Copyright 2015 Saffron Bryant
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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To Alberto Martin.
Corvus leapt from the ledge, his black cloak whipping out behind him, and slammed into the woman walking below. He stifled her screams with one hand and wrapped the other firmly around her waist. He breathed deeply through his nose, enjoying the smell of her, tasting her scent on the air.
She struggled against his arms, writhing, her blonde hair lashing from side to side, but he was too strong. She tried to cry for help but he tightened his grip, crushing her lips against her teeth.
He relished in the feel of her body thrashing against his.
The city streets were quiet in the early hours. There were no witnesses to see their struggle, with a single streetlamp casting a yellow glow over the scene. Their back and forth struggle was like a staged tango; loose gravel crunching under their feet and cool wind whistling through the cold dark street.
In the distance the inner city lights sparkled up the sides of skyscrapers. Somewhere a siren sounded. Corvus paid it no attention; he was invincible. He was high on his previous kills and full of energy. The rest of his coven wouldn't be far behind and in the meantime he could enjoy this tasty morsel.
Oh how good she smelled!
He opened his mouth to reveal pointed teeth. Every fibre of his being was completely and utterly focused on her. His ears strained to hear her gasping breath, his nose and mouth sensed nothing but the flavour of her. He closed his eyes to fully enjoy the meal.
"Stop right there. Keep your hands up, leach." The voice was hard, commanding.
Bright lights burst into life around Corvus. They burned his pale skin and illuminated the macabre scene. He screamed with pain as the lights scorched the backs of his eyes, and fell to his knees, releasing his victim.
The woman ran stumbling from him. She sprinted to the police where she was engulfed in a warm blanket and a wall of people.
Corvus snarled and struggled to his feet. He pushed himself up and whirled in circles. There were at least thirty guns aimed at him, filled with wooden bullets no doubt. He searched the darkness for any sign of the rest of his coven, but they were nowhere to be seen.
"Corvus Vadova you are under arrest for multiple counts of murder. Under the Alien Relations Act you will be sentenced to fifty year's imprisonment here on Boullion Five."
"Who dares speak to me like that?" Corvus snarled. Using their primitive language left a foul taste in his mouth.
"I am Inspector Briggles. Put your hands up and surrender or you will be killed." The voice was firm, commanding and, worst of all, unafraid.
Corvus glared around. He was surrounded and the lights stung his eyes. He had to narrow them against the glare, yet even then it burned. He sent out his senses and sniffed the air but he couldn't sense his coven. His insides clenched; they should have been here. The fact that they were nowhere in sight reeked of betrayal.
There was only one way he would get out of this alive. Sneering, he lifted his hands into the air and locked eyes with the inspector.
Five Years Later…
"They're here! They're coming!"
The security guard's voice echoed down the empty hall, but there was no response.
A bead of sweat dripped down the man's forehead as he stared into the darkness for any sign of movement. His heavy breaths made his name-tag bounce on his chest, the name Felix flicking in and out of the shadows.
Felix's gun was levelled into the darkness at the end of the corridor. The screams that had echoed about the stone passages just moments before had stopped. He was alone in the silent darkness. He tried his communicator chip again, but the signal was dead. No one was coming to save him.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are…" A smooth female voice weaved its way to Felix.
"You're under arrest. You will lay down your weapons this instant," Felix stuttered.
"Oh, I don't think so."
Shapes appeared out of the darkness and darted straight for him. He pulled the trigger and wooden bullets sprayed out. Just one of the approaching figures collapsed, before they were on him.
Felix's vision filled with dark eyes and pale skin.
It was the only thing he could get out before the creatures surrounded him, opening their mouths. In the place of tongues, thick black leaches extended out. The leaches were as long as Felix's forearm, folding out from each of the gaping mouths.
The leaches opened mouths of their own as they reached Felix's exposed flesh. Tiny teeth punctured his arms, legs, and neck, and he began to bleed. The leaches ripped into him with fiery bloodlust. Their jaws bit and slashed through to his vital arteries. Blood sprayed in an arc from his neck, soaking his attackers.
The last thing he saw was a leach lunging for his face.
"A little fatty," Laticia said, wiping a stray drop of blood from her crimson lips.
"Well look at him," Renet replied, poking Felix's protruding stomach.
"You won't hear me complaining. Delicious," said Trevalon, licking his lips.
"Maybe that explains the extra weight you've put on." Laticia said, arching an eyebrow. Her big eyes were heavily shadowed with mascara and stood out against her pale skin.
Trevalon frowned at Laticia and glanced down at his stomach. He withdrew his tongue and sat back on his haunches.
"You haven't changed at all." The silky voice drifted to them from down the corridor. "A voice like that could only be my sweet Laticia."
Laticia pushed past her companions and strode down the passage. Her hips swayed in time with her footsteps and a smile crept over her face.
"Corvus. It's been too long," she purred.
"Indeed. I hope your plan included a way to get me out," Corvus said.
"Of course," Laticia replied.
She clasped the heart-shaped locked around her neck, silently grateful that she'd get a chance to explain the past five years in person, rather than relying on the recorded message the locked contained.
She stood outside a massive metal box but she knew that inside it was wood. She pulled out the key she'd taken from Felix's body and slipped it into the metal door. It was an old fashioned locking system; modern ones were too easy to access remotely. The key clicked into place and the door swung open on rusty hinges.
Beyond the metal door was an immense wooden one. It looked to have been cut from a single tree, judging by the lines and woodwork tracing across its surface.
Laticia nodded her head towards the door and two of her companions stepped forward brandishing large axes. They cut at the wooden box, careful to avoid any flying splinters.
They made quick work of the cell and soon a hole opened to the room beyond.
The coven stepped away from the space, their eyes wide with anticipation. They each drew in a breath of awe as their leader stepped out of the shadows. He was just as Laticia remembered. Corvus's hair was jet black, darker even than the shadows all around him. His eyes were rimmed with red and glinted in the darkness. Even after being imprisoned for years he managed to look elegant. Wearing a long, black trench-coat, he adjusted the sleeves as he stepped forward.
He smiled at his coven, revealing his own pointed teeth.
Laticia's stomach clenched tight. He looked so calm, so composed, but she knew there had to be a storm brewing under the surface. Sure enough, it erupted far too quickly.
"What the hell happened?" Corvus roared, leaping forward.
All composure was gone, as his body slammed into Laticia and they both crashed against the far wall.
Her back slammed into the cold stone and pain tore through her spine. His fingers clasped tight around her throat. His eyes were wide, furious. Spittle dripped from the corner of his mouth as he glared at her.
"Where were you! Why have I been stuck in this hell-hole for years! You call yourself my female!"
"Corvus, there's more to it than you know. I'll explain but we have to get out of here."
Laticia tried to keep her voice steady, to keep the panic and guilt from gushing out with every word she said. Her eyes flickered to the rest of the coven. They were staring at her and Corvus with a mixture of horror and disbelief.
She had to get control of Corvus. Such a loss of composure would only be seen as weakness and then they'd have another uprising on their hands. She had to keep him focused; she could explain it all later.
"You left me here to rot."
"I never would," she whispered.
"I could have died."
"I would have died with you."
Corvus's hot breath traced across Laticia's face.
"More guards will arrive soon. We have to get out of here."
"This isn't over," Corvus said, his gaze deadly. He turned away from Laticia and glared at the rest of the coven. "This isn't over for any of you."
"Are you really planning on entering that thing again?" Cal asked.
Nova was underneath the hood of her racing craft, her fingers covered in oil.
"I'd be stupid not to. The prize money is five hundred credits."
"Yes, but it's also illegal," Cal pointed out. The Class Four Labourbot hovered above Nova's legs, his round panels reflecting the dim light of Crusader's engine room.
Nova held out her hand and Cal dropped an electric charger into her slippery grasp. She attached it to the racer's engine.
"Maybe, but there's no reason for it to be. Think about it, what harm does it do? It's just another case of the Human Confederacy putting their noses where they don't belong."
"Even if that were the case," Cal replied, his tone terse. "I'm sure that won't make a good defence when you're caught and thrown into jail for two years."
"Cal, I promise not to implicate you if I get caught," Nova said, smiling. Her voice was muffled due to the wrench held between her teeth.
"I should hope not. Robots don't get the option of a nice prison. Recycling, that's where I'd end up."
"You have nothing to worry about," Nova said.
"I don't understand how a bunch of yahoos flying around space in tiny ships is even a sport," Cal said. "Artificial intelligence chess; there's a sport you can really appreciate."
Nova snorted as she pulled herself out from under the vehicle. She stood and smiled at the racer that looked like a metal seed pod. She'd bought it three years ago from a wrecker and did it up herself. In her first bounty hunter space-race the engine had died just after the starting line. The second year she'd finished in the top ten and, more importantly, beat Kero. This year she was going to win.
"Looking sharp," Tanguin said as she stepped into Crusader's loading bay.
Nova always kept the racing craft safe inside Crusader, away from prying eyes and hands.
"Yep, this year is it," Nova said, rubbing her hands together. "This baby can fly in and out of atmosphere, has a shield strong enough to take on an asteroid and is faster than anything the Confederacy has put out in years."
"Have you taken her out for a test run yet?" Tanguin asked.
"I was just about to. You keen for a ride?"
"You know it." Tanguin grinned as she grabbed hold of the side door and swung up into the passenger's seat.
Nova walked around to the other side, wiping tiny specs of dirt off the sides of the ship as she went. When she'd first bought it, the craft was rusted to a dull brown, but with a few sharp deals she'd managed to score some bright red paint. Now the racer's finish was something to be proud of.
"Starting engines," Nova announced, flicking a series of switches. The engine at the back of the craft rumbled and the clear shield came up over their heads, encasing them in a bubble and blocking all noise from the outside.
"Alright Tanguin, you're on commentary."
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Tanguin said in a comically deep voice. "Today it is my pleasure to introduce Nova No-Brakes!"
Nova chuckled and continued to flick switches and check the dials. The temperature remained steady and the engine's power increased. She'd already stocked up on solarium fuel for the race; it was expensive but worth it for the extra boosts.
"Ready," Nova said.
"The racers are at the starting line. Engines ready, get set, go!" Tanguin yelled.
In response Nova shoved the throttle forward and grabbed hold of the steering wheel. The engine revved under their seats, roaring to be free.
"Ahh!" Tanguin screamed, staring between the door and Nova with panicked eyes.
Nova grinned, pressed a button above her head, and slammed the racer into gear. Crusader's back door dropped open and they shot out into space. Crusader's shield held the air inside as the racer burst out.
"Nova that wasn't funny!" Tanguin said, her chest heaving up and down.
"I disagree," Nova chuckled.
A practice course had been set up around The Jagged Maw bounty hunter guild. It was a simple set up with a few fake asteroids and obstacles; nothing compared to the real track.
Nova pushed forward and the ship gained speed. They rocketed through the open space and in an instant Crusader and The Jagged Maw were just a speck in the rear-view mirror.
"Come on commentator," Nova said, nudging Tanguin with her elbow.
"Commentator nearly died of fright," Tanguin said, before resuming her deep voice. "They're coming up to the first bend. It's a killer ladies and gentlemen, in fact we've already had three deaths in this race thanks to this particular corner."
Nova shook her head. At the last bounty hunter race they really had lost three people to the first corner. The asteroid field was always a major hazard to newer riders.
The imitation course at The Jagged Maw was nothing in comparison. It was just a couple of fake rocks held together by a thick chain.
Nova gripped onto the steering wheel as she approached and when she was level she pulled hard to the right.
The spaceship made an instantaneous right hand turn and cruised off in the opposite direction.
Nova pressed the red button by her knee and released the first solar blast. The fire spurted out from behind her ship and they reached a new level of speed.
"No-Brakes Nova is living up to her name as she annihilates the first corner. On the straight, she has no match and has already passed the rest of the field. The crowd is going wild!"
Tanguin held her hand over her mouth and imitated a cheering crowd.
Nova couldn't help but laugh.
They raced the rest of the way around the course in much the same fashion. Nova pushed the ship to its very limits and it came through every time. They arrived back at The Jagged Maw in record time. Nova slowed the craft and landed inside Crusader's storage bay.
"Nova that was incredible! What have you done to this thing?" Tanguin asked, her cheeks glowing.
"Just a few personal tweaks." Nova grinned.
"With a ship like this there's no way anyone will beat you."
"That's the plan. But don't give the game away, okay? As far as everyone else knows I'm using the exact same ship as last year."
"Nova, you know everyone's got cameras set up on this course. They are probably watching you right now and panicking."
"Do you remember about a week ago I asked you to edit some video feeds for me?"
"Well let's just say they won't have seen anything. So now you just have to say nothing and I'm set to win."
"You can count on me," Tanguin said, climbing out of the racer as soon as the shield lowered. "But you know, with your special abilities you could just play with time and make yourself win the race."
Tanguin's eyes twinkled as she turned to face Nova.
"Shh!" Nova frowned and looked around. "I don't want to even think about that, let alone play with it!"
A hot flush crept up Nova's cheeks. She'd done her best not to think about the Ancients or the haunting ability they'd given her. As far as she was concerned, if she ignored the problem it would eventually go away, and she wouldn't have to worry about falling through time ever again. Tanguin was the only person she'd told about it and even then she'd left out the terrifying details.
"Just a suggestion," Tanguin said, holding up her hands.
"A terrible suggestion," Nova said, tapping Tanguin's shoulder with her fist. "Come on, I'm starving."
Nova and Tanguin sat in the eating hall of The Jagged Maw with Aart, Orion, and Gus.
"So, I'm chasing this guy and we have a shootout in a brothel. I chase him through a church the size of this place while he's got a bullet wound in his arm. The idiot dives through a glass window and breaks his leg so I tackle him. He's got the thing stuffed down his shirt and a fake travel pass, plus all those injuries. You know what he says?" Aart's face glowed as he recounted the story. His hands waved across the table to illustrate each detail.
"Dude, get off me?" Orion said.
The others chuckled.
"Nope, he said 'it wasn't me' just like that. Face as serious as you can imagine," Aart said with a chuckle.
"I had one the other week who swore he had been set up. Frame job, you know?" Orion said. "Of course I didn't believe him and sent him straight to the lockup. But turns out, a week later, that his wife did it! Caught him cheating and wanted a bit of payback! Well, he got out of prison, but I don't think he'll be saving his marriage. He said something about setting fire to a house… or her arse… I can't remember which. He compared them so frequently that I lost track!"
The bounty hunters sniggered.
"Are you guys entering this year's bounty cup?" Nova asked.
"Of course," Aart said. "You?"
"I don't know why you two would bother." A big man leant over from the adjacent table. He had greasy black hair and a smirk on his face.
"Interesting," Nova said, her hands clenching into fists. "I don't remember asking you, Kero."
"I just thought I'd warn you now; save you some embarrassment," Kero said.
"What is that?" Tanguin's face was a mask of horror. Her mouth hung open as she pointed a shaking finger at Kero's neck. Dangling from a crude necklace made of string was a shrivelled ear. It was black and green with flecks of dried blood.
Nova's stomach churned. She could smell the rot coming of the blackened hunk of flesh as Kero leant closer.
"Trophy," he said. His mouth twisted into a wicked grin. He grabbed the ear and held it out towards Tanguin. "Do you like it?"
Tanguin pulled back, her mouth working.
"Where did you get that?" Nova said through gritted teeth.
"Class five planet," Kero said with a shrug. "Me and the boys went down there for some fun."
"Class five planets are forbidden!" Nova said through gritted teeth.
"Like you can talk," Kero scoffed. "You've visited them."
"Yes, but I didn't kill anyone and dismember them!"
Kero shrugged again. He laid his hands on their table so that his face was only inches from Nova's. The ear dangled between them.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to be so powerful?" he whispered, running his tongue over his lips. "They cowered before me like I was a god. I could have crushed them all."
His eyes were dilated and his voice dripped pleasure.
Nova leant as far away from Kero as her chair allowed. "You're disgusting."
"I was merciful!" Kero yelled, slamming his fist on the table, the room echoing with the sound. "I let some of them live; a few children."
"You're a monster."
"I'm a hunter."
Nova's hands clenched into fists on the table. If she killed him now she'd be doing the universe a favour.
"Oi, Kero! I've told you before!" Tim, one of the owners of The Jagged Maw, glared at Kero from across the hall.
Kero smiled at Nova and walked out of the mess hall without turning around.
"He's sick." Tanguin stared after him, her face even whiter than usual.
"I hope he crashes his racer and burns," Nova said.
"I just love our conversations with him," Aart said drily. "Does that mean you're entering the race?"
Nova took three deep breaths. There was nothing she could do about Kero right now. Unfortunately most of The Jagged Maw thought he was a big-time hero. He only showed his true self to Nova and her companions. She'd find a way to take him down and unmask him; then he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone anymore. She forced her mind away from Kero and back to the race and Aart's words.
"Yeah, thought I'd kick your arse again," she said, holding up her glass.
Her companions chuckled and clinked their glasses against hers.
"Oh come on, last year was a fluke. I could easily have beaten you," Aart said.
"As I seem to remember, you crashed on the first lap and had to be taken to the med-ship," Nova said with mock concern. That garnered an even bigger laugh from the hunters.
"Oh ha-ha, hilarious. I was distracted."
"Yes," said Orion. "I'm sure if you'd just paid more attention to where you were going instead of looking at the Happy Hunter's cheer team you would have been fine."
"Doesn't that speak volumes," Nova said with a smirk.
"What a ridiculous name anyway," Aart mumbled. "Sounds like a group of fluffles or something."
"I don't get the point of those things," Gus said. "You have to feed them, walk them, and clean up after them. What a nightmare!"
"They're adorable," Tanguin said. "Have you seen the new range?"
"Of what?" Aart said.
"Of fluffles. I hear you can get spiked metal ones now," Tanguin said.
"Doesn't sound very cuddly," Nova said. "May as well get a pet-bot for that."
"No way. I want one of those glow-in-the-dark, spotted fluffles," Orion said.
"And maybe you and it can retire to the Austral System with all the other old people." Aart smirked.
"Aww shut up Aart, I saw you looking at them on the Cloud," Orion replied, sticking out his tongue.
"Oh, have you guys seen the new poster?" Tanguin said.
"Yeah, but I wouldn't touch it in a million years," said Aart.
"Me neither," Orion replied, laying out a digi-poster on the table.
"What's this?" Nova said, pulling the message down from the communal screen and onto her personal reader.
"Didn't you hear about that one?" Tanguin said. "Of course no one's willing to touch it."
"Oh that, yeah I'm heading there after I eat," Nova said.
"Are you serious?" Tanguin said.
"Yeah, the man running the case called me up. Easy peasy."
"You say that now but look; it's dealing with lecheons on Boullion Five."
"I didn't know they were still allowed in human colonies," said Gus, taking another swig of his drink.
"They're usually not. Boullion Five allows some but this one escaped from prison," Aart said, pointing to the relevant section of text.
"Still," Nova said. "Three thousand credits?"
"No way Nova, you'd have to be crazy," Tanguin said.
"Well then, call me bonkers because I'm doing it," she replied.
"No way! I would never be that reckless!" said Aart.
"Your loss." Nova shrugged. "I'll see you in a few days when I'm rich."
"They broke in here," Chief Inspector Briggles said. He pointed to a gaping hole in the side of the prison.
"How did they make it? I thought lecheons weren't much stronger than us?" Nova asked.
"They're not. It was some kind of explosive; we've cleared away most of the debris now."
"Why did you put the call out to the bounty hunters?"
"Our usual methods didn't work." Briggles shrugged. "Of course the Confederacy didn't want to hear one word about it. They don't want an inter-species incident. We're desperate if I'm being honest with you. It's been two weeks since he escaped."
"Okay then. Lead on," Nova said, waving her hand.
Briggles led her through the gaping hole and into the hallway beyond. Dim lights flickered overhead, lighting the ancient corridor.
"They knew where they were going, that's for sure. They could have been watching the place for months for all we know."
"Any casualties?" Nova asked.
"Five, all the men we had in this wing."
"Did any other prisoners escape?"
"No, just the one. Corvus. He was the only lecheon we had in here."
"How long had he been imprisoned?"
"It would have been about five years now. I was one of the prosecutors that originally put him away."
"How long was his sentence?"
"It was supposed to be fifty years. He drained seven young girls, can you believe it? It was shocking to see, their faces were as pale as ghosts. Double rings of teeth marks on their necks. Of course, those seven are just the ones we know about."
"Why did his coven wait so long to release him?" Nova asked.
"I couldn't say, maybe they were waiting for a special occasion, or maybe it's taken them this long to get ready, although I doubt it. It's not hard to find explosives."
"What about the bodies of your guards who died?" Nova said.
"We've moved them now of course, but we've got reality projectors set up so you can see the scene exactly as it was when we found it. The normal recording equipment was offline for the whole incident, some lecheon trick I assume."
"Show me the projections," Nova said.
Inspector Briggles clicked his fingers and the room around them changed. The lights turned off and were replaced by projectors. They cast a grim scene on the stone corridor, exactly recreating every inch of the passage as it had been found by the inspectors, down to the tiniest drop of blood.
"You can see the first few guards went down here." Briggles gestured to three bodies in security uniforms. They lay at disjointed angles and their faces were deathly white.
"Why are there so many bites?" Nova asked. She had always been taught that a lecheon left a single set of teeth marks on a person's neck. These bodies were covered with multiple bites.
"Our experts say that's what happens when they hunt in a pack." Briggles looked with sad eyes on the fallen guards.
"The whole coven fed on these men?" Horrified, Nova imagined a horde of lecheons feasting on the guards.
"Drained them dry," Briggles said.
"Hard to say. More than five."
"Do you have any idea which coven is involved?"
"Obviously I can't make any open accusations but it has to be Corvus's coven. Aside from logic, security footage at the local club caught his long-time girlfriend, Laticia, in the area."
"Do they have any known hideouts on Boullion Five?"
"We've already checked the ones we know about, but I'll send you a list anyway."
"Good," Nova said.
"If you'll follow me there's the final victim. A new guard, he only started a week before this happened. He was fascinated by the lecheons, wanted to fight for open communication between our species. I wonder what he'd think of them now?" Briggles sighed.
Nova followed Briggles further down the corridor where another body lay. Like the others, it was drained of colour, and covered in bite marks.
Nova stepped forward to examine the body and noticed something by her foot. She knelt down and lifted up a wooden pellet.
"Ah yes. Wooden bullets. All the guards in this wing were armed with them. It looks like Felix here was the only one who managed to shoot any off though."
Nova cast her eyes around the dim room. Felix's back had been against the wall. The lecheon's had come at him down the hallway. In her mind's eye Nova could see the events playing out. She saw Felix pulling his trigger and spraying the bullets at his attackers.
"They would have gone in an arc from his position," Nova muttered to herself, striding to the nearest wall. She ran her hand along its length until she found what she was looking for; a chip in the rocks and a wooden bullet lying some distance down the hall.
She stepped away from the wall and cast her eyes around for the next bullet. Her eyebrows drew together when she couldn't see it.
"It should be right here," Nova said, tapping her foot on the ground.
She knelt down and pattered her hand on the cement floor.
"Look at this," she said, pointing to a slightly darker patch.
"You don't think?" Briggles said, his voice trailing off.
"Lecheon blood, I'd put money on it. Felix managed to take one of the blood-suckers down."
"A wooden bullet would have killed it," Briggles said.
Nova shrugged. "Obviously they didn't want to leave us with a body. Is the blood any good to us?"
"No. The Confederacy doesn't let us keep files on the lecheons. Even if we could sample the blood, we wouldn't be able to match it."
"Poor Felix," Briggles muttered, shuffling down the corridor. "Corvus's cell is here. You can see they basically hacked it to pieces, probably with axes."
"Made a mess of it too," Nova said as she looked at the splintered wooden box.
"So what's the next step?" Briggles asked.
"Keep me posted. I want to know as soon as you have any more information."
"Of course," Briggles said. "What will you be doing?"
Nova shrugged and trudged backwards away from the cell. "Searching. They're a coven of vengeful blood-suckers. They're bound to show up again soon enough."
"You know you really should be focusing on the lecheons, not on your space racer," Cal said as he watched Nova tinkering with the engine.
"I can do both."
"Yes, but can you do both well?" Cal asked.
"It's fine," Nova replied. "Besides, I've got to get this thing up to scratch; the race is only one week away."
"Are you hoping to have the lecheons in prison by then, or are you just going to dash off for a quick illegal space race?"
"Whichever. And you know as well as I do that they shouldn't be illegal. The only reason they are is because the Confederacy wants to run them so they can tax the entrants and take tolls on all the spectators."
"Yes, yes, I know the economic reasons."
"Good. I think this is nearly finished, at least for now. I still need you to chisel down the steering socket."
"It's at the top of my to-do list," Cal said dryly.
"I thought one of the benefits of having a robot was that they don't have attitudes?"
"I'm afraid you were mistaken."
Nova rolled her eyes and tucked her tools back into place in their box. Her hands were covered in grease that refused to come off even when she wiped them on a piece of cloth.
"Crusader, can you patch me through to Tanguin?"
A few moments later the intercom crackled into life.
"Hey, what's up? Have you been sucked dry by lecheons yet?" Tanguin's voiced floated down out of Crusader's speakers.
"Hey," Nova said, walking through Crusader to the pilot's chair where she took a seat in front of Tanguin's face. "No. Although that is what I wanted to talk to you about."
"I don't see what good I can be, but okay. What do you want?"
"There's a whole coven here," Nova said. "At least six lecheons, probably more."
"What? On Boullion Five?"
"Yeah I know, that was my response too. Something about releasing their coven leader, I don't know. He's been in there five years. Who can understand lecheons? Anyway, my point is, things could get ugly."
"Then back out now," Tanguin said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"You know I'm not going to do that. Besides, I'm not really scared. I just wanted someone else to know."
"Thanks. I'll be having nightmares for weeks now."
"Not so," Nova chuckled.
"You really should ask for backup. I'm sure Aart would lend a hand, even if he was scared stiff at the first mention of lecheons."
"No." Nova's voice was firm. "Tanguin, if you so much as breathe a word to Aart that I even called you, then I will hunt you down and feed you to the coven myself."
"Chill your wires girl," Tanguin said, holding up her hands in surrender. "Even though you know I'm right. If a few of you field hunters worked the case together it wouldn't even be a problem."
"No way, then I'd have to share the bounty," Nova said, grinning.
Her stomach clenched, but she kept her smile in place. Lecheons were dangerous at the best of times. Even with a group of hunters, this was a dangerous mission.
Tanguin rolled her eyes. "Fine. But if you don't check in with me every twenty-four hours, then I'm allowed to tell someone."
"Nova. If there's nothing to be scared of then it won't matter, it just means I get to talk to you every day. But if something does happen, at least I'll know and can do something."
"Just not Aart," Nova said.
"It will be whoever is around."
"Fine," grumbled Nova. "Not that it will do any good. It's not like any of them would risk an entire coven just to save my sorry arse."
"I think you'd be surprised," Tanguin said. "But all the same, I'm taking that as a yes."
"Alright, if that's your condition. I'll call you every evening. Just don't go mental if I'm a few minutes late, okay?"
"Of course not, I know what your sense of time is like," Tanguin said, smiling.
They both chuckled. Tanguin was more than aware of Nova's obsessive need to know the time, and be on time, all the time.
"Good, I'll talk to you tomorrow then."
"Talk to you then. And, Nova, be careful," Tanguin said. Her pale eyes stared straight at Nova through the screen, not a hint of humour in them. It was clearly a warning.
Corvus stood on top of the building and relished in the wind rushing against his skin. He hadn't felt this powerful since being locked in the wooden cell. The whole universe was spread out before him, ready to be drained dry.
Humans walked about on the streets below. Stupid cattle.
He couldn't wait to feast. The synthetic blood he'd been forced to eat for the last five years made his stomach churn. It was foul; he may as well have licked the rust off the walls to survive.
"Where shall we hunt tonight?" Laticia asked.
Corvus felt her step up behind him. Her voice was shaky, scared. Good. She deserved to be scared. The whole coven had betrayed him. It was unthinkable, unprecedented. A coven was more than family, more than blood. To be part of a coven was to be a part of something bigger. Any lecheon worth the air they breathed would give their life for their coven, and give it twice for their coven's leaders.
So why had he been left alone to be captured?
Coven spat at the ground. He would get his answers, but first he had to feed. The yearning for blood was so strong that he couldn't concentrate.
Laticia's perfume was heady. He licked his lips and looked over his shoulder at her.
"After all this time I think I should treat myself," he said.
"A young girl it is then," Laticia smiled. Her open mouth revealed the leach moving back and forth behind her teeth.
"With me," Corvus called out louder so that the rest of the coven scattered across the roof would hear. In an instant they were standing by his side.
"Before we go we need to settle something," Corvus said, looking over his coven. They were small and pitiful. They stared up at him with the hopeful, expectant eyes of children.
"Whatever you wish master," Laticia spoke on behalf of them all.
"Where were you?" Corvus asked quietly.
"Master?" Laticia's face fell and her brows drew together.
"On that night, five years ago, when I was taken. Where were you?"
"We were too far away to hear you; we were hunting," Laticia responded.
"Why?" Corvus glared at his coven. "Why would you be that far away when you should have been with me?"
"Master, we're sorry for what happened. We went to hunt in a different direction that night."
"Am I not leader of this coven?" Corvus asked. He looked at each of his coven in turn. He glared into their eyes and his gaze pierced straight through to their souls.
His heart beat faster, and the anger which had built up inside him during his five years of captivity bubbled to the surface. He'd spent hundreds of sleepless nights running over what had happened and wondering where they'd been. He'd been forced to endure more pain and humiliation than he'd ever thought possible. It was their fault he had lost five years of his life.
"Of course, Master," Laticia said, her head hanging low.
"Then why weren't you hunting with ME!" Corvus spat the last word and pounded his fist down onto his chest.
"We're sorry, Master. It won't happen again."
"You're right it won't happen again. And if I get even a whiff of one of you betraying me or undermining my authority in any way," Corvus paused for emphasis. "You'll wish you were born human."
"Yes master," Laticia whispered.
"Am I understood?" Corvus yelled to the rest of the coven.
"Yes master," they replied.
"Good. Then tonight we hunt."
He would let the matter lie for now, but he wouldn't forget. They should have been with him and he would find out why they weren't, if it was the last thing he ever did. For the moment though he was hungry. Now was the time to feed.
He began a mad dash down the stairs. He leapt from one landing to the next with the agility of a hunting cat. His nostrils flared and he caught the individual scent of every beating heart for a mile around. He could almost taste them and the very thought pumped saliva into his mouth.
He sniffed again, sorting through the different flavours. Some blood was hinted with spice, others were sweet. Some blood was so filled with grease and fat that even the smell made Corvus turn up his nose. There was one particular scent he was looking for. All lecheons had their favourite taste. Corvus's was so mainstream it was practically a stereotype. He liked the flavour of young women.
Young ladies always had the same flavour. It was a heady mix of flowers and candy with just a hint of apple. To Corvus, it was delicious and he loved it.
"There it is." Corvus whipped his head to the left and started down the road. His coven kept close behind. "I can practically feel it!"
The coven sprinted down the street. Corvus led them left, then right, then right again. They ran down dark alleys, concealed by the shadows. Corvus leapt over a large rubbish bin and kept running. One by one his coven followed.
"So close!" Corvus panted.
The wind rushed past his hair and made his long cloak fan out behind him. It was a calf-length leather jacket which was made to fit. It clung closely to his skin but allowed him free movement. The exposed skin registered the cool breeze, a welcome change from the stale air of his cell.
His boots slapped against the pavement. These concrete jungles were perfect for hunting. So many places to hide and so much food. The cattle walked around day after day, just begging to be feasted upon. Corvus relished in the stretch of his legs and arms as he pelted down the street. His muscles would soon recover from his time of incarceration and then he would be truly powerful once more.
He ran around the final corner and the small alley opened up onto a bigger street. Dozens of people were walking along the footpath, but his vision narrowed on the one he wanted. Corvus drew a deep breath through his nostrils and savoured the flavour. It wafted over to him on the night air, teasing him.
The lecheons hid in the shadows of the alley. Their prey drew closer. She was a young woman wearing a strapless black dress. Her brown hair was held high on her head, with small wisps floating down to frame her face. She walked in heels with practiced ease and hummed to herself. Her eyes were large, larger than most humans, probably the result of a mod. That was unfortunate; the mods always left a slightly metallic taste in the bloodstream.
When the woman stepped past the alley Corvus's hand shot out and grabbed hold of her wrist. He whipped her into the darkness of the backstreet and away from any witnesses. He wrapped her close to his body. He drew in deeply through his nostrils with his face buried in her neck. The smell of her blood was too much. It begged him to feed on her, to suck her dry.
The humans brought it on themselves. If they didn't taste so darn good he might have been satisfied with the synthetic stuff. But the synthetic stuff could never compare to this; this heaven of aromas.
Before the woman could cry out for help, Corvus's hands wrapped around her mouth. He buried his face in her hair and inhaled. His long leach tongue extended out from between his teeth. He drew it slowly up the woman's neck, leaving a trail of saliva.
She shivered and squirmed against him. Tears trickled down her cheeks and pooled against Corvus's hand. He took his time to feel her warmth, to taste her. The heady flavour soared over his tongue and down his throat.
His coven stood back and watched. They waited with barely controlled anticipation. Corvus could smell their desire. He could feel their eyes watching him, filled with jealousy. He smiled.
He couldn't stand the wait any longer. Her drew back and lunged for the woman's neck. His teeth tore into her throat, sending blood dribbling down her neck. A stray spurt splattered the alley like crude graffiti.
His hand muffled her screams as he latched onto her and refused to let go. He kept his eyes open. Usually he would have closed them and allowed himself to become completely lost in the flavour. But at that moment he couldn't risk it. He had no idea what his coven were planning. It wasn't worth it.
His eyes flicked between each member of his coven. They stared at him with envy but they daren't move. A few of their tongues lolled out and the leaches at the ends opened their own mouths and gnashed their teeth.
The corners of Corvus's mouth turned up. Let them stare. Let them remember who their leader was. It was his right to feed and if they were lucky enough to get some leftovers then it was only because of his generosity. Let them see and let them learn.
The woman's blood was warm. The strapless dress and lifted up hair made it especially easy for him to reach her neck. It was like she'd gone out that night dressed especially for him. Her pale, creamy neck shone in the limited moonlight and begged to be feasted upon. Corvus was only too happy to oblige.
The warm liquid slid down his throat. It coated his mouth and his teeth and flowed down to his stomach leaving his whole body feeling warm and whole. The flowery, candy smell transformed into taste. His entire mouth was filled with the sensation. It was so good after his years of captivity, years of having to survive on synthetic blood, that he barely noticed the metallic tang of her mod. This was heaven.
As he continued to feed, he felt her losing strength. She stopped struggling against his arms, and then she stopped trying to scream. In the end, her legs gave out and Corvus lowered both her and himself onto the pavement. He bent over her and continued to suck at her neck. Her face and body was even paler now that she was drained of blood. Her eyes were wide and unseeing.
Corvus kept his senses alert, ready in case one of his coven should decide to attack him. Even though his coven had gone out of their way to save him, he couldn't trust them. Even as he enjoyed the feast he kept his muscles tense and his ears strained. If he was attacked he would be ready.
He sucked until the very end. Until there wasn't a single drop of blood left in the young woman. She looked shrunken now that she was empty of all fluids. It was a stark difference to the lively girl who had been bouncing down the street, humming, only a few minutes earlier.
Corvus reluctantly pulled back his tongue and lifted his mouth from the girl's neck. He stared down at her, her face locked in his memory. How had his species survived so long feeding on animals when there was this heaven only a few solar systems over? He licked his lips. The heady fragrance still filled his nose and mouth. If he was lucky it would stay with him for a few days, then he could really enjoy it.
"We're done here," he said. He didn't bother to look at his coven as he backed away from the woman and ran down the alley, back to their hideout.
"What happened?" Nova asked.
She stood inside a circle of yellow tape with Inspector Briggles. The alley was spattered with blood and lying on the cold ground was a pale, white corpse.
"The victim, a Miss Ruby Bellows, was expected home at eleven pm. When she didn't show her boyfriend called her work, but they said she'd left hours ago. The body was found at six this morning by a man on his way to work."
"And you're sure it was the same lecheon coven?"
"No doubt about it. She's been completely drained just like the others."
Nova nodded and strode to the woman's body. She had a single set of teeth marks on her neck.
"Why was she only bitten once?" Nova asked.
"Perhaps I can answer that." An older man stepped forward. His eyes were a startling blue and he carried a tattered book under his arm.
"Is that an actual book?" Nova's eyebrows shot straight up.
"Yes, I've been investigating lecheon ancient history. Some of it isn't on the Cloud, or if it is it's classified."
"I see. And who are you?" Nova asked.
"This is our lecheon expert, Doctor Dunwood," Inspector Briggles said as he studied his notepad.
"Okay. So doctor, why does she only have one bite mark? The guards at the prison had many."
"Ah, quite true. After reading up on lecheon culture it seems to me that this particular victim was probably bitten by Corvus alone. I suspect it was probably some kind of victory feast after escaping from prison. I understand that lecheons feel that the artificial blood tastes nothing like the real stuff. Perhaps Corvus was desperate for a taste?"
"And it is known that young women were Corvus's preference," Inspector Briggles cut in.
"Preference?" Nova asked.
"Oh yes, much like you might prefer chips while I prefer steak. The lecheons each have their food preferences," Dunwood said.
"Charming," Nova said. "What else can you tell me about the lecheons?"
"Only general things really," said Dunwood. "I know they've been feeding on humans for a lot longer than we've known about them. One of their stranded ships initiated the vampire myths in early Earth history."
"I don't need myths, doctor; I need to know how to kill them," Nova said.
"Oh, our force does not condone the killing of lecheons," Inspector Briggles stepped in. "Our purpose in hiring you was to capture the criminals and return them to jail."
Nova turned her violet eyes to the inspector and stared straight through him. "I'm sorry, did I say kill? Of course, I meant capture." Nova smiled with her mouth but her eyes remained emotionless.
"Of course," said Doctor Dunwood. "I'm afraid I can't tell you much more than you already know. The lecheons are sensitive to wood, as you would have seen at the prison. They can heal much faster than humans and have a higher pain threshold. They are quite impervious to metal, so standard weapons are useless. You'll be able to do some damage with plasma weapons and if you manage to set them on fire, they'll probably die."
"It's all theoretical. Obviously we can't perform experiments to test any of this."
"Obviously." Nova turned back to the crime scene. "Look." She pointed to a patch of ground.
Inspector Briggles knelt beside her. "It's just some dirt," he said.
"Not just any dirt." Nova pinched a sample between her fingers and held it up to the light. "It's sand. Very fine sand," she said.
"Sand?" Briggles said. "There aren't any beaches near here."
"Exactly." Nova brushed the sand off her palm. "Briggles, I need a list of all glass manufacturers and any other warehouses that might have sand."
"Of course, I'll have it sent straight to you." Briggles took a couple of steps away, before pulling out his communicator and relaying her request to head office.
"Doctor Dunwood," Nova said, standing up. "Is it true that lecheons are sensitive to sunlight?"
"Yes, that's right," the doctor said. "It's their eyes. The lecheon home planet is much darker than most of the human colonies. To them, our lights and sun are too bright; while to us it's almost as if they can see in the dark."
"Excellent," Nova said.
"It won't kill them though. They just won't be able to see very well."
"At this point I'll take whatever I can get."
"The list has been forwarded to you," Briggles announced.
"Good," Nova said, nodding. "Let me know if anything else pops up." She ducked under the yellow tape and marched away from the crime scene.
"Cal, what do you make of Briggles's list?" Nova asked. She sat inside Crusader enjoying a large pile of chips. Doctor Dunwood had made her hungry with his talk of food.
"As you can imagine there aren't many places near here still using sand," Cal said, hovering by her side.
Crusader's front screen flashed to a bird's eye image of the city. Three red dots lit up showing where sand could have come from.
"Are they all still in operation?" Nova asked.
"These two are," Cal said and two of the red dots turned blue. "But the third one has been out of use for two years."
"Then that's where they are," Nova said, popping a chip into her mouth.
"Are you certain?" Cal asked.
"Yes. The sand had blood on top of it, but there was also some underneath it, which says to me that it was deposited during the girl's murder."
"Do you think the lecheons were carrying sand?" Cal asked.
"More likely it was caught on one of their shoes and the tumult with the girl shook it lose."
"What's your plan?"
"I'm going in, just as soon as I finish these chips."
"Should you ask the police to accompany you?"
"Don't worry. I'm not going in to attack them. This is purely research."
Nova crept around the side of the large warehouse. The street was abandoned; most manufacturing had moved off-world to the Resources District. The metal walls were corrugated and covered with rust. Graffiti created splashes of colour in the otherwise grey district.
Footprints dotted the ground around the warehouse, but the area was eerily silent. The only noise was the wind howling through an abandoned warehouse and somewhere a metal door was banging back and forth in the breeze.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
There were no other people in sight. It was a ghost town, at least during the day. The ragged piles of cloth piled against the side of the warehouse suggested that at night time the area became a refuge for the homeless. Just like serial killers, lecheons made easy meals of the homeless and lonely, as no one noticed when they disappeared.
The map of the warehouses had been uploaded to Nova's mental chip and the image displayed clearly in front of her mind's eye. It looked harmless enough. Footprints led up to a closed metal door. Nova stood on the tips of her toes to peer through a dirt-stained window. The upper panes lay shattered on the ground by her feet. She couldn't make anything out through the gloom inside.
Nova held her gun at the ready. The lecheons might be able to heal faster than her but she was sure a few well-aimed plasma blasts would slow them down. She laid a hand on the swinging metal door and pushed it inwards. It swung open with a creak.
Nova jumped and her heart leapt up into her throat. Her shoulders, arms and back tensed and she whirled towards the noise. Her breath caught in her throat.
It was the door in the distance, swinging in the breeze.
She let her breath out slowly and turned back to the black interior of the warehouse. She forced her muscles to relax and flexed her hand as it clutched her gun. It was just the wind. If there were lecheons here she'd teach them a thing or two and then bring them straight to Inspector Briggles.
Nova waited just inside the door with bated breath. There was no noise from inside. If the lecheons had been in the path of the light they didn't let Nova hear.
She stepped further into the doorway with her gun level. Her eyes peered into the darkness but she couldn't make anything out.
Nova fumbled with the side of her gun until a beam of light shone out from the top of the barrel.
She swung the weapon left and right. Sure enough, the floor of the warehouse was covered with sand. There were piles of it, almost as if an entire beach had been tipped into the building. Scattered amongst the sand were crates and boxes. Most of them had had their lids forced open and their contents spread across the floor.
Pools of dried blood stained some of the sand red. Spatters and droplets spread out from the warehouse door, creating morose patterns on the ground.
She peered up into the rafters. Metal beams held the roof in place, rusted and dented. Deep shadows filled the crevices where the roof met the walls. She shone her light into the recesses, but there was still no sign of any lecheons.
Nova lowered her weapon. The lecheons had definitely been here at some time but there was no sign of them now. She scoured the building for some clue as to where they'd gone. They couldn't have gone hunting during the day, they would be asleep somewhere, and all evidence pointed to this warehouse.
Nova marched across the warehouse, her eyes scanning every surface and every spec of sand. She didn't find any bodies but the blood was proof enough that the lecheons had been there at some point.
"Grishnak," Nova swore, kicking the sand as she headed for the door, she was no closer to finding the coven.
"Such dirty language for such a pretty girl," Corvus said, jumping from the rafters and landing in front of Nova.
Nova's hand went straight to her gun but she was too slow. Corvus moved forward and caught her wrist in a vice-like grip.
"Oh I don't think so," he said.
"I have people with me, they'll shoot you down," Nova said.
"Really? You seem like a lone kind of hunter," Corvus said, stroking Nova's cheek with his spare hand.
"Let me go and I won't kill you."
Nova's heart ramped up. It felt like it was beating a hundred times a second. Her breath quickened and sweat burst out of her forehead. Her knees felt weak, as if she'd been running for miles.
"Sensing distress. Sending backup." Cal's alarmed voice sounded in her head but she barely heard it over the noise of her own breathing.
Agony coursed through her wrist from Corvus's powerful grip, but she kept her face immobile; she wouldn't let him see the fear which surged underneath.
"I like a girl with spirit," Corvus said and then began to laugh. It was a hysterical chuckle which echoed around the empty warehouse.
Somewhere in the distance was the growing roar of an engine. Nova would recognise it anywhere; it had to be Crusader. Hope surged in her chest.
"So my dear, what's your name?" Corvus asked.
Nova wanted to give a hot reply but there was something wrong with her face, it refused to do what she wanted. It was like there was something getting between her brain and her body.
"What are you—"
"Ah, the magic of pheromones, amazing isn't it? I guess your experts didn't tell you about that? I'm not surprised; we generally keep it as our own little secret. If it hadn't been for all that damn wood I could have made it out of the prison in five days instead of five years with this little trick."
"You're so handsome," Nova said. Her eyes went wide at her own words. Why had she said that? But then her gaze was caught back on the lecheon and it was as if nothing else existed. The pain of his hand clasped about her wrist was gone, as was the fear she had felt. It was all replaced with a soft doe-eyed infatuation.
"I never get tired of hearing that." Corvus laughed. He let go of Nova's wrist but kept his eyes firmly locked with hers.
Nova stood staring back at him. She didn't attempt to run away or escape; instead, her gun fell out of her loose hand. A tiny voice at the bottom of her skull tried to yell a warning but it was shushed by the rest of her.
"Did you tell anyone where you were going?" Corvus asked.
"Only Cal," Nova replied.
"Who is Cal?"
"Ha-ha a labourbot, how quaint. Will you be missed if you don't return straight away?"
"No, no one will notice."
"Good. Then how about you and I go for a walk?"
Nova nodded. She had barely blinked since Corvus took hold of her wrist. Her entire mind was focused on the angles of his face and his dark hair. Her heart was still racing but instead of fear it was nervousness. She felt like a girl on her first date. Her face flushed red but she couldn't look away. She was entirely enamoured.
"Let's go then," Corvus said, leading her to the back of the warehouse. He stopped next to a large crate and pushed. It slid back to reveal a dark passage leading down under the warehouse.
"In you go."
Nova obeyed his instructions like a puppet and descended down the narrow stairs into the darkness beyond.
"I'll bet she tastes bitter," a female voice purred.
Nova's eyes stung and she had to battle to pull herself out of unconsciousness. The last thing she remembered was going down the steps with Corvus. Now she was hung up in a dark room. A guttering candle cast an insubstantial light over the room. Her arms and shoulders ached from the pull of the rope which held her a foot above the ground. Her head pounded and her stomach rolled.
"Well then you won't mind if I feed second will you, Laticia?"
"That's not what I meant, Pamielle."
"Too bad, it's my turn to feed," Pamielle said.
"You're despicable. You are so low you should be feeding after Selene!" Laticia waved at a woman with hunched shoulders who huddled at the back of the group. "As Corvus's prime female it is my right to feed second."
"Who said you're Corvus's prime? Haven't you heard he prefers younger women?"
Nova forced her eyes open just a slit so she could see the scene beyond. Many women were gathered not far from her. Two were facing each other with their fists clasped at their sides. A pile of furniture was piled against the wall. Standing at the edge of the dim room were a few young men who watched the argument with mild disinterest. Corvus sat as still as a statue. His eyes glazed over as he glared into the distance.
There were at least twenty lecheons, although it was difficult to tell in the semi-darkness and with her head pounding in agony.
Nova's stomach fluttered when she looked at Corvus but it soon passed, a left-over of Corvus's pheromones, which at least at that moment were not in action. Her stomach dropped as she remembered how easily he had held her in his sway. She would have done anything he had asked of her; there was no way that she could let him do that again.
"How dare you!" Laticia said. She lifted her hand and slapped Pamielle across her face.
"You struck me!" Pamielle raised her balled fist and went to smash it into Laticia's nose.
"Stop!" Corvus's voice echoed through the small room and everyone stopped what they were doing.
Pamielle's fist froze mid-air and Laticia's mouth was left half open.
Nova used the distraction to work a small knife up her sleeve and cut at the ropes tying her wrist. Her head pounded harder. Every movement of her arms as she sawed through the rope sent another wave of pain through her. Her stomach rolled with nausea and a seed of panic was beginning to bloom deep down in her gut. Her eyes refused to do what she wanted; they kept sliding from side to side or moving to look at Corvus. Her lids were especially heavy and she had to struggle to stay awake even in the midst of mortal danger.
"Nova, what's going on? You've been blacked out for ages and now I'm getting abnormal brain activity," Cal murmured in her mind. Nova didn't pay him any attention. His voice faded into nothing as she focused on the lecheons.
"What have you become? Animals?" Corvus asked. "Five years I have been gone and you're squabbling like children."
"She needs to learn—"
"No, Laticia! You need to learn. I lead this coven and you will eat in the order I allow." Corvus stood and gazed out over his people. He cast an imposing figure and his fellow lecheons drew back.
"Your behaviour is disgraceful, both of you," Corvus said. He took a step closer to the two women. They dropped their hands to their sides and their eyes to the ground. Both of them kneeled in front of Corvus.
"Laticia, I expected more from you. As my prime female everything you do reflects on me. You dishonour me."
"I'm sorry, my lord," Laticia whispered.
"And you. You should know your place," he spat at Pamielle. "Did this whole coven go to a cosmic craphole without me? Does respect mean nothing now?"
The two women stared at the ground, their faces flushing.
Corvus reached the two women and placed a hand on each of their shoulders. "Apologise to each other. As punishment for your behaviour neither of you will feed."
Laticia and Pamielle's eyes flew open but they said nothing.
"Good. I believe our snack is awake, so it's time for another feast!"
Corvus swung around to face Nova and a grin spread across his face. Nova's heart raced so hard she could hear her own heartbeat. The lecheons formed a circle behind Corvus; a few licking their lips.
Nova smiled back at them and in that instant the ropes holding her to the rafters broke and she dropped to the floor. As she fell she threw a small sphere at the ground. It exploded in a bright flash of light which filled every corner of the dim room.
The lecheons screamed and drew back. They covered their faces with their hands and cowered away from her. She didn't wait a second before rolling to her feet and sprinting as hard as she could to a wooden chair leaning against the far wall.
Her arms ached and her head pounded as she ran but she ignored them. The worst thing was her vision. Why did her eyes refuse to stay open? It was as if fatigue had caught up with her whole body. She was sure that if she stopped running for even a second that she would fall asleep instantly.
The vampires stumbled, half-blind. They blinked furiously before locking their eyes on her. It took a few seconds but eventually they shook themselves free of their surprise and chased her. They were far faster than Nova and gained on her as every second passed. Corvus was in front; his long black coat trailing out behind him as he sprinted towards Nova. The rest of his coven was right behind.
They ran after Nova like predators, springing from foot to foot with incredible speed. Their teeth were bared and they howled at Nova as they ran.
The light grenade flickered behind her, casting just enough light for her to see by.
Nova's head-start was just enough, she made it to the chair and as she got close she swung her foot down onto one of the legs. The leg shattered away from the rest of the chair. If it hadn't been for the light grenade she would never have made it. The lecheons were still recovering and every few steps they stumbled or jostled into each other.
Nova bent down, picked up the leg and turned. She hurled the sharpened piece of wood at the lecheon coven. It soared through the air like a javelin and pierced straight through Laticia's chest. Nova didn't stop to admire her work; she just kept running.
The sound of pursuit slowed behind her as she reached the stairs. She bounded up two at a time and made it to the door at the top. She barged through with her shoulder and the door swung open into the sunlight. The streaming light shone back down the staircase and elicited cries of pain from the lecheons below.
Nova ran as fast as she could down the street, away from dark staircase and the creatures at its base.
"Laticia!" Corvus knelt by the fallen body.
He grabbed hold of Laticia's hand and squeezed. There was no response. Laticia's body had collapsed and yet still maintained its regal dignity. Protruding out from her chest was the sharpened chair leg. It had pierced through her internal organs and blood seeped out around its edges.
She never stood a chance. The bright light from the grenade was too much, even Corvus hadn't seen the stake until it was too late. All of their eyes were blinded by the sudden flash. The stake had approached like death through the darkness.
"Don't touch it!" Pamielle said, snatching at Corvus's extended hand.
Corvus pushed Pamielle out of the way. He clasped hold of the wooden stake and ripped it out of Laticia's stomach. He hurled the wood away from the coven with a cry of pain. Corvus turned his hand over to reveal his blistered palm.
"Why is there a wooden chair in our home?" Corvus ground out. Even kneeling on the floor with his hands covered in blisters and tears streaming down his face he was an imposing figure.
"I- I- don't know my lord. We didn't think—" Pamielle said, stepping smoothly into Laticia's role.
"No, you didn't think. I want that thing out of here now!" Corvus yelled. Two of the younger men leapt into action. They gathered pieces of material and approached the deadly chair.
"My poor Laticia," Corvus said, leaning over her body, holding her close.
The pain in his hand faded in light of the pain in his chest. There was a ball of agony in his throat. He ached to hear Laticia's voice; it was always calm, dignified. She was a lady in the old sense of the word, classy. They had been together as leaders of their coven for decades. She'd been his childhood sweetheart and together they'd grown up. They were so much more together than they were apart. They had a love far more powerful than any most people experienced over their whole lives. So much history, so many stories together. Now there was only a corpse.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you or be rude to you in those last moments. My dear, sweet Laticia; please come back," Corvus sobbed.
His only reply was silence.
The rest of the coven stood back from their commander.
"I will avenge your death," Corvus whispered into Laticia's cold ear. "That bitch will pay for what she's done."
Corvus drew in a ragged breath and laid Laticia on the floor.
"Did you get her scent?" Corvus asked, turning to his coven. His eyes were dark and his expression grim.
"Yes my lord, of course," Pamielle said, stepping forward.
"I want her hunted down and killed. I want her to suffer so much pain that she begs for death. And then I want to kill every man, woman, and child in this city. It's time the human cattle learnt their place!"
"Of course my lord," Pamielle said, stepping closer. "If there is anything I can do for you, I'm right here, for whatever you need."
Pamielle looked down at Corvus with wide eyes and pouted lips.
"Don't you dare try to take her place!" Corvus whirled to his feet and towered over Pamielle.
"My lord. I would never, I wasn't—"
"You aren't even half the woman she was. If you hadn't been arguing with her we would have noticed the prisoner escaping." Corvus's eyes grew wilder with each sentence. "It's your fault she's dead!"
Corvus's hand whipped out and grabbed hold of Pamielle's neck. The blisters on his palm burst and the open wounds stuck to Pamielle's throat, but he didn't feel the pain. His entire being swelled with rage and he glared at Pamielle. He saw in her all of the betrayal and hatred he'd felt during his years of captivity. It would be so easy to snap her neck, so easy to just squeeze and be done with her. He couldn't, he needed his entire coven if he was going to wreak his vengeance on the human scourge.
"I will never take you as my female, you are nothing. From this moment on you are the lowest member of this coven. You will feed last, and you will pay for what you've done," Corvus whispered into Pamielle's ear loud enough so that the rest of the coven would hear.
"No, my lord!"
"I'm done with you." Corvus tossed Pamielle to the side. She fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, sobbing softly, but Corvus had no time for the pathetic creature.
"Yes, my lord?"
"You will be second in command," Corvus said. "For now."
"Thank you my lord," Selene said, astonished. Her eyes were wide open. Until that moment she had been far down the ranks in Corvus's coven. Perhaps that will teach them to fight like animals, Corvus thought.
"Whoever brings me the killer's bloody corpse will be rewarded beyond any of your imaginings," Corvus said. "Stop at nothing. Leave no stone unturned. Kill whoever you have to. It's nearly nightfall."
"Yes my lord," said Selene, echoed by the rest of the coven. They ran in different directions from the underground basement and into the tunnels which wound under the city. They would scan the entire planet if they had to.
Corvus remained behind with Laticia's body. He knelt beside her and stared at her face. Even in death she managed to look aloof. He patted down her rumpled shirt. While his coven was out he would bury her. But first there was something else he had to do.
Decades ago, before they'd come to Boullion Five they'd made a promise to each other. They would leave something for the other in case they died. Anything that had gone unsaid or undone; a tell-all. Now was Laticia's time for confession.
Corvus grabbed hold of the locket at Laticia's neck. It was shaped like a heart, a human symbol which Laticia had chosen because of the irony. After all, she did enjoy human hearts; they pumped delicious blood around their owner's bodies.
He wrapped his fingers around it and pulled. The delicate chain snapped and came away in his hand. He pulled the locket close to his chest and with trembling hands he clicked it open. The two halves popped apart.
On one side was a picture of him and Laticia, it was taken not long after they first started their own coven. They were smiling at the camera, wrapped in each other's arms. The picture brought new tears to Corvus's eyes. He wiped them away with the back of his hand.
The other half contained a tiny data chip. Corvus delicately pressed it with the tip of his index finger. He felt a jab of pain and then the locket jumped out of his hand. It fell to the floor still open and out of the centre extended a holographic image of Laticia. She looked gorgeous, as always.
"Laticia," Corvus breathed. His heart ached to see this version of her, alive and smiling, when her corpse lay not one metre away.
"Corvus," the holographic Laticia said. "If you're watching this, then I can only assume that the inevitable has come to pass and that I'm dead."
Corvus sniffed. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the apparition. She looked just as she had earlier that day, full of strength and arrogance. The hologram's hair was seamlessly arranged and her clothes hung perfectly from her body.
"We have done so much together," Laticia said. "And I've loved you for every day of it. When we first made this pact I wanted to fill this message with love poems and stories of how much I adore you. You might still find those buried in the data. But my love, something else happened and you have to know."
Corvus's eyes went wide as he stared up at the hologram. What was she talking about? The tone in her voice was serious and the hologram stared straight at him. He felt a lump in his throat and his stomach plunged towards his feet.
"The night you were captured. We knew what was going to happen, someone betrayed you, Corvus. Selwyn started a coven on Boullion Five. It was all very secret, he didn't want you to find out, but he got hold of us. He brought so many with him. He said that if we didn't cooperate that he'd kill us all. He gave us the option of joining his coven and helping to destroy you, or death. I had no choice. There were so many of them, fifty at least, and they took us by surprise. I would never have expected Selwyn to control such a powerful coven, but he did. If there was anything that I could have done to save you, I would have."
Corvus's mouth hung open and his fists clenched at his sides. He stared up at his long-time mate as if she was a complete stranger. He and Selwyn had lived in the same town on their home-world. They were competitors for everything, most importantly Laticia. Selwyn had always resented him for taking Laticia's heart. There was no reason for him to settle a coven on Boullion Five. There were so many other human colonies.
"He wanted to get rid of you," Laticia said, answering his unasked question. "I thought that if I went along with him that I could find a way to warn you but he knew me too well. He kept me locked up until you were captured. There was nothing I could do."
The thought of Selwyn keeping Laticia prisoner sent a shard of ice through Corvus's chest. When he found that good-for-nothing sucker he would rip his limbs off.
"It was Pamielle who called in the tip which got you captured. You know she's always wanted to be prime female. I think she thought Selwyn would take her. She was right in a way, he did take her. But then, he took all of us at one stage or another."
Corvus choked on a gasp. This was low even for Selwyn. Humans were another matter; they were cattle, animals, but his dear Laticia?
"And I know you're probably already getting ready to rush off and kill Selwyn. Don't bother. He's already dead. Five years I waited and finally I got my chance. He woke up, or rather didn't wake up, with a wooden stake through his heart. With him dead the rest of his coven fled like cowards. That's why I'm recording this message; I'm coming to find you. I've convinced our old coven to rescue you, now that we're free. We want nothing more than to serve you again. If I die in the attempt I want you to know the truth."
Corvus lowered himself back onto his haunches. Selwyn dead? His coven had willingly gone over and betrayed him?
"I hope I get a chance to tell you this in person. Although I suppose if you're watching this I never got the opportunity. You can't trust Pamielle. She's been very careful to protect herself so far, and I haven't been able to cut her loose. The rest are loyal; I got rid of the ones who weren't. I'm sorry this isn't the message you were hoping for, but I hope it's the message you need."
Laticia's hologram stopped talking but stayed standing, staring down at Corvus. Her large eyes blinked every few seconds, a perfect replica of her real self.
Corvus stood up. He reached out his hand to stroke her cheek but his fingers passed straight through. He blinked back more tears and returned his hands to fists. His heart rate slowed as the all-encompassing rage reduced to simmering hatred. He would have his revenge, one way or another. He trusted Laticia's judgement entirely, if she said the rest of the coven was loyal then he believed her. Pamielle must die. He should have done it thirty minutes ago when he had his hands around her scrawny neck.
He picked up the locket, snapping it closed, and the hologram disappeared. He shoved it into one of his many pockets and took a deep breath. He couldn't let his coven see him falter, even a little.
"Inspector Briggles," Nova said into her communicator.
"Nova?" The inspector's voice sounded surprised.
"Yes, I've found the coven. They're currently at one hundred twenty-four Iris Street but they have a set of underground tunnels. They could travel almost anywhere and we wouldn't know."
"I'm dispatching a force right now."
"I killed one of them. They're going to come after me."
"Then get to the safety of the station."
"I'm going as fast as I can, I should be safe until nightfall at least."
"I'll wait for you here," Briggles said, before signing off.
Nova kept running through the streets. It would still be some time before the sun dipped over the horizon but she had a lot to do before then, including leaving a scent trail for Corvus.
"You made it," Inspector Briggles said. He was standing at the entrance of the police station with a false smile plastered on his face and a high-powered rifle in his hands.
"Yes, but we don't have much time," Nova said.
"There's no need to rush. There's plenty of lights here, the lecheons would be blinded if they tried to get in."
"They'll turn off the power," Nova said with certainty.
"The backup generator—"
"Won't work." Nova leant against the nearest wall, panting. She lifted her gun from its holster and inspected it. It had been a big risk, returning to the warehouse to collect her weapon but she'd be lost without it. Not that it would do her much good against a lecheon. "Do you have wooden bullets?"
"We have some here at the station."
"Enough to take out thirty lecheons? I'd say there are at least that many."
Briggles frowned. "There are fifty officers here but we don't usually stock many wooden bullets. We've probably got twenty rounds."
"Not for the whole coven," Briggles said, shaking his head.
"What about the prison? Are there more there?"
"There used to be. The lecheon bastards took them all when they took Corvus."
"Clever bastards," Nova said. "Hand the bullets out to your three best shooters."
"What businesses are nearby?"
"There are a lot of antique shops in this area. A gym and a restaurant just around the corner. Oh, and a bakery."
"Okay." Nova's mind raced. There had to be a way to take down this coven. They were so strong and as soon as night came they had the advantage. "Alright, we'll set up here."
"There's no way they'll come here. They know better than that."
"Trust me. Corvus wants revenge. He won't let a police station stop him. Get your people moving; if they don't they'll make a very tasty treat for the incoming lecheon coven."
A bead of sweat dribbled down Briggles's forehead as he rushed off to start routing his officers. Nova looked around the station. It was much like any other on this world. Everything was made of metal with not a single scrap of wood to be seen.
"Send two of your deputies to the restaurant. I want them to collect every scrap of wood they can find. I especially want them to bring me every single toothpick."
"Why?" Briggles said.
"Because I've got food stuck in my teeth," Nova said. "Just get on it."
"You heard her; toothpicks," Briggles barked, nodding to two of his nearby officers.
They nodded in response and jogged up the street towards the restaurant which was spilling warm light into the road. Nova watched until they disappeared inside and then turned to the rest of the station.
She marched inside, followed by. She took stock of the thin doorways and the metal desks. It wasn't going to be easy but here was as good as any place.
"Set up a barricade near the door. We need a clean line of sight but we don't want them getting in," Nova said. "Arrange your officers; make sure the ones with wooden bullets are behind the counter and out of the way. I want every one of you to have a gun in hand and be in position within ten minutes."
"What will you be doing?" Briggles asked.
"Plan B," Nova said, as the officers returned carrying handfuls of toothpicks.
"Oh, little killer. Come out, come out, wherever you are," Corvus sang. His shadow and those of his coven were outlined against the barricaded glass door.
Suddenly, the lights cut out, plunging the police station into darkness.
"Candles!" Nova yelled.
Candles flared up around the room. The power had been cut just as she'd predicted.
"Hold positions," Briggles said to his officers.
"If she comes out we won't hurt her little police friends," Corvus called.
He paced back and forth outside the door. The rest of the coven stood like statues behind him.
"I'll have to kill you all if you don't come out. Surely at least one of you officers wants to live? Just give the foreign woman to me and you can go free."
"Don't listen to him," Briggles said. "The lecheons are known liars."
Nova looked around. Although their hands shook, the officers held their positions. A few glanced in Nova's direction but turned their sights straight back to the door when she caught their eyes. The rasping quality of Corvus's voice was obviously getting into their heads; a few of the officers were twitching.
"Fine. You leave me no choice," Corvus said.
The main door exploded in a shower of glass. The lecheons pushed past the barricades as if they were made of paper instead of solid metal tables. They roared as they broke the glass and burst into the station.
Shards rained down on the police officers. A piece cut into Nova's cheek leaving a sudden sharp pain. She gasped as a trickle of blood ran down her face and dropped to the floor.
Gunshots echoed throughout the station. The standard rounds slammed into the lecheons, but barely slowed them down. Lecheons darted through the shattered glass door and surveyed the room. As they poured through the door, two collapsed with screeches of agony.
Nova cheered under her breath for the expert shots of the men with the wooden bullets. But it wasn't enough. There were too few bullets and too many lecheons. Nova's stomach clenched. There were so many of them, they were like an unstoppable tide.
She swallowed and pushed the thoughts from her head. All she could do now was focus on the threat at hand.
Corvus and a woman to his left leapt forward. They grabbed hold of the two closest police officers and their thick black tongues extended out. The lecheons locked their teeth onto the officer's necks and ripped the flesh. Chunks of meat, muscle and blood splattered across the room. The officers dropped to the floor with solid thuds.
Nova aimed her own gun and fired at Corvus. The blast of energy hit him in the shoulder. It left a hunk of burned flesh, but before Nova's eyes the skin began to heal.
Corvus glared at her. His mouth widened, revealing a bloody smile. Blood poured onto the floor from the officer at his feet. The man's face became whiter and the life drained from his eyes.
"Bastard!" Nova yelled. She squeezed her trigger and fired a volley of shots at Corvus.
He dove to the side and avoided the bullets completely.
Officers collapsed under the weight of the lecheon onslaught. Screams echoed about the station as bodies fell to the floor. The lecheons moved so quickly that their bodies were blurs in the darkness. They darted between the police officers, slaughtering them with sudden slashes of hidden knives or their vicious teeth.
The officers with the wooden bullets fired at the shadows, but most of the shots went wide. The racing lecheons were too fast to pinpoint amid the chaos.
"Nova, we can't hold this position!" Briggles yelled. He fired shots at the lecheon attack, but like most of the bullets they barely slowed the creatures down.
"Throw the bags!" Nova bellowed.
Two burly men ambled from the back of the station carrying plump bags. They pulled back and hurled the open bags over the heads of the officers and into the midst of the lecheons. The bags exploded in puffs of sawdust.
The tiny specks of wood lifted into the air and floated on the erratic currents. The dust blew around the room and coated everything, including the lecheons. Some of the dust was sucked straight into the lecheon's lungs.
The room filled with the sounds of choking. Two lecheons bent over double. Lines of dribble fell from their lips as they coughed and hacked. They drew in ragged breaths interlaced with pain.
"What has she done?" Corvus bellowed.
The affected lecheons were in too much pain to respond. They'd stopped their mad rampage and had become sitting ducks for the officers. Those with wooden bullets took careful aim and fired. The two incapacitated lecheons collapsed, dead.
Briggles ambled to Nova's side. "That's all the sawdust we could find. It's about as rare as unicorn piss."
"I know," Nova said with gritted teeth.
"What else can we do? There're still eight of those bastards and now they're angry."
Nova took a deep breath.
"Duck!" she bellowed.
She didn't have time to check if the officers obeyed her command. She reached behind and lobbed one of her weapons towards the front of the station. Most of the lecheons were still gathered in that area, tearing at the front line of police officers.
The ball soared through the air, completely unnoticed by the battling forces. It sailed over the barricades to the area just in front of the main door. Nova dived to the ground.
A loud bang echoed around the station followed by cries of agony. Nova lifted herself from the floor and assessed the situation. Three lecheons had fallen to the floor. The rest, including Corvus, looked back at them with confusion. A few officers clasped at wounds but they would survive, unlike the lecheon victims.
Nova ran to the closest lecheon with a wooden stake in hand. Toothpicks protruded out of the creature's body. It writhed on the floor and cried with pain. The lecheon was male, with dark hair and a bright red scarf. Pools of blood poured out from the toothpick wounds and the skin had turned a mottled green. She lifted the stake above her head and slammed it into the lecheon's chest. He convulsed, wailing, and crumpled, dead.
"What have you done?" Corvus yelled, storming towards Nova.
Somehow, he seemed to have avoided the onslaught, even though scratches covered his arms .
"Not so good with wood, huh?" Nova asked grimly.
Corvus looked around at his fallen comrades. There was only him and four others left standing.
"What?" He looked back at Nova with confusion.
"The perfect weapon: toothpicks. " Nova reached into her pocket and pulled out another ball of toothpicks wrapped around explosives.
She didn't have time to act; enraged, Corvus moved too quickly for her eyes to follow. One moment she was standing with a lethal ball of toothpicks in her hand, the next she was flying backwards, slamming into the far wall. By the time she looked up, Corvus was gone.
"What the hell was that?" Corvus hissed as he ran through the dark streets.
His coven spread out behind him as they fled from the restaurant and the blood and flying shrapnel which had surrounded them.
"She knows what she's doing," Selene admitted.
Her feet pounded in time with his on the cold hard concrete. The sound of them grated at Corvus's eardrums. His own breath wheezed in and out as he sprinted as fast as he could. The night was dark. The back alleys they ran down were void of streetlights, yet he saw everything. A black cat went past in a blur, as did the doorways and trashcans. They moved too fast for smells to catch up with them.
Corvus spared a glance over his shoulder but all he saw were the large reflective eyes of the rest of his coven. The police couldn't hope to give chase. Good. The bitch-woman also wasn't behind them, a pity because he would very much enjoy draining the life out of her.
"Separate," Corvus barked. "Tell the rest of the coven to meet us at the Helliot."
In response, members of his coven split off from the main alley. They ran down side streets or climbed up stairs to get to the roofs. In the blink of an eye there was just him and Selene. He glanced at her and nodded. She was adjusting well to leadership.
A prickle went up Corvus's spine. The cold shiver went from his lower back all the way up his neck and into the back of his head. Someone was watching. He kept running as if nothing had changed, but his ears were straining for any hint. He could hear nothing. He risked another glance over his shoulder; only the dark laneway spread behind him.
He adjusted their course. They darted in and around buildings, over bins and under stairways. It didn't do any good. The chilling feeling remained with him. He shook his head and tried to force his mind away from the presence. There was nothing he could do about it; not right now.
He and Selene ran through the night. They ran all the way to their old home, where his sweet Laticia had died, before doubling back and heading to the other side of the city. They needed to disguise their tracks. There were people after them. They had experienced this before, but for once, these people were dangerous.
The attack on the police station hadn't gone anything like what he'd planned. He'd thought they would be an easy target; he'd stroll in, take the woman, kill a few officers, and be done with it. Instead they'd been prepared. There was no way he could have foreseen their weapons. Sawdust and toothpicks? He had no doubt that the bitch-woman was behind it. Now she was responsible for not just his dear Laticia's death, but seven of his companions' as well.
Corvus and Selene ran along empty streets, blurring in and out of the glow of street lamps. Corvus's mouth hung open and his sharp teeth glinted in the moonlight. The black slug pulsated inside his mouth, shimmering.
Selene looked good when she was running. The hunched shoulders she normally sported were gone, revealing her long neck and sleek muscles. The sight was enough to draw Corvus away from his thoughts, at least for a few moments.
An hour after running from the restaurant they came to the front of the large Helliot hotel. It was one of the classiest on Boullion Five. The tower rose up into the night sky, lights sparkling. The golden balconies gleamed amid the darkness and the parking garage was filled with the most expensive ships money could buy.
"Pamielle and Gregor are here," Selene said, bowing her head to a dark area at the left side of the hotel.
"And Winton and Annabel," Corvus said, nodding to another deep shadow near the parking bay. He grabbed hold of Selene's hand and walked with her towards the second pair, deliberately away from Pamielle. Selene's hand was warm in his when he grasped it and he enjoyed the feel of it. It would never be the same as Laticia's, but it was better than nothing.
A few minutes later the rest of his coven arrived, running from different areas of the city. They swept into the shadows of the building on silent feet. Their eyes glinted in the darkness and each of them nodded to Corvus before taking their place behind him. He looked out at the hotel lobby. There were lots of cattle out tonight, moving from place to place. He drew in a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows.
The lecheons crept single-file to the side door of the hotel. Selene went first; her eyes scanned every inch of the stairway before she moved up. The others followed behind. They moved with barely a whisper of noise, climbing higher into the hotel.
Corvus cursed the need for secrecy. He would have preferred to burst into the hotel lobby and feast on every fat meal sitting there. But he couldn't, not yet at least. These humans were better prepared than he thought. He needed to get rid of the hunter bitch, and the fat inspector. After that, he and his coven would own Boullion Five. Then he wouldn't be reduced to climbing through service stairs like a common whore. He owned the damned penthouse of this hotel and yet here he was climbing dusty stairs that smelled like a dead rat.
There had been a time when just the sound of his name would have brought every worker in the hotel to their knees. They used to grovel at his feet, begging for a favour or a job. He clenched his hands into fists. Those days would return; he'd make sure of it.
The dark stairs continued up for what felt like an eternity, even with the lecheon's fast steps. They leapt the stairs, two or three at a time. Sometimes they stopped to listen but it was too late at night for anyone to be using the service stairs.
They climbed all the way to the very top where a non-descript white door met them with a single lock. Corvus had seen the door a hundred times. He lifted his necklace and inserted a thick black key. It clicked into place and the door swung open.
It moved silently on well-oiled hinges. Beyond the door lay an empty corridor. Rich, red carpet lined the floor and every few metres the walls had been decorated with paintings in expensive gold frames.
Corvus took the lead and marched down the opulent corridor. He ignored the paintings. There were too many memories in them. How many times had he admired the artwork with Laticia at his side? Now all they held was pain.
Halfway down the corridor was another door decorated with a single gold letter: C.
Corvus took another key from around his neck and opened the lock. This door swung open as silently as the first. The lecheons filed inside. The luxuriant carpet was soft under Corvus's feet and the signature scent of the room filled his senses. He breathed deeply, it was a scent he'd requested; flowers with a hint of blood.
As soon as they were inside the room Corvus went into the clothing generator. There were thousands of options but he settled on the simple repair function. After a few seconds his long black coat and the rest of his clothing was as good as new. He stepped out looking just as he had before the incident with the police, except for a tiny red line on his left cheek where a stray toothpick had scratched him as it sailed passed.
Nova shuffled between the make-shift beds clustered within the police station. She held out her hand and helped an injured officer to his feet. He nodded gratefully at her and staggered to the nearest bed. Doctors and nurses from the nearby hospital bustled around the wounded officers.
"Thanks for coming, Cal," Nova said as the robot hovered into the station.
"I'll do my best," he said.
On the other side of the room was a row of white sheets with lifeless lumps hidden beneath. Red pools of congealed blood dotted the floor of the police station, creating splashes of colour in the otherwise white and metal building.
The bodies of the lecheons were stacked in a storeroom, out of sight. Some officers kept glancing at the door as if the creatures would come back to life and leap out at them at any second.
"We lost seven," Briggles said at Nova's side. "Seven good officers for seven of theirs."
"We're lucky we only lost that," Nova said, her face grim.
"How the hell are we supposed to take them down? If we don't stop them soon they'll start terrorising the citizens. We'll have a full-blown riot on our hands."
"There's not much we can do right now," Nova said. "We have to find out where they're hiding and take them by surprise. It might be the only advantage we can get."
"I wish the bloody army would step in and do their job."
"Why don't they?"
"Because it would create an inter-species nightmare. As far as they're concerned they can't be seen to do anything; meanwhile they want us to make the problem go away."
"Sounds just like the Confederacy."
"Too right, but I think we've got things covered here. You look like you could use a break."
"Isn't that the truth," Nova sighed.
She nodded at Briggles and left the station. The bright sunlight stung her tired eyes as she stumbled towards Crusader.
"Do you really think now is a good time to go for a ride?" Cal asked.
Nova pulled down a set of racing goggles and settled into the small seat. Cal hovered just outside the ship in Crusader's main holding bay. He stared at Nova, motors whirring.
She ignored him and continued to check all of the dials spread out in front of her. Fuel was fine, thrusters were fine, and steering was good. Things looked nearly ready for the big race; not long to go now.
"Nova," Cal said again. This time one of his panels opened and a thin metal arm extended out. It hovered in the air just above the ship, where the new paint had only just dried, the threat clear.
"Okay!" Nova said, exasperated. She pushed the robot away from the ship. "Yes, I think it's an excellent time. The race won't stop just because of a few lecheons on Boullion Five. Plus, I can't sleep."
"But the lecheons aren't going to stop just because of a space-race either," Cal pointed out.
"I know that. But I'm not doing anyone any good by lying in my bed, not sleeping," Nova replied.
"Really? The attack only happened last night. What if they come again? Is it not your problem if Inspector Briggles dies?" Cal said.
Nova sighed. She'd spent the whole night awake asking herself the same question. The last thing she needed was Cal causing her doubts as well. She tightened the straps around her shoulders and hips in an effort to buy herself more time.
"Look," she said and turned directly towards Cal. "I'm doing everything I can to help them. Until the lecheons resurface there's nothing more I can do. So instead of waiting around, twiddling my thumbs, I'm going to let my mind relax. They're in exactly the same position they would have been if I'd never come."
"Actually, you've provoked the lecheons like a stick in a hornets nest, so they are worse off now than if you had never come," Cal said.
Nova groaned and laid her head on the steering stick. Her head ached with lack of sleep and with stress and with all of the same questions which Cal was now asking.
"I'll make sure they're okay," Nova said after a long silence.
"How?" Cal asked.
"I just will!" Nova blurted. "I'm tuned into the police frequency and Briggles has got me on speed dial. There's nothing I can do, so right now I'm practicing for the race. I don't need to be thinking about a coven of lecheons. Besides, I'll have them sorted before the race. I still have two weeks."
Cal was silent. Nova glared at him, daring him to comment, but he didn't.
"Did you get clearance with air control?" she asked.
"Yes. As long as you stay on the east side of town you won't have any problems."
She nodded and turned back to the panels laid out before her.
"Scan the video feed as I go. We might just spot some lecheons from the air."
Nova swallowed the guilt welling in her stomach. She'd use it as a scouting mission as much as a test drive. If they could find out where the lecheons were hiding, then the rest of her job would be a lot easier.
She flicked the switch and the engine hummed into life, vibrating the whole ship. She pressed a grey button and the glass cover slid into place above her head. She took a deep breath and shoved the accelerator forward.
The ship lurched into life and went careening across Crusader's floor. The massive storage bay door was open and the smaller ship shot out of it into the daylight. Nova had debated flying at night, but with the lecheons on the prowl it just wasn't worth it. The sunlight shone down into her glass cacoon and reflected off the metallic surfaces. The glare was too much and she had to squint to see anything.
"Sun-shield," she called. In response a second layer of glass rose up around her. This layer was tinted black and blocked out the sun's fierce glow. She reopened her eyes and allowed her shoulders to relax as the glare dissipated and the temperature inside the pod started to drop and Nova allowed her shoulders to relax.
The view outside was tinged brown from the glass, but she could still see. The large buildings of Boullion Five rose up on either side and the roads stretched out below. She cheered, enjoying the freedom of shooting across an endless sky.
"Let's see what you can really do," Nova said. She rested her left hand on the throttle and pushed it as far forward as it would go. She kept her hand resting there, ready to pull back if she needed to. Her ship shot away, jumping up over a thousand kilometres an hour and blasting across the city sky.
She was moving too fast to hear the engine roar, which she was sure would cause many citizens to gaze up into the sky in confusion. Compared to many planets, Boullion Five didn't have much air traffic. It was such a small planet, practically just a city, so there wasn't any real need for it. Her space-racer would definitely be an anomaly on a planet like this.
A skyrise building loomed in front of her. She nudged the steering stick and the ship veered to the right. It twisted in mid-air, oversteering and careening directly for another tall tower.
Nova grimaced and tapped the steering stick back to the left. It was just enough. Her ship jumped to the left and avoided both buildings. She let out the breath she was holding but didn't stop to enjoy it. Her attention returned immediately to the city and the sky and the readouts on her dashboard. At these speeds even the smallest miscalculation could cause instant death.
Nova raced to the outer edges of the city where the buildings were fewer and far between. She practiced weaving left and right through the cityscape. The controls at top speed were vastly oversensitive. The tiniest tap could send her ship spinning through the air, completely out of control. She couldn't let that happen.
When she had the hang of it she turned her ship back towards the main city. From there she went as fast as she could between the tall buildings. She also experimented with going down under bridges and over shorter buildings. It took a good two hours. By the time she was finished she had a good handle on the controls.
She turned the ship towards Crusader and sailed into the landing bay. The big doors closed shut behind her. She pressed the two buttons to release the glass shields and unbuckled her straps. She stepped out of the ship and onto Crusader's silver floor.
"Nice ride," Cal said as he came in to greet her.
"You're right about that," Nova replied.
"You've got a message from the Inspector," Cal said.
Nova groaned and stared up at the ceiling. "Already?"
"Yes, they've got something they want you to have a look at."
"But it's only been twenty-four hours."
"It sounded urgent," Cal replied. "I tried to reach you in the ship but for some reason the communicator had been disconnected."
Cal's single eye rotated to look at Nova. She smiled back at him. "That's weird. Maybe you should have a look at it while I'm gone."
"Perhaps you could speed along the process by giving me a hint as to where you hid the transmitter?" Cal asked as Nova stepped away from the ship.
"Try the second storage box," Nova chuckled over her shoulder. Sure it hadn't been entirely a good idea to disable the communicator but she had needed that time alone. She would have burned in a fiery wreckage had she left it on, with Cal asking her questions every five minutes.
She pulled off her racing goggles and laid them on a work-bench. She traded her riding vest for her long jacket and pulled on her thick boots.
Her hand hovered above the open button of Crusader's main door.
"Crusader, scan the area for signs of lecheons."
"Continuous scans have been running since the attack at the warehouse," Crusader replied. "There are no suspect life signs within two hundred metres."
Nova nodded and slammed the open button. The door slid open and she stepped out onto the street. She turned in a tight circle with her hand on her gun. There was no one in sight.
She buried herself deep in her jacket and pulled the collar up to hide her face. The Inspector's office was only one hundred metres from where she'd parked Crusader. What had Briggles found now?
Corvus stood against the deep purple wall and pulled on a pair of leather gloves as he surveyed the luscious hotel suite. Since that bitch girl knew where they lived, this would have to be their temporary home. The suite hadn't been hard to obtain. There were always humans willing to give up almost anything in exchange for their lives. It was the penthouse of the most luxurious hotels in Boullion Five; plenty of room for the small coven.
His eyes flicked around at his companions. Some of them were seated at the table, playing cards. Others were watching the television, gazing at the pictures with wide eyes. The rest were lounging, sleeping, or talking quietly.
"Pamielle, darling?" Corvus said in his most seductive voice.
He gazed at her across the room. His eyes remained locked with hers and he kept his face smooth, suggestive.
"Yes, my lord?" Pamielle responded eagerly, getting to her feet.
"Follow me," he said, leading her away from the common room towards the main bedroom, his bedroom.
He could hear Pamielle's breathing quicken along with her heartbeat and could feel her excitement, her yearning to become his prime female. He smiled.
He led her into the bedroom and gestured for her to close the door. His eyes moved down her body, taking in every inch.
"My lord, how can I please you?"
Pamielle stepped towards him. She laid a hand on his chest and looked up at him with her wide eyes. She was pretty, he had to admit, but it was a common pretty, a street pretty. Not like the regal elegance of Laticia. Poor Laticia.
Corvus threw thoughts of his mate from his mind. Now was not the time. He had to focus; he would enjoy this. He smiled down at her, encouraging.
Pamielle smiled back and let her tongue slide out from between her teeth to lick her lips. She lifted her hand to the neck of her dress and pulled a string of fabric. The semi-transparent dress fell free from her shoulders and whispered to the floor. She was naked underneath. She smiled at him, mistaking the gleam in his eyes for lust.
Corvus stepped forward and clasped his hands around her upper arms. He held tight and stared into her eyes.
"Not so hard my love, you'll bruise me," Pamielle said with a mischievous smile.
"Oh, I plan to do much more than that," Corvus said, pushing forward. He stepped with her, forcing her to walk backwards.
"As you wish, my lord," Pamielle said, still oblivious.
Laticia would never have been so stupid; her mind was as sharp as any. She would have seen his true intentions. She would have— No! He couldn't think of her.
He kept pushing Pamielle backwards until her buttocks were pressed up against the cold glass door leading to his balcony that looked out over the city skyline, a perfect view. He lifted her hands and pinned them against the glass above her head. He smiled at her, but his eyes were dead, flat, steel.
He stood holding her with his intense gaze for over a minute.
Pamielle giggled. "Don't leave me waiting too long, my lord."
"I won't," replied Corvus. He pressed his body against hers, forcing her back firmly against the glass and pushing his face down in front of hers. He locked his eyes onto hers.
"Did you sell me out to Selwyn?" he hissed.
He held her wrists with one hand, bringing the other down and stroking her neck.
"What? My lord?" Pamielle stuttered. Her smile faltering.
"Did you…. Sell me out…. To Selwyn?"
Corvus's grip tightened around Pamielle's neck. Her flesh was soft, breakable. Her frail spine hovered just beneath his fingertips, just waiting to be snapped.
"No, of course not," Pamielle said, breathless.
Her eyes shot to the door but it was on the other side of the room and her naked body was pinned firmly under Corvus's.
"Why don't I believe you?" Corvus said. "Let me be very clear. I have the wooden stake which killed Laticia right here."
To illustrate, Corvus released her neck and reached behind the fluttering curtain. Bruises bloomed across Pamielle's neck. With gloved hands he pulled the bloody piece of wood from behind the curtain and pushed it right up to Pamielle's nose.
Pamielle squealed and turned her head to the side as far as she could. "Okay! Yes, I was in Selwyn's coven, but he forced us. Laticia was there too!"
"Don't you dare say her name!" Corvus lost control of his anger and shoved the wooden stake hard against Pamielle's cheek.
She screamed and it was like music to his ears.
He lifted the wood away and his eyes flowed over her cheek. Where before her skin had been flawless, it was now marred by a line of blisters. The pustules ran from her nose, across her cheek, nearly to her ear.
"Tell me the truth or I'll do the other side," Corvus said.
"Yes, I'm sorry! I sold you out to Selwyn," Pamielle sobbed. "Please let me go. I'll leave your coven, you can banish me. Just please don't put that wood on me again."
"Do you know what sits below this building?" Corvus said. His tone changed and he placed the wooden stake back behind the curtain.
"N-no, my lord," Pamielle said.
"A forest," Corvus replied.
He shoved his full weight against Pamielle's body. The glass door shattered and they were showered with fragments. Both of their bodies were propelled out onto the balcony.
Pamielle stumbled backwards. Unable to gain her footing, she glanced over her shoulder and her eyes widened with fear.
Corvus smiled at her one last time and with one more almighty shove he pushed her over the railing. Her back slammed into the metal bar and she toppled straight over. He rushed to the side to watch her fall.
She tumbled through the air like a falling rock. She fell past the many other balconies, screaming as she went, all the way down to the forest. The top of a bare pine tree slammed through her body, impaling her. Its tip protruded out of her blood-soaked stomach and the rest of her body hung like a macabre ragdoll.
Corvus peered down at the bloody scene. Her body twitched a few times, before becoming still. Her naked figure glowed in the moonlight as blood seeped out of her wounds, dribbled across her stomach and fell down onto the branches below. Her landing was perfect; he wouldn't even have to send someone down to make sure she was dead.
He smiled. Sometimes things just worked.
"I've never seen the like," Officer Watkins said, his expression grim, as Nova approached.
"Nor me. It's a nasty business," Inspector Briggles replied.
"Best show me then," Nova cut in.
Briggles glanced at her and jutted his chin towards the tall tree. "Got called in just before dawn."
They were in the midst of a small plantation. It had been placed in the centre of the city to give a feeling of 'getting back to nature'. The trees were mostly hearty pines which cast shadows through the grassy park. At this time of year much of their foliage had dropped off and bare twigs branched out in all directions.
Nova wrapped her jacket tighter around her shoulders. The wind was brisk with the promise of colder weather on the way. She rubbed her hands together and followed Briggles's gaze up the nearest tree trunk. Her eyes traced the jagged wood until she got to the very top.
Impaled on the sharp tip of the trunk was a female body. Her spine was bent backwards and her head, arms and legs hung limply towards the ground. She was naked and the puncture hole from the tree was surrounded by a black area of skin soaked in blood. The tree itself was covered in dried blood. It was as if a giant hand had drizzled the liquid over the tree like the decoration of a dessert.
Nova's eyes widened. "How is this related to the Corvus case?" she said.
"Initially we weren't going to bother you; we thought it was probably just a jumper. But the camera drones we sent up took these." Briggles thrust a flat computer screen into her hands.
Nova looked down and her face dropped. To the side of the woman's mouth, out of view from the ground, was a fat leach. It lolled out just as a tongue would have done. The black creature was dry and shrivelled, hanging dead across the woman's face.
The woman looked familiar. The eyes, the shape of her face, but mostly her hair, screamed at Nova for recognition. Her mind raced over the last few days, searching through every face she had seen and every file she had read.
"The attack on the station," Nova whispered.
"Yep, facial recognition confirmed it. This one was part of the coven which attacked us. She was with Corvus."
"But then what happened here? Do you think she tried to attack someone and they managed to push her over a ledge or off the roof?"
"I don't think so; see here," Briggles poked the picture in Nova's hand and the image zoomed in to the woman's neck. Purple bruises in the shape of fingers covered her skin.
"Someone tried to strangle her," Nova said.
"Maybe. I think that was done for pain; it was the fall which killed her."
"Not an accident then."
"We don't think so."
"Lecheons don't often have accidents," Doctor Dunwood said, ducking under the line of police tape. "This looks much more like a coven disagreement. She was pushed off the balcony intentionally."
"The coven was staying here?" Nova asked.
"I've just sent – Ah, Peters, you're here. What have you found?" Briggles said, resting his hand on a young man's shoulder as he came up next to them.
"They were here sir; at least twenty of them. They have an ongoing lease of the penthouse under a false name. They snuck in sometime last night without anyone noticing. Security found video of them coming up the service stairs. The manager reckons he didn't know anything about the investigation. I wouldn't believe him though sir. They left early in the morning, probably not long after this one's time of death," Peters said, nodding towards the naked body.
"I want that penthouse cordoned off; I'll be up there in five minutes," Briggles said, rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
"Already done sir, they're waiting for you."
Nova's mind raced over the conversation. Something had happened in the coven; there had been a disagreement. They were getting sloppy; a hurried escape from their penthouse could mean they'd left behind clues of their new hideout. If they could find out where it was and set up some kind of trap, then this whole thing would be over and Boullion Five would be safe again.
Inspector Briggles marched away from the forest towards the towering set of apartments. Nova stayed hot on his heels. Her ears were beginning to sting in the cold air; it would be good to get inside even if it was to a crime scene.
"Ah, Inspector. So good of you to come." A man in an expensive suit hurried over to them. He thrust out his hand first to Briggles, then to Nova. He looked her up and down and frowned, before turning his full attention back to the inspector.
"And who are you?" Briggles said.
"I am Herman Glib, I own this particular hotel."
"Excellent. Mister Glib, if you could show us to the penthouse, we'd much appreciate it."
Herman glanced again at Nova and then his eyes darted around the rest of the hotel. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, giving him the appearance of swaying in a breeze. His face was red and he dabbed at it from time to time with a small piece of cloth.
Herman Glib was obviously fond of body modifications. His eyebrows were high up on his forehead; the look was all the rage among the business class. Nova thought it rendered the entire business profession permanently quizzical. He also had enlarged eyes and a shrunken nose, the very picture of innocence. It was common for business owners to have these mods; all the business advice books said it would make you look more trustworthy. Nova had to hide a smirk; those same advice books always came with a recommended mod agency. It was no coincidence that the author and the agency had the same bank account details.
"There's really not much to see, Inspector. They left it in such a mess, but there's nothing interesting there, I assure you."
"Hmm. Well, all the same, Herman, I'm sure you'll appreciate that we need to see it," Briggles said, his voice stern as he used the man's first name. "I'm sure you know as well as I do that a warrant is not required in matters of lecheon security."
Mister Glib flushed red and glanced around as if checking for anyone listening in. A bead of sweat formed on his forehead.
"We'll be discrete," Briggles said.
Herman's shoulders relaxed. "Of course, Inspector. Please do follow me."
His face poured with sweat and he had to dab every few seconds. He led them across the main lobby, his black shoes tapping against the tiles.
The lobby was beautifully decorated with sweeping marble pillars and gilded designs. A dark rock with white veins running across it served as the administration desk. The two men behind the counter watched them with curious eyes as they strode to the elevators. Herman Glib led them into the lift and scanned his wrist.
"Penthouse," he said.
"Of course, Mister Glib," the automated lift replied.
Chips were inserted into the wrists of all members of the Human Confederacy. They functioned as identification cards and credit sticks. They were capable of tracking and other monitoring functions which Nova had disabled as soon as she was able. It had been a gruesome job, opening up her own arm and pulling out the tiny connecting wires from the chip, then sewing her skin shut with the metal chip still inside. The last thing she wanted was the Human Confederacy having a record of all of her travels. Still, the identification component came in handy from time to time.
"We have arrived," said the lift as the metal doors slid open.
Herman Glib led the way down the red-carpeted corridor. It was cream with chrome decorations. There were windows spaced to either side of the lift which looked out over the rest of the city and down to the forest below.
Nova glanced out and took note of the flying drone which was at that moment lifting the lecheon off the tree and lowering her to the waiting paramedics. They laid her body on a stretcher and covered her in a tarp before wheeling her into a waiting ship. The tree which had impaled her body was now lost amongst the many others. From this height it was impossible to see the tell-tale trickles of blood.
Glib and Briggles were already at the end of the corridor. Nova quickened her pace to catch up to them. Her footsteps swallowed by the lush carpet.
Glib pulled a key from his pocket and used it to open the door. It swung open to reveal the pandemonium beyond.
"As I said, they did leave quite a mess. I do apologise. My cleaning team haven't been able to get here yet," Glib said. His eyes were wide as he looked between Briggles and Nova.
"Rest assured that's the last thing we'd want, Mister Herman. Please leave us; we can take it from here," Briggles said.
"Of course, Inspector. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask," Herman said, hurrying away from the room.
Nova stepped into the room and her mouth dropped wide. On any other day it would have been gorgeous. It was decorated in old-century Earth décor with deep purple curtains and lush pillows.
"What isn't that man telling us?" Nova thought out loud.
"It could be any number of things," Briggles responded as he stepped through the doorway. "Although I would put my money on one of either two options. The first is that he's genuinely worried about the state of this room, that maybe we'll tell people that he keeps a bad place. The second, and more likely option, is that he knew that this room was leased by lecheons."
"Then why didn't you bring him in for questioning?" Nova asked.
"There wouldn't have been any point. You saw for yourself; the coven can make you do all kinds of things. Besides, I don't believe he saw them last night. He's probably just as surprised as we are."
"I see," said Nova.
She took a deep breath and joined Briggles deeper inside the room. It didn't get any better past the doorway. Toppled furniture was strewn across the floor. The sheets had been ripped from the beds and lay in tatters. The curtain rods had been pulled down and the elegant curtains were lying in heaps on the floor.
The television and almost every light were smashed. Glass covered the floor; tiny reflective sparkles shone across the carpet.
The kitchen was also in ruins. The utensils were scattered across the main bench and knives were lodged into the back of the overturned couch. The food generator's door was open and the inside was covered with red blood.
"I hope that's synthetic," Nova said when she stepped up to the machine and peered inside.
"Me too," Briggles replied. "I've called for them to send Doctor Dunwood up. The three of us will go over this mess before I call the boys up for a full sweep."
Nova nodded. She reached into the bag at her waist and pulled on a set of rubber gloves. She pulled out a glass vial and scooped up some of the blood from the food generator and dropped the vial into a plastic bag.
She scanned around the floor. Aside from the glass, there wasn't much else; no blood-soaked footprints or any other giveaways.
"This is where the crime happened," Briggles called from the adjoining room.
Nova tiptoed around the upturned furniture and shards of glass into the bedroom. The blankets and sheets were torn to shreds and the pillows were pulled to pieces. The door to the balcony was smashed across the floor and the glass shards had droplets of red blood dried to their tips.
"What happened through the rest of the place then?" Nova asked. "Did they suddenly all turn on one another?"
"Doubtful," said Doctor Dunwood, stepping up behind them. "Covens are usually tightly knit. There are very few times when they would all turn against one another."
"Then why was there a woman impaled on a tree and why does it look like the Battle of Brukzel happened in this apartment?"
"The woman I would have said was condemned to death by Corvus. As their coven leader it's his right to cast judgement. It doesn't happen very often but she must have done something extremely bad to offend him. However, the rest of the room suggests a bigger story. There's no mention in the history books of a coven turning on their leader. The only thing I can think of is another coven attacking Corvus's."
"Another coven?" Nova asked, her jaw clenched.
Dunwood shrugged. "They will fight for territory from time to time, or just for title. Corvus is a well-known and highly ranked lecheon. If someone were to overthrow him and take over his coven they would be highly respected in lecheon society."
Nova nodded. Not that different from the politics of the Human Confederacy, although that was usually done with poison and assassins rather than full blown attacks.
"If they're staying in fancy hotels can't we just put out a message to the public, to be on the lookout?" Nova asked.
"It won't do any good," said Briggles.
"He's right," added Doctor Dunwood. "With their powers of persuasion they could convince someone to rent them a room and then make them forget they were ever there. All a public message would do is send the humans of Boullion Five into a panic."
"I see," said Nova, frowning.
"If they were under attack, they may have been in a hurry to leave," Briggles said. "Perhaps they left some clue of where they were headed? I can bring up more deputies."
"I think it would be better to keep it small," Nova said. "The crime scene has been disturbed enough as it is."
She turned back to the apartment. It was a complete and utter mess, a nightmare to sort through. It took them a good hour of all three of them searching before they could safely say that every square inch had been explored.
They gathered around the kitchen bench which was scattered with utensils.
"What have we found?" Briggles asked.
"I've got a bit of blood from the food generator, the blood from the glass shards in the bedroom and a torn piece of paper which could be a receipt but I'm not sure," said Nova.
"I've also got blood samples from some of the glass. I'll have the lab techs compare it against the samples we've got and see if we get any matches. I also found one of these behind the door," Briggles said, holding up a leather glove. . Extending from where the knuckles of each finger would be were sharpened pieces of wood, stained with blood. The wood looked harder than any Nova had seen and it was sharpened to a fine point.
"What is that?" Nova asked, leaning in closer for a better look.
"The perfect weapon for hand-to-hand combat with a lecheon," Dunwood explained.
"Someone came here deliberately to kill the coven?"
"It looks that way, there's a lot of blood spattered around the place, once you look."
"Humans?" Nova asked.
"It's possible but I'd expect there to be bloodless bodies left here. If humans had attacked, even with this kind of weaponry, they would have been overwhelmed. The lecheons would have drained them dry and left the bodies behind."
"So they were attacked by ghosts because there are no bodies?" Nova asked, rolling her eyes.
"No. If you ask me, this has all the hallmarks of a coven war," Dunwood said.
"You still think there are two covens?"
"I'm almost sure of it. Lecheons don't like to leave their dead behind. Both covens would have taken any fallen with them, hence no bodies."
"Great," Nova sighed. "Was there anything that might help us find out where they've gone?"
"Well, I don't want to get your hopes up, but I did find this," Briggles said. He held up a scrap of paper with spidery numbers scrawled across it.
"That looks like a phone number," Nova said.
"My thoughts exactly. I've already had my people trace it. It belongs to another hotel not far from here. It's even more posh than this one, if you can believe it."
"Lecheons have always been known for their expensive taste," Dunwood said, holding up his tattered old-world book as proof. "I would never have even looked for them in the tunnels under the city. Usually that would be far too dark for lecheon taste."
"Great!" said Nova, "Why aren't we over at this other hotel?"
"We don't want to jump to any conclusions," Briggles said, "And we have some time, if they've just been attacked, they'll be weak and worried. On top of that, it's daytime; I doubt they'll be going anywhere."
"But that means that it's the perfect time to move on them." Nova frowned.
Frustration rose in her chest, what were they waiting for? The space-race was only a few days away and she wanted to be done with this lecheon mess by then.
"It's not as simple as that. This particular hotel is more like an embassy. It caters to the very rich and very famous and is considered outside of our normal jurisdiction. Without a formal warrant we can't touch it," Briggles said.
"Then get the warrant," Nova said through clenched teeth.
"It's in process as we speak. However, it could take days. In the meantime, we can't do anything that might spook them. They're just where we want them to be and as long as they think they're safe they'll lower their guard."
Nova breathed out a long sigh. If only the wheels of bureaucracy would turn a little faster.
"Is everything ok?" Selene whispered from the other side of the bedroom door. Her voice was calm but concerned.
Corvus glanced at the door and then at the balcony covered with shattered glass. There were a few specks of blood, but it could have been worse. His breath came in great gasps and his face was flushed red. He felt overcome with joy and sorrow in equal amounts.
"Come in," he said.
Selene pushed open the door and stepped into the room. Her eyes widened with surprise and confusion. Her gaze darted between Corvus and the balcony.
"You sick bastard!"
Corvus didn't have time to turn before someone flew through the broken window and crashed into his back, sending him sprawling to the floor. He scrambled on hands and knees as fast as he could. There was a commotion behind him. He rose to his feet and whipped around to survey the room.
An unfamiliar male lecheon stood in the centre of the room between Corvus and Selene, snarling. His eyes were rimmed red and his teeth gnashed. Selene was still at the door, her lips pulled back, revealing her pointed teeth. She threw the door wide open and in an instant the rest of the coven was there, snarling at the stranger.
"You killed her and you'll pay for it!" the stranger said. His nose curled up and he growled.
"Whoever you are, get away from me this instant before I see you killed," Corvus said. His voice was level, quiet and deadly.
"I don't think so, Corvus Vadova. You thought you were so high and mighty. You and that bitch of yours. But where has it got you? Hmm? Where are you now? You don't even remember me do you? But why would you, I was so unimportant." The words were spat around snarls.
Corvus's eyes narrowed. He stared at the stranger. How dare he mention Laticia. Who did he think he was? His dark hair and the cut of his jaw were somehow familiar. Where did he know those features from? It was years ago, decades even.
"Byzant?" Corvus whispered.
"Ah, his majesty sees me and in so doing I have become real!" Byzant said with a false smile, throwing up his hands and bowing.
His features dropped back to focused hatred.
"Get out of here, Byzant," Corvus said. The young boy had longed for Laticia's affections, longed for a coven of his own, but at every turn he had been bested by Corvus. He had eventually been set loose to fend for himself. He should have learnt his lesson by now.
"Oh no, Corvus. It's my turn. I will succeed where Selwyn failed," Byzant said.
With his last words a howl echoed from outside and the room was flooded with new lecheons. They poured in through the window and from the hallway. There were at least thirty of them and they were obviously ready for a fight.
Byzant leapt for Corvus, while the rest of his coven lunged at the others.
Corvus's coven was taken off guard. Their attackers wielded wooden stakes and wore leather gloves. A few had wooden swords edged with sharpened steel and covered in deadly splinters. They hissed as they ran forward, their eyes gleaming with bloodlust. It wasn't often that covens fought, but when they did it was always bloody and violent.
Byzant slammed into Corvus and smashed him into the wall. Corvus's head cracked against the solid stone and he growled in pain. Byzant's forearm pressed against his throat, crushing it. Corvus's neck bent under Byzant's weight, sending shots of pain into his head. Stars danced at the edges of Corvus's vision. He sucked in breath after laboured breath, each one more difficult and less satisfying than the one before.
Corvus lashed out with his leg. It smashed into Byzant's stomach and sent the other lecheon stumbling back. Corvus pushed the advantage. He lunged after Byzant, his fist swinging. He was so focussed that he didn't see the other two lecheons coming up on either side of him. They clamped onto his arms and wrenched him backwards.
His back slammed against the wall and this time he was pinned. Byzant leapt forward so that his face was pressed against Corvus's. He grinned, revealing the pulsating leach behind his teeth.
Corvus strained against the younger lecheons, but the three of them together were too much for him to break free. Byzant's hand was back around his throat, clenching tighter. Corvus's legs grew shaky with the lack of oxygen. His body slid an inch down the wall. The three lecheons kept him upright even though his legs were on the verge of collapse.
Byzant's other arm fumbled in his belt. He smiled with triumph and brought his hand up in front of Corvus's face. He was holding a ring, of sorts. It was like a small section of armour designed to encase a single finger. The main segment was metal but where it covered the end of Byzant's finger the metal was replaced with wood in the shape of a talon. It was a deep, dark wood that was already stained red by the blood it had seen. It was coated with a sticky layer that Corvus recognised instantly; the sap of an oak tree.
Byzant thrust his index finger into the ring; it fit perfectly, and then lifted it up to within a centimetre of Corvus's eyeball. The metal glinted in the dim lights of the hotel suit while the wood was dull, deadly.
Corvus smelt the blood. It was a mix of iron, rust and stone. Lecheon blood always had a tinge of stone; it was a whisper of their home planet. The wooden nail took up his whole vision. His eyes kept blinking but it wouldn't disappear. Corvus twisted his head to the side, as far away from the wooden nail as he could get, but it was no good.
Byzant moved in even closer. He wiggled his finger back and forth so that the nail dipped in close to Corvus's eye and then moved away. Back to within an inch, and then away again. It was exquisite, infinite torture, and if Corvus had had the strength or the breath, he would have cried out. But he didn't.
The sap of the oak would leak into any wound and kill him within minutes. There was no weapon more deadly to a lecheon. Even just the sight of it made Corvus's skin tingle.
The edges of his eyesight grew darker with every second and the creeping nail became harder to make out amongst the bright flashing stars. His eyes drooped shut, this time more from lack of air than a feeble attempt to avoid the wooden nail.
"Oh no, you're not getting out of it that easy," Byzant said. He loosened his weight on Corvus's neck.
Corvus sucked in a great gulp of air. The cool oxygen poured down his throat and into his lungs. His chest expanded out in grateful gasps. His surroundings zoomed back into focus with that first breath. Where before all he had seen was the wooden nail, and all he could hear was his own blood desperately hammering ever slower through his neck, now there was a massive assault on his senses.
The room was pulsating with commotion. Hands, bodies, and blood flew in all directions. There was so much noise. It beat at his newly recovered hearing, pounding away. His eyes flew away from the nail in front of his face to the wider scene. His coven was being slaughtered. They were unarmed and unprepared.
Byzant's coven looked younger, although it was hard to tell with lecheons. They fought tooth and nail, and they were winning.
Selene was backed into a corner. Somehow she had managed to acquire one of the wooden swords. She was swinging it back and forth in front of her. Her eyes were dark and determined and her mouth was set as she glared at her attackers.
Two of Byzant's coven ran in towards her. Corvus recognised them; Andil and Roan. Andil wore two killer gloves with wooden spikes thrusting from his knuckles like long claws. Roan wielded a wooden sword similar to Selene, edged with metal to make cutting easier.
Roan swung her sword down at Selene's neck. Selene raised her own sword and deflected the blow with the dull thud of wood on wood. Meanwhile, Andil took advantage of the distraction and pressed the advantage. His fist was raised, ready to punch into Selene's stomach with his wooden claws.
Selene was ready. At the same time as deflecting Roan's blow, she lifted her right knee and thrust out her foot. The side kick caught Andil in the jaw and he stumbled backwards.
Selene pushed forward with her sword and Roan's blade slid off to the side. Selene lifted her own blade and swung it in a wide arc. Roan was ready. Thud; wood on wood. Roan stepped forward and pushed Selene back into the corner, limiting her reach.
Roan swung in an arc designed to remove Selene's head. At the last moment Selene collapsed, her upper body crumpling to her knees so Roan's sword sailed straight over her head. Selene burst up. Her shoulders and head shot up within Roan's reach, along with her sword.
The strength of her arms combined with the power of her legs sent the wooden sword straight into Roan's stomach. It plunged through skin, muscle and organs with a sick squelching sound. Selene bent and ploughed the shoulder into Roan's chest so that she fell backwards. Selene kept a firm grip on the blade, wrenching it out of Roan's body and leaving behind rivers of blood.
Selene watched until she was sure Roan wouldn't be standing up again, then she turned to the rest of the battle. Andil was hanging back, cautious of Selene now that he'd watched one of his companions die by her hand. He moved his fists back and forth, the claws menacing.
Corvus ripped his eyes away from Selene to take stock of the rest of his coven. He could see at least nine of them dead. He couldn't imagine the massacre going on in the main room of the suite.
Winton was holding his own, as was Trevalon. He could see three bodies belonging to Byzant's coven, plus Roan who Selene had just killed. It wasn't enough; there were too many of them.
"I've waited a long time for this," Byzant said, ripping Corvus's attention away from the rest of his coven. "But there was always someone in the way, like that arrogant bastard, Selwyn."
"You do know how to hold a grudge," Corvus hissed. The leach in his mouth flicked out, leaving a shimmering trail of saliva over his lips.
"You made it so easy," Byzant responded. "No matter, now it's my turn."
"It will never be your turn. Laticia is dead. You'll never have a chance with her now."
Byzant's eyes flashed and he snarled at Corvus. The pressure on Corvus's neck increased and he again felt his head getting light and his vision going dark.
"Don't you dare speak her name," Byzant snarled.
"Why? I've been screaming it in ecstasy for years," Corvus said with a sneer. He even managed to force a chuckle up his constricted throat.
The lecheons holding his arms weren't distracted. He strained against them, but their grips remained firm.
"Oh, you'll pay for that," Byzant growled.
He advanced the wooden nail towards Corvus's eye. It was an inch away, and then half, looming closer, edging with infinite slowness. Corvus imagined the agony it would cause. The wooden tip would slice through his cornea and plunge into his eyeball. The poison from the oak sap would pump into the blood around his eye and from there it would spread to his brain and then on to the rest of his body. His head would feel it first, agony coursing through his very veins. It would get more intense the longer the wooden nail stayed in, until he was overcome with pain and fainted. From there his organs would seize and he'd die.
The nail was only a hair's breadth away.
Byzant grinned and flicked up a smaller wooden blade. He slashed it across Corvus's cheek.
The pain was immediate. Tendrils of agony poured through Corvus's face. His jaw tightened uncontrollably, clenching down onto his tongue and drawing blood.
Corvus did the only thing he could think of. He lifted both legs and kicked forward, slamming into Byzant's stomach. The sudden weight of Corvus's body made the two younger lecheons lose their hold. Corvus's arms slid through their hands and he fell free onto the floor. His tailbone crashed onto the hard ground. Pain shot through Corvus's spine, but he ignored it.
He grabbed hold of Byzant's wrist, and used it to pull himself off the floor. He wrapped his arms around Byzant, turned his hand around, and thrust the wooden nail into his face. The nail went deep, carving a hole in Byzant's cheek.
Byzant cried with agony and lifted both hands to his face in a desperate attempt to stop the blood.
Corvus was also bleeding profusely. The gouge was just below his right eye. It was so close that he could see the blood flowing out of his cheek when he glanced down. He shook himself and turned his full attention to Byzant. The two younger lecheons stared with wide-eyed fear, dancing on the balls of their feet.
Corvus had no weapons, there was no wood within reach, and daylight was still an hour away. His head whipped back and forth, searching. Selene glanced up at him. She was still fending off Andil and his cursed gloves. She looked at Corvus, looked at Byzant, and nodded. She drew back and thrust her sword across the bedroom.
It sailed through the air like a javelin. The blade went over the heads of the fighting lecheons and straight into Corvus's grip. He smiled and without wasting time stepped forward and thrust the sword into Byzant's stomach.
The blade sunk right in, finding its way between ribs and spinal column. Byzant seized up and looked at Corvus with a mixture of horror and confusion. Then the pain set in.
Byzant screamed and wailed. He fell to his knees and pummelled the carpet. Tears streamed out of his eyes.
Corvus sneered down at him and stomped on his flailing hand. The wrist was locked on the carpet but the fingers continued to tense and relax, tense and relax. Corvus bent over and grabbed hold of the metal ring with the deadly nail. He yanked it off of Byzant's finger and thrust it onto his own. He liked how it felt, powerful.
Byzant's screams decayed into mewling. Soon he would be dead.
Corvus sprung back, swinging the sword in a wide arc. It sliced through the necks of both the young lecheons who had restrained him. Their heads fell to the ground with solid thunks, leaving pools of blood soaking into the carpet.
"You chose the wrong coven," Corvus said to their frozen features, still rigid with fear.
Corvus stood straight and surveyed the room. Things still weren't going well for his coven but that was about to change. He stepped up behind Andil and thrust the wooden sword into his back. He collapsed just like Byzant.
There were three other of Byzant's coven in the bedroom. Corvus made quick work of them. His feet danced across the floor as he thrust in his sword, pulled it free, spun, thrust his sword again. Two lecheons fell to the floor, dying.
The remaining lecheon looked down at his fallen comrades and then up at Corvus. He had just enough time to look down at the sword, before it sunk deep into his belly. Then he collapsed to join his fellows.
Corvus marched into the main room of the suit. Selene and Winton were right behind him. There was more death there. Tiny battles were being fought across the room and the dead lay scattered about. The lounge was toppled and it looked as if everything had been smashed.
It was moments like these he was thankful that he never paid a security deposit for any rooms.
There were fifteen of the other coven still standing and twenty of his. He liked those odds.
"I'll give you one chance," Corvus shouted. His voice boomed across the melee and the room fell still. Eyes stared at him in fear and awe. "Leave now, take your dead, and you will be allowed to continue. Choose to fight and I'll see that every last one of you dies."
Corvus took the time to glare at each of his enemies in turn. They turned to jelly under his gaze. He considered killing them all. It would be cleaner and leave no loose ends, but the last thing the lecheon species needed were more civil wars. The other alternative was to take them into his coven, but he couldn't trust them; he may as well stab himself in the back and be done with it.
"In case it helps your decision," Corvus said, holding up his index finger with the ring and claw, "Byzant is dead. He'll be leading you no more."
That was the release they needed. As one, the enemy coven went to work. They collected up their fallen allies and disappeared through the doors and windows as quickly as they had come. They probably had rooms above and below this one, Corvus thought. He cursed the hotel for its pervading perfume, which was now far less appealing because without that he would have smelled the other coven long before the attack.
He looked at the remains of his coven. They were scratched and exhausted. Many of them were panting heavily or wincing at their wounds. He felt a pain in his chest for those who had fallen. He lowered his wooden sword and rested the tip into the carpet.
"We can't stay here," he said. "The authorities will be here soon."
"Where shall we go?" asked Winton.
"I have an idea," Corvus said. "It won't be easy, but we will prevail."
"If we wanted easy we would still be living on Sythar and eating animal blood for every meal," said Selene.
Corvus nodded at her, acknowledging both her words and her role in saving his life. She was proving to be a resourceful and loyal second.
"First, we have to get out of here," said Corvus.
The others nodded and they too began to gather up their dead. At least, Corvus thought, this way he could blame Pamielle's death on the other coven. Only he and Selene need know. There was no sense stirring up trouble at a time like this.
"Nova, glad you could make it," Inspector Briggles said. His shoulders visibly relaxed when he saw her and he let out a long breath.
Nova nodded to him and then looked at the building where the lecheons were holed up.
"We've got some schematics. According to our intel, they went for one of the underground rooms," Briggles said.
"Why in Saturn's Satellites would they have underground rooms?" Nova asked. Her heart beat a little faster. Above ground was easy; throw open the curtains and all the lecheons would be disabled. Underground? What could they do underground?
"I told you, this building is for diplomatic relations. They have rooms specifically designed for lecheons."
"Fine. So, what's our plan?"
"The lecheon wing is cut off. According to management, Corvus's coven are the only ones staying there. We'll have free reign to move in. We're taking UV spotlights, as well as all the wooden weapons we can find. There's not much else we can do."
"What about the dogs?"
"No good. The canine unit is terrified of the lecheons. They won't even go near the entrance to this place."
"Shame. Okay, I'm ready when you are," Nova said. She patted the gun at her side. It was older than the one she usually carried, and had been specially fitted with wooden bullets.
"Alright, let's move out," Briggles said and gestured to his men.
Nova crept forward with her gun held out in front, a strong torch attached to the top, shining a steady light out before her. The dark tunnel was lined on the floor, walls and ceiling with steel to avoid any specs of wood. The metal reflected her flashlight and echoed with her clanging footsteps.
To the right and just in front of Nova was Briggles. A senior officer, Johnny, followed close behind. The information from the hotel had led them here, to a diplomatic building with a lecheon wing. Based on the schematics, they had broken into groups of three that would sweep through each room until they found the coven.
Nova's back tingled. They were in lecheon territory, without a doubt. Even the occasional painting decorating the walls was from the lecheon home-world. They showed people and animals being sucked dry and lecheons rising up above the other creatures.
Nova's quickened breath matched that of her companions. She tried to level it, to take the shake out of each of her gasps but it was useless. Her heart and lungs were out of control. Her entire body was poised, ready to run or fight.
The pool of light cast by her torch and those of her two companions glimmered, but beyond that there was just darkness. It came in close to the light, consuming it, eating away at it. Nova's mind raced as her imagination filled the darkness with monsters. Perhaps the lecheons were lying in wait right now, just outside her circle of light. Her neck tingled as she imagined them sizing her up from the shadows.
Nova shook her head and her torch quivered in response. She couldn't get distracted. Her very life might depend on her staying focused. Now was not the time to be overcome with fear. She steeled herself against the possibilities and focused on what was actually real. It was only then, when she gave herself a job to do, that she managed to reign in her racing heart.
"They've been here," Nova whispered. She nodded down to the floor. Spaced every few feet across the metal were bloody footsteps. It looked as if someone with bare feet had stepped into a vat of red paint and then walked the dark corridors.
"They're injured," Briggles said with certainty.
Nova nodded slowly, she didn't voice the other possibility; that they'd fed.
They followed the bloodied footsteps further into the labyrinth.
"Team one through six, do you copy? Has there been any contact? Over," Briggles spoke into his communicator. They hadn't heard anything from the other teams. It could mean that they hadn't encountered anything, or it could mean they were all dead.
The silence dragged on for what felt like a lifetime. Nova found herself holding her breath, begging for a voice to answer from the other end of the line. If all the other teams were dead, it would only mean that she was next.
"Copy that Inspector. We're all clear on our end. Team One out."
"Same here. Team Two out."
Nova breathed a sigh of relief. The teams continued to respond to the roll call. They were all there and yet none of them had seen anything. They hadn't even seen bloody footsteps. Nova kept walking. She stayed in a perpetual semi-crouch, ready to duck, jump or dive in any direction at a moment's notice.
"How much further do you think?" she asked. It was impossible to tell distance in this damned place.
"Not much further and we'll be in the real living quarters," Briggles whispered. "Weapons at the ready."
He was right. Not twenty metres later they stepped out of the tunnel and into a wider common room. Nova's torch lit up furniture, a plush couch sat in one corner, and a computer terminal set into one wall. A food generator sat near the kitchen. The footprints traced through the room, weaving amongst the furniture and going deeper into the darkness.
Tanks and cages lined the walls. Nova's torch lit up long-dead carcasses in the bottom of the cages. Her face scrunched up at the sight.
"What the hell?" she asked, appalled.
"Live food," Briggles replied.
"That's disgusting. How can that be allowed?"
"Diplomatic immunity." Briggles shrugged. "Politicians always get away with more than they should."
The empty sockets of a dog's skull stared at Nova from the nearest cage. The rest of its bones lay in a heap as if the creature had died cowering.
Nova shook the horror from her mind and followed the footprints. Briggles and Johnny did the same. The metal floor turned into carpet and masked their footsteps. They were wrapped in silence, overpowered only by the complete darkness.
The footsteps disappeared.
Nova came to a halt at the last footprint and scanned around with her torch. There were no more to be seen. The corridor forked into two and there was no way to tell which path to take. She looked over her shoulder and her heart stopped. Briggles and the officer weren't there.
Her heart burst in her chest and pounded into overdrive. Her breath came faster and adrenalin shot up from her heart into her neck and face. Her ears pounded with the blood pumping through them and her vision became narrowed, focused.
She moved in a very slow circle. She took the time to study every piece of furniture and every centimetre of carpet. A sudden reaction could be fatal. She just had to keep calm. There was nothing, could see nothing –
Nova's scream was choked off by a hand around her neck and another clamped over her mouth. A strong body stepped up behind her, pressing against her back.
She lifted her gun, meaning to shoot it over her shoulder, but before she could pull the trigger her attacker's fist bashed her forearm. The force of it made her arm seize. Her fingers clenched in and then flexed out, her gun dropping to the ground. Her eyes flew wide and she struggled against her captor.
"You smell even better than last time," Corvus whispered in her ear. She'd recognise his voice anywhere. Dammit! Where was Briggles? She writhed against his tight hold but couldn't get free.
Corvus's breath tickled in her ear. His moist breath floated over her cheek and into her nose. It smelt of blood, but something else as well. Rocks. That's what it was, his breath tasted like stone.
"You're going to make quite the tasty treat. Much nicer than those fatty officers anyway," Corvus said. His leach-tongue came out and slid along Nova's collar-bone.
She shivered and her stomach heaved at the gross invasion. The cool air of the underground complex wafted over the wet trail, leaving a chill. Nova forced her mind to concentrate, willing herself to focus. Her arms were mostly free to move; there had to be a way to break free from him.
Nova breathed in through her nostrils. She filled her chest with as much air as it would hold and then opened her mouth and bit down. Corvus's finger caught between her teeth and she gnashed down.
He cried out with pain and his grip loosened.
It was just enough.
Nova ducked down and forward, breaking free of his hold. She scrambled on the ground for her gun, but couldn't find it. She leapt to her feet and ran through the pitch darkness, one hand tracing along the wall. Her heart pounded. She knew that Corvus would be able to see her as if they were standing under the brightest sun.
Nova reached into her left sleeve and pulled out a sharpened wooden stick with a deadly point. She was careful to hold it directly in front of her body, where Corvus wouldn't be able to see it.
She could hear him pounding after her.
"You little bitch. I'll make you pay for everything you've done," he roared, his footsteps pounding closer.
Nova felt a whoosh of air and ducked to her right. Corvus flew past her, his fingers bent like claws and his mouth wide open. As he sailed past, Nova thrust out with the sharpened stick and plunged it into his ribs. The wood sunk in with a fountain of blood.
Corvus cried out and stopped his mad dash. He clutched his left hand to his chest and ripped out the wooden spike. He wrapped his other hand around the wound but blood leaked from between his fingers. He glared at the wound with his mouth open.
Nova didn't wait a second longer. She sprinted down the corridor, following the barest glimmer of sunshine. It gave off just enough light for her to see Corvus's body slide down the wall to the floor.
She pelted faster until her breath was nothing more than exhausted gasps. It felt like she'd been running forever and yet there was still no sign of Briggles or the others. She sprinted through the rooms and corridors; always going towards the glimmer of light which got brighter the closer she got.
She reached a set of stairs. They led up towards the surface and at the very top was a glowing rectangle of light. She didn't hesitate and rushed up the stairs, bursting out of the doorway and into the open air. She stumbled to a stop and leant forward, allowing her lungs to catch up with her breathing.
There were people all around. They were police officers, the same ones who had gone down into the lecheon hideout. They looked exhausted. Their eyes were wide open, haunted.
"Nova! Nova, thank goodness!"
Nova glanced up in time to see Inspector Briggles running through the press of people. His stomach bobbed up and down with his movement. He was red-faced and puffing frantically. He got to her side and heaved in and out, his chest wheezing.
"What the hell happened down there?" Nova demanded, furious that she'd been left behind.
"An ambush. They were ready for us. I think the phone number was left at the Helliot on purpose," Briggles said, rubbing his temples.
"I meant where the hell were you? I turned around and suddenly you're gone," Nova panted.
"We didn't have a choice. One of those things jumped down in front of us. We lost Johnny," Briggles looked down at his feet.
Some of Nova's anger melted away. The officer, Johnny, had been an honourable veteran. Now he was just a bloodless meat-bag. She sighed and slammed her fist against her empty holster.
"We lost six good men. The others at least were able to get out," Briggles said, his voice catching in his throat.
"Damn lecheons!" Briggles hands curled into fists. "You know if the Human Confederacy would get off their arses and actually monitor them, we wouldn't have these problems."
"Well the Confederacy isn't going to help us now," Nova said.
"You've got that damn right." Briggles nodded, some of the air returning to his body. "Four reports I've sent them. Recommendations on how to track lecheon activity, provisions for offenders, everything they needed to fix the problem. You know what they did with it?"
Nova shook her head, but could guess.
"They filed it away never to be seen again. Worried about appearing 'speciest' or something. Well, I'd like to let a few lecheons loose in the inner galaxy, then see how quick they change the policy."
"Inspector." Briggles's tirade was stopped by Doctor Dunwood. He shambled over to them, the book tucked under his arm and a furrow splitting his brow.
"Doctor, I really don't have time for lecheon trivia. If something doesn't happen soon, we're going to have a real situation on our hands."
"Of course, Inspector, but I've found something you might need." Doctor Dunwood looked at them, his eyes flicking between Nova and Briggles.
"Well? Do I have to throttle it out of you?" Briggles said. His face was still red, although Nova suspected it was more from anger and frustration than from exhaustion.
"No, sir. It's just that at the moment the underground is their domain; it's dark, we may as well be fighting them at night time."
"Very good, Dunwood. Why are you telling me things I already know?" Briggles wiped the back of his hand across his forehead and looked up at the thin doctor.
"I just mean that if we can find a way to get light in there then things will be back in our favour."
"I already knew that," Briggles said with a resigned sigh. "The problem is we don't have any way to get enough light in there. Our torches aren't enough and there are so many tunnels and turns we could never get a light to shine everywhere."
"Maybe not, but what if it was enough to light up say, the main corridors. From there your men could shine their torches into the side rooms and check for lecheons."
Briggles frowned and looked over his officers. They were scared and worried.
"I don't know if they'll go back down there."
Nova grunted and kicked the ground with her left foot. "It's not their decision. You're the Inspector. Now is as good a time as any. I think Corvus is injured, maybe even fatally."
"What?" Briggles and Dunwood turned to look at her with their mouths hanging open.
"I managed to get him with a wooden spike," Nova said with a shrug.
"If their coven leader is down, then it's the best time to strike!" Dunwood said.
"You're right," Briggles said with a decisive nod. "I'll get every—"
The ground rumbled and heaved beneath them. The dirt all around them lifted as if it was caught by a wave and Nova was thrown into the air. When she fell back down, she landed with her knees bent and managed to stay on her feet.
Some of the others weren't so prepared. They sprawled across the ground, their arms and legs splayed, their bodies landing with dull thuds. Some cried out in pain as elbows and hips were thrown against the dirt.
The well-manicured lawn had suddenly become an uneven tumble of dirt and grass, lying in dips and ridges, and chaos erupted.
"My lord! What happened?" Selene cried as Corvus stumbled down the corridor.
Corvus groaned but didn't say anything. He clutched the bloody wound in his chest. It oozed blood and his shirt and arm were stained red with it. Pain radiated out from the wound, pumping to every extremity of his body with each beat of his heart. He felt the poison spreading. For the moment it was confined to his upper chest but it wouldn't be long before it took over the rest of his body.
Selene glanced at his wound. "Oh," she whispered.
Corvus didn't need to look. He knew how bad it was; if the pain wasn't enough, Selene's face said it all. He ignored her and kept shuffling down the corridor. Selene fell into step beside him and without a word slipped her arm around his waist, taking some of his weight. He breathed through his nose in an effort to keep calm, to slow his heart rate, and stop the poison from spreading so quickly.
He walked with Selene through the hotel. What the inspectors hadn't found was the adjoining tunnel. The lecheons had been busy in their time on Boullion Five. There were tunnels snaking through the whole city. They could take a traveller almost anywhere, if that traveller knew what he was doing.
"Set it off," he whispered.
"Are you sure?" Selene said, her eyes were wide, "Not everyone has been accounted for."
Corvus gritted his teeth. "Set it off. They're not coming."
Selene nodded and slipped her arm out from around Corvus's waist. She turned back the way they had come and her footsteps disappeared down the corridor. Corvus continued forward on his own. He pushed himself as hard as he could; he couldn't afford to go any slower. Angry blood pumped through his face as he thought of his coven. They should have waited for him! But no, he'd given them the instruction to retreat to their hideout if things got bad.
Things had got bad.
"Come on. We've got to make it to the end of this tunnel," Selene said as she sprinted back down the corridor after him. She grabbed hold of his arm and pulled.
Corvus winced at the pain that shot through his body from her touch. He didn't curse her; she was right. They had to get moving out of this place or they would die anyway. He hobbled down the corridor. The bend was just in sight. A few more feet and they would be in safety. Just a little further.
The ground heaved.
A deep boom rocketed through the catacombs and Corvus hurtled forward, slamming into the opposite wall. Selene went with him and their bodies toppled over one another. He ducked his head in close to his chest and kept his left hand locked around his chest. The worst thing he could do was let go of that wound. Without the pressure the wood residue would see him dead in no time.
After a few seconds the ground calmed down. The rumbling slowed and Corvus's ears began to recover from the initial blast. He struggled onto his knees and then pushed himself back to his feet. The tunnel ahead was still clear.
"At least the explosives still work," Selene said, using the wall to haul herself up.
They staggered on down the tunnel.
The explosives would keep the inspectors busy while he and his coven made escape plans. They had a hard choice. They could give up now, leave Boullion Five and go back to the home-world or one of the far-outer galaxies; or they could make a stand here. Staying would be a risky choice; Byzant's coven could reappear at any moment and the bitch helping the inspectors was good; too good.
Corvus groaned as another burst of pain shot into his limbs. Why was he worrying about their decision when the odds were good that he wouldn't even make it back to the hideout? The poison was already seeping out of his wound and into other regions of his body. There was almost no cure for a wood poisoning this severe. The shallow ones could be dealt with; his immune system would take care of it. But a deep chest wound was usually fatal.
"Just a little further," Selene said, laying her hand on Corvus's back.
He glanced down at her out of the corner of his eye. "You know you make a good leader," he whispered. "Why didn't you fight to be prime female?"
Selene shrugged and a sad smile split her face. "Would you have chosen me if I had?"
Corvus was quiet as he thought on that. "Probably not; Laticia and I were meant to be."
Selene nodded. "I've always thought that we get exactly what we deserve in the end. If I was meant to be a coven leader then one day the opportunity would come, without me having to fight tooth and nail with someone like Pamielle."
"You believe in fate?" Corvus said with a croaking chuckle. Fate was a very human concept.
Selene shrugged and kept her eyes on the tunnel in front of them. "Who can say? But look at it this way. I am now prime female of one of the most powerful covens, so at least for now my theory is working."
Corvus nodded and the corner of his mouth flipped up. He couldn't argue with that, for the moment at least her strategy was working. There were many females who would kill, and in fact had killed, for the opportunity, while Selene had fallen straight into it.
"What happened?" Winton ran out of the shadows.
"Wooden spike. Tell Ravyn he needs help now," Selene said, unable to hide the relief on her face when Winton appeared.
Winton dashed back into the shadows. There were voices from the darkness and then the sound of activity.
"We're here already?" Corvus said. Even through the agony and suffering he hadn't realised they'd covered enough ground to reach the hideout.
"Yep. Just take a seat here; there you go," Selene said as she lowered him onto a mattress. It smelt of dust and age. He didn't mind. He was so tired; the exhaustion seeped into his bones. At least now he was free to sleep. To drift away…
"No doubt about it boss," said a young man in dirt-stained overalls. "Explosives. They were set about the tunnels deliberately, made them collapse. It would have killed anyone who was inside."
"But were they inside Gerry? That's what I want to know," Briggles said.
They stood in a make-shift tent beside the upturned grass which was the sight of the explosion. Nova stood off to one side, watching the exchange. The man in the overalls was a hired explosion specialist; he and his team had been crawling over the rubble all afternoon.
"We haven't seen any signs of bodies. Also, it looks like there is more to the tunnels than your building plans suggest," Gerry said, scratching a dirt-covered hand through his equally dirty hair.
"What do you mean?" Briggles asked.
"Just here," Gerry said, pointing at the blueprint of the tunnels, to a region of solid wall. "It looks like there's another tunnel leading off from here; it heads back towards the city central."
"More tunnels," Briggles groaned.
"It's not the first time I've seen this kind of thing," Gerry said. "All the sites I've been to, there have been tunnels under those too. It's like there's a whole other city underground."
"Bloody lecheons," Briggles swore.
"Do you need my boys for anything else?" Gerry said. "They don't like messing around with lecheon business."
"No, they can go. Thank you," Briggles said, waving his hand towards the door.
Gerry nodded, sauntering out of the tent towards the throng of people gathered outside.
"So, they got out," Nova said.
"We can't do much more tonight. I say we get a good sleep and start again in the morning. They could be anywhere in the city by now. We'll have to start the search again tomorrow."
"You're right," Briggles replied. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Nova nodded and followed Gerry out of the tent.
"You have no idea," Nova said as she shovelled another mouthful of stew into her mouth. "We're running around in circles. These lecheons have got control of this planet; the people here just haven't realised it yet."
Tanguin looked at Nova from Crusader's large front screen. She had a bowl of green in front of her which she was delicately spooning into her mouth from time to time.
"There's no way to track them?" Tanguin asked.
"Just the usual; heat signatures and stuff, but that's no good because they look just like humans in a heat scan. They're hiding in the city, we just don't know where."
"Damn," said Tanguin.
"Tell me about it." Nova grimaced. She'd only been on Boullion Five for a few days and yet it felt like a lifetime. All she felt now was frustration at the ridiculous case; even the reward was becoming less appealing.
"You can always just leave," Tanguin said. "The space-race isn't far away and if you win that, the money will be the same as what you're getting there."
Nova nodded. She'd had the same thought multiple times since running into the lecheons.
"I started it," Nova said. "If it wasn't for me the lecheons would only kill one or two people every now and then. Now it's a war. I've got to see it through to the end."
Tanguin sighed. "I know."
"I should get some sleep," Nova said. "I'll talk to you later."
Crusader's front screen went blank and Nova collapsed back into her chair with a sigh.
Nova blinked her bleary eyes as she rolled over and hung her legs over the edge of the bed. She glanced at the neon blue time display and groaned. Five am.
"Who's calling me this early?" she mumbled as she stumbled out of her sleeping pod towards the pilot's chair.
"Communication from the Inspector," Crusader said as Nova sat down.
"Put it through," Nova sighed, a sinking sense seeping through her tired body.
"We've got another one," Briggles said.
His face looked tired. It was blown up on Crusader's front screen, showing every line and wrinkle. His hair was greyer than when Nova had first met him. His eyes were bloodshot, it looked as though he'd gotten just as much sleep as she had; which was next to none.
"You're kidding," Nova said, slamming her palm down on the metal control panel.
"Afraid so. I'm sending you through the photos and a map location now. I'll meet you there."
Briggles picture flickered, before blinking out of existence. His face was replaced with gruesome images. A young girl with a ghostly white face filled the first image. Her mouth was frozen open in a silent scream. The map location was further into the city.
"Damn lecheons. Why did I sign on for this again?" she muttered as she stomped back to her sleeping pod to get changed.
"I believe it had something to do with the three thousand credit reward," Cal said, hovering into the doorway.
"I'm starting to think I should have asked for much, much more," Nova said, pulling a black singlet over her head. "Crusader, start heading over. Park wherever you can."
In response, Crusader's engines thrummed into life and the ship lifted up into the dark night sky.
"You could always just leave it and find a different mission," Cal said.
Nova glared at him. "You heard me talking to Tanguin last night. I'm not giving up. I'm just frustrated that it's taking so long. I'm not going to be scared off by a few lecheons. Besides, they're weak. I'm sure we nearly have them."
"Is that based on the fact that they've evaded you four times now?" Cal asked.
Nova scowled. "Corvus is injured, maybe even dead. Now's our chance."
"As you wish," Cal said, hovering away from her sleeping pod.
Nova pulled on her jacket and headed for the door. Crusader landed with a thud and before the engines could fully power-down, she stepped through the door and jumped onto the cement pavement. She headed down the street to where the police had cordoned off a piece of the road. They stepped aside when they saw Nova approaching.
She nodded to them. Inspector Briggles and Doctor Dunwood were already there, kneeling beside the body and talking in low whispers.
The victim was young; eighteen at the most, and her neck was twisted. Her eyes and mouth were wide. Nova shivered at the expression. It looked as though she'd died of surprise or shock. Teeth marks lined her neck and arms, and a dried circle of blood stained the pavement under her body.
"Rosanne. She left work at two. That was the last time she was seen alive," Briggles said as Nova knelt next to him.
"They made a mess of this one," Nova said, pointing to the pool of blood.
"It's very unusual," Doctor Dunwood said. "Lecheons never let blood go to waste. It makes me think this wasn't a normal killing."
"It's Corvus's style though, his taste," Briggles put in.
"Did you say you injured him?" Dunwood asked, looking at Nova.
"Yeah, got him pretty good too," she said.
" Hmm. I think they were out collecting blood for Corvus," Dunwood said, frowning.
"Can they do that?" Briggles asked, looking at the doctor with disbelief.
"Oh yes," Dunwood nodded. "Especially for their coven leader. And it might just give him enough strength to survive."
Nova cursed. If Corvus survived then their little trek underground had been for nothing and Johnny the veteran officer had died for nothing. Johnny. She stared down at the girl. Rosanne's green eyes were glazed over and tiny blood vessels had burst, staining the whites of her eyes pink.
"Have you found any clues as to where they're hiding?" she asked.
"Nothing, this scene is clean. I think they were being very careful," Briggles said, waving his hand at the empty street.
"It's so close to the main road," Nova said, glancing over her shoulder.
There was already a crowd of people gathered around the police barrier. They craned their necks to look in and see the horrific scene, pushing against one another for a better view. They stared with fascination at the body and the officers, transfixed, until someone elbowed them out of the way and reminded them to get back on with their lives.
Briggles shrugged. "If it meant the difference between saving Corvus's life and letting him die, then they probably didn't care."
Nova nodded. She got to her feet and began her own investigation. The whole area was made of cement; a main walkway when it wasn't blocked off by a murder scene. The spatters of blood spread out from the body in an arc. There were a few red footsteps, but they collected around the prone body and didn't create a definite trail.
"Wouldn't this place have cameras?" Nova asked. Most streets so close to the main road were monitored.
"Usually," Briggles said. He pointed up the side of the building.
Nova's eyes followed his finger. Sitting at the corner of the roof was a round black orb. Typically it would act as an all-seeing eye with a direct feed straight to the police station. Now, it was smashed in, wires hanging out, and a collection of shattered glass at the base of the building.
"Happened about two-twenty," Briggles said. "There's no footage of the offenders and none of the other cameras picked up anything."
"They know this area," Nova surmised.
"Better than I do," Briggles said with a grimace.
"Sit up, my lord," Selene said.
She cradled Corvus's neck with one hand and a bowl of blood in the other. The blood was thick, congealing, but it smelled divine. It felt like so long since he'd feasted. Corvus struggled to sit. Pain coursed through his veins with every movement. His right side where the bitch had stabbed him was numb completely. It was both a blessing and a curse; at least he wasn't in agony any more, but it also meant the poison was doing its deadly work.
He couldn't see the wound. Ravyn, the medical specialist of his coven, had wrapped it tightly with bandages after digging as much of the wood out as she could. There had been tiny splinters scattered throughout his chest, gradually working their treacherous way to his heart.
He gasped for air. For the last hour it had felt as if a massive weight was crushing his chest, forcing his lungs closed. He couldn't get a proper breath and it left him dizzy and confused. His head ached, ached like it had never done before. The extreme pain hammered away inside his brain.
The struggle to breathe, the pain and the fear, made him wish for death. If only the poison would do its work quickly, rather than dragging him through this torturous embarrassment. Reduced to an invalid and forced to be spoon fed.
Ravyn sat on his other side. She looked fierce and determined. She was an invaluable member of his coven; if his heart didn't belong entirely to Laticia he would have taken her for a mate. She could never have been prime female though, she wasn't right for the job; but then he never would have thought Selene could take to the roll so quickly.
His mind was wandering. He had to focus.
Selene held the bowl of blood in front of him. He allowed his mouth to open. At first it was just a crack. His dry lips stuck together and stung when he forced them apart. His parched tongue scraped against the top of his mouth like sandpaper when he lolled it out.
The leach part of him rolled out from between his lips but hung limply, mostly drained of its energy. Corvus pushed with all his strength. The leach lifted slightly but that was all it could manage.
Selene moved the bowl closer so that the leach was hanging down into the thick blood. The rim of the bowl rested on Corvus's chin. He felt the warmth as the leach dropped into the liquid, the taste of iron coated his tongue along with the flowery scent of his favourite flavour.
It took a few seconds of being immersed in the blood before the leach began to suck. It pulsated as it pulled, weakly at first, but growing with strength. The blood surged into the leach's mouth, before sliding down Corvus's throat. The warmth soothed his scratched mouth and throat. The blood brought a refreshing zing which eased his headache.
He felt every drop as it fell down his throat to his stomach and was then absorbed, flowing out to his veins. When the new blood reached his injured side it tingled. Sensation returned slowly. At first it was just a tingle, but soon progressed to an ache and before long he was back to unforgettable agony.
Corvus whimpered. He hated himself for it but the noise leaked from his lips regardless. The pain was so extreme.
"Cut it out," he said, his eyes pleading at Ravyn. Surely carving out his chest couldn't feel worse than the gut-wrenching pain he felt at that moment.
"Feeling is returning. That's good," Ravyn said. She bent over his side and peeled back the tight bandages.
The relief of pressure let more blood surge to the wound and a new wave of agony rushed over him. He glanced down at the hole in his chest. The flesh all around it was blackened and covered in puss. A horrible smell emanated from the wound, a stench like rotting eggs. But below all of that was something else, that flowery scent. Red blood seeped up out of the wound; clean, human blood.
Tiny tendrils of grey smoke wafted out of the wound and dissipated in the air. He wrenched his eyes away; he couldn't look at the mess which was his chest, not without throwing up all over it. He turned instead to Selene. Her face was the very picture of calm determination. How funny that he had chosen her just to get back at Pamielle and yet she had been the perfect woman for the job. How funny -
The small underground basement erupted with a loud clanging, like someone beating on a meatal drum.
Selene jumped to her feet, letting go of Corvus's head and laying the bowl on the ground. Ravyn similarly stood, positioning herself between Corvus and the only entry.
Corvus could do nothing more than hold his head up. It took all of his energy to focus on not letting himself fall to the ground, his head smashing on the cement.
The rest of his coven jumped into battle-ready positions. They reached for whatever weapons they could find. Most of them carried swords or knives, the rest were used to using their bare hands. All of them glared at the single doorway which had suddenly burst inwards. The steel door smashed against the opposite wall and the tunnel beyond gaped with darkness.
"We seek sanctuary under the lecheon convention," a voice echoed down from the tunnel into their basement.
Corvus's coven looked at one another with confusion and then looked to him for direction.
Corvus was overcome with confusion. Who would be seeking him out? What was he supposed to do? He was in no condition to fight if they turned out to be hostile; but if they were hostile, why would they request sanctuary? His mind was racing and he had yet to respond when Selene took control.
"Who seeks sanctuary?" she called, keeping her knife at the ready.
"I am Brynden and with me are the remnants of Byzant's coven."
Corvus and his coven drew in a sharp breath.
"What are you swine doing here?" Selene spat, exactly mirroring Corvus's thoughts.
"We seek sanctuary, and to join your coven. We no longer serve Byzant and wish to serve the great and powerful Corvus," Brynden replied.
Corvus's mind went into overdrive. The remnants of Byzant's coven. The traitors. How dare they show their faces here? They had killed his people and he had given them one chance to escape with their lives, and now they flaunted that offer. But then, if he was truly going to take on the bitch and the other humans he could use some back up.
Selene stared down at him, her eyebrow raised. He looked up at her and nodded once. They would get one chance.
"You may enter. Leave your weapons at the doorway," Selene said.
Corvus's coven crouched, ready to respond if things got ugly.
The foreign coven entered one at a time through the door, placing their meagre weapons down as they went. They shuffled down the stairs, their eyes wide and staring. They crouched over, with shoulders bent as if expecting a hidden blow at any moment. They were bruised and broken; many had visible wounds or limped as they came down the stairs.
The man at the front, Brynden, opened his eyes wide when he saw Corvus huddled in a corner, his chest a bleeding, blackened mess. He looked between Corvus's face and his wound before ripping his eyes free and moving forward into the centre of the basement. Brynden stood with his hands spread wide and the rest of the coven followed his example.
There were fifteen of them in total, some injured but many still able to fight. They could be just what Corvus needed. He glared at them, trying to see through his haze of pain and to pass judgement on these new-comers. In the end he nodded and gestured for Brynden to approach.
Brynden was a young man, far too young to take on the responsibilities of a coven. There were a few older than him among their ranks but they seemed timid, their shoulders hunched; they could never lead either. Brynden wore a dark shirt and dark pants which matched his black hair. He walked to Corvus with his back straight, their eyes locked. He had courage.
Brynden knelt next to Corvus so that their eyes were level.
"Are you planning to stab me in the back?" Corvus asked through clenched teeth.
It took all of his strength to focus on Brynden, to take in his subtle body hints, to really gauge the man.
"No," Brynden replied. His face remained straight without a single flicker of deceit.
"Do you and your companions swear fealty to me and mine?" Corvus asked.
"Yes," Brynden said, again in an unwavering tone.
"We must overthrow the useless authorities of this planet. Will you aide us?"
Corvus continued to stare into the other man's eyes for a few moments before nodding once.
"Welcome," Corvus said.
Corvus's coven lowered their weapons and moved in to grasp the forearms of their new coven fellows. They nodded at one another and a palpable tension lifted from the room, floating out of the basement and up into the night sky.
"The biggest advantage the lecheons have over us is that they can see in the dark," Nova said. She looked over the group of officers. These men and women would stand with her and Briggles against the lecheons. They needed to be ready, so she had arranged a training session to educate them on how to better fight the lecheons. "All they have to do is turn out the lights and we're helpless."
"Then we'll wear the night-vision goggles," said Johnson, a stout officer with a perpetually angry face.
"That might work for some," Nova said with a sigh. "But there aren't enough goggles for everyone and if they get pulled off, you have to know how to fight in the dark."
"What do you mean there's not enough? " Johnson demanded. "How are you going to decide who gets them and who doesn't? You may as well send us all to a slaughter house!" Uneasy murmurs swept over the gathering, growing to heated accusations.
"We can't fight in the dark!"
"Like lambs to a slaughter!"
"Who does she think she is?!"
Nova raised her hand but the outcry continued. She looked to Briggles who grimaced and turned to the sea of angry faces.
"Silence!" he bellowed.
The noise died and the officers shifted on their feet. Before, there had been mild interest; now there was outright fear. Nova frowned. These people needed to stay strong and focus, or they would all end up dead.
"You know we've had budget cuts; you can thank the Confederacy for that," Briggles said. "There just isn't enough equipment for everyone. We have no other choice but to work with what we have."
The gathered officers continued to grumble, but nodded their heads in agreement.
"There will be lights, but we can't plan for everything. If the lecheons take out the lights then we will have to know how to fight blind," Nova said once silence had returned to the group.
"How are we supposed to do that?" Johnson asked amid renewed cries. "Just suddenly grow a pair of lecheon eyes? I don't know about you, hunter, but I can't do that."
"We've got many other senses Johnson, I suggest you learn how to use them. We're going to be breaking into groups and using these," Nova gestured to a pile of wooden sticks. "Luckily each training-bot can see in the dark, so it'll be just like fighting a lecheon."
The officers looked at one another. Their expressions were confused, scared, and doubtful. Nova sighed; she had to learn to fight in the dark just as much as them. She wasn't going to hold their hands through it all.
"At first you'll take it in turns, fighting one at a time," Briggles said, taking over. "After that four of you will be fighting one training dummy. You have to try and tune into your other senses or you'll find yourself killed by the dummy or smashed over the head by one of your companions."
Nova nodded, turned to the pile of sticks and hefted one in her hand. Briggles did the same then they both walked to a far corner of the police academy's training centre where a training-bot was standing, currently powered down.
They were joined by two other officers, including Johnson, while the rest spread themselves amongst the other bots.
Briggles grinned at the small group. "I'll go first so you can all have something to laugh at."
He stepped towards the robot and glanced around at the other groups. Each group's selected fighters were standing ready, nervously looking at their training-bots.
"Lights out," Briggles commanded. The room plunged into darkness.
Nova listened. The room was suddenly filled with cries of pain and confusion. Curses poured forth and echoed off the bare walls. Bodies thumped to the ground and wooden sticks swished futilely through the air. Briggles was panting nearby. He hadn't been knocked to the ground, so he'd done better than most, but he hadn't managed to hit the trainer-bot yet either.
She strained her ears. The trainer-bot was following Briggles's footsteps. He was stepping sideways but it wasn't fast enough. A part of Nova wanted to call out, to warn him to duck, but that would have been against the purpose of the exercise, so she kept quiet. A second later there was a dull thud and Briggles groaned.
"I think I'm dead," Briggles coughed.
"I'll take it," Nova said.
"I don't see the point in this." Johnson's unmistakeable whine weaved out of the darkness. "The lecheons are going to have guns, what's the point of these useless sticks?"
Nova gritted her teeth. "If you tried to train with guns in the dark now, you'd all end up killing each other. How about you focus on mastering this, then maybe I'll trust you with a gun."
She stepped forward, careful to avoid Briggles's groaning body as he pulled himself away from the trainer-bot. Nova stopped moving and listened. The robot moved on wheels which made it relatively easy to follow, certainly easier than a lecheon stepping on quiet feet. She hoped that the spotlights would be on long enough to take down most of the lecheons before things went dark, and that there were enough officers with night-vision goggles to finish the rest.
The robot rolled straight towards her. Nova heard its mechanical arms lifting up, before the catch release dropped the arm in a sweeping arc, swinging the wooden stick along with it. She ducked low and the wooden stick sailed straight over her head. She stood up and swung with her own weapon, but the robot was already out of reach. Her stick sailed through thin air and she was left completely disorientated.
She stopped moving and tried to slow her panicked breathing. It was hard to stay calm and focused in the darkness. There was something about the dark which set off innate alarm bells inside her head. Humans weren't meant for the dark. Their eyes weren't built for it. Focus was made even more difficult by the other noises echoing around; the screams and thuds, the cries of frustration. So far there had been no sound of victory. What did that mean for their fight against the lecheons?
There! The trainer-bot had moved to her right, planning to circle around and take her by surprise. Its wheels gave it away as they rumbled along the floor. Nova stepped back and turned to face the oncoming enemy. She had no idea which way she was facing in relation to the rest of the room, or where Briggles and the others were standing, she just hoped they weren't anywhere near the path of her weapon. A swishing noise alerted her to an incoming blow. Nova only had enough time to lift her weapon and block the attack. The thwack of wood on wood echoed in her ears and the force of the blow made her arms vibrate. The trainer-bots obviously weren't set on easy; they were swinging to hurt. She made a mental note that they should probably have had a medical team on standby for this particular training exercise. She couldn't do anything about it now though.
The trainer-bot's stick fell away only to return a second later, swinging from the other direction. Nova lifted her own stick and blocked the blow once more, only this time she stepped forward towards the robot. She was within its circle of reach but it would have a hard time swinging its weapon with any force in the close quarters. She lifted her stick above her head and brought it slamming down onto the trainer-bot's head.
The victory bell echoed around the room and the robot before her went temporarily dead. At the noise of the bell the rest of the room went momentarily silent, until some officers got wacked by their own trainer-bots and reality was brought crashing back.
Nova stepped away from the robot towards the sound of breathing which she hoped was Briggles.
"Excellent work!" said the Inspector, clapping.
"I'll give it a go next," said Johnson from somewhere to their right.
The battles continued. In his second try Briggles managed to wack the trainer-bot in the chest with his stick. Nova's second round was short. She didn't waste any time before swinging her weapon and taking out the trainer-bot. It took four rounds for Johnson and the other officer to get a victory and two more rounds again before either of them won a second time.
Around the room other groups were doing the same. To some, fighting in the dark came naturally; to others it was a real struggle. Those with hearing problems quickly learnt that fighting in the dark was not for them and were replaced by others. After everyone had won at least one round Nova and Briggles changed the game.
"This time the trainer-bots have been given guns," Briggles said. "As usual your shirts will detect if you've been hit. We're going to scatter obstacles about the room. Your mission is simple. Survive."
They allowed a five minute breather while the room was set up and the trainer-bots reprogrammed. Nova was breathing hard from her fights with the trainer-bot, but she felt more comfortable in the dark. Surviving required a delicate mix of controlling your own noise and listening for others. Her stomach clenched at the thought of facing a lecheon in the dark. The trainer-bots were nothing in comparison.
"Whoever lasts the longest gets a pay rise," Briggles called out. "Let the game begin."
The lights blinked out and mayhem erupted throughout the room. Nova dashed away from the centre of the room and put her back against a wall. The rest of the room was filled with pandemonium as officers tried to outmanoeuvre the invisible trainer-bots. A pair collided not far from Nova and she heard a sickening crunch and they crumpled to the floor.
Nova crept over to them in the dark. She felt along the floor until her hand tapped an ankle.
"Oi, are you two ok?" she murmured.
"Are you okay or should I call off the game?" Nova asked.
"We're good, we're good," said the first.
"Yeah I'm good," said the second. "Just a busted lip, that's all."
Nova nodded to herself and melted back away from the two. Fake gunfire echoed through the room and red lights flashed as people were eliminated. The game progressed and more people were taken out to stand on the sidelines. The room grew steadily quieter.
Nova felt her away along the wall, before ducking behind what felt like a plastic box near the corner of the room. From there she could listen to the mayhem but was protected from fire on two sides. She listened. A set of wheels was getting closer, moving between the various objects, and weaving its way towards her. She crouched low, a hand on the floor, ready to sprint if she had to.
The wheels squeaked closer.
How long before the robot could see her? She suspected that for the moment the plastic box hid her from sight but it wouldn't be long before the robot would come around the side.
It was going towards the left side of the box. Nova crept on silent feet around the other side, moving gradually so that she reached the right side just as the robot rolled around to look at where she had been crouched. The robot moved forward. She continued to creep around. She suspected that the trainer-bot had some idea she was there, otherwise why would it keep circling? She moved all the way around until she was back at her starting place before the robot rolled off.
Nova breathed a sigh of relief and leant back against the box .
Her heart leapt into her throat when her shirt beeped and a bright red light flashed on her chest.
"Grishnak!" she swore as she stood, eliminated.
She strode to the sideline and glared around through the darkness for her attacker. She couldn't see anything but the tell-tale squeak of wheels said that her assailant had been at the far end of the arena. She would have had no chance of seeing or hearing it.
Nova was the fourth last to be killed. It didn't take long for the rest to be eliminated, with all of the trainer-bots looking for them.
The winner was a young man with a wide grin spread across his face. His fellow officers slapped him on the back as the lights came on. Nova hoped he would survive long enough to enjoy his pay rise.
The training continued late into the night. By the end, most of them could survive adequately in the dark; at least enough to know if someone was standing right next to them.
It would have to be enough.
The Wharves. 11pm. Be there or more will die.
The note was scrawled in red ink across a scrap of paper. Neither the handwriting nor paper gave any clue to where the note had come from. It was delivered with a collection of other mail, untraceable.
Nova and Briggles looked down at the note, both of their brows furrowed. Standing outside the police station, they had been on the way to get lunch and relieve some of the stress of the investigation. Now they were plunged into a whole new wave of worry.
Nova wanted to curl the piece of paper in her fist, stomp on it and set it on fire. Instead, she let Briggles hold it, whilst she tucked her hands firmly behind her back. Her nostrils flared as she re-read the words. The nerve of these lecheons! If she could get her hands on Corvus, she would strangle him until his eyes popped.
She forced herself to breathe slower; to assess the situation. The note was infuriating, but what did it actually mean?
"It could be a hoax," Nova said. "A lot of people saw the killing yesterday."
"It might be," Briggles agreed, looking at Nova with red eyes. "Or it might not be."
"Let's meet them there. We'll have lights set up, plenty of time to prepare. And we know they won't be there until night-time. They've practically handed us the wooden bullets to kill them with."
"We're not supposed to kill them, we're trying to catch them," Briggles said with a sigh.
"Do those rules still apply?" Nova said. "What if it's their lives or ours? We may not have a choice."
Briggles didn't reply. He held the note in his thick fingers and his eyes ran over the words again.
Nova couldn't stomach the waiting, there was nothing worse. She tapped her foot on the cement, but when it was clear Briggles wasn't going to say anything more she stepped in.
"I'm taking a contingent down to prepare. Are you coming or not?" she said, staring directly at him.
"Yes," Briggles said with a sigh.
"Good." Nova nodded and stalked back into the police station. She paused at the top of the steps and looked back at Briggles. "How do the lecheon leaders respond to their kind killing ours?"
Briggles shrugged. "Some of them are against it, and some of them are for it. Most think it's a bad idea because of the bad trade implications."
"Okay," Nova said as she stormed through the doorway.
Shipping containers spread across the yard, their rusted metal casings reflecting none of the orange glow of the setting sun. They sat in forlorn clumps, with white and faded numbers painted on their sides.
Large carrier spaceships parked off to the side, slow moving but unstoppable. They chugged through space carrying things from one galaxy to the next, delivering coal and steel from the Resources District into the inner galaxies. Boullion Five had only a small shipping yard compared to some planets, because it was halfway between the inner and outer galaxies. It was a rest point in the typically long journey.
Nova lay on her stomach on top of a corroded container. The rust flaked off the metal and coated her arms and clothes where they rested against it. She'd spent the day working with Briggles and the officers to set up the perfect scenario. When the creatures showed their faces, they wouldn't know which way was up.
Even if she'd still had it, her normal plasma pistol was useless against the lecheons, so Nova had taken up an ancient weapon from her arsenal. In the more secret cupboards of Crusader she had whole stacks of weapons; this was one of the oldest. It was a weapon from old-Earth, a bow with a quiver of twelve arrows that bristled out of her back. Four sharpened pieces of wood and a wooden knife with metal edging lay in a row by her side. Sparse weapons in any other fight, but the best against a coven of lecheons.
Nova glanced over her shoulder at the sun; it would be at least another half an hour before it dipped below the horizon. Then they would be plunged into darkness to await the enemy. The officers were spaced out around the containers. Mostly they lay on top, keeping an eye on all of the entry points, ready to sound the alarm; others were spaced out on the ground. These were the keenest shooters, ready to fire at a moment's notice.
Inspector Briggles lay one container over on Nova's left, ready to issue commands via a radio earpiece that connected him to the other officers. He gripped an ancient pistol in his hands, his knuckles white; it had been specially modified to carry wooden bullets. He glared at the ground, his face red, as if daring the lecheons to appear before him.
Nova forced herself to focus. The sun was warm on her neck, a nice relief from the chilling cold which was sure to descend with nightfall. Boullion Five was much colder than many of the planets she'd visited. She wore her jacket but she didn't want to risk any more layers, as anything which limited her movement could mean certain death. Better to be a little cold above ground than a lot cold six feet under.
The minutes ticked slowly by. She pulled an arrow from the quiver and notched it into the bowstring. She had practiced with the weapon before, but she would have felt more comfortable with her plasma pistol. It would slow the lecheons down if she was forced to fire it, but it wouldn't stop them. She didn't let fear enter her mind. There was no room for it.
A small part of her said that she could leave. She was just a hired mercenary and she could go without pay; no harm done. But she knew she couldn't. She'd promised to help Briggles and his forces and she'd be damned if she was caught lying. Besides, what were a few lecheons? Nothing. She'd faced far worse; that was for sure. Her mind traced back over her time as a bounty hunter. There were definitely tighter situations she'd managed to get out of.
"Nearly there," Briggles said into his radio. His voice travelled through the air to Nova's ears and she nodded. The sun was almost gone; its last light glinting at the very edges of the containers, taking any warmth along with it.
Nova shivered and cursed. If there was anything she needed it was a steady hand. She forced her arms to stabilise, resting them on the shipping container where she could. The arrow was still relaxed in the bowstring. Nearly time.
As the last of the light disappeared, the area exploded with a terrible screeching. It echoed from every corner of the yard; yelling, squealing, screaming. These were alien noises but all too soon they were joined by human screams.
"Lights!" Briggles yelled.
At his command massive searchlights were flung on and they flooded the yard with light. More screams.
They weren't supposed to come until eleven; it was only seven at the latest. Nova cursed. Of course they knew that the police force would be there early. It was a surprise attack. She just hoped that the officers on the ground weren't too shocked and were holding their guns at the ready.
Nova's eyes roved around the area. Three containers away she caught sight of a lecheon. It was scratching at its eyes and stumbling away from the searchlights. In its blindness it ran into the side of a container. It screamed as its fingers curled into claws and clutched at its face.
Nova grabbed a firm hold of her arrow and pulled it back. The string went taught. She levelled the shaft against her cheek and looked down its length, targeting the creature's back.
She let fly.
The wooden arrow screamed as the wind blew past its flight feathers and thudded into the lecheon's back.
The bowstring twanged back into place as the lecheon fell forward. He writhed on the ground, kicking and screaming. His back arched as he tried to reach around, to pull the arrow out, but his arms couldn't make it. His head and neck twisted to breaking point as he screamed.
Nova couldn't help but watch. The creature writhed on the ground for what felt like hours. The gravel beneath him became covered in blood, not just from the wound in his back but also from the cuts and grazes on his arms and chin as he thrashed around. His face scraped along the gravel leaving behind streams of skin.
He convulsed a final time, before collapsing into stillness. Dead.
Nova tore her eyes away and surveyed the rest of the scene. Her stomach sunk. She had expected to see more lecheons cowering away towards the darkness, easy targets. Instead she was confronted with at least twenty of them marching directly towards her. They were wearing tinted goggles. Their entire bodies were covered with long sleeves, gloves and hoods, so that not an inch of skin was exposed to the bright lights.
Her heart pumped faster in her chest. Of course they'd come prepared. They had chosen this place for a reason, even if Nova hadn't figured that reason out yet. They had attacked early, knowing that the police force would be there. They had equipment to protect them against bright lights. She and Briggles had been stupid in their preparations. They had underestimated the lecheons and it could prove fatal.
"Take out the ones with goggles," Briggles roared into his radio.
In response, guns fired from the tops of containers, shots echoing. Wooden bullets whizzed through the air. The lecheon at the end of the approaching group collapsed. The others stepped over his body and kept walking.
Nova pulled an arrow from behind her back, stringed it and pulled it to her cheek. She aimed at the approaching lecheons and let fly. The arrow flew true and lodged into the chest of the centre lecheon. He clutched at it, but didn't have the strength or the time to pull it out before he collapsed to the ground; another corpse.
The lecheons advanced.
"Grishnak!" Nova cursed.
She was beginning to see why they'd chosen the container yard. The big metal boxes made it impossible to keep the group in her sights. The lecheons disappeared in and out of the rows of containers, creating a constant source of cover from almost all angles. She got off a few more lucky shots but by then they were close. Too close.
"Briggles, we have to—" Nova began. She slammed her mouth shut when a spotlight flicked off and plunged the yard into darkness.
She whirled around to the closest spotlight. While they had been focusing on the approaching group, other lecheons had come around the sides. They clambered up to the spotlights and smashed them with pieces of piping.
Another light went out and hurled another section into darkness.
Nova whipped an arrow out and aimed it at the lecheon about to destroy the light closest to her. She didn't have time to aim properly but she released the arrow anyway. It sailed through the air and struck the lecheon in his forearm. He howled and whipped his head up.
He glared at her with eyeless hatred, his goggles hiding his real features. He gnashed his teeth at her and ripped the arrow out of his arm. It left a tear in his long sleave. He tossed the arrow over the side of his container and stared at Nova the whole time, as he lifted his metal pipe and smashed it into the light.
He was suddenly shrouded in darkness.
Nova's mind raced. He would be coming for her, no doubt about it. He would want her death as his revenge. Only two spotlights still lit the scene and they were far from her. As her eyes adjusted she found she could just make out the shape of the container she was lying on. The lecheon approaching her would be able to see much more.
Or would he?
Nova's mind raced. He'd been wearing tinted glasses to protect his eyes from the bright spotlights. If he was going to see in the dark again he would have to take the glasses off. But then he would be vulnerable to light.
This last thought shot through Nova's mind just as a heavy weight landed on her back. The air rushed out of her lungs and her chin smashed against the container. Her tongue caught between her teeth and blood swelled through her mouth. The sudden collision caused her to drop her bow, which scattered away to her right.
She rolled over so that the weight was on her stomach and stared desperately into the darkness above. Sharp teeth shone in the semi-darkness.
The lecheon's arms swung through the air, trying to grab hold of her hands and pin them down. She refused to be caught. She thrashed out with her fists, smashing them into every part of him that she could reach. He grunted as she landed a fist into his stomach but he didn't stop.
Nova's mind raced. The arrows were pinned behind her back. The wooden knife was in her boot which was out of reach while the creature thrashed on top of her. She scrambled her hand across the metal surface of the container. There had to be something, anything. Her hand brushed over the radio Briggles had given her as a backup, and her bow which she dropped when she had been tackled. There!
Nova clasped the thick plastic and pressed the button. She swung her arm up just as the torch burst into life. It shone a bright beam of light directly into the lecheon's eyes. He cried out with pain and clutched at his face. He fell back from her, his weight lifting from her stomach and allowing her to breathe.
She wasted no time. She kept the beam pinned on the lecheon's face while she jumped to her feet and plunged her hand into the quiver at her back. She fell forward and without a second thought she thrust the arrow into the lecheon's neck. It pierced through skin, muscle, and bone until it protruded out the other side and collided with the metal container, scraping like fingernails on a blackboard.
The lecheon screamed even louder, but it had been replaced by a wet gurgle. Blood surged out around the arrow and poured out of the lecheon's mouth. His eyes widened, staring, as he looked at Nova with a mixture of hatred and disbelief. He lifted his hands in a desperate attempt at defence before laying still.
Nova didn't have time to feel sick at the blood staining her hands. The sounds of attack were everywhere. Good men and women were dying all around her, and she couldn't see a damn thing!
She ripped the arrow out of the lecheon's throat. They were too precious to waste. She turned around but all she could make out was the end of her own container. The other spotlights had gone out and the entire yard was plunged into utter darkness. It was time for Plan B.
"Cal, turn on Crusader's lights," she thought. Her mental chip relayed the message to Cal.
"Aye, aye," Cal replied.
An engine whirred overhead and the shipping yard was thrust into light once again. This time more lecheons collapsed to the ground, clutching their eyes. Their tinted goggles hung uselessly around their necks.
Nova notched the bloody arrow and shot it down at a writhing lecheon. Before the lecheon had time to die Nova was already moving on to the next one. She pulled another arrow, aimed and fired. Another lecheon fell to the ground. Around her, her human companions were regaining their ground. In the bright light the lecheons were next to defenceless.
"Nova?" Cal's voice said in her head.
"Yes?" Nova said through gritted teeth as she pulled another arrow from behind her back. How many was that? Eight? Her mind raced. There were still a lot of lecheons down on the ground and even as they screamed, they pulled their goggles back over their faces.
"Our scanners are picking up a large vessel. They have their guns locked on us and it appears they plan to shoot," Cal replied.
"Grishnak!" Nova swore. "Take evasive action, but don't you dare take that light off us. If it goes dark for even a second I will take you apart myself, piece by piece."
"Message received," Cal replied.
"This is it, everyone," Corvus announced.
He had recovered remarkably after the dose of blood Selene had given him. His muscles surged with new strength and the agony in his chest was now a dull ache. He wouldn't lead the attack, but he could still fight. Besides, he had a score to settle.
"Those without goggles, try to protect your faces. There is almost no doubt that they will have some kind of lighting equipment. Don't be surprised when it comes on," Corvus said. "Those with goggles, take out the lights as quickly as you can. The humans are useless in the dark."
His coven nodded back and fingered the goggles hanging around their necks. There hadn't been enough time to get a pair for everyone, especially with the new recruits from Byzant's coven, but it would have to do. Their eyes would burn, but as long as they kept their wits about them, they would survive.
"Remember, if we take out the bitch and the Inspector, the others will probably turn and run. They'll have no chance of stopping us." Corvus said. "Now go!"
The coven leapt into action. They ran up the main ramps which surrounded the shipping yard. These tunnels had been specifically designed for escape. The containment yard was perfect. The labyrinth meant that his people could approach the pitiful humans from all directions and surround them.
Corvus nodded as his people disappeared up into the air. He pulled his own goggles up over his eyes and lifted his dark hood. His right side was strapped and bandaged, pinning his arm to his chest, but that didn't matter. He would kill the bitch with her own gun. He held the ancient thing in his left hand, his glove protecting him from the nasty wood he could feel just below.
He glided up the nearest ramp just as the spotlights flashed on. He nodded to himself; they were doing just what he expected. Unlike his companions who were attacking with full force, Corvus crept along the edges of the compound. He kept to the far line of containers, the ones right up against the wire fence which surrounded the area. He crept between shadows, casting his gaze up to see if there were enemies lurking above.
His strapped chest hampered his movement. But he would make her pay; oh, he would make her pay. She would be near the centre, in the middle of the action; of that he could be sure. If he came up behind her, she'd have no idea until it was too late. He was breathing deeply; his body hadn't recovered from the poison and his muscles ached even with the mild walk.
The goggles were insufferable. The way they pressed down on his cheeks and nose was painful and they blocked his peripheral vision. He felt like he'd become blind on either side and had to keep turning his head to make sure the pitiful humans weren't sneaking up on him. Still, it was better than being blinded by the damned spotlights.
Corvus smiled as a portion of the yard was thrust into darkness. Human screams erupted from the shadows, making his pulse race with excitement.
The last of the lights went out in a shower of broken glass and Corvus was surrounded by darkness. He lowered the goggles from his eyes and the world opened up around him. Everything had a green tinge, but he could see it all as clear as day.
Up ahead, on top of a container stood a human. He peered into the darkness around him, his hand clutched around a gun, panicked. Corvus could hear the man's erratic heartbeat. He could almost feel the blood surging through the man's body. It wouldn't be as good as a young girl, but it would still be tasty and exactly what he needed after his injury.
Corvus crept up to the container on silent feet. The man had no idea that his death was lurking just beneath. He spun in desperate circles, panting with fear. Corvus smiled and bent his legs. He thrust the small gun into the pouch at his waist. It would be harder with only one arm but not impossible. He crouched low and sprung up towards the edge of the container, his good arm grabbing hold. He used the momentum of his leap to haul himself over the top.
The clang of Corvus's landing alerted the man. He backed away from the edge and pointed his gun in Corvus's general direction.
Corvus's nose curled. He could smell the fear; it dripped out of the man with every drop of sweat. It was such a shame that fear always made the blood taste bitter. He didn't waste a second longer and rushed from the edge of the container. He ran at an angle, out of the line of fire. He crashed into the human and they both fell onto the metal container.
The gun went off but the wooden bullet sailed past Corvus's head. It was too late. Corvus slammed the man's hand onto the metal, making him let go of the gun. It scattered out of arm's reach.
Corvus buried his face into the man's neck. The black leach extended out of Corvus's mouth and began to suck. The blood was so fresh and warm; it slid down Corvus's throat like ecstasy. He grinned as the tangy iron filled his mouth, his throat, his stomach. The strength of fresh blood filled his muscles and slowed his breathing. It dulled the pain in his chest even further.
The man struggled, but Corvus's hand over his mouth stopped him from screaming. He thrashed with his arms and legs for the first few moments, until the blood was drained out of them. Finally, his face went pale, his eyes becoming wide and glassy, and then he was dead.
Corvus sucked every last drop of blood out of the man until he was just a flaky corpse and got to his feet with a grin. He glanced down at his prey one last time before surveying the rest of the yard. His people were everywhere, taking down the humans as they spun in their stupid circles.
He saw an officer on the ground and recognised him immediately. He'd had a gun with wooden bullets at the police station; he'd killed Geya. Corvus snarled; he'd get revenge.
Corvus leapt off of his container and pounced on the unwary officer. They both tumbled to the ground. Corvus ripped the night-vision goggles from the man's face and tossed them away. The man punched Corvus in the ribs.
Corvus grunted and rolled away. His side flared with pain; the bastard had got him right on his injury. The officer patted the ground in search of his goggles. Corvus strode over and laid his boot against the officer's neck.
"You've killed good lecheons."
"There's no such thing."
"I'll make you pay."
"Just try it."
The officer's hand whipped to his belt and pulled up a gun. Corvus snarled as the scent of wood and deadly sap poured out of the weapon. He lifted his foot and slammed it into the officer's neck.
The bones snapped with an audible crack, the officer's lifeless body lying at an awkward angle.
Corvus kicked the dead body twice. He spat onto the corpse and leapt up the nearest container. His injured side twinged with the effort, but he ignored it. There was someone else he needed to get revenge on; someone much more deserving.
He drew in a deep breath through his nostrils.
There! He had her scent and spun towards it. She was on top of a container, wrestling with someone, who was it?
Corvus recognised his companion just as the bitch shoved an arrow through his throat. Winton convulsed and collapsed, dead.
Anger boiled in Corvus's stomach. That woman had to die. She had killed too many of them, worst of all Laticia. She had killed his beloved Laticia, and she would pay.
Corvus stepped back and made a run for the edge of the container, meaning to leap to the next. Just as he got to the edge a new light flashed on and surged into his eyes. Blinded, he stumbled at the edge. He leapt with as much strength as he could muster, reaching his hands out to cushion his fall.
Instead of landing on top of the next container, Corvus slammed into its side. His arm was crushed between his body and the wall and his face and teeth smashed against the metal. He cried out but could do nothing more than let his body fall blindly to the ground where his legs crumpled beneath him.
The pain in his arm and chest was unbearable. It surged anew with the impact; even his recent feedings couldn't take away the pain. He tasted blood but not the type he enjoyed; this was stony blood, his own, leaking from his cracked lip. He rolled into a crouch, gasping for breath as each beat of his heart carried more pain through his body.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the glare, begging for darkness. His neck tingled at the thought that there could be a human creeping up on him at that very moment. He had to see, he had to move. Corvus forced his left hand up and with great effort pulled the goggles from his neck and over his face. Only then did he risk opening his eyes and glancing at his surroundings.
There was no one near him. He struggled to spread his legs out and unfurl his body. There didn't seem to be any broken bones, another relief.
Screams surrounded him. He frowned, he recognised the voices; they were not those of pitiful humans. The tide of battle had turned and the damned light was still on. With the light, his people had no advantage, and they were forced to wear the damned goggles. The glow came from a ship; it hovered above them, blinding them all.
Corvus sucked in a deep breath and reached for the communicator at his belt. He pressed in the button.
"Ravyn, initiate the backup. I want that ship gone," Corvus snarled.
"Yes, sir," Ravyn replied.
After a few moments the ship above them rocked to the side. It swerved above the yard and shot higher into the sky. It must have detected Ravyn's guns powering up. That didn't matter, she was a good shot.
Corvus waited, keeping his senses tuned to his surroundings in case a foolish human decided to approach. A moment later, a massive pink beam burst out of the nearby mass of parked ships and into the sky. The ship above him shuddered. The light wavered but stayed on.
"It's a beat up bounty ship," Ravyn said. "It won't last another two shots."
"Then take it down," Corvus commanded.
He struggled to his feet and tested his legs. They were a little sore and his knees felt bruised but he could walk. He grabbed for the gun at his hip but the holster was empty. He spun in a tight circle but there was no sign of the weapon. Corvus gritted his teeth, it would have been good to kill her with her own gun, but crushing her pathetic neck in his hands would be almost as satisfying. He shuffled forward, keeping the container to his side and his eyes roving.
Another pink beam surged overhead and smashed into the ship. It shuddered and some of the lights went out. It wasn't enough; the glow in the yard was still too bright. The humans could see him as clearly as he could see them. That wasn't how he wanted this fight to go. The ship had to be destroyed.
"Nova, if we take one more hit then we're going down," Cal said. "The shields are at twenty percent."
"But we need that light," Nova pleaded, her voice desperate as she pulled yet another arrow and fired it at a passing lecheon.
"Then let me say it has been a pleasure working for you," Cal said, his tone dry.
Nova's heart beat faster. Cal and Crusader were her most prized possessions. Without them, what was she? A girl trapped on some mid-galaxy planet. Sure, she could get a lift back to The Jagged Maw, but then what?
"Get out of here," Nova whispered.
"Confirm?" Cal said.
"I said get out of here!" Nova yelled.
Crusader and the precious lights lifted away and shot into the distance just as another pink beam blasted through the air. The yard was plunged into darkness.
"Grishnak!" Nova kicked the metal container. "Briggles, are you still there?"
"Still here," Briggles replied.
"I'm sorry. They were about to destroy her anyway."
"No harm, no foul. Let's get these suckers."
The corner of Nova's mouth twitched. She reached behind her back for another arrow and her hand encountered nothing but air. She reached more desperately, but there were no more arrows.
Her eyes went wide.
She'd counted eleven. There should have been one more arrow left in her quiver. She ripped the quiver from her shoulder and tossed it to the metal beside her, but it was empty. Her fingers went loose and she dropped the bow, reaching into her boot for the wooden knife. She held it out in front of her body and strained her ears. There were lots of screams, a few gunshots, but nothing else she could make out from the din.
She was too exposed on top of the container. It was fine when the lights were on but in the dark she was a sitting target for any passing lecheon. She stepped to the edge, feeling forward with her toes until she got to the edge. She sat down and let her legs dangle over the side of the container. With a deep breath she let herself drop, bending her knees to take the impact.
Her heart leapt into her throat as she let herself fall into darkness. In her mind she knew the drop was only two metres but it didn't stop her stomach turning over as she fell through the air. She landed with a crunch and rolled to the side, crouching low. She gasped for air, clenched her fingers around the knife, and steeled her nerves.
There were footsteps crunching the gravel. They were lighter than she would have expected from any of the officers. It had to be a lecheon, and it was coming her way. She held her breath. It was hard to imagine that the creatures could see as well in this pitch darkness as she could during the day. She was forced to rely entirely on her ears.
The footsteps turned the corner of her container and stopped.
"And here you are," a familiar voice said.
"Hello Corvus," she whispered.
"It's so good to see you again," Corvus said in a playful voice.
"If you and your coven leave now and go back to your home planet, then we won't pursue you anymore. You can go and live your lives in peace. Otherwise, I will have to kill you," Nova said.
"Ha! Well, you have spirit, I'll give you that much." Corvus laughed. "But you owe me so much more than that. You killed my mate, Laticia, and so many more. It's your turn to pay."
Nova bit her lip; she wouldn't fall into Corvus's trap. If she was talking then she couldn't listen properly, and she needed to hear. She needed to know if he was getting closer.
Footsteps crunched. He was only a few feet away.
A shiver ran up Nova's spine. Her eyes widened but all they saw was a shroud of darkness. Corvus's eyes were on her; she could feel their predatory stare. In her mind's eye she imagined him licking his lips with the grotesque slug which was his tongue. She tried to control her breathing, to listen.
The footsteps stopped. If she really strained she could hear him breathing. His footsteps had been small, like he was shuffling. Was he still injured?
A loud scrape.
A change in the air alerted Nova and she scrambled to her right. Corvus's body slammed past her as he dived. He landed with a thud, turned and lunged again. Nova pictured his actions based on the sounds, but her eyes saw nothing. She stepped to her left at the last minute and the wind of Corvus's passing brushed past her skin.
"You're smarter than you look," Corvus said with a hiss.
Nova didn't respond; she couldn't afford to. She held her wooden knife in front of her chest, keeping her arm firm.
"Oh, I don't think that will do you any good," Corvus said.
He leapt for her, his feet leaving the ground. She stepped to the right but instead of moving away she turned and wrapped her arm around the dark shadow, stabbing at his back.
Corvus grunted and lashed out. His palm slammed into her chest and Nova flew backwards. Her head smashed against a shipping container and lights flashed at the edge of her vision. In the darkness she made out Corvus's silhouette as he bent double, his arms wrapped across his chest.
"You bitch!" he said through gasps.
Nova's head pounded and she teetered on the edge of consciousness. The knife was gone. She tapped the ground around her, desperately searching. Her arms were heavy like lead and it took all of her remaining strength to pull them along the ground.
Her hand came to rest on her empty quiver. She was about to push it away but Corvus's breaths were evening out. It wouldn't be long before he was on her. She thrust her hand into the quiver and squeezed her eyes closed. She focused on the arrows, how they'd looked at the start. There had been twelve of them.
Her hand tingled.
She took a deep breath and snapped her hand closed. A single arrow caught between her fingertips and she ripped it out of the quiver. Nausea rolled in her stomach. The thought of reaching through time to steal an arrow from herself made her mind spin, something she couldn't afford in the heat of battle.
She tossed the quiver to the side just as Corvus leapt at her. He growled as his hands clenched around her throat. Her breath choked in her throat as she gasped for air. Blood rushed into her face and her head pounded. Her throat stung with the force of his fingers pressing down.
Her head spun, flashing lights circling the edges of her vision. She pulled back her hand and slammed the arrow into Corvus's side, burying it as deep as she could.
He howled in pain, rolling away from her and taking the arrow with him.
"Bitch!" he roared.
A string of curses, some of which Nova didn't recognise, streamed out of his mouth as he crawled away from her. He clutched the arrow.
Nova's heart fluttered lighter in her chest. The arrow was made of wood. There was no way Corvus could survive being stabbed in the chest. She licked her lips, waiting for him to die.
With a wet tearing sound Corvus gripped the arrow and ripped it out of his side. He tossed it at the shipping container and it bounced off with a metallic ting.
"You stuck up, human bitch!"
Nova's stomach dropped and her heart roared into overdrive at the strength in Corvus's voice. He sounded far from dead. She ran her hands across the ground for any other kind of weapon. Blood pounded against her eyes, and she bit her lip as she searched in vain. Her right hand brushed over something hard and metallic. She pulled the crossbow onto her lap, her heart fluttering as she felt the bolt, already in place.
Corvus stood straight and turned to her. In the darkness she could just make out the whites of his teeth and eyes. He glared at her and leapt. He moved with the speed of a panther, his hands held out before him like claws.
Nova braced herself against the container, lifted the crossbow, and pulled the trigger. The weapon jerked in her arms. She couldn't see the bolt but a second later Corvus grunted and crumpled to the ground. He convulsed in the dirt, his hands clutched around his chest.
"I'll kill you for this," he said through gritted teeth.
"I don't think so," Nova said, breathless.
She used the container to haul herself to her feet and stood over Corvus. She spoke into her radio.
"I've got him. I need two officers here now," she said.
A moment later heavy footsteps rounded the nearest container and an out of breath officer handed her a pair of night-vision goggles which she fastened over her face.
"It's hell out there," he said between gasps. "We barely managed to break free of the fighting."
"I know," Nova said. "But we're about to end it."
She bent to help them tie Corvus's feet and wrists together with wood-laced rope which made his skin blister.
With an almighty heave the three of them lifted Corvus and carried him between the containers, Nova leading the way. It was difficult to keep her bearings in the pitch blackness that pressed in on them. It took away the air and crawled into Nova's ears making everything seem muffled. She was suddenly so tired. If she just let go of Corvus now and -
Pheromones. He was trying to trick her again.
"Cut that out or I'll cut you," she said, glaring down at him.
He smirked at her, his lips twisted in a cruel parody of a smile. She blinked and shook her head before grabbing the bolt lodged in his chest and pushing it down. Corvus howled and the hazy cloud in Nova's head dissipated, her senses returning.
"I'll kill you. You, and your pathetic kind." Corvus's voice had become rough like gravel.
"Keep talking and I will push that bolt into your heart until you die."
Nova wrenched open the door of a shipping container and stepped aside. The officers carrying Corvus heaved him forward and tossed him through the air so that he landed with a crash inside the container. Nova slammed the door shut and the sound echoed around the ship yard. Even through the metal she could hear Corvus screaming and cursing her.
The container was special order; cold metal on the outside and wood coating on the inside.
Corvus's cries were bound to bring others. Nova rested her back against the locked door and clutched her knife. She brought the radio to her face with her other hand. She took a few deep breaths before pressing the communicate button.
"Briggles, are you there?" she asked.
"I'm here," Briggles said. He gasped between each word, his voice dull.
"I've got Corvus. We just need to take the rest of them and we're done here," she said. "Time to set off the secret weapon."
"Do you think it'll work?" Briggles asked; his tone hopeful.
"Let's hope so," Nova replied.
Corvus smashed his fist against the wall of the container and screamed as wood chips lodged into his hand. He fell to the ground, clutching his chest where the wooden bolt protruded. Blood seeped out around the wound, soaking his shirt.
He gripped the wood with his gloved hands and pulled. It slid a centimetre out of his chest, scraping across his ribs and leaving a trail of splinters. His head spun and his arms dropped back to his sides. He gasped but each breath made the bolt move, sending new waves of agony coursing through him.
The bolt would have killed a younger lecheon immediately, but he had a limited time before the poison leached into his heart. He could already feel it spreading out from the wound, like tendrils of death.
He took three quick breaths and snatched hold of the bolt, ripping it out further as he exhaled. His breath turned into a scream. The bolt was still imbedded an inch into his chest and his arms were weakening. Another minute and he'd be unable to move.
He thought of Laticia, picturing her regal beauty. He needed to survive, even if it was just for her. Ignoring the nausea boiling in his stomach, and the pounding headache pushing against his temples, he gripped the bolt and pulled with his last ounce of strength.
It came free of his chest in a rush that sent a spurt of blood splashing across his chest. He hurled the bolt against the side of the container and crawled into a ball on the floor. The corners of his eyes stung as each ragged breath stretched the wound, leaking blood onto the floor.
"Bitch!" he croaked, his voice hoarse. "As soon as I get out of here I'm going to hunt you down and suck every last drop from your useless corpse!"
His voice bounced around his cage and came back to him. He wasn't sure he could even be heard on the other side.
He stayed curled into a ball until the pain had subsided enough that he dared sit up. He leant his back against the wooden wall and let his head hang down, glaring at the floor. He spat at the floor, his mouth filled with the taste of his own blood. This was the bitch's idea; it had her name written all over it. The bumbling police force of Boullion Five could never have engineered this, not in so short a time.
It was moments like this that he missed his home world. A place where there were no trees, no wood, no poison; just animals and blood. The whole planet was made of dirt and rock, dotted with caves and hot springs. The only thing that kept him on planets like Boullion Five were the humans. There were no tasty, flowery bloods on his home world. No young women to suck dry.
The metal lock of the door slid open. Corvus jumped to his feet, wincing as new agony surged out of his chest, ready to sprint for the door. It swung open but before he could react, members of his coven streamed through. They ran and pushed to get as far from the doorway as they could and into the shipping container. They were coughing, hacking their lungs up and collapsing against each other. Corvus tried to fight the tide. He pushed against his fellows to get to the door. Before he could get through the bodies, the door slammed shut.
He looked around. Familiar faces were bent double in coughing fits that left speckles of blood on the floor. These were all faces that he recognised, but there were many missing.
"What the hell are you doing in here?" Corvus asked.
Nova walked behind the container to the cement wall that blocked off the back of the shipping yard. An intercom was set into the wall and lying at the base was a controller with a large button. She had to feel her way along the wall to get to the intercom where she knelt down and patted around the ground until she had the remote in hand.
She stood and took a deep breath before squeezing the red trigger with her thumb. A moment later the shipping yard erupted in a flurry of small explosions that sent clouds swirling into the air. The haze was full of powdered wood chips, so fine they floated like gas on the air. It took only a few seconds for the vapours to spread between the containers and fill the air.
A hacking cough shattered the air behind Nova. She spun, knife in hand, to find a female lecheon bent double against the nearest container. She gasped for air but it sounded as though her throat was closed over. With each breath the lecheon coughed and spat, leaving blood smears across the metal.
The rest of the shipping yard filled with the sounds of choking. Nova breathed a small sigh of relief and pulled her shirt up to cover her mouth. The wood vapour wouldn't hurt her as much as the lecheons but she still didn't want it coating her lungs.
She pressed the talk button on the intercom.
"Attention, lecheons," she said. Her voice echoed around the shipping yard.
"Your illustrious commander, Corvus, has been subdued. As I'm sure you've noticed, the air here is no longer fit for you to breathe. You, and your commander, will be safe if you do exactly as I say."
Silence descended over the shipping yard, broken only by choking. The screams and cries of pain, the shooting, yelling, and running footsteps, all fell silent. She could imagine human and lecheon alike, frozen and listening. The speaker system was the perfect cover; she could be everywhere and still undetectable all at once.
"There are more vapour bombs set up around the area. One sign of trouble and I'll set them off. Personally, I don't think you'd survive another dose."
More silence. That was good; it meant the lecheons were listening.
"There is a shipping container near the back row. It's black with seven-seven-four-alpha written on the side. Go there now. One of my people will be waiting to let you inside. The air is filtered and you will be able to breathe."
Nova's heart pounded in her chest. She was taking a gamble with the lives of every human in the shipping yard. The lecheons could easily take hostages of their own and then she'd be in a stalemate. She was counting on their loyalty to Corvus and hoping that the threat of his death, as well as their own, would stop them thinking straight.
She lifted her finger from the intercom and strained her ears. At first there was only more silence, but gradually she heard footsteps. There were lots of them. The lecheons mumbled to one another between coughs. They were approaching her and the container.
Nova's muscles tensed. This was it. Either the lecheons would follow her instructions and this mess could be done with without further bloodshed, or they would try to free Corvus and hurt Briggles. In that case, she would set off the bombs, the lecheons would die, and it would become a political mess. Not to mention the human casualties of those caught in the blast.
"Looks like they're all here," Briggles said through her radio.
"Okay," Nova replied, relieved.
She pressed the intercom once more. "Thank you for your cooperation." Her voice was as sweet as sugar, like a hostess on one of the fancy intergalactic traveller ships.
She ran from the intercom back to the container. She was getting used to navigating in the dark. It was made easy by the containers. They were all the same size and set the same distance apart. She kept a steady pace all the way to Briggles's side even though her heart was racing. She held the detonator aloft.
"Attack me and this will go," she said. "There are officers with crossbows hidden all around you. One wrong move and you'll be filled with wooden stakes."
A female lecheon near the front hissed at Nova between coughs, the leach in her mouth jutting out and baring its teeth. Nova flicked her left hand and a crossbow bolt hissed through the air from the darkness, passing inches from the woman's face.
The lecheons growled and pulled together, forming a tight circle. Nova nodded.
They leant against one another for support. Some of them looked close to passing out and all of them were gasping for air. They stared at Nova with hatred, but their wide eyes and the way they kept looking at the container screamed fear as well.
Briggles pointed his torch down at the ground. It was a consideration for the lecheons that Nova wouldn't have afforded them. Still, in the dim glow she could make out their faces. Their eyes glowed in the darkness. But they didn't move on Briggles or herself or try to attack.
Nova nodded once and Briggles went to the door. He grabbed hold of the big lock and slid it open before pulling the door wide.
"In," Nova ordered as soon as the gap was wide enough.
The lecheons surged forward like obedient sheep and disappeared into the bowels of the container.
As soon as the last one had pushed through, Briggles slammed the door and slid the lock home. Nova breathed a sigh of relief and turned the detonator over. She pulled out a wire and lifted her thumb from the button. Nothing happened.
"One coven of lecheons; that'll be one-thousand credits," Nova said to Briggles with an exhausted grin.
He glanced up at her and shook his head. The corner of his mouth twitched but the rest of his face was grave. Scratches ran up his arm, only just visible in the dim light of his torch.
"You okay?" Nova asked as she pushed herself away from the container.
"Yeah, I'll make it, just a few scratches. But I'll be glad to see the last of these," he thrust his thumb over his shoulder.
"That makes two of us," Nova agreed.
More officers gathered around them. A few had torches which cast a welcome light in the darkness. Injured officers leant on their fellows and they looked at Nova and Briggles with relief.
"How many?" Briggles asked his second in command.
"Twenty-four at last count, sir. There may be more."
Briggles nodded and his face fell a little more.
Nova looked away. She'd done her bit and now her time here was finished. She'd been on Boullion Five for too long now anyway.
"So what are you going to do with it?" Nova asked, nodding to the crate.
"Maximum security prison," Briggles said.
"What if they escape?"
"Trust me, where they're going, there won't be any room for escape."
"One of my men found this around the back," Briggles said, holding out Nova's gun.
A flood of relief washed over her as she thrust it into her holster. "Thank you. I think that's me finished; I believe I have a damaged ship to fix," she said. "Will you be able to handle clean-up?"
"Yes, we're fine. Get on your way then," Briggles said, waving his hand.
There was commotion going on inside the crate. Fists banged against the walls alongside screams of frustration, but there was no way the lecheons would be able to get out.
Nova nodded once to Briggles and then to the rest of the officers before turning on her heel and marching towards the shipping yard exit.
"I'll wire you the credits," Briggles called after her.
Nova lifted a hand in acknowledgement but didn't bother turning around.
"What's the point in having shields if they don't work?" Nova demanded. She had a spanner in hand and was putting her full weight behind tightening a bolt.
"They did work, for the first few shots. But at twenty percent we would have been destroyed with one more shot," Cal said.
He hovered a small distance from Nova and was patching up pieces of the ship's hull which had been damaged by the plasma blasts. He was none the worse for the attack, but Nova didn't want to risk Crusader to the stress of travel when she was only one shot away from annihilation.
It was the day after the lecheon battle and a large transporter ship had picked up the black shipping container just that morning. Nova watched with a grin on her face as the container was lifted up into the ship's transport bay, before the ship shot off into the air. The rest of the day had been spent on repairs.
"How are you looking now?" Nova called out.
Crusader's voice echoed out of a small speaker set into the outside of the ship. "Looking good. Once Cal has finished with that panel the only damage will be cosmetic."
"Good," Nova said, sliding out from under Crusader's engine.
Cal soldered the last of the metal in place and then the two of them walked back inside and the door shut behind them. Nova sauntered to the command pod and looked over the ship's readouts. They were all normal. She breathed a sigh of relief and slumped down into the command chair.
"Let's get back to The Jagged Maw," Nova said. "And put Tanguin on the line."
Crusader's engines roared to life and the front screen flicked on to reveal Tanguin.
"Hey," Nova said.
"Hey," Tanguin replied. "You look like crap."
"Gee thanks," Nova said, wiping a hand down her face. "I haven't slept in a while. It was a big night."
"Can we assume the lecheon problem on Boullion Five has been fixed?" Tanguin said.
"Yep, let's just say I sent them packing," Nova chuckled.
"Hilarious. So you're going to make it back in time for the race?"
"Heading over now. Meet you there?"
Tanguin's face disappeared and Nova pressed the ignition buttons on Crusader's dashboard, turning the ship over to manual control. Many newer ships wouldn't allow manual, people were too likely to make mistakes. But Nova liked to be in control sometimes. It had taken a lot of time but eventually she had managed to modify Crusader's circuits so that she could quite literally 'take the wheel'.
"Engines engage," Nova said. Crusader's engines burst into life and the ship began to vibrate.
"Take off in three, two, one."
Crusader lifted from Boullion Five and shot into the air. It blasted through the atmosphere and into the space beyond. The lift-off was flawless, barely the tiniest shudder as they left the atmosphere.
Nova flicked the ship into automatic and rested back in her chair. She watched the panorama of space fly by as they got faster.
"You know where we're going?" Nova asked.
"Coordinates set," confirmed Crusader.
"Okay, time for me to check on the racer one last time."
Nova's heart pounded so hard in her chest that she was sure it was going to come flying out of her mouth at any moment. Her stomach clenched tight and she had goose-bumps running up and down her body.
She sat in her space-racer with a helmet and air-suit on. In the unlikely event that she did crash and her ship lost its integrity, she was not going to die by vacuum. That was assuming she survived the impact and subsequent explosion. She looked over the dials again. They were all green, everything was fine.
Out of her window to her right was Kero. He was driving a shining silver space-racer, the latest model. His shield was still down and he stood on the seat waving to the crowds gathered around the starting line.
A group of girls swarmed around, fawning over him and his shiny space-racer, including Vicki. After Kero, she was Nova's most hated person in The Jagged Maw. She seemed to spend every second batting her eyelids and flaunting her body to get what she wanted, or sending spiteful remarks towards Nova and Tanguin. The fact that she'd been allowed into The Jagged Maw at all made Nova's stomach churn. She had thought they had higher standards than that.
Nova shook her head. Kero had more money than sense, and Vicki was twice as bad.
Spread out around Nova and Kero were the other racers. There were a few others from The Jagged Maw and the rest were from other bounty hunter organizations. There were quite a few bounty hunter factions spread across the galaxies, but everyone knew there were only three that really mattered.
The Gunner's Guild was considered the 'upper-crust' of the bounty hunter world. They were the rich hunters who had either got lucky or who had entered the business already rich. They drove the latest ships, had the latest techs, and took only the cleanest jobs, which were usually government contracts for the Confederacy. Nova often thought that both Kero and Vicki should have applied to the Gunner's rather than subjecting the members of The Jagged Maw to their personalities.
The Happy Hunters was another group entirely. They were the 'soft-hunters', mostly retired or not brave enough for the real work. Their specialties were snitching and info-mining. It was common knowledge that if you didn't want people to know something, don't tell the Happy Hunters. It always amazed Nova that the Happy Hunters had so many members. She couldn't imagine doing that kind of work; she'd almost rather subject herself to the snootiness of the Gunner's. But obviously information paid, because the Happy Hunters were the richest guild after the Gunner's. Their ships were just as good and their technology even better.
The rest of the bounty hunter groups were too small to warrant any real attention. Some of them were family owned businesses that went back generations, but never extended beyond the same gene pool. Others were privately funded; more like mercenary gangs than real bounty hunter collectives.
The Jagged Maw was something else. It was one of the newest hunter guilds, without the centuries of rich history. Their numbers weren't anywhere near as big as the Gunner's Guild or the Happy Hunters. They didn't have near as much money either; but there was a certain prestige which came from belonging to The Jagged Maw. It was a self-perpetuating selectivity. As soon as hunters were told they couldn't come in, they did everything they could to get there.
The Jagged Maw was run by Tim and Tom. They had been lone bounty hunters in their youth and didn't really fit into any of the guilds, so they had started their own. In a stroke of genius they'd made the entry process extremely selective. Unlike the Gunner's Guild where selection was based on wealth, The Jagged Maw's selection was based on talent and pure courage. This resulted in The Jagged Maw having some of the best bounty hunters in the business, including Nova, despite being one of the smaller and poorer-paid guilds,
The annual bounty hunter space-race was one of the only occasions where all the bounty hunter guilds got together, but it wasn't a friendly sport. Every year there was at least one death, usually more, and old grudges were brought flaming to the surface.
This year it was being held near a particularly unpredictable man-made asteroid field outside of the Steel System. As well as the asteroids, the course included a very small moon which was in a shaky orbit around a nearby planet. There was a lot of speculation that if a ship went too close to it, the moon would fall out of orbit and probably collide with them.
The starting line was held within a large dome which usually served as the Gunner's Guild training arena. Every year they generously donated it for the race. Nova had to shake her head. The way the Gunner's waved their money around, it was a wonder they didn't get robbed blind.
The dome was packed with onlookers. Somewhere in the stadium would be Tanguin and Cal, ready to cheer her on. A very small party compared to some of the competitors who had entire sections of the stadium reserved in their name.
The dome was protected from the vacuum of space by a very precise force-field which held the air in but which would let the ships pass through when they got to it. Stray rock fragments floated in from outside and slammed to the metal floor with the sudden gravity, making nearby people jump.
As always, there were some spectators floating in space-suits around the course or in ships. In Nova's opinion they had some kind of death wish, because the space-racers never stayed within the boundaries of the course; not with all the foul play and unlicensed weaponry. It was completely normal for spectators to die, but that didn't seem to stop them coming out in droves to stand in harm's way.
Nova hoped one of the spectators didn't get in her way; she certainly wouldn't brake for them. They knew the risks. She couldn't despise them too much; as dangerous as their positions were, it wasn't half as bad as actually competing in the race.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the one hundred and fifty-third bounty hunter space-race," the commentator's voice boomed around the stadium. The crowd erupted into cheers.
"Racers, if you can take your seats and get ready, it won't be long now."
Only then did Kero sit down in his ship and let the shield slide closed over him. Nova snorted as Vicki blew a kiss through the window. He was going to need a bit of luck, that was for sure.
The other racers were still prepping their engines and checking fuel levels. Nova had already done both a hundred times, but she did it again just to be sure; pre-race sabotage was almost guaranteed.
"It looks like we've got a spectacular race lined up for us today. I'm Cambran and I'm excited to be your host for today," the commentator announced. Cambran, or rather the robot that had been programmed to commentate, had the crowd in a frenzy.
"We've got a few favourites on the field today. I'll run over the odds, so don't forget to have your betting sheets ready."
Ah yes, Nova thought, the other major aspect of the race: the betting. Millions of credits would change hands over this race. Deals would already have been made with some of the drivers; no doubt they'd experience engine trouble early on.
"We have our favourite for three years running, Demolition Dean."
The crowd went crazy. The roar was so loud that Nova could hear it even with the sound block turned on in her space-racer. Demolition Dean was from the Gunner's Guild and he had won the space-race two years running. If he won again this year he'd enter the hall of fame. There was no way Nova could let that happen. She'd had the misfortune of speaking to him once and she certainly wouldn't want to do it again. Rude and pigheaded was putting it mildly.
"Second favourite, and paying two to one is Speedy FX," Cambran continued.
Speedy FX was a young woman also from the Gunner's Guild with the latest in space-racing technology. There was a rumour that she had upgraded herself for faster reflexes, a neurological surgery which was illegal in almost all of the human colonies because it was so risky.
Cambran went down his list calling out the name of each competitor and the odds currently on their winning. As he went further down the list and reached the unknowns and the nobodies the cheers died out.
Nova was pleased to hear that she was rated at mid-list with odds of ten-to-one. That would make her a tidy profit when she crossed the finish line. She'd placed a hundred credits on herself to win.
"Start your engines," Cambran boomed.
All around Nova, engines roared into life. She pressed the green button next to the steering stick and her ship rumbled. She felt the engine vibrating behind her back and clasped her hands around the steering stick.
Her heart beat even faster and adrenalin surged through her veins. Aside from the money, there was something far more important at stake. Glory.
Her ears tuned into the sound of her racer. It was running smoothly. There were no rattles or sputters to alert her of a fault. The lights on her dashboard were all green.
"Get set," Cambran called.
Nova flexed her hand and gripped the wheel tighter.
Nova shoved the throttle forward and her ship shot across the dome. She focused solely on the path in front of her. The cheering crowd who were on their feet as the racers went past were just an insignificant blur.
The other ships were tiny dots in her awareness. Some were in front of her, the rest trailed behind. A small part of her mind wasn't surprised to see that the ones in front of her included Dean, FX, and Kero.
Her ship blasted its way through the dome and past the force-field, and then she was out in open space. Red flags dotted the course, spaced every few hundred metres. Tiny drones were parked at certain checkpoints to ensure the racers didn't take any illegal shortcuts. There were many legal shortcuts, but nine times out of ten they would result in death.
Nova stuck to the defined course and found herself in tenth position. The first obstacle was a sharp right-angle turn surrounded by a wall of solid metal. There was no room for under-steering or misjudged distance.
Nova watched the first three racers cruise around the corner. The second one scraped the side of their ship against the metal but continued on unscathed. The fourth racer wasn't so lucky.
Whoever they were, they drove a dark purple ship, not entirely out-dated, but not the newest model either. As the ship came up to the corner, it started to turn but it wasn't enough. The craft had only turned forty-five degrees when it slammed into the metal wall.
The ship exploded upon contact, sending out balls of flame. Shards of metal shot out and pieces of the ship scattered across the course.
Whoever had been inside hadn't survived. A tattered and burnt space suit floated in the middle of the course, completely motionless.
By then the fifth racer had reached the corner. Nova winced as she watched him try to contend with not just the corner, but the extra debris now dispersed across the course. Unfortunately, the racer steered straight into the floating space-suit. The force of the blow ripped the material apart and sent the helmet spinning away.
The corpse inside was bloated and unrecognizable. Some blood spattered up onto number five's windshield and it must have blocked his vision, because a few seconds later his ship flew off-course and collided with a stadium of spectators.
Nova ripped her eyes away from the scene. She was fast approaching the turn herself. Six and seven had the right idea; now that the body was gone the centre of the course was clear. They slowed right down for the turn and followed the centre path.
Drones waited at the side of the course to clean up the debris, but they wouldn't go out until a clear break in the racers, and that wasn't going to happen before Nova got there.
Number eight misjudged the corner and bounced into a collection of rubble. Luckily for the driver the rubble got sucked up into the engine and made it splutter to a stop. They were out of the race and would be stuck floating around for a while, but at least they had survived.
There was just number nine and then it would be Nova's turn.
She stared hard at nine and jolted when she realised that it was Kero's ship. She wasn't surprised to see that he hadn't bother slowing down for the corner. He screamed right up to it, before lifting his ship high up above the course at the last moment. He sailed right over the debris and the smashed spectator stadium, before cruising off to catch up to the others.
Nova cursed. There were no rules against going above or below the set course - there was no up in space after all - but still, she had hoped Kero wouldn't think of it. The move gave him an advantage on the racers who had gone before but it would add to his time overall. He'd have to come back down to course level for the asteroid field.
Nova only had one option if she wanted to catch up with him. She pushed down her accelerator and gripped hold of her steering stick. She screamed up to the corner and the few spectators who were still alive gasped.
When she was level with the corner Nova ripped down on her joystick so that she braked and turned at the same time. Her racer jolted with the sudden change. The controls jerked under her hands, threatening to rip the ship apart.
She bit her lip and kept a firm grip. Every muscle in her body seized tight as she wrenched the ship sideways.
It whipped around the right angle and travelled down the centre of the corner, missing the debris. She shot out the other side of the corner and cruised after Kero.
She left the crowd behind cheering.
Nova pushed even harder on the accelerator and the engine behind her seat vibrated with greater ferocity. The gauges in front of her turned orange, but there was no way she was going to slow down now.
Kero was only twenty metres ahead of her and losing ground as he came back to the level of the course in preparation for the asteroid field.
Nova's hands were wet with sweat but she didn't lift them from the controls. She gripped tighter and let the ship shoot through the air.
The asteroid field loomed in front of them; the massive rocks spreading out across her field of view. They were grey and rotated through the air with careless abandon. In a normal asteroid field her small racer would be in no danger, but this had been deliberately made to be a hazard. Spaced between the rocks were lights which highlighted the numerous boulders and pebbles lying in her path.
Kero got to the field and his ship disappeared as it weaved between the rocks.
Nova analysed the asteroids. They loomed like a mine-field; one wrong turn and both she and her ship would be ripped to shreds.
She entered the field. The outer rocks were mostly big and easy to see. She weaved her ship left and right between the asteroids. They rolled towards and away from one another, as unpredictable as a solar flare.
Nova rocked with the movement of her ship. She cruised through the asteroids, faster than was safe, but there were still six people in front of her and one of them was Kero.
Her ship veered around the asteroids but more loomed in front of her, ready to smash her to pieces. She careened around a particularly large rock and came face to face with the remnants of a racer. It was broken into so many tiny silver pieces that it was hard to tell who it had belonged to.
Nova ignored the wreckage. As she got deeper into the field the real problem became the smaller rocks. They were too small and numerous for her to dodge, but they were big enough that they could cause major damage to her ship.
Her racer's shields were holding, but the energy cell wouldn't last for the whole race and she had no idea what other hazards awaited her.
She gripped the controls tighter and her gaze flicked between the rocks and the shield gauge. With every rock that smashed into the shield the tiny needle dropped lower. At this rate she wouldn't even make it to the other side of the asteroid field with her shield still intact.
A heavy weight settled into the bottom of her stomach. Aside from the smashed racer, she'd seen absolutely no sign of the other racers. It was as if she'd suddenly flown into an abandoned system. Cold tendrils brushed up her neck as she imagined being stranded in the middle of empty space, completely alone.
She shook her head and clenched her teeth. The worst thing she could do was scare herself. She had to keep her head in the game. The other racers were around, even if she couldn't see them, and that meant she had to start making some distance or she would lose the race for sure.
There was only one thing for it. She flicked open a hidden cover and pushed in the small purple button beneath. The racer's motor slowed down for half a second and then roared back into life, accompanied by a hiss.
Nova smiled as she looked out of the front window and saw a blue circle extend out from her ship. It shot out in front of her, an unstoppable wave. It incinerated everything it touched including the small rocks. It didn't do much to the big rocks but they weren't the problem.
The incendiary force extended out in front of Nova's racer and cleared the path of pebbles and other debris. She steered through the bigger rocks with ease.
One of the best things about the bounty hunter space-races was that there were no rules. Unfortunately, that was also one of the worst things.
Nova reflected on that conundrum when a burst of light flew straight at her. Her instincts took over and she put all of her weight on the steering stick, pushing the ship down under the approaching meteor.
Her racer scraped under the rock, mere inches from having the roof torn off. The bolt of energy flew over her head and destroyed a nearby asteroid.
"Bastards!" Nova said, smashing her fist onto the controls.
She was now dozens of metres off course and all because one of the lead racers had left a weapon. It wasn't uncommon for mines or other weapons to be left behind; it was a good way to take out any competition coming up from behind. Still, it was foul play, and Nova didn't appreciate it.
She jerked on her steering wheel and pulled her ship back up to the level of the course. There was no way to tell how far in front the others were, so she put the throttle down and roared through the asteroid field.
She rushed past the rest of the rocks and burst out of the other side where more stands of spectators jumped to their feet and roared. Behind their seats was a position board with a list of numbers and times, along with the racers' faces.
Nova took the time to glance up at the billboard. She was fifth. Kero was still in front of her, sitting in third place. Aart was three places behind her and losing ground. If she had to bet she would say he was having engine trouble.
Some racers got the position information streamed straight to them, but Nova found that distracting. She had to focus completely on her own race and let the others be damned.
At the very bottom of the board was a collection of faces with red crosses over them. Their stats; speed, betting odds and such were blank. They weren't going to finish the race.
Nova turned her attention back to the track and pushed forward. A glint in the distance told her that fourth place wasn't very far in front.
She took advantage of the straight and smashed her fist down on the red button by her right knee to release a burst of solar-fuel to shoot forward. The force of the jump sent Nova slamming back in her seat. The stands and crowds zoomed past on either side and in just a few seconds she came up right behind fourth place.
It was a silver racer and Nova recognised it instantly. It was Speedy FX and it looked like she was having engine trouble.
Smoke poured out of the rear and sides of the craft and it crawled along compared to Nova's ship.
Nova came up level with the ship and glanced inside. Speedy FX was yelling and swearing and smashing her hands down onto her controls, but it wasn't doing any good.
Nova grinned and shot away from Speedy. Fourth place was hers.
She enjoyed this simple section of the course while it lasted. It was a breather before another challenge came, another chance for her to die. It arrived all too quickly when Nova saw that the course beacons disappeared into a small tunnel.
The tunnel snaked into the side of a huge orb; probably a moon which had been taken out of orbit from an outer galaxy planet. Either that or it was an artificial model. Nova could never tell.
Not that it mattered; the sides of the tunnel would be just as hard either way.
Nova aimed for the narrow entrance. It had been built just big enough to hold a space-racer and had no room for error.
Her heart leapt into her throat as her racer scraped the sides and she was plunged into darkness.
"Grishnak!" she swore, groping for the lights. She found the switch and flicked it up. Small headlights shone out in front of her. They gave off only the barest glimmer; she hadn't thought to add headlights to her racer. At least she'd know for next year.
Deep scrapes scarred both sides and the bottom of the tunnel, suggesting that the others may not have entered as smoothly. Small pieces of metal floated through the air, but they weren't big enough to cause damage.
Nova hoped that no ships had got stuck in the tunnel. If the shape suddenly loomed up in front of her, she'd never stop in time and then they'd both be dead. Along with everyone else who entered the tunnel behind them. She swallowed her fear and pushed her ship faster.
Nova's ship blasted out of the tunnel into a hollowed-out cavern that was the core of the moon.
"You've got to be kidding me," Nova said, as a tentacle burst up from the darkness of the cavern and swiped at her ship.
She jerked the steering stick to the left and the ship jumped out of harm's way. More tentacles rose out of the darkness and grabbed for her. Nova pushed her ship forward and around the tentacles, trying desperately just to survive.
She looked around for the next course beacon. How was she supposed to get out of here?
There were no more beacons, she was on her own.
She pulled back on the wheel and her ship shot up, away from the tentacles. It cruised towards the darkness of the ceiling. She took a deep breath, knowing that she couldn't spend the rest of the race circling the ceiling. There had to be a way out of the moon or the other three racers would be floating around next to her.
Her jaw clenched and she shoved the steering stick forward. Her ship rolled and dived towards the base of the cavern, and the creature, as fast as her engine would allow.
Her finger hovered over the purple button, contemplating releasing another wave of power to destroy the creature below.
Her ship plunged down amongst the tentacles. She dodged left and right, and it wasn't until she was nearly at the bottom of the cavern that she saw a tiny tunnel leading away, hidden by the creature.
She wasted no time and pushed her ship towards it. She weaved between the tentacles and as she was going past the entrance she saw the beacon. Someone had tossed a black shroud over it so that it couldn't be seen.
She ground her teeth. She couldn't let everyone who followed her be crushed by the tentacles just because of some foul play. Interfering with the course beacons was strictly against the race rules; in fact, it was almost the only rule.
Nova kept an eye on the tunnel ahead and the other on a small mirror which showed her the back of her ship. When she was ready she pressed a button at her right elbow and a bolt of fire shot out. It careened into the beacon and caught the black shroud alight.
Nova nodded to herself. At least now there was something showing the other racers where they needed to go.
She pushed on. The tunnel got thinner the further she went, with more scrapes decorating the walls. Her hands tightened on the steering stick. It felt as if she'd been in the tunnel for hours, although it couldn't have been more than a few minutes.
Just as Nova was sure she'd been trapped in some kind of circular loop a glimmer of light flickered at the end of the tunnel. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she pushed forward on the throttle, desperate to be out of the darkness. Metres away from the exit her ship entered a small air pocket. Her vessel jumped and the roof smashed into the top of the tunnel.
A resounding scrape made Nova wince as she yanked the ship back on course.
The shield alarm flashed. The sudden collision was the last straw for the shield and now it had started to fail.
Nova took a deep breath. Flying the last half of the space-race without a shield was practically suicide. She should just stop here and call it a day. But she couldn't do that; she couldn't let Kero beat her.
She burst out of the tunnel and into a huge circular arena surrounded by a cheering crowd.
"And here is our fourth contender," Cambran's voice boomed through the empty air and into Nova's receiver.
"Now spectators, to add a bit of spice to this year's space-race the organisers have added a thrilling arena element. There are four racers before you, only three can go on. You may begin."
Nova looked around in complete confusion. Kero was on the other side of the arena. To her left was Demolition Dean, and to her right was another racer. He looked like he had come from the Happy Hunters, but Nova couldn't be sure.
"Since when is there an arena element in the space-race?!" Nova yelled, smashing her hand on the controls.
The other racers seemed unconcerned. Weapons dropped from hidden compartments in their ships. Normal racers did not have that kind of weaponry, which meant that someone had leaked information, but hadn't told Nova or her companions.
Anger burned inside her chest as she glared at the other racers. There was no way she could compete with their high fire-power. All she had was a failing energy field and a couple of flame throwers. Her grip tightened around the controls as she imagined throttling Kero. Her face flushed red as she imagined losing the space-race just because the others cheated.
A hatch in Kero's ship lifted and two massive guns folded out to either side. If they hadn't been aimed straight at her, Nova would have laughed at how the guns dwarfed the rest of the ship. As it was, she was too busy diving out of the way of the massive blue bolt shooting across the arena.
Her biggest competition was going to be Demolition Dean, as his guns were lethal. There was an entire array of them, each pointing in a different direction. For the moment, his attention was absorbed with the unknown racer. The two of them were locked in a fight to the death.
Kero seemed intent on killing Nova while he had the chance.
Nova weighed up her options, but it was clear there was only one thing she could do.
She shot straight across the arena towards Dean, with Kero's blasts following hot on her tail. One shot from his guns with her shields down and she would be blown into a thousand tiny pieces.
Dean's focus was on the other racer. He didn't notice Nova flying at him until it was too late. She lifted her ship just above his and slammed her thumb down on a black button.
The emergency release engaged and the sun-fuel from Nova's spare tank dropped out of her ship and landed on Dean's.
His shield was no match for the volatile fuel which ate the top of his ship.
Dean smashed his fist onto his emergency escape button at the last second. He shot out of his racer a moment before the pilot's seat was drenched in fuel.
He glared at Nova through the face-shield of his space-suit. His face went red as he yelled at her though she couldn't hear the words. He kicked forward and swung his arms, trying to swim through the air towards her.
"In a shocking turn of events, Nova from The Jagged Maw has eliminated Demolition Dean. That leaves Nova, Kero and Liam. The gates are now open for them to continue," Cambran announced.
At his command, two sections of the stadium swung backwards to reveal the rest of the course.
Nova didn't waste any time. She blasted out of the gates and into the open space, leaving Dean and his wrath far behind.
Liam and Kero came out of the gate at the same time and for a few moments they were flying alongside each other in perfect formation.
Nova glanced at her fuel gauge. With the spare tank gone, all she had left was half a chamber. She hoped it would be enough to get her to the finish line.
Kero was still laughing as he pulled away from Nova. His ship was a newer model and its top speed was faster than hers, especially without her solar fuel.
As he moved in front of her, Kero maneuvered his guns and fired a few parting shots at Nova's ship. Only her exceptional reflexes saved her as she ripped the controls up and out of the way of the blast.
Liam wasn't so lucky. The blast went straight under Nova's ship and into his. His shields must have been down too because his craft shattered. Shards of metal flew across the course, but by then Nova was far past it. In her rear mirror she watched the explosion puff out, leaving a trail of rubble.
Kero was already far out in front and gaining more distance with every second. Rage rose in Nova's stomach when he had the nerve to swerve back and forth across the course, taunting her.
They couldn't be far from the finish line, how could she possibly catch up now?
Then she smiled. Kero was too busy watching her to keep his eyes on the course.
Nova saw it first. Initially it was just a tremble but then the small moon of Grenn began to fall out of orbit towards Kero's ship.
Kero was completely oblivious. His ship was seconds away from colliding with the moon when he swerved to the right.
Nova chuckled and pushed the throttle. She zoomed forward and lifted up, over the top of the way-ward moon, well out of its reach.
Meanwhile, Kero's ship turned right around so that it was going backwards down the track in an effort to stay out of the moon's path. The moon followed after him for at least one hundred metres before he was far enough away that it lost touch with his gravity.
Nova was far out in front. She could see the finish line in the distance, surrounded by spectators. She pushed the throttle as far forward as it could go and pressed the red sun fuel button but there was none left after she'd destroyed Demolition Dean. Her engine roared under the throttle, zooming faster.
Something in the motor snapped and smoke poured out of the control panel. She choked on the fumes as tears streamed out of her eyes. She blinked away the sting, keeping her eyes locked on the finish line. The entire ship rattled around her. Loose bolts fell to the floor with metal clunks and still she pushed faster.
The line drew closer. She dare not glance behind in case there were other racers right on her tail. Alarms blared through the ship and red lights lit up the controls.
She tore across the line just as her engine gave a final shudder and cut out. The ship fell out of the air and crashed onto the floor of the dome, spewing smoke.
Nova slammed her fist onto the open button and the glass case retracted, releasing a new plume of smoke into the air. The fire crew were already running towards her with extinguishers. She stumbled out of the ship and was inundated with cheers.
She threw her helmet off and it clattered to the ground as she gasped for breath. She rested her hands on her knees and gulped for fresh air. It cleared the smoke from her lungs and the fog from her head. A grin spread across her face. She drew a deep breath and then stood with her hands held wide.
The crowd roared.
Her face was plastered onto the holographic platforms scattered throughout the stadium. Normally she'd keep her identity and face hidden but this was one time when she wanted to be known. The screens replayed the highlights of her race; the deadly right-hand corner was reshown at least four times as she walked from her ship to the winner's podium.
"Incredible, ladies and gentlemen. Nova from The Jagged Maw has won the four hundred and fifty-third bounty hunter space-race. And she's done it in what appears to be a modified seven-fifty racer. Incredible, just incredible," Cambran boomed.
Nova stood next to the winner's platform and waited for the other racers to finish. According to the score-board, twenty racers weren't going to finish, how many of those had died wasn't mentioned.
Tim and Tom came out of the stands to join Nova. Their round faces flushed red and their white hair stood in tufts as if they'd spent the whole race pulling it out. Tim grabbed hold of her hand and shook it wildly, while Tom placed a thick hand on her shoulder.
"What a race!" he gushed.
Nova felt the corner of her mouth twitch up in a smile.
"The Gunners are gonna be furious!" Tom said.
"The way you took over Kero." Tim shook his head. "Just phenomenal."
Nova shrugged. "If he hadn't been showing off he might have seen he was dragging a moon out of orbit."
The three of them chuckled.
It would be a long time before the stragglers crossed the line, so when the first ten were home the official winner's ceremony commenced.
Nova climbed up to the top of the podium and lifted the gold trophy. It would be housed in The Jagged Maw for the rest of the year until a different guild won it back in another race.
Nova's heart fluttered in her chest. She was overcome with pride, joy and relief. All the months of training and hard work had paid off. The only way it could have been better was if Kero had been crushed by the wayward moon. She couldn't help a smile from splitting her face.
That night she celebrated with Tanguin and Aart and many others from The Jagged Maw. Aart was sour for the first five minutes, but it didn't take him long to lighten up and regale them all with his epic race. He waved his hands through the air and held his audience captive as he told of how close he'd come to overtaking Nova and winning this year's cup.
Nova chuckled. She knew as well as anyone that Aart hadn't even been close to her. She didn't bother correcting him. Let him have his fun.
Nova sat up in her bed and rubbed her tired eyes. It felt as if a thousand grains of sand had fallen behind her lids and scratched her eyes to pieces while she slept. The light stung as she forced her eyes open and stumbled out of her sleeping pod to the pilot's chair.
"You're finally awake," Cal said as he hovered around the corner and into the command pod.
Nova looked down at her unkempt self. She was wearing the same clothes as the day before, her hair was a tangled mess, and she had no idea where she was currently parked.
She buried her pounding head into her arms and rested on Crusader's dashboard. "I wouldn't say that just yet," Nova whispered from between a gap in her arms.
"That will teach you for enjoying so many Saturn Smoothies," Cal said. He went over to the food generator and pressed a few buttons. The machine whirred into action.
"As I recall," Nova said, lifting her head. She squinted at Cal through bleary eyes. "You were matching me drink for drink. It's not my fault I don't have an instant detox function."
"Ah, well that's where you're wrong," Cal said. He hovered over to Nova with a small glass in his hand. Amber liquid sloshed from side to side.
"Cal! I don't want to do shots," Nova groaned, laying her head back in her arms.
"This isn't a shot," Cal said. "At least not of the kind you think. This is brand new out of the Science District."
"They're still making things?" Nova asked, lifting her head once more. As far as she knew, the Science District was made up of middle-class druggies who spent their days trying to find new ways to get high.
"Not much, but this one was relevant to them. It's supposed to be the perfect hangover cure."
"Really?" Nova brightened. She straightened her back and took another look at the amber liquid. It glowed with a soft orange light. "Has it been tested?"
"The scientists were the first to try it. According to them there have been no extra deaths."
"Reassuring," Nova said, with a raised eyebrow.
She reached out and took the glass from Cal's hand. She held her breath and threw the liquid to the back of her throat.
She was expecting a burn, much like hard liquor. Instead she felt a soothing coldness. It splashed around her mouth, before sliding down her throat. The cold extended up into her nose and eyes. The sensation was invigorating. Her bloodshot and aching eyes were overcome with the soothing sensation and when she blinked them open, the whole world seemed to have taken on a brighter range of colours.
Her head was next. The cold seeped into every recess of her brain and laid a soothing blanket over it. She felt every neuron relax and the pounding headache disappeared. Even her arms and legs relaxed and the tension from the previous day melted away.
"This is better than a Parapem" Nova said, her eyes wide.
"So I guess I'll save that formula to the food generator; many other functions," Cal said, hovering back to the machine.
"You bet." Nova nodded. "But keep an eye on the Cloud would you? Just in case there are any unforeseen side-effects."
"I'll run a monthly search."
"Good! Then let's get out of here. Wherever here is," Nova said, frowning down at the controls as she tried to piece the night's events together.
"We're at The Jagged Maw," Cal said.
"How did we get here?" Nova asked, still frowning.
"According to Crusader we challenged Aart to a race. First one back to The Jagged Maw wins."
"We..?" Nova asked.
"You said it yourself, I was matching you drink for drink," Cal admitted sheepishly, as he turned away from Nova and pretended to examine the wall.
"So… did we win?" Nova asked.
"According to Crusader," Cal said with a pause. "Aart has yet to arrive, so yes."
Nova laughed and slapped her hand down on the dashboard. "Make sure we leave a message for him when he gets here. He probably got pulled over by some Confederacy big wigs, driving in manual or something."
She chuckled and inwardly congratulated herself for winning the illustrious space-race. She felt like she'd been reborn; the amber liquid had worked a miracle. While she had woken up feeling half-dead, she now felt ready for anything. She strolled away from the command centre and straight to the shower.
An hour later Nova felt better than she had since first landing on Boullion Five. She bounced into the pilot's chair and threw her legs up onto the controls.
"Dial Tanguin," she said.
A moment later Tanguin appeared on the front screen. She looked the same as she always did.
"I see you came out of last night unscathed," Nova said with a grin.
Tanguin nodded, but didn't smile. "You know I don't really drink."
Nova frowned, sensing something in Tanguin's voice. "What's wrong?"
"Aart is still MIA," Tanguin said. Her tone was light, but her expression as she looked at Nova was stern.
"He probably just got lost on his way here," Nova said, waving her hand.
"No. There's no trace of him. I can't find Sylar's signature anywhere."
"What?" Nova said, her brows drawing together. "But it's been hours. Even if he was pulled over by the Confederacy, we would have heard from him by now."
Her mind raced. Did he say anything about having a mission on?
"I didn't want to worry you," Tanguin said. "I'm sure he's just sulking about you winning. He's probably just spending his time on Vix."
Tanguin's expression gave her away. It was clear that she did not think Aart was okay. Nova bit her bottom lip. He could be anywhere.
"Put a trace on his ship; call in a few favours if you have to. I'm going straight to the Pleasure District to see if I can get hold of him."
Nova's victory turned to ash in her mouth at the thought of something happening to Aart.
The screen went black. Crusader lifted up into the air and shot off. There were some extra shakes and a few new noises but the ship held together and they broke atmosphere without blowing themselves up. That was always a good sign.
Nova sighed and tapped her fingers on the control panel. Tabryn and the Pleasure District was probably the very last place she wanted to go. Her home planet had too many memories; too many ghosts. But if she didn't go and Aart was in trouble… she'd never forgive herself.
Nova's Journey Continues…
When Aart goes missing Nova is forced to travel back to her hated home planet of Tabryn.
Her latest job to solve a casino heist takes her deep into the fetid underbelly of the corrupt planet, as faces from her past start to resurface.
It will take all of her strength to stay afloat as the past tries to pull her back to where it all began.
Discover the planet that made the bounty hunter in Book Four: Gambler.
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Find all of Saffron's Books At:
The Lost Child Saga - An Epic Fantasy Series
The Nova Chronicles
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saffron Bryant was born on the 17th December 1990 in a small town in North Queensland. In 2010 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After extensive, life-saving surgery she returned to her home in Queensland to recover and finish The Fallen Star. She received a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2011.
Saffron has been interested in fantasy and science fiction writing from a very young age, writing her first story at the age of seven. She has always been fascinated by fantasy stories and has a passion for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Saffron currently lives in Sydney with her partner Michael Lee where she is completing her PhD in chemistry.
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EMAIL: [email protected]
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