Gunmetal Black 5
Chapter 14 - Three Views Of A Secret
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Chapter 14: Three Views of a Secret

Vain blocked Sabre's strikes, trying to push him forward as surely he tried to push her back. While Sabre was more skilled, Vain was stronger, and the result was that they were fairly evenly matched, and it didn’t take very long for the two of them to recognize it.

Sabre took a step back, flipping his sword to a backhanded grip. The black blade of it began to change its shape, moving at a right angle to the hilt of the sword. Once the change had been complete, he came after her again, his weapon now optimized for the tight quarters of the catwalk.

Vain crossed her twin knives, blocking his strikes and trying to slip out of his grip. He's trying to get close in, she thought, struggling out of his grasp and kicking him away. Throw me off the catwalk.

She stabbed out at him, the charged energy blade scraping against his chest armor. Again, she headbutted him, stunning and driving him back. She pushed hard against him, shoving him to the floor and kicking him in the throat to keep him down.

But Sabre was ready for her, and grabbed her foot, turning her ankle to immobilize her and with a kick to the leg that was holding her up, he knocked her to the floor. Vain fell back, dropping one of her knives as she did.

Sabre leapt to the attack almost immediately, trying to keep the pressure on. His blade had changed shape again, becoming a lighter version of its original shape. Vain threw her remaining knife at him and he swatted it away with contemptuous ease. Her remaining knife lay a few feet away, certainly out of her reach. Vain was totally unarmed, now.

Just as she'd planned.

She caught Sabre's sword-arms, keeping him from following through on the strike. She brought her knees up to his stomach and threw him backwards, feeling the catwalk jolt under her body as he landed hard on his stomach.

She used the momentum she'd gained to roll forward, grabbing her knife and, choosing her target, threw it at him as hard as she was able. The blade caught him in the throat, and, because it had been thrown with such force, pushed clear through the back of his neck.

Sabre didn’t stop, hurling his blade at Vain, catching her in the side. Shock not dissimilar from pain ripped through her. She reached for the blade, the shock to her system so powerful it slowed her down. Across the catwalk from her Sabre slowly pulled the knife from his own throat, walking slowly towards her as he did.

Vain couldn’t believe her eyes. Even she felt something akin to pain after all--nothing like the human capacity for pain, of course, but still.

He spun the knife in his hand, raising it above his head as if to stab her. Vain whipped Sabre's sword out of her stomach and raised it above her, using the hilt of it to knock her knife out of his hand and then striking him with it against his mask. He reached for her, pinning her so close that she couldn’t bring his sword up to defend herself.

So she let go, intending to try to claw his eyes or anything else she could manage that would get her off him.

As it happened, her fingers found the edge of his mask and tore it free from his face. Almost immediately Sabre let her go, and Vain hit the floor, still holding his mask. Sabre tried to hide his face, shaking his white-streaked black hair over his face and covering it with a white-gloved hand, but Vain got a quick glimpse of it.

Sabre shrank from her gaze, reaching for his sword. But rather than try to attack her, he merely held it in front of him as he stayed in a crouch, like a cornered animal growling to keep a predator away.

Vain looked at him, then down at the mask in front of her. There was nothing apparently special about it, no sign it had been grafted to his face, no esoteric technologies that would account for his abilities, no nothing.

It was just a mask, Vain thought. And yet . . .it had been enough to get him to stop, even after something that should have killed him instantly. Enough to reduce him to something almost pathetic in the blink of an eye.

Why?

She shook it off--fighting this man had cost her some time, and time she didn’t have the luxury of wasting at that. She walked slowly down the catwalk, doing an internal systems check to assess the damage to her body and rerouting vital functions away from the injured areas.

Then just before she reached the exit on the far side, she laid the mask down on the catwalk, sending it skittering along down towards Sabre.

Then she rushed through, shutting the door behind her. The strange man and the peculiar power his mask held over him was forgotten as she returned in earnest to her mission of finding Jayla-2.

* * *

Esperanza heard the heavy thunk of the medical kit landing in the dirt next to her.

"The two of you should get fixed up," Kienan said, his long shadow, lit by the roaring fire of the church behind him covered Judgment and herself.

Esperanza blinked, turning to face him and wincing as she felt the slash wounds Wrath had inflicted on her reopen and seep fresh blood against her skin.

"What do you care?" Esperanza said, her voice a little ragged after shouting.

"Because I'm supposed to shoot him," Kienan said, pointing to Judgment. "And I intend to do it, and if that means patching up the damage someone else inflicted so he's healthy enough to see me pull the trigger, then so be it."

"You're insane," Esperanza said, nervously reaching for the medical kit, never taking her eyes off Kienan, who watched her indifferently, reaching for a cigarette as he watched her fumble with the heavy case.

"Yeah," Kienan said. "I get that a lot." He knelt down in front of her, looking over her shoulder at Wrath, who was still on his knees, eyes wide with a terror neither of them could see.

"What happened to him?" Kienan asked.

"Have you ever had a nightmare you can’t wake up from? I gave him something ten times worse than that."

"Huh," Kienan said, looking over Judgment's wounds.

Never imagined she had it in her, he thought, his hands fumbling over Judgment's armor, looking for a release. His thoughts drifted back to his own beginnings as a killer for a moment and the nightmare of Caldera that even he hadn’t managed to wake up from for years, no matter how hard he tried.

Then again, I suppose you never do, unless you have to.

Kienan peeled Judgment's body armor off, then the clothing underneath, the gash that he'd given Judgment and Wrath had exacerbated hung open, his pale skin soaked a deep crimson. Kienan's eyes narrowed on the wound and he looked over to Esperanza.

"Can you do something to him? Make him relax and forget the pain?" Kienan asked her. "Hand me that small jar of blue gel."

"I can," Esperanza said, giving him the jar. "But why?"

"Because this is going to hurt him real bad, because the wound's really deep," he said. "And because I'm not particularly gentle when it comes to this sort of thing."

"No," Esperanza whispered. "I can imagine."

He applied the gel to Judgment's wound, the cool blue jelly sealing the wound. Judgment convulsed at the shock to his system but Kienan kept on until he'd covered the wound.

"All right," he said. "Now hand me the pads and the tape."

Esperanza watched Kienan as he unfolded the pad and pressed it to Judgment's side, holding it against him with one finger as he wrapped the tape around his torso, all the time puffing around his cigarette.

She was endlessly fascinated, watching him. Her eyes occasionally went to his hands, watching as the same hands that had nearly killed Michael and struck her worked to save him, and all so he could kill him personally at a later time.

It's almost right somehow that I can’t read him, she thought. I don't know if I'd want to know how someone could live in that kind of contradiction.

Wrath began to babble a little louder, and she was forcibly snapped out of her reverie by the sound. She shook, brushing her hair from her face. For a moment, whether due to the shock or her focus on Michael, she'd forgotten where she was and what had happened.

"Where are the other Guardsmen?" Esperanza asked, her tone detached and a little dazed.

"Dead," Kienan said. "Some burned in the fire, some we shot. The rest I killed myself. That's why I was late getting back."

"You killed them all?"

"Their bodies are stacked in one of their troop ships," he said.

"But . . .I heard Wrath order a retreat," she said.

"I didn't," Kienan said, looking for a pulse. He sighed, setting him down gently on the ground. He turned to Esperanza, looking over her shoulder at the wounds on her back.

"I should take a look at those."

Esperanza shuffled her feet to get away from him.

"You just told me you killed dozens of people and threw their bodies into a mass grave," she said. "And just like that, I'm supposed to trust you to bandage my wounds?"

"Unless you're double-jointed as well as being a psychic, I don’t think you can really do it yourself, can you?"

"But--"

"I don't like double-crosses," Kienan said, tossing his cigarette away. "They tried to be betray me, and they paid for it, and as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of it."

"It's just that simple to you? Killing them?"

Kienan sighed. "To me it's a day's work. No more, no less."

Esperanza looked at him, eyes wide with horror. She knew the world was sinful and corrupt, but to see it distilled in front of her in the form of a single human being turned her stomach.

At least Wrath had the excuse of being a slave to his own sadistic appetites, she thought, looking over her shoulder at the nearly lobotomized cyborg. He did what he did because he took pleasure in it. This man doesn’t even care.

It's not just the reading I get from him--he is a black void.

Kienan looked up at her, brushing his bangs from his eyes. He narrowed his gaze sharply, his expression severe and unchanging.

"I know what you're thinking," he said.

"I thought I was the mind-reader."

"It doesn’t take one to read you," he said, sliding the medical kit over in front of him. "I was taught telepaths were sloppy when it came to guarding themselves, that they gave away so much in body language you could as good as read their minds while they were reading yours. You're easier than most.

"You think I'm a monster."

"You are a monster."

Kienan took a deep breath, looking down into the medical kit. "A monster. A monster who saved your lives, saved his life--"

"You're just keeping him alive so you can do it yourself, Esperanza sneered.

"--and protected you from these people, and people like that," he continued, pointing to Wrath.

"And what about him?" Kienan said, nodding to Judgment. "He was right there with me, killing those troops left and right, and I can assure you, he enjoyed himself when he did it. It's something you never lose the taste for once you develop it. Believe me--I know. You could say he was doing it for a nobler cause--he was protecting you, after all--but does that make his killings all right in your eyes, while mine aren't? We killed them the same way, with the very same weapons, after all.

"And they're all just as dead, no matter who killed them."

Esperanza looked at him for a moment, her arms folded around herself. She didn’t want to think that way about Michael, but her memory seemed determined to counter her desire. No, she'd seen Michael killing them, seen him crashing through the fire, always pushing closer to her, no matter who was in his way.

She looked away, a tear running down her cheek, streaking clean lines through the caked grime and blood on her face. She looked at Wrath, and her stomach turned again at her own culpability in this.

I was going to make him kill himself, because I thought he deserved it, she thought, looking at his eyes empty, vibrating with terrors she knew she'd put there. I did that to him. I've locked him into a loop where he'll suffer and suffer, but won’t die.

The pride she'd felt when she told Kienan what she'd done lashed at her soul, like the sting of Wrath's claws, only they cut deeper, where no one could see.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I guess I'm a hypocrite."

"Yes. You are."

She sobbed and held herself tightly.

* * *

"Jayla-2," J-3 said. "But . . .I'm Jayla."

"There was another clone created before you," Mendel said, stepping between the two of them, inspecting Jayla-2 like she was a rare jewel he hadn’t expected to find. "I . . .they . . .thought you were dead."

Jayla-2 shook her head. "I would have been, but I was rescued," she said. "As to how, it's a lot of tedious detail I'd rather not get into. For right now, we should probably focus on the here and now, the reason I came here."

"So what then?" J-3 asked. "Are you here to claim that you're Jayla? Try to take my place?"

"No," she said. "I've spent quite a long time saying exactly the opposite of that. I'm not Jayla Kyren and I don’t pretend to be."

"Well, good," J-3 said. "Because I'm Jayla. I'm Jayla Kyren. And you can't be her."

Jayla-2 looked away.

"Are you telling me it's not true?"

"It's as true as you believe it to be, I guess," Jayla-2 said. "But Jayla Kyren is dead. You can pretend to be her . . .but she's gone."

"Well, she's--I'm--alive, again," she said. "It's a resurrection."

"You're an understudy," Jayla-2 said. "Physically you’re different from her in nearly every way."

J-3 looked at Mendel "There's . . .nothing I can do to help that."

"Mentally . . .how much of Jayla's life do you remember?"

"I remember a lot of Jayla's--of my--life," J-3 said defensively. "I remember Mendel and I climbing this tree--here."

She pointed at the tree, as if its continued existence helped argue her case.

"We had such happy times here, in this garden," she continued. "And I remember all of them. That's how I know I'm Jayla. I can remember feeling happy here."

Jayla-2 looked at the tree.

"Jayla last climbed that tree when she was eleven."

J-3 blinked. "What are you talking about?"

"She's right," Mendel said, then looked around, not realizing he'd been thinking aloud.

J-3 turned to him, shocked and a little annoyed that he seemed to be taking Jayla-2's side in this.

"She was just about to go off to school," he continued. "Some fancy boarding academy on Titan, I think."

"The Richese Academy," Jayla-2 said. "She hated it there. Flunked out after two years."

Now it was Mendel's turn to be surprised.

"She told you?"

Jayla-2 looked at her sister, and then to Mendel.

"No," she said. "She didn’t tell me. She couldn’t have--she was dead for awhile before I was even created."

"Then how could possibly know?" J-3 said. "You’re a liar. See, I knew you weren't telling the truth!"

"I know it, because I can remember it all," Jayla-2 said. "Everything that happened to Jayla Kyren, from her birth to her death, I know all of it."

"That's impossible," Mendel said. "If you were created after her, how would you have known anything except what my mother put in your mind? How is what you remember any more valid than what J- . . .er, Jayla remembers?"

"Nothing I can say would explain it, and I honestly wouldn’t know how to tell you," Jayla-2 said.

"But if you want to be Jayla Kyren so badly," She began, turning to J-3, and staring at her with the same piercing gaze as when she'd first seen her. "Well, you should probably know who she was and all that she was."

"I won't stand here and listen to you lie," J-3 said.

"I'm not lying," Jayla-2 said, her impatience cracking through her gentle reserve.

How do you explain this to a clone who seems determined to get in a fight with you about which of the pair of you is "more Jayla?" Especially when you couldn’t care less?

It made perfect sense, of course. If he memories began an ended in the garden, they were memories of a Jayla who'd never grown past the age of 11, never lost the blush of childhood, of course she would see things like a child.

And the few people I know are sulky, non-communicative adults. Childish, but not children.

"Look," she said, taking a deep breath. "Whether you think I'm lying or not . . .you’re my sister. I came here to see you."

"To take my place."

"No," Jayla-2 said. She found her throat tightening and her eyes were beginning to water. "I just came to see you. I uh . . .never had a sister, and we're really the only family we have. I don’t have anything to give you, except this story."

"I don’t want to hear it!'

"I do," Mendel said. He took a deep breath, looking at the ground, because he knew if he looked up, he was going to cry. "She's right--Jayla's gone, she's been gone for years, and when she left she took our family with her. I lost my sister way before she ever died, and . . .I want to know who she was. I need to know."

"I mean . . .who's left, except . . .the three of us?"

"But she's a liar," J-3 whined. She turned to Jayla-2 in a fury, raising her arm. "Look at what you’re doing to him!"

"It's all right, J-3. She's telling the truth."

J-3's face fell. She lowered her arm, trembling. He'd slipped up and called her "J-3" instead of "Jayla." Were she able to blush, she would have done so. However ridiculous this woman's claims were, they had clearly gotten to Mendel. She looked down, sullen and chastised, and worse still, by her own brother.

"All right," J-3 said, admitting defeat at last. "Say what you came to say, then."

Mendel looked up at her, head still bowed, and took J-3's hand in his, holding it tightly, as if borrowing her strength to see him through this.

Jayla-2 looked at them, marshalling her courage. Then she slowly began telling the tale of Jayla Kyren.

* * *

Michael woke up and hour later, his face breaking into an easy smile the moment he saw Esperanza, who'd never left his side after Kienan had bandaged his wounds. He groaned slightly, rising up to a sitting position.

"How long was I out?" He asked, looking at her. She looked at little worse for wear since last he'd seen her, but at least they were still alive. "Where are--"

"Dead," Esperanza said. She pointed to Wrath. "Except for him, Kienan killed the others. I don’t think he left a single one alive. He said he didn't, in any case. Then he came and bandaged our wounds."

He blinked, looking down at the dressing. "That was nice of him, I suppose. It was the least he could do--he gave me the damn thing in the first place. Where is he?"

"He left for awhile. He didn’t say where."

Michael tried to gather his feet underneath him. "Can you . . .can you help me up?"

"I think you should rest," Esperanza said, kneeling and slipping one of his arms over her shoulder and helping him to his feet.

"I wish I could," he said, still biting through the pain. Whatever Kienan had put on his hand sealed the wound, but every step left the hideously agonizing impression he was going to split in two. "But I need to talk to him. I need his help."

"His help? What for?" Esperanza said, completely incredulous. "Michael . . .he said he intends to kill you."

"I know," he said. His features were hard and neutral, betraying no emotion at all.

"And I'll deal with that when the time comes."

They found Kienan on the outskirts of town, near a well, cleaning off the blood from his face and clothes. At the sound of Judgment's boot scraping the dirt, Kienan's hand drifted to his holster.

"Glad you're up and about," Kienan muttered. "Ready to settle up?"

"No," Michael said. "But I realize my timetable's not yours. Before we settle things, I wanted to ask you . . .what are you planning to do about Sloane?"

"Kill him," Kienan replied, straightening up. "I don't like people who double-cross me. Makes me angry."

"And how do you plan on doing that?"

Kienan looked irritated. "What does it matter to you?"

"I know where he is, and I suspect I know who might be in your way if you go looking for him," Michael said. "I used to work for Sloane, and I worked with the man guarding him."

"Meaning what?"

"I want in."

Kienan raised his eyebrow. "You must be joking."

"Even a man of God can make a deal with the devil."

"How florid," Kienan said. "Why would you help me?"

"It's either I help you, or stay on the run for the rest of my life, and fight people like you, Wrath, and War, and buy myself more time to run again later. I left that life behind years ago. Whatever comes, I'm through running."

"I told you--"

"Yes, I know--with you planning to kill me, I wouldn’t be running long," Michael said. He could tell Kienan was certainly entertaining the idea, but there was still some skepticism holding him back from going over completely.

The problem is finding the right coin to sell him on it, he thought, his brow furrowing. How do you entice a man when all he really wants is to kill you?

Of course.

"Think of it as a contract."

Kienan reached for a cigarette, turning to face him. He'd caught his interest, now all Michael had to do was follow through.

"Sloane ordered Esperanza and I killed, and ordered you eliminated," he said. "He's high up enough in the Church to where any internal pressure could be deflected away from him. The only hope that I, Esperanza, or anyone else have for justice is you."

"I don’t deal in justice," Kienan said. "And I'm pretty sure there's something in that book you’re so crazy for that forbids vengeance."

"In this case, I think they’re one and the same," Michael countered. "But if you agree, I want this clear: I'm after the man himself. Sloane. Not the office, or the Church. I've only known you one night and I can tell you enjoy tearing things up and down just a little too much, so I think I should be clear on that."

"Hm," Kienan said, lighting his cigarette. He took a deep drag and exhaled slowly. "Suppose I did take you up on this contract. I'm no charity, and I don’t work for free. What do I get out of it?"

"Me."

"Small reward," Kienan sneered. "You know I'm going to anyway."

"I'll give you a shot, free and clear. Right though the chest or the head, or wherever you want to put it."

"Michael!" Esperanza exclaimed.

"But only after Sloane's been dealt with," Michael finished, ignoring her. "You’re right Kienan--my book does say vengeance is a sin. It also says that for evil to flourish, good people have to do nothing. Maybe God will forgive me and consider the scales balanced if you kill a good man after we kill a bad one. Balance one sin with the other."

Kienan cocked an eyebrow. "I don’t follow the logic on that at all."

"Logic has nothing to do with it. It's faith."

"If this is a lead-in to you preaching to me, my advice is not to bother," Kienan said. "All you'll do is make me wonder why I bothered bandaging you up and hurt you all over again."

"Not my intention," Michael said. "I'm just saying that I've been where you are. Killed and chased the next kill, the next big payday, the next hit that would make my reputation forever. All that chasing never got me anywhere except alone. Wondering what all those people I'd killed had ever done to deserve it and wondering when my turn would come around.

"Most of all, I remembered not knowing what I was fighting for and where things were going. The answer to the first was easy--nothing. I got plenty of money for what I did, but never enough for it all to seem worth it. As to the other . . .one day I stood in front of a mirror and put my own gun between my eyes. And I recognized where I was running to, where I was going, and exactly when my turn was coming."

"Spare me your psychoanalysis," Kienan said, cutting him off. "We may have had the same job, but no way have we lived the same life. I don’t see how we compare."

"Don’t you get tired of running around and never getting anywhere? I'm offering you a chance to stop running and turn and fight. And pay back the same man who double-crossed you. I'm fighting for something, someone. My faith and Esperanza.

"What the hell are you doing, Ademetria? Who or what would you fight for?"

Kienan flinched slightly. Despite his contemptuous exterior, Judgment had not only hit a nerve, but also hit it and leaned on it. He turned away again, keeping his back to Judgment.

"If I were take this job of yours--and believe me, it's a big "if," Kienan began. "How do I know you'll keep your word about letting me have my shot?"

"I guess you'll just have to have faith I'm telling you the truth, won't you?"

* * *

"She drifted around for awhile after that, living off her mother's trust fund," Jayla-2 said. "After that, she ended up on the Frontier, on Kuran Colony. She stayed out all night and slept all day, always partying. She tried as best she could never to be alone, but she couldn't find anything she wanted to do for herself. She was stuck."

Mendel stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the ground as he listened to her. He couldn’t look at her, and Jayla-2 knew it was because if he had he would start crying. So many emotions, most of them tinged with regret crossed his face, and Jayla-2 couldn’t help but feel a little responsible for the pain she was causing him.

J-3, for her part, stood beside Mendel, her arm through his, staying close, her expression alternately bratty petulance and interest she was trying (and failing) to hide.

"When she was there, she met this man, and . . .they . . .um, they were . . .," Jayla-2 sighed. It wasn't J-3 or her lack of emotional connection to Jayla's memories that slowed her down this time.

It's different when you know someone who does have an emotional connection to these memories, she thought. And you've already hurt him yourself, knowing what had happened to him before, even if you didn’t understand why.

Because then you know it's not just a story you’re telling someone.

"They were together for a long time, but she needed something from him and he never knew what it was. She never told him. So they stayed together and drifted further apart while she kept trying to fill that void inside herself. And every time she failed . . .she blamed him."

"You talk like you knew him," J-3 said.

"Yes," Jayla-2 said. "I like to think I know him well. Maybe not well enough, sometimes, though."

"Who?"

"It's not important, OK?" Jayla-2 said, a bit meaner than she'd intended. "Just know she was very important to him, and I know if he'd been able, he would have tried to help her. I really do think he would have tried. That he couldn't, I think, always hurt him.

"But she took the decision out of his hands and left him," she continued. "And she did a lot of things after that you wouldn't be--"

"--Don't." Mendel said, his voice loud and somewhat ragged, the strain of trying to hold himself together allowing that small moment through despite his effort. J-3 reached over and gently squeezed his arm.

"Are you OK?" J-3 whispered.

Mendel nodded, grateful he didn’t have to speak the lie.

Jayla-2 sighed. She hated herself for doing this.

"What happened to her after that?"

"She found someone else, right before the end. I honestly the she loved her and wanted to help Jayla," Jayla-2 said.

"She?" Mendel repeated. Jayla-2 raised an eyebrow, failing to see why that was important at all.

"She tried to help her, but by that time, it was too late," Jayla-2 said. "Whatever had kept Jayla alive was gone. She . . .she died alone. The two people who cared for her . . .I know they cried for her.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry. I wish this story had a happy ending."

Jayla-2 put her hands in her pockets in a curious unconscious imitation of Mendel, looking down at her feet. It was the first time she'd ever considered Jayla's entire life as a whole and seen the anguished pattern than ran through it. Before it was only a flash of memory would occur to her completely out of context, maybe in response to something herself or Kienan had done thoughtlessly, and it would jar something like this in her memory, and while it would be sad, Jayla-2 never understood how sad it was and how much it really hurt, because all she could do was observe them from a distance.

Jayla had spent most of her life in pain, chasing something she couldn't possibly ever achieve, and as she moved through life, hurting all the time, she hurt others, Jayla-2 thought. Does that make it right? Hurting each other like that?

She looked over at J-3, her eyes meeting hers.

And if I let her stay here, thinking she's Jayla . . .will the same thing happen all over again? Does J-3 believing she's Jayla mean she's doomed to live the same kind of life?

What do I do about that?

* * *

As easily as he had been driven into catatonia, Wrath found his mind was his own again, the revelation coming with such force he gasped for air like a drowning man. Every sense went from a dull idleness to the sharpest clarity in an instant.

It was like looking directly into the sun.

He tried to get his bearings. The last thing he remembered, after all, was nearly murdering Judgment. The rise of the morning sun indicated he'd been out for hours.

Where are the Guardsmen? Where is War?

He tried to reach out for something, to touch his surroundings, but something was wrong. His arm felt . . .gone, somehow. He couldn't feel it, couldn’t sense anything through the substitute for his central nervous system.

Am I captured? How could they have possibly . . .

He tried to roll over, but found his legs were gone too. The sudden terror of powerlessness surged through him and he thrashed about, trying to move but not getting very far at all.

So he began to scream.

"There's no need for that," a somewhat unfamiliar voice called--a man's. Whether due to the proximity of his head to the ground or the fact that terror had sharpened his senses he could hear the man's feet gently scrape through the Earth.

"Where am I?" Wrath gasped. "Who are you?"

"You know who I am," the voice said. "You were sent to kill me, after all."

"Judgment?"

"Uh-huh," the voice said. "Not Judgment--the other one. Judgment said the most merciful thing to do with you would be to kill you. Have you put down like you would a rabid dog. Instead, he gave you to me.

"I'm not as merciful as he is, I'm afraid. Him or his woman--I think it must be the religion. You know--"Turn the other cheek," and all that. I cut your arms and legs loose, by the way. They’re lying around here somewhere. Then I told the woman to give you your mind back for a bit so we could talk things over."

"Ademetria," Wrath said.

"Yes," he said. "I actually thought about stacking them in a neat pile so they'd be the first thing you saw when you came to, but . . .heh, you know--Got busy on something else, and I figured, "Well, he'll get the message without a lot of theatrics." I have no stomach for it, you know. Posturing."

"Where are . . ."

"Your other troops? Oh yes . . .we've put them all on one of your ships. A ship we're going to send back to . . . Metatron, I think Judgment called it."

"What . . .what are you . . ."

"Yeah," Kienan replied. "See, I really don’t like being double-crossed or threatened by so-called expert killers who spend more time hiding behind women and threatening them than doing their job. Sadists like you give professionals like me a bad name."

"You're no better than--"

"I know what I am. I don’t dress up what I do or hide it under a cross," Kienan replied. "You and I kill people for a living Wrath, but for me it's a job. For you it's some kind of sick fetish. I see enough of myself in you that recognizing it makes me sick and makes me want to kill it. Tell me something--What did you ever do but kill and torture and do it with you God's arms around you the whole time, blessing you and telling you what a good little killer you are?

"I guess you don't need me to tell you that was a lie," Kienan mused. "Not that it really matters--God can't help you anymore."

"I know things, Ademetria, I could--"

"You don’t know anything we don't know already. You don’t have anything to bargain with."

Wrath felt himself steadily losing it. So many times he'd been where Kienan was. Taking his time over someone, destroying their hope and their very spirit with the dull indifference of a child pulling the wings off flies.

The experience of being completely at Kienan's mercy was eye opening, if anything. Wrath would have repented then and there and begged God for forgiveness.

Had ever believed such things.

But why bother repenting to the devil?

"Where. . .where is . . ."

"Your partner?" Kienan asked. "I killed him last night. Shot him once in the head. He thought I was an easy mark and he could take his time finishing me. So, he got careless and left himself open. I took own gun and blew his head off."

Wrath closed his eyes, missing Kienan straddling his trunk and drawing his pistol, pointing it directly at Wrath's face.

"Tell me . . .does that sound familiar?"

Wrath opened his eyes and saw Kienan silhouetted against the sun, little visible except his blazing emerald eyes and the sheen off the barrel of his pistol.

Wrath felt panic shoot through what was left of his body and he nearly heard himself beg for his life. Only his pride stopped him from giving voice to his fear. Just as he managed to get a handle on his tongue, however, he heard a sound he hadn’t expected.

Ademetria was laughing at him. The grim, humorless laughter continued for a time until he holstered his pistol.

"Just making a point," Kienan said. "Trying to scare you a little. Encourage you to see things in a little different way before you have to go."

"What are you talking about? Are you . . .going to kill me?"

"No," Kienan said, grabbing Wrath by the hair and dragging him along. "I'm not going to kill you. I promise. I'm going to send you home."

"AAAARGH . . .Ademetria, where are you taking me?!"

"I told you," he said. "You and your underlings are going back to Metatron."

There was a rumble of metal that Wrath recognized was the manual release for the ship's cargo door and he suddenly felt himself go weightless and be thrown into a very dark place, landing softly on something in the ship's cargo hold. The banging of the shuttle's cargo door suddenly and cruelly cut off what little he could see.

He lay there in abject darkness, trying to get his breath. Maybe he could move along the floor using his torso muscles and make his way to the cockpit, and figure out some way to send a distress signal, alert Metatron that Ademetria and Judgment were on the way.

But he wasn't on the floor. He seemed to be on a pile of something, he couldn't make out very well in the darkness. Whatever it was, it was soft and hard all at once. And there seemed to be this terrible smell, something so powerfully foul that it seemed to choke off the oxygen in the cargo cabin.

Wrath was able to roll over on his side, and felt himself tumbling off the perch he'd been tossed onto and landing on something else, much softer than what he'd been laying on before.

Wetter, too. Nervously, he licked his lips, the thick stickiness very strange to his lips, but the hot coppery taste and smell was unmistakable.

Blood, he thought.

In a flash, an awful instant of insight like lightning inside his mind, he understood.

Ademetria had locked him inside with the Guardsmen, all right. But they were all dead, except for Wrath, who was now trapped in the dark barely able to move and surrounded by corpses in various states of ruin.

The same mad urge to scream, to sink all the way into madness gripped him again, and this time, he let it take him.