The others joined me at the railing, everyone looking at where the Falls should have been.

"Damn," whispered the Caryatid. "There's something you don't see every day."

Across the gorge, on the Rustland side of the Falls, people were already clambering over the safety barriers and down onto the rocks where the river was supposed to be. Idiotic bravado—I suppose they wanted to be able to tell their friends they'd walked across Niagara Falls. As soon as those people ventured onto the river bed, the natural perversity of the universe should have sent the water sweeping back in a solid wall of crashing froth. But no such torrent appeared... even when a teenage boy reached the weak brook trickling down the middle and sloshed about in the current, laughing to his friends.

Pelinor said, "Oh, look. Where did the water go?"

He turned to me for an answer. Pelinor always believed that because I was a scientist, I could explain anything. "Umm," I said. "Uhh. Hmm. The only thing I can think of is that the entire river is being diverted into the power station. There are sluices upstream to take in water and pipe it through the generators. I didn't think they had the capacity to siphon up the whole river, but if Dreamsinger really wants to maximize electrical production—"

"Phil," Annah interrupted, "there's another explanation."

She was peering upstream, shading her eyes from the nearby streetlamps. The river in that direction was mostly dark: a bridge extended from the Rustland side to an island in the middle of the rapids (or where the rapids should have been), but beyond the shine of the bridge-lights, the river disappeared into blackness. Deep blackness. "I can't see anything," I said.

"Neither can I," Annah replied. "It's not normal shadow. It looks like a wall."

"A wall?" I squinted again. Utter blackness covered the river beyond the bridge; but when I looked to the sides of the waterway, I could see vague outlines of buildings, streets, trees: normal things in normal darkness, not utterly swallowed by oblivion.

I shifted my gaze back to the river and moved my eyes slowly upward. Black, black, black... then suddenly stars. As I watched, a drifting tatter of cloud disappeared out of sight behind the blackness—occluded by that dark impenetrability.

Someone had lowered a curtain of blackness onto the Niagara River. A wall indeed. Or more precisely, a dam.

By now the others had seen it too. "What is it?" Pelinor whispered.

A trillion trillion nanites, I thought. A vast barrier of them, clustered together to clamp off incoming flow. "It's a dam," I said. "Blocking the river. I'll bet you anything it's positioned to cut off the power plant's intake sluices." When Pelinor looked at me blankly, I told him, "The generators need water to make electricity. That dam blocks the water... thereby shutting down the generators."

Beside Pelinor, the Caryatid's face had turned grave. "So the Sparks can't produce electricity. Whatever they use it for will stop working." Her hands gripped the guard rail tightly, as if she wanted to crush the metal in her fingers. "For some reason, I keep picturing a thousand shapeshifters like Jode held captive in an electric cage. The Sparks lock Lucifers there whenever they catch one... and the Keepers of Holy Lightning maintain the generator turbines to make sure the power never goes out. Is that possible, Phil?"

"An electric cage?" I thought about it... and I recalled the violet glow surrounding Dreamsinger's armor: a vicious energy barrier that could melt bullets. The armor's force field kept things out, but the same technology could surely lock captives in. "It's very possible," I said. "Is this just some scary notion that popped into your head? Or is it another sort of a prophecy kind of thing?"

"I don't know." The Caryatid's voice was weak and distant. "It's not my usual kind of premonition... but the image won't go away."

Pelinor took her hand and patted it. The rest of us averted our eyes to give them some privacy. Impervia muttered to Annah and me, "Much as I respect the Caryatid's premonitions, I have my doubts about this one. Spark Royal doesn't jail its enemies; it executes them. Keeping Lucifers alive is foolish, no matter how carefully you lock them up."

"But maybe," I said, "Spark Royal needs Lucifers for something. Or maybe the Sparks' alien masters don't want the Lucifers killed. If so, you couldn't keep a shapeshifter in a normal prison—you'd have to build some kind of energy confinement field."

"And everything else," murmured Annah, "the lights and music in this city—it's just a cover. The Sparks realized they couldn't keep the power station a secret: local people would know the place was in use. If nothing else, the intake sluices and outflow pipes must need maintenance from time to time; and you can't hide a bunch of workers playing around with giant underground plumbing. The Sparks pump a small ration of power to the public so people think they know what the generators are doing. But the real purpose of this station is to imprison Lucifers."

"Except," I said, "now the river is shut off." I waved toward the nearest streetlamp, still bright and undimmed. "There'll be power until the plant uses up the water in the intake pipes. Beyond that... if the Sparks are smart, their electric cage has emergency batteries to deal with a short power outage; but if the cage normally soaks up most of the energy from Niagara, it's going to burn out its batteries fast. Then the Lucifers will escape, and there'll be hell to pay."

"And we know who created that blasted dam," Impervia muttered.

"Sebastian and Jode," Pelinor said.

I thought he was answering Impervia; but when I glanced his way, he was looking down the road that led back to the center of town.

Two figures were walking toward us: a teenage boy and girl.


They walked hand in hand—bare hands, no gloves or mittens. The air around Sebastian must have been warming itself for his comfort. As for Jode, the Lucifer didn't seem bothered by anything so paltry as a late-winter chill.

Jode looked exactly like Rosalind; and I found it disquieting to watch the girl cuddle up to Sebastian when I'd seen her corpse the previous night. Appalling how lively she appeared—more animated than I'd ever seen the real Rosalind. This version was laughing at something Sebastian said, slapping his arm in mock offense, then nuzzling and kissing his ear.

Nothing like the melancholy girl I'd known.

It amazed me Sebastian couldn't sense something wrong. Every gesture this Rosalind made seemed false: the touching, the giggling, the giddy flirtation. Jode was laying it on thick; yet Sebastian returned every kiss and whisper. No matter how strong he might be with psionics—powerful enough to stop Niagara Falls—Sebastian was nothing more than a sixteen-year-old who could be exploited by his hormones. Jode had wedded him, bedded him, then brought the boy to the power station before the post-nuptial euphoria wore off.

They hadn't noticed us yet. Our group looked no different from other tourist parties, staring blankly into the gorge and wondering where the Falls went. We were also bundled up in coats, hats, and scarves, which would make us difficult to recognize in the dark. Jode was watching for trouble—in between attentive pats and snuggles, the faux Rosalind found excuses to turn her head this way and that, keeping a constant lookout—but even the Lucifer couldn't have guessed how many forces had converged on Niagara: Dreamsinger, the Ring of Knives, and of course, a small but determined band of teachers.

Not that we teachers amounted to much. We'd never even discussed a strategy for dealing with this situation. Violence certainly wouldn't work; if, for example, Impervia attacked Jode, Sebastian would immediately use his powers to protect his "Rosalind."

Our best hope was talking sense to the boy—and not just saying, "She isn't Rosalind." We had to prove Jode was evil.

A good place to start would be pointing out how destructive that big dam was. Whatever story Jode had invented, we could make Sebastian realize that his wall across the river would cause severe flooding. Upstream of the dam, water must be accumulating at a fearsome rate, spilling over the banks, deluging inhabited land. We had to make Sebastian care about the possibility of drowning people, animals, houses, farms; but at the moment, he was too busy kissing his beloved "Rosalind" to picture the consequences of what he'd done.

"I'll talk to Sebastian," I told the others in a low voice. "I know him best." I took a step toward the boy, but Pelinor grabbed my arm.

"Better let me do this," he said. "You're no fighter, Phil, and Jode might try some tricks."

"Then I should go," Impervia said.

Pelinor smiled. "Sorry, old girl, but you're not quite the right person for tactful discussion."

"And you are the right person?"

"I'm a knight," he said. "Fighting the foe and parlaying honorably. What I was born to do."

Without giving anyone else a chance to speak, he moved out into the roadway.


Pelinor planted himself directly in Sebastian's path. "Fine night, isn't it?" he said in a hearty voice. "Bit quiet all of a sudden."

Sebastian and Jode were ten paces away from the knight: twenty paces from the rest of us. The newlyweds stopped and stared; Sebastian just gaped, astonished that someone from the academy had tracked him down... but the Lucifer's eyes filled with hatred. Jode obviously knew who Pelinor was. As I'd suspected, the shapeshifter must have spied on our school, getting to know Sebastian and his teachers.

"We have to talk," Pelinor said. He kept his eyes on the boy, not even glancing at Jode. "Your girlfriend isn't—"

Jode screamed: drowning out the rest of Pelinor's words. The next moment the Lucifer hurtled forward—faster than the real Rosalind ever ran in her life. Metal flickered in the lamplight and I shouted, "Blade!" Jode had whipped out a sword from a sheath at its hip: a rapier, one of the weapons missing from the case in Sebastian's room. The weapon's point came up with inhuman speed, aiming for Pelinor's heart as the alien sprinted to close the gap.

If I'd been in Pelinor's place, I would have been skewered: caught flat-footed, numbly staring at the incoming blade. Even Pelinor didn't have time to draw a weapon of his own—but knight or border-guard, Pelinor was no stranger to sneak attacks. He twisted aside at the last instant, batting away the lethal tip of the rapier with his arm. Cloth ripped as the sword-point slit his coat-sleeve... but now he was inside the arc of the blade and relatively safe from being stabbed. The rapier was purely a piercing weapon, with no cutting edge to harm opponents close in.

Unfortunately, Jode wanted to be close in. Perhaps that had been Jode's plan—the Lucifer might have known Pelinor would evade the thrust and come within reach. Jode's body blocked Sebastian's view of its face; therefore, the boy didn't see the false Rosalind's features dissolve into a curdled white mess... as if the lips, the nose, the eyes, everything, had putrefied into maggots.

Pelinor grimaced with revulsion and retreated a step—still keeping up his arm to prevent a rapier strike, but distancing himself from the ooze of Jode's face. The Lucifer raised its other hand, the one not holding the sword... and I could see its fingers had been replaced by another mass of curds, a soft cream of white chunks. The gooey hand darted toward Pelinor's nose with a boxer's punch; but when Pelinor tried to deflect the blow, the alien's entire forearm spurted out of its coat-sleeve, like slime shot out of a hose.

It hit Pelinor full in the face: splashing across his cheeks and mustache, then flattening outward to cover every bit of exposed skin. Pelinor's hands came up, clawing in a frenzy to get the stuff off... but the fat moist chunks evaded his efforts, dodging from his grasp.

Beneath the damp white coating, Pelinor bellowed in anger and pain. The sound was muffled. Smothered. Choked.

Jode's puffy curd face quivered and refocused, once more shaping itself into the likeness of Rosalind. For a moment the alien leered at us as if to say, "You people are fools." Then it jumped backward, retreating enough that Sebastian finally got a view of Pelinor's scum-covered face. "I told you!" Jode said in Rosalind's voice. "It's not your teacher, it's a monster made by my mother's sorcerers. Just a bag of skin filled with pus. When I hit it, you see what happened. It went all gooshy."

Pelinor tried to object: to tell Sebastian the truth. The only noise that came out of his mouth was a suffocated mumble, broken off quickly... as if the curds had poured down his throat as soon as he opened his lips.

"Sebastian," I said, stepping forward, "you know who we are—"

"Don't listen, don't listen!" Jode-Rosalind screamed. "You can see they aren't real; they're just goo!" The Lucifer waved its sword toward Pelinor. It couldn't gesture with its other hand, because that hand was smeared across Pelinor's face—Jode's coat-sleeve dangled empty from the elbow down.

"Sebastian," I said again.

"Shut up!" the boy yelled. "Not another word or you're dead. Rosalind warned me her mother might try something like this... but it won't work. It won't."

"Yes," said Jode, smirking under Rosalind's face. "We're married now. Completely married." She waved the rapier in our direction. "My husband and I are going straight into Ring of Knives headquarters..." She gestured toward the generating station. "...and we're not going to let you monsters stop us from finding my mother. We're going to make her give us her blessing and promise to leave us alone."

"Ring of Knives headquarters?" Impervia said. "That's not—"

Jode cried, "You're talking. You were told not to talk. Sebastian, make it stop!"

Impervia flew off the ground, slammed back into the guard railing. For a moment, an invisible force threatened to throw her over the rail—propelling her out above the gorge until she plummeted to the rocks below. But the psionic shove ended as quickly as it began. Impervia slumped forward and dropped to her knees gasping. She was lucky she hadn't broken her spine when she hit the railing's metal bars... but she'd only had the wind knocked out of her.

"That was a warning," Sebastian said with exaggerated gruffness—a teenage boy, showing off his manliness for his sweetheart. "One more word, and you're gone." He glanced at Pelinor, now making strangled noises in his throat. "I know you aren't people; you're things. Stay out of our way and I'll leave you alone... but I won't let you keep us from confronting Rosalind's mother."

Jode smirked again, angling away from Sebastian so the boy wouldn't see. "Let's go," Jode said, sheathing its rapier. The Lucifer took Sebastian's arm with its good hand—the other sleeve was still half empty—and led him up the steps of the generating station.

If there were any booby-traps in the area, they didn't go off: Sebastian's nanite friends were on the job, deactivating trip-wires, defusing bombs. As the two reached the darkened entrance, Jode took a moment to look back at us all. The Lucifer's face was silently laughing.


Even before Sebastian and Jode disappeared into the station, the Caryatid was on the move: pulling a match from her pocket; striking it on the rusty metal guard rail; exerting her will to make the flame blossom as she hurried toward poor Pelinor. She could see there was no point just trying to scrape off the curds—Pelinor himself was raking his face with his fingers, but the curds had attached themselves as tight as lampreys. If Pelinor couldn't pluck them off, neither could the Caryatid... but fire might succeed where fingers failed.

Better to burn the man to blisters than let him suffocate in front of our eyes.

She reached Pelinor just as he toppled to his knees. Beneath the mask of curds, he was still making throaty noises; but they were growing more feeble and plaintive, no longer bellows but sobs. "Keep your head bent over," she said. "Lean forward so the stuff can't get down your throat."

I wanted to tell her the curds didn't just slide into his mouth by gravity—they crawled like hungry grubs wriggling toward his windpipe. Tilting Pelinor's head forward wouldn't stop them from climbing into his air passages. But this wasn't the time to distract the Caryatid with futile objections; she was concentrating hard on her match-flame, as if planting her entire consciousness into the tiny speck of fire. A moment later, the flame hopped off the match, touched down for an instant on Pelinor's shoulder, then plunged itself into the gelid morass on the man's face.

For a few seconds, I lost sight of the flame; its light dimmed and I heard a wet sizzle. The Caryatid made looping gestures with three fingers and muttered under her breath—one of the few times I'd ever seen her resort to actual abracadabra when commanding flame. The glow on Pelinor's face sputtered, then stabilized. More sizzling and hissing. A few curds fell burning to the roadway, spitting sparks as if they were comets. The choking in Pelinor's throat continued. An ugly gargle, its volume growing weaker.

The flame moved across Pelinor's face like the tip of a hot poker, selectively searing the largest patches of goo. The Caryatid had to crouch on hands and knees so she could see where to move the little fire... and even then, her control wasn't perfect. With a gush of smoke, Pelinor's mustache caught fire, blazing bright as it scorched the skin beneath. His lips blackened like charred wood; but neither he nor the Caryatid flinched.

Burned by the ignited mustache, more curds fell to the ground.

I'd been paying such close attention to Pelinor, I hadn't noticed Annah moving toward him. She appeared behind him now, kneeling to match his height and wrapping her arms around his stomach. Her gloved hands locked together at the level of his belt, then pulled in hard, scooping into his stomach: the OldTech maneuver to help choking victims, driving up into the diaphragm to force out air and clear the throat. I felt ashamed I hadn't thought to do it myself—inadequate Phil, still stupid in a crisis.

The push of wind up Pelinor's esophagus forced out a mouthful of maggoty white. I cringed as some of the spill fell on Annah, her arms still around Pelinor's stomach... but she was protected by her thick coat and gloves, the curds unable to reach her bare skin. I rushed to sweep the wet chunks away, brushing them off with my own gloves, wiping Pelinor's clothes too, then scraping myself free with a stone from the road. It seemed they couldn't lock onto our clothing—like leeches, they could attach themselves only to flesh.

Meanwhile, the Caryatid continued to singe off curds, raising a hideous stink of wet rot. She was doing her best to minimize damage to Pelinor's skin, but he was still a puckered red. Second-degree burns at least. His mustache was fully incinerated. The hair on his scalp had wizened to a crisp in a dozen places... and still the curds weren't gone. Gooey white oozed from Pelinor's nose and gleamed between his blistered lips—just like I'd seen on Rosalind.

Dead Rosalind.

Annah yanked up hard again, driving her joined hands into Pelinor's belly. More curds bulged out of his mouth; but they slithered back inside as soon as Annah released her squeeze. Again and again she went through the prescribed motion, scoop in, relax, scoop in, relax... but her very first compression had forced out as much gunk as she was going to get, and subsequent squeezes ejected no more. Pelinor's throat remained clogged—the blockage was too big to dislodge.

When Annah realized that, she let go of Pelinor and gestured at me. "You try." We traded positions and I jammed my hands into Pelinor's gut with every gram of strength I possessed. More curds squirted out of Pelinor's mouth... but not a titanic volley, just a coughing dribble. Not nearly enough to clear his windpipe.

I could picture a glistening mass of white clotted all the way down to his bronchial tubes. Each time I squeezed, the mass was pushed and the top part spilled into his mouth; but I couldn't crush in hard enough to push the whole squirming bulk out of his esophagus, and as soon as I let go, everything slid back down again.

"This isn't working," I said. "We have to think of something else."

"Get his mouth open," the Caryatid commanded.

Annah reached in to pull down Pelinor's jaw. Pelinor resisted, probably just out of instinct: by now, he couldn't have been thinking clearly. Beneath the flame-ravaged skin, his face had gone purple with suffocation; when I looked at the whites of his eyes, they were dotted with the same red petechiae pinpricks I'd seen on Rosalind's corpse. Tiny blood vessels burst by the exertion of trying to draw breath. Pelinor was straining so fiercely, I didn't think Annah could possibly get his mouth open—but a few seconds after she started to try, the rigidity slumped out of his body as he fell unconscious. Immediately, she flopped his jaw wide...

...and the Caryatid plunged the flame into his mouth.

The tiny ball of fire disappeared inside. From where I was kneeling, I couldn't see anything but a yellow-orange light shining out between his lips, the flame so bright it lit his cheeks from within. Smoke wisped out of his mouth and nose; I prayed it was only the ash of charred curds, but I was afraid some of the smoke came from Pelinor himself—his tongue and inner cheeks turning to cinder, maybe even the soft tissues of his throat. The Caryatid would be as cautious as possible, focusing the flame's heat only on the alien chunks that were filling Pelinor's air passages... but she was, after all, playing with fire, and it was Pelinor getting burned.

As the Caryatid worked, she talked in a voice I'd heard from time to time as I passed the door of her classroom. A teacher who reflexively explained everything she was doing, the way she'd talk students through a sorcery exercise. "I've started burning chunks of alien material in his mouth. The nuggets want to avoid the flame... they're crawling away from the heat... but after a few seconds' exposure, they stop moving and drop. Annah, could you sweep out the remains from the bottom of his mouth? Don't burn your glove on the flame. Good. Now"—she took a deep breath—"we'll start on the throat. Phil, I'll need you to squeeze his stomach. As tight as you can and don't let go. Do it."

I dug my grip into Pelinor's diaphragm. In my mind's eye, I imagined wet white nuggets being pushed up his esophagus into the flame. Burn, you bastards... every last one. More smoke billowed from Pelinor's mouth—rank-smelling stuff, like swamp rot. Annah swept out the dead debris. We were making progress.

As long as we didn't let ourselves think about what the flame was doing to Pelinor's windpipe.

Eventually, the Caryatid had to propel the fire so deep into Pelinor's throat she lost sight of it. I don't know if she lost control of the flame at that point; I don't know if she ever lost control at all. But even if she could direct the cauterizing heat wherever she wanted, she was operating blindly—as she looked into his mouth, all she could possibly see was a dim gleam shining past the blistered epiglottis. Yet she didn't dare reduce the strength of the flame, for fear it would gutter out amidst the moistness of the alien curds.

The end came quickly: a sudden eruption of blood from Pelinor's mouth, extinguishing the flame, splashing in torrents onto my hands where they were still wrapped around his abdomen. In the light of the streetlamps, the blood was bright red—arterial blood from the carotid. Inside Pelinor's neck, the Caryatid's flame had burned through the esophagus and seared into the major artery carrying blood to the brain. There was nothing we could do to stop the gusher; the rupture was deep down, out of sight, out of reach. Even if we could staunch the bleeding, pinch the artery shut, Pelinor's blood-starved brain would die within minutes.

So we watched the blood spill. Watched it gradually slow down. Watched Pelinor die in a pool of crimson and white.


By the time it was over, Impervia was kneeling on the roadway with the rest of us. Her breathing was ragged; being thrown against the guard rail may have broken a few more ribs. But she still had plenty of breath to say prayers for our dying friend. Tears slid down her cheeks as she asked God to have mercy on Pelinor, sword-sworn knight, Christ's beloved son. A man fallen for a righteous cause, called to this mission by heaven itself.

Impervia wasn't the only one weeping. Annah and I had tears in our eyes... but the Caryatid's face was as hard as a gravestone. I longed to tell her it wasn't her fault; if she hadn't tried to burn away the curds, Pelinor would surely have choked to death. What she'd done was the only chance Pelinor had.

But my mouth refused to speak. None of us seemed able to do more than mumble prayers. The look on the Caryatid's face said she didn't want to hear anyone say, "You did your best."

She waited only until Impervia said, "Amen." Then the Caryatid stood up, wiping her hands (damp with Pelinor's blood) on her crimson gown.

"We're going in now," she said. "We're going to burn that demon in the fires of hell."

For a moment, nobody spoke. Then Impervia said again, "Amen."

Together we headed up the steps of the generating station... and if any one of us looked back at Pelinor crumpled in the roadway, it wasn't the Steel Caryatid.



The station's front door stood open—left that way by Jode or Sebastian. No bombs went off as we climbed the steps, no spikes shot out as we entered; whatever defenses might have been here, they'd been swept away by nanotech brooms.

The inner lobby was resplendent with carved marble: a massive alabaster reception desk, a wide ascending stairway behind it, doors going off in several directions. I recalled that the station had been built in the 1890s... a time when OldTech culture admired stolid geological décor, before tastes mutated to glass and steel and chrome. This room, this whole building, smelled of stone—stone kept damp by the perennial mist blowing off the Falls.

Not so perennial now.

All but one of the doors off the lobby were closed. The exception was immediately to our right, a door left ajar with dirty wet footprints leading up to it. If Jode and Sebastian (or their muddy boots) continued to leave such an obvious trail, we could track them all the way to the generators.

How convenient. Considering how flagrantly Jode had taunted us, did the shapeshifter want us to follow? Perhaps into a trap? If the Keepers of Holy Lightning had laid nasty surprises along the route to the subterranean machine room, Jode might persuade Sebastian to deactivate everything as they went through, then reactivate the devices behind them. But that didn't sound like Jode's style; I suspected the Lucifer liked to see the mayhem it caused. It wouldn't set a bomb unless it could watch the explosion.

In which case, our group might have clear sailing all the way to the generating room. Jode couldn't waste time tormenting us small fry. The Lucifer had more pressing priorities—perhaps, as the Caryatid suggested, freeing a group of its fellows from an electric cage—and Jode couldn't afford to dally before the mission was accomplished. After the jail break, then... then...

I had an unpleasant thought. What if Jode was deliberately making it easy for us to follow? What if Jode intended us to make it safely to the electric cage so some newly escaped Lucifers could use us as playthings? Or as lunch? I opened my mouth to suggest this to my companions... then changed my mind. The others knew we were walking into a trap—Dreamsinger's trap, Jode's trap, somebody's trap—and my friends weren't running away.

I wasn't running either. Not with Pelinor and Myoko dead. And when Impervia kicked open the door ahead of us, when the Caryatid sent a fist-size fireball flaming forward to light our way (and perhaps scorch the smile off anyone lurking on the other side)... I didn't wince at the commotion.

We were going in. All the way.


Down a short corridor to a pair of metal doors: two elevators, side by side. I'd read about elevators but I'd never seen one till the first time I visited Niagara. All the local hotels had them. Many visitors spent hours riding up and down; some people preferred the glassed-in variety that showed the world outside, while others liked the spooky chill of not being able to see, just moving blindly until the doors opened and you found yourself thirty stories higher than where you started.

The elevators before us were the closed-in type, traveling through pitch-dark shafts. I could tell this because one of the doors had been ripped from its frame, leaving nothing but a hole and a very long drop.

I peeped cautiously into the shaft, taking a good look up and down. No threats were immediately visible. Two bundles of cables dangled in front of me, one for each elevator car, side by side in the same shaft; but even with the Caryatid's fireball lighting our view, I couldn't see the cars themselves. I could see up to the top of the shafts, the lift mechanisms glowering in the shadows three stories above me... so neither car was on an upper floor. Both had to be in the blackness below.

When I thought about it, I decided the cars must be on the bottommost level; it made sense for the Keepers to lock the elevators down there so intruders would have a harder time reaching the generator room. Not that such tactics would slow down Sebastian—he'd ripped the one door open, and for all I knew, he'd summoned his nanite chums to carry him and "Rosalind" down the shaft, like feathers floating on the wind. Too bad our group couldn't do the same; but since none of us could fly, we needed a practical alternative.

On the far side of the elevator shaft, a ladder was embedded in the concrete, running as far as I could see both up and down—no doubt used by workers when the elevators needed maintenance. I didn't relish a climb down umpteen stories, with the very real possibility of running into booby-traps set by the Keepers... but what other choice did we have?

Impervia answered that question by jumping into the shaft and catching the nearest bundle of cables. The bundle had four cables side by side, all in a line with a fist's distance between adjacent ones... like four strings on a harp, except that the cables were each as thick as my arm. Impervia had no trouble grabbing two of the four with her hands and jamming her feet between adjacent pairs for extra support. The cables were taut but not totally unyielding; they pinched her boots with what looked like a strong (but not painful) squeeze.

"How is it?" the Caryatid called to Impervia. "Can you just slide down?"

Impervia freed her feet, loosened her grip, and tested to see how far she slid. After only a few centimeters, she stopped and shook her head. "The wires aren't smooth—they're prickly with rust. If you tried to slide far, the friction would rip your gloves, then start on your fingers."

The Caryatid made a face. "Then I'll have to use the ladder. I'm not strong enough to clamber hand over hand down a few dozen stories."

"The ladder might not be safe," I said. "It's such an obvious way down, the Keepers might have booby-trapped it. A loose rung... a trip wire... there are lots of possibilities. But I don't think they could booby-trap the cables—too much chance of damaging the elevators."

"I can't manage the cables," the Caryatid replied. She held out her arms as if showing off her roly-poly little body. "I know my limitations; by God, I know my limitations. Even the ladder will be a challenge."

"Don't worry," Annah said. "I can climb down the cables ahead of everyone and check that the ladder's safe. I have a good eye for traps."

"You do?" The Caryatid looked dubious. So did Impervia.

"I, uhh... my family..." She stopped, glancing nervously in my direction.

"Your family is much like the Ring of Knives," I said. "In similar lines of business."

"You knew?"

"I guessed." I'd guessed from the way she'd talked about criminals after we found Rosalind's body. I wish I didn't believe you—that there aren't people vicious enough to kill an innocent girl just to hurt her mother. But I know all too well... How did she know all too well? And how had she acquired her uncanny knack for blending into darkness? Or her clever little mirror for seeing around corners? "You were a sort of Artful Dodger?" I asked.

Annah nodded. "It runs in the family. My Uncle Howdiri still claims to be the best thief ever to come out of Calcutta. Which is saying a great deal. I was raised in the same tradition and everyone said I was good... but I was also good at singing, and my father had ambitions of using me to become respectable. I was supposed to make myself the toast of the upper classes, then introduce my father into their circles. He had the money, he just didn't have the respect."

She gave a bitter laugh. "Like most social-climbers, my father was naïve. About gaining other people's acceptance. Also about the quality of my singing. But by the time it became obvious I didn't have star quality, he'd bought me enough music education to spoil me for a life of crime. Or so I convinced him. Believe it or not, he was thrilled when I became musicmaster at the academy; now I'm rubbing shoulders with dukes and princes, so he thinks there's a chance..." She shook her head and gave another humorless laugh. "Anyway. I'm not in Uncle Howdiri's league, but I survived several years of breaking into some very well-protected estates. I can do this."

Annah looked around at the rest of us. Her face was timid, hopeful, defiant. The Caryatid met her gaze with a smile. Impervia didn't go that far, but showed no hostility either—our holy sister wouldn't tolerate present-day faults, but she never held your past or your family against you. I could attest to that. If Annah had once been a thief as a child... well, she wasn't a thief now, and that's all Impervia cared about.

I took Annah's hand and squeezed it. "No problem. We're glad you're here."

Annah gave a brilliant smile, then leapt out to join Impervia on the cables. She began to shinny downward as if she did this kind of thing every day.


The Caryatid split her fireball in two: half for herself, half for Annah. We descended slowly, with Annah leaning out from the cables and scanning the ladder rung by rung in search of unwelcome surprises. After only thirty seconds, she called, "Stop!"

Annah gestured for the light to move closer. The fireball complied. Higher on the cables, Impervia let herself dangle near the ladder for a better look. "What is it?"

"A trip wire." Annah pointed to the ladder. "Set a few millimeters above this rung. You wouldn't see it till you stepped on it; then... I don't know what would happen, but I'm sure we wouldn't like it."

"Looks like the wire is broken," Impervia said. The Caryatid and I were trying to see, but we were much too high on the ladder to have a good view.

"It's not a break," Annah said. "The wire's melted in the middle, as if it got touched with something hot. Don't ask me how you could do that without setting off the trap."

"Sebastian could do it," I said. "The boy's powers let him do practically anything."

"Would Sebastian have to know the trap was there?" Annah asked. "Or would he just, uhh, ask the world to disarm every threat in the area."

"Probably a general order," I said. "The way his powers work, I don't think he pays a lot of attention to details. He doesn't have to."

"Then we're in luck," the Caryatid said. "Sebastian probably cleared every trap in the shaft with a single command."

"Probably," I agreed. "Let's hope Jode didn't ask him to reactivate a few, just to keep us on our toes."

But as we continued down the shaft, Annah found nothing but severed wires, smashed-in pressure plates, and molten messes which looked as if they'd once been electronic. Sebastian's nanite friends had done a thorough job of eliminating dangers... which meant we made our way without incident, descending story after story until we came within sight of the bottom.

As expected, both elevator cars had been locked in place on the lowest level. That might have put us in a quandary—how to get into the cars or past them so we could reach the floor itself—but Sebastian and Jode had solved that problem for us by blowing out the entire shaft wall just above the elevator doors.

It must have been a massive explosion. The wall was poured concrete, reinforced with embedded steel rods. The edges of the concrete were charred black; the ends of the rods were half-melted blobs.

Annah, leading the way, peeked through the wall's ragged hole. She quickly pulled her head back again.

"What do you see?" Impervia whispered.

"Bodies." Annah took a breath to settle herself. "I think they were Keepers; they're wearing brown robes like monks. The Keepers had set up a reception party outside the elevators—plenty of guns, fancy ones, not ordinary firearms—and I suppose they intended to shoot as soon as the elevator doors opened. But the doors didn't open; the wall blew out on top of them like an avalanche. The Keepers didn't have a chance."

"Stupid of them," Impervia said. "They should have positioned themselves farther back. Given themselves plenty of safety range."

Annah shook her head. "They didn't have enough room. When the OldTechs built this place, they didn't think to put in a proper kill-zone."

Impervia tsked her tongue at such lack of foresight. I decided it was pointless to mention this plant had been a commercial installation, not a military one; Impervia wouldn't have understood the distinction.

Instead, I continued down the ladder until I could see the carnage for myself. The room in front of me was lit with electric lights, very bright after the darkness of the elevator shaft. The place looked like a formal reception area, a spot where visiting dignitaries might gather before a tour of the generating machinery: high-ceilinged, with an ample supply of plush chairs and sofas. At one time, the furniture must have been spaced around the room... but now it was all drawn up in a barricade near the far wall. The Keepers had hidden behind that line, waiting to open fire. Unfortunately for them, their defenses had been no match for exploding rubble—heavy chunks of masonry had blasted out of the wall, smashing through chairs and couches, crushing the people behind. Male and female Keepers lay bleeding beside the barrier, most with fragments of concrete piercing their skulls.

"Jode must have known they'd be waiting here," the Caryatid said.

"Either that," I said, "or Sebastian just looked through the wall and saw them." I thought about nanites filling the air—ready to transmit remote images into the boy's brain whenever he requested. "If Jode asked, 'What's ahead of us?' Sebastian could easily find out."

Annah frowned. "If Sebastian knew people were out here, would he really cause an explosion to kill them all?"

"Why not?" Impervia asked. "Jode has convinced the boy this building is headquarters for the Ring of Knives. Filled with vicious criminals, and commanded by Rosalind's evil mother who wants to interfere with true love. Then, what does Sebastian see when he gets here? People with guns, ready to shoot first and ask questions later."

"Don't forget," I added, "Myoko constantly warned Sebastian about groups like the Ring. She believed all such organizations enslaved psychics; she'd have told the boy he mustn't pull his punches if he ever fought them. Be ruthless, show no mercy—you know how Myoko talked. So even without Jode urging him on, Sebastian would be inclined to rip through anyone who stood in his way."

"He wouldn't listen to Pelinor," Impervia pointed out. "And he won't listen to us the next time we meet him. He thinks we're doppelgängers working for Rosalind's mother. Bags of skin filled with pus."

The Caryatid gave a soft sound that might have been a growl. "We'll show him it's Jode who fits that description. Let's get moving."


Annah went first, still on the lookout for traps. She stepped down to the roof of an elevator car and walked to the hole in the wall. Since the hole was more than two meters above the next room's floor, Annah seated herself on the edge of the broken concrete, then turned and lowered herself as far as she could, hanging on to the lip of the hole with her hands. She still had to drop the last half meter: landing without a sound, her black cloak billowing.

That's when the Keeper stirred and lifted his gun.

It was a young man, plump and bald, with blood smearing his face from where his left eye had been pulped by hurtling debris. He must have been knocked out by the initial blast, then left for dead by Jode and Sebastian. When he woke again, his first thought was to fire on the closest target: Annah. Maybe he was so dedicated to the Holy Lightning, he wanted to spend his last breath destroying what he believed was an intruder; maybe he just wanted to make someone pay for his ruined eye; maybe he was so dazed, he didn't know what he was doing. But he hadn't lost his weapon when the wall blew out on top of him. All he had to do was raise the muzzle.

I shouted to Annah, "Down, down, down!" The Keeper fired before I howled the second, "Down!" but I kept yelling, unable to stop myself.

Annah began to drop flat to the floor... then all hell broke loose.

The Keeper's weapon was an Element gun—a four-barreled monster of overkill invented by Spark Royal. The guns were rare, but my grandmother had received one as a gift the day she was anointed as governor. She'd let me examine it many years later: a big chunky rifle with four barrels arranged in a diamond, one for each of the classical Greek elements.

Earth: ordinary lead slugs, shot at high-velocity.

Fire: a gout of burning gas like a mini-flamethrower.

Air: a focused hypersonic barrage, causing no serious damage but able to knock out a charging rhino for hours.

Water: a stream of acid, corrosive enough to eat through steel.

Element guns were versatile weapons that could harmlessly subdue a single target or incinerate a mob. The guns had their limitations: they were brutally heavy, they couldn't be reloaded except by the Sparks, and you had only a few shots on any one setting. Still, if you liked a lot of options for wanton destruction, an Element gun fit the bill. You could fire each barrel separately, or mix and match to tailor your attack to your target.

The Keeper fired all four barrels at Annah. Simultaneously. The resulting blast was a pandemonium of light and sound, a blare of pure chaos that lasted only a fraction of a second; but in my mind's eye, it seemed to break into distinct pieces that each lasted forever.

I imagined the bullets reaching her first: an eruption of lead traveling faster than sound. Since she'd been diving forward, facing the shooter, the slugs would hit her in the head, the shoulders, and chest.

The hypersonics would arrive next. It was the same kind of attack Opal had talked about—the pistol she'd been carrying in the tobacco field. It hadn't affected the Lucifer, but I prayed it would work on Annah: frazzling her nervous system, hammering her into merciful unconsciousness so she couldn't feel the horrors to come.

Then fire. A flammable gas, something that blazed bright orange, pouring in a burning jet. Igniting her clothes, her hair, her beautiful skin.

Finally, the acid, its spray traveling slower than bullets, sound, and fire. Acid splashing onto the flames. I couldn't tell whether the acid would burn off harmlessly, or if the heat would make it work that much faster: disintegrating what was left of Annah's corpse.

Annah's corpse.

Then it was all over. The Keeper toppled forward across the furniture barricade, smoke pouring off his body. The gun clattered from his hands. Impervia leapt to the floor as if there was something she could do for Annah, but I remained frozen where I was.

The Caryatid slumped beside me. Her face was damp; not tears, but perspiration. "Ugh," she said. "Let's not do that again."

I stared at her, shocked at her lack of feeling for Annah. Before I could speak, something fluttered down in the room: Impervia had just kicked Annah's cloak and a few more pieces of clothing halfway across the floor. "Get down here, Phil!" Impervia snapped. "We need your first aid kit."


I leaned over the edge of the hole. Lying tight against the wall was Annah, stripped to her underwear and blood drenching her left arm, but still very much alive.

She looked at me and smiled. "Keepers might be good with electrical things, but they sure are lousy shots."


I held her in my arms as Impervia bandaged Annah's only wound: a bullet had passed in and out of her left biceps muscle, missing the bone and all major blood vessels. As she'd said, the Keeper had been a lousy shot—not too surprising for a man who'd lost one eye and was dazed from being battered unconscious. All but one of the bullets had gone wild, and the hypersonic stun-wave was off target too.

Annah would still have been cremated by the flamethrower if not for quick work by the Caryatid—our mistress of fire had redirected the blaze back at the shooter before Annah was hit. (Good-bye, poor misguided Keeper.) That left only the acid, also badly aimed; Annah's thick winter outfit protected her from the caustic splash, and she'd managed to peel off her clothes before the corrosive fluids ate through to her flesh. (Smoke still rose from the discarded bundle of cloth. Her long parka was pocked through with holes, as if chewed by huge moths. The black cloak that let her vanish in the dark had vanished itself—totally consumed by the ravaging chemicals.)

But Annah was safe. Shot, yes, and trying not to wince as Impervia wrapped bright white bandages around her dark arm; but when I considered the alternative...

I held her tightly and lowered my face against the top of her head. I didn't cry; I just breathed in the warm fragrance of her hair.


"Phil... Phil!" The Caryatid was shaking my shoulder. "We have to get going right now."

"Can't we let Annah rest—"

"No," the Caryatid interrupted. "I heard voices up the elevator shaft. They're whispering, but the shaft carries echoes a long way."

"Probably the Ring of Knives," Impervia said. "No doubt, Mother Tzekich has been running around Niagara Falls, asking at every hotel if they've seen Sebastian and her daughter. She must have found someone who saw the two heading this way."

Either that, I thought, or Tzekich noticed the Falls had stopped flowing and came to investigate. She'd have seen Pelinor's body in the roadway, immediately in front of the power plant. After that, it was just a matter of following our tracks.

Annah put her hand on my cheek. She was bandaged now—looking painfully vulnerable in nothing but underwear, and probably weak from blood loss—but her smile was genuine. "We have to go before they get here. I'm strong enough. Really."

I helped her to her feet. As I did, Impervia slipped off her own winter coat and draped it around Annah's shoulders. "No," I said, "I'll give her my coat."

"She's already got mine," Impervia said. "I don't need it—this place is heated. Anyway, a coat will only slow me down if the time comes for... punishing the wicked."

Impervia smacked her right fist into her left palm. I stifled a laugh. In the past twenty-four hours, Impervia had been kicked by fishermen, gut-punched by Hump, kicked by Zunctweed, tossed around by Sebastian... and still she was looking for a fight.

Annah whispered softly in my ear, "That's what happens to some people when they take a vow of celibacy."

When I stifled the laugh this time, I nearly hurt myself.


I kept my arm around Annah as we moved forward; I don't know if she really needed my support, but she didn't push me away.

As we passed the fallen Keepers, Annah suddenly stopped. I thought she just needed to rest—but she bent down and pried an Element gun from its dead owner's grip.

"You want one too?" she asked.

Thinking of Pelinor and Myoko, I nodded. This was not just a quest; this was war.



A single door led forward. It had once been equipped with a fancy electronic lock connected to a keypad. Half the keypad was missing now, along with a chunk of the door frame. Sebastian hadn't wasted time on delicacy.

Beyond lay a short corridor with a door in each side wall and another at the far end. All three doors had been blown off their hinges.

The side doorways opened into locker rooms where the plant's OldTech personnel had changed from street clothes into whatever work-suits they wore on the job. The lockers had been knocked helter-skelter, some tossed against the walls, others cracked open like eggs. I wondered if Sebastian had smashed around the lockers just to show he could... or because he'd begun to like pointless mayhem.

Our friend Caryatid had also developed a liking for displays of mystical force. Before this business started, I'd never seen her juggle flames any larger than a big candle—but now she'd built a blaze the size of a cow's head, floating in front of us at chest height and pouring out heat like a furnace. No one dared step within five paces of it... no one except the Caryatid, whose face glistened with heat-sweat. She barely seemed to notice; she and her flameball just plowed ahead toward the next smashed-in doorway.

The entrance to the main machine room.

The place was as big as the academy's main building: a single chamber more than four stories high and a hundred meters square, its ceiling supported by dozens of pillars. The walls and floors were painted kelp-green; they tinted the space like a sea-grotto, ripe and weedy. In OldTech times, the place must have been brightly lit—bank upon bank of fluorescent fixtures hung from the roof, with multiple light-tubes in each fixture. But the days were long gone when such tubes could be mass-produced. Three-quarters of the fixtures had no light at all, and the remainder each only held a single long bulb. The result was an oceanic dimness, a full-fathom-five gloom filled with shadows.

Most of the shadows came from huge turbines held down by massive bolts that passed through the plastic floor and down into firmer footings below... possibly all the way to bedrock. The turbines were great hulking things with monstrous cooling fans, the actual turbine blades unseen under thick metal hoods. Water from the Falls ran through pipes beneath the false floor, rushing through the turbines and out again to the river. I had the impression this place should be deafeningly loud—roaring water, spinning metal, whirling fans—but the room had gone lethally silent. With the Falls dammed up, the tumult was suspended.

We could see no movement. No one was close to the door we'd just entered, and our view farther in was blocked by the ponderous machinery. A single corpse lay halfway between us and the nearest turbine: a middle-aged woman in brown Keeper's habit, facedown with a spill of moist white nuggets puddled on the floor beneath her. After choking her, the white goo had dribbled out of her mouth. The Caryatid dispatched a fireball to incinerate the alien curds; they burned with a hissing splutter, the only sound in the whole cavernous space.

Impervia turned to the rest of us and mouthed, Wait; listen. Annah and I obeyed. The Caryatid didn't. She gave her flames a moment to finish charring the last of the curds (filling the air with the smell of meat as the Keeper's face roasted), then she and her fireball moved forward. We hurried after her, fanning out so we weren't easy fodder for a single burst from an Element gun. Even Annah moved off on her own, wearing Impervia's too-big coat and cradling the Element gun in her arms. When I tried to tag along behind her, she waved me off: all her concentration was focused on the room before us, eyes and ears straining for any sign of trouble.

So we moved forward—like a platoon in enemy territory, walking silently in a line between trees. In our case, the "trees" were giant steel generators, two stories tall, their cooling fans motionless. The sparse lighting proved the station still had power, but it must have been coming from batteries; the turbines had all run dry.

With so many individual turbines and so many pillars holding up the roof, the Keepers would have had plenty of places to hide for an ambush; but apart from the single corpse, there was no one left in the room. After a while, I realized the Keepers must want to avoid a firelight in the midst of their machinery: Element guns could damage the generators, or even bring down the ceiling. That would be disastrous, especially since this equipment was virtually irreplaceable—the turbines were OldTech originals, bearing the names of defunct manufacturers, covered with a hundred coats of paint, jury-rigged with patch-wires, emergency welds, and other obvious repairs to squeeze a few more years from antique rust-heaps. A battle in this room might put the final nail in the coffin of machines that were ready to be junked anyway.

How long before this whole place ground to a halt from its own obsolescence? A few years, no more. If Jode had possessed any patience, the blasted Lucifer could have sat back and waited for this plant to stop on its own.

But that wasn't Jode's way. A passive approach wouldn't produce nearly enough death and suffering.

I tightened my grip on the Element gun and continued forward.


The far end of the chamber held another doorway... or rather a hole knocked into the room's original wall. This wasn't the work of Sebastian—this hole had clean edges painted the same green as the rest of the place. I suspected the hole had been dug when the Sparks took over the power plant, whenever that was.

The opening was three paces wide and the same distance high, hidden from other parts of the room by nearby turbines. I appreciated the concealment. The Ring of Knives were somewhere to our rear; by now, they must have picked up Element guns of their own, plucked from the hands of dead Keepers. Our only protection was staying out of sight: scuttling into the hole in front of us before Elizabeth Tzekich could catch up. I had the strong suspicion we were retreating down a dead-end passage... but staying put was certain suicide.

Jode and Sebastian were somewhere ahead. No doubt Dreamsinger was too—since she hadn't joined the ambush at the elevator or taken a stand to prevent Jode from reaching the generator room, she must be farther on, protecting something even more important. An electric cage full of Lucifers? I didn't know... but I'd soon find out.

The hole in the wall led to a tunnel dug into Niagara bedrock—limestone, cold and gray. Rubber-coated cables as thick as my arm had been strung down the tunnel: dozens of them lined the walls, spaced a hand's breadth apart and fastened to the rock on ceramic insulator mounts. They obviously fed power from the turbines to whatever lay ahead... and when the electricity was actually flowing, this tunnel must have been saturated with an awesome magnetic field induced by the inevitable fluctuations in so much current. I didn't want to think what would happen to a living creature who wandered into the corridor while most of the energy of Niagara Falls coursed through such a small area. Is there such a thing as death by magnetism?

Now, however, the power was dead. Not just because the Falls were shut off: each of the electric cables had been severed cleanly near the mouth of the tunnel... thick strands of copper sliced as easily as if they were melted cheese. It had to be Sebastian's work—even if the Falls resumed their flow, the power lines wouldn't be repaired any time soon.

The tunnel had no built-in lights, so we were forced to depend on the Caryatid's fireball—like Moses and the children of Israel guided by flame through the desert night. The fireball's blaze would give us away to anyone watching from farther up the tunnel... but I was willing to take that risk. My nerves were too frayed to creep through pitch blackness into the mouth of heaven-knows-what.

Anyway, the people watching from farther up the tunnel turned out to be dead.

The first indication was the barrel of an Element gun dangling limply from a slit in the tunnel wall. A hand was attached to the trigger, but no person attached to the hand. When I peeked through the slit, I saw the remains of the shooter, but couldn't tell whether the corpse was male or female, young or old.

The body had been compressed to a bloody mass the size of a roast turkey. Its top still showed dark curly hair; near the bottom was a recognizable toe; but in between lay nothing except a mangle of flesh and robes, with slivers of bone sticking out at sharp angles. I could only conjecture that the air had closed around the gunner like a giant fist, then pressure had been applied down on the head, up on the feet, until the whole body was crushed into a ball.

Blood had squirted like juice from a squeezed tomato. Death must have been quick and loud. I could almost hear the crunching of bones still echoing through the tunnel.

And the wall had many more slits... with many more balled-up corpses. This was the kill-zone Annah had expected earlier: a shooting gallery where Keepers could massacre anyone coming up the tunnel. Gun-slits ran along both walls, offset from each other so there was little chance of the defenders on the left accidentally shooting the ones on the right. The crossfire would have been devastating. Any conventional invader would be stopped right here, bathed in bullets, fire, and acid.

But the people behind the gun-slits had no protection against psionics. Sebastian talked to his nanite friends... and the Keepers' resistance had literally been crushed.


The tunnel extended another hundred meters. Its smell grew foul: blood and feces from the dead. A few more hours and the unventilated tunnel would be a nightmare of putrid gases; an open flame like the Caryatid's fireball would surely set off an explosion. For the moment, though, the bodies were fresh enough that they didn't constitute a danger—just a cloying stink that made my gorge rise.

I was therefore glad when I saw light ahead—even though it meant we were approaching the final hell. One way or another, this would soon be over. Sebastian, Jode, Dreamsinger, and the Ring had all drawn together... with us in the middle.

End of the line. End of the quest. I was drained enough to be happy it had finally arrived.


The Caryatid gestured for her fireball to stay back so we could approach the tunnel mouth without attracting attention. Deep breaths all around... then we silently padded forward.

The final chamber looked almost as big as the generator room, but lit more dimly: with a faint violet glow like a guttering candle-flame inside tinted glass. The light didn't come from bulbs overhead; it trickled from the middle of the room, barely strong enough to reach the rock-hewn walls.

Hush, hush, moving slowly: the Caryatid and Impervia stuck close to the right hand wall of the tunnel, while Annah and I took the left. We advanced until we could see the source of the light.

The Caryatid's "feeling" had been right. The power plant's secret was a prison: a perfect cube, twenty by twenty by twenty meters, raised slightly off the floor. Its edges were sharp strands of violet light—so straight they had to be OldTech lasers, their beams crisp but with a grainy texture. Where the beams met at each corner, a small box of glass and chrome floated in the air... not suspended on wires or poles, but simply hovering as if supported by the light rays themselves. I suspected those boxes were the source of the lasers, each little machine projecting the light in razor-fine lines to the three adjacent corners. The faces of the cube, framed by violet, looked perfectly transparent—nothing there, as if you could simply step over the nearest edge-beam and into the cube's interior. I knew that couldn't be true. A prison is still a prison, even if you can't see the walls.

Inside that prison cage loomed a shapeless black bulk: a mound as big as a house, its surface like coal dust in the lasers' violet glow. As we watched, a ripple went through the heap, like a shiver in a horse's flank. It made a sandy sound... as if the mass before us was constructed of small dry grains rasping against each other with the motion. One could almost mistake the thing for a dark lifeless dune, and the ripple we'd seen no more than the drifting effect of an errant breeze; but there was no breeze so deep underground, and the mound radiated a brooding intelligence that pressed against my skull.

The thing in the cage was a living creature. And it was watching us.

This was what Jode had come to release. An old-style un-mutated Lucifer, of the kind Opal met in the tobacco field: dark and dry "like gunpowder" she'd said. And like gunpowder, this huge mound had dangerous explosive potential. It was a giant of Jode's kind: perhaps a hive mother, a queen that could spawn thousands of shapeshifting young.

But the creature in the cage wasn't only a pile of dark grains. Dozens of incongruous objects protruded from its surface, like animal bones jutting out of desert sand. I saw long glass tubes; lumps of metal; cards of green plastic with wires embedded; and frosted white pustules that resembled lightbulbs.

Lightbulbs. Like the live ones in Niagara's hotels, or the burnt-out rejects in souvenir shops. They bulged profusely from the dusty mass, as if the monster was a garish casino marquee that had just been turned off. Was the caged Lucifer eating the bulbs... or was it extruding them? Producing them.

Could Jode and its alien kind do more than mimic other people and things? Could they actually create such objects for real?

In our journey through the generating station, we'd seen no other facilities for high-tech manufacturing: nowhere the Keepers could make bulbs, appliances, or any of the other electrical goods in use throughout the tourist areas. We hadn't searched the whole plant... but looking at the caged alien, I knew we didn't have to. This creature was the source of Niagara's largesse. The Keepers must feed it a diet of metal scraps, hydrocarbons, and whatever other components were needed as raw materials; then the monster's unearthly biochemistry somehow assembled the basic elements into complex electrical devices.

One had to admire Spark Royal's efficiency—why let a prisoner loaf in idleness, when your captive could be put to work?

On the other hand, who'd be crazy enough to enter that cage and retrieve the beast's creations? No one was that desperate for lightbulbs. And at first glance, I couldn't see any way to enter the cube unless you turned off the laser barrier... a terrible idea, even if you only shut down the beams for an instant. What kind of fool would risk freeing a gigantic Lucifer, just so hotels could play bad OldTech music?

I was so distracted staring at the thing in the cage that many long seconds passed before I realized there was no one else visible in the room. No Sebastian, no false Rosalind, no Dreamsinger. I leaned my head out of the tunnel mouth to get a better view. There were open entrances on either side of the tunnel, leading into the two recesses where the Keepers had died at their gun-slits; but those were the only side-rooms and they contained nothing but corpses.

Our quarry had to be on the far side of the cage. Anyone over there would be hidden from us by the great pile of gunpowder dust. I glanced at Impervia and the Caryatid; they were looking at Annah and me with grim expressions on their faces. Ready? Impervia mouthed.

Annah and I nodded. Together, we four crept into the room.


The creature in the cage took no notice of our presence... no more than the occasional shiver across its powdery surface. I assumed it could see us, despite its lack of eyes; it could probably hear us and smell us too. But it showed no sign of caring as we entered the room—it just lay silent, watching.

Waiting till the lasers died from lack of power.

The cables coming out of the tunnel fanned out around the rocky walls of the chamber, circling the perimeter of the room and converging again on the other side of the cage. Because of the alien blocking our view, we couldn't see where the cables rejoined; but I assumed they connected to some machine on the far side, thereby feeding power to the lasers. The lasers were now subsisting on battery power... and I dearly hoped the batteries wouldn't fail as we were tiptoeing past the cage.

Impervia led, followed by the Caryatid and her fireball. Annah and I trailed behind; she walked with her finger on her Element gun's trigger, ready to fire at a moment's notice. I had my gun ready too... and I'd set the weapon to shoot all four barrels at once. Bullets, fire, acid, sound: tonight there was no such thing as overkill.

As we moved forward, Impervia drew her knife—not a fighting weapon, but just a jack-knife she carried for cutting tough meat and trimming candlewicks. I wondered what good that would do against Jode... but I decided she'd pulled out the blade more to bolster her spirits than to use in battle.

Unless she intended to slit her own throat if things got too rough. Magdalenes considered unwarranted suicide a mortal sin... but when death was truly inevitable, they approved of flamboyant gestures that robbed their enemies of complete victory.

Better to stab your own heart than allow an infidel to do it.


At last we reached a point where we could see behind the giant Lucifer. The electric cables from the turbines hooked up to a device that had to be the main controller for the laser cage. It was bigger than I expected: a box of black metal and plastic the size of a privy-shack. The box even had doors—one opening out into the cavern and another into the prison cube. Looking at it, I realized the shack was more than just a machine that controlled the lasers; it served as a sort of airlock that would let Keepers enter the cage to retrieve the lightbulbs and other things produced by the captive beast.

Again I shuddered at the idea of harvesting electric gadgets from the monster's dust-body. What prevented the Lucifer from devouring any Keeper who entered the cage? Or even worse, from planting black grains in the Keeper's robes, in the lightbulbs, in the toasters, smuggling bits of itself to freedom? But the Sparks would undoubtedly be prepared for such attempts. Anyone passing through that airlock shack must surely be scanned by both science and sorcery. Any nuggets of Lucifer trying to escape would be detected and eliminated.

As long as electricity kept flowing through the cables. Now that the power was cut, the small airlock shack might be a death chamber.

Standing by the door of that shack, his back pressed against it, was Sebastian Shore. We saw him as soon as we came around the edge of the cage—the boy leaned back like a man with nothing to fear, even if the door fell open and dropped him into the prison cube.

In his arms a girl snuggled against his shoulder, her lips nuzzling his neck. But the girl didn't look like Rosalind; it was my lovely cousin Hafsah, harem pants and all.



For a moment I just stared dumbly: had Dreamsinger snared the boy with some love/lust enchantment, despite his psionic protections? No, of course not; this was the work of that irksome Chameleon spell Dreamsinger still wore. When Sebastian looked at the Sorcery-Lord, he saw the most beautiful woman he could imagine—his own dear Rosalind. Somehow Dreamsinger had swapped herself with Jode, replacing one false Rosalind with another.

That raised the question of where Jode was now. If we were lucky, Dreamsinger had vaporized the accursed Lucifer; but I doubted even a Sorcery-Lord could have pulled that off without Sebastian noticing. Whatever she'd done, it would have to be quick and quiet while the boy's attention was elsewhere—perhaps when he was slaughtering the Keepers behind their gun-slits. During those few seconds, Dreamsinger had somehow removed Jode and put herself in the alien's place.

Once again, I remembered our chancellor's story about the Lucifer in the tobacco field. Opal said Vanessa of Spark had tapped the alien's severed parts with a small rod that glittered red and green; the pieces had vanished <BINK>, as if ejected from our plane of existence. If Dreamsinger possessed a similar <BINK>-rod and used it on Jode when Sebastian wasn't looking... could it be the alien was gone, gone, gone? Dispatched to a different somewhere, removed from our lives forever?

No. I didn't believe it. Nothing was ever that easy. The alien would return; I could feel it in my bones. For now though, we had only Sebastian and the Sorcery-Lord to worry about... which was plenty enough.


The Caryatid and Impervia didn't hesitate after sighting the boy and Dreamsinger. My friends continued boldly forward, striding within five paces of the lovey-dovey couple and planting themselves side-by-side where they couldn't possibly be missed.

"Sebastian," said Impervia.

"Dear sister-in-sorcery," said the Caryatid.

The boy and the Spark Lord turned, their heads almost touching. Dreamsinger's face was dark with warning: her fierce glare suggested she wanted to rip us into component atoms. Lucky for us, the Sorcery-Lord couldn't behave so un-Rosalind-like.

Sebastian's expression was no more friendly than Dreamsinger's. "Didn't I tell you to stay away? I know you aren't who you look like."

I sighed with relief: he hadn't murdered us instantly. The boy's conscience allowed him to slay Keepers—people armed to the teeth, shooting at him and his beloved—but he balked at destroying someone who looked like one of his teachers, especially when she offered no threat. Better still, the Rosalind in his arms wasn't Jode... who would have been screaming, "Kill them!" to keep us from giving away the truth.

"We are who we look like," Impervia said. "We discovered you were missing a few hours after you left. In Dover, we found you'd chartered a boat named Hoosegow and sailed in this direction. We realized you were headed to Niagara Falls—to this building here. So we followed."

"I don't believe it," Sebastian said. "Rosalind says you're just doppelgängers created by her mother's sorcerers. Bags of skin filled with pus." He paused as if he was beginning to doubt his own words; then his face cleared. "It's true. That copy of Sir Pelinor was all gucky."

"No," said Impervia. "He was flesh and blood. So am I."

She lifted her hand: the one holding the small knife. I understood now why she'd taken it out. Slowly, deliberately, she pulled back her sleeve and placed the blade to her flesh, halfway between wrist and elbow. She had to press hard; the knife's edge was adequate for cutting T-bone steak, but not for slicing Impervia's hard-toned muscle. When she broke through the skin, blood oozed in a thick trickle.

The dim glow of the laser cage didn't cast enough light to show the blood's harsh scarlet... but suddenly a dozen small white suns materialized in the air. They were obviously Sebastian's work—illuminating the room with his psionics so he could see clearly. At last.

"Sister Impervia?" he said with horror in his voice.

"Yes," she answered. "It's me."

"No, it isn't," said a new voice. And Impervia erupted in flames.



Another Rosalind had appeared—Jode, escaped from wherever one went when tapped with a red and green <BINK>-rod. The Lucifer had sneaked around the far side of the laser cage. While the rest of us were watching Impervia cut her arm, Jode had moved into position just beyond the cube's airlock shack. The Lucifer had obtained an Element gun from one of the fallen Keepers; and the gun was set to shoot flames.

Impervia's clothes ignited. Beside her, the Caryatid was also engulfed in fire... but the Caryatid waved the blaze away before it could singe a single hair. She turned and grabbed the flames surrounding Impervia as if they were solid matter; then the Caryatid yanked backward, pulling the fire with her, like tugging a crackling red cloak off Impervia's body. A quick flick of the Caryatid's wrists, and the flames winked out in mid-air. Curls of smoke wreathed Impervia from head to foot, but the woman beneath seemed unharmed.

Jode, alas, was a fast learner. The Lucifer must have tried flames to begin with because they'd cause the most agonizing death... but when fire proved ineffective, Jode switched immediately to bullets.

A burst of high-velocity slugs rattled toward Impervia and the Caryatid, some rounds striking home while others zinged past to ricochet off the rock walls. Annah threw herself to the ground; I joined her, but in the instant before I dropped, I saw the Caryatid point toward Jode and shout a single incomprehensible word. Her pet fireball shot across the room toward the alien, the ball's blazing heat augmented by fire from Jode's own flamethrower... and I prayed the inferno would hit its target with enough energy to incinerate Jode on the spot.

It didn't. Head down, I heard a clatter and a heavy whoof of air. When I looked up, the Element gun had been knocked from Jode's grip and all fires in the room were snuffed... including the flameball the Caryatid had sent toward the alien. Sebastian had obviously told his nanite friends to stop the violence until he could sort everything out.

Therefore Jode was still intact. The Caryatid had slumped to the ground, her face ashen; one arm hung limply, while the other hand pressed hard against her opposite shoulder. Blood seeped between her fingers from a deep wound just below her collarbone. There was another mess of blood near her waist where a second bullet had plowed its way through the plump rolls of flesh she called love handles... but the Caryatid didn't have a free hand to stop the bleeding down there. Perhaps she didn't even know about the second wound: the shot in her upper chest, piercing ribs and muscles and internal organs, might have eclipsed the pain of a straight in-and-out hole through simple fat.

Besides, the Caryatid wasn't concentrating on her own injuries. Her gaze had turned toward Impervia... who'd been knocked off her feet by the gunfire. When she hit the rock floor she landed in an awkward heap, with no attempt to make a graceful breakfall. Blood gushed out of her in a high-pressure fountain, an arc of it streaming into the air. The blood had to be pouring from an artery, but her body was so crumpled, I couldn't tell where she'd been hit. In the leg? The chest? The throat?

Abruptly the red geyser stopped... as if the heart supplying the pressure had ceased to pump. Impervia didn't move; nothing moved except the edge of the blood pool, trickling across the uneven ground, flowing toward the lowest point in the chamber.

I thought to myself, She would have preferred to die in righteous battle. But battle deaths are often the easy way out for people blind to other possibilities. If Impervia had to die, better that her last act was cutting her own arm. Not stupid fisticuffs, but proving she was human.


"What's going on?" Sebastian roared. At least, I think he wanted it to be a roar. It came out closer to a whine. He'd seen Impervia was flesh and blood; he'd also seen her gunned down by his precious Rosalind. Except that he could see two Rosalinds: Jode and Dreamsinger. "Who are you?" he yelled at the Lucifer.

"I'm Rosalind," Jode answered. "The real Rosalind."

"You aren't," the boy said... but he cast a furtive glance at Dreamsinger.

Jode caught the look. "That's another of my mother's doppelgängers. Created by sorcery. She rolled me aside when you weren't looking, but—"

Sebastian interrupted, "What do you mean, rolled you aside?"

"Pushed me sideways. Out of this world. But I had a magic wand that let me come back."

Jode held up a small rod as wide as my pinkie-finger and twice as long. He pushed a button on one end, and suddenly the rod sparkled with lights, like red and green sequins glittering in the dimness. I bet when the rod touched you, it made a soft <BINK>.

Dreamsinger glared. "Where did you get that?"

"Stole it from one of my mother's sorcerers. A gullible man who always wore orange."

Jode couldn't hide the taunt in those words. The <BINK>-rod had come from the Spark in orange armor—Mind-Lord Priest, killed at the winter anchorage. With such a rod in hand, Jode had apparently avoided the fate of the Lucifer in the tobacco field: when Dreamsinger had "rolled" Jode aside, the alien shapeshifter could use its own <BINK>-rod to return. Apparently, such rods could both send you away and bring you back.

Even wearing Rosalind's face, Jode looked smug. And the Lucifer wasn't finished. "Do you want to see who's real?" Jode asked Sebastian. "Use your powers to dispel all the sorcery in this room. You'll see the whole truth."

Dreamsinger had time to narrow her eyes—her beautiful Hafsah eyes, so calm and perfect. Then something went thud in my head, like a concussion from the inside out: things rearranged themselves in my brain, making my body as weak as water. If I hadn't been down on the floor already, I think I would have collapsed. But the dizziness passed in seconds; when my vision stopped reeling, the woman in Sebastian's arms had changed.

The first thing I saw was red—full body armor colored sorcerer's crimson, made of plastic and molded in the shape of a chunkily voluptuous female figure. This was no graceful Hafsah in harem pants; the armor wasn't as bulky as plate mail, but it possessed a similar stolidity. The breasts and hips built onto the underlying shell had the crude excess of a Stone Age fertility carving... so extreme they were almost a parody. Especially in contrast to the woman beneath.

I could finally see the real Dreamsinger because she wasn't wearing her helmet—she must have decided to remove it when she started kissing Sebastian. Surprisingly, the Sorcery-Lord looked the same age as the girl she portrayed: Dreamsinger was a reedy weedy sixteen-year-old whose tan skin revealed vivid acne pimples. Her facial features would have fit in well on the streets of Seoul, but her hair was dyed an unnatural red, the same bright shade as her armor. She hadn't touched up the hair coloring for quite some time, as evidenced by a deep darkness at the roots.

Behold the all-powerful sorceress: a plain-faced poseur decked out like a femme fatale. But I reminded myself Dreamsinger was still lethal—perhaps more than ever, now that her disguise had been stripped away.

Sebastian cringed back from her, sliding along the wall of the airlock shack. Dreamsinger didn't go after him. One hand twitched, and suddenly a rod appeared in her grip, identical to the one held by Jode. She thumbed the activation button, waking red and green glitters along the rod's length. Meanwhile, her other hand snapped into a sorcerous pose, some fingers bent, some splayed, aimed at Sebastian in case he tried a psionic attack; but the boy did nothing except stare aghast.

"Don't look at me that way," Dreamsinger told him, not lowering her guard. Her voice had changed from Hafsah's purring alto into a high and scratchy soprano. "You can see I'm a Spark Lord—you must recognize the armor. So don't get ideas about taking me on. I doubt if you'd win... and if you did, my brothers and sisters would come after you. You wouldn't like that. You wouldn't like that at all."

Sebastian was still staring in horror. "What... when..."

Dreamsinger laughed—a false laugh I'd heard from teenagers many times before. Trying to sound amused and superior when her feelings had just been hurt. "When did I take over Rosalind's place? Did you sleep with me when you thought you were sleeping with her? That would have been just awful, wouldn't it? But I'm not the one you have to worry about, dear brother. I only stepped in a short time ago... while you were killing my Keepers."

Sebastian looked outraged. "They were trying to kill me!"

"True. I knew they wouldn't succeed, but at least they distracted you so I could make my substitution. A valuable sacrifice, don't you think?"

"No," Jode said. The Lucifer hadn't moved since Sebastian knocked away the Element gun. "Sacrifices are only valuable if they accomplish their goal. Otherwise, they're just deaths."

"Rosalind..." Sebastian began.

"You're in for a surprise." Dreamsinger laughed again. This time her laughter sounded more genuine. And mean-spirited. "Dear brother Sebastian, do you realize you've fulfilled your final purpose?"

The boy glared at her. "What do you mean?"

"You were used to gain access to this station. To shut off the electricity. To cut the cables feeding this room so nothing will happen even when the water finally spills around your dam. On top of that, your lovely wife just tricked you into dispelling every enchantment in this room. My Chameleon glamour wasn't the only spell you removed; you also erased thirteen charms of protection to prevent this cage from opening." Dreamsinger made a mock bow toward the Lucifer. "Clever you. But your kind has always been clever."

"More so recently," Jode said.

"So you believe."

"What are you talking about?" Sebastian demanded.

Jode gave a nasty smile. "You'll never know, boy. You've outlived your usefulness."

The Lucifer made a darting motion with its hand. Something went bang, like thunder.


For a moment I was certain the bang meant Sebastian's death: some murderous alien surprise that would beat the boy's psionic defenses. The Lucifer might have planted a booby-trap while consummating the sham marriage—one long deep kiss and a tiny curd of maggoty white could have slid down Sebastian's throat. That curd might lodge itself in the boy's stomach, stealing atoms and molecules from nearby tissues to build an explosive chemical... or perhaps the curd could mutate into an explosive all its own. One way or another, Jode must have a trick for blowing people up from the inside: that's how it got the Mind-Lord, blasting him to pieces above the winter anchorage.

But the explosion we'd heard didn't come from Sebastian—the bang erupted back near the exit tunnel. Jode's leer of triumph dissolved to bewilderment... and Dreamsinger laughed at the sight.

"I'm not the only one who's predictable," she told Jode. "I knew you'd rig the boy for a fatal finish... so I removed your surprise from Sebastian's small intestine. Switched it by sorcery to the corpse of one of my Keepers. As I said, they made a valuable sacrifice—without them, I couldn't save one of the most powerful psychics the world has ever known."

Jode's face twisted with fury. The Lucifer's right hand turned puffy, as if the creature was so enraged it didn't have enough self-control to retain its Rosalind form... but the moment passed and the hand resumed human shape. Sebastian seemed to have missed the brief transformation—he was too busy staring at the alien's fierce expression. "I don't understand," he said. "Rosalind, what's this about?"

"She's not Rosalind," said the Caryatid. Her voice was wheezy—the bullet through her shoulder must have pierced a lung. But she struggled to her feet, still pressing her wound with a blood-drenched hand. "The real Rosalind is dead. Murdered by this bag of skin filled with pus." She took a shaky step toward Jode. "We found Rosalind's body last night. Dead in her dorm room. The thing you married was her killer."

"No," Sebastian whispered. "No. The Rosalind I married... she was my Rosalind. She knew things—secrets only we... how could anyone else know?"

"How do you think?" The Caryatid took another step toward Jode. "This thing is called a Lucifer. It's a shapeshifter; it can look like anyone it wants. If it made itself look like you and visited Rosalind in her room... secrets would naturally spill out. Amongst other things."

Bile boiled up in my throat. I remembered the position of Rosalind's corpse: lying naked in the bed, arms and legs splayed wide. If Jode had come to her in Sebastian's form soon after supper... if Jode had said, "I know we didn't plan to get together till later, but I just couldn't wait..."

I could guess what the Lucifer would want. Not just talk. Not just secrets. Jode wanted the perversity of bedding the girl before killing her. Certainly, there were practical reasons for such an atrocity: seeing the girl naked in order to duplicate any moles, birthmarks, etc., hidden by her clothing; learning if there was anything distinctive in how she made love. Fundamentally, though, the Lucifer was just so damnably evil it wanted to be astride Rosalind when it spewed curds into her mouth—filling her with death and horror at the moment the betrayal would be most shattering.

Jode liked to cause pain; it was that simple. The Lucifer reveled in the anguish on a victim's face just before the face went slack. Even now, though the alien hadn't managed to kill Sebastian, Jode must have enjoyed the boy's look of dawning revulsion.

"No," Sebastian whispered. "No."

"Oh yes," Jode said. Then three things happened almost simultaneously.

First: Jode lunged toward Sebastian, slamming a fist toward the boy's face. The blow didn't make contact—Sebastian's nanite friends would never permit that—but the boy reflexively retreated from the attack. Backward. Into the airlock shack that led to the electric cage. At some point when we'd been distracted by other things, Jode must have opened the shack door. Still backing up, Sebastian tripped over the lip of the airlock doorway and fell to the floor inside. He didn't hit the ground hard—his nanite friends cushioned the fall—but Jode shut the door behind the boy and threw a lever on the shack's outer wall. The inner door of the airlock, the one to the prison cube's interior, slid open in response to the button. The mass of dusty black inside the cage, quiescent all this time, lurched instantly toward Sebastian and rolled over him like a midnight avalanche.

Second: the Caryatid cried, "Damn you!" and erupted into flame. Spontaneous human combustion—an age-old legend dismissed by scientists, but if anyone could manage the feat, it was the Steel Caryatid. She lit no match to start the blaze; she simply waved her hands, and suddenly she was burning. Not just on fire... the Caryatid was fire, a woman turned an inferno: advancing on Jode as her legs withered to ash, then continuing forward as flame incarnate, a final conflagration accelerating across the room and roaring into the alien at full speed. Jode was just turning away from shutting Sebastian in the airlock. The fire struck the Lucifer blind-side and ignited its Rosalind clothing. A howl of pain. A wet sizzle. There was nothing left of the Caryatid at all, her flesh and bones incinerated in a flash; but Jode was awash in searing flame.

Third: Dreamsinger turned toward the burning alien. The light of the flames lit her face with orange intensity, but the Spark Lord's expression was blank. She'd been caught by surprise when Jode and the Caryatid acted. I think Dreamsinger had expected someone to attack her, she wasn't prepared to be ignored, treated as if she meant nothing compared to more important targets. Now as she approached Jode-in-flames, I couldn't tell if she intended to put out the fires incinerating the alien or to stoke them higher. Dreamsinger apparently couldn't decide either—she moved slowly, distractedly fingering the <BINK>-rod in her hands, finally coming to a bemused stop in front of the Lucifer ablaze.

Which is how she was standing when the Element gun went off.

She was hit by a volley from all four barrels—bullets, fire, acid, sound. The first three attacks stopped short of their target as the force field around Dreamsinger's armor blazed into violet life. Bullets turned to molten lead as they hit the energy barrier; fire and acid splashed the violet glow but couldn't reach the gawky girl inside. Only the hypersonic waves got through... and I assume they would have been stopped as well if Dreamsinger had been wearing her helmet.

Without that helmet, she was vulnerable to simple sound. Amidst the clatter of bullets and the whoosh of flame, she gasped and crumpled to the floor.

A Spark Lord defeated. Unconscious.

Elizabeth Tzekich raced around the corner of the laser cage and ran to what she thought was her daughter. Knife-Hand Liz held an Element gun; its barrels were still smoking.


Tzekich was followed by the same two bully-boys we'd seen in Nanticook House. They'd all come around the far side of the prison cube: moving quietly, hidden by the great alien mound in the cage and by the noise the rest of us had been making.

I didn't know how long Tzekich had been listening, but obviously she hadn't understood that the girl who looked like Rosalind was actually an alien shapeshifter. Or maybe she had heard and didn't believe it. We'd told her the previous night that her daughter was dead, replaced by some kind of double... but she hadn't believed it then, either. And who knows what goes through a mother's mind when she sees what looks like her daughter enveloped in flame? She only had our word this wasn't the real Rosalind; and she wasn't prepared to trust us.

Not when her daughter was burning.

The moment Tzekich reached the fiery Jode, she tossed her gun aside and whipped off her thick winter coat. She used the coat to swat the flames, muffling Jode's body when the fire had been beaten down enough to be smothered. By then, Jode's face was black and flaky, scraps falling from the creature's cheeks like bits of burnt paper; but the Lucifer still retained some semblance of Rosalind, enough to fool a frantic mother. Tzekich was murmuring teary words in a language I didn't understand—leaning close as if she wanted to kiss the girl but was too afraid of damaging the blistered face.

"You know what's going to happen," I whispered to Annah.

"Yes," she said. "If the Lucifer's still alive..."

"It is. Bits of it. Remember, each curd is a separate organism. What Opal called cellules."

"And even if the cellules on the surface got burned, there are plenty alive underneath?"

"Right. So as soon as Knife-Hand Liz gets too close..."

Annah shook her head. "Jode won't attack her. Jode will say, 'Oh yes, I'm Rosalind, please save me, Mommy.' Anything to kill time until the cage runs out of power and the thing inside gets loose."

"How can we stop it?"

"We can't. Only Sebastian can. He can start the Falls flowing again. Reconnect the cables he cut."

I looked into the prison cube. There was no sign of the boy under the mass of black that had deluged him. The giant Lucifer had returned to the main part of the cage, hauling the boy with it—like a crocodile dragging a meal back to its lair. "How do we know he's still alive?"

"We don't," Annah said. "But his psionic powers give him a chance. They might have formed a barrier between him and the monster. An air bubble."

"If he's still alive and his powers are working, why hasn't he escaped on his own?"

"I don't know. Maybe he needs our help."

That almost made me laugh. "So we just waltz into the cage and rescue him?"

Annah pointed to the Element gun I was holding. "The flames and acid should drive the monster back. And Sebastian's powers will protect him from the blasts. I hope." She shrugged. "It's the only chance we've got to beat Jode. What all the others died for. We have to try."

I hesitated. "What if the Ring tries to stop us?"

She kissed me, soft and sweet. "Leave the Ring to me. You save Sebastian." Before I could react, she scrambled to her feet and shouted, "Hey! You! Knife-Hand Liz!"


I don't know if the Ring-folk had realized we were there—we'd been down on the floor and out of the action, on the opposite side of the cage. Now the two bully-boys whipped up their guns, so jumpy they might have cremated Annah on the spot; but she held her hands high and harmless, her own Element gun slung out of sight behind her back.

"Hello," she said, walking slowly toward them. The Ring-men tracked her with their gun barrels. "We've never met, but I know you. Do you know me?"

The bully-boys stared without answering. Elizabeth Tzekich, cheeks smeared with tears, looked up from what she thought was her daughter. "I've watched you from a distance. The don on Rosalind's floor. What the hell's going on?"

"My friends told you everything last night. A monster killed your daughter and took her place. That creature is now at your feet."

Tzekich looked down at the burnt figure wrapped in her coat. A whisper came from Jode's throat. "Mother..."

"It thinks you're gullible," Annah said. "It wants to play on your sympathies. Then, when you're no longer useful, it'll kill you as heartlessly as it did Rosalind."

"So you claim."

"Talk to it," Annah said. "In your own language. Ask questions only your daughter could answer."

Tzekich stared piercingly at Annah. Then she turned to the Lucifer at her feet and said something in her native tongue. Jode only groaned, "Please, Mother, it's me..."

In English.

I nearly laughed. Annah, clever Annah, must have suspected Jode couldn't speak whatever Balkan dialect Knife-Hand Liz used with her real daughter. Mother Tzekich didn't give up immediately—she tried several more sentences with short pauses after each: probably questions Rosalind could answer easily... but not Jode. The shapeshifter only gasped, "Mother!" repeatedly, trying to fill the word with so much anguish, it would touch a stony heart; but the look on the mother's face had changed to loathing.

She knew the truth: this wasn't Rosalind, it was Rosalind's killer. And a woman who'd earned the name Knife-Hand Liz had no pity for such an enemy.

Her bully-boys felt the same way. Whether or not they spoke Tzekich's language, they could see what was going on; when this "Rosalind" couldn't answer simple questions, the bodyguards shifted their guns toward Jode. They'd realized the Lucifer was a deadly threat, and they wanted the monster in their sights.

The Ring-men were right about Jode being dangerous. But they shouldn't have taken their eyes off Annah... who reached behind her back and swung her Element gun to bear on Knife-Hand Liz.

Tzekich either saw Annah's move or had an inborn sense of when a weapon was aimed at her. She looked up, no fear in her eyes, and said, "What is this about?"

"It's about you leaving. Your daughter is dead and I'm sorry... but there's nothing left for you here. Just go."

Softly Tzekich asked, "Without revenge?"

Annah waved the gun's muzzle toward Jode. "If you want to incinerate that monster, be my guest."

"And what about the teachers who were supposed to keep my daughter safe? Or the psychic boy who was the cause of everything? This creature, this Lucifer... it wanted to use the boy, yes? If not for Sebastian, my Rosalind would still be alive."

"And if not for your own actions, the same!" Annah's voice was sharp. "Rosalind came to our academy because you'd made so many enemies, the girl wasn't safe elsewhere. But do you blame yourself? No. You blame the teachers, you blame Sebastian, you want everyone else's head to roll. But heaven forbid you take any responsibility."

Annah gestured her gun once more toward Jode. "There's the real killer. No one will stop you from doing your worst. Snuffing out that monster might be the noblest deed you'll do in your life—not just revenge, but justice. How many people get such a gift? To vent their grief on a thing of pure evil. To take a vengeance unquestionably right. But you get only the demon; nothing more."

Tzekich looked into Annah's eyes, staring past the muzzle of the gun. Softly she said, "My daughter has been murdered. If I could kill the whole world, it wouldn't be enough. Don't you understand revenge?"

Annah didn't answer right away. I don't know what was going through her mind—what memories of her family, its vendettas, its hatreds. The previous night, she'd talked about people who hungered for revenge, who considered it more important than life itself: "an absolute necessity, a religious imperative."

I wondered what Annah had seen—what atrocities her family had committed, what horrors had been done to them in return.

"I understand revenge," Annah said. "It can't stop itself. Someone else has to put it out of its misery."

She fired her gun into Knife-Hand Liz's face.


An instant after Annah pulled the trigger, she dove forward onto Jode's body. I thought she must be diving for cover... as if hitting the floor was any protection.

The Ring-men fired on her at point-blank range.

Gushes of flame lit the chamber. The smell of burning gas mixed with the bitterness of acid. Bullets caromed off the rock walls so fiercely, I buried my face against the floor and covered my head with my arms.

Moments later, a gun blew up. I heard the explosion as shattering metal: a pressurized ammunition chamber filled with flammable gas or acid that was breached by a bullet and burst its deadly payload into the world. I didn't know whose gun it was—Annah's or one of those held by the Ring—but they were all so close together, it didn't make a difference.

Total mutual destruction in the first half-second. Burnt, shot, corroded.

As I lay listening to the roar of weapons, I realized Annah must have known what would happen. What she'd be forced to do. Even if Tzekich hadn't explicitly threatened Sebastian or the school, violent retribution would still have hung in the air. "My daughter has been murdered. If I could kill the whole world, it wouldn't be enough." Sooner or later, Tzekich might lash out against the boy... or the academy... or someone Annah loved.

Like me.

So Annah made sure that wouldn't happen.

She also granted Elizabeth Tzekich's final wish. The way Knife-Hand Liz looked into Annah's eyes... had she been pleading for an end? Her daughter was dead; her heart was broken; and though she spoke of revenge, perhaps Mother Tzekich was actually asking for release.

One can be so crushed with grief, one prays for death so the pain will stop.

Believe me, I know.



Some time later, I stood up. My boots scraped against the stone floor, filling the chamber with hollow echoes.

Where Annah and the Ring had been standing, there were now only smoldering lumps. Thin smoke rose from their remains. I considered saying a prayer for the dead, but didn't have the heart for it.


Alone in a world full of corpses, I thought. But that wasn't true—Dreamsinger was still alive, protected from the explosion by her armor. Her breathing was soft and calm, as if sleeping peacefully. I wanted to seize her by the shoulders, shake her roughly, wake her up... but the hypersonics from an Element gun knocked victims out for six hours, and nothing I could do would rouse the Sorcery-Lord sooner. Besides, she was still surrounded by that force field, the one that melted bullets; if I tried to touch her, my hands would disintegrate.

I looked down at Dreamsinger once more. The <BINK>-rod she'd been holding lay a short distance away. It must have fallen from her grasp when she'd been shot. I bent, picked it up, then felt foolish at the gesture. Did I think this was some kind of magic wand? A wonderful deus ex machina I could wave and abracadabra, bring back all my friends?

There were nothing but blackened lumps where Annah had been standing... and farther off lay Impervia's body, outside the range of the explosion but sprawled deathly still. I couldn't bring myself to take a closer look. What would be the point? Let her rest in peace.

So there I was: last man standing. Pelinor would say that made me the hero of our quest; but I'd done nothing anyone would call heroic. The hard work came from my friends—the protecting, the dying. All I could do was ensure they hadn't died in vain.

Element gun in one hand, <BINK>-rod in the other, I approached the laser cage.

The door of the airlock shack had one simple control—a lever with three positions marked INNER SHUT, BOTH SHUT, OUTER SHUT. It was currently set to the last: outer door closed, inner one open. I moved the switch to the middle and watched as the inner door slid into place. The imprisoned Lucifer had withdrawn into the main area of the cage, taking Sebastian with it. I guessed it didn't want to leave the boy in the airlock shack where he might be easier to rescue.

Deep breath. I moved the lever again.

The outer door opened. I had my gun set to shoot flames, ready to scorch any bits of Lucifer hiding in the airlock. But the shacklike space seemed perfectly clean: white walls, white floor, white ceiling, where the tiniest black grain would show up clearly. No doubt the airlock had cleansing devices that sanitized the place every time the doors cycled. I didn't know how decontamination was possible without killing any humans in the airlock... but if the Keepers harvested lightbulbs from the Lucifer's mass, people must go in and out through the shack all the time. One just had to trust that the Sparks could eradicate alien cellules while leaving Homo sapiens intact.

I stepped into the airlock. The inside wall had a three-position lever like the one outside. I moved the lever to both shut and waited.

A flat plane of green light rose from the floor, like a platform of jade ascending around me. The surface was too glossy to see through, but I could feel a tingle as it climbed my legs: like the brisk scraped sensation after drying oneself with a rough towel. The feeling increased to wrenching pain as it reached my abdomen—an unknown force clawing my intestines, scouring deep in search of alien intruders. Some part of my mind wondered what kind of energy the light was, how it could distinguish between human flesh and alien particles. But I didn't care that much. Like a man plodding the last hundred meters of a marathon, I just wanted to get this over.

The jade surface rose. As it reached my heart, congestion squeezed my chest. I tried to breathe normally; I closed my eyes and waited, feeling the tingle flush up my throat, my face... then a burst of jade flared as it swept past my retinas.

When I opened my eyes, the plane of light was vanishing into the airlock roof. I caught my breath, lifted my weapons, and moved the control lever to open the inner door.


The Lucifer didn't attack. It didn't even move. Its black powder mass sat silent. Waiting.

"Release the boy," I said.

No response. As if the creature didn't understand my words. But I was certain it knew what I was saying.

I raised my gun. "Give me the boy or I'll hurt you. Kill you if that's possible. Heaven knows why the Sparks kept you alive at all; but I'm sure they'd rather see you dead than loose in the world. So let the boy go."

Still no motion visible in the black heap, but a rustling sound came from the mound's dusty heart. The Lucifer towered above me, three times my height: like the mountain of coal that was dumped behind the academy at the start of each winter. My Element gun was no more than a pea-shooter compared to the Lucifer's bulk; the gun's supply of fire and acid could only braise the monster's surface. If the beast withstood the immediate pain, I'd soon run out of ammunition. As for the glittering <BINK>-rod, I didn't know how much mass it could "roll aside" at any one time... but surely not the entire mound. I might banish a few handfuls of black before I was overwhelmed, but that would just delay the inevitable. Sebastian would remain trapped, the batteries powering the cage would run dry...

"Give me the boy!" I shouted. Conserving my more effective attacks, I fired a burst of bullets into the mound. Lightbulbs on the surface shattered into sprays of chipped glass; but the Lucifer itself was unhurt.

Quickly, I switched the gun back to flamethrower. "I'm counting to five. Give me the boy or I'll—"

Something shifted within the mound. My nerves were so jittery, I almost pulled the trigger... but I stopped myself on the minuscule chance the monster might be letting Sebastian go.

The heap closest to me bulged with a human-shaped protuberance: head and shoulders coated with gunpowder black, pushing their way out of the pile with a dry rasp. Crusted in midnight grains, a figure struggled to wrench free—pushing, pulling, until it abruptly tugged loose from its surroundings and stumbled forward, trying to catch its balance.

I kept my gun trained on the figure. "Don't come too close." If a thing that looked like Sebastian materialized out of that mess, I'd be a fool to believe it must be the real boy. Besides, the thing before me was still just a humanoid clump of black, standing weak and wobbly, head turning back and forth as if trying to get its bearings. Then the outermost layer of powder slumped away to reveal...

Rosalind Tzekich. As naked as when I had seen her last, but with life and health shining where there had only been the limpness of death.

The new Rosalind gave me a tranquil smile. Beatific. A much different look from the listless way she'd endured math classes. The distance and loneliness were gone now: she had the look of a prisoner who'd been released.

Reluctantly, I trained the Element gun on her—hoping that wherever the real Rosalind was now, she wore exactly the same kind of smile. "I've seen enough fakes of this girl," I said. "Let her rest in peace."

The Rosalind-thing didn't answer. She held her arms out at her sides, hands open, palms toward me: the pose of someone showing she was no threat, as if I were a dog who had to be mollified. "Stop it," I said. "You're nothing more than shapeshifting sand; a piece of Lucifer, trying to distract me. I want Sebastian and I want him now. One... two... three...."

She stepped toward me, still smiling. I cursed the Lucifer under my breath, and switched the gun back to bullets. What I had to do next would give me nightmares... as if my brain didn't already contain enough horrors for a thousand sleepless nights.

I pulled the trigger. A single bullet at point-blank range, straight into the chest of a teenage girl.

But it wasn't a girl at all. The shot hit the creature dead center, scattering gouts of black sand out the thing's spine; but a shock wave of blowback sent grains spraying forward, splashing onto my feet, my coat—and my face. I reached up blindly with the <BINK>-rod, hoping it would spirit the dark flecks away... but by then, my world had vanished.


No sight, no sound; but I could still breathe. The grains hadn't gone down my throat—not yet. I couldn't even feel them on my face. In fact, I felt nothing at all: as if my body had dissolved, leaving only a consciousness divorced from my five senses.

Then a sixth sense dawned: a feeling of connection and dispersion, my mind spread across the universe. A million, billion, trillion places at once. I had no eyes or ears, but I sensed myself standing on a plain covered with lacy blue ice, not frozen water but solidified nitrogen, oxygen, and methane; I was also floating through hot sulfur clouds where fat balloon creatures built cities from cottony fibers that drifted as light as dust; and I was deep undersea, clinging to the ocean floor as a warm soup of my own children clustered about me in the jelly stage of their life cycle. I lurked in the heart of trees. I swam through the bloodstream of an animal as big as the moon, and together we fed off dark energies filling the interstellar vacuum. I sipped on magma at a planet's core; I conversed with red moss in a tumbledown city peopled by senile machines; I clotted in a solid shell around a giant sun as it collapsed into supernova.

None of these scenes reached me as normal vision; I simply comprehended my surroundings, knowing instead of sensing. I was a million, billion, trillion shapeshifting grains spread through the galaxy, conjoined in a single mental whole: a hive mind with every cellule in contact with all the others despite being separated by countless light-years. A single unified consciousness distributed over untold star systems.

This was the past—a stunted ghost of memory that didn't come close to the Lucifer's true splendor. I sensed its frustration at not remembering more clearly... at not being able to impress me with its full former glory. It had been a creature vastly higher on the evolutionary ladder than Homo sapiens: like a god compared to us mere mortals, or at least like an angel.

And like all angels, it eventually fell.

Another memory: this time on Earth. A human doppelgänger similar to Jode, a colony of cellules shaped like a handsome man pretending to sleep beside a beautiful woman. Suddenly, the door burst open. People were there in plastic armor—four Spark Lords. They grabbed the false human and hustled it into the night. The Lucifer didn't protest; its impersonations had been discovered before, had been captured, tortured, and burned. The experience was unpleasant, but not a cause for concern. The death of a few cellules had no effect on the whole... and the great Lucifer consciousness had plenty of other representatives on Earth to continue observing our species.

So the Lucifer didn't resist. It even laughed as the Sparks said, "We're doing this for your own protection. Word has come down from the League." The Lucifer kept laughing right up to the moment where it was thrown into a cage made of light...

...at which point, the world went silent. Communications cut off. Isolation. The cage somehow blocked mental contact with the hive mind gestalt.

For a time, the Lucifer went mad. Not just from the shock of separation—the creature had been part of a single far-flung brain, with psychological functions distributed over all the component parts. Now a tiny chunk of that brain was forced to survive on its own. Almost all its memories vanished, stored as they were in other individuals that had dropped out of touch. Its angelic wisdom dissolved; its knowledge of the galaxy; its personality, whatever that had been: lost, lost, everything lost.

Eventually, the imprisoned creature stabilized—each remaining cellule taking its share of the burden, creating an entity that was far from the original but at least able to function. Still, it was a grossly diminished version of its former self: less memory, less intelligence, less far-reaching perception... like a creature that was once a whale now reduced to a gnat.

Even so, the gnat had regained its sanity.

When the Sparks were sure it had found a new balance, they turned down the cage's blocking power an infinitesimal amount... and the Lucifer reached out eagerly, trying to reestablish contact with its fellows.

A moment later, it reeled back in horror. The angel outside the cage had become a devil: a shouting shriek of corruption, poisoned with hate and violence. Lusting to conquer and kill—many of its component colonies committing murder at the very instant the Lucifer made contact. During that fleeting touch of communication, the prisoner in the cage got the impression its parent mass now deliberately choreographed its actions so it was always in the act of killing sentient creatures somewhere in the galaxy... so that it never lacked the taste of blood and death.

The great hive consciousness outside the cage had changed from the archangel Lucifer... into a howling Satan.

How could such a thing happen? Had some distant cellule been twisted by mutation, poison, or sabotage? If a single cellule went mad, could the madness spread instantly through the whole, like a disease infecting the entire consciousness? An explosion of evil no cellule could resist, so that in the blink of an eye, a wise and mighty creature was lost to the cancer of malice. Or had the parent mass simply turned vicious as a whole, rejecting its passive observation of lower species and deciding to tyrannize them instead?

The caged Lucifer had no answers. All it knew was that its parent had become a malignant embodiment of hate... and if that hate ever broke through the blocking power of the cage, the Lucifer's mind would be washed away in the flood, perverted by the sheer mental force of a billion trillion former siblings.

So the Lucifer remained in its prison, grateful to be protected against its Satanic parent outside. It spent its time wondering how the League had foreseen the coming corruption. Who had enough advance warning to rescue a small part of the whole, when the Lucifer itself never suspected a thing? Wouldn't the Sparks have needed months to build a cage and adapt the generating station to power it? Could the League really look so far into the future? And if so, why hadn't they warned the hive mind itself? But neither the League nor the Spark Lords ever offered to explain.

The Sparks did explain why they'd captured the Lucifer. By preserving a piece of the "angelic" Lucifer, the League one day hoped to cure the "demonic" part. Little by little, year by year, Spark Royal would turn down the cage's blocking field... and gradually the imprisoned Lucifer would grow stronger, better able to resist the psychic onslaught of its depraved Satanic brethren. In a few more centuries (or millennia, or eons—the League was patient), perhaps the good could win back the evil, just as the evil had forced out the good.

Meanwhile the Lucifer waited. And it grew. Its kind had a complex life cycle and didn't reproduce quickly... but with the Keepers providing its needs, the Lucifer expanded from the original human-sized doppelgänger to the great black mound now occupying the cage. For something to do, the cellules had busied themselves as little chemical factories, building lightbulbs and other equipment, molecule by molecule.

The evil outer consciousness had kept busy too. Just as the imprisoned Lucifer could touch its parent Satan's mind, the parent could feel its small uncorrupted child: an aggravating hold-out, a slim incompatibility, an itching flea-bite that couldn't be scratched. Satan raged at the tiny irritation; perhaps it couldn't tolerate any reminder it had once been an angel, or perhaps it feared for its own existence, recognizing that someday its corruption might be reversed. Whatever the reason, Satan despised the caged Lucifer. The galactic demon couldn't rest till the prison was bashed down and the independent black mound was bludgeoned back into the venomous whole.

So Satan declared war on Lucifer... and on the Spark Lords who guarded the cage. Many times in the past, evil doppelgängers had tried to break into the generating station. On each attempt, the aliens penetrated farther into the Keepers' defenses. On each attempt, the Sparks stopped the intruders and destroyed them. On each attempt, Satan kept a few cellules of itself safe elsewhere on the planet—enough, in time, to build a new body and try, try again.

This was a war of move and countermove: Satan would devise new strategies of attack; the Sparks would respond with new modes of defense. Spark Royal had always maintained the upper hand, thanks (as I'd guessed) to equipment that could detect gunpowderlike cellules at the range of a kilometer. The Niagara region was spanned with hundreds of such detectors, immediately reporting any evil Lucifers that dared to approach.

But Satan was vastly intelligent, a single brain spanning the galaxy. It had learned science tricks from a thousand cultures... and whatever was known by the whole could be used by the fragments on Earth. If the Sparks could detect dry black cellules, why not mutate into moist white nuggets?

I don't understand how Satan managed it—I received vague impressions of the demon grains bathing themselves in chemicals, bombarding themselves with radiation—but the specifics were lost on me. Anyway, the details didn't matter; the demon somehow changed itself to a new form Spark Royal couldn't detect. A form that caught Sparks unaware.

Mind-Lord Priest had been first to meet the mutated demon. Priest's detector equipment identified Jode as nonhuman, but the device which should have said THIS IS A LUCIFER was fooled by the mutation into maggots. Result? Priest had no idea what he was dealing with. He'd been taken by surprise and killed. Jode sailed away doubly triumphant: not only had the Lucifer obtained Priest's <BINK>-rod but Jode had proved its new curdlike form could fool the Sparks' defenses.

Though I got this information from the Lucifer in the cage, it had known none of it at the time. Yes, the angel had a faint mental link with its demon siblings... but the connection was patchy, seldom providing more than quick glimpses of Satan's violent acts around the galaxy. The good Lucifer hadn't perceived the death of Priest, and it hadn't caught a whiff of Jode's plans for Rosalind and Sebastian—Satan concealed what was happening, veiling its thoughts to prevent the caged Lucifer from foreseeing the imminent attack.

So no alarm sounded till Dreamsinger deduced the truth at Nanticook House. She'd hurried to Niagara and rallied the Keepers' defenses... but I'd seen how it all turned out. Crushing defeat. Now Satan pounded the still-angelic Lucifer with its thoughts—boasting how clever it had been, like a villain in a melodrama explaining everything in the last act. The mutation from black to white. The death of Priest. The murder of Rosalind. Inside the laser cage, the angel wished it could shut out the gloating tirade; but the cage's defenses were weakening and Satan's hideous strength was close to breaking through.

Yet no matter how much the mental onslaught pained the good Lucifer, I could sense no fear in its soul. The angel had embodied itself as Rosalind, wearing a radiant smile; I could feel the same beatific assurance filling the Lucifer as it touched my mind. A confidence that everything would work out for the best.

How can you believe that? I asked. You're hanging by a thread, yet you still think you'll be saved?

The answer didn't come in words. Instead, I had a vision of the Caryatid in her classroom, watching a dog's tongue predict she would go on a quest; I heard Rosalind's harp playing in empty darkness; finally, I was shown again the moment in our chancellor's suite when Opal said, "It sure is a bitch living in a universe where so many species are smarter than you."

What was the Lucifer trying to tell me? That the League of Peoples had anticipated this, the same way they'd foreseen the fall of Satan? That they'd arranged to bring me here because I could somehow put things right?

If not for the haunting, we wouldn't have discovered Rosalind's death till many hours later—too late for any of us to reach Niagara Falls in time. If not for the prophecy, I wouldn't have thought to call my friends after finding Rosalind's body. And without my friends, without the haunting and prophecy, I wouldn't have arrived where I was now.

Was that it? The League had manufactured supernatural events to nudge me and my friends in the direction we'd gone?

A wave of agreement came from the Lucifer. It believed I'd been brought here to play the hero. Me. As if I could save the world.

Suddenly, my link with the Lucifer broke. A moment of dizziness. Then I was back in my own body, seeing with my own eyes by the dim violet light of the lasers. The <BINK>-rod and my Element gun lay a footstep away. The mound of black grains had pulled back against the walls of the prison cube, leaving me lying in a clear space in the middle. I felt as if I'd woken inside a volcano cone, with heaps of dark ash all around me.

I wasn't alone on the cage's floor. A short distance away, Sebastian lay squeezed into fetal position. He looked dead.


Slowly, carefully, I moved across the floor to Sebastian. When I tried to touch him, my hand was thrown back as if something had shoved it away. Nanites. They'd formed a shell around him, ready to repel anyone who came close... like a ring of growling dogs protecting their fallen master. If I tried to touch the boy again, I suspected the nanites would respond with more than a harmless push.

Now that I was closer, I could see Sebastian was still breathing. He didn't look injured: just catatonic. And who could blame him? He'd discovered he'd bedded a monster—the monster who'd killed poor Rosalind. The boy might also have realized he'd butchered dozens of innocent Keepers at the monster's prompting. Then there were the ugly deaths he'd seen: Impervia and the Caryatid. Enough to drive anyone into a stupor... especially a sensitive teenage boy whose head had been full of romantic notions.

It's devastating when you finally recognize the world is cruel. But time was running out, and Sebastian was the only one who could put things right.

"This is it, isn't it?" I said to the Lucifer. "Why I was brought here. I'm the boy's don; I'm supposed to get through to him. You think I can wake him before it's too late."

A rustle went through the surrounding black mound: a scratchy sandy hiss.

I nearly gave a bitter laugh. All this way, through bullets, fire, and acid; then it turned out my role was not to slay monsters but to talk to a teenager.

Almost as if my destiny was to be a schoolteacher.


"Sebastian," I said, "it's Dr. Dhubhai."

The boy didn't move. Still scrunched into a tight fetal ball.

I tried again. "You've just experienced some horrible things. Worse than you could imagine. And you probably don't understand a bit of what's going on."

The gunpowder mass rustled again. I took that to mean agreement. When the Lucifer covered Sebastian, nanites must have immediately formed a shield around the boy. They'd prevented the mound from establishing a mental link; otherwise, the Lucifer could have melted into Sebastian's thoughts and perhaps eased away the catatonia.

"I could explain everything," I told the boy, "but that would take time and we don't have much to spare."

Once more the black grains rustled in agreement.

"So here's how it is," I said. "You're feeling like the world is broken. Your life is ruined and nothing will ever be the same.

"Well... you're partly right. Good people are dead: people who never deserved what happened to them. And you've done some ghastly things. You were tricked into doing them, but you'll still have to live with the memory. That's going to hurt; perhaps forever.

"But you know what, Sebastian? Everyone's life is a mess. Everyone's. We all make mistakes... and not just little slip-ups. Major mistakes that hurt us and other people. We all go down wrong paths because we don't know better... or because we're too lazy, lonely, and afraid to change.

"I've screwed up my life just like everyone else. I've been a teacher ten years and I've never taken it to heart. Isn't that ridiculous? I should either get out or accept where I am. No more acting like the job is beneath me.

"And women! I can't begin to list the ways I've been a fool. Staying with one woman because she was convenient... even though she and I knew the affair was a poor substitute for what we should have wanted. And for years I looked down on another woman, even though she was far more than I ever dreamed; not to mention how I was completely blind to a third woman, who must have been hurt every day by my obliviousness.

"Those three women are dead now, Sebastian. I'll never get the chance to make it up to them. I'd like to curl up into a ball and cry until my eyes bleed.

"But crying won't help. Nothing will. I can't fix the past. I can only resolve to do better in future.

"Are you listening, Sebastian? Can you hear what I'm saying? Because I'm going to tell you something important: something everybody knows and everybody forgets. Are you listening? Here it is. You have to confront life. That's all. No matter how tempting avoidance may be, you have to confront life. I know it sounds trite, like the usual nonsense teachers tell their students. But it's true. You have to confront life. If you don't, your problems just fester. Nothing gets cleaned up. The messes you've made just grow worse.

"Believe me, I know. In the past twenty-four hours, I've seen people confront their lives. I've seen them do what had to be done... even if it meant they'd die. They faced up to necessity. I don't claim to be a great example myself—but you know what? I'm doing it."

I stood... walked back to the Element gun and the <BINK>-rod. Picking them up, I told the boy, "I could leave right now. I could head for the door and this big sand-heap probably wouldn't try to stop me. If it did, I could blast my way free. Out of this cage, out of this building, out of the whole ugly mess. I wouldn't go back to the academy—my purse is full and I can live like a king almost anywhere on Earth. No one would track me down. I'm not important enough for the Sparks or Satan to care about.

"But I'm still here with you, Sebastian. Because you have the power to set things right. You can't bring back Rosalind; you can't resurrect the people who've died. But you can remove your dam; you can reconnect the power cables; you can save the sanity of an innocent creature; and you can foil the plans of a monster who killed the girl you loved. All you have to do is use your power—speak to those little puppies who want to follow your orders. It would be so easy. I know you're tired; it must seem impossible to make the tiniest effort. God knows I've felt the same. Paralyzed. You can barely breathe, Sebastian, and I'm just some pompous adult preaching platitudes.

"You wish I'd shut up... but I have to say something you might not have considered. About Rosalind. I've been thinking of her ever since last night, and the image that keeps coming to mind was the way she'd gaze out the windows during math class. Just staring, as if she was light-years away. I would have said she was disconnected from life: stuck in a trap of her mother's making; wrapped up in numbness and three-quarters dead. But then she made a decision—to elope with you. Not a decision I'd agree with, and if I caught you two sneaking out, you'd both get homework detentions for the next thirty years... but it was a sign of life, Sebastian. Rosalind recognized something had to change, and she did something about it.

"So did you, Sebastian. You and Rosalind together. It must have taken courage; and now, after horrible things have happened, maybe you're thinking you never should have done it. But there's no such thing as playing safe. Life might hurt, but it's better than numbness. Rosalind knew that. So did you when you agreed to elope with her. Be brave again, Sebastian. Wake up and do something. It'll get easier once you start. Just talk to your nanite friends and ask them to help."

The light in the room flickered. For a moment, I didn't realize what that meant; I thought Sebastian had come to his senses and done something... told the nanites to start repairing everything that needed to be fixed. Then the flicker came again and the truth struck me: the only illumination in the entire chamber was the soft violet glow from the lasers. The lasers flickered once more, then went out.


Deep blackness—the thick absence of light that happens only underground. One tiny glitter remained: the red and green nuggets on the <BINK>-rod I held in my hand.

The room was utterly silent: nothing but the thud of my pulse. Then all around me, black gunpowder grains whispered against one another.



The cage had run out of power. No more mental shield protecting the angel from the demon. I could imagine Satan screaming in triumph as it crushed its good enemy with galaxy-sized willpower.

A million black cellules rustled again.

Quickly turning off the <BINK>-rod and tucking it up one sleeve, I gripped my Element gun in both hands. I pulled the trigger and swung in a fast circle, spraying a bright stream of fire spiraling outward. Dark grains sizzled as the flames swept across them, but the blaze only scorched a thin layer on the outside of the mound. Underneath the blistered surface, the Lucifer rolled itself forward like a dune in a windstorm.

"Sebastian!" I yelled. "Wake up!"

The boy didn't move.

I moved to his comatose body and stood astride him, gun ready to fire again. I'd released the trigger after the first burst, but there was enough light to see by—small patches of the Lucifer were burning, weak orange embers all around me. Those tiny fires must have caused the creature pain, but it showed no sign of being intimidated; the great black mound continued to close in, rasping as sand crept across the floor.

"Sebastian!" I loosed another gout of flame from the gun. Roaring orange streamed forth, painful to the eyes; it cast the Lucifer's shadow onto the room's stone walls. I made another complete circle with the fire, then quickly switched to acid. It spattered like deadly rain, hissing when it hit hot-spots left by the flamethrower. There were more ember patches on the mound now, dozens of them... but they just made it easier to see that the bulk of the Lucifer wasn't damaged at all. My gun could only dole out flesh wounds; and it would soon exhaust its ammunition.

Flame. Acid. Flame. Acid. Nothing stopped the Lucifer's steady approach. I was sure the alien mass could move faster—Jode had lashed out like lightning at Pelinor—but this was a creature who toyed with its prey. Before it killed me, Satan wanted to smell my fear.

Flame. Acid. Then I pulled the trigger and nothing happened.

I switched to bullets and emptied the clip. Despite the noise and muzzle flash, my barrage was as useless as firing rounds into a sandbank. When I ran out of lead, I tried hypersonics. No discernible effect; if anything, the rustling around me grew louder with gleeful anticipation.

The battery powering the hypersonics went dead. I dropped the gun and pulled the <BINK>-rod from my sleeve, pressing the activation button immediately. With luck, I'd banish a few more cellules from this plane of existence before a flood of them rushed down my throat.

Embers in all directions. The mound towered above me, twice my height.

"It's okay," I said to Sebastian—not from calm acceptance, but because I didn't want Satan to see me panic. "Your nanites will keep you safe; and I'll join my friends in whatever comes next, Gretchen. Oberon. Myoko. Pelinor. Impervia. The Caryatid. Annah." I took a deep breath. "Rosalind. I'm going to die like Rosalind, Sebastian. Unless you do something."

Glowing embers showed the Lucifer was almost within reach. "In the name of Most Merciful Compassionate God," I said. "Praise be to God, the Lord of all Being; All-Merciful, All-Compassionate, the Master of the day of judgment. Thee only do we worship and of thee do we beg assistance."

I lifted the <BINK>-rod to swing it at the mound... then suddenly, an idea blossomed inside my beleaguered brain. Inspiration. I dropped to my knees and whacked the rod hard on Sebastian.

To be honest, I doubted it would work—the nanites protecting the boy might resist the <BINK>-rod's effects, might even knock the rod from my hands before it made contact. But either the nanites couldn't resist or they were smart enough to recognize I had Sebastian's interests at heart. The <BINK>-rod came down... made contact... and the boy disappeared.

The gunpowder heap loosed a furious hiss, like a poisonous snake cheated of its prey. It hurtled toward me, no longer teasing out the moment of fear but trying to avalanche across the gap before I too escaped. The leading edge slammed against my legs, knocking me off my feet; but as I fell, I had time to swing the rod, slap my own chest with the tip...

...and the sandy roar fell silent. The burning embers vanished. I finished my fall and struck dust that billowed up in clouds on my impact.

A weight clinging to my legs sloughed off: gunpowder grains that had traveled with me on this abrupt trip to wherever. They dropped limply from my clothing into the dust, all sign of malice gone.

I looked up. I was inside another laser cage, much bigger than the one I'd just left, but still delineated by thin violet beams outlining a cube. Those beams showed this cage was still working, isolating the captured cellules from the Satanic overmind outside. It made perfect sense; since this was where Spark Lords sent bits of Lucifer, they'd erected a special holding cell to separate the parts from the whole.

Beyond the cell ceiling, stars shone untwinkling in a pure black sky. There was no sun, but amidst the starry waste floated a large cloudy blue moon. I knew it wasn't really a moon at all—I'd seen photographs from OldTech space missions, and I recognized the Earth when I saw it.

My homeworld. My planet. Drifting overhead as I stood in a laser prison on the moon.

"Pretty, isn't it?" said a voice behind me.

I turned. It was Annah.



For a moment, my heart surged with joy; then the joy was crushed by depression. "I know you're not real," I said. Dull weariness washed over me. "You're just another doppelgänger—a collection of all the cellules sent here over the years. I don't know how you realized that looking like Annah would torment me... but frankly I don't care." I still held the <BINK>-rod in my hand; I waved it in warning, like showing a cross to a vampire. "Come any closer, and I'll hit you with this. Unless I miss my guess, that will send you back to Niagara Falls. One tap brings you here. Another returns you to wherever..."

My voice trailed off. The Annah in front of me had brought out an identical <BINK>-rod. "This is the one Jode stole from Mind-Lord Priest. I was standing over Jode when I shot Knife-Hand Liz. The rod was right at my feet. I fired my gun, then dived to grab it; I used it on myself a millisecond before the Ring of Knives men tried to shoot me."

I stared at her numbly. Forcing myself not to believe.

"It's true, Phil," she said. "I got out in time. Didn't you notice I was gone?"

"There was an explosion," I mumbled. "Nothing but charred heaps of..." I didn't finish the sentence. "Annah?"

"Yes, Phil. It's me." She held open her arms.

I walked forward—knowing full well it might be a Lucifer trick. But I didn't care. If this vision of Annah transformed into a slurry of maggots that choked me to death, so be it. I was numb to fear, numb to hope, numb, numb, numb.

She wrapped her arms around me. I laid my head on her shoulder. She kissed my hair, but said nothing.

For a long time we just stood there, body to body. Her breath soft beside me; the smell of her skin and hair slowly working into my consciousness.

At some point, I put my arms around her too. But neither of us spoke as the Earth slowly drifted overhead.


We might have stood that way forever. What broke the spell was something bumping hard against my leg. I looked down and saw an amorphous black blob trying to wrap itself around my ankle. It was the size of a housecat but made of gunpowder grains that glinted in the Earthlight; I shook it off in disgust and it slid away, leaving a haphazard track in the moondust.

Annah unwrapped her arms from me. "There are lots of those things here," she said as she watched the blob weave away. I could see she was right; the cage held more than a dozen masses of similar size, moving apparently at random across the lunar surface. They showed no sign of intelligence—deprived of contact with Satan, they seemed as mindless as worms.

"They're used to being part of a larger consciousness," I said. "This laser cage cuts that connection; I guess it sends them into shock."

I told Annah what I'd learned from the good Lucifer... and as I talked, questions rose in my mind. If the good Lucifer had eventually come to its senses after being blocked off from the whole, why hadn't that happened to the wandering blobs in this cage? Were the blobs perhaps too small to regain their intelligence—not enough cellules, so not enough collective brainpower? Did the "angelic" Lucifer have a stronger self-identity than the Satanic version? Was it just that the angel had Spark Lords caring for it, and somehow the Sparks had nursed it back to sanity? Or could this version of the laser cage be different from the one in Niagara: not just sealing off the cellules from the hive mind outside, but suppressing their mental capacity so they couldn't collect their thoughts?

No answers, just questions... and when I'd finished my explanations, Annah had a question of her own. "If I understand this correctly," she said, "Dreamsinger sent Jode to this prison too. Jode had that rod which let him escape; but while he was here, wouldn't he have lost touch with the main consciousness just like these blobs?"

"You're right. Yet he kept enough intelligence to use the <BINK>-rod for his return." I shrugged. "Maybe the difference was that Jode was ready for the experience. He expected to get sent here. Maybe that expectation let him retain intelligence long enough to use the rod." I looked around at the scuttling blobs. "Or maybe every Lucifer retains intelligence for a while. It's only prolonged separation from the hive mind that makes them stupid. Or even... look, Jode knew in advance he'd get banished here. He could have prepared some sort of device, a clockwork attachment that swung the <BINK>-rod a few minutes after he'd arrived on the moon. That way it wouldn't matter if he went mindless—the rod would tap him automatically, so he'd return to Earth, and immediately link back with the hive."

"That last sounds most likely," Annah said. "It doesn't leave as much to chance; he could have been hiding the whole contraption right inside his body." She looked up at the bright blue planet in the sky. "By the way, I don't think that's the real Earth... and this isn't the real moon. There's no air on the moon, is there?"

"True. And there shouldn't be this much gravity either." I took a tentative jump. It felt like jumping on Earth—nowhere near the big bounce I'd have made under weak lunar gravity. "Both Jode and Dreamsinger talked as if those fancy rods sent you to an alternate dimension. I guess it amused the Sparks to make this prison look like the face of the moon: emphasizing the sense of banishment. But you're right, this isn't the real..."

A sizzling noise interrupted me. Annah and I whirled toward the sound.

Three paces away, Sebastian lay in the dust, still hugging himself into a fetal ball. One of the Lucifer blobs had pushed up against him during its mindless wanderings. Now, plumes of smoke billowed between it and the boy, as Sebastian's nanite protectors fought off the alien cellules; but the blob was too stupid to realize it had caught fire. It turned to one side, like a worm that has bumped against a wall and starts to inch along the wall itself—the worst thing the blob could do under the circumstances. It continued sliding along the length of Sebastian's body, burning all the way as the nanites continued to attack... but even before the blob reached Sebastian's toes and wobbled away smoldering, the nanite-generated flames had begun to dwindle. They just weren't as strong as when the blob had first stubbed up against the boy.

I wondered: was that because the nanites realized the blob wasn't bothered by fire? Or could there be another explanation?

Carefully, I stepped in and eased the bottom of my boot toward Sebastian's knee. I felt some resistance, like pushing through sand... but after a moment it yielded and my foot touched the boy's pant-leg.

"What are you doing?" Annah asked.

"Nanites," I said. She looked at me blankly; she hadn't been there when Myoko explained psionics to me. "It's too complicated to go into details," I told her, "but just as the Lucifer consists of little independent cellules, Sebastian's powers come from the same sort of thing: microscopic entities, sort of like bacteria. They're ubiquitous on Earth... but not here. The only nanites in this place are the ones we brought with us—in our bodies, in our clothes, and in Sebastian's protective shell."

Annah wrinkled her forehead. "So these nanites are cut off from the whole, just like the cellules?"

I nodded. "They're used to operating on Earth, where they're always surrounded by trillions of their kind. So think about them burning that blob just now—the nanites probably did it by incinerating themselves. On Earth that would be no problem, since there'd always be plenty of replacements for the ones that went up in flames; but here, where there are no replacements... every nanite that dies protecting Sebastian means the shell around the boy gets weaker."

"And I'll bet," said Annah, "the nanites left over aren't as smart. These things must be another collective intelligence, right? Just like the Lucifers. And when nanites burn up, it's like losing brain cells. The rest get more stupid."

She had a point. Under normal circumstances, nanites could draw on each other for brainpower—all the nanites in the air, the soil, everywhere. But here on this barren moon, with no fellow nano except themselves... it really was like the Lucifer cellules: once part of a huge brain, now fending for themselves. My ability to touch Sebastian proved his nanite protectors were no longer functioning normally.

I dabbed my foot once more against Sebastian's leg. This time there was no resistance at all; the protective shell had dissipated, the nanites too feeble-minded to stick to their programming. I crouched and hesitantly moved my gloved hand to the boy's arm. No nanites tried to stop me... so I gave him a light squeeze. "Sebastian. It's Dr. Dhubhai. Are you all right?"

He whined softly and tried to crunch himself into a tighter ball. Annah knelt beside me. "Give him time, Phil. There's no hurry, is there?"

I thought about the evil Lucifer, unrestrained now that the laser cage in Niagara had lost its power. Surely it would flee from the generating station as fast as possible, splitting itself into human-sized doppelgängers and blending into the local populace. If the creature didn't run, more Sparks would eventually show up, at which point...

At which point, the Lucifer could have disguised itself as a group of Keepers, wearing robes pulled off the corpses of real Keepers. The aliens might take the Sparks by surprise—might even kill a Lord or two by leading them into a trap. And if the trick didn't work, so what? Satan just lost a few million cellules. The overmind wouldn't care; it lost cellules all the time. Satan would gladly sacrifice a bit of itself for the chance of killing even one Spark.

The first Spark to die would be Dreamsinger. Even now, she lay unconscious before Satan's malice. The great black heap could simply press down on her until it had exhausted whatever batteries powered her force field; or maybe it could form an airtight dome over her, preventing the inflow of oxygen until Dreamsinger smothered. For that matter, maybe the same biological mechanisms that made lightbulbs and toasters could also manufacture neurotoxins: poisonous gases that the unconscious Sorcery-Lord would helplessly inhale.

All kinds of possibilities.

"I think we might be in a hurry after all," I told Annah. "We should wake Sebastian and get back to Niagara fast. Sebastian can use his powers to cage up the Lucifer... or destroy it outright, now that it's turned bad." I paused as another thought struck me. "Even if the Lucifer isn't raising havoc, we have to remove that dam across the river. By now, it's surely causing a flood—in the middle of a big city. People could die."

She met my eyes, then nodded. "Any ideas on how to break through the boy's trauma?"

"No. I tried and got nowhere."

Annah gave me a reproachful look. "You weren't working under the best conditions... but if you don't want to talk to him again, I'll see what I can do."

"He's all yours. He might respond better to a female voice."

She held my gaze a moment longer... then turned to Sebastian and called his name softly. I stood and walked away—as if my very presence could hamper Annah's progress. Ridiculous to feel self-pity at such a time; but as I stared at the Earth in the big black sky, the only thing on my mind was the leaden weight of failure.

The good Lucifer had believed that some force—the League of Peoples or someone else—recruited me to preserve the angel's soul. I'd been brought to Niagara Falls by the haunting and the prophecy because I supposedly had some strength, some skill, some gift which would let me save the day. Part of me had wanted to believe the myth: that I was special, a hero with hidden depths who could turn defeat into victory.

But I hadn't got through to Sebastian. The laser cage had flickered out. The good Lucifer was gone forever, its consciousness swallowed by evil. And if Sebastian eventually came to his senses, the credit would be Annah's—Annah, who'd rescued herself quite handily without any help from me.

I hadn't rescued a single person. Hadn't died in noble sacrifice. Hadn't used my scientific knowledge to conquer the foe. Hadn't used anything except my friends and my money-purse... as always.

A surge of disgust swept over me. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the purse, and cocked back my arm—intending to hurl the damned thing away from me, a symbol of my perennial uselessness. But before I completed the throw, I stopped. Something wasn't right. The purse: it was heavier than it should have been. Much heavier. And bulging tautly, like a rubbery black soccer ball inflated to maximum pressure.

I opened the purse. A rush of gunpowder grains spilled dryly onto my hands.

For a moment, I stared stupidly at the dark sandy flecks. How could a shovelful of cellules get into my purse? Only one answer: it must have happened while I was mindlinked with the good Lucifer—while I was surrounded by the mound, blind to the outside world. And it couldn't have happened by accident. The purse always sealed hermetically shut, airtight, watertight, impenetrable. The angelic Lucifer must have shaped itself into fingers, opened the purse, deliberately crammed the interior with cellules, then closed it up again... all while I was oblivious.

I turned toward Annah, intending to tell her about this strange development; but I never opened my mouth. All around the cage, the blobs that had been blundering blindly were now slithering my way: moving with sudden purpose, converging on my position. Cellules rasped against each other and the moondust beneath them—a hiss like the sound of the great black heap when the lasers had winked out and evil poured in.

Uh-oh. I dropped the purse, then ran to Annah and Sebastian, vowing I'd protect them from whatever happened next.

The closest blob reached the purse and flowed over it, merging with the cellules that had been inside. A ripple went through the dark mass, like a shudder of pleasure. Then another blob arrived and the process repeated: a melding, a ripple, the sounds of grain on grain.

"What now?" Annah asked.

"I had a stowaway. It seems to have given the other cellules a new lease on life."

"Was it a good stowaway or a bad one?"

"That's the question, isn't it?"

More blobs coalesced in the center of the cage—like tumbleweeds blown into a rock niche and massing in a single snarl. When all those cellules finished coming together, they'd create a mound as big as the one in Niagara... and judging by the purposeful way the blobs were moving, I was sure the mound would be intelligent.

Intelligent, yes; but good or evil? It had to be evil, didn't it? The good Lucifer's consciousness had been erased as soon as the laser cage lost power.


Could my purse have kept the angelic Lucifer safe? The angel had stuffed its cellules into my purse before the protective field collapsed. Therefore the little black grains had been angelic when they went in. Could the purse have kept them isolated from the onslaught of Satan?

A normal purse couldn't... but this purse was a gift from the Sparks to my grandmother... who bequeathed the purse to me...

I suddenly found myself laughing. Laughing freely out loud—not with hysteria but truly appreciating the joke.

"What is it?" Annah asked. "What's so funny?"

"My purpose in life," I said. "To carry..." I broke up again, unable to speak.

I inherited the purse from my grandmother. She'd received it from the Sparks thirty years ago. The Sparks got it from their mysterious sponsors in the League of Peoples. And the League, with flabbergasting prescience, had produced this high-tech purse way back when because they'd foreseen that on this very night they'd need a small container to protect the sanity of a few million "angelic" cellules.

My purpose in life was to carry the purse. Just that. My brains, my scientific training, whatever other virtues I counted as points of pride—they weren't important. I was merely intended to carry the purse.

Curiosity made me wonder how much the League had tampered with my life. I didn't believe for an instant they could actually see thirty years into the future; no, they'd made this happen by subtle pushes and shoves. Not just the haunting and prophecy that aimed me in this direction—how much had they influenced me back in the past? The League controlled the nanites that pervaded my brain; had those nanites been the reason I chose to leave Sheba? Why I crossed the ocean and took a teaching position at Feliss Academy? And what about my friends? Were they manipulated too, prodded this way and that to satisfy the League's scheme? Probably. Without the sacrifices of everyone else, I never would have arrived at the right place and time to save the Lucifer.

To carry the purse.

"Insh'allah," I said, still laughing.

"What?" Annah asked.

"It shall be however God wills. Or if you prefer King Lear, 'As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.' "

"Now you're doing quotations too?"

"Why not?" I smiled... but the smile was bitter. "We've done what we were supposed to, Annah. We've fulfilled the quest and redeemed Lucifer. We've won."


I gestured toward the accumulating heap of cellules. Just as big as the mound in Niagara. Lucifers had been sent here over the years and rendered mindless by the suppressing laser field—turned into blank slates ready to be assimilated when the good Lucifer arrived. That had been part of the League's plan too: assembling sufficient mass to be reclaimed. Now the angel had arrived; now the mindless cellules had become part of a new consciousness. A good consciousness... or at least one that pleased the League better than the roaringly defiant Satan.

Now we had a saintly mound as big as the demonic one back in Niagara. I didn't have the prophetic powers of the League of Peoples, but I could guess what would happen next.

A humanoid clump of black pulled away from the pile in front of us. It shivered as if it were cold; then the outer crust of gunpowder flaked away to reveal a smiling, radiant Rosalind.


"Hello again," the Lucifer-Rosalind said. Her voice was soft; her eyes shone. "Do you understand what's happened?"

Annah didn't answer. I said, "I understand in general. You might explain a few specifics."

"Such as?"

"How much of this the League made happen. How much they interfered in all our lives."

"I can't answer that," the Rosalind said.

"Can't or won't?"

"Can't." The girl lowered her eyes. "Your purse is roomy for a purse, but it couldn't hold enough to preserve my entire consciousness. I saved the most important parts of my personality—at least I think I did—but I had to sacrifice almost all of my memories. Whatever I knew about the League's plans... the knowledge is gone. I'm virtually tabula rasa."

"How convenient for the League."

"Very. I'm as curious as you are about the League's influence. How, for example, did I choose which memories I'd discard and which I'd keep? Did the League do that, or did I choose of my own free will? Does free will exist at all?" The Rosalind shrugged. "I have no answers. Considering that the amount I stuffed into your purse was roughly the size of a human brain, at this point I'm no wiser than you."

"At this point?"

The duplicate Rosalind smiled and gestured to the looming black heap behind her. "I've acquired new brain cells. With each passing moment, I can feel my mind expanding."

"Lucky you. The laser cage isn't trying to expunge your intelligence?"

"No. The suppression effect turned off as soon as you showed up with the purse. I believe the purse sends out a signal."

"Oh." I shook my head ruefully. "The League thinks of everything, doesn't it?"

"They do plan for contingencies."

"But you don't know what their plan is?"

"No." The Lucifer-Rosalind gave an apologetic look. "Short term, I'm sure you can figure it out for yourself."

I nodded. "We wake Sebastian... or rather, you wake Sebastian. In your current form, he'll listen to you more than Annah or me."

"That's likely," the Rosalind agreed.

"Then," I continued, "Sebastian uses one of the <BINK>-rods to return to Niagara. He undams the Falls, fixes the wires, and re-activates the laser cage... trapping inside any bits of Satan that are waiting to ambush the Spark Lords."


"Then you use the other <BINK>-rod to go back to Niagara. After a brief struggle, you assimilate the evil cellules that are still in the cage."

The pseudo-Rosalind smiled. "Let's say I restore them to sanity."

"So you increase your mass significantly and you get practice in bringing evil Lucifers back to the straight and narrow. One step closer to fulfilling the League's plans for you."

"I'm sure they have my best interests at heart."

I couldn't tell if the alien was being sarcastic. An upswell of bitterness made me say, "The League has everybody's best interests at heart. They're the good guys, aren't they? Supremely powerful, yet generous enough to let lesser beings take part in their schemes. Like Gretchen. And Myoko. And Oberon and Pelinor and all the others who died in this mess. If the League is so omniscient, they must have foreseen my friends' deaths. But the League let it happen anyway; in fact, they instigated everything, because we'd all be safe in Simka if the League hadn't nudged us into getting involved."

"You don't care that I'd have become evil?"

"The League could have prevented it without our help. A voice from the sky might have told Sebastian, 'That thing beside you isn't Rosalind.' Or the League could have gone to the Sparks. If the League had warned Mind-Lord Priest what was waiting for him at the winter anchorage, Jode could have been stopped right there. But instead, they left Priest in ignorance. So Priest died, Rosalind died, my friends died..."

I stopped. The Lucifer-Rosalind had her head cocked to one side as if she were listening to something. But the cage seemed very silent—the great black mound had stopped its rustling, leaving only the sounds of Annah's soft breathing and my own heartbeat. At last the Lucifer in Rosalind's form lifted her eyes to meet mine. "That was the League," she whispered.

"Speaking to you?"

She nodded. "They say... they don't interfere as much as you think. They can't. They think there's a chance some human will do something—they won't say what—but something that will solve a problem... answer a question... they think some member of your race may someday provide a bit of knowledge that even the League doesn't have. The creatures of the League are too locked into their own perceptions to see some... something... they suspect there's something they're not seeing, but they're blinded by their very omniscience. And Homo sapiens are at just the right intelligence level: a bit above animals, but not so smart that you genuinely comprehend... you haven't developed a truly logical view of the universe, so you're more open to stumbling on..."

I waited for her to finish her sentence. When she didn't, I said, "You mean if we were any smarter, we'd see the world in a consistent and rational way... which would prevent us from tripping over whatever the League is after."

"That's it," the Lucifer-Rosalind agreed. "And that's why the League hates tampering with your kind. They don't want to push you in any particular direction. They're afraid of imposing their own biases. So they changed Earth into a venue where your species would have ample freedom to do anything—anything. The only time the League gets involved is when something threatens Homo sapiens so severely that it endangers... whatever it is you have the potential to do."

"And one such threat is an evil Lucifer being loosed upon the world."

"Exactly. The League had to prevent that—but as unobtrusively as possible. Heavy-handed interference like voices from the sky or direct warnings might ruin everything they hope for."

"But not prophecies or hauntings?"

The Lucifer-Rosalind shrugged. "They don't want to tell humans what to do. They don't want to direct you. They occasionally have to catch your attention; but they never interfere with your choices." She laid a hand on my arm. "Everyone who died made a conscious choice. Gretchen chose to leave the prison of her house, pursuing a new life as a sorceress. Myoko chose to abandon her pretense of weakness and use her powers at full strength. Oberon chose to throw himself on Xavier. Pelinor chose to be the one who faced Jode. Need I go on?"

"None of them chose to die."

"But they knew they were taking risks. Some risks were more obvious than others... but your friends knew the risks were there."

"And Rosalind?" I asked. "Did she know she was taking a risk? How could she possibly realize her boyfriend was a killer in disguise?"

"She knew elopement was a risk. Marriage. Love. Sex. Not to mention the risks of angering her mother, and running off to Niagara where she might run afoul of her mother's enemies. But Rosalind chose her path willingly—joyously—and if the result wasn't what she expected, that's just the human condition. Your species has a severely limited ability to foresee the consequences of your actions; and if some more advanced species can tell what's going to happen, you invariably think you're being manipulated... when really you're just being predictable."

"Thanks so much," I muttered.

"Don't be upset," the Lucifer-Rosalind said. "It's precisely your lack of foresight that makes you valuable to the League. Smarter creatures always pursue their goals in the best way they know how—terribly boring! But you humans are mostly blind to the future, no matter how much you believe you're taking precautions. That's why someday, you might accidentally..."

She stopped. "I've said enough. And now it's time for me to whisper in Sebastian's ear."


The creature walked past Annah and me, a placid smile still on her borrowed Rosalind face. She knelt beside the boy; she began to talk softly to him, touching his cheek, caressing his hair. There was no way to tell, but perhaps she was also linking with Sebastian's mind, showing him the same things she showed me. Now that the boy had no nanite shell sealing him off, the Lucifer could touch him directly.

Annah took me aside. "Do you really think she'll get through to him? He's seen so many false Rosalinds; another might send him over the edge."

I shrugged. "If we were on Earth, he'd use his powers to reveal the truth; then he'd probably make the impostor explode. But here, there aren't enough nanites to allow psionic tricks. Sebastian can't send this Rosalind away or make her shut up... so in time, I think she'll find the words to bring the boy to his senses." I paused. "After all, this Lucifer is so much smarter than us mere humans, it can say exactly what's required."

Annah didn't answer right away. Finally, she said, "Do you think that was really the truth? All that stuff about the League hoping humans will do something or discover something..."

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe it's just a lie to keep us happy—to make us think we're important, and that the League isn't controlling our lives. Oh no, we aren't using you as puppets, you're too valuable to tamper with. Or maybe it is the truth... in which case, we'll find out soon enough."


"The Spark Lords will come for us. If the League really told the truth, they can't have us free to tell everyone else what's going on. That would spoil the experiment: ruin the naïve spontaneity that the League claims to value in the human race. So the Sparks, acting on League orders, will either kill us or conscript us... like War-Lord Vanessa did with Opal in the tobacco field. We're loose ends now; we have to be tied off."

Annah made a face. "I wish you hadn't said that."

"You'd rather not think about it?"

"No. Now the League has to kill us or conscript us; that's the only way to convince us they weren't lying."

"Sorry. Didn't think of that."

She smiled ruefully. "My Uncle Howdiri—the greatest thief in my family—always had a saying. 'Don't be a little paranoid; worry about everything, or let it all go.' So shut up, Phil, and let's just enjoy the Earthlight."

Obediently, I shut up.

We held hands.

We drew closer.

We enjoyed the Earthlight.



A sound caught my attention. Reluctantly, I turned from Annah and saw Sebastian standing a short distance off. He looked shockingly pale, like someone out of bed for the first time after a month-long illness; but the boy was conscious and vertical, his eyes able to focus even if they didn't quite meet my gaze.

The Rosalind look-alike was gone. A girl-sized mass of black slithered back through the dust toward the main heap of cellules. That surprised me a bit—I thought the Lucifer might have remained in Rosalind form to prod Sebastian in case he showed signs of a relapse. But maybe it was wise not to keep reminding the boy of the girl he'd loved and lost: best just to wake him and get out of the way.

Annah released her grip on me. "How are you feeling?" she asked Sebastian.

"Bad," he said. "But I'll live."

"Did the Lucifer explain everything to you?"

The boy nodded.

"You couldn't have known," I said. "There's no reason to feel bad because you were fooled by a monster."

"That's not why I feel bad." He took a quick breath. "Let's get this over with, okay?"

"You know what you're supposed to do?"

"I know what I'm going to do," he said. "Back to Niagara. Put things right. Once the cage is working again, we can bring the Lucifer home."

Home. Interesting choice of words.

I'd tucked the <BINK>-rod into my sleeve. Now I pulled it out and held it up. "I'll go with you," I said.

"No." Sebastian gave me a hard look. "I want to do this alone."

"You will be doing it alone," I said, "but the first few seconds might be messy. The rod likely takes us back exactly where we started—which means the middle of the cage. If the evil Lucifer is still there... well, it'll take your nanite friends a moment to swoop to your rescue. I want to make sure you survive that moment."

"You think I'm just a helpless kid?"

"No," I said, looking into his angry eyes. "After everything you've been through, you aren't a kid. But you aren't a man either—not if you let stupid pride reject a reasonable offer of assistance. A true man knows when he can use help."

"Oh good," Annah said. "Then you'll let me come too. I was afraid you'd want me to stay here until you big strong males made Niagara safe for womenfolk. But if a true man knows when he can use a help..."

I glared at her. She returned a look of total innocence.

"Let's just go," Sebastian said. "I'm tired."

Annah put one arm around the boy's shoulders and the other around me. "If we're linked together, will we transport together?"

"Only one way to find out," I said. I raised the rod.



I expected we'd return to blackness—the utter absence of light that had filled the prison cavern once the laser cage stopped working. But now there were oil lamps burning near the entrance to the chamber: lamps held by eight figures in Keeper robes, shedding enough light to see the entire room. Every last cellule had moved outside the prison cube. They must have wanted to avoid getting trapped if the lasers miraculously reactivated. A mound of them now lay heaped where Dreamsinger had fallen—probably trying to penetrate her armor's force field, or to suffocate her by sealing out fresh air. The mound was much smaller than the original Lucifer heap; the remaining mass had reshaped itself into human figures, those who were now dressed as Keepers. The false Keepers were busy assembling devices near the mouth of the cavern, contraptions of metal and plastic and electronic parts. I assumed the devices were weapons, traps to spring on the first Spark Lords who came to investigate. The components of the devices must have been produced by the evil Lucifer itself, in much the same way it created lightbulbs.

A moment after Annah, Sebastian, and I materialized, every Keeper turned our direction... their attention drawn by the distinctive <BINK> noise. The black mound pressing on Dreamsinger hissed sharply as if it too had noticed our arrival. The mound didn't move—if it shifted off, the Sorcery-Lord would be able to breathe again—but the Keepers by the entrance dropped what they were doing and charged at us full speed.

Their eyes were on Sebastian. They obviously realized they had only a tiny window of time to kill the boy before his powers reasserted themselves. Already, nanites in the air must have been processing Sebastian's presence; soon they would recognize him and congregate en masse to do his bidding. But not instantly—I didn't know how fast nanotech could work, but I suspected it would take several seconds to analyze the situation and summon sufficient force to provide adequate protection. Most of Sebastian's life, he'd been surrounded by an attendant nano cloud, immediately ready to do his bidding... but he'd left the normal plane of existence, and now that he was back, the nanites needed time to regroup.

Annah and I had to buy the boy that time.

We stepped in front of him, putting ourselves in the path of the charging Keepers. When we'd first arrived, they'd had normal human faces; but in their haste to reach us, they made no effort to control their features. Eyes and skin reverted to masses of granuled black, with here and there a maggot of white from the mutated Jode. All semblance of humanity vanished in a flash... and yet their writhing fleck-filled faces conveyed ferocious hatred, a lunatic hunger to splash our blood onto the cold stone.

I raised my fists the way Impervia always did when facing drunken rowdies. Beside me, Annah did the same. Our job was simple: keep the Lucifers away from Sebastian, even if we ourselves got torn apart in the process.

I wanted to tell Annah I loved her but that seemed so trite.


The Lucifers hit us like a battering ram. I managed to throw a punch in the split-second before impact... but my fist simply buried itself in yielding grains of sand, and then I was knocked off my feet by the sheer mass of attackers.

Two Keepers went down with me, unable to keep their balance after the tackle. We all hit the stone floor hard. I took the impact on my shoulder, slamming into the uneven rock; fortunately I was still wearing my winter coat, padded with enough eiderdown to soften the blow... but shoots of pain still lanced down my arm, leaving my fingers numb. The Lucifers, clad only in light robes, made more of a splash: close to my face, one of their arms literally exploded when it struck the stone, like a sandbag rupturing at the seams. The arm devolved into black grains spurting out the robe's sleeve. The splashing cellules made a raspy sound; but seconds after they burst apart they began skittering together again, trying to re-coagulate into the semblance of human flesh.

More robes rushed past me as I sprawled on the floor. I lashed out wildly, hoping to trip someone; my leg caught somebody's foot but I don't know how much effect it had. The world was a chaos of robes, cellules, and pseudo-anatomy. I couldn't see either Sebastian or Annah. The Lucifers seemed as disoriented as I was—if they'd made an effort to hold me down I could have been pinned easily, but they showed no interest in doing so. Even the Keepers who'd tackled me had scrambled off, struggling toward Sebastian. He was their target; I was nobody, a mere distraction. Therefore I had the freedom to claw at the creatures that crawled close beside me, with no answering attacks from the Lucifers. They were simply trying to get disentangled while I was doing everything I could to slow them down.

In the middle of all this confusion, I caught sight of Sebastian: still on his feet, but with three Keepers clutching him, one with its hands on the boy's head. It was trying to snap his neck... to give a sharp twist that would crack the cervical vertebrae or even rip the head clean off. Sebastian was fighting back, and perhaps a small number of nanites were helping him—resisting the pressure that torqued on his skull—but thus far, there was no overt sign of nano coming to the boy's aid. Millimeter by millimeter, Sebastian's head was turning too far; and even as I watched, one of the other Keepers sprouted a long bony claw and reached out toward the boy's exposed jugular.

A mass of black fury hurtled into the fray. For an instant, I thought it might be a chunk of the good Lucifer, <BINK>ed in from the moon. Then I saw it was...


Blood smeared her hands and the front of her clothes. I thought I could see a bullet hole pierced through her shirt high on the chest; but she was moving too fast for me to be sure.

She slammed a foot hard into the knees of the Keeper who was trying to break Sebastian's spine. Her heel drove straight through the Lucifer's legs, spraying cellules in all directions: instant amputation at the knees. The Keeper, no longer braced and supported, couldn't maintain the pressure on Sebastian's neck... and a moment later, the creature had to worry about its own head, as Impervia's elbow smashed into its temple.

The Lucifer's skull burst like a melon struck with a ball-peen hammer. Gunpowder grains flew in a black shower, splashing hard into the faces of the other two Keepers holding Sebastian. Considering that neither had eyes, they couldn't have been blinded by the sandy facefuls... but they were distracted long enough for Impervia to sweep one of the attackers off its feet and to hit the other with a palm-heel that dislocated its shoulder. Literally. The arm ripped off the torso and slumped limply, its fingers still gripping Sebastian's jacket.

I don't suppose any of Impervia's blows caused the Lucifers true pain. When you're a galaxy-spanning intelligence, a little wear and tear on your component parts can't hurt very much. But Impervia was striking hard enough to disrupt the intercellule cohesion that kept limbs attached and bodies in one piece. In other words, she was destroying the Lucifers' effectiveness. A detached arm has no leverage; a legless torso has no balance or mobility. The pieces were still dangerous—lethally so if you gave them time to sprout sharp extensions or garroting tendrils—but Impervia was systematically eliminating their capacity to fight in human form, and they obviously needed a few seconds to reshape for other modes of combat. One of the legs Impervia had kicked off was starting to shove up spikes along its surface, and the other was stretching out into something like a spear. In half a minute, both might be serious threats... but I doubted they'd have nearly that long to do what they wanted to do.

A wind had picked up in the cavern: a brisk breeze pouring through the tunnel mouth, whipping at loose clothes even as we all struggled to gain the upper hand. Impervia was still on her feet, punching and kicking; Sebastian stood now with a family-built saber in his grip, slashing at the hands that tried to grab him; Annah rolled silently on the ground, wrestling at least two opponents; and on the ground beside her, I lashed at every Lucifer within reach, punching, tripping, anything to keep them busy... while all around us the wind increased, stiffening into a gale that whistled past our ears.

I tried to inhale and the air was as gritty as smoke. It rasped in my mouth and nose, leaving a bitter taste like the crushed shells of insects. Some other place and time, I might have spat it out in disgust... but not now. Now, it filled me with vengeful joy—the nanotech cavalry was charging to our rescue, thickening the air like dust.

Despite Impervia's best efforts, there was still a Lucifer clutching Sebastian. It grappled with the boy, trying to wrest the saber from his hand—twisting the blade around in an attempt to force the weapon's cutting edge against anything that would bleed: Sebastian's arms, his legs, his throat, whatever target was vulnerable. For a moment the Lucifer loomed over the boy, a head taller, physically imposing... then the alien was nothing but an exploding sandstorm, a bursting flurry of black that blew apart so fast it shredded the robes containing it. The Lucifer detonated into a smeary ash-cloud, splashing out toward the walls of the cavern.

An instant later, the other Lucifers disintegrated in exactly the same way. Black grains flew past my face and robes ripped to tatters in front of me... but every ruptured particle missed me by a hair's breadth, as if a bacteria-thin barrier had sprung up to shield me from the blast.

Thank you, nanites. Thank you, Sebastian.


No sooner had the enemy been dispersed into individual cellules than they began to be gathered again: piece by piece, grain by grain, the cellules were lifted off the ground and swept toward the center of the laser cage—like errant goats being herded back into a pen. I could picture teams of nanotech goatherds entrapping each fragment, levitating it, fetching each cellule back to its designated prison.

Annah laid her hand on my arm. "Time for us to move."

We were still in the cage ourselves, both of us on the floor; as we got to our feet, Impervia joined us. Sweat beaded her face, but she looked happy—not in her usual grudging way, but with a genuine smile. "I'm not quite sure what's happening," she said, "but I think we won."

"Sebastian won," I told her. "But you helped hold out till he got reinforcements."

"Good enough. Where's the Caryatid?"

Annah was the one to answer. "The Caryatid is dead... but she died well. If there is such a thing as dying well." She paused. "We thought you were dead too."

"Don't be ridiculous," Impervia said, her face shifting from that rare smile into a more typical look of disapproval. "I admit I got shot, but it was just a graze. I blacked out briefly, but I'm perfectly fine now."

I looked at the shirt of her habit. "Perfectly fine, are you?" Now that she wasn't a blur of motion, I could see there was a bullet hole straight through the cloth. I pointed it out to her. "What do you think caused that? Moths?"

She dropped her head to look at the hole. In surprise, she pulled out her collar and looked down inside her shirt. "There's a wound," she said slowly, "but it's completely healed. Nothing but a scar. Bullet-sized." She lifted her eyes in wonderment... then sudden disgust crossed her face. "It's not a miracle. It must be Sebastian's work."

I thought about that. When Impervia got shot, a geyser of blood had come fountaining out of her; then it stopped abruptly, as if cut off. I'd thought the stoppage was due to her heart giving out... but Sebastian had still been awake at the time, in full command of his powers. He'd also just realized this was the real Impervia, a flesh-and-blood woman who bled when she cut her arm.

Sebastian must have told his nanite friends, "Heal her." Immediately nano-surgeons flocked in to seal her wounds, repair the damage, set things right—and while she lay there healing, she'd looked so much like a corpse that neither I nor the Lucifer had bothered to check whether she was really dead.

I turned toward Sebastian to ask if that's how it happened; but the boy was englobed in a dim golden shell, an egg-shaped container of light that pulsed like a heartbeat. Inside the shell his eyes were closed with a look of deep concentration. I could imagine him giving telepathic commands to the nanotech world... or perhaps just communing with some nano overmind, not handing out orders but amiably discussing what should happen next.

Smash the dam. Restart the generators. Mend the cables. Restore the laser cage.

And was he asking for more? I didn't know. Would Sebastian ask his friends to bring Rosalind back to life? Or create a being from nano who looked and acted like Rosalind? Could he do the same for the rest of the dead: raise up doppelgängers of Myoko, Pelinor, the Caryatid? And if that were possible, would I want it? Would I accept artificial stand-ins for my friends, even if the replacements were perfect copies? Would Sebastian accept a replica Rosalind?

Annah nudged me. "We have to get out of the cage; the lasers might start any second." I nodded and let her lead me off... but as I did, I couldn't help gazing at her in doubt. Was she real? Did the original Annah truly <BINK> to safety in time? Or did the League create a duplicate to smile and greet me once I reached the moon? And what about Impervia? Did she really survive or was she some League simulacrum, sent to buy time for Sebastian?

Ridiculous things to think about. If the League wanted Annah and Impervia to survive, the universe would oblige. Annah would have an escape route, and she'd use it with milliseconds to spare. Impervia's wounds would heal at exactly the right speed for her to recover and charge in like an avenging angel. There'd be no need for artificial replacements.

And yet...

I looked at Annah again. She smiled back, but there was questioning in her eyes, as if she wondered why I was staring at her so oddly. "It's nothing," I said. "It's nothing."


With a crackle and hum, the lasers pulsed on. Sebastian remained in the cage, still surrounded by his shell of golden light. Several seconds passed, then <BINK>... and suddenly, there were twice as many cellules within the prison cube. The saintly Lucifer had returned from the moon. With no visible hesitation, all the black grains flowed together into a single heap—the formerly evil cellules instantly converted by the force of the angel's mind.

"And there we go," I said. "Mission accomplished."

"Quest accomplished," Impervia corrected. "But there'll be more quests to come."

"Why do you say that?"

She nodded toward the mouth of the cavern. Two figures had appeared in the entrance, lit by lamps left behind by the Lucifer-Keepers. One of them wore green plastic armor, similar in style to Dreamsinger's but not endowed with female appurtenances; it had to be Science-Lord Rashid, the Spark who'd passed me by in college. The other person was more familiar: Opal Quintelle, Chancellor of Feliss Academy. When she caught sight of us, she whispered to Rashid—probably telling him who we were. Then she hurried forward to greet us.

Rashid stayed behind... maybe getting ready to shoot us if we turned out to be Lucifers in teachers' clothing.

"Sorry we didn't get here sooner," Opal said. "The High Lord decreed that Dreamsinger had to handle this mess on her own. I think he was following a request from... higher up. Anyway, we had to wait till it was over." She smiled apologetically. "But you're alive. That's wonderful."

"We're alive," Impervia answered. "The others weren't so blessed."

Opal dropped her gaze. She had the good sense not to recite that inane phrase of hers about being expendable—Impervia might have punched her. After a moment, Opal lifted her eyes again. "What about Dreamsinger?"

"We haven't checked on her yet," I said. "Last I saw, the evil Lucifer was still trying to smother her. I suppose that's a good sign—if the Lucifer had actually killed Dreamsinger, it would have gone on to other things."

"Where is she?"

I gestured to the rear of the laser cage. From where we were standing near the chamber entrance, I couldn't see the Sorcery-Lord's unconscious form. Opal couldn't see either; she tried for a moment, then waved to Lord Rashid. "Your sister is around at the back. They think she might be alive."

Rashid nodded but didn't move. He was still staring at us; I suspect he was scanning us with devices in his armor, making sure we were actually human.

"What's going to happen now?" Annah asked.

"I discussed that with Rashid on our way here." She glanced at the Science-Lord as if asking permission to speak; he made no sign one way or another, so Opal continued. "Rashid thinks it might be best if everyone went to Spark Royal for a while."

Impervia's eyes narrowed. "How long a while?"

"That depends." Opal gave a sheepish look. "You're lucky Dreamsinger isn't on her feet—she'd probably just kill you. But Rashid is sane... and inclined to be softhearted when there's no need for ruthlessness."

"Can't this Rashid speak for himself?" Impervia asked.

A chuckle came from the green armor. "Of course I can," the Science-Lord said. "But I thought I'd go with the strong silent act. My family thinks I should be more imposing."

He came forward with a light step, removing his helmet as he did. When he'd visited the Collegium Ismaili, Rashid had never taken the helmet off; now I saw why. Judging by his face (with a droopy mustache and Asian features, framed by long black hair), I guessed he was at least five years younger than me... which meant he must have been Sebastian's age when I was in university. Wise of him to remain a mysterious armored figure back then—if he'd shown he was just a teenager, he'd have received far less respect from us "sophisticated" twenty-year-olds.

Now a full-grown adult, Rashid gave a placating smile. "I'm not here to drag you off kicking and screaming... nor do I make a habit of killing people to keep them quiet. If you promised not to divulge the true purpose of this power plant, I'd be inclined to let you go. But," he said, glancing at Sebastian (who still glowed in an aura of light within the laser cage), "there's the boy to consider. We can't let someone that powerful run loose—not when he's only sixteen. The world is full of unprincipled people and someone's bound to trick or seduce him into things we'd all regret. So Spark Royal wants Sebastian under its wing till he can be trusted not to cause trouble."

"You mean you want to enslave him?" Impervia asked.

"Don't be ridiculous. Why would we antagonize someone so powerful? If we tried to put Sebastian in chains, he'd hate us for it; even if we succeeded in locking him up, we'd have to expend a great deal of effort keeping him quiet, after which he'd probably escape anyway and become a dangerous enemy. So what's the point? I won't pretend that Sparks are too noble to imprison an innocent boy, but why provoke needless hostility? We want Sebastian on our side as a willing ally. That's where you come in."

He looked at us expectantly. Impervia bristled, but Annah only returned the look. "You want us to persuade Sebastian to do what you want?"

"Not quite. I want you to be Sebastian's chaperons. His teachers." Rashid smiled. "You'll come to Spark Royal where you'll help the boy gain maturity... and of course, my fellow Lords and I will provide any assistance you ask for. You and Sebastian will be respected guests—no bars on your windows, no locks on your doors, no obedience spells, no blackmail. Opal tells me you're talented people. That's good; we always have jobs for talented people."

"In other words," Impervia said, "you intend to use us."

"Exactly," Rashid answered with a grin. "Don't you want to be used? Damned near everyone longs for something meaningful to do—a reason to get out of bed, a justification for living. This is your chance: not just looking after Sebastian but helping Spark Royal keep the planet from falling apart. I admit we Lords aren't saints; we're ruthless bastards and we always play dirty. If you agree to work for us, half the time you won't know the purpose of your duties... and when we do explain, we might not be telling the truth. But that's the real world, folks: not quests, but strategic missions. And I promise, you'll always be able to say no."

"How much are your promises worth?" Impervia asked.

Rashid laughed. "I break promises as easily as I break wind, but only when it makes sense. It's seldom sensible to betray a useful colleague... and that's what I hope you'll be."

"Impervia," Opal said, "if you work for the Sparks, you'll truly make a difference. And they do let you say no. They won't coerce you into assignments you hate, because they know your heart won't be in it."

"And of course," Rashid added, looking straight at Impervia, "your first assignment will be to look after Sebastian. Surely a Handmaid of the Magdalene would have no qualms about that. Helping mold the character of a powerful psychic? Teaching him right from wrong? Need I point out that if you don't do it, someone else will?"

Impervia's eyes narrowed... but the ghost of a smile played about her lips. "Lord Rashid, you have the serpentine voice of worldly temptation. However, if I were allowed to consult about this with my Mother Superior..."

"Do you think your Mother Superior will refuse a chance to win favor with Spark Royal? Not to mention you'll be in a position to obtain useful inside information and to influence Spark decisions for the greater glory of your Holy Magdalene. But if you really think you need to talk to your boss, I'll arrange it." He turned toward Annah and me. "As for you two... Opal tells me you're a scientist, Dhubhai. It so happens I need a personal assistant; my last one didn't work out. Would you like the job? You'll learn more in two weeks with me than you would in twenty years at your precious academy."

"Uhh..." I looked toward Annah.

"Oh, Ms. Khan can help too." He smiled at Annah. "Opal says you're musical. Do you happen to play violin? I love the violin. In fact, I have an uncanny fondness for male and female assistants who know science and play the violin." He gave a sly look at Opal, then turned back quickly to us. "Ignore me—I'll explain some other time. The question is, are you interested?"

I looked at Annah. She returned the look and shrugged. The shrug turned into a smile—a lovely smile.

Impervia gave a loud sniff. "Stop that," she said. "If I have to go to Spark Royal, you both do too. Do you think I want to drink tea alone on Friday nights?"

I whispered to Rashid, "Do you have bar brawls in Spark Royal?"

"Not in Spark Royal," he said. "But when you work for the Sparks, you'll get plunged into brawls all over the world. I pretty well guarantee it."

I winked at Impervia. She gave another loud sniff.

Annah put her hand in mine and kissed me on the cheek. "We can do this," she said softly. "What is there for us back at the school?"

"Nothing," I answered. Not Myoko or Pelinor or the Caryatid. Not Gretchen either. I'd cry for them in the days to come; but the past must yield to the future.

The future was Spark Royal, Lord Rashid, and Annah. I smiled at her.

"Oh for heaven's sake," Impervia groaned. "Just kiss each other and be done with it!"

Laughing, Annah and I kissed... but I hoped we'd never be done with it, ever.


JAMES ALAN GARDNER is a graduate of the Clarion West Fiction Writers Workshop and has published numerous works of short fiction in leading genre publications. He is the author of five previous novels—Expendable, Commitment Hour, Vigilant, Hunted, and Ascending—and was a Grand Prize winner of the Writers of the Future contest. He lives with his wife, Linda Carson, in Canada. His website address is http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim and he can be reached by e-mail at jagardner@thinkage.ca.


Copyright © 2002 by James Alan Gardner

ISBN: 0-380-81330-0