Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chapter Twenty-three: Survive(Part Two)



Midnight burst out onto the Rosaline Star's deck, bow in one hand, arrow in the other. She turned left and right, but apart from the screaming Whisper chained up in the hold below, she was alone. Midnight took a moment to slam the hatch to the hold closed, and the Whisper's protests abruptly became inaudible. Hopefully Vaneer and Jason wouldn't execute her or torture her or both for what had just happened, but even if they did, it wasn't Midnight's lookout.

She hadn't put her helmet on, just her armor. She basked in the feeling of the chilly night wind on her face, billowing off the harbor with just a touch of sea spray in it. She drank in the smell of salt.

"Luna," she whispered after a moment. "Luna, Luna." She glanced around. "I have to..."

The file, though - and MacTavish! Midnight swore. There was too much. Too many things she had to...

"Camilla!" a voice shouted, and Midnight froze. She spun around to see two figures approaching up the gangplank, each one in White Hand uniforms. "Camilla, how's the-"

They recognized her. She should have put her helmet on. Midnight dove to the side as both men raised crossbows, and bolts soared through the air where she'd been. Out came her bow and she fired, taking one in the shoulder with a snapshot. Both White Hand discarded their crossbows in lieu of reloading, and on they charged, drawing swords-

Midnight parried with her bow, once, twice. She ducked under a strike and flipped her enemy past her, then went head to head with the second one for a moment. One end of her bow took the man in the face, and he nearly spun all the way around. Midnight jumped, legs coming up as she whirled in the air, and her spinning kick sent her foe flying almost ten feet into the foremast. He slumped in ruin.

"Gotcha!" shouted the other one, his sword coming down mere inches from Midnight's nose. She lurched backward, then spun into a hook that sent her enemy staggering. She clutched her bow-

She cried out as he drove a knife into her thigh. It punched through her armor with some difficulty, and she felt the sense of violation as he abandoned the knife and left it sticking in her. She stumbled a step to the side, but it was only pain.

Only pain. The White Hand's smile faltered as her eyes snapped up to his.

An instant later, with six cracked bones, he soared over the rail and into the harbor below, unable to scream as he clutched his broken larynx.

Midnight clutched the hilt of the knife in her leg. She spent a moment going back and forth on the wisdom of ripping it out and flinging it away very dramatically, but the blood flow didn't seem arterial.

"Leave it in," she whispered to herself. "If you can. Take it out if it gets in the way."

Destination. She needed to go somewhere she could look at the wound, assess its seriousness, and get moving again.

"Home," she muttered. "Kui can fetch Belthor if needed. I can secure the file and warn MacTavish while I'm at it."

There. A plan. She had a plan. Midnight inhaled sharply, testing her leg. Even with the knife sticking out of it, it would bear her weight...even if it hurt. Even if it was stiff.

"It doesn't matter," she muttered to herself. "It's pain. It's only pain." She drew a grapple arrow from her quiver. "Home."

She swung off into the darkness an instant later.

***

Midnight clambered over the rail onto her balcony, setting her bow against the wall as she entered her room. She dropped to a seat on her bed, grabbed her nightdress, and leaned down to stick a hand underneath where she sat.

"Oh, thank the gods," she said as she pulled the Plan Thirteen file from where she'd left it. She dropped it by her side. "Kui? Kui!"

He wasn't here. Midnight swore. She'd have to go looking for him. There was simply too much for her to do - she had to give him the file and send him to warn MacTavish, and then she could go to Belthor and get healed...and then Luna...

"Luna," she whispered. "I'm coming."

She took the hilt of the knife and breathed for a moment. Before she did anything, she plucked the chocolate basket Luna had given her from her bedside table, and put the handle between her teeth.

"Ah!" Midnight grunted as she ripped the knife out. Immediately, she popped her armor open - not just her leg, all of it. She drank in the air on her body as she examined the incision. Against all the odds...it was a flesh wound.

"No artery damage," she whispered to herself happily. "Bind it and be on your way." She took her nightdress and ripped it in half, then repeated the process a few times. In moments, she had a long white strip of fabric, and she wrapped it around her thigh, bundling more material on the wound.

"There," she muttered, testing the leg. "That'll-"

Knock knock.

"Kui?" Midnight asked. She stood. "Kui, if that's you-"

"Estelle, you're awake?" That...was her mother. She sounded very surprised. "I was just..."

Okay, her mother. Her mother could warn MacTavish. "Come in, come in," Estelle said. She slid her armor down out of sight. "Have you seen Kui-"

"He left a little while ago," Andromeda said, entering. She held a purse in one hand, and Estelle frowned.

"Are you going somewhere?"

"I have an errand," Andromeda said. "Luna and I. We're off to see one of the Lords...oh, she's probably waiting for me at the carriage already, I just wanted to see if you were awake-"

"Mother," Estelle said, blinking. "Mother, Luna's not waiting at the carriage, and you don't have business with her tonight."

Andromeda blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lie." She seemed to deflate. "It's just hard since your father died-"

Oh. "Oh!" Estelle raised her hands. "That's fine, that's fine." She forced herself back on track. "I need to tell you something. It's important."

"Me too," Andromeda said. Midnight shook her head.

"No, listen to me. Someone's going to kill John MacTavish. They're going to try and spark a war between the Clans and Nurem."

Andromeda blinked as Midnight passed on the information. That was the thing: her mother had always been very hard for her to read. Blinked was about the only reaction Midnight could see.

"Of course," Andromeda said as Midnight finished. "I'll go to him, I will. This...how did you get involved in this?"

"Later, I promise," Midnight said. "There's something else I have to do, though. And I have to go now. I need Kui."

"Estelle-"

"What?" she asked. Andromeda almost seemed to have tears in her eyes.

"You're so much like him," she finally whispered. "I love you, you know that, Starchild?"

"Of course," Midnight said. "Now-"

"Say it, please."

She blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Please, just...say it," Andromeda urged. "Just so I can hear it. In case..."

Midnight felt herself loosen just a little. "I love you too, Mother. And I know you love me. I always have. I've never doubted."

"My baby." Andromeda was definitely crying now. She extended her arms, and Midnight paused her preparations for one quick hug. "I missed you so much. All those years you were gone."

"I'm here now."

"I know. And that's why..." Andromeda inhaled shakily. "All those years...and I hoped you'd never come home."

"What?" Midnight paused. "Wait, you mean-"

"You spent your life tossed around back and forth," Andromeda explained. "Betrothed on my whim, rushing to the altar with a man you'd never met, twice your age...it was horrible for you. I hoped you'd found freedom and peace somewhere out there, and that you were happy, but that you'd never come back. That way, you could be what and who you wanted to be, my love."

"Mother..." Midnight shook herself. "I need to-"

"And...that way..." Andromeda seemed to brace. "That way I..."

"Mother-"

Bang!

Estelle staggered as pain lit up her midsection. She clutched her stomach, and she felt blood pour between her fingertips. Smoke rose for the ceiling, and her mother's arm wrapped around her tighter. Something hard pressed into her chest, a little higher now.

Bang!

Estelle couldn't scream. She just gasped, blood dripping from her mouth. She stumbled backward, her mother's arm still around her, with two bullet holes in her stomach and chest, her blood soaking through her shirt and dripping to the carpet...

"Shh," Andromeda whispered, stroking Estelle's hair. "I'm sorry, Starchild. I'm so, so sorry." Those tears ran down her cheeks still, and Estelle's eyes widened as she saw a purple tint to her mother's.

"Vaneer," she gasped, glancing down at the silver lantern-shaped necklace around Andromeda's neck. Why hadn't she noticed it before? Why hadn't she...

Estelle collapsed on one knee, clutching at her mother's dress. She wasn't strong enough, though, and she fell next on her back, staring at the ceiling worlds away. Her fingers held only the carpet as she grabbed for purchase.

"The will of the Messiah is unstoppable," Andromeda said, and now her voice sounded deeper, harsher - more like Vaneer's. Estelle coughed blood as her mother stepped over her in a rustle of skirts, casually claiming the file on Plan Thirteen from her bed.

"Let her go," Estelle ordered, managing to catch her mother's ankle. "Let her go, Vaneer. Her and Luna."

"He won't," Andromeda said, holding onto her necklace with one white-knuckled finger. "This world is his...and I'm still sorry. I wish you'd gone to school like I wanted." Her tears redoubled. "I never wanted this, Starchild. Never. But his will is eternal. And you are in his way. It was inevitable."

"Help me, please...for Luna..."

"The only way I can save Luna is to let you die," Andromeda said. Her face worked with some kind of unimaginable pain. Her fingers released, and Estelle saw the gem on her necklace glowing purple to match the tint in her irises. "And the choice is no longer mine, love."

She shook Estelle's grip off with the tiniest of motions. She watched her mother sweep to the door, pausing only to light the lamp hanging in the center of the room.

"It seems a shame to let you die in the dark," Andromeda said, as she turned the lock. She glanced back at Estelle once, a hand on the door. "I hope you find peace, Estelle. Tell your father I love you both."

Estelle raised a hand with all the strength she had left. It didn't matter.

The door shut behind Andromeda, and Estelle was alone in the suffocating embrace of the light, staining the carpets red as her heart beat her blood straight out of her body.

She'd lost.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Chapter Twenty-three: Survive(Part One)



Estelle turned her head as Tempest reentered the Rosaline Star's cargo hold. She and a team of White Hand warriors approached the bilge grate, and the Gifted woman shoved the heavy blockage Jason had put in place out of the way with the help of two others. Up went the steel thing.

"Out." Tempest watched as her two helpers hauled Luna out of the water. Estelle's sister spat bilge water onto the deck, sucking in gasps of air and shivering convulsively in the cold. Someone pulled the manacle off her ankle, and she shakily rose to her feet.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked.

"Shut up," was Tempest's informative reply.

"Let her go," Estelle ordered. "She's useless to you. She doesn't know anything."

"That's hardly the same thing," Tempest observed. "We know what we're doing, Estelle."

"Then why am I still alive?" she asked.

"Because we might have need of you yet," Tempest replied. "I doubt it though."

"Am I going to see her again?" Luna asked. "Or are you going to kill me?"

"Come along, or we will make you," Tempest told her.

"Can I-"

"Come along," Tempest repeated. "Or-"

Luna turned and bolted. Estelle gasped as she appeared over her. In an instant, she was enveloped in her big sister's embrace.

"You'll be okay," Luna said, almost imploringly. "You're not going to die. You're not."

"Neither are you," Estelle said. "Luna-"

Hands seized her sister. Luna cried out and fought as they yanked her away from Estelle. She reached out, and Estelle did too. Their hands met for one moment.

Then the grip was shattered, and Estelle clenched her fists as a White Hand drove the hilt of his sword into Luna's stomach. She fell to her knees, gasping, only to cry out as the man continued his assault with fist and foot. Her blood sprayed the deck.

"Stop it!" Estelle shouted. "Stop it!"

She got a punch to the face for her trouble, but the bombardment against Luna did stop. Estelle lay atop her prison, working her jaw before spitting blood off to the right.

"If you do that again, Luna Marona, we will kill you then and there," Tempest warned. "Your only chance to survive tonight is to cooperate."

"I understand," she gasped from the floor. "I'm sorry. I'm done."

"Luna," Estelle started, but she broke off when Tempest pointed a finger at her.

"No more from you," the woman ordered. "You, gag her." An instant later, Estelle had a nasty, moldy piece of cloth of a sort whose function she preferred not to think about jammed into her mouth. Tempest nodded. "All right, then. Let's move."

Estelle watched the White Hand follow Tempest out of the hold, taking her battered, staggering, bloody sister with them. Her heart pounded like a deranged drumbeat and her skin tingled with cold electricity.

I'm not going to die, she told herself, driving the thought back and forth. Hell no, I'm not going to die.

Because clutched in her fist was one of Luna's hairpins.

***

"Excuse me, young man?"

"Yes, Lady Andromeda?" Kui asked as Estelle's mother caught him - almost literally - in the hallway.

"Have you seen Estelle?" she asked. "I didn't notice her at dinner earlier."

"I have," Kui said. "She's in her room, sleeping. Bad night last night, you see."

"Oh." Andromeda blinked. "Oh, well, in that case, could you tell her when she awakes that I'd love to see her more at meals?"

"Um. Certainly." Kui smiled as amiably as he could. "I'll pass it on."

"Thank you." And then Andromeda was gone. Kui stared after her. His eyes flicked to one of the clocks set against the wall.

Ten-thirty, he told himself. She was supposed to be back two hours ago. An hour to get there, an hour to be there, an hour to get back. Even giving her an extra hour and a half on top of that, she was supposed to be here half an hour ago.

Something had happened. And Kui didn't like not knowing what it was.

"So, the answer's obvious," he told himself. "I need to find out."

That settled that. The Islander turned and started for the gates out of the Marona Palace, teeth set.

***

Camilla was a Whisper. She was proud of that and all, but somehow, it didn't strike her as Whisper duty to babysit a captive. A captive, no less, who was chained to a crate full of anvils and smithy equipment that Jason Slattery himself couldn't move, and that man could bench-press Camilla herself, and her best friend Becky, at the same time. There was no way Miss Marona was going anywhere.

Camilla paced along the deck of the Rosaline Star, watching the constellations overhead. She glanced around.

"Of course I'm the only one left," she muttered. "Of course. Becky's off with Tempest, doing the Messiah's work, and here I am, the only one who has to sit on the ship while the plan is taking shape." She folded her arms. "I should be with Jason, that's where I should be. It'd be fun." She glanced back at the hatch to the cargo hold. "But then there's this."

Talking to herself wasn't helping. And Jason had pulled her aside before he left and told her that the Messiah only needed Marona in fit condition to talk when he returned. It would be fun to go down there and make Miss Prissy Princess McTraitor squirm and scream, wouldn't it? Better than charting constellations and wishing she was somewhere else.

Camilla descended into the cargo hold before she was really certain what she was going to do to Marona. She had plenty of options. Fire, fire sounded nice. Fire always made people-

"Oh, come on," she whispered as she advanced through the hold. "Did Tempest seriously blow all the lights out?"

That sucked. Camilla went looking for a lamp, pulling out one of her tindertwigs. Amazing things, tindertwigs: the kinds of things dwarves invented were just astounding. Camilla struck one against her thigh armor, and she hummed a sad song to herself as she lit the first lamp she-

"What?" she whispered as she held up the light, looking at the crate Miss Marona had been affixed to. Where once there had been a prisoner, now she just saw a set of chains lying discarded left and-

Wham! Camilla wound up on the floor after that blow, and another came right on its heels, which struck her as unfair. She was already completely disoriented. She didn't need more-

Wham! Wham!

Her thoughts became very disjointed. She could barely think, and the light had gone out in the ambush - and that it was an ambush wasn't in doubt. She almost felt like she was being lifted and set down somewhere...

Click. Click. Click. Were those the chains? Camilla shook herself, but to her growing horror, she found she was fastened down in Marona's place.

Click. Now it was her armor, being opened at the thighs and biceps and chest very efficiently, by someone who clearly knew what she was doing. Camilla's attempt to struggle just earned her a vicious jab to the throat that left her unable to breathe for a moment.

"How did you get out?" she demanded in a hoarse voice when she recovered. No response from the pitch-black hold around her. Camilla swore as she heard someone walking around, knocking things over like they were rooting around for something. "Who helped you?"

Something sprayed over Camilla, something grainy. She coughed and spat, shaking her head as whatever it was got in her eyes. She wished she could rub them.

"The hell was that?" she demanded.

"Gunpowder." The voice was cold, dispassionate. Barely human. "It's coating your arms, your legs...all your skin, really. Your face. It's in your eyes."

"And?" Camilla felt a tingle of sudden fear despite her bravado.

"And..." A hand claimed one of her pouches off her belt. An instant later, flame lit up the hold, and she was confronted by a midnight-haired woman with cold, sadistic brown eyes and a lit tindertwig between her fingers. "And if I throw this on you, it'll burn your skin off, char your eyes, light your hair...and that's the first part. Then the crate you're sitting on catches fire, and it's your back that's burning. You won't die yet, no. That'll happen when, after a few minutes of that, the flames reach the powder stockpile over there and the entire ship explodes. All because of this little flame." The woman leaned forward, putting her free hand on Camilla's throat, with just enough pressure she coughed. "Where. Is. My. Sister?"

"You...won't," Camilla hissed. "Your precious morality caused you to abandon the Light in the first place. You paused your escape from the Garredin house to save one of their worthless nobody guards. You're too soft."

"It's let Luna die or burn your skin off your bones and listen to you shriek so loud you'll wake up the entire city," Marona said reasonably. "Three."

Camilla dropped her head. She swallowed despite the hand on her throat. "A Guiding Light for all mankind-"

"Two."

She inhaled shakily. "You're bluffing."

"One."

Camilla shut her eyes tight. She heard a sigh.

"All right, then." The hand retreated-

"Okay!" Camilla turned her head to the side, for all the good it wouldn't do. "They're taking your sister to the woods. Just past that stupid wizard's camp, right off the main road, where she'll be found quickly. Blame it on the Clan savages."

"Is that all? Where are Jason and Vaneer going?"

"They're going after MacTavish," Camilla found herself saying, while dreading what the Messiah would do to her when he found out about this. "The Clans will blame Nurem."

"Marona, MacTavish," her captor said. "One way or the other, Vaneer gets his war. Where's my armor and gear?"

"Captain's cabin," Camilla hissed. "I've told you all I know, traitor. Are you happy?"

"Certainly." Marona stepped back, and Camilla's breath caught as she lifted the tindertwig. "Catch."

"No, please!" Camilla screamed as the flaming thing landed atop her-

And promptly fizzled out.

"It was flour," Marona said to a very puzzled and relieved Camilla, as she turned and sprinted for the deck.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Update - Progress Report! Sequel!


Good morning/afternoon/evening/night/non-specific time, to all who are reading this! Oh, I left you at a cliffhanger, didn't I? Silly me! Tune in next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel! ;-)

Midnight will continue running at its regular schedule for the next two months as the story concludes. However, I am ready to cheerfully announce the story continues past Midnight's run, with the completion of the second novel of Maximus. I'm not ready to announce its name or put it up for sale, as it's still in the editing phase and a lot of things are currently fluid, but fairly soon I will make it available for purchase when these edits are complete.

If that doesn't float your boat - never fear! Upon the conclusion of Midnight and a slight break between projects, I will run Maximus 2 on the same schedule you all know, for free.

HOWEVER! I will be taking down a few chapters as soon as I'm ready to place Maximus 2 up for sale, staggered selectively throughout the manuscript. Just be forewarned!

Estelle will NOT be the main character, though at least one of the cast members of Midnight will appear in a semi-regular role.

I hope you had a happy new year,  and I hope you're enjoying the story :-) If you're reading this, no matter who you are or where you are, I think you're pretty cool!

I'll talk to you again when Maximus 2 is ready, and I don't think that will be long!

-Kevin Haulsee

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Chapter Twenty-one: Shroud(Part Two)



"Jason?" Estelle asked, her voice hollow. "Jason? I...I thought you were dead."

"You would know," Jason replied. His green eyes seemed very cold, very calculating. "You tried very hard to make me so."

"You didn't give me a choice."

"And you didn't give me one either, did you?" He glanced at the four groaning, semi-conscious forms on the floor. "You certainly haven't forgotten what I imparted to you."

"What are you doing here?" Estelle was gone. Midnight was back, despite her inner turmoil, and she glanced one by one at the six figures behind her old flame. Three women, each in Whisper armor, and three men in white-trimmed robes.

Illuminators.

"A discussion of business," Jason said. "You forced our hand when you struck the Rosaline Star and prevented our agents from bombing John MacTavish."

"You're here to kill me." Midnight clenched her fists. "That's not really going to work out for you."

"You?" Jason shook his head. "We couldn't care less about you tonight, Stella."

"Don't call me that."

"We're here for Aurora and Ward," Jason continued. Midnight blinked behind her helmet.

"Why?"

"They know too much," Jason said. He turned and walked over to Ward's desk. Midnight watched as he opened one particular drawer. "Ah. I see you found it. Read it yet?"

"Not all the way," she admitted, while plotting the best way to kill him for real this time.

"I don't exactly know why he kept it," Jason said. "Possibly as an indicator that he wasn't alone. He liked the idea of our organization. The concept intrigued Ward, but I think all Aurora wanted was a war for more money. Very different, those two, but equally cold."

"You're stalling," Midnight accused. Jason turned to look at her, and she took a step toward him. "Monologues aren't in your playbook. What is it that you're trying to keep me here for?"

"You really are a rare woman," Jason murmured. His lips twitched with the ghost of a smile. "I wish things had worked out between us...between you and Vaneer. You would have been such an asset."

"Speak." Midnight took another step, and now Jason's minions warily planted themselves between her and their leader. In fact, they started spreading out to surround her.

"Very well." Jason slid the drawer closed. "We have already secured the entire lower floor and killed the security detail. The upper floor we haven't swept, but I don't see a need to concern myself with it: flames rise."

Midnight's blood ran cold, and Jason nodded. "Yes, Stella: my men have spent the last few minutes that I've been stalling setting fires downstairs. We set about it as soon as we saw your entry tightrope. I imagine you'll start feeling the heat through the wood any minute now."

"You'll burn too." Midnight reached for her bow and drew an arrow. Her eyes flicked to the Whispers and Illuminators. "Just in case you hadn't thought that through."

"Oh, no," Jason said, a little smile on his lips. "I'm not going to die."

That did it, more than anything else. Up went Midnight's bow, and out went her arrow. Jason caught it an inch from his nose, and then all hell broke loose.

On came the first Whisper, and Midnight blocked strikes with her bow left and right. The other two waited, drawing swords and judging their approaches. Midnight flung her first enemy past her, and-

Bam! Light exploded in her eyes from one of the Illuminators' palms. She staggered backward, clutching at her face-

Wham! Something hit the back of her helmet. She went down onto the floor, and she felt the heat now. Midnight rolled on her back as her vision returned, and she twisted side to side as the two Whispers loomed over her, striking with blade and foot. Callan's knife came out and she nailed one's boot to the floor, which gave Midnight the moment she needed to kick her in the chest with both feet. The woman tumbled, and Midnight reclaimed her knife to start parrying the other's strikes.

Another Illuminator lunged. Midnight ducked under a slash and threw her blade. It caught the man between the eyes, and he almost flipped as his momentum lost all control. Midnight punched the Whisper and ripped her sword free-

Wham! A blast of what appeared to be solid light hit her in the chest, and she flew. She screamed as she crashed through Ward's desk and into the wall, splinters scattering left and right.

She saw Jason leaving. With him he took one Illuminator and one Whisper, which left Midnight facing one of each. That was helpful. She lunged out of the wood and wreckage, and seized her bow from the ground. Up she brought it, another arrow coming out.

Her enemies came together, and as Midnight fired, bright light protected them. The arrow bounced off a shield of the same solid light that had flung her across the study. Midnight swore as the shield fell and on came the Whisper.

Block, block, strike - she was rewarded by a grunt of pain as she kicked the woman's ankle, but then the Illuminator tagged in, and his hands shot forward in a mad display of what were almost palm strikes, but seasoned with blasts of golden-white light whenever he got close to her eyes. Somehow, Midnight avoided getting blinded again, but it was a near-run thing. She lashed out and smashed her bow across his cheek, sending one of his teeth flying-

The Whisper was back as her companion withdrew. Midnight got an arrow off at her, and she caught it just like Jason had. In fact, she proceeded to try and stab Midnight with it, which didn't strike her as very fair. Still, she caught her shaft and threw it away before it injured her. She kicked the woman back, and the Whisper slid along the floor. Up came Midnight's bow again.

"You know that won't work!" The Whisper caught her next shaft just like the first. Midnight bared her teeth as the woman noticed the grapple line trailing from it.

The Whisper fairly flew toward Midnight as she heaved on the line, and the same act of hauling brought her arms and bow back. She swung with all her might, and the woman's head and feet traded places in less than a second. She lay in a ruined heap on the scalding floor.

Light cracked the floor around her as the Illuminator advanced. Midnight jumped onto Ward's chair, then vaulted off, landing balanced on the man's shoulders. As he staggered, she dropped behind him, hooked her bowstring around his neck and flung him forward into the solid oak door Jason had shut behind him. He didn't get up, but his weight flung the doors wide open.

Midnight sprinted out into the hallway, wincing as she was hit by a barrage of hot air. She stumbled as she saw rising smoke.

Downstairs is a bad idea, she told herself reasonably. Find a window. Make a new-

"Damn it!" she cried aloud. "That guy!"

Off she tore down the halls at a dead run, bending double for speed. She drew her bow and a grapple arrow, setting it between her teeth as her feet protested the frying pan the floor had become-

She burst into the guest bedroom, and in an instant she ripped the unconscious guard's bonds off his wrists. She slung him over her shoulder, pulled out her arrow, and ran onto the balcony. Sure enough, her original line was severed, and Midnight set her teeth and endured the heat torturing her soles for long enough to aim and fire. Her line went out and anchored on the same building she'd arrived from.

She vaulted into thin air, clutching the line. She hung on to the deadweight on her shoulder with one arm, and screamed as her other one protested most strenuously. But in mere seconds, her feet hit the side of her target building, and then she was pulling herself up arm over arm, swearing and grunting at the addition of this man's weight.

She reached the roof in only a few minutes of work. Midnight flung her passenger down with a moan of exhaustion, and she fell to her hands and knees for a moment, shivering and massaging her arm. She coughed, and after a moment she expanded on that by popping her helmet open and off, taking great gasps of the clean outside air-

Movement. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and Midnight spun around-

Pain. Pain like she'd only ever felt once before in her life swept all her other senses away, overrode her thoughts, suborned her will, and made her scream at the top of her lungs in agony, praying for mercy or death or both. She collapsed on her back, writhing on the stone, the only thing she could see being red and purple light-

And then it was over. Midnight could feel tears running down her cheeks as she looked up, quivering in the nightly chill, to see-

"No," she whispered. "No, you're..."

"The Messiah is immortal," Vaneer told her, hands folded behind him. "I live."

Midnight lunged for him. At least, she tried. She made it halfway to her feet before hands caught her from behind, and then she couldn't breath as she was yanked into someone's chest. She pried at the arm around her throat...

"Go to sleep, Stella," Jason whispered in her ear. "Just...go to sleep."

She struggled. She fought. She tried to bite.

But in the end, darkness took her and she slept.