Part Two

                   
 

3

ylvia stood in the shadows of two small trees near but not too near the moat that surrounded the hill that was topped by Azueron’s house and watched van Orst cross the bridge.Something splashed out on the moat and a serpentine neck

 

rose up near the bridge but, so far as Tylvia could tell, made no other move toward van Orst. The captain stood gazing at it a moment and the creature seemed to watch him back; but that was all. The captain ran for the far end of the bridge.

He reached the island and started up to the top, soon to be hidden by the trees and shrubs at either side of the road.The neck lowered

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itself back into the water then and the sound of splashing suggested to Tylvia that it was swimming off.

She decided to take the chance and cross the bridge herself before the captain got too far ahead.

She was a graceful girl, light on her feet and never prone to making too much noise when she walked. Now she was stealthier than ever. She crossed the bridge, listening intently. Occasionally she heard a splash, distant in the moat, but no other sound, not even the call of a night bird or chirp of an insect. That was unnatural, she knew, but it did not surprise her. She came to the end of the bridge and stopped, realizing she was about to set foot on the island of Azueron the Star Witch, and that gave her pause.

What was it van Orst had told her about Azueron? Nothing to reassure her about her safety, or his, that was for certain.

Late that afternoon, a messenger had brought the captain a note aboard their ship Tempest. Van Orst’s face, often grim, went even grimmer as he read it. This was in the main airlock, where he stood waiting for his crew to return from its day off. Tomorrow they were to begin their preparations for their next voyage, and van Orst was looking forward to it, Tylvia knew. Although Tempest spent much time on worlds which enjoyed poor reputations, few worlds enjoyed a worse reputation than Klystra, and van Orst always enjoyed leaving it. Tylvia had come aboard the ship half an hour earlier and was standing in the airlock with him. He read the note and shoved it

 

toward his pocket and she could tell from his face that something was wrong.“I have to go,” said the Captain.

“Go? Where?”

He looked up as if seeing her for the first time. “I have something needs taking care of,” he said. “You stay here and wait for the others. We’ll be back in a little while. No, it might be late before –”

“We? Who?” she asked.

“Beatrice. I’m meeting with Beatrice. You stay here and see that the others stay here when they arrive.”With that he turned and left.Puzzled, she went to the exit hatch and looked after him. She didn’t often worry about Esmond van Orst; he was as capable as he was gruff, and she admired his skill and mastery of any situation. But this was strange behavior even for him. She watched him cross the field and disappear between two buildings at the spaceport’s edge and disappear.

Turning away from the hatch it happened that she looked down and on the deck she saw a piece of paper. The note. Evidently, van Orst had not gotten it into his pocket.She picked the crumpled paper up and smoothed it out between her hands and read it in the overhead light of the airlock.“Esmond – It’s been so long a time, I hope you have not forgotten about me. I’ve been on this world for some time now, waiting for you to come here as I have learned you sometimes do, so we could renew our acquaintance. We have

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much to talk about, you know. I ran into a friend of yours. Her name’s Beatrice. Hurry along and don’t bring anyone with you, or the next note might be written in her blood.” It was signed Azueron Ky, and there were directions to where the writer and Beatrice waited for him.

It was not five minutes after she finished reading the note that the other girls came back to the ship. There was Abigail, the pilot, who had been aboard the ship longest of any except for van Orst and Beatrice. Flora and Theodora were with her, as they usually were. Quickly Tylvia explained matters to them and showed them the note. “Something’s happened to Beatrice,” she said. “I don’t understand any of it, but the captain’s gone off, and I’m going after her. You three stay here until you hear from me.”

“Azueron Ky?” said Abigail.

“What?” said Tylvia, at the hatch, looking back at her.

“Azueron Ky. That’s who signed the note,” Abigail said.“Do you know him?”

“Her,” said Abigail. “I never met her, but I heard about her once. It’s who he got the ship from.”

“I heard a lot of versions of that story,” Tylvia said. “How can you be sure he wasn’t just making stuff up?” She had heard three or four different versions from van Orst about how he’d acquired the Tempest and none of them was like the others."

 

“Well, with him you can’t, not really,” admitted Abigail. “But I’ve always felt he was telling me the truth then. It was while he was teaching me about the ship’s drive, when I first came aboard the ship. He seemed serious when he told me. And he seemed scared of her. She’s supposed to be a star-witch, now. And it was her he took the ship from.

”And now Tylvia stood on that narrow dirt and gravel road not three feet from the end of the bridge and looked up the hill in the shadowy evening with its light from the red-glowing nebula and the parchment moon, and could barely make out the bulk of the house at the hill’s top, dark against the looming darkness of the coming night, and she thought about that.

Of course she knew there were such things as star-witches, so called. Most of the business conducted by Tempest was conducted inside the confines of the The Lantern of the Lost Worlds, and many of those they flew missions for were wizards or witches – so-called. One of them whom she had met, and indeed had found to be a pleasant and entertaining woman, despite all the stories about her, was Meriem Abd Alhazred, the High Priestess of Cthulhu. Her power was derived from the being or beings she served, a creature bred in other dimensions where, supposedly, the laws of physics were not exactly the same as they were here. In the Lantern, it was possible to find places where not all the laws that worked were the safe and sane ones of the rest of the Galaxy. And, as a crewmember of Tempest, enough of her young life had been spent in the Lantern that she knew she could actually have passed him without knowing. He could even have seen her pass if he was standing among the

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trees. In fact, anything among those trees could have seen her. And with that thought to guide her, she forgot about the possibility that she might be attacked by something that did not come through the trees, but over them.

And when it came she didn’t see it until it was too late. But she sensed it, almost at once, and looked around, seeing nothing. The rustling of trees and what she thought was underbrush deceived her

 

into thinking it was something in the woods. She yanked out her gun and whirled around, looking for some betraying movement that would show her were the menace sprang from. Suddenly she felt something looming above her, a faint shadow cast over her. She looked up and almost screamed. A long, serpentine body or neck poised watching her. There was a bulbous head, tentacles arranged in such a seemingly haphazard way that she could not even guess how many there might be. The thing then descended toward her before she could bring her gun up, and the face was seemingly inches from her own – close enough the hot, fetid breath of the monster blew against her like a strong, menacing wind. The stench was overpowering; she choked on it and gasped.

Something wound round her body and lifted her up into the air, toward that gaping maw.

The tentacle that had grabbed her had not pinned her arms. She lifted the gun and fired. In the bright, crackling light of the discharge, she caught a stark image of an almost human face for just an instant before the blast ate skin away. The creature screamed and the part of it that held her tightened its grip suddenly and spasmodically, so that she thought she would be squeezed in two. She was jerked around, then suddenly the tentacle loosened around her and she fell to the ground, striking a grassy area behind the trees from where she had been.

The creature fell, too, and writhed like a nest of snakes tangled in a knot, whipping the air and pounding the ground in its death throes. She rolled a few feet from it and stopped, watching its strenuous movements for several moments because just for those moments, she had no power to get to her feet and flee from it.

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But the thing wasn’t concerned with her. It was dying. As she lay there regaining her breath and strength, the beast lost its. The viper whipping of its tentacles slowed, and weakened, even stilled. By the time she could sit up again, it was all but motionless.

Tylvia scrambled clumsily to her feet.She could tell she had some new bruises, but she didn’t think she had suffered any serious injuries. Sure enough, she found that she could walk, though unsteadily at first, and her fingers flexed when she tried them. She was breathing with no more effort than was to be expected from the sort of exercise she’d experienced.

Then she realized her gun was gone. It had dropped from her numb fingers when she’d struck the ground, and where it had landed, it was too dark for her to tell.

That was bad news. She knew that there would be other guardians between here and Azueron Ky’s house, and they would be no easier to deal with than this one had been.

She estimated that she had come at least halfway up the hill. And she was convinced that whatever dangers lay ahead of her were no worse than the dangers that lay back the way she had come. So gun or no, she was going to continue on and find van Orst if she could, and try to help him and Beatrice.

So – how could she possibly do that?

One thing was evident; everything she might try was risky at this point, short of actually finding her gun. And searching for

 

it would take too much time, even if it were not a hopeless task. She had no idea where to look and certainly she couldn’t wait until it was light enough to see by. She should have brought a flashlight, but that was in the same category of thought as the platoon of Rangers the captain had mentioned.

She mentally weighed her various risks and decided at last that there with no more effort than was to be expected from the sort of exercise she’d experienced.

Then she realized her gun was gone. It had dropped from her numb fingers when she’d struck the ground, and where it had landed, it was too dark for her to tell.

That was bad news. She knew that there would be other guardians between here and Azueron Ky’s house, and they would be no easier to deal with than this one had been.

She estimated that she had come at least halfway up the hill. And she was convinced that whatever dangers lay ahead of her were no worse than the dangers that lay back the way she had come. So gun or no, she was going to continue on and find van Orst if she could, and try to help him and Beatrice.

So – how could she possibly do that?

One thing was evident; everything she might try was risky at this point, short of actually finding her gun. And searching for it would take too much time, even if it were not a hopeless task. She had no idea where to look and certainly she couldn’t wait until it was

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light enough to see by. She should have brought a flashlight, but that was in the same category of thought as the platoon of Rangers the captain had mentioned.

She mentally weighed her various risks and decided at last that there was a lot less risk in moving away from the road. If the monsters were all patrolling the road, that is. She had no way of knowing if they were, but it was as reasonable an assumption as any, and she felt that at the least most of the monsters would be close by the road. The wooded area ran beside the road and she was on the other side of it now, so it seemed reasonable that she could reduce her risk by not going back into the trees.

The trouble was, she didn’t think Azueron Ky was very reasonable.

As she started up, she really hoped she would stump her toe against her gun in the darkness, but that was not to be.

She began to realize something else that argued against the logic of her plan. The ground here was level though rough, and there were few trees. Here and there the ground was pitted as if meteors had bombarded the area with frequency and left craters. She had no idea why. None of the craters were large; in fact they were mostly uniform in size.

The problem was the lack of trees. In this open terrain the ghostly light that had dappled the road with such welcome shadows, revealed everything. If anything was bothering to watch, she had no doubt that it was aware of her presence. And her now without a weapon.

 

hen she got her first clue as to what those craters might actually be. Something suddenly sprang up out of one of them and stood in front of her. It was a dark, bulbous mass from which tentacles sprang insanely in almost every direction. The eyes were arranged with about the same logic. There were many of them and they were placed here and there all over the upper reaches of the thing. She froze and gaped at it, and then it sprang.

A gigantic mouth opened below two eyes at the top of its head, and above a larger, single eye in what seemed to be the middle of its face. The tentacles spread out and around her. She leaped out of its reach just in time, hearing the snap of its jaw as they closed on empty air, and she struck the ground and rolled. She came to a stop and scrambled to her feet, looking back at the creature, which was slowly moving toward her.

She heard something behind her.She glanced around, expecting another monster, and received yet another surprise.

Standing behind her was a small, almost naked girl with a slave collar. She was crouched and looking straight at Tylvia. In her hand was something like a small axe or meat cleaver.

She lifted the thing up as if to throw it straight at Tylvia’s neck.

Tylvia froze in horror, but the girl did not throw the weapon. “Drop to the ground, you fool!” she shouted.

Tylvia almost yelled out, “What?” then realized what the girl had shouted. She threw herself face down on the ground and saw the

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girl’s arm pull back and come forward. The weapon flew right over where she lay and she heard it hit something with a thunk that was followed immediately by an ear splitting scream.

She rolled over and sat up in time to see the creature lying on its side on the ground. It did not seem like the other one had, a nest of squirming vipers. It seemed like just a dying giant on its side.

4

He looked at Azueron Ky and realized that he had no real memory of her face from that time before, though he remembered having seen it several times and at quite close quarters. Oh, yes, now that he could see her again she looked familiar, but yesterday he could not have recalled her. In many ways Azueron Ky was a stranger to Esmond van Orst, as she was, he suspected, to herself.

Looking at her now it was easy for him to tell that she had probably been born on Klystra. There was that strange, decadent look to the features, so suggestive of the Adlan. He found himself wondering what a nice girl like her had been doing out there in the rift between the Orion and Sagittarius Arms, learning Adriash secrets with which to turn herself into a star-witch. But that was foolish. Why she was out there he might never have found out, but he knew very well that it was partly his fault she had been thrown among the Adriash.

She seemed so much more at home here; she would have fit in best, perhaps, in one of the Dark Matter Rifts, the Glory Hole for example. But out there between arms of the galaxy, where the

 

Cluster Dwellers, the Adriash, the Agrisiti, even the Luddra-Skaith were sometimes seen – where there were beings with real power, not the pathetic, hateful powers of a star-witch …Out there, she had seemed out of place, lost and pathetic, even when at her most dangerous. A child playing at being a monster. He could not think of her in the same terms he thought of Meriem or even mad, hopeless Aelon.

nd yet, look at what she had done to poor, lovely Beatrice. For that, one way or another, she would pay.

“Have you taken good care of my starship?” asked Azueron Ky.

“Is that what this is about? The ship? You can have the ship if you want it that much. Just restore Beatrice and guarantee me you won’t do any harm to her or the rest of my crew.”

“What is it about that crew of yours?”

“Simple responsibility, that’s all. I’m their captain. But I need your word on it, Azueron. You can restore Beatrice, can’t you?” He was looking at Beatrice again, his breath taken as much by her beauty as the transcendent tragedy of what had happened to her.

“She can be restored,” said the witch. “For a few hours more she can. But after that, returning her to what she had been is beyond even my power.”

“Even your power …”

“You’re in no position to mock me,” she said, heatedly.

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“No, I’m not. Is it a deal? The ship in return for her life and the lives of my crewmembers? The ship and myself.”

She laughed. “Do you even have any crew left alive? We won’t know that until we see how many heads Moira brings back.”

“Call her off. I want them all alive, Azueron. All of them.”

“You want a lot for that ship, especially considering that I can take it whenever I really want to, with no regard to you or your crewmembers.”

“If it’s so easy to take back that ship, then why have you gone to this much trouble?” he asked, indicating Beatrice.

“Because what I really want, even more than I want that ship back, is to see the look your face is wearing now. Because what I really want, Esmond van Orst, is to cause you pain, pain to match the pain I’ve suffered on your account. And then, when I’ve grown bored with it, to strike you down.”

She had been no star-witch then. She had simply been an adventuress, a pirate. An overly ambitious, blundering fool.

Well, thought Esmond van Orst, in those days he had been a Star Ranger. Filled with dreams, dreams of glory, dreams of making a difference. Dreams that he was a protector of the Galaxy. How big a fool was that?

Protector, ha! Out there they had barely enough men and ships, to

 

say nothing of firepower, to protect a middle-sized asteroid from a small meteor. But they had been so young, so daring, so willing to face any danger, risk any sacrifice. And as many times as they failed against those overwhelming odds that faced them every single minute of their lives, back then, there were also triumphs.

Because there were heroes. Van Orst thought of the heroes he had known, of Rangers such as Reef and Flint and Gale; of Thel, poor, grand Thel, now dead, murdered not a year ago by the star-witch Aelon – whom Thel had loved. Curran, who these days also flew in and out of the Lantern of the Lost Worlds in his own starship, and who was both the greatest bumbler and the most agile hero van Orst knew, perhaps had ever known. Somehow, back then, they held the line.

He recalled the villains, also; the ones he could recall. Most of them were nothing more than anonymous, plodding members of the criminal classes whose success was based not on their brilliance but on their luck and their ability to avoid the Rangers for a time, at least. But usually in the end that luck ran, resulting in a confrontation that, one way or another, ended their careers.

Sometimes those careers ended with terrible and frightening consequences.

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” he said. “I was just doing my job, and my job was to stop you. That raid on Narajape … it cost a dozen innocent, Adriash lives, Azueron. I had no intention of letting you do that to another world.”She had flown an amazing-looking ship,

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graceful of line, fast, Adlan designed and built on one of those famous, if difficult to find Adlan ship-building worlds down in the so-called Glory Hole region of space, with a hull formed from some ruddy colored Adlan alloy.

When she hit the Adriash research station on Narajape, she couldn’t prevent them from sending out a distress call. Van Orst was commanding a patrol of three light cruisers close by and when he heard the call, he ordered the ships to Narajape. They intersected Azueron’s course and in the ensuing fight crippled the ship and captured the crew.

The crew and its captain.

The crew members faced justice at the hands of the Authority the loose alliance of worlds which sponsored the Rangers, and the Adriash were content with that. But it was different for the captain of the ship. The Adriash requested that they be allowed to try and punish Azueron because the crime had taken place on a world uninhabited but for an Adriash research station.

So she was given over to them.

The Adriash were one of the species whose home world was in one of the star clusters outside the galaxy proper, where the stars and worlds were older, and the species more advanced. They were a tall, willowy species with gray-brown skin and segmented eyes and an aura of mystery that hung about them like a cloud of thick smoke.

 

Like most of the ancient species, the Adriash were strange, enigmatic and powerful and, above all else, reclusive. But they were grateful, as well. And generous to those they thought of as their friends.

Six months later when his commission was up, van Orst decided he was through with the Rangers. He still craved adventure, but he craved also the freedom to be his own man, to own a ship and take it where he wanted to take it, and make his living by his ship and his wits.

He checked his bank account, knowing it did not at that time hold enough to buy a ship outright, but hoping there was enough in it to buy a share of one. To his surprise he had a fortune.

At first he thought there had been a mistake; then he considered that it was an attempt to frame him for something. He checked with his bankers and learned the money had been transferred to his account from funds controlled by the Adriash. He took his story to the financial regulatory office of the Authority and learned that the transaction was legal – sanctioned by both the Adriash and the Authority. It was just that no one had felt much necessity to tell him about it.

So he had enough to buy a ship.

And Azueron’s ship was on sale at auction.

And that was so long ago, so long ago.He bought the ship and

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instigated the repairs on it. And while he was still thinking about where he would go in it and what he would do, two Adriash came to him, to wander through the alleyways and chambers of his ship and wave and bend like tall trees in the wind while they told him nothing but showed him much. They installed some devices in the ship, Adriash technology, very ancient and very, very good, and his ship would now do things most other ships could not, and go to places he had never imagined he would be able to go. Thus had they launched him on his amazing career.

And where had that career led him? To this very moment, standing in the lair of a star-witch gazing at the woman he loved and seeing her soft and yielding flesh as hard and white as stone, and her lovely face that so often held a look of impish mischief now frozen in an expression of intense despair.

Next, he looked at Azueron and knew he had never hated anyone so much as he now hated her.

And there was nothing he could do about it, except beg for Azueron’s mercy.

He said, “And what happened to you after you were turned over to the Adriash?”

“Just what you think happened. What I suppose you meant to happen to me. I was hauled off to their world, or one of them, where they probed my mind and read my thoughts, and filled my thoughts with hateful images to torture me with. It was one of their prison worlds, but it was really one of their research stations, and they used

 

me in experiment after experiment to learn about humans and the human mind. One of their experiments was to turn a victim’s flesh to stone. It worked better on humans than on some other species. They were able to store our essences, I suppose you might call it, for a short period so that we could be restored. Most other species couldn’t be restored.”

“But you got away.”

“They underestimated me,” she said. “As I said it was a prison world of sorts, where they gathered and studied representatives of the dominant species on many worlds. Several of us began to scheme and plan an escape. We got lucky and broke out of the place, stealing a ship. We made it back.”

“All the way from a star cluster outside the galaxy proper.”

“Not quite. They didn’t take us back to their star cluster. They took us to a world circling a star outside this arm of the galaxy, but not hopelessly far from it. We made our way back in one of their ships and managed to raid two of their planets after we got away, to boot. I acquired several of the secrets of Adriash science in those raids.”

“And now you’ve gone from pirate to star-witch.”

“I took what I needed from those monsters because that was the only way I could get my revenge for what was done to me.”

She rose from the throne where she was sitting and looked at

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Beatrice. “Do you know what it’s like to go through what she’s going through, van Orst?”

“I can imagine.”

“I don’t have to imagine. I can remember it. She has a sort of awareness. She knows you’re here. She hears what you’re saying.” She touched Beatrice’s cheek. “She can feel the touch of my hand on the cold, hard stone of her face, but as if she were being touched from a great distance. Can you even imagine such a thing? Her essence, her being, her personality or soul or whatever you want to call it is held in a force field inside a container. A very small container because the essence of what a person is, doesn’t seem to be very much. If it’s held there, she can be restored to life, the stone that is now her, melted back into flesh. But in a few more hours it will become difficult to do, and a few hours after that, impossible. She can feel her life fading, feel the weakness gathering inside her.”

She turned away from Beatrice and glowered at van Orst. Seldom, if ever, had he seen so much hatred in a look as Azueron showed him then. She went on, her voice growing angrier as she spoke. “They put me through that ordeal many times. They wanted to see how long I could take it. They wanted to know if I could survive being petrified for longer and longer periods, too, I think. They waited later and later and the last several times they restored me, my mind was almost gone. They’d throw me back in my cell and I’d scream for hours, till my voice gave out, and then I’d lie there shaking with terror.” She was shaking now, just remembering.

 

She went back to the throne and sat down. She looked at him, smiling now, and lifted her hands to the amulet hung round her neck, one of two necklaces she was wearing. “I said the container that holds her being is small. So small in fact, that I can wear it as a necklace.”

She lifted the chain over her head and held the amulet up so he could see. “Stay where you are. You come any closer and I’ll smash this thing and she’ll never be anything again but stone. It’s so fragile, I can crush it in my hand.”

She stood up and walked toward Beatrice. “If you’re nice, I’ll give you a present Captain van Orst. But you have to stay where you are. If you move, I’ll see to it she dies.”

She went over to where Beatrice stood and slipped the chain of the amulet over her head, arranging it around her neck.

“You’ll love this, Captain. For a little while, at least.”

She stepped back so he could see.

The amulet was ornate and its centerpiece was a green stone which glowed, faintly. The metal in which the stone was set was intricately designed. She touched a raised area on the left side of the amulet. Abruptly the stone glowed with greater strength, and then the glow ebbed away. It was as if something liquid flowed out of it.

And at the same time the color of the statue changed.

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The white faded, turned dull, then grey. The color began to flow in it, yellow at first, and then darkening. At the same time the texture of the stone somehow softened. The color became the color of Beatrice’s flesh, the tone of her complexion, and suddenly
she was breathing. Her breasts were heaving with the sudden and miraculous intake of air and she swayed on her feet.

Van Orst started toward her but Azueron snapped a command for him to stay put.

 

Beatrice was gasping air now, loudly. Her legs gave out and she fell to the floor. She tried to push herself up with her arms but apparently lacked the strength. She could only lie there, half raised on her arms, gasping heavily and staring with fear-widened eyes at van Orst.

“Esmond,” she said weakly.

“Stay back,” said Azueron. She bent down and grasped the amulet.

“If you do anything to her,” van Orst growled.

“You’ll kill me? You do something like that Esmond, and she’ll die anyway. I’m completely in control here. Just see.”

he snapped another control on the right side of the amulet and stood up.

Beatrice gasped again, this time as if with pain, and froze in position on the floor. Her breathing stopped. Her face was distorted with a look of total horror, and the color drained from her.

She was stone again, a white marble statue, trying to lift itself off the floor. Azueron removed the amulet from Beatrice’s neck.

“Stay where you are, Captain. You can’t get to her or me fast enough to prevent me from killing her. All I have to do is squeeze my hand and she’s gone forever.”

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He said nothing, terrified that anything he might say would set her off and cause Azueron to murder Beatrice.

“But let’s not talk about her death, Captain van Orst. Let’s talk about yours.”

But before she could say anything else, there came an unearthly scream from somewhere outside.

“What was that?” van Orst demanded.

“A decapitation, I suspect,” said Azueron. She glanced away for a moment in the vague apparent direction of the scream and van Orst almost risked jumping at her, hoping to grab the amulet before she could smash it; but he realized the risk was hopelessly great and fought down the urge.

“You said if I surrendered myself and the ship to you that you’d let my crew go,” van Orst said. “It’s time for you to do –”

“I said no such thing,” Azueron said. She was still holding the amulet in her left hand. She held it a little higher so van Orst could not help but see it as she said, “But I think the time has come for you to do something, Captain van Orst.”

he turned and walked over to the throne. Beside it was a small table and on that table, a box. She paused by the table, looking back at van Orst, a smile on her lips as she put her right hand to the box’s lid. She lifted it back on its hinges

 

and, reaching into the box, lifted out another amulet. Van Orst could not help but think that the box seemed large just to hold an amulet.

She tossed the second amulet to van Orst.

“Put that on for me, won’t you?” she said.

Van Orst looked at the amulet in his hands, then back at Azueron. “Release Beatrice, first.”

“And then what? Have you try to escape? I’m not that foolish, Captain. Put the amulet on, please.”

“Azueron –”

She turned back to the table and out of the same box she had taken the amulet from, she produced a metal hammer. It looked quite heavy. She placed the amulet that held Beatrice’s life force on the table and poised the hammer above it. “Do as you’re told,” she told him.

He put the amulet over his head and let it drop to his neck.

"There. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”

She picked the amulet up from the table and walked to the Captain, holding the amulet in her raised arm as if ready to crush it or else hurl it to the stone floor. She stopped in front of him. With a forefinger, she touched the emblem on the right of the

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amulet he wore, and paused, looking up at him.

Then she pushed the emblem and van Orst suddenly felt a constricting pain that gripped his whole body. He gasped; he couldn’t help himself, but his lips did not respond to the gasp. Nor his arms when he tried to lift them.

A sudden coldness was overwhelming him. It seemed both to ebb over his whole body and flow from within it at the same time. The pain increased, the constriction also, and he was helpless; there was nothing he could do to ease the pain, to help himself, to save himself.

And then it was as if he were no longer in the room, no longer in his own body. He saw Azueron laughing, could even hear her. It was as if he were miles away yet there at the same time. His sight was not sight as he knew it, his hearing not the hearing he had known.

And he could not move.

Azueron came close to him. Her hand touched his face, lightly.

His feeling where she touched him was not feeling at all but an impression of feeling.

zueron laughed again and moved out of his line of sight. He could see her throne and the small table with the box, and just beyond it, poor tortured Beatrice frozen in a posture of trying to lift herself up from the floor. Azueron moved to

 

Beatrice’s side.

“Are you watching closely, Captain?” she said.

And she lifted the hammer above Beatrice’s skull.

5

Tylvia pushed herself to her feet gazing as if hypnotized at the dying monster. The cleaver had caught the creature full in one eye, and bitten deep. Then, she remembered the girl who had thrown the axe, and looked around for her, discovering that she had come closer. ylvia was conscious that she still didn’t have a good weapon on her. “Sent to collect what?”

“Your h—.”

“I heard you,” Tylvia snapped. “And you have a fight on your hands if you try.”

“Which one are you?” the girl asked her.

“What?” Tylvia was rather more confused than not. “Oh. My name’s Tylvia.” She hesitated as something occurred to her. “You aren’t Azueron, are you?”

The girl seemed disgusted by the idea. “Of course not. You think Azueron would be wearing a collar like this one? I’m Moira,” she said. “Azueron sent me out to collect your head, that’s all.” She walked past Tylvia, up to the now motionless monster, and pried

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the axe out of its eye.

“I don’t plan to try,” Moira said. “Just because Azueron sent me todo something doesn’t mean I intend to do it. She calls me a slave, but that doesn’t mean I am one, even if she does have the key to this collar.”

“Then what are you?”

“As far as Azueron’s concerned,” said Moira, offering a hand to help Tylvia to her feet, “I’m a nightmare on the hoof.”

“Then that makes two of us,” said Tylvia, brushing off the dirt as she stood up. “But I’d feel scarier if I hadn’t lost my weapon.”

“You lost your weapon?” said Moira. “We can’t have that. Here.” She handed over the cleaver. Then she pulled a knife out of her sash and held it up for Tylvia to see, “I came prepared for us both. Now let’s go find Azueron. And, oh! Don’t kill her unless you really, really have to. I want that privilege.”

“I can’t make any promises on that,” said Tylvia.

Moira started off toward the house. “I didn’t expect you to. It’s a favor I’d appreciate, but I’ll understand if you can’t.”

A cloud passed across the face of the single moon that was casting light, leaving the night to be illuminated mainly by the reddish light of

 

the nebula low on the horizon. It gave a ghastly look to the pock-marked ground and the nearby trees as they made their way up the hill to the house, and Tylvia wondered how much more ghastly things might be inside the house.

As they neared the house, Moira looked around and gave Tylvia an unnecessary gesture for silence. She went to a door in the side of the house and stopped, pressing against the wall beside it.

In a whisper she said, “We need to catch her by surprise. All she needs to do is push a button and this collar around my neck explodes, and my head and shoulders with it. So once we get inside, no noise. I’m supposed to be bringing back your head and not the rest of you so we can’t let her know there’s two of us. Got it?”

She didn’t bother waiting for Tylvia’s answer. She opened the door carefully and slipped in.

Tylvia followed, closing the door behind her. It was dark. Tylvia felt Moira’s hand close around her wrist and pull her forward. They moved across a floor, as soundlessly as they could.

They reached another door and Moira opened it cautiously.

Tylvia peered over Moira’s shoulder. She was looking into a large room, high of ceiling and sparsely furnished – so far as she could see the only furniture was a large chair, something like a throne. But it was not that which attracted her attention. It was

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Captain van Orst.

He stood there and a woman – it had to be Azueron Ky, it had to be the star-witch – stood before him, her hand on his face, he mouth wide and laughing.

But the captain – something was wrong with the captain.

Then a few feet away from the captain and the star-witch she saw a white, still figure sprawled on the floor. It was a statue, she thought, but she had never seen a statue like that. The way it was posed – it was less like a copy of something posed, than it was like something frozen in mid-movement.

And it was, she knew it was, and it was Beatrice.

And the captain – he had that same white color to him, that same feeling of being frozen in mid-movement.

And the star-witch, that hated star-witch turned away from the captain and picked up a hammer on a small table and went to Beatrice and said, “Are you watching, Captain?” and raised the hammer over Beatrice’s head.

“Now,” said Moira, throwing the door full open. The need for silence was done and both girls rushed into the room.

zueron whirled and spotted them. Her eyes widened and she gave a cry of fury and rage. Then she looked around, toward the throne and gave a dive for it.

 

But Moira was almost to her and dove also.

She caught up with Azueron and knocked her to the floor and when the star-witch tried to get up, she slashed her hand with the knife, slicing open the back of the hand and arm. In the same movement, Moira grabbed the amulet that held Beatrice’s soul in her other hand. Azueron screamed and clutched her bleeding arm and fell to her knees. Moira hit her with her fist and sent her sprawling.

“You don’t know what a joy that gves me,” she said.

Azueron lay still.

Moira went quickly to the captain and touched the amulet he wore. Tylvia stared in amazement as the white faded into color, and the stone melted back to flesh. Within moments, the captain moved. He took two staggering steps backward, as if he had almost fallen.

He was gasping for air and staring dazedly about him. Tyvia said, “Captain van Orst?” as if she wasn’t sure who he was, and he said, “I thought I told you to go back to the ship.”

“No, sir,” she said. “All you told me was to wait and not do anything stupid. I guess I couldn’t help myself.”

“Indeed,” he growled.

Moira held the amulet out to him. “You can have this if you’ll give me the one around your neck,” she said.

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Van Orst took the amulet off and tossed it to her, in exchange for the other one. Then he rushed to the side of Beatrice.

He hung the amulet around her neck and pushed the switch. Then he took off his jacket and as she turned back from stone, he draped his jacket over her.

Moira was bent over Azueron, taking another necklace from her. A key hung from it. She turned her collar, looking for the lock. Tylvia rushed over and took the key from her, unlocked the slave collar and tossed it aside.

“Good,” said Moira. “If she’d kept the switch on her and not the key, I’d likely have been dead long before now.”

Azueron Ky was moaning and trying to push herself up.

“She’s watched me like a hawk, kept me chained at night. This is the first time she’s been distracted enough that I could get my hands on her.”

Azueron slowly and with considerable effort, got to her feet.“Hold her arms for me, won’t you, Tylvia?” Moira said.

ylvia came up behind Azueron and grabbed her arms. Azueron yelped in pain but Tylvia held on to both of them. Moira slipped the amulet over Azueron’s neck.

 

Suddenly realizing what Moira was up to, Azueron cried out and tried to break free from Tylvia. But Moira touched the control on the amulet and her cries were cut off in mid breath and Tylvia felt the flesh harden to stone underneath her fingers. She pulled away, quickly.

Beatrice was on her feet now, bundled in van Orst’s jacket, leaning against him. Her breath came in ragged gasps and her eyes were wide with a sort of terror Tylvia had never seen in them before. Van Orst put his arm around her and held her as tightly as he could, speaking her name softly to her.

The Captain said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Just leave her?” said Moira, indicating Azueron.

“It would serve her right.” He sighed. “I’ll call the authorities and have them decide what to do with her. Let’s go.”

Holding tightly to Beatrice, he started for the door, and Tylvia followed them.

There was a loud smash, and the sound of something cracking and Tylvia whirled around and saw Moira standing there, the hammer in her hand. She put it back on the table.

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“Was that necessary?” van Orst growled.

“Of course it was,” said Moira. “The authorities might have decided to push the wrong button.”

She kicked a piece of shattered stone across the floor and started to the door.




Fillo by Jim Garrison

 
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