fighters.  They mostly had
swords, although a few of the bigger men carried axes.  I didn't stop to
think, letting myself leap into the fray.  After all, if this ship went down, I
went down with it.
     I ran into the thick of things, leaving Sonya behind me.  That probably
wasn't too smart, but by that point I was beyond smart.  I felt that dark,
savage joy again, that wild freedom that came from running across the
tightrope with no safety net.  I let myself become lost in the fight.
     The other guys were good, and more than that, they fought as a
unit, supporting each other.  I threw myself through a net of steel and
got close to two swordslingers, sending both flying with spinning kicks
before they could react.  Some animal instinct warned me to duck in
time to avoid losing my head to an axe.  I spun to face a huge, scarred
guy with arms like tree trunks.  He was grinning, and I remembered that
I was in girl form, and probably looked pretty harmless to him.  I let the
fury in my soul out in a burst of wild laughter, and ran straight into him.
The look on his face as I sprinted up his chest was priceless.  I'd left
myself open, but I figured he wasn't likely to expect that move, and that
I'd have enough time to get him before he recovered.
     I'd guessed right.  I arced into the air, coming down solidly on
his head with both feet.  Then, as he was finally beginning to get his axe
up again, I dropped head first inside his guard, planting both hands
firmly on the deck and catching him in the chest with a savage double
kick.  He howled as he flew back, the opposite railing catching his heels
neatly as he toppled over the side.
     I spun again, caught up in the dance, hardly noticing as an
arrow went through one sleeve, drawing a thin line of blood on my
forearm.  I leapt straight over a group of combatants, gambling that
none of them would have time to get a sword up into my back, then
rushed two more who were heading for the forward cabin.
     They didn't last long.  Disappointing.
     But what the hell, there were more where they came from ...

***

     The first wave had broken over the defenders, and now both
sides were engaged in a melee on the deck.  Pirotess engaged a lanky
woman who broke through the general chaos.  The woman was tall and
had good reach, but she couldn't match Pirotess for speed or skill and
found herself run through in short order.
     Pirotess watched for the opportunity they needed.  The enemy
would take any chance they got to storm the cabin and wreck the main
controls or to get below and take out the engines.  They didn't have to
score a decisive victory; if they crippled the Hawk, then they could retreat
and wait for help.  They couldn't be given that chance.
     And they wouldn't be.  There, she thought triumphantly.  There
it is!  Her people had drawn the invaders deep under the guise of a
sudden collapse, and the enemy had pressed the advantage.  Now they
were slightly overextended, not a serious lapse in a normal fight, but
one which Pirotess intended to exploit.  With the second attacking ship
badly damaged and beginning to slide away from the Hawk, the principal
threat was now the cutter on this rail.
     She leapt forward, utilizing her innate speed and grace to bound
over the knots of fighters.  She saw Drake leading a party of fighters in a
headlong charge through the enemy, clearing the way through the weak
point with his twin swords.  They met at the rail and Drake's party opened
a space for her.  They fought back to back, trying to clear the rail.
     "What was it that hit the second ship?" she called.
     "Not sure!" Drake replied over the din.  "But it threw them off-
balance, anyway!  Is there a plan, P?"
     "I think there is," she replied with a thin smile.  She spotted two
girls emerging from the crowd of flailing limbs and sharp steel.  Lou was
still wearing her overalls, tied off at the waist, and was carrying a
broadsword bigger than she was in one hand with ridiculous ease.  The
second girl was blonde and thoroughly lovely.  Kei.
     As Pirotess watched, Lou shouted something to Kei.  The blonde
tore her simple dress open impatiently, green eyes flashing.  Then her body
twisted and shifted, and seconds later a tawny panther stood on the deck,
snarling a challenge to all around her.  Kei, in panther form, cleared the
way for Lou to join Pirotess at the rail.
     "Is that what I think it is?" Pirotess asked, looking at what the girl held
in her free hand.
     "It sure is, captain!" Lou shouted back.  "But it hasn't been tested,
and I think it needs to be close to the core for it to ..."
     "First things first," Pirotess replied.  "Kei, support Drake along the
rail.  Lou, you'll be with me."
     Panther-Kei snarled, teeth showing in a most unsettling manner.
     "Kei!" Lou scolded.  "I'll be fine with the captain.  You're needed
here.  Now behave."
     Kei looked as unhappy as was possible for a panther to look, but
Pirotess noted that she obeyed her friend, albeit reluctantly.  Now all they
needed was a diversion so that they could board the enemy cutter.
     "Lou!"  Pirotess turned as Sonya came running up, weaving her
way through the melee.
     "Sonya," Pirotess replied as the woman entered the small oasis of
calm surrounding them.  "Just in time.  We need to create a diversion so
that I can get a party onto that cutter."
     "One diversion, coming up," Sonya said, a mixture of frustration
and excitement in her eyes as she looked up.  Pirotess followed her gaze to
see a petite form clad in black sailing through the air above them, spinning
as she went and narrowly avoiding being skewered.
     "Is that Ranko?" Pirotess asked incredulously.
     "Yes," Sonya confirmed.  "Jumps like a mad bunny, that girl.  Took
my suggestion about boarding the enemy ship right to heart, too."
     "But she's all alone!" Lou blurted.
     "Gods, the girl's mad!" Pirotess breathed as Ranko gained the
cutter's deck.  She was immediately swarmed by armed soldiers, but before
they blocked her from view Pirotess could see that the girl was grinning.
     "Now's your chance, P!" Drake shouted, obviously having seen
Ranko's foolhardy leap.
     "You two, with me," Pirotess said sharply.  "Sonya, watch Lou's
back while she tried to find someplace to drop that."
     "That" referred to the spherical bundle of steel cables and cylinders
in Lou's free hand.  If it worked they could neutralize the cutter in one
swift blow.  If it didn't, then things were going to get ugly.
     They approached the hole that Drake had opened near where the
ships were joined.  The attackers disciplined advance had been thrown into
disrepair by two factors; the savage panther prowling the rail, and the
insane, completely unarmed girl who had dropped into their midst.
     Pirotess caught the odd glimpse of Ranko as she danced across the
deck, mowing down armed, battle hardened Royal marines like they were
mere stalks of wheat.  She was cut in places, but none of her wounds
seemed to be slowing her down.
     Well, fine.  Might as well take advantage of the girl's insane attack.
Pirotess found an opening and leapt across the rails to the deck of the
cutter, Sonya and Lou following her.  Immediately Pirotess was engaged,
but her speed and skill allowed her to wound the first man fatally on her
first pass and cut the next badly enough so that he was forced to fall back,
whereupon Lou cut him completely in half with one pass of her massive
broadsword.
     "That way!" Lou shouted, hacking a path.  There were fewer
defenders to deal with here, as most of them were concentrating on taking
the Hawk, and they managed to cross the deck fairly easily.  Sonya threw a
handful of small blades to discourage one man with a slim blade who tried
to get close, but she didn't see the one who'd slipped behind her.  As he
raised his axe to strike her down Pirotess called out a warning, but she
knew it was already too late.  Lou cried out in alarm, but before the axe
could fall a blur arced down from above, hammering the scarred marine
and throwing him across the deck with a sickening crunch.
     "Nice timing, Red," Sonya said with a smile.  "That's another one I
owe you."
     "But who's keeping track, right?" Ranko replied.  The petite red-
head was, against Pirotess's expectations, still alive, and none of her
wounds seemed to be serious.  The entire deck of the cutter seemed to be
in total disarray, and hard as it was to believe young Ranko was responsible
for almost all of that.  The girl was a one-woman wrecking crew, if not
entirely sane.
     "Let's get this done!" Pirotess snapped.  "Time is of the essence
here!"
     "Right!" Lou replied.  She moved across the deck, eyes lidded.
Pirotess wasn't certain if Lou was actually looking for something; she
almost seemed to be trying to sense the spot she needed.
     "Lukish, will this do?" Sonya asked, standing at a spot close by.  Lou
frowned, a furrow appearing between her brows as she studied the deck.
Pirotess thought about telling the shapely young girl that she looked
adorable when she did that, then decided that this was probably not the
time.
     "Yes, I think it'll be close enough," Lou said.  "But we have to get
belowdecks and plant this charge.  It needs to be very close to the gratite
core to work."
     "You need a hole?" Ranko asked, wiping sweat out of her eyes
with one bloodstained sleeve.  "I got you covered.  Back up."
     As they watched, Ranko's body began to glow a faint blue.  She
cupped her hands and thrust them at the deck, and a bolt of energy lanced
out, punching through the steel with ease.  Pirotess recognized the energy;
it was the same as the bolt which had struck the second ship earlier.  And it
wasn't sorcery, either, but some sort of projective chi technique.
Interesting.  Unfortunately, she didn't have time to pursue the matter.  The
enemy had reformed and was intent on stopping them.  Fortunately, that
meant thinning their ranks at the rail, and the tide appeared to be turning
there.
     "Come on, Lou!" Sonya snapped as Pirotess caught a sword strike
with her blade and let it slide to the side, parrying and hitting flesh.
     "I think this will work," Lou muttered, peering into the hole.
     "Just do it!" Sonya urged, spinning like a dervish and letting fly
with a small storm of throwing blades.  As they met the ragged rush, Lou
did something to the object in her hand and it began to flash and hum.
Then she threw the thing down into the hole.
     "There!" she said triumphantly, turning to lend her blade to the
battle.
     "How long do we have?" Sonya asked.
     "No way of knowing," Lou told her.  "It's never been tested,
remember?"
     "What?  You maniac!"
     "Ladies," Pirotess gritted.  "Not now!  We've got to leave!"
     The line at the rail was broken now.  Pirotess could see that the
boat Drake had sent out had engaged and finished the second stricken ship,
and now the Hawk's crew were pressing the attackers back to the cutter.
Unfortunately, that put them right in Pirotess's way.
     Then she heard a feline snarl and several screams, and a spot
opened up for them.  She ran, her slim blade flashing out at anyone foolish
enough to try and stop her.  Sonya and Lou followed, guarding her back
and each other's as well.  The marines were running around, trying to
reform their ranks as new threats kept cropping up on every side, but their
ship began to buck and shake, and Pirotess knew that Lou's toy was
working.  She cried out a challenge, and Drake deployed men to cover her
and the others as they crossed over.
     "Well, Mr. Drake?" she asked coolly as she turned and helped
defend the rail.
     "The other ship is down," Drake told her, swords held high as he
watched the enemy try and decide whether to press the attack or attend
their own problems.  "The crew's holding together pretty well."
     "Good.  Let's get those lines cut, Mr. Drake.  That cutter is about
to take a trip."
     Drake nodded and shouted commands.  The cutter's archers were
all dead, and Pirotess's people had no trouble clearing the rail.  They
outnumbered the cutter's crew by almost four to one now, and the tide of
the battle had clearly turned.
     "Captain!" Sonya said, eyes narrowed.  "I don't see Ranko!  Did
she cross with us?"
     "If she didn't, it's too late," Pirotess said grimly.  At that moment a
shrill, high pitched noise erupted from behind her, and Lou howled with
glee.  The noise got louder and louder, and snaking lines of green energy
began to crawl over the cutter's deck.  Pirotess allowed herself a small
smile as the enemy began to falter, aware that something strange was
happening.  Their brief push towards the rail halted as they began running
over the deck, trying to stop what was happening.  That allowed the
Hawk's crew to sever the last of the lines holding the ships together, and
the stricken cutter began to tumbled helplessly down into the fog.
     "Look!" Sonya cried, pointing.  Pirotess's sharp eyes made out a
slender form in black running along the cutter's deck.  That explained why
the marines had taken so long to reform; they'd had to deal with an
explosive little package besides the one Lou had delivered.  Unfortunately,
Ranko had overextended herself; the cutter was falling further away by the
second.
     "Jump, Ranko!" Sonya called out.  Other members of the crew
were watching now, and Ranko broke into a run across the deck, weaving
around stray bolts of energy and surviving marines.  She reached the rail
and hurled herself into space, several people at the rail shouting
encouragement.
     Sonya was right, the girl was a hell of a jumper.  Unfortunately, she
wasn't going to make it.  Not without some help.
     "Sylphs of air and wind," Pirotess intoned, clasping her hands so
that her index fingers were extended together.  "Heed my plea.  Lend me
your assistance in my time of need.  By ancient covenant do I beseech thee
..."
     Ranko was falling short of the deck when a gust of wind caught
her, flipping the startled girl up and over.  As the assembled crowd
watched with astonishment, the red-head tumbled through the air to land
on the deck with a startled flourish.
     "Nice save, P," Drake murmured.
     "Indeed," Pirotess sighed.  "Now, Mr. Drake.  Get some sail up.
It's time we were leaving the area."
     "Got it," he said crisply, moving off.  Pirotess took in the situation
around her quickly.  There was some minor damage to the rigging, and the
port rail was broken in quite a few places, but they appeared to have
weathered the storm yet again.  The wounded were being attended to, and
it didn't appear that they'd lost anyone in the short but pitched battle.
     "Nice work," she said to Lou, who was standing nearby.  The
tanned girl grinned bashfully.
     "It was really the chief's idea," she demurred.  "Wait'll he hears
that we finally tested it!"  At that moment a frisky panther emerged from
the crowd and leapt onto Lou, knocking her onto her shapely butt.
     "Gah!" Ranko blurted, pointing.  "Tuh-tuh-tiger!"  Pirotess was
amazed.  The girl had faced certain death without batting an eye during
battle, and had nearly not made it back.  Only now, faced with a tame
panther, did she show any signs of fear.
     "Kei's not a tiger, Ranko," Sonya said with a sly smile.  "She's a
panther."
     "She's a pussycat," Lou clarified, hugging the big cat affectionately.
Kei's body rippled and she changed back, leaving Lou with an armful of
naked, shapely blonde.
     "Now I've got you, Lou," Kei crowed.  "You're all mine!"  She
nuzzled and groped Lou to the amusement of the assembled.  Pirotess
noticed that, for all her usual protestations, Lou didn't seem to be trying
very hard to escape Kei's embrace.
     "Kei," Sonya called.  "Sausage roll!"  She tossed the morsel, and
Kei disentangled herself to snatch the food from mid-air, to the further
amusement of all.
     "All right, the show is over," Pirotess informed them.  "Everyone
report to your stations.  We're getting underway, and I want damage
parties at work as soon as we start moving."
     The crew broke up, everyone knowing what to do.  They were a
good crew, and Pirotess knew that their experience and resilience had
gotten them through the battle relatively unscathed.
     Drake, who was standing a short distance away, caught her eye and
motioned slightly with his head, and she followed the gesture to see
Ranko standing by the rail.  The red-head was peering down at the
point where the cutter had disappeared, a disquietingly look in her blue
eyes.  Her hands were locked around the rail so tightly that even from this
distance Pirotess could see her knuckles whitening, and blood dripped
fitfully from one wrist.
     She knew what point Drake was trying to make.  He'd have
been keeping an eye on the newcomer during the fight as well, after all.
That was one of the things that made him a good first officer.  She
sighed under her breath as she began issuing orders to get them
underway and clear of the area in case reinforcements were on the
way.
     It appeared that they had once again managed to find trouble.

***

     Pirotess looked up from her desk as Drake entered when
bade.  They had made it safely to the Maze without running into
trouble, and she'd left matters in the hands of the crew for the moment.
They knew what to do.
     "Well?" she asked, motioning him to sit.  Drake did so gratefully,
running his fingers through his thick silvery-blonde hair in a way that his
captain knew caused more than a few female hearts to flutter.  She just
watched him wryly, wondering if he was deliberately flirting with her.
With Drake, you just never could tell.
     "Loky is going to be laid up for as long as a week, Annie says," he
reported.  "He took a pretty bad stab wound to the chest.  That was
the most serious injury, although there were a couple of arrow wounds
and various cuts and bruises.  We got off lucky, though, all things
considered.  Lookouts found no signs of pursuit, and we'll be in our
local bolt-hole in less than thirty minutes. After that, we can relax while
Lou finishes repairing "her" poor engine.  Other than that and some
cosmetic damage, the old girl's in pretty good shape."  Pirotess nodded.
     "Excellent," she murmured.  "And what do you make of the
evening's festivities, Mr. Drake?"  He sat back with a sigh, doing that
thing with his hair again.  Just habit this time, she thought idly, not
designed to be alluring.
     "Strange," he said at last.  "I mean, the Duke's obviously
stepped up his operations in Trossik.  That might even be where he got
the intelligence that let him take out those two ships last month."
     "If it was him," she said.  He grimaced.
     "It was," he replied.  "Of all the factions operating in Trossik
and the northern borderlands, only he has the resources to have pulled
off what we heard about.
     "Perhaps there are standing orders to neutralize anyone
believed to be capable of reaching the wastelands," she suggested
quietly.  "This certainly smacks of some sort of behind the scenes plot.
And that would explain why our comrades were attacked.  It cost the
Duke a great deal in terms of ships and resources to take out those two
ships so close together, and now suspicions are aroused, and attention
is on him.  After tonight's disturbance, there will be even more
uncomfortable questions.  Say what you will about him, he is usually
discreet.  Something must be driving him to risk the spotlight now."
     "It's possible," Drake admitted, "but we just don't know
enough yet.  We need information."  He cocked his head, and she gave
him a tiny smile.
     "I suppose I could check with my sources when we arrive at
the capitol," she allowed.  Drake ached to know more about her
mysterious but strangely knowledgeable sources, but Pirotess knew he
wouldn't push the issue.  He knew better; that discretion was one of the
things she liked about him.
     "Well, it's pointless to speculate until we know more," he said
briskly.  "Best we stay away from the north until we find out how hot
the situation is bound to get."  Then he leaned forward, propping his
elbows on the desk and lacing his fingers, and just looked at her, his
green eyes watchful and patient.  She sighed, matching his gaze with a
wry smile.  She'd been waiting for this.
     "Out with it, Drake," she said.
     "The girl," he said simply.  She nodded.
     "The girl," she agreed.  Judging it appropriate to the matter at hand,
she dug a bottle of red wine out of a deep cushioned drawer, along
with two delicate crystal goblets.  She poured the deep crimson fluid
into both, then handed one to her first officer and sat back in her chair
wearily.  They both sipped, and it gave her a strangely warm glow to
know for a certainty that Drake wouldn't begin until she was ready to
listen.  He really was an excellent man to have at your side.
     "We really do have the strangest talent for picking up strays, P," he
said with a crooked grin, rolling his goblet between his large, capable
hands with astonishing gentleness.  "And I'd be the last person to take
you to task for that, believe me.  After all, our Midnight Panthers have
turned out to be an excellent addition to our motley assortment of maniacs
and rogues."  Then his grin faded, and he stared across the desk at her, his
eyes troubled.
     "But," she prompted gently.
     "But this girl Sonya brought back is trouble," he told her gravely.  "You
saw her out there today, P.  The kid's been to the edge, and she never came
all the way back.  Probably lost whatever it was kept her world anchored,
and now she's out in the borderlands with a grudge against destiny and
a crippled sense of self-preservation."
     "She is an amazing fighter, Drake," Pirotess mused over the lip
of her goblet.  "Did you see how she took on those marines, unarmed?
And the way she holed that ship with some sort of projective chi technique.
Their sorcerer wasn't able to handle it."
     "Yes, it was impressive," he agreed.  "Of course, she also overstayed
her welcome on that cutter."
     "She very well might have saved this ship," Pirotess pointed out.
Drake nodded, the dim lights gleaming on his gold skull-shaped earring.
     "I'm not arguing that," he said, his eyes holding hers.  "That's
not the issue, and you know it.  We've both seen people with that
thousand-yard stare before, P.  She's a menace to herself, and she'll
end up being dangerous to everyone around her too, even is she
doesn't mean to be."
     "Maybe," Pirotess breathed, swivelling to look out the huge
curved windows that made up the front wall of her cabin.  "But you
know, Drake, the war left hundreds out there just like her.  Soul-
scarred survivors are a fact of life out here."  Drake grunted and leaned
back, crossing his long legs at the ankle.  His white shirt was open to
the middle of his chest, and was loose enough that he could slip his
hand inside his collar to massage the back of his neck.
     "Yes, and often as not they burn out.  I just don't want her
taking anyone with her when she goes."  His voice was strangely rough,
and she turned back, seeking his now shadowed eyes.
     "I would have expected more compassion from you, Drake,"
she said softly.  "Considering."  He was silent for a long moment, gazing
into his wine as it swirled and danced.  Finally he looked up and met
her gaze again.
     "I haven't forgotten that once you took in a boy who'd lost
everything," he said to her.  "But I remember what it was to be that
boy, and there are days I wonder that his hate and anger didn't destroy
him and everyone around him.  Believe me when I say that things might
have turned out very differently for all of us."  She inclined her head
slightly.
     "And that boy is still grateful for my actions," she replied softly.
Drake's jaw tensed.
     "I keep telling you, it isn't gratitude that ..." he began, his voice
tight with anger.  She waved him off wearily.
     "Enough," she told him.  "We will not have THAT discussion
tonight.  I agree with your evaluation of Ranko, to a degree.  She acted
rashly and without proper regard for her safety tonight.  However, I
wonder what you would have me do.  Shall I put her off the ship
tonight, after she saved our Sonya back in the streets of Trossik, then
helped defend this ship?"  Drake's hands clenched, then slowly relaxed.
     "Of course not," he sighed.  "But ... P, I want to know you're
taking this as seriously as it merits."  She smiled, tasting her wine, letting
it trace a warm trail down her throat and into her belly.
     "I am," she assured him.  "I've asked Anne to look over our
guest and keep an eye on her for the time being.  I trust my instincts,
Drake.  You used to, as well."  He leaned forward, shaking his hair
back and giving her a slow grin, and she knew he was trying to charm
now.
     "I still do," he told her.  "You know that.  But, hard as it is for
most people to believe, under that cool, haughty exterior lurks a
passionate woman who can be stubborn to a fault."
     "Such lovely words, Drake," she smiled.  "Be wary, I've no
love for silver tongues."  He'd steered the mood back to safer territory,
and she silently thanked him for it.
     "So the girl stays," he sighed.  "For how long?"
     "At least until we clear the Maze, I suppose," Pirotess said.  "That will
be our first opportunity to let her off.  Until then, we are stuck with her."
     "This just keeps getting better and better," he sighed, shaking
his head.  "How come our lives are never simple?"
     "Come now, Drake," she chided.  "What fun would that be?  If
we wanted simple lives, none of us would be traipsing about on an
airship, would we?"
     "True," he said with a wry smile.  "Too true."  They drank, and
Drake sat back, giving her a measuring stare.
     "You will be careful, though?" he asked finally.  Pirotess
nodded.
     "Yes, Drake," she sighed.  "Although honestly, I do wonder
what it is about this girl that has you so concerned."  He paused for a
moment, as if weighing his response.
     "This girl intrigues you," he said at last.  "I wonder how much."  She
snorted softly, tilting her chin up to stare down her nose at her first officer.
     "Oh, please," she sniffed.  Drake, however, was not dissuaded.
     "You've got that gleam in your eye, P," he said gently.  "I haven't seen
that particular gleam for a while."
     "That will do, Mr. Drake," she said, a trifle coolly.  Drake
placed his hands flat on the desk and leaned over so that she could see
into the depths of his verdant green eyes, where mischief danced with
something else, something sober and inviting and not at all teasing.
     "If you didn't have that rule against sleeping with your crew,
you could get that gleam in your eye whenever you wanted," he
murmured, his voice low and rumbling in the back of his throat.  She
kept her features in their mask of distant amusement as her eyes held
his.
     "We are not having THIS conversation either," she whispered,
her tone dryly amused.  Something flickered in those green depths and
was gone, and he leaned back, still wearing his crooked grin.
     "Captain's prerogative," he said.  "But you know how randy
the crew gets after a fight.  After we're anchored tonight, a few berths
will be rocking, I'll wager."  She didn't take that wager, knowing it
would be more than a few.
     "And will the sultry Sonya be scratching your itch tonight, my
pretty boy?" she murmured, lips curving into a smile.  "Perhaps she's
fallen for you."  He sighed.
     "Hardly," he told her.  "Sonya just likes sex, and isn't shy about
sharing it."
     "So I've heard," she said.  "I also hear she is an absolutely
incredible kisser."  Drake stretched slowly.
     "I'm sure she'd be more than happy to sate your curiosity in
that regard," he said with a wicked grin.  Pirotess waved him away
languidly.
     "Best you see that things are as they should be, Mr. Drake,
before the bacchanal begins," she told him with a small but genuine
smile.  She was used to his teasing, and it was preferable to some of the
other topics that had risen that night.  Drake nodded and walked to the
door, moving with a lazy feline grace that drew the eye irresistibly.
Dark elf and captain, Pirotess was both, but Drake was right about one
thing.  She was also a woman, and she noticed the way he moved, her
woman's heart sighing with appreciation.
     But she had decided how things would be between herself and
Drake, for what she considered very good reasons.  She knew he
fancied that he loved her, which was part of the problem.  Had he only
wanted her, she might have dallied with him.  But this, this holdover of
his boyish crush, his gratitude and debt of honour to the woman who
had not only saved him but given him the means to gain his vengeance
... no, she would not allow him to make that mistake.  He might not
know better, but she, at least, had learned some lessons over the centuries.
     "Want me to check on our guest, captain, or will you be doing
that yourself?" he asked with just a hint of suggestiveness, pausing at the
door.
     "Good-night, Mr. Drake," she said firmly.  He shrugged.
     "Good-night, captain," he said.
     And closed the door gently behind him, leaving Pirotess alone
with her thoughts.

***

     The fight had been a good one, drawn out and fierce, and in the
aftermath I was feeling a kind of empty, peaceful sensation that was
very seductive.  No little voices from the depths of my mind tormented
me, and I didn't have the strength to worry about anything.  Like, for
instance, the way I'd nearly fallen between the two ships.
     "Okay," the little blonde said, coming over to me.  "It's your
turn.  Shirt."  I looked up at her, blinking.  It took me a few moments to
emerge from the distant, serene place I'd been languishing in.
     "Huh?" I asked.  She sighed.
     "Shirt," she repeated.  "Off.  I want to have a look at you."  I
blinked, feeling slow and stupid.  I'd found a corner of the infirmary and
parked myself there, out of the way, but apparently everyone else had
been seen to already.  There was some pain from my wounds, but it
was distant and didn't really seem to be important.
     "I'm okay," I said.  She scowled prettily.
     "You don't mind if I make the diagnoses?" she asked.  "I
mean, since I'm the doctor?"  I didn't have the strength to argue, so I
just shrugged and started undoing my shirt.  The doctor watched me,
satisfied now that I was cooperating.  She was petite, smaller than me
in my girl form, and looked quite young.  Her hair was a pale blonde
that curled in around her shoulders to frame her pixie-ish face, but was
left long in the back.  Her cheeks were dusted lightly with freckles, and
she wore wire-framed glasses with slightly oval lenses.  These sat down
at the end of her upturned nose, and her sky-blue eyes peered over
them constantly, making me wonder why she bothered with them in the
first place.
     She looked more like someone's slightly bratty younger sister
than a doctor, but she at least dressed the part.  She was wearing what
looked like a white lab coat over a dark, high-necked blouse and long
skirt, and she had a stethoscope slung around her neck.  There were
charts on the walls with points on the body marked out carefully, and a
skull perched on one narrow bookshelf.  What the hell, I'd been
patched up in stranger places.
     I carefully unwound my sash, noticing with some surprise that
there was blood on it.  I was even more surprised to realize that it was
mine.  I hadn't realized I'd bled that much.  When I started to shrug out
of my shirt, the cut on my ribs that I'd nearly forgotten about started to
throb again.  The doctor took the shirt gingerly and hung it over a stool,
then turned back to me.  My tank top now ended just below my
breasts, since I'd torn the lower half away a couple of weeks before.  I
noticed that the effect was quite different on my female body than on
my male one.
     It hung above the wound, though, and I didn't have to take it
off for the doctor to conduct her examination.  The cut was shallow, a
clotted stripe along my ribs, and looking at it seemed to make it hurt
more.
     "Not too deep, thank the gods," the doctor muttered, "but that
must hurt."  I nodded, watching as she wheeled her stool over to a
glass-fronted cabinet and retrieve a bottle of something and some
squares of white cloth.  She wheeled back and began gingerly cleaning
the wound.  The pain became sharper, piercing the final remnants of my
peaceful lassitude, and I winced.
     "Geez, doc," I complained at one point.
     "Anne," she murmured.
     "What?"
     "Call me Anne," she said, squinting at the wound.  "I hate being
called doc."  I blinked, then winced again.
     "Got it," I mumbled.  "So, how is it?"  She snorted gently.
     "You finally decided to wonder?" she asked.  "Well, it's hardly
fatal, but if you'd been a little slower that blade might have done you
some serious damage, my dear."
     "Ranko," I said.  "I hate being called my dear."  She smiled,
not looking up.
     "Got it," she replied, using metal tweezers to swab at the
wound some more.  Looking at her now, she looked more like a
doctor and less like a bratty kid.  Sighing, she dropped the tweezers
and the bloody cloth into a metal pan, then lightly grasped my arm.
     "Here, raise your arm like this," she instructed, lightly moving it to
demonstrate.  I did, and she placed her palm flat over the wound,
which by now was throbbing very nicely.  She closed her eyes, and
suddenly I felt a tingling heat where her hand was pressed against me.
That heat seemed to sink into my skin, but the sensation, while odd,
wasn't at all unpleasant.  Finally, she opened her  eyes and made a little
sound of satisfaction, sitting back and removing her hand.
     I looked down, startled.  The wound was gone, the pain too.
There was only a thin, barely visible line where the wound had been.
     "That'll heal completely within twenty-four hours," Anne said.
"Won't even leave a scar.  That scratch on your arm, and these others here,
won't need magical healing, but I'd better clean them up or they could get
infected."  She used more cloth soaked in the stinging fluid, her touch sure
and gentle.  After she was done she taped a thin white bandage over each
cut.  Oddly, I couldn't remember what had caused most of them.
     "There," she said.  "That takes care of the obvious stuff."  Then she
reached out, her finger pressing something lightly just under my breasts.
I realized that the key was hanging below my cut-off shirt.  Anne took it
between her thumb and forefinger, rubbing it lightly.
     "This is unusual," she said.  "I've never seen crystal like this
before.  What is it?"
     "A good luck charm," I lied.  She snorted softly.
     "By all accounts," she murmured, "you fight like a madwoman.
If today was typical, you must have about used all the luck in this little
thing up by now."  I flushed hotly.  You don't understand, I wanted to
say.  I've got nothing else but to fight, to go all out.  It's all I have.  It's
all I'm good at, all I'm good FOR.  But I didn't, because it wasn't the
sort of thing I could say to a stranger, and because I wasn't sure I
could explain it so it made any sense.
     "We won," I said instead.  Anne sighed.
     "You're changing the subject," she admonished.  "Well, that's
your prerogative, I suppose.  Mine is healing, and  I want to check you
over before I give you a clean bill of health.  Let's lose the pants."  I
opened my mouth to object, and she stuck a thermometer in it.
     "Don't bite on that, now," she said sweetly.  I could tell that she
wasn't going to take no for an answer, so I sighed and took my pants
off.  She raised an eyebrow at my ragged boxers but said nothing.
     She checked me over, noting the odd scar, tapping and poking
lightly.  After she took the thermometer out of my mouth she barely
glanced at it, which made me suspect that she's only been using it to
shut me up.  Then she conjured a light at the end of one fingertip and
looked into my eyes while shining it in.  After that she moved it around,
having me follow it.  It was a weird mix of a normal medical check-up
and magic show.
     She probed muscles and moved my joints while feeling them, then
pulled my abbreviated shirt up to expose my breasts.  I had no feminine
modesty, and that didn't particularly bother me, but then she put her
stethoscope against my chest and started moving it around.  One thing
I'd noticed about breasts since I'd started having them from time to time
was that the things were bloody sensitive.  That stethoscope was cold,
and I jumped slightly at the sensation of it pressing against the warm
skin there.
     "Sorry," she murmured.  She took it and warmed it between
her hands, then replaced it.  "Better?"  It was, and I appreciated the
gesture.  My breasts still tingled oddly though, and I began to become
painfully aware of her hands on and near them.  They began to feel tight
and heavy, and of course I picked that exact moment to recall how
Sonya's own chest had felt pressed tightly against mine as she'd kissed me
on the dock, and how under the shock of the moment that lingering kiss
had evoked delicate but oddly delicious sensations in my female body.
     My nipples started to prickle and tighten and stick out, and my
face burned with embarrassment as I tried to think of some way to stop
them.  For the record, thinking about baseball usually worked for the,
uh, somewhat similar guy-type situation, but it didn't seem to do the job
here.
     "Sorry, is that still cold?" Anne asked idly.  I glanced quickly down
to meet her gaze, feeling a hot blush race all the way to my toes.  She
didn't seem to be making fun of me, though, so I just swallowed.
     "Nuh-no, it's fine," I lied.  She gave a little hmmph of
satisfaction, but her face was down at chest level and her warm breath
brushed across my bare breasts intimately.  I closed my eyes and
cursed silently, trying to swallow past the lump in my throat.
     "This was properly done," she said suddenly.  I opened my
eyes and glanced down to see what she was talking about.
     "Huh?" I asked intelligently.
     "These scars," she murmured, tracing her finger over three thin
white lines that led from my waist up to my breast, following the curve
before they trailed off just at the edge of the areole.  "And these."
Another two traced along my ribs on the opposite side, above the
wound she'd just healed, and I knew there were at least a couple more
on my back.  "Magically healed?"
     I thought about the autodoc systems that Jack had used to heal
me, and thought that DTF technology was close enough to magic for
me.  I nodded.
     "Not blade marks, though," she muttered, professional curiosity
apparently aroused.  I wondered what she'd say if I told her they'd
been made by demons.
     "Demons," I said.  She nodded as if that was a perfectly
reasonable thing to say.
     "These are troubled times," she sighed.  We sat there in silence
for a moment, then she sat up straight and looked me in the eye.
     "Well, you're in good shape physically," she said cheerfully.  "Of
course, if you don't start using some common sense you won't stay that
way, but you're a big girl, so I won't lecture you any further about
that."
     "Swell," I said, and meant it.
     "But I want to bring up something else while I've got you here,"
she said, holding up a hand to keep me from getting up.  I settled back
and sighed, realizing all at once how tired I was.
     "Like what?" I asked wearily, pulling my cropped shirt back
into place.
     "Your clothes and accent mark you as an outlander," she said,
studying me over the tops of her glasses.  "Where are you from,
exactly?"
     "Um, west," I said.  "A long way from here."  My evasion
didn't seem to surprise her at all.
     "Well, given the attitude towards female fighters in most of the
outlands, I'm hardly surprised that you ended up here," she continued.
"But this continent is separated from Livdren by more than just water.
The kingdom of Callyph dominates Saeni, and is a centre of both
magical and technological research.  Technology refers to advanced
machinery," she clarified.  I started to tell her I knew that, but
remembered just in time that I was supposed to be a hick from the
outlands.
     "Ah," I nodded.  "Got it."
     "That can be enough of an adjustment for outlanders, but then
there's the matter of different customs and mores ..."
     "Uh-huh," I mumbled, unable to hide my boredom any longer.
     "Like sex."  I blinked.
     "Um, did you just say ...?" I began.  Anne smiled cheerily.
     "I thought that would get your attention," she said briskly.
"Yes, I did say sex.  Ranko, attitudes towards sex are very different on
Saeni than what you're used to, and you're likely to be shocked at first.
I only mention this now because ... well, Ranko, let me be frank.  You
are a very attractive, healthy young woman.   This crew is randy enough
on a normal day, but after a fight libidos have a tendency to kick into
high gear.  My bet is that most of the men and likely a few of the
women are in the running to see who gets to be first to ... shall we say,
welcome you aboard."
     I stared blankly as Anne's words sank in.  They think you're a
woman, a little voice mocked, and these uninhibited local guys want to
sleep with you.  Then I thought about some of the women also wanting
to sleep with me like this, and the memory of Sonya's kiss returned.  I
blushed all the way to the tips of my toes.
     How the hell, I thought, do I get into these messes?
     "I can see that you're uncomfortable with this," Anne said
sympathetically.  That was an understatement as far as I was
concerned.  "Believe me, I understand.  It takes some getting used to."
     "Yeah," I said slowly.  "Yeah, I've just got to get used to it."  I
wondered what she'd think if she knew that I was a guy in a girl's body
and had once had multiple fiancees, plus the odd guy after me.  Wow,
Saotome, that nagging little voice chirped.  You'll fit right in here.  They
ought to name the damned continent after you!
     "Although," she added with a mischievous twinkle in her eye,
"most outlanders happily go native after a while.  But since it's getting
late and as soon as we get anchored most of the off-watch will
probably be ... occupied, I think it's best if I handle your
accommodations for the night."  For a panicked moment, I thought the
cute blonde doctor was making a pass at me, and all my mental fuses
seemed to blow simultaneously.
     "Erg ..." I muttered.
     "You can sleep in here tonight," she continued blithely.
"There's lots of space.  Pick a bed."  I looked at the row of narrow
beds along one wall and let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been
holding.  Ah.  Sleep in one of the empty beds.  Of course. Ha.  Ha ha.
Of course.
     Moron.
     "Um, thanks," I said weakly.  Her answering smile was warm
and genuine, and it felt like something cold and hard was thawing deep
in my chest.  That thought disturbed me somehow, but I was too tired
to pursue it.  I picked the nearest bed and crawled into it while Anne
went to a cabinet to get an extra blanket.
     Wow, I thought woozily as tension seemed to drain out of my
limbs and straight into the mattress.  Tonight really took a lot out of me.
     I was asleep almost before I knew it.

***

     Anne smiled when she returned to find the red-head curled up
on the narrow infirmary bed, fast asleep.  With a sigh she draped the
blanket over the girl's scantily-clad form, then lowered the lights and
pulled the curtain across partway.  Anne's own room was connected to
the infirmary, so she would be close by during the night if needed.
     There was a soft knock at the door, and it opened to reveal
Pirotess.
     "Captain," Anne murmured, keeping her voice low.  "What can
I do for you?"  The alluring dark elf gave Anne one of her enigmatic
half-smiles as she stepped inside.
     "Just checking on things, Anne," she murmured.  "We've made
anchor in our bolt-hole, so we're safe.  Is Loky here?"  Anne tried to
suppress a smile, without much success.
     "No," she admitted.  "I restricted him to bed, but he can rest
just as well in his bunk as here.  Actually, I think he was looking
forward to some ... private nursing."  Pirotess nodded her
understanding.
     "He will recover fully?" she asked.  Anne nodded, unsurprised
by the question.  Pirotess always looked after the welfare of her crew.
It was one of the things that made her a good captain.
     "His was the most serious injury," Anne told her.  "We got off
lightly.  In fact, I've only one guest tonight."  She pulled back the
curtain to reveal Ranko's sleeping form.  Pirotess smiled again.
     "Worn out, hmmm?" she murmured.
     "Well, from what I've heard, she earned her rest," Anne
sighed.  "I'm hoping Drake exaggerated just how reckless she was ..."
     "He didn't," Pirotess replied, fingering Ranko's tattered shirt.
"What's your impression of our guest, Anne?"  Anne had expected the
captain to ask, and she had already marshalled her thoughts on the
matter of Ranko.
     "Well, she's in good shape, overall," Anne said, perching
herself on her stool.  Pirotess remained standing, one palm cupping the
opposite elbow, the other hand stroking her chin lightly.  "Scars that
show she's seen heavy fighting before.  Says they were made by
demons."
     "You believe her?"
     "No reason not to," Anne shrugged.  "She was matter-of-fact,
not trying to impress me.  Usually, I can sense if a person has any magic
when I heal them, and I sensed no talent in her, although there was a
strange trace of magic on her body ... maybe some sort of defensive
spell.  I'm not the person to delve into that sort of thing.  Her life force
is incredibly strong, too.  Drake thinks she's twitchy, a head case, but
she seemed okay to me.  Although ..."  She stifled a giggle, and
Pirotess turned to her, raising one elegant eyebrow archly.
     "Yes?" she asked, head cocked slightly.
     "She's kind of shy," Anne told her, recalling Ranko's reactions
to her examination.  "Blushes easily.  That'll change if she stays around
here, though."  She paused, giving Pirotess an evaluating glance.
     "Is she going to be staying?" Anne asked after Pirotess didn't
respond to the obvious opening she'd been given.  Pirotess just
fingered the blood-stained cut under the sleeve of Ranko's shirt, not
meeting Anne's eyes.
     "That remains to be seen," was all she said.  Anne frowned, but
instinct told her not to pursue the matter just then.
     "She is an outlander, captain," she said instead.  "I'm a little
concerned about her being overwhelmed.  The lads in particular will be
climbing over themselves trying to woo her, and you know this bunch
isn't exactly subtle."
     "This girl can take care of herself, Anne," Pirotess said dryly.
"Believe me."
     "It can be a big adjustment," Anne pressed.  "Especially if she's
from one of the more conservative regions over there.  What we see
as natural they regard as decadent at best, perverted at worst.  All I
need is for her to punch out some persistent suitor, like Mitca or Russe
..."
     "Or Sonya?" Pirotess asked, that tiny smile playing at the edges
of her full lips.  Anne groaned.
     "Oh, gods, don't even say that," she winced.  "Poor Ranko
wouldn't stand a chance against her!"
     "At any rate, I'll have Drake show her around tomorrow,"
Pirotess assured her.  "He'll see that everyone behaves."  Pirotess
scooped up Ranko's clothes and headed for the door.  "I'll give these to
Xadi and get them fixed up."
     "And checked for suspicious items, tracking spells, Royal laundry
marks?" Anne asked innocently.
     "Good-night, Anne," was all the captain said.
     "Good-night," Anne sighed.

***

     I woke up once, bathed in cold sweat, the sheets clenched in
my hands, staring wildly into the dark.  For a bad moment I had no idea
where I was, then it came back to me.  The airship.  I realized I was
sitting upright, my shoulders shaking as I panted hoarsely.  At least I
hadn't screamed.  That still happened from time to time.
     Nightmares were nothing new to me, though, and after a time I
just lay back down, pulling the blankets over me and huddling into a
ball.  Sometimes, afterwards, I just lie awake, thinking, but not this
time.  Whether it was sleeping in a real bed again after so long on the
road or just my fatigue, I surprised myself by falling asleep again.  The
next time I woke, I did it the normal way.
     I sat up in bed, rubbing at my eyes and squinting.  There was a
curtain drawn between the beds and the rest of the infirmary, so I
couldn't much, just the far door and part of the doctor's desk.  The
light was still dim, the portholes or whatever they were called covered
up, but I had a feeling like it must be morning.  I swung out of bed and
padded barefoot across the floor to peer past the curtain.
     The place was empty, which was bad, because I needed
directions kind of urgently.  I went to the door that I'd been able to see
from my bed, the one at the back of the room, and opened it, hoping to
see a toilet.  Unfortunately, it opened on a room.  I had the impression
of feminine clutter before someone cleared their throat behind me.
     "That's my room," Anne said, staring at me above her glasses.
She was once again dressed in a white blouse, long, patterned skirt and
white lab coat.  I felt guilty even though I hadn't done anything wrong,
and hoped I wasn't blushing again.
     "Sorry," I said sheepishly.  "I'm looking for the, uh ...
facilities?"  She blinked, then smiled.
     "The head," she said.
     "Head?" I asked blankly.  She giggled, that girlish sound that
seemed so at odds with her professional self.
     "On a ship, that's what you call it," she told me.  "And it's over
there."  She pointed to a narrow door half-hidden between two
cabinets, and I thanked her hurriedly as I made a beeline.
     Unfortunately, there was no running water in there, just a toilet
and a small washbasin full of cool water, so I couldn't change back.
Oh, well.  I did my business quickly and rinsed my hands, then came
out to find that Anne was no longer alone.
     "Ah, Ranko," she said.  "Have you met our first officer?"  Oh,
yeah.  This was the guy who'd caught me when I'd been pushed off the
dock the previous night.  He was dressed like many of the people I'd
seen, in tight pants with high boots and a loose white shirt.  His dark
green jacket was cropped at waist level and had gold designs on the
sleeves, shoulder and collar.  He wore his silver-blonde hair parted in the
middle and pulled back loosely so it framed his face and grazed his
shoulders.  It was waist-length and thick, bound near the end of its
length with several turns of a black ribbon.  His features were lean and
angular, like his body, and I could tell by the way he moved that he would
be dangerous to fight against.
     I also figured that, with his looks, he was probably pretty
popular with the ladies.  I recalled that I was in girl form, and hoped
that he wasn't going to hit on me.
     "Ah, yes," he said.  "The lovely lady who fell from the sky with Sonya.
Aladair Perss Drake, at your service."  Then he took my hand and tried to
kiss it.  I squeezed his firmly and tried to shake hands, and we stood there
for a few seconds, at odds.  Finally I retrieved my hand without it getting
near his mouth, which seemed to amuse him.  It definitely amused Anne.
     "Ranko Saotome," I replied, staring up into his green eyes
evenly.  Anne giggled again.
          "Drake," she teased, "has your legendary charm finally
abandoned you?"
     "Ah, Annie, how cruel," he sighed.  "Don't you know the chase
is the most intriguing part?"  He turned back to me with a mocking
bow and held out a bundle of clothes.
     "Here," he said.  "You'll want these."  As I took them, I
realized that they were my clothes.  I started to ask why he had them,
then stopped, holding my shirt up.  Something caught my eye, and I
examined it closely.  What ...
     "My clothes," I said slowly.  "They're fixed.  And clean."
There was no trace of the slashes or the bloodstains, or even, I saw
when looked more closely, of the worn and frayed edges.  My clothes
looked like new.  It reminded my, oddly, of Jack's machines, and I thought
of how magic and technology didn't seem all that different after a while.
     "A simple spell," Drake shrugged.  "Very useful for the active
crew."  I dressed quickly, under Drake's steady gaze.  Well, time to
put a stop to this before it got out of hand.  I wasn't going to wander
the whole damned ship and have all these horny sailors hitting on me.
     "Say, Anne, have you got any hot water?" I asked.  She
looked surprised.
     "I was just heating some to make some tea," she said, "but now
that you're dressed you can just go to the galley."
     "I'd prefer to have some hot water first," I told her.  She raised
an eyebrow but didn't say anything, just walked over to her desk.
There was a kettle there, and even though I saw no hot plate steam was
rising from the spout.  She fished out a plain white china mug, but I
shook my head.
     "That's all right," I said, taking the kettle from her.  I should
have thought of this before I got dressed, of course, but I was quite
used to being damp.  I poured some water over my head, then handed
the kettle back to Anne, whose eyes were wide with astonishment.
     "Thanks," I said, my voice deeper.
     "That's fascinating," Anne murmured, moving close to poke my
now flat chest experimentally.  She adjusted her glasses with one hand
and looked me up and down.  "What ...?"
     "That's a new one on me, too," Drake said, frowning, all trace of
playfulness gone.  "What exactly are you, friend?"
     "One of the unluckiest guys ever," I told him, adjusting my damp
clothing.  "Trust me on that one."
     "I've never seen anything like that before," Anne murmured, still
examining me closely.
     "We had better leave now, Ranko," Drake muttered wearily, "or we'll
miss breakfast."
     "Hey!" Anne pouted.  Drake shook his finger at her.
     "Sorry, Annie," he said.  "Captain wants to talk to our guest
once she's ... I mean, he's squared away.  You can experiment later."
     The hell she can, I thought as we left.  I'm not going to be an
experiment!
     My sour mood didn't last, though.  Breakfast was hot and
plentiful, and having a full belly always improved my outlook.  Then
Drake led me up some stairs and onto the deck.
     I looked around as we emerged, and at first I thought it must
still be night.  Then I realized why it was so dark.
     We were in a cave.  That didn't do it justice, though.  It was
huge, extending back and up further than the lights from the ship.  Off to
one side was a patch of light which I took to be the entrance.  There
were lights strung through the rigging and along the rails, giving the ship
an almost magical look.
     "Not bad, eh?" Drake said, clearly enjoying my shock.  "A nice
place to lie low and fix the old girl up.  Come on."  We went into the
front cabin and ended up in the control room, the one with the big
ship's wheel.  There was a woman there, maybe mid-twenties.  Her
head was covered with a red bandanna, and a mass of black curls
cascaded from the back.  She was studying the instruments and
frowning, although her face brightened when she saw Drake.
     "Hey, Drake," she said, planting her fist on one shapely hip.  "If
you're looking for the captain, she's gone down to check on the
engines."
     "Thanks, Marta," he said.  "By the way, this is Ranko
Saotome.  Ranko, Marta."  She smiled and gave me a once over while
I grinned weakly.  I swear, I'm so useless around women.
     "Have you been properly welcomed aboard yet, hon?" she
asked with a wicked smile.  I blinked, and Drake hauled me along with
a sigh.
     "Later, Marta," he called.
     "Spoilsport!" she shot back.  We ended up going down below
the deck again, and back through several narrow hallways toward the
back of the ship.  I was thoroughly lost by the time we reached our
destination.
     We entered a large, high-ceilinged room with lots of exposed
metal struts and panels.  Dominating the room were two shiny metal
cylinders, lying on their sides and half buried in the deck.  At least,
that's what it looked like to me.
     We went around to the far side of the room, and caught sight of
some people at the far end.  Pirotess was there, talking to the attractive
girl with tanned skin and a tousled mop of dark hair that curled over her
collar.  She was wearing baggy overalls open to the waist over a
skimpy tank top and had a smear of grease on one cheek, and I recalled
Sonya giving her something when we'd come onto the ship, but I couldn't
for the life of me remember her name.  I did remember seeing her the
previous day with that other girl, the one who'd turned into a panther,
though.  I looked around nervously for the blonde, a little leery at the
prospect of meeting her up close.
     She was nowhere to be seen, but Sonya was there, wearing tight shorts
and a man's white shirt, the shirt tied under her breasts to reveal an expanse
of taut belly and the sleeves loosely rolled up to her elbows.  Despite her
clothes and the slightly dingy atmosphere, she managed to look cool and
elegantly sexy.  When she caught sight of us approaching she smiled,
flipping her hair over her shoulder with the back of one hand.
     "Well, Drake," she said, her voice a sensuous purr that suited
her perfectly.  "Good morning."
     "Sonya," he said with a sigh, "do you have to keep stealing my
shirts?"  Her answering smile was full of sweet sin.
     "I needed something to wear, tiger," she murmured.  "I couldn't
leave your cabin naked, could I?"
     "Not without causing a riot," he conceded.
     "Anyway," she continued, "I like it.  It smells like you."
     "I thought I lacked that smell of death you so long for, wench,"
he said with a wry smile.  She sniffed and stuck her delicately arched
nose in the air.
     "You'll do in a pinch," she informed him slyly.  He shook his
head.
     "Nice to know," he replied.  She shifted her gaze to me, and I
suddenly found it hard to swallow.
     "You look all recovered, Ranko," Sonya purred, sending shivers up
my back as she stood a little too close in the cramped quarters.  "Tell me,
have you been properly welcomed on board yet?"
     When Sonya said those words it left little doubt in my mind as to
exactly what being welcomed on board entailed.
     "Drake," Pirotess said, coming over to us with a frown on her face.
"Who is this?"
     "You knew," Drake said accusingly to Sonya.
     "Knew what, gorgeous?" Sonya asked.
     "Last night Ranko was a girl, this morning she's a he.  But you knew
who he was."
     "What's going on here?" Pirotess snapped, and I didn't like the look
in her eye.  She seemed to be getting angry.
     "Well, Drake," Sonya said dismissively, "it's not like I was hiding it
from you.  There just didn't seem to be a good time last night to bring it up.
And in the aftermath I must confess it simply slipped my mind."
     "Ranko is a shapeshifter?" Pirotess demanded.
     "Well, no," I told her hastily.  "There's just the girl body and the boy
body.  It's a curse I picked up along the way.  I never thought to mention it
earlier either, to tell you the truth.  I guess I should have, considering how
many misunderstandings it's gotten me into."
     "Indeed."  Pirotess seemed vexed, and I wasn't sure if she was mad
at me, or Sonya, or maybe both of us.
     "By the way, that's Lukish," Sonya said, indicating the girl in the
coveralls who was standing nearby.
     "Call me Lou," the mechanic clarified.
     "You ladies will have to excuse us," Pirotess said.  "Come up to my
cabin, Ranko," she said.  "We need to talk."  Together the three of us made
our way forward and climbed a narrow flight of stairs, then wound around
some more.  I was thoroughly lost again by the time we reached the
captain's cabin.
     It turned out that her cabin was in the bow of the ship.  The
front wall was one large curved window from floor to ceiling, and if we
hadn't been in a cave the view likely would have been spectacular.  The
cabin was fairly roomy, unlike some of the small compartments we'd
passed through on our brief tour, but then being the captain had to have
some perqs, I supposed.  There was a large bed against one wall,
covered with soft pillows and partially obscured by gauzy curtains.
There were dark wood cabinets, a cluttered table, and a few paintings
on the walls, but I didn't get much of a chance to examine these as
Pirotess led us over to small, tidy desk.  She sat down behind it and
motioned me to take the chair in front.  Drake stood behind me, I guess
because there weren't any more chairs.
       "Nice place," I said.  Pirotess gave me that enigmatic little smile
of hers again.
     "Thank-you," she replied.  "Well, Ranko.  Your first trip on an
airship is turning out to be quite an exciting one, and it's only just begun.
Would you care for some coffee?"  I'd never acquired a taste for
coffee, but it seemed only polite to accept.  She nodded, and a few
moments later there was a knock at the door.  Drake went over, and
when he came back he had a tray with cups and a sliver coffeepot on it.
I hadn't seen Pirotess do anything, but maybe she had a button hidden
under her desk.  Or maybe she just had her coffee at this time every
day, and the galley staff was well trained.  She poured some for us,
Drake standing with his and me sitting back to drink.
     "Well," she said at last.  "Now that the pleasantries are over,
we should get down to the matter at hand."  I sipped the coffee to be
polite, and was pleasantly surprised by the taste.  It was wonderful,
unlike any I'd ever had before.
     "And what is that, exactly?" I asked, trying to act casual and
mostly succeeding.  I'd helped them fight, so I supposed that was in my
favour, but I was a stranger here.  The crew seemed pretty closely knit,
and from what I understood they were being chased by, if not the law,
at least someone pretty powerful.  I couldn't expect things to go too
smoothly.
     "Well, Ranko," she said, watching me with lidded eyes.  "You
put your foot in things back there in Trossik.  Not too surprising, I
suppose, considering how unfamiliar you are with things here.  I assume
you are newly arrived from the outlands."  It wasn't a question, really,
but she paused and I answered.
     "Yes, Captain," I said.  She nodded, sipping her steaming tea.
     "Things in Saeni are very different from what you are used to, I
should think," she continued.  "Still, you very nearly ended up
answering questions for the Duke's intelligence people.  I assure you,
they do not ask politely.  I'm curious, just what problem did you have with
the Duke's men?"
     "All I was doing," I said, "was asking about the Wastelands."
     "All?" Drake echoed.
     "The Wastelands," Pirotess sighed.  "With the Duke's men enforcing
the King's edict along the border, you might have been more discreet,
young man."
     "I didn't know they'd get so upset," I protested.
     "Then I take it you aren't aware that the King of Virmalli has made
it his personal crusade to deny access to the Wastelands to all ships?"
Drake
sighed.  "He's even gone so far as to disguise his ships as raiders and strike
into the borderlands."
     "Er," I said.  That began to explain the reception my inquiries had
provoked.
     "Ranko, you leapt to the defence of this ship in her time of need,"
Pirotess added.  "I trust my instincts, and they tell me that your heart is
true.  But I am troubled by one thing."
     "What's that?" I asked cautiously.  She cupped her mug, cradling it
gently in her long, elegant fingers as she stared at me.  Her scrutiny was
more than a little disconcerting.
     "The Wastelands are a haunted place," she said at last, her
voice soft and somehow bittersweet.  "They have lured many over the
ages, misfits and loners, schemers and dreamers and fools.  I do not
know which you are, but I do know that the Wastelands have
consumed many before you and will claim many after.  People go mad
there.  Many vanish, never to be seen again.  I do not make a habit of
telling others how to live their lives, Ranko, but in this case I must say
something.  You are young, headstrong, and somewhat ignorant of the
realities of the border and, I strongly suspect, the Wastelands themselves.  I
would ask that you reconsider your course of action."  There was
silence in the cabin then, and I was aware of Drake shifting uneasily
beside me.  Pirotess's gaze flickered, shifting to him only for a moment,
but he became still again.
     "Oh," I said.  "Well, captain, I just really can't do that."  Pirotess
regarded me critically for a moment, then sighed.
     "I ask you for a favour, Ranko Saotome," she said at last.  "I
would like to hear why you seek the forbidden places.  Are you a
seeker after knowledge?  Do you dream of plundering the treasures of
the wastes?  Or do you simply wish to lose yourself, fleeing from your
past?"  Drake shuffled again, and I sensed he was unhappy with how
things were going.  I wondered why.
     "You don't have to answer," Drake said suddenly, all traces of
his usual easy-going manner gone.  I glanced up at him, but he was
staring at the captain soberly.  "That's not the way we do things,
Pirotess."  She gazed back at him, her mouth set in a stubborn line, and
there was a strange tension in the room.
     "Perhaps he wishes to answer, Drake," she said softly.  Did I?
Well, I'd already gotten into trouble talking about the Wastelands back
in Trossik.  Maybe I should learn something from that and keep my
mouth shut.
     "I'd prefer not to say right now," I said finally.  The tension
seemed to sag a little, and Pirotess looked back at me again.
     "I see," she said smoothly.  If she was upset, she didn't show it.
"Very well.  That is, of course, your prerogative."  She set her mug
down on the desk and looked up, her demeanor suddenly brisk and
businesslike.
     "There is one thing you should know, however," she said.
     "What's that?" I asked.
     "As soon as we complete our repairs, this ship is bound through the
borderlands and west, past Stormwall to Yurinda Outpost, which is the last
human habitation before the Wastelands."  I gaped, stunned.
     "What ... I don't ..."
     "That's been our destination all along," Drake told me, still
uncharacteristically sombre.  "One of the reasons the Duke is hot to bring
us down."
     "So perhaps destiny has brought us together," Pirotess said.
"Regardless, it seems you shall reach your destination soon."  She
stood, and I followed suit, setting my mug on the desk.  I was surprised
to find it nearly empty.
     "If you gentlemen will excuse me, there is much to be done,"
she said, herding us towards the door.  Once in the hall, she turned and
gave me a nod.
     "In the meantime, you are our guest, Ranko Saotome.  Feel free to look
around the ship."  And then she was striding away.  I turned to see Drake
staring after her, his brows drawn together slightly.  He caught me
looking and grunted.  I had the feeling he was upset, but not with me.
     "Stay out of trouble, okay?" he told me, then set off in the same
direction as Pirotess.  I watched him go, confused.
     I had no idea what was going on between them, or what it had
to do with me.  But at least I was going to be able to get to the
wastelands.
     I wished that thought cheered me up more.

***

     Pirotess made it to the stairs leading to the wheelroom before
Drake caught up to her.  She pretended not to hear when he called her
name, but then he was standing in front of her and she knew there
wouldn't be any putting this off.
     "All right, Mr. Drake," she said wearily, "why don't you get it
out of your system."  She crossed her arms under her breasts and tilted
her head back to stare up at him, defiance in her eyes.
     "What are you doing, Pirotess?" he asked softly.
     "I," she replied haughtily, "am going to the wheelhouse."  He
slammed his palm into the wall by her head, leaning in close.  The noise
didn't make her flinch; she just held Drake's gaze calmly.
     "You know what I mean," he said in a low voice.  "That kid, maybe he's
out of his mind, but that's his business.  We don't interfere with other
people's lives here, do we?  So what's with the intervention?  Trying to talk
him out of going?"
     "Jealous, Drake?"  She whispered her words, and saw them hit
home, but Drake didn't relent.
     "I know what this is all about," he said stiffly.  She raised an
eyebrow, staying icy.
     "Really?" she asked.
     "Don't take this on yourself, Pirotess," he breathed.  He was
standing so close that she could feel the heat of his body, and his breath
tickled her face as he spoke.  "Saving some boy won't bring Ashram back.
Your guilt is useless ..."
     "You presume too much, Mr. Drake," she spat with icy rage,
the corner of her mouth twitching.  She pushed his arm aside and swept
by him, starting up the stairs.
     "He's not your responsibility, CAPTAIN," Drake said loudly
behind her.  "This ship and her crew are.  Let it go."  She didn't
respond, stalking up the stairs and down the narrow corridor that led to
the wheelroom.  Carefully, she bottled her anger up, keeping a tight rein
on it as she checked on preparations at the helm, then headed out on
deck.
     Damn Drake, she thought blackly.  Damn him for his
presumption.  This had nothing to do with the past.  She just wanted to
talk some sense into someone who was about to throw his life away for
nothing.  Yes, normally she didn't interfere with people who'd chosen
their own destiny, but Ranko had no clue, none at all, what he was
getting into!  It was so obvious, how could Drake begrudge her the
time to try and talk some sense into Ranko?  Maybe this time ...
     She stopped, closing her eyes for a minute.
     Maybe I could do some good, she continued to herself after a
moment.  That's all I meant.
     She sighed, tugging idly at her gloves, then took a firm hold of
her thoughts and continued on her way.
     Damn Drake.  Just damn him.

***

     There was plenty going on, but I'd never been on a ship like
this before and I wasn't sure if I could help.  I wondered if I should
ask, but Drake had told me to look around and stay out of the way, so
I decided to do just that.  I wandered up on deck, where the air was
cool but not uncomfortably so.  I picked a spot and leaned against the
rail, letting my thoughts wander.
     I really hadn't had time to think about things yet.  After so many
months of travelling, following rumours and whispers about the
mysterious Wastelands, I had finally ended up on an airship that would
take me there.  Which made me realize how little I actually knew about
these Wastelands, or about how I was supposed to find this city.
Pirotess had been very interested in why I wanted to go there, and
definitely didn't approve.
     But why?  And why was Drake so upset that she was quizzing me about
it?  Did people just not talk about the wastelands, or was it something more
personal?
     I was voting for personal, myself.  He'd acted like she'd done
something improper by advising me not to go.  Well, maybe I could ask
someone about it later.  Anne might know, and she was pretty easy to
talk to.
     The idea that I might finally be getting close to the end of my
journey should have excited me, but it didn't.  The more I thought
about that, the more I realized that Baahnid had given me something to
shoot for, a goal to work towards.  I didn't even know if he'd been
telling the truth about any of this.  But once I achieved that goal, then
what?  If he WAS telling the truth, I could leave this world, but then I
was faced with more wandering.  Searching for something, something
that might not even exist ...
     I gave myself a shake.  Get a grip! I told myself angrily.  One
thing at a time, all right?  Get to the Wastelands, find the city, see if it
leads to another world.  Then you can worry about what to do next.
     I leaned on the rail near the rear cabin and looked around at the
constant activity.  Being in a big cave, there wasn't much else to look
at, truthfully.  In some ways, the Phantom Hawk, as this ship was named,
was like an old sailing ship.  It had masts and sails, although I didn't know
enough about sailing ships to know if they were set up the same way.  And,
for that matter, they had engines, so why did they need sails?
     There were still people climbing in the rigging, and on top of the
middle mast there was what I thought was called a crow's nest.  It was
enclosed with a glass dome, and anyone up there would have a pretty
incredible view.  I made a mental note to ask the captain if I could go
up there later.  Cats scared me; heights didn't.
     I watched the crew without being obvious about it.  They were
mostly on the young side, and looked like a pretty happy bunch to me.
This was a change from the grim and desperate folk I'd seen in the
small towns and grimy villages I'd been passing through for the past
couple of months.  Those people had been clannish and cold to
strangers, which meant a lot of sleeping on the ground and eating jerky
and hard bread.
     The crew were pretty talented fighters as a group, too.  During the
boarding attempt, they'd fought together well in close quarters,
supporting each other but not getting in the other guy's way, which is
harder than it sounds.  They seemed like a good group.
     Of course, I was beginning to suspect they were probably
pirates or smugglers or something like that.  After all, they knew where
to hide when the heat was on, and Pirotess had told me that going into
the Wastelands was forbidden.  Well, I didn't much care what they
were.  From what I'd seen in my travels, the local governments weren't
all that great either.
     I watched a girl about my age come up from the hatchway near
the rear cabin and walk across the deck.  She had short dark hair
slicked back against her skull, and earrings in the shape of skulls, and
was wearing tight black pants that showed off her legs.  They were
worth showing off, too.  She caught me looking and grinned, winking at
me as she passed.  I flushed and turned back to the rail, suddenly
unsettled.  I stared out into the darkness, feeling a strange tightness in
my gut, and felt guilty for no reason I could explain.
     No.  That just wasn't true, not if I was honest with myself.
Since arriving on this ship, something had begun to change, something
that I hadn't really noticed at first.  It was a simple thing, really.
     I was noticing women.
     I don't just mean seeing them.  I mean NOTICING them, the
way a guy does.  Noticing the way they look, the way they smell, the
way they play with their hair or fuss with their clothes or move in a way
you just HAVE to watch.  It had been close to two years since I'd first
been trapped in this world, and I'd done a lot of travelling in that time.
I'd been in taverns and inns and markets and town squares, and in all
that time there must have been some young, attractive women around.
There must have been.  But I couldn't recall having been affected at all.
     After I'd left Nerima, that part of me had just ... shut down, I
guess.  I hadn't really thought about it at all.  At first, I'd just been
concentrating on moving, taking everything in, hungry for novelty and
experiences to fill the void.  Then, once I'd ended up here, I'd had
plenty of other problems to deal with.  But somewhere along the way,
over the last two years of wandering, something had started to change.
I couldn't say when it started exactly.  I might have noticed earlier,
except that I never stayed in one place for any amount of time, and my
interaction with people had been pretty limited.
     But I was noticing it now.
     This ship was full of attractive, healthy males and females, many
of whom seemed to regard flirting as a way of life.  There was a lot of
laughter and good-natured teasing, and noise and bickering and life.
     And I was beginning to realize I'd missed that.  I'd missed it a
lot.
     Maybe that was a good sign.  Maybe that meant I'd finally
gotten over what had happened to me.  Maybe.  If it had just been that,
I might not have had so much trouble dealing with it.  But, of course, it
wasn't just that.
     It all came back to the women.  Specifically, to me
NOTICING the women.  Standing there, I closed my eyes and could
replay almost every second of Sonya kissing me the previous night.  I could
feel her body, lush and firm, pressed against mine, and the strange yet
exciting way my female form had reacted.  I could taste her soft and hungry
mouth, feel her hands brushing lightly against my skin.
     And it was as if that incident had opened a floodgate.  I recalled my
reactions to Anne's examination the previous night, and the effortless way
Sonya had gotten under my skin in the engine room.  Suddenly, I was
painfully aware that I was on a ship full of beautiful women, and if Anne
was to be believed they were all curious about me.  Maybe more than
curious.
     And that made me feel ... strange.  My gut tightened when I
thought about it, but the sensation wasn't totally unpleasant.  I hadn't
had these feelings in a long time, and I liked having them again.  But
while I was sitting here thinking about kissing the lovely Sonya or
checking out the legs of some cute girl, Akane was dead forever.  How
could I feel this way?  What kind of person was I?
     Thinking of Akane brought that tight throb to my chest, as it
always did, and even now I felt a stinging in my eyes.  I don't know
what to do, I said silently.  I don't know what's right.  I wish I did, but
I don't.  I didn't ask to start having these feelings again.  Akane, I'm
sorry ...
     "Heavy thoughts?" a gentle voice asked.  I started, blinking
rapidly to contain the tears of pain and self-pity that had crept up on
me.
     "Hello, Anne," I said without turning around.  The ship's doctor
seemed the perceptive type to me, and I didn't want her to see my face
just then.  I struggled to control my breathing as she moved up next to
me and gazed out into the gloom of the cavern.
     "This is a nice bolt-hole, don't you think?  We've had to use it
before, of course, and over time we've set it up proper.  There are
niches out there containing emergency supplies and the like.  In a
dangerous world, Ranko, it always pays to be prepared."  I had the
idea that Anne somehow knew I'd needed a few moments to regain my
composure and had given it to me with her small talk.  It made me like
her even more.
     "I guess you're right," I said, gratified that my voice was
steady.  I glanced over to see her still staring out into the darkness.
Once again I was struck by her apparent youth, and how her
personality seemed to shift between girlish and almost maternal.
     "What?" she asked, catching me staring.
     "I was just thinking that you look too young to be a doctor," I
said.  Immediately after I said it, I wished I hadn't, but she just smiled,
staring up at me over the rims of her glasses.
     "Never ask a girl about her age, Ranko," she chided with mock
severity.  "You should learn that lesson quickly, if you want to avoid
getting slapped a lot."
     "Sorry," I said, but I smiled back. "I didn't mean anything by it.
Really, I think the crew is in good hands."
     "Of course," she said lightly.  "And I never let them forget it,
either!  Still, I've been trying to train a nurse to assist me, but she's
forever wandering off on me, so mostly I have to deal with all the crises
that come up."  I nodded, happy to have something to take my mind off
things.
     "So, how long do you think we'll be stuck here?" I asked.
Anne shrugged.
     "Not much longer," she told me.  "Lou should be nearly finished
tinkering with the engines.  Actually, I think she finished repairs last night,
but she's new at this, so she's been testing and re-testing everything."
     "Can't we just use those?" I asked, pointing to the rolled up
sails tied to the masts.
     "We will be, but not in the Maze," Anne said.
     "The what?"
     "Oh, that's right, you haven't seen it yet," she said.  "You're in for a
treat, then.  Anyway, it's always nice to have the engines if we have to run."
     "And why would you have to do that?" I asked.  She smiled
sweetly.
     "The airspace in the borderlands can be very dangerous," she
pointed out.  "There are all sorts of threats.  Pirates, for instance."
     "Ah," I said knowingly.  Her eyes twinkled merrily, and I wondered
again if maybe this crew weren't pirates themselves.
     "Say, don't you find it cold up here?" she asked suddenly.  She
was wearing only her blouse and skirt, having left her lab coat behind,
and she crossed her arms and shivered.  "Why don't we go sit in the
lounge and talk a while?"  That sounded good to me.  Anne was easy
to talk to, and if left alone I'd only start brooding again.  She led the
way towards the forward cabin and I followed.  On the way the
dark-haired girl whose legs I'd been admiring earlier passed us.  She
stopped and smiled at me.
     "Hi," she said, her voice low and pleasantly husky.  "Ranko,
right?  I'm Kimma."
     "Kimma's one of our lookouts," Anne explained.
     "That's right," Kimma said with an easy grin.  "And there's my
office."  She pointed to the crow's nest at the top of the mast.  "Maybe
you'd like to see the view from up there?"  Her voice was light, teasing,
but suddenly I had a lump in my throat.  Her eyes were large and dark,
with a tiny black mole under the corner of the left one.  She had a nice
face, open and freshly sexy with a hint of mischief, and I was tempted
to say something to keep the conversation going, at the same time as I
felt a simmering anger at myself for enjoying her attention.  Luckily,
Anne stepped in and kept me from having to figure out what to do.
     "Maybe later," the petite doctor said, taking her glasses off and
polishing them with a red patterned cloth from her skirt pocket.  "I'm
going to monopolize Ranko for a little while.  And I thought he might
like to see the view from the lounge."  She held her glasses up to squint
critically at the lenses.
     "Pooh," Kimma said with a good-natured competitiveness.
"The view from upstairs is better.  Maybe later?  I'd like to see that trick
you do, where you turn into a girl.  It sounds very interesting."
     "Uh, yeah, maybe ..." I said weakly.  Kimma flashed me that
engaging grin again and gave us a jaunty wave as she dashed over to
the mast and began climbing with astonishing ease.  I watched her go,
the muscles of her long legs working smoothly under the tight pants ...
     "She does have nice legs," Anne remarked, following my gaze.
I started.
     "What?  I didn't ... I never ... I wasn't looking!" I blurted.
Anne gazed up at me innocently.
     "You weren't?  Goodness, why not?" she asked.  "Every other person
on
the deck was."  I felt my cheeks grow warm, and my mouth opened and
closed silently as I tried to think of something to say, but Anne didn't seem
to need an answer.  Instead, she motioned me to follow and led the way
through the door and into the forward cabin.
      I saw Pirotess and the girl with the long strawberry blonde hair from
yesterday standing near the wheel.  Anne waved at them but didn't
stop, leading us down a narrow hall behind the wheelroom and down a
flight of steep stairs.  I followed silently, and we ended up at a door
marked, appropriately enough, lounge.  Inside, there were padded
couches along the walls and matching chairs that could swivel.  I
noticed that all the furniture was fastened to the floor, though, which
made sense on a ship, even a flying one.  The front half of the room was
glass, a large smooth curve, and I realized that we must be somewhere
over the captain's cabin.
     "Is it a good idea to have so much glass in the front of the
ship?" I asked.  Anne sat on one of the couches, and I sat in a chair
and swivelled to face her.  If she was surprised that I didn't sit beside
her on the couch she made no sign.
     "Oh, that's not glass," she said.  "It's much stronger.  And
there are armoured shutters that can be closed over it if need be."
     "Oh," I said.  We sat there for a moment, Anne's blue eyes studying
me without being intrusive.
     "So I guess you've had a chance to look around, huh?" she
asked, folding her hands neatly in her lap.
     "A little," I replied.  "The ship's pretty impressive."  Anne
nodded.
     "She is that," she smiled.  "And her crew is quite a bunch, too.
Have you met many of them yet?"  Her tone didn't change, but I had a
sudden insight that she'd steered the conversation effortlessly to
where she wanted it.  I grimaced.
     "I, ah ..." I said uncomfortably.  "A couple, but, you know,
everybody's kind of busy ..."  Anne nodded sympathetically.
     "Yes, there is that," she said.  "We left port rather
unexpectedly, and there was a lot to do.  By supper time, though, things
ought to be squared away.  You should get to meet everyone then."  She
cocked her head slightly, studying my face.
     "That thought makes you nervous, doesn't it?" she asked, her
voice so soft and compassionate that I felt an almost painful twinge in
my chest.
     "No!" I blurted, almost automatically.  "I mean, it's just ..."
     "Just?" Anne prompted after a moment.  I struggled to find
something to say, part of me wishing she would change the subject, part
of me hoping she wouldn't.
     "It's not like I'm shy," I grumbled finally.  She smiled sunnily.
     "I guessed that," she said.  "I think the problem is something
else.  Care to hear my theory?"  Her voice was curiously gentle, and I
knew suddenly that if I said no, she would change the subject after all
and not press the matter.  And perhaps, even just a month before, I
would have said no, unwilling to risk opening any old wounds.  But now
I felt like I was standing at a crossroads, with my dark past far enough
behind me that maybe I could start thinking about taking a branch that
led somewhere.  Maybe.
     "Okay," I said.  My mouth was dry, my heart hammering triple-
time in my chest, and I thought with vague astonishment that I hadn't
felt this rattled when I'd thrown myself over the rail into the enemy ship,
but the prospect of talking about myself was giving me the shakes.
     There had to be something deeply wrong about that.
     If Anne was aware of my nervousness (and somehow, I
suspected she was) she gave no sign.  I think if she had suddenly turned
solicitous, I would have chickened out.  But she just lowered her chin a
little and gazed at me over her glasses, her manner gentle but matter-of-
fact.
     "It's like this," she said.  "It doesn't take much for me to guess
that you've been basically on your own for quite a while."  She paused,
and I shrugged.  She smiled slightly and went on, "I've dealt with
people in that sort of situation before.  It's like being out in the bitter
cold.  Slowly, the cold seeps into you, and your body goes numb.  You
don't even mind the cold so much anymore, because your body's so
numb.  Of course, you can't feel much of anything, but at least there's
no pain.  Sometimes it can even be sort of pleasant.
     "Then you find shelter, a source of warmth, and part of you
wants to bask in its glow and be warm again.  But another part knows
that the warmth will chase the numbness away, and the pain will come
back.  And even if you tell yourself that it will be nice to be warm again,
that pain can make you long for numbness again.  And so you can end
up torn between the familiar comfort of being numb, or the painful
prospect of enduring the pain as your body slowly thaws."  I sat still,
my gaze fixed on a point between my feet, something winding itself tight
inside my chest.  What does she know? that something screamed into
the void.  You think she's ever been where you are?  You think she
ever lost as much as you have?  That's just feel good shit and it don't
mean NOTHIN'!
     "Of course," she continued, "a person's body can only survive
the cold so long before it kills them.  But you can walk around a long,
long time with your heart hidden in ice and not die."  Even though I
wasn't looking at her, something in her voice told me that she was
smiling wryly.  "Drink?"
     "Mmm," I nodded.  Her long skirt rustled as she got up, and I
chanced a quick peek at her back as she walked over to a long, low
bar set up along one wall.  It don't mean nothin', that little voice
repeated, but it was sullen now.  I knew it was right, in a way.  Anne
had pointed something out to me, but unspoken in her "theory" was one
simple point: the choice was mine and mine alone.  Nobody could force
me to come in out of the cold.
     I took a deep breath and had regained my composure by the
time she returned with a pitcher of water and a couple of glasses.  She
poured us each a glass and handed me one, then sat down again,
sweeping her skirt under her as she did so in one of those neat little
movements women do that seem so feminine somehow.
     "Thanks," I said, taking a long pull.  The water was ice cold,
and I wondered how they kept it that way without refrigerators.
Maybe they used magic.  Than I remembered the engines, and
wondered if maybe they didn't have refrigerators after all.
     "Say, Ranko?"  Anne was looking at me now with a strange
gleam in her eye, and I blinked.
     "Huh?"
     "Would you do me a favour?" she asked, rolling her glass
between her palms.
     "What favour?" I asked cautiously.  She leaned forward,
bringing a sweet and guileless smile to bear on me.
     "Would you show me that change again?" she asked.  I felt
immediately relieved.  Was that all she wanted?
     "You mean, change into a girl?" I asked.  She nodded
enthusiastically.  I shrugged.
     "Okay, sure," I said.  I refilled my glass from the pitcher and
poured the water over my head.  I felt the faint tingle as my body
changed, and then it was over.
     "That's fantastic," Anne breathed, pushing her glasses up on
her pert nose with her forefinger as she peered intently at me.  "Does it
hurt?"
     "No, not at all," I told her.  She looked me over, shaking her
head in wonder.
     "I've seen some strange magics in my time, but this is really
something," she said, clearly enthralled.  I tugged my clothes into shape,
making all the automatic minor adjustments that were needed after
changing.  "And water does it?"
     "Hot water would change me back to a boy right now," I said.
     "How hot?" she demanded.  I was taken aback.
     "Well, on the warm side, anyway," I told her.  How hot?
     "If you were a boy, would rain turn you into a girl?" she asked.
     "Uh, yeah ..."
     "How much water does it take?"
     "Uh ...
     "If you stood in cold water and put your hands in a tub of hot
water, what would happen?"
     Her weird questions continued for a while, until I finally
managed to convince her that I hadn't explored all the weird ways my
curse might operate.  At the very least, though, the conversation had
taken my mind off things.
     I wondered if that had been her intent all along.
     "Say, Anne," I said at last.  "Can I ask you something, sort of
in confidence?"  She looked surprised at the request.
     "Well, certainly," she said.  "What is it?"  I took a second to
order my thoughts.
     "Is there something going on between Pirotess and Drake?"
Something flickered in those clear blue eyes, and she suddenly busied
herself with pouring another drink of water.
     "What makes you ask that?" she inquired lightly.
     "I was talking to the captain earlier, and something was going
on between them.  She wanted to know why I was going to the
Wastelands, and he didn't want her to ask ..."
     "You're going WHERE?" Anne blurted.  "The Wastelands?"  I
was confused by her reaction.
     "Uh, yeah.  That's why this Duke's men were after me back in the
city, apparently."
     "And you were talking to the captain about this," Anne said slowly.
     "Yes.  And when she said I shouldn't go, Drake got upset, like she
was doing something improper."
     "Strictly speaking, she was," Anne said.  "That's not the way things
are done on this ship, and she's the one who made that rule in the first
place."
     "Oh," I said.  Just then there was a thud, and a faint shudder.
     "That's the anchor coming in," Anne informed me.  "We're
moving."
     And we were.  It was quite something, watching the walls of
the cave slide by, the opening coming slowly into view.  The ship began
to move forward, a subtle throbbing like a distant heartbeat seeming to
fill the air.
     "Sounds like Lou did a good job," Anne said.  "The chief'll be pleased."
     "Chief?"
     "Our chief engineer.  He's taken Lou under his wing.  Says she
has a good aptitude for this sort of work.  You'll meet him later, when
we get where we're going."
     "Oh," I said.  I remembered those engines, remembered how
strange they looked.  This was a very weird place, where people rode
horses and fought with swords and magic but had flying ships with high-
tech engines.
     "Ah, here we go," Anne said.  We slid easily out of the cavern
entrance, and I braced myself for the crunch of an impact even thought
I knew there must be enough room for us to get through.  After all,
we'd gotten in, hadn't we?  Although I wondered how, without engines.
Could we have used the sails to get into a space this tight?
     At any rate we got out without hitting anything.  There was an
overhang shielding the cavern entrance, and I wondered if it was even
visible in that shadow.  I supposed it likely wasn't, which would make it
a very handy hiding place.
     Then we were out of that shadow and turning, and my jaw fell
open.  Anne laughed with delight, watching my response.
     "You were below when we entered the Maze last night, so I
knew you hadn't seen it yet," she giggled.  "I'm sorry, but I just had to
see your reaction.  Even veteran aircrew are awed the first time they
see it."  I could see why.  We were in a narrow gorge, rock walls rising
steeply on both sides of us to a narrow band of blue sky far above.
Below, the vanished into darkness.  Ahead of us, the gorge opened out
somewhat, but there was another problem.
     Rocks.  Big, floating rocks.  Boulders, some as big as this ship,
just hung there in space like they'd been given a permission slip
excusing them from gravity.  We sailed past them slowly, some of the
rocks below, some above, and as I watched with eye-popping wonder
we came smoothly around a curve to reveal that those rocks were not
the exception, but the rule.  Ahead of us, more gorges split off from the
one we were in, and everywhere the rogue boulders floated serenely in
the air like islands.
     "What are they?" I asked finally, my voice sounding very small.
"What is this place?"
     "This is the Maze," Pirotess said from behind me.  "And those
rocks, Ranko, have a high concentration of gratite."  I sensed her
moving up to stand beside me, but I still couldn't tear my gaze away
from the surreal scene.
     "Gratite is what lets airships fly," Anne clarified.
     "I thought the engines did that," I said absently.  Pirotess
chuckled.
     "There have been airships for longer than we've had such
things," she said, crossing to sit beside Anne.
     "I thought you'd be at the helm," Anne said, and I thought her
tone was vaguely accusatory.
     "Melissa has done this many times," Pirotess replied lazily.
"She will do just fine without me looking over her shoulder.  Ah, the
benefits of having a well-seasoned crew."  I only half-listened to them
as I watched the scene unfolding before me.  The ship wound its way
through the snaking crevices in the rock, gliding around the floating
obstacles like a fish through water.  Occasionally, the ship would tilt
down or up, but mostly we stayed quite even.
     "She's doing quite a job," Anne admitted reluctantly.  Pirotess
nodded.
     "Yes, she has a sure touch, that one," she murmured.
     "That's what I hear," Anne retorted.
     "Now, Anne, no need to be catty," Pirotess chided, but that
cool amusement was still present in her voice.
     "It was a compliment," Anne grumbled.
     "What's the deal with all these gorges, anyhow?" I asked, not
particularly interested in any rivalry between Melissa and Anne.
     "Ah, yes.  The Maze," Pirotess said.  "No one is quite sure how
it came to be, but the fact is that the huge mountain range that runs
through this area is riddled with these deep gorges.  They wander and
connect, and unless you know the way you'll certainly become lost.
There are literally hundreds of miles of pathways, and a great many
hazards as well.  Honest ships avoid this area like the plague."  I
glanced over at her.
     "Really?" I asked dryly.  She gave me that enigmatic smile of
hers that I was becoming so familiar with.
     "Oh, yes," she said.  "But for us, it can be a sanctuary from
marauding Royal Navy ships, and a place to hide or disappear.  I know
the ways of the Maze better than all but perhaps two other people alive
today."
     "And, of course, from the borderlands one must pass the Maze to reach
the Wastelands," Anne pointed out.  Pirotess cocked her head.
     "Yes, there is that," she murmured.
     "Can't you just go over these mountains?" I asked.  Pirotess
shook her head.
     "They are very high," she said.  "The winds are deadly, even
for ships with engines.  And, of course, there are the dragons."  I sat up
abruptly.
     "Dragons?" I asked.  Pirotess smiled wryly at my reaction.
     "Oh, yes.  Fortunately, they are few and rarely venture down to
inhabited areas.  Dragons are territorial, though, and do not take kindly
to any who intrude on their space ... although they seem to have no
qualms about traffic down here."
     "Thank the gods," Anne muttered.
     "So the Wastelands are on the other side of the Maze?" I
asked.
     "Well, not just beyond," Pirotess said, glancing out the window.
I couldn't blame her; I didn't think it would be possible to get tired of
the view.  "We'll still have to pass Stormwall."
     "Um," I said.  She'd mentioned that before.  "That sounds ... nasty."
Pirotess turned to me, her eyes cool and appraising.
     "It is," she said.  "But we have taken its measure many times,
and shall do so again.  The journey is never routine, Ranko."
     "If it's so dangerous, why do you go?" I asked.  Pirotess and
Anne traded glances.
     "Ranko, what do you know about the Wastelands?" Pirotess
asked slowly.  Anne looked like she might object to that line of
questioning,
but in the end she just sat back and I shrugged.
     "Nothing, really," I said, realizing it was true.  "Just the odd
story.  It's a haunted place, cursed, land of despair, stuff like that."
     "Indeed," Pirotess breathed.  "You must have endured a great deal
to travel here from your homeland, risked danger and arrest just to get
there.  And yet you claim to know nothing of the hazards and rewards
of the Wastelands?"  I braced one elbow on the padded arm of the
chair and propped my chin in my hand, looking at the cool and graceful
dark elf out of the corner of my eye.
     "Rewards?" I asked.  This was the first time anyone had
suggested to me there might actually be a reason to want to seek out
the Wastelands rather than avoid them.
     "Secrets," Anne added.  I just shook my head, still not clear on
what they were talking about.
     "Those who dare the Wastelands do so for a reason," Pirotess
said, leaning forward to fix me with her disconcertingly steady gaze.
"Things ... appear in the Wastelands.  With neither rhyme nor reason,
they come, and no one knows how, or why."
     "What sort of things?" I asked, the skin on the back of my neck
prickling.  Something in Pirotess's voice seemed to speak directly to
the murky part of my mind, the part that hears a bump in the night and
immediately thinks of hunched forms with glowing eyes.
     "Statues.  Artifacts, strange objects.  I once heard a man claim
to have come across an entire ship with a steel hull lying on its side,
water still running from the keel.  And occasionally, great machines of
unknown purpose are found.  It was from one such that engines like
ours were first brought back to the borderlands."  I stared at her, not
knowing what to say.  In a way, that explained why there was such a
strange mixture of magic and machinery here, but ... but why?  What
WERE the Wastelands really?
     "So people go out there, looking for a good find," I said slowly.
Pirotess smiled, but it was a humourless twist of her lips.
     "Those that slip past the Royal Navy Blockade to the north,
and find their way through the Maze, and manage to pass Stormwall,"
she said, her eyes glimmering with some dangerous and barely leashed
emotion.  "The wastes call to some, and whether the call is that of
potential riches, or of mysteries to be confronted and solved, or just of
the unknown to the strange and lonely and unwanted, they answer.
They have always answered.  For a long time, of course, they were left
to their own devices, called fool and mad and worse."
     "Until people started bringing things back with them," Anne
added.  She wasn't looking at us but instead was staring out the
window, almost seeming lost in thought.
     "Oh, yes," Pirotess murmured.  "Some of those things proved
useful.  And some of them could be reproduced, studied by wizards
and scholars and dwarven smiths.  Major discoveries are still rare, but
one such can make a person wealthy beyond belief."
     "For all the good it might do you," Anne said softly.
"Kennesson Trask was glare blind and half dead when he made the
edge of the wastes dragging the engine that ours are based on behind
his team.  His horses all died within days, and he himself was a raving
lunatic.  Nobody could ever get him to tell what had happened to him
out there, and he took those secrets to his grave the day he died six years
later.  He used to crouch in his room and write "THE EYE THAT SEES
THE EYE THAT KNOWS" on everything in sight whenever there was a
storm, and he wouldn't go outside when the moon was full.  But his family
set up a company, and with the expertise of mages and dwarves and
knowers of obscure things, as well as one woman's backing, they managed
to make engines.  And so our world was changed."
     "Anne Trask," Pirotess said into the silence.  "Funny, I never made the
connection."  Anne smiled sadly.
     "It's a common enough name in the borderlands," she said
carelessly.  "And really, I have nothing to do with the family these days.  I
can't stand the capitol."  I just sat there, trying to take everything in.
Pirotess glanced at me.
     "There are mysteries in those desolate wastes, but wanderers do not
always find their discoveries to their liking.  Men and women have emerged
from the wastes changed, or mad, having seen things ... unspeakable things.
Unearthly things."  She fell silent a moment, and I decided this was the best
opening I was going to get, and plunged in.
     "Tell me, has anybody ever seen a city out there?" I asked, trying to
hide my eagerness.  Immediately I knew I'd made a mistake.  Anne's
head snapped around, her eyes wide with shock.  Pirotess's dusky skin
went an ashen shade of gray, and she sat back as if I'd hit her.
     "Phantom Saebol," she whispered.  "The City of the Dead."
Then she stood, looking down on me, eyes narrowed with anger and
her mouth set in a tight line.
     "You seek the City of the Dead."  Her tone was accusatory,
and I could only stare up at her in amazement.  "Well?  Do you deny
it?"
     "N-no," I stammered.  "But ..."  She whirled, her white hair
whipping out in a silken arc as she stalked toward the door.
     "I have duties to attend," she said stiffly.
     And then she was gone.
     "Pir ..."  I stood, not knowing if I should go after her, only to
find the decision taken from me as Anne grabbed my arm with both
hands.
     "Don't," she whispered, pulling with all her weight.  She
couldn't have stopped me if I'd wanted to go, but I was uncertain, and
let her hold me back.
     "Don't," she repeated, and I glared down at her, confused and
a little angry for no reason I could name.
     "What the hell was that about?" I asked.  Anne dropped her
hands and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
     "Let's sit," she suggested.
     "Anne ..."
     "Sit, Ranko.  Sit, and I'll tell you."  She sat, and I followed suit,
once again facing her.  She was wearing a high-necked white blouse
with her long skirt, and she fiddled with the string tie at her throat for a
moment.
     "Listen," she began, eyes grave.  "Phantom Saebol, when it is spoken of
at all, is regarded as a myth buried deep within the haunted wastes.  The
wastes are dangerous enough themselves, of course, but nobody who has
gone into the depths of the Wastelands seeking Saebol has ever returned."
I rubbed my hands together idly, watching her eyes.
     "So why did my mentioning it upset Pirotess so much?" I asked
carefully.  Anne grimaced.
     "It has bad associations for her," she said finally.  "She lost someone to
it, long ago.  I really prefer not to say any more about this, Ranko.  Of the
crew, only Drake and myself know about this, and I don't want to betray a
confidence."  I opened my mouth to protest, and Anne rushed to speak
before I could.
     "Please, Ranko," she breathed.  "She only reacted that way
because you surprised her.  Hell, you surprised me, too.  And she hates
losing control that way, she really does.  Just leave her be, and it will pass."
She didn't sound too sure about that, but I wasn't about to argue.  I didn't
think Anne would tell me about the person Pirotess had lost to this city's
legend, and thinking about it I wasn't sure she should.  After all, it was a
secret between the three of them, right?  And I was just a guy hitching
a ride.
     "Okay," I said at last, and she relaxed visibly.  "I'll let it slide.
But can I expect this reaction every time I mention that city?"  Anne
gave me a sober stare.
     "Ranko," she said, "take a word of advice from me: don't
mention it.  To anybody.  If people know you're going to the
Wastelands, they already have you pegged as a little mad.  But
Phantom Saebol is the heart of the dark, even to people willing to brave
the wastelands.  Most people are afraid to even mention it by name,
lest they call its regard upon themselves and be driven mad."  She sat
back, and I realized with some surprise that she wasn't going to ask me
why I was going there. Maybe, I thought, she's already written me off
as a lost cause.
     Or maybe she thinks she knows the answer.
     "All right, so we don't talk about the city," I said.  "Tell me more
about the Wastelands.  This guy, your ancestor ..."
     "Ah.  That story.  Yes, why not?  After all, his was the first real
Find, and it changed the face of Saeni radically.
     "You see, the territory south of us, the Kingdom of Callophy,
was once just a loose collection of rival city-states and fierce tribes of
nomads.  The Kingdom of Virmalli, to the north, was at that time on the
verge of conquering their long-time foes to the far north, and once they
did so they would finally be able to turn their military might south, upon
the Confederation and points beyond.  There would be no force
capable of stopping them, and all of Saeni would fall under the King's
control.  And then, who knows?  The outlands, the mythical lands
across the Great Sea?  It was not inconceivable, once they had all the
fruits of conquest at their feet."
     "But then," I broke in, "the people of the south banded together
against the enemy.  Right?"  Anne snorted.
     "Hardly," she sniffed.  "Those idiots couldn't decide on
anything, they were so busy squabbling.  Some didn't think Virmalli
would attack, others wanted to try and stay neutral ... by the time the
Virmalli military started south, conquering everything in their path, it was
too late.  Or so it seemed."
     "But?" I asked, intrigued now.
     "But a very resourceful and determined woman saw a chance
to change the world, with the help of a lever ... a lever called the airship
engine.  One man had his find, but was lost to his own demons.  His
brothers had no way to exploit this mysterious device, even once they
began to discover what it could do..  They needed resources, money,
access to scholars and dwarven smiths and advanced magic.  She pulled all
these things together as events were beginning to overtake the south, and
together they managed to ferret out enough of the secrets of the engine to
make more.  Many died in testing this new invention, but her determination
never flagged.  She sank her fortune into the engines, and ships to mount
them
in."
     "She was rich?" I asked.  Anne laughed.
     "Quite.  For she was a pirate, you see, and quite a successful
one.  But her ambitions were greater, and she seized the opportunity
with her characteristic daring.  Soon, as the Virmalli began marching
south, she had a small fleet of ships under her command, all equipped
with the new engines."
     "She went after the enemy, and kicked butt, huh?" I asked.  I
was enjoying this story.  Anne shook her head, though.
     "Nothing quite so simple.  History is full of strange turns, after
all.  If only's and what if's ...  The Virmalli came south in force, far too
overwhelming for her to meet head on.  But the Virmalli king, flushed
with victory against the Northlanders, made a tactical error.  He
demanded the unconditional surrender of the first city that he came to.
That city was Trossik, which was then part of the Confederation.
When the Governor tried to negotiate favourable terms, the King
ordered the city razed.  The militia was killed to the man, their bodies
nailed up outside the shattered walls of the city.  The King figured that
word would travel south quickly with the refugees he allowed to flee,
and the other cities would see what happened to any who dared to
resist in any way.
     "Well, they saw, all right, and they were afraid.  But fear makes
an enemy unpredictable.  Soon after, a small fleet appeared in the sky
over the city of Kandae, and a beautiful pirate came before the
Governor and his council.  She offered them a choice; they could wait
for the bloodthirsty Virmalli to reach the city and sack it.  Or they could
surrender to her."
     "What?" I asked, surprised.  Anne smiled.
     "Oh, yes.  She demanded their surrender.  In return, she
promised to make their city her capital and have the engine works
located there.  But if they refused, she would ensure the Virmalli
received intelligence that Kandae was the heart of planned resistance,
and she would leave them to their fate.
     "It took three days for them to decide, but the stories told by
the refugees straggling into the city and the fact that the Virmalli had
stripped Trossik of everything useful for their campaign south finally
decided them.  They surrendered, and the Pirate Queen had her own
kingdom."
     "One city?" I asked doubtfully.
     "The seed," she smiled.  "The Pirate Queen wasted no time in
consolidating control of the city, getting the powerful merchants and
nobles on side, promising or bullying as necessary.  She stripped the
local navy and added it to her fleet, turning out engines as fast as
possible.
     "Even so, it might not have been enough, but fate intervened
again.  The Virmalli came across a small band of Dark Elves, travelling
through Saeni.  Elves have traditionally remained aloof from human
affairs, preferring their own kind.  So, when the Virmalli squadron
sighted their ship and ordered them to surrender, they refused."  Anne
paused for a drink of water, then continued.
     "The squadron commander's orders were to detain all vessels
he encountered, but nobody had expected him to encounter a Dark Elf
ship this far north.  Still, he followed his orders, and predictably the
elves refused.  Their ship was small, but they had their magic.
Unfortunately, the Virmalli had many ships, and their own mages, and
after a pitched battle the Dark Elf ship was destroyed.  One of the crew
escaped, however, and managed to send word back to his people."
     "Bad move, huh?" I asked.  Anne nodded.
     "That's putting it mildly.  If the elves had believed that the
Virmalli would not dare attack them, they now knew otherwise.  They
were skilled fighters and powerful mages, but few in number.  When the
Pirate Queen heard of this incident, she sent her closest lieutenant to the
elves with an offer of alliance against their common enemy."
     "And they said yes."
     "They did.  And now, the Virmalli encountered unexpected
resistance from an alliance of two cities directly in their path, both
fearing that the Virmalli would sack them despite their promises.  And
an early winter set in, slowing the Virmalli advance even further.  The
Dark Elves attacked the Virmalli supply lines and harrassed them,
vanishing into the forest whenever the troops turned to fight.  The King
was enraged at the delays, when he'd expected to be all the way to
Kandae by first snow.
     "And through it all, the Pirate Queen kept expanding her
kingdom.  She conquered three more cities, only one putting up any
resistance.  Her forces grew, and she consolidated her power skilfully.
Still, though, her navy was no match for the Virmalli fleet in numbers,
and her ground forces were horribly outnumbered.
     "But our ambitious Pirate Queen had a plan, and all the
elements she needed to make it work.  Over the winter she continued
to prepare, and when spring came she set her plan into motion."
     I was enthralled by Anne's story.  I knew so little about this
place, and I hadn't thought that mattered one way or the other.  But this
was really interesting, stories about fighting and conquest.  She saw that
I was hooked and smiled mischievously.
     "I suppose I should just get to the point," she said.  I shook my
head.
     "Take your time," I replied.  "What happened next?  What was
her plan?"
     "Well, the elves turned out to be the key.  Virmalli had a huge
fleet of airships, and they were proving to be the difference.  Walled
cities used to require lengthy sieges, but their small naval forces were
being easily overcome by the Virmalli ships, which could then rain death
down on their targets with impunity, even dropping men behind the
walls.  So, when the Virmalli king's forward scouts reported a fair-
sized fleet of airships gathering near their next target, he knew they
needed to be dealt with decisively.  With no other resistance to deal
with, he was confident enough to send the bulk of his fleet to crush the
uprising.
     "So they met over the plains near Guarthe.  The sky was open,
no mountain passes to be used for hit-and-run attacks.  It appeared to
be a suicidal last stand by the airships, all of which were flying a strange
new ensign.  The Virmalli admiral readied his war engines and prepared
his sorcerers for battle, and the fleet closed in.
     "And then stopped."  She took another drink, and I fidgeted
impatiently.
     "What do you mean, stopped?" I asked finally.  Anne smiled at
me, refilling her glass.
     "Just that.  You see, elemental magic is fairly difficult to master.
No doubt, the Virmalli had windmages aboard their ships, among their
other magical assets.  But the Pirate Queen had hundreds of Dark Elves
under her command, and elven elemental magic is very powerful.  And
so, as the Virmalli fleet aproached, the elves all worked together and
stilled the winds.  The Virmalli mages could not overcome this
combined magic, there just weren't enough of them.  Not even close.
     "The Virmalli fleet was becalmed, unable to manouever."  I got
it, and felt my eyes widen with anticipation.
     "But the Pirate Queen had engines," I grinned.  Anne nodded.
     "Yes, she did.  Ordinarily, stilling the winds would only have
produced a stand-off.  But these new engines were an unanticipated
development, and suddenly the Pirate Queen had a definite edge.  The
Virmalli were caught totally by surprise.  They swooped and turned and
engaged the Virmalli ships at will, while the Virmalli captains could not
bring their war engines to bear, could not evade fire.  Still, there was a
pitched battle.  Magic was used on both sides at long range, and losses
were heavy.  But the Pirate Queen's innovation proved to be the
decisive factor, as the Virmalli ships couldn't disengage, or even form
up to protect each other.
     "She took out the flagship early on, and the stories say she
fought the admiral sword to sword and killed him.  That may be true, as
she is supposed to be very skilled with a blade.  Whatever the case, as
the squadron commander's ships were sent plunging to the earth in
flames, panic slowly began to overtake the remains of the fleet.  While
they were trapped, the enemy struck again and again, and their forces
were savaged.  Finally, with retreat impossible and the odds worsening
by the moment, ships started running up white flags.
     "She captured many ships that day, their crews taken in chains
to Guarthe.  After making repairs, her fleet headed for the van of the
invasion."
     "They must have been shaking in their boots," I murmured.
     "Oh, yes," Anne smiled.  "Reports from the front were sketchy,
but the King knew one thing for certain.  Not one of his ships had
returned.  That should not have been possible.  But it had happened,
and that was the turning point.  The Virmalli never advanced any further
than that point.  Their remaining ships were no match for the Queen's
fleet, and the King of Virmalli ended up fleeing for home aboard their
fastest ship.  The army, without air cover and with the Queen's ground
forces advancing, were forced to retreat, taking heavy losses.  The
Queen chased them all the way to the Gates of Kolgos, the traditional
border between north and south."
     "Why didn't she just go in and take the whole thing over?" I
asked.
     "Well, the south was in a shambles, and she needed to
consolidate her power base.  The Virmalli border is heavily fortified,
and the geography is not favourable to attack either.  So she began to
work at expanding her kingdom, which wasn't hard in the war ravaged
northern half of the region, where people just wanted someone to
establish order.  She extended her power as far south as the Haveran
River, as per her agreement with the Dark Elves.  And thus did a pirate
carve out her kingdom, using only her own daring and ambition ... and,
of course, a lever powerful enough to move destiny."
     "The engines."
     "Yes.  You see, Ranko?  That one Find changed the face of
Saeni.  And there are always dreamers who believe they might be the
one to make the next big Find."
     "Have there been any since then?" I asked.
     "None so important.  There have been a few, but by far the
majority of seekers fail to find anything significant.  Many simply vanish,
which tempers enthusiasm for such endeavours.  But always there is
someone willing to risk everything for the chance.  Or was, before the
Virmalli began trying to cut off all access.  Rumour has it they want any
treasures of the wastes for themselves."  She sighed, taking her glasses off
and squinting at the lenses critically.  Satisfied, she put them on again.
     "The journey is hazardous, even before reaching the Wastelands
themselves," she said soberly.  "It is not a task to be undertaken
lightly."
     "Believe me, I'm not taking this lightly," I told her.
     "How can you say that, Ranko?  You're headed for the
Wastelands to look for the darkest heart of forgotten secrets!  Even among
this crew, seasoned veterans of the border and hardened fighters, not one
person would consider such a voyage!"
     "Let's just say ... it's what I need.  It's the one thing in this
world that I need to find."  And somehow it had become that.  It was
sobering to think that my life had become screwy enough that
Baahnid's City of the Dead had become so important to me.  Anne just
stared at me for a few moments, then her shoulders sagged slightly.
     "Well, if you're determined, I certainly can't stop you," she
said.
     "Hey, Anne.  Just why are you guys going to the Wastelands,
anyway?"  Her smile was a little sad.
     "The risky is always profitable, Ranko."  That turned out to be
only part of the answer, but it satisfied me anyway.  Anne stood and
stretched.
     "Well, lunch should be ready," she said.  "Why don't you come
down to the galley and grab a bite?  Then afterwards, I'll introduce you
around."  The second part sounded a little nerve wracking, but my
stomach was definitely in favour of another meal.  With that settled, we
trooped off to have some lunch.

***

     I spent the afternoon wandering the ship restlessly.  I went up
on deck for a while and stood at the rail, watching the immense stone
walls slide past as the ship wound its way through the twisted paths of
the Maze, not minding the cold.  The view took my mind off things, at
least for a while, and from time to time one of the crew stopped by to
chat.  They stuck to superficial topics, though, and I had the idea that
nobody would bring up either my past or my future unless I did first.
     I kind of liked that idea.  I wondered if many of the crew had
ended up here, fleeing unhappy pasts, re-inventing themselves as
scrappy airship sailors flying the unfriendly skies of the borderlands.  It
had a certain allure, I couldn't deny that.
     I couldn't remember all the names I heard that day.  At one
point or another I probably met the entire crew.  A couple stood out in
my mind, though, like Elna, a petite girl with fine features and blonde
hair that fell thick and straight past her knees, nearly overwhelming her
small frame.  She stood out because she was one of the few shy people
on the ship.  She was also, it turned out, Anne's nurse in training.
     Another person that I noticed was Kiroge.  He was a lean,
rangy guy about my height (when I was a boy) with longish dark green
hair tied back at the nape of his neck.  He seemed pretty arrogant, but
something in the way he moved told me that arrogance wasn't all show.
He knew how to fight.
     He also hit on me, since I was in girl form, and wouldn't take
no for an answer, until Anne finally grabbed some hot water just as I
was about to deck the obnoxious pretty-boy.  My transformation
cooled his ardour a bit, but then everyone was crowding around,
wanting to see my "trick".  So I ended up soaked by the time lunch was
over with, having changed back and forth more than a few times.  I
would have thought, with all the magical and technical wonders these
people had, that a stupid Jusenkyo curse would have seemed pretty
boring.  Just goes to show you, I guess.
 
 

+++++

     And once again, that's all there is.